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.


Nick Krabbenhoeft 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."