What GamerGate tells us about Transitions

If you’re not a gamer, and you don’t spend any time paying attention to the internet controversy du jour, then you might not have heard of the GamerGate movement. Even for those who do know about it, it can be very difficult to keep track of. So, in the interests of not confusing too many people who read this post, here is a brief run-down:

If you ask GamerGate what they’re all about, they’ll tell you that the gaming community is annoyed about the state of video game journalism. Beyond this one point of relative consensus, however, the whole movement is a bit of a hodgepodge. It includes some criticism of gaming publications that at least looks like it could be legitimate, but the hashtag is also used in connection with some more frightening things, such as harassment campaigns directed against Zoe Quinn, who is erroneously accused of opportunistically sleeping with gaming journalists to promote her games, and Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist critic of games whose largely positive media coverage has annoyed gamers who see her as a fraud.

Many GamerGaters will deny that these two cases are relevant to their cause, and I’m not going to insist that they’re wrong on that point. Nor am I going to take a position here on the state of ethics within video game journalism. But I am interested in one trope which seems to run fairly consistently throughout the entire GamerGate movement. Regardless of whether they condone Quinn and Sarkeesian bashing, people using the GamerGate hashtag routinely make use of terms like ‘white knight’, or ‘social justice warrior’, which are commonly used to demean people on the internet who take an interest in-you guessed it-social justice. Many of those involved with GamerGate complain that they do not want a feminist agenda pushed on them through people like Sarkeesian and other more culturally critical game journalists.

There’s an obvious fallacy here, of course. The notion that a feminist agenda is being somehow forced on the games industry and the gaming community presumes that the gaming community does not already have its share of women, and indeed of feminists. Journalists and cultural critics are questioning the portrayal of women and other marginalized groups in video games, because those groups are already playing the games. And it’s not particularly surprising that women might not want to play a game like Dragon’s Crown, which depicts women in such a ridiculously oversexualized manner. “Well then they don’t have to play that game!”, one can almost hear the gamers say. Yes, but that’s exactly the purpose of reviews pointing out sexism: To tell women that if they don’t like sexism in video games, then maybe they should give Dragon’s Crown a pass. And maybe also to put some pressure on the industry to consider whether their games alienate a big part of the gaming public. It was, in fact, a change to the art designed to make the game less sexist that ignited a furore around

Three characters from Dragon’s Crown. The art in this game has been accused of being sexist. I can’t imagine why!

So at its core, there appears to be a big part of GamerGate that is essentially a kind of anxiety about the expansion of the gaming community beyond its original demographic of hard-core gamers (who were mostly youg, middle-class, white, and male).

I wonder, however, what this means for technology more generally. Because when you look at other cases when a niche technology expands into a larger market, similar anxieties seem to crop up. And they often seem to manifest themselves as discrimination. Take my research in transportation as an example: Cars were originally an overwhelmingly upper-class technology. When motorcycles gave the working class access to the internal combustion engine, the original core of early drivers had to share the road with people of different social standing than themselves, and the anxiety this caused led to a lot of demonization of motorcycles as dangerous machines operated by reckless drivers. When women started driving, a mythology about how women are bad drivers quickly emerged, and has persisted to this day, despite the empirically proven fact that women are in fact far safer drivers than men.

This change to the cover art of Divinity: Original Sin was made after complaints that the female character was sexualized while the male character wasn’t. Her new, more practical armour is taken by some as evidence of too much influence by “Social Justice Warriors” in the video game industry.

The phrase “There are no girls on the internet” is another obvious manifestation of this phenomenon. It is well-documented that when women have the audacity to say something on the internet, they often get trolled, and sometimes get brutally harassed. That’s because cyberspace was originally  dominated by white, male, geeks. Now that it’s being democratized, some of these geeks are becoming annoyed at losing their control over something had belonged to them, and so they are lashing out.

There is a certain logic to this. If you’re developing a new and as yet unperfected technology, such as the car circa 1900, or video games circa 2000, then you’re going to want a close-knit and devoted community of supporters. These people will comprise your early market. They will be forgiving as you work out the kinks, and they will take an active role in developing the technology as well-bootstrapping their own additions to it. They will also build up a culture and a set of social practices around the new technology, such as the system of etiquette which stood in for traffic law in the early days of the car. Crucially, because your innovation at this stage is likely both expensive and inefficient, these people are probably going to be those with a surplus both of money and of time: In other words, they’re fairly likely to be middle-class and white, and there’s a good chance that they will be men. Also crucially, this early community will probably begin to identify with the thing they are supporting, and begin to exert a sense of ownership over it.

The problem is that as your new technology gets more popular, it will become attractive to different social groups than even you might have intended it for. Women, for example. What this means is that the community of users will expand, and the social conventions around the new technology will have to expand with it. New users might demand modifications to the culture, or to the technology itself, so that they feel more comfortable with it. Your earliest users might interpret this as a loss of control over something that they built from the very beginning. That tends to make people angry. And so you will start to see stories emerging about who qualifies as a more authentic user, or become nasty towards those they perceive as outsiders, or, in the case of gaming, “filthy casuals”.

This post isn’t really about gamergate. Their complaints are very diverse, and I don’t have the time or energy to understand all of them. But at least one of their complaints is rooted in the fact that games are suddenly being evaluated from perspectives other than the ones they’re used to. This is, I think, an interesting intersection between transitions and social justice politics. It may partly explain why technology is overwhelmingly understood as a white male domain: Because white men are most able to shape new technologies from the beginning. It also explains why women often face hostility when entering pre-established technological communities, such as those built around gaming or driving. So if you yourself are involved as an early adopter of a new and radical technology, you should keep in mind that you and your friends might lose control of it one day. And that’s okay. It means that you have ultimately succeeded.

A few more thoughts about self-driving cars

The two Steves behind the Freakonomics franchise have just released another book, in which they apparently criticize self-driving vehicles. Unfortunately I currently have neither the time nor the money to read their book, so I’ll have to rely on this blog post from the Wall Street Journal, which seems to sum up their argument pretty well:

“Driverless cars could turn out to be a scourge on humanity.

They may lead to a worldwide surge in binge drinking since drunk driving would no longer be a worry. They also could be vulnerable to hacking by terrorists who send every self-driving vehicles in the western U.S. plunging into the Grand Canyon.

And by making car travel easier, driverless vehicles could lead to more congestion and pollution.”

They also cite the potential for self-driving cars to eliminate jobs (something I’ve addressed here) , though they also apparently admit that self-driving cars could reduce the number of car accidents.

I’m going to criticize the freaks’ approach to the issue, but I want to make clear at the outset that I don’t mean for a second to suggest that their predictions are implausible. They could be right. While the terrorism thing seems a little bit far-fetched, the result of this technology could be a world full of long-distance commuters in self-driving vehicles. This would contribute to vastly expanded urban sprawl, congestion, pollution, climate change, and oil resource exploitation. That is a plausible scenario, and it is a bad one.

Despite this, however, I think that the freaks’ logic is badly misguided. To illustrate why, it helps to point out that at the turn of the twentieth century, one of the most common destinations proposed that somebody would drive to with the newly invented automobile was the railway station. Cars, it was assumed, were mainly for local transportation or transportation through areas too remote to have their own rail lines. But if you wanted to go to a big city, then the train was your best bet. What this illustrates is that people always understand new technologies in terms of old ways of doing things. Historically, very few people have been able to accurately grasp the real implications of a radical new technology at such an early stage. That’s like trying to predict what the political landscape will look like in fifty years: It’s simply too complicated to accurately assess in advance. The best you can do is a lucky guess.

Levitt and Dubner, then, have probably made a mistake in assuming that the self-driving cars of the future will be used in same way that people use manually-driven cars today. This is not necessarily the case, however. Self-driving cars, in fact, open up a whole new range of possible behaviours. I’m going to explore one possible scenario, which I think is predominantly a good one, using two short speculative vignettes. The idea is to illustrate how everyday habits and lifestyle choices could be completely transformed by autonomous vehicles. Here’s the first one:

Julie was tempted to buy a car. That was, after all, what you were supposed to do when you got your first salaried job, and she did need to commute 20 miles every day to the office where she worked. But the autonomous taxi service that she had been using for the past year already served that purpose just fine. It meant that she didn’t have to drive or maintain a car. And the self-driving taxis were cheaper to boot. She decided she would rather spend the extra money on travel.

A huge part of the price of a taxi ride is the labour. That makes perfect sense, as taxi drivers need to make ends meet. But when you take the driver out of the picture, then suddenly taxis become a whole lot cheaper. This is especially the case if the self-driving taxis are electric, which will save considerably on fuel costs. I don’t pretend to know exactly what the price per mile of a self-driving taxi in the year 2040 will be, but it is plausible that it will be cheaper for the average person to rely on them than drive their own car. Self-driving taxis will be used far more efficiently than private cars could be; will be maintained by efficient, cost-optimizing businesses, and won’t have to pay for downtown parking.

This could start to make car ownership far less compulsory, even for those of us who live in the farthest-flung suburbs. Even if reliance on a self-driving cab is slightly more expensive than owning a car, it could still be a very attractive option due to the added convenience. And that means fewer cars on the roads.

“Alright, Andrew. We’re done predrinking. It’s time to go to the bar. I’m calling a cab”, said Stephen.

“Ugh. A cab? Do we have to? I’m kind of broke, and that’ll cost me like two beers”, replied Andrew. “It’s only three blocks away. We can make that in like half an hour”.

“Yeah, okay. Screw it”, said Stephen. “Let’s just walk.”

People who own cars tend to use them. Once you’ve paid the very substantial cost of a car, the marginal cost to use it to drive half a mile to the store becomes insignificant. So even if driving to the store is on balance a more expensive way of getting there than walking; this doesn’t translate into any direct perception of expense by the person deciding to drive to the store.

If, on the other hand, people rely on self-driving taxis, then the marginal cost of driving to the store suddenly goes up. Even with the vastly decreased price of a trip compared to a normal taxi, the fact still remains that the traveler has to pay upfront. And that means that many people will look to save money by walking or cycling for shorter trips. That means fewer cars on the road in total.

The ultimate outcome of these trends could be fewer cars on the street, more efficient use of the cars that remain on the street, and more electric cars. That would also mean more use of active transportation; more incentive to build high-density, walkable cities, and a more sustainable transportation system in general. As soon as you start to reduce the rate of car ownership, you reduce the incentives for car use. The neat thing about self-driving cars is that they allow a reduction in car ownership while allowing the same rate of car use to be maintained, at least temporarily. That makes them an ideal lever for changing the makeup of our transportation system and our cities, in addition to their recognized benefits in reducing drunk driving and accidents, and offering more travel options for the disabled.

Of course, my scenario is just as uncertain as the one proposed by the Freakonomics guys. Most likely, the way this will actually play out is completely different from either of our predictions. But my scenario suggests a few takeaway lessons. Firstly, it illustrates the value of a transitions perspective, which uniquely takes into account the complex ways that new technologies can interact with society. Secondly, it suggests a program for action. We can, to some extent, control the way that self-driving cars are introduced, through government policies and social advocacy. Self-driving cars could be good or bad in the end, but for the moment they’re an opportunity to change our transportation system. And we should think about how to take advantage of that.

A Transitions Perspective on Carbon Offsets

Those contrails contain A LOT of carbon. We have to stop doing so much of this. Image from greendiary.com.

Last week, I complained about how hard it is to take a ferry to Spain, and used that as a jumpoff point to write a somewhat rambling post about the complex ways that our unsustainable travel habits are entrenched . This week I’m going to continue on that thread, by discussing the way I ultimately and reluctantly wound up booking my travel to Valencia, namely flying. I’m going to consider if there’s any way that such an environmentally destructive form of transportation reasonably justified, particularly through the mechanism of carbon offsets.

When you really look at the data concerning the emissions generated by flying, the results are actually quite shocking. Carbon calculators differ on the exact measurements, but based on a survey of a few of the options, it seems entirely plausible that if you include the radiative forcing caused by contrails, a single round-trip transatlantic flight contributes more to climate change than an entire year of commuting 60 kilometers every day in a hummer. That means that despite my cycle commuting, preference for train travel, and quasi-veganism, my flight home for Christmas already makes me a profligate contributor to climate change, even by first-world standards. Even more depressingly, nobody appears to be working on an electric jet engine or any other form of more sustainable aviation. Apparently there is simply no way around it: Suspending human beings in the air and accelerating them to near-supersonic velocity so that they can travel across and between continents will always consume a very large amount of energy, and that energy will probably come from fossil fuels. The inevitable conclusion is that we need to stop flying so much.

This is a tough pill to swallow, particularly for progressive environmentalists such as myself. The progressive world-view tends to value travel and cultural exchange, and so while you will find most of the political left enthusiastically advocating personal sacrifices such as cycle-commuting and veganism in the name of mitigating climate change, our practice of flying around the world remains conspicuously unexamined. When the question is brought up, the answer is normally to purchase carbon offsets, which pay other people to reduce their emissions in order to negate the extra emissions you cause by flying, or driving, or any other high-carbon activity. The idea basic idea of carbon offsets is not a bad one, though some environmentalists have compared them to the papal indulgences of medieval Catholicism. I’m not going to go into all the details of that argument, but you can find a good summary of carbon offsets here. In the rest of this post, I’m going to apply a transitions perspective to the problem, and ask whether the offsetting of activities like flying can do any good in a long-term transition to a sustainable economy..

If you’ve never purchased carbon offsets before, one thing that will strike you about them is how cheap they are. I can offset each of my round-trip tickets to Toronto for about $30. This is because we’ve done such a terrible job promoting a sustainable economy so far that there are a lot of low-hanging fruit. The free distribution of energy-saving lightbulbs to people who would not ordinarly buy them, for example, is a very cheap way to cut a lot of emissions. Building renewable energy infrastructure, particularly in the developing world, is another popular option. The good news about this is that it means that it is possible for a lot of people to be able to afford to offset. The bad news is that if all goes well, carbon offsets will eventually mean that the world is full of energy-saving lightbulbs and wind turbines, making it much harder to offset emissions from our flights. At that point, offsets are going to get much more expensive, because we will have to pay other people to change their lifestyles in order to accommodate ours.

On the one hand, a big pool of free money available for projects to install sustainable infrastructure that wouldn’t ordinarily be installed is definitely a very useful way to encourage a transition to a more sustainable economy. Niches for new technologies to develop before they are economically competitive are a very important part of any transition, and ideally carbon offsets should provide a ready supply of funding for engineers and entrepreneurs working on low-carbon technology. Once these innovations are sufficiently developed, carbon offsets can provide a powerful incentive for their adoption.

But on the other hand, a transition to a more sustainable economy must ultimately change more than just infrastructures and technologies. It must also change habits. The only reason that citizens of developed countries can all continue to fly around the world while offsetting their emissions is that there is a huge mass of much less wealthy people on Earth who emit far less than we do. But if the situation of these people improves (as it should), then this will no longer be the case. If the entire population of India suddenly has the money to fly to islands in the Indian Ocean for vacations, and if these people are in the habit of offsetting, then the price of carbon offsets will skyrocket. Given the very high emission generated by flight, the only possible way to avoid climate catastrophe is to make sure that not very many people fly. Currently this is accomplished by economic disparity. First-world climate activists therefore have two possible choices in the long term: stop flying so much, or keep the poor down. No amount of carbon offseting will change that.

The dilemma here is that while carbon offsets can provide an incentive to make technological systems more sustainable, they provide an active disincentive for people to make changes to their daily lives. And both things are required if we’re going to stave off climate catastrophe. The only solution to the dilemma that I can see is the absolute commitment of first-world consumers to offset their emissions, regardless of how expensive the offsets become. That will force people to change their habits when they can no longer afford to offset them.

Based on this, I can offer three rules that we should ideally follow around offsets:

  1. If you must fly, drive, eat meat, or do anything else that emits a lot of carbon, then you must offset. You should commit to offset all your emissions to the point that your net carbon impact is around 1.5 tons CO2 per year (which should be our goal by 2050, according to this guy). Persuade others to do the same.
  2. Maintain that commitment regardless of how expensive offsetting becomes in the future. If you can no longer afford to offset your lifestyle, then you have to change it. No exceptions.
  3. Accept that this will mean your flying days are numbered. The same thing probably goes for eating meat every night of the week, or commuting by car. Plan accordingly.

This post has focused mainly on flying, but it applies to our first-world lifestyles more generally. First world consumers in particular have an absolute ethical duty to fight against climate change, since they are the cause of so much of it and they will be among the last to feel its effects. This means we need to choose smart strategies not only to alleviate the effects of our lifestyles in the short term, but also to wean ourselves off of these lifestyles in the long-term. Carbon offsetting is one possible way to do that, but only if it is applied with both intelligence and commitment.

I have to confess that I’m being a bit hypocritical with this post, as I’ve never bought offsets before. But I’m going to start right now, with that trip to Valencia. So should you.

A brief history of music piracy, and why it may be a good thing

This warning might just be standing in the way of technological progress.

I did a presentation a few months ago music piracy, and some interesting historical facts came up that I think are pertinent to the endless debate on the subject. Typically, this conflict is understood to be a highly adversarial one between the music industry and its consumers. In our research, we decided to take a transitions theory approach to the problem; specifically to see what lawbreaking can mean for innovation. The historical evidence on this is surprising, and it reveals some important facts about copyright infringement that have not been adequately considered.

It turns out that music copyright is actually a very novel institution, relative to the history of music generally. Up until the 1770s, artists could expect to have their music copied, re-arranged, shipped across the pond, performed, copied again, shipped back home, and re-arranged once more. They had no right to any recompense from this, and it was understood to simply be a part of the music business that they had to deal with. Romantic notions of authorial genius made such practices illegitimate with the first copyright laws, but these laws were usually ineffective. Near the turn of the twentieth century, home pianos created a massive demand for cheap sheet music, which certain individuals were more than happy to dater to, thanks in part to the invention of lithography. To combat this, sheet music companies had to resort to extra-legal measures including raiding the pirates’ houses while police looked the other way. Their findings in these raids eventually allowed them to frame piracy as a criminal conspiracy, facilitating the passage of harsher anti-piracy legislation. But this still had a limited impact and the sheet music companies were eventually forced to reduce their prices to compete with the pirates.

Since that early conflict, piracy has been pretty much a constant presence in the music business, as have the recording industry’s quixotic attempts to eliminate it. While pirates were generally able to get away with their piracy at almost every turn, the recording companies did score one important victory, namely the gradual development of the legal system around music copyright, which turned a legal structure that didn’t even exist at the turn of the century into something quite coercive. Widespread bootlegging of records during the 1960s and 1970s, for example, prompted the music industry to lobby for the Rome Convention, which made unauthorized copying of music illegal. Later, the invention of the easily copyable cassette tape lead to the passage of even stronger anti-music piracy laws in the United States, but these explicitly allowed for home copying so as to preserve the legality of mix-tapes. In 1992, the record industry actually managed to completely block a new innovation-the Digital Audiotape-due to its ease of creating high-fidelity copies of music.

With our 20/20 hindsight, we might dismiss the blocking of digital audio-tape appears as a half-measure which would be completely ineffective in the face of the massive disruption represented by the internet. For all its importance, however, the internet took a while to get itself noticed by the record industry. In fact, a stream of dot-com boom entrepreneurs looking to set up digital music services in the 1990s were nearly all rebuffed by the record companies whose intellectual property they needed. One quote from Sony Music executive Al Smith, addressed to one such entrepreneur, is particularly telling of the labels’ attitude: “Look, Kearby. My job is to keep you down. We don’t want you to succeed”. Smith’s message is clear: Sony and the other recording companies were comfortable with the music distribution system they had set up, and were not interested in adapting to new technology.

And then Napster happened. In the midst of today’s heavy-handed approach towards piracy, it is easy to forget that the illegality of piracy was far from a sure thing at the turn of the millennium. Remember: existing American law explicitly made non-commercial copying legal and while Napster did intend to be a commercial enterprise. While it provided the infrastructure, Napster itself never copied any music. Napster expected to win the lawsuit, and to establish themselves as a legitimate business making money off of merchandising and concert advertising.

Of course, this all collapsed when they eventually lost. While Napster was succeeded by a veritable parade of imitation services, such as Kazaa, Limewire and Bittorrent, another major development was in the works that would expand Napster’s legacy beyond piracy into the very structure of legitimate music distribution channels. That development was iTunes. Today, Steve Jobs gets a lot of credit for being the impetus behind the technical aspects of iTunes and the iPod, but he still needed access to the intellectual property held by the record labels in order to establish the service. It turns out that Napster had considerably softened the labels’ position on online music from the blunt dimissals of Al Smith a decade earlier. In fact, the music industry was so desperate to get some kind of cut from online activity that they actually gave Jobs a very favorable good deal on royalties. And that negotiation opened the floodgates for online services such as iTunes, Spotify, Pandora, CDBaby, and YouTube. It occurred at the turn of the twenty-first century almost exactly as it had at the turn of the twentieth: illegal copying forced powerful industrial interests to *ahem* face the music.

This history tells us three important things about music piracy. The first is that by forcing sheet music producers to lower their prices, piracy at the turn of the twentieth century actually assisted in the realization of market efficiency. The second is that the laws that support the recording industry against pirates were, perhaps unsurprisingly, largely the creations of that same recording industry. This implies that they were intrinsically tied to a music distribution system based on the sale of physical objects such as LPs, cassettes, and CDs. Thirdly and perhaps more importantly for my case, without online piracy there was no economic incentive for the recording industry to embrace the internet.

Does this mean that the music industry has no genuine ethical right to defend their intellectual property against pirates? Not necessarily. In fact, it depends on what you believe to be the real legislative purpose of music copyright. If you think copyright is an absolute and inalienable right afforded to artists and the companies representing them, then none of this history matters; criminals who violate the absolute rights of citizens should be punished. Alternatively, however, you might see music copyright as a strategic policy tool designed to incentive creativity. If this is the case,  then piracy may very well be justified on the grounds that it has on multiple occasions forced the record industry to adapt to new innovations, both technological and musical, when they might not otherwise have done so.

The nature of copyright is a philosophical question on which this post will remain agnostic, but there is one further point to be made from this history. The history of piracy and the recording industry has implications for technological transitions of all sorts. If the law is understood to be a part of a socio-technical regime as this case suggests it should be, then law-breaking can be a crucial means by which new technologies succeed in the market and transform systems and societies. To put it more bluntly, we may well be indebted to criminals for more than just our online music services. And that’s a fascinating thought.

Further Reading: 

Borfe, L., 2004. Where have all the good times gone? The rise and fall of the record industry. London: Atlantic Books.

Gronow, P., and Saunoi, I., trans. C. Morley., 1988. An International History of the Recording Industry. London: Cassell.

Johns, A., 2009. Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates. London: The University of Chicago Press.

Tehranian, J., 2011.  Infringement Nation: Copyright 2.0 and You. London: Oxford.