Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Box Conspiracy

Growing up in London left me with a life-long interest in the theatre (note the spelling).  Although I greatly appreciate polished productions of classics, such as the Royal National Theatre's 2014 King Lear, my particular interests are:
I've been writing recently about Web advertising, reading Tim Wu's book The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, and especially watching Dude, You Broke The Future, Charlie Stross' keynote for the 34th Chaos Communications Congress. As I do so, I can't help remembering a show I saw nearly a quarter of a century ago that fit the last of those categories. Below the fold I pay tribute to the prophetic vision of an under-appreciated show and its author.

George Coates Performance Works' Box Conspiracy: An Interactive Sho had a November 1993 run in San Francisco and was featured the next year in the Spoletto Festival. Variety panned it:
The purely visceral aspects of “A Box Conspiracy” may delight Coates neophytes. No doubt they’ll satisfy fans ever-ready to lay thought aside for 2 1 /4 hours. But in moving closer to theatrical conventions, Coates underlines his need for collaborators with a real understanding of how those conventions work.
Many of Variety's criticisms were just:
Coates’ sloppy script screams for dramaturgical assistance. The odd witty line aside, dialogue consists mostly of lame puns and filler. The actors are clearly at the timing mercy of visual cues. They fumble through their paces as if barely off-book.
But in hindsight Variety completely missed the point of the show because they had no idea of what, in a couple of years, was about to happen to the media industry as the Web took off.

The show mixed live actors with 3D projections - you had to wear 3D glasses. Coates was working closely with techies in Silicon Valley and, I believe, it was Silicon Graphics equipment that drove the projections. Technically, the show was at the very outside edge of the possible, so rough edges were forgivable. But the technical stuff wasn't the point either.

There's very little about Coates and Box Conspiracy on the Web apart from the review and a post about Coates by Steve Mobia, who writes:
It's ironic that there is so little about this pioneering theater group on the web since many Coates productions were directly commenting on this changing technology and its political/social effect. George Coates was, for two decades, the most celebrated director of experimental theater in San Francisco. Each show, despite occasional critical reservation, was given major attention by the city's newspapers. This you would never guess when researching Coates on the web today. 
Tim Wiggins as Derek Hornsby
Mobia quotes Tim Wiggins, who starred in the show:
"Box Conspiracy" was created during the birth of the internet's transition to public domain, ... long before images and graphics, long before most people understood what a URL was (including me and most of the cast). ... So while "Box" was ostensibly about interactive television, it was actually about the promises and pitfalls of the coming internet. ... Aside from the 'point and click' purchasing offered by Tom Testa, all the Hornsby family's actions were monitored ... In the end, Derek's repeated ordering of triple-sausage pizza resulted in a massive increase in his health insurance premiums.
In 1993 the Web was four years old, so Coates couldn't assume that the audience knew anything about it. Instead, the show was about the future 5000-channel "interactive TV", a popular meme at the time. Almost a quarter-century later Charlie Stross is talking about the Web, but both Coates and Stross are really talking about advertising-driven media corporations' desperate need to consume more and more of society's attention, and to accumulate personal information to better do so. As Cory Doctorow writes:
Stross says we should be especially worried about machines designed to command ever-larger slices of our attention, without regard to whether we're made happier through this process (after all, you can make someone pay attention to you by driving them nuts, something that's often easier than pleasing them.

He traces the original sin of attention-optimizing autonomous artificial life-forms to the advertising-driven web,
What Coates was showing was that, from the channel's point of view the worst thing that could happen was for the viewer to change channels, and from the system's point of view the worst thing that could happen was for the viewer to go outside. So the content was designed to prevent these disasters by targeting channels ("My Favorite Mayhem", "The Beer Channel") narrowly to the viewer, and by portraying outside the house as dangerous ("Live Crime In Your Neighborhood"). With point-and-click purchasing and almost instant delivery there was no need to go outside. Jeff Bezos wouldn't start Amazon.com until the following year.
Still no triple-sausage pizza at Amazon.com!
Apparently, the New York Public Library has a videotape of Box Conspiracy! I hope they can digitize and put it up on the Web. It was quite extraordinarily prophetic, and deserves a place in media history.


Unknown said...

That recording is from our Theater on Film and Tape collection. It's not digitized yet, and unfortunately it probably will not be available for access outside the Library for Performing Arts once it is digitized. If you're ever in NYC and want to see it, please call ahead. These recordings are permitted by the theater unions and guilds on the basis of a number of agreements. Viewing access might require direct permission from the people involved in the production.

More details here.

David. said...

Thanks, Nick!

Now my memory has been jogged, I would like to see it. I'll try to get permission and schedule a visit.

PS - George Coates has a rather skeletal Wikipedia page.

David. said...

Apropos of Live Crime In Your Neighborhood:

"Algorithms that maximize attention give an advantage to negative messages. People tend to react more to inputs that land low on the brainstem. Fear and anger produce a lot more engagement and sharing than joy. The result is that the algorithms favor sensational content over substance."

From Roger McNamee's must-read Washington Monthly article How to Fix Facebook—Before It Fixes Us.

David. said...

Roger McNamee stays on message:

"All the content is stuff that you like, right? It's what they think you like. But what it really is, is stuff that serves their business model and their profits," he said. "And making you angry, making you afraid, is really good for Facebook's business. It is not good for America. It's not good for the users of Facebook."

My emphasis.

David. said...

From Matt Taibbi's must-read Can We Be Saved From Facebook?:

"Facebook's News Feed was a big part of the reward system designed to keep people coming back. "The interest is not to inform you," [Dr. Ofir] Turel says. "The interest is to get you to stay on the site."

Peter Eckersley, chief computer scientist of the Electronic- Frontier Foundation, describes the News Feed in even starker terms. "It's designed to match people to information that will reinforce their existing prejudices, whatever those are," he says."

David. said...

Now we have Citizen, the Live Crime In Your Neighborhood app. John Herrman describes it in All the Crime, All the Time: How Citizen Works:

"Analia Acevedo, a 22 year-old who lives in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, joined the app during her final year at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in Riverdale. There, she said, “most of the students would use it.”

“Sometimes it makes me feel paranoid, and afraid knowing that there is a lot that goes on,” she said. “It does give me some comfort knowing my surroundings, but I’m always torn between wanting to know and see everything, or to have that blind eye toward everything.”

Conflicted enthusiasm is a common sentiment among Citizen users: I don’t know if I want to know, but I can’t not know. In any case, it’s free, it’s right there, and it’s always refreshed.
Citizen is just one of a growing number of app-based options for making yourself either more aware of your surroundings or just extremely paranoid. (Or both.) Nextdoor, the neighborhood-based social media app, has long seen its communities become obsessed with crime and the real and imagined threat thereof. It has struggled for years with racial profiling by its users. Ring, the controversial Amazon-owned internet-connected doorbell company, lets users upload videos recorded by their devices to a neighborhood feed, which is supplemented by Citizen-style crime reports."

David. said...

The rise of fear-based social media like Nextdoor, Citizen, and now Amazon’s Neighbors by Rani Molla:

"Violent crime in the US is at its lowest rate in decades. But you wouldn’t know that from a crop of increasingly popular social media apps that are forming around crime.

Apps like Nextdoor, Citizen, and Amazon Ring’s Neighbors — all of which allow users to view local crime in real time and discuss it with people nearby — are some of the most downloaded social and news apps in the US, according to rankings from the App Store and Google Play.
These apps have become popular because of — and have aggravated — the false sense that danger is on the rise. Americans seem to think crime is getting worse, according to data from both Gallup and Pew Research Center. In fact, crime has fallen steeply in the last 25 years according to both the FBI and the Bureau of Justice Statistics."

George Coates was a prophet.

David. said...

Tim Cushing comments on Rani Molla's post:

" The solution, unfortunately, is better inputs. The researchers Molla spoke to suggest "better media literacy" and "more mindful consumption of news." Let's be honest: if those are the choices, it's never going to happen. The selling of a crime-filled America happened as crime rates dropped precipitously. Journalists sold it. Politicians sold it. Massive echo chambers were constructed and the apps that might have disrupted this have instead, for the most part, amplified the echoes.

The information has always been out there. It's just always ignored by those whose personal beliefs can't be swayed by stats and alternate viewpoints. Tech isn't going to fix it. It's up to us, as individuals, to try to pierce through this haze created by hundreds of entities whose existence depends on the public believing the nation is unsafe. And that's the hitch: you're not just going up against friends and neighbors. You're going up against entrenched beliefs held by government agencies and media concerns that have monetized fear successfully for decades."

David. said...

In Amazon's facial recognition fear crusade ramps up: now they're paying Facebook to show you pictures of suspected criminals to scare you into getting a surveillance doorbell, Cory Doctorow writes:

"Part of the home surveillance project is a fear-based marketing campaign -- a whole news vertical -- designed to convince Americans that their neighborhoods are so dangerous that they owe it to themselves and their neighbors to conduct surveillance of the streets in front of their homes.

The latest salvo in the war is a paid "promoted post" Facebook campaign featuring Ring surveillance footage of suspected petty criminals (a woman trying a car door handle and walking away), urging viewers to get in touch with local cops in order to help solve a crime that may in fact not be a crime."

David. said...

Via Cory Doctorow, we find Amazon's "Live Crime In Your Neighborhood" network is for real. Cops Are Giving Amazon's Ring Your Real-Time 911 Caller Data by Dell Cameron reveals that:

"Amazon-owned home security company Ring is pursuing contracts with police departments that would grant it direct access to real-time emergency dispatch data, Gizmodo has learned.

The California-based company is seeking police departments’ permission to tap into the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) feeds used to automate and improve decisions made by emergency dispatch personnel and cut down on police response times. Ring has requested access to the data streams so it can curate “crime news” posts for its “neighborhood watch” app, Neighbors."

David. said...

more on fear as a marketing tool in Drew Harwell's License plate scanners were supposed to bring peace of mind. Instead they tore the neighborhood apart:

"So it came as a surprise to Skip Erickson when the HOA board this spring declared that its neighborhood was now besieged by crime, with “bullets flying,” street racing and burglaries “terrorizing the families.”

To address the threat, the board said it wanted to buy one of the country’s hottest new security tools: license plate readers built to scan the tag on every passing vehicle for later inspection by homeowners and police.

To Erickson, 71, the idea of recording everyone’s movements in hopes of combating some imaginary menace seemed invasive, ineffective and absurd."

David. said...

More on fear as a marketing tool from Barry Ritholtz in Panic TV:

"The people who are critical of media but focus on a left vs right bias are missing the bigger picture. The concern regarding cable TV and mass media should be about where its biggest biases are: Not Left versus Right, but rather, Excitement versus Coolness, or maybe Hysteria versus Rationality."

David. said...

Twenty-nine years later John Oliver's Last Week Tonight revisits the theme of The Box Conspiracy in an excellent overview of crime reporting (2:04):

"TV news leans hard on 'this could happen to you' type of crime stories which are designed to pull you in"

Unknown said...

Thank you for writing this. By pure luck I got to see a performance of The Box Conspiracy when it was playing in SF and it stuck with me ever since! I am continually amazed at how under-appreciated it was and is. I believe it fully deserves a thorough cinematic treatment.