A Crash Course in Reaganomics (2000)
The medium is the message…
—Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media
Marshall McLuhan was concerned with the observation that we tend to focus on the obvious. In doing so, we largely miss the structural changes in our affairs that are introduced subtly, or over long periods of time. Whenever we create a new innovation — be it an invention or a new idea — many of its properties are fairly obvious to us. We generally know what it will nominally do, or at least what it is intended to do, and what it might replace. We often know what its advantages and disadvantages might be. But it is also often the case that, after a long period of time and experience with the new innovation, we look backward and realize that there were some effects of which we were entirely unaware at the outset. We sometimes call these effects “unintended consequences,” although “unanticipated consequences” might be a more accurate description.
—Mark Federman, “What is the Meaning of The Medium is the Message?”
Now that the pixel dust surrounding our open criticism of the mechanics of the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest seems to have settled, it is worth examining the reactions we received here at Orbit Trap. For the most part, our observations were ignored — at least in terms of refutation. At best, the few explanations we received took the form of providing historical background. We learned the ostensible rationale for allowing BMFAC judges to mix work with the judged (those plebian sponsors insisted on the terms). We got the deep background on how The Fractal Universe calendar competition was established way back when and designed from day one to allow editors to conveniently slip their own work into the final product. The history lessons were mildly entertaining — but none of them addressed the critical ethical lapses and jaw-dropping conflicts of interests displayed by the two best-known fractal competitions.
And what was the primary reaction to the questions we raised here on OT? Attack. Besmirch. Insult.
The consistency of the responses reminded me of a post by political blogger Digby when she discussed what she called cognitive relativism. The context for her remarks was drawn from the recent flap when Rush Limbaugh called Iraq War critics with military backgrounds “phony soldiers.” Digby noted:
The Republicans have so fetishized the troops that it causes severe cognitive dissonance (and a potential fracture with their base) for Rush to come right out and say what he wants to say, which is that veterans and soldiers who disagree with the president on the war are traitors. But it slips out in little ways: “staff puke” and “phony soldier” and his insistence that you can’t be a good “Republican” (soldier) and be critical of the war.
It’s all wrapped in the warped worldview I described above, in which the Democratic party is not just wrong, it’s fundamentally illegitimate. And anyone who disagrees is a traitor, including, apparently, the vast majority of Americans who do not support this war.
Digby, of course, is alluding to the tendency of the American right-wing attack machine to question the patriotism of neocon critics. Worse, such critics deserve castigation as traitors for even daring to raise questions or to challenge status quo policies.
Tim and I began to notice similar reactions once we suggested that all was not quite right in Fractaldom. We were “cowards” who refused to “get over” the way things inherently had to be. We were “behaving irrationally” and “tempted to do something rash” (see the comments to this OT post) — and our assertions were “ridiculous,” “beyond absurd,” and “utter poppycock.” Some commenters demanded repeated apologies. It was clear we had to be “self-serving,” boring,” and “pedantic.” In other words, if the messengers are stabbed often enough, then perhaps readers will forget what messages were delivered in the first place.
And, as Digby noted, there was a further sense that even raising such questions was fundamentally illegitimate. Damien M. Jones threw this in my face: “You’re no prophet regurgitated from the belly of a fish, forced to deliver a message of impending doom.” How dare I cast myself in a Moses role to bring down truth from the mountaintops — by having the gall to be deranged enough to question Jones’ actions and thus continue to “speak out of my ass”? And Keith MacKay, in a (now deleted)
post thread on his newly established forum, explained his decision to ban me from his forum’s blog was to insure I wouldn’t keep on “pissing on the fractal community” — as if raising questions about the appropriateness of how fractal contests are run somehow personally tarnishes every fractal artist. In short, Tim and I are “traitors” to the community for speaking up in the hope that people administering fractal competitions do so in a fair and ethical manner.
But, just as Rush Limbaugh can’t wrap his mind around the fact that some Iraq veterans can be Democrats, OT’s critics can’t see that Tim and I are just as much a part of the fractal community as they are. Moreover, they seem unable to comprehend why we prefer a clean neighborhood to a dirty one.
There’s something else on my mind lately.
It’s one thing to suck up 40% of the wall space for an exhibition — as the judges for this year’s BMFAC did lately. But it’s another thing to buy up 40% (or more?) of the web space used to present fractal art galleries, software, and contests.
And, yet, that is exactly what Damien M. Jones has done.
You have to give him high marks for cleverness. If you build your own server, they will come. And come they did. To join his in-house web ring — the Infinite Fractal Loop. To nestle their web pages on his private fractal clearinghouse — Fractalus. To download his personally championed software — Ultra Fractal. To enter his contests and read his Fractal FAQs and join his mailing lists. Welcome, one and all, to Damien, Inc.
And what does Jones reap for all of this sowing — besides bandwidth expenses? Who knows if he gets a cut of the UF profit pie? And who cares? Not me. I’m not against artists or programmers making money for their creative efforts. But still I wonder. Is Jones truly a saintly, altruistic patron of the fractal arts?
Certainly, he gets some benefits from underwriting a controlled environment to his own liking. Hits aplenty come to his site(s) — and, eventually, make their way to his personal gallery, his aptly named Egosite, his personal rants, or his account of conversion to Christianity. Just as the BMFAC contests make sure the judges have their space first, there’s no shortage of Jones to be found on the “collective” that is Fractalus. Even though Jones uses the plural “we” to describe the mission of Fractalus, the site definitely starts with and centers on him.
And that’s why Jones’ empire reminds me of Reaganomics. It focuses on what George W. Bush once called “the have-mores” — like the privileged few who are hosted by Fractalus — or the FODs (Friends of Damien) who double as BMFAC judges — or the Olympians invited into the BailOuts, a private, invitation-only UF fractal list/club. The rest is all trickle down. You serfs might get dribbled an Honorable Mention in the latest contest — but only as a tossed bone to ensure the judges have a permanent place-setting at the annual exhibit table. Or, here, have a crumb — a small spot in the IFL ring — a corner nook to park your blog.
Yes, Jones once offered to house Orbit Trap on Fractalus. Tim and I thanked him, but said no. Why?
I guess we fretted over those “unanticipated consequences” Federman mentioned earlier. As McLuhan notes, he who controls the medium controls the message. If you’re snugly nuzzled in somewhere under Jones’ web blanket, don’t get too comfortable. Don’t question the natural order. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you. It’s his house, kids. And his rules.
And what happens if you cross him and his? I know.
You’re thrown out into the street — because what you see as free expression can be twisted and labeled as irrationality. And once you’ve abandoned reason, aren’t you thus more prone to rash behaviors– like having the nerve to presume to disagree with Jones? You’ll surely be called a “security risk” — after the fact, of course — and must be given the boot to protect the safety of the good squatters who politely keep mum on Jones’ server. Never mind that you’re hardly a genius kid hacker huffing down Cheetos in a basement in the Philippines and wouldn’t know the first thing about cracking ice (hey, I read Neuromancer) to pillage folders. Never mind that most of this blog’s readers know that Fractalus has to be one of the most buttoned-down, secure servers on this planet. Such charges must be laughable. Such actions by Jones will be obviously punitive. But with plenty of obfuscation, maybe people will be gullible enough to believe you were ousted because you posed a threat.
But it’s not a server that’s threatened. It’s Jones’ empire itself.
So to anyone homesteading in Jones’ kingdom, just bear in mind it’s a feudal system — and there’s a price to pay your lord for that free lunch. Don’t rock the fractal community cruise ship kitchen by openly preparing unpleasant or noisome opinions. And, always, keep any adverse thoughts turned down to a simmer.
Otherwise, that fractal trickle will likely become a drip evaporating in dry air.