Herostratus on Steroids

The more I think about it, the more I have to realize that many of my works are somewhat problematic in respect to the topics they are dealing with. The same, I think, is true for other works by different artists, dealing with similar topics, so I would like to try to phrase my concerns.


When Herostratus laid fire to the Temple of Artemis in the 4th century BCE, it is said, that he was aiming for eternal remembrance. So, the reaction by public figures to punish him with damnatio memoriae, or the condemnation of memory, seemed quite sensible, even though this attempt has failed miserably. The names of the people that did condemn him have long since been forgotten, yet the name of the criminal lives on.

If we take the story for granted, Herostratus was no terrorist. The people he was aiming for were not his enemies and he was not trying to instill fear in them that other such acts might inevitably follow, he was rather extremely selfish. He wanted his actions to be remembered and his name to live on. If he would have been a member of a bigger group, that threatened similar acts, the story would be different, but he was giving his life merely for his own cause. He wanted to be glorified – sure, he did something most people would have hated him for, but glorification works in the negative as well as in the positive. The arch villain is a hero in of itself.

I guess, there is little real information on the reaction of his contemporaries, but I would doubt that there had been widespread fear that his action could have merely been the start of an upcoming series of similar events. If bureaucracy worked in a similar fashion 2500 years ago, some guards at the temple were reprimanded for their lapse in security, but that would have been it. The guy who actually did it had been apprehended and executed and no one was ever to mention his name again. That was it.

When looking for the right way to deal with contemporary acts of terrorism. Many media outlets struggle and quite a few resort to a damnatio memoriae for our current media environment. The acts themselves are still reported, but certain news sites for instance stopped to show images of terrorists and refuse to mention their names.

https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/jul/27/french-media-to-stop-publishing-photos-and-names-of-terrorists

If terrorists would be motivated by similar urges than Herostratus, this seems an adequate way to cope with terrorism. But there is more to that, than just the individuals need to leave traces.

For once, the fundamental claim of terrorism is that there are more things to come. Things that are going to strike us out of the blue. The individual terrorist might indeed partially be motivated by the selfish urge of becoming a glorified hero, but the fact that the claim is made, that his actions are part of a wider movement, is essential. Interestingly, this claim is very often not made by the attacker him- or herself, but rather by the group that defines his whole existence through an ongoing series of attacks. ISIS for instance, keeps claiming attacks for themselves that have little connection to the real planning of this group. To the person who feels under threat, it makes little to no difference who makes this claim.

Whether the above-mentioned response, by some media outlets, to retract the names and images of violent attackers, is a valid response, is up for debate. But maybe this response does not even go far enough and the story of Herostratus might teach us some valuable lesions for the conflicts of the 21st century.

Compared to the role remembrance plays in contemporary conflicts, the actions by Herostratus seem almost like child’s play. He wanted his name to be remembered to become immortal, but today it is all about a continuous place in the 24-hour news cycle. He was up for what we would call today 15 minutes of fame, while terror groups aim for a never-ending state of fear.

Today’s conflicts aim at our perception as the crucial battlefield. Terrorism, for instance, only works once it is been perceived as terrorism. If the single acts of murder are understood merely as acts of a criminal nature, the feeling of terror most likely disappears. If a drunken guy stabs some people in front of a club and is then killed by police, the whole thing is merely reported as news. Something that has happened and that is now over. Just something the public might want to know about. If there is a growing number of such incidences, politicians might face some tough questions by their constituents and might fear for reelection. But little else comes of it.

Terrorism, on the other hand, lives from being reported in a different way than that. To fully function, it needs to be understood as merely part of something bigger. As something that might happen again in a different setting, but that has to be understood as part of the same storyline. Terrorists work hard to make their actions seem as if they were connected. But this connectedness is artificial. What we experience as a constant threat from Islamist terror groups in Europe at the moment, is in fact a series of incidences that are quite few and far apart. Even if it were true that most or all of the attacks were orchestrated by the same group, following the same narrative, this struggle has bears little resemblance of an all-out war. But to many people, it feels like it. Why? Maybe because every incidence is talked about over and over again. And this way, the groups claiming responsibility for these attacks are given constant media airtime.

So, when some news outlets decide not to show the faces and names of the perpetrators, this solves only a small part of the issue. The attacks are still given ample airtime – much more in fact, than many other events, that have a comparable number of casualties.

What reminds me here of Herostratus is the fact that terrorism seems to depend on us thinking about it, for it to stay alive. The more we talk about it, the more the whole issue grows and thrives. Oddly enough other issues are quite similar in this respect. Take for instance mass surveillance. Sure, Big Brother could watch you without your knowledge, but it has always been the more cost-efficient approach to pair surveillance with a heavy dose of paranoia in your targets. Have them be afraid and therefore enforce some control on themselves.

In that respect, “knowledge” can be a curse, since what you believe to know, is in huge parts a construct that only exists in our group consciousness. There might be a terror attack any moment or there might be Big Brother watching over my shoulder right now, but the chance that this just isn’t the case is so much bigger. Us, being afraid, easily fills the gaps between accidents or acts of surveillance.


The more attention these topics get, the more important they seem. This is a problem. Not only the classical media outlets do a far too focused job, reporting on terror or surveillance, but it has also become a staple topic in other cultural fields. Movies, documentaries, books, theater plays – I just guess that there are even operas – are dealing with terror. And many visual artists, like me for instance, spend a lot of time drawing even more attention to this issue. The way this is done is very often quite fanciful and therefore gives the whole thing some street cred. Surveillance, war and terror have become cool topics for the coolest kids around.

We might come with the best intentions, but I am not so sure anymore, if we are actually doing a good job. We might have to deal with the idea of us being complicit, when dealing with topics, where the actual danger is not so much out there in the real world, but rather in our internal response. By shedding even more light on these topics, we serve the agenda. When ISIS, for instance releases new videos, people like me instantly flock to them and make them part of the debate.

If it comes to these topics, there should be debate, but the question is, which debate. I have no conclusive answer, but I want to show that I am struggling.

When did the barracks at Auschwitz get the last coat of fresh paint?

I had a conversation recently with a photo student, who wants to do a work on some Stasi related issue. She was mentioning to me, that she was planning on taking pictures in a former Stasi prison in Berlin. Since the Wall came down, this has been turned into a museum. When asked why, she said something about the authenticity of this place and quoted some people that had been imprisoned there saying something like “the smell is very special and authentic, the real smell the place had back then”. To that I say: bullshit.

The wall came down 28 years ago and the prison was closed shortly after. No smell in the world lingers on for that long. No matter what chemicals would constitute the smell, their composition would change over time and therefore the smell would certainly not be “the same” as thirty years ago. Plus, back then, the building was in use. People worked their every day and other people were forced to live in this very building. We all have experienced that the smell of our apartment seems to change, while we were on vacation for a week or two. It might be that the smell did not change, but our perception of it has, but in the long run, we certainly play a role in the olfactory composition of the place we live and work in.

I am not that interested in the mechanics of smells, rather the way this student was talking did remind me of a general issue I am having with the culture of memory.

We tend to expect of certain places of historical importance, to give away part of their story through their outside appearance. A terrible place needs to look devastating to fully trigger our moral switches, and a bad scent certainly helps in this regard. The more devastating a place looks, the more devastating a place it must have been back then. I guess, this can easily become a feedback loop.

When talking to the student, I asked her, what the place looks like right now. I have been there twice myself, but I wanted to hear it from her. Of course, everything looks grey, there are cracks in the plaster on the wall and in some places chunks have fallen off, the furniture looks very outdated, the bathroom fixtures were terrible. How is this authentic? I am quite sure that back, when the prison was still operational, the paint would have been much fresher, cracks in the wall would have been taken care of, and both the furniture and the bathroom fixtures were quite close to what people had at home.

I am not saying that back then this place wouldn’t have been a terrible place to be imprisoned. I am trying to make the point that a place does not need to look terrible to be terrible. Take Auschwitz for instance – just as a thought experiment. There was a time – maybe a very short one, but still – when the barracks were brand new. Maybe they even smelled of fresh sawn lumber, the paint was fresh and maybe the trees outside were in full bloom. Auschwitz at such a moment was as much of a terrible place as Auschwitz at the time the Red Army liberated the place. But it does not really fit our mental image.

Now, when these places – Auschwitz and the prison in Hohenschönhausen – are preserved for the future, much care is taken to preserve the general spirit of the place. But what spirit might that be? I guess it is the spirit we expect to find. If the decision is made to do some work on the place to preserve it for the future, this work is one of restoration, rather than renovation. But wouldn’t a place like the Stasi prison be better off with a fresh coat of paint, that aims to set the place back in time by 20 years, rather than a careful touch-up of the weathered paint that has come to represent the grey image we expect?

This also reflects in movies that try to show the terrors present at these places. To me, this seems quite natural. A location scout is sent to document the place, the movie is going to depict. He or she finds it in a carefully preserved state of despair and comes back with a set of images that depict precisely that. This material then is given to set designers to replicate. If a movie-goer, after seeing the film, visits such a place, the images encountered in the movie tells what the place needs to represent to “feel” real. This is a circle.

A similar thing can be seen in the depiction of inmates. Of course, places like Auschwitz did provide a terrible sight and starvation and murder were rampant and these things did take a toll on the inmates. But there might have been many people suffering, where this did not present itself in a similar fashion on the outside. Well-fed people with clean clothes and tidy faces can be killed and traumatized as well.

I believe that this isn’t merely a question of aesthetics, but this carries with it real life consequences. We may have reached the point, where we distrust a place or situation to be terrible, if it does not appear the way we expect these things to appear. During the current refugee crisis, politicians took the stage pointing out that many of the refugees carried smartphones and had nice clothes. The logic behind that seemed to be that only those in rags with dirty faces could be the ones that had an excuse to flee their countries. Surely, a nice-looking environment cannot be filled with trauma. Right?

This might exactly be the point the US government was aiming for, when creating the new housing at for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay. Many of the images coming out of this place, look more like a very clean hospital, than a place we’d associate with torture. This is not done by accident, but our expectation that terrible places look a certain way, makes it very easy to fool us. And just because a camp for refugees is made to look nice, does not mean that it isn’t a terrible place.

But back to the smell at Hohenschönhausen prison. I find it fascinating that not just we, the spectators, fall for this trap. But even people who had been imprisoned there alter their memories over time. That way, the place is going to look more and more like the place should look like to suit the terrible things that took place there. I wonder though, how much the growing despair in the outside appearance, is going to influence the way the stories of despair are told – and maybe even the way they are remembered?

Maybe we should look at ISIS in the West as a youth revolt

— This is something I just wrote down, without planning too much. I realize that it might be a little bit confusing. This is just me, just rumbling on. —

Time and time again, fascists try to rebrand themselves to regain traction. They look for new symbols, to replace those, that have become too easily recognizable as belonging to their despicable agenda, or to replace those, that are outright illegal to use. And with the new symbols come new slogans. The change is limited to the outside appearance though.

I have quite some knowledge of how Islamist propaganda videos look like, and when I come across videos by groups that associate themselves with neo fascist agendas in the West, quite often it strikes me how similar they are in appearance. Take for instance the video below from a group that associates itself with the so-called Identitarian movement. The way these men run through the forest and wrestle looks so youthful and modern, yet the same is true for by many of the Islamist propaganda that tries to find recruits in the West. When looking through my collection for a video to pair with the Identitarian, I was somewhat lazy. This was the one I found first and this is why I used it. There are many others, that look more modern than this one here and that utilize a similar lightheartedness, than that is found in the Identitarian video, to spread their hatred.

But why do these groups that seem to aim for a weird sense of stability, one that is promised if you follow conservative values, constantly evolve? Maybe this could be explained, if we look at these groups as part of a youth movement that changes from generation to generation. Every generation that comes of age, has to define itself new. Fashion trends change constantly, and the army boots, skinhead haircuts and bomber jackets of the 90s just lost their appeal to the next generation of Nazis.

Many parties in the West have long ago formed their youth organization. In Germany, every major party has one. That is quite clever. There is the real party, with a grown-up agenda, aiming for real world politics, and then there is the youth wing that is allowed to be more extreme and sometimes even youthfully delusional.

Maybe this is true for ISIS as well. When looking at the propaganda, I have always found it quite interesting, that there seems to be a whole multitude of target audiences. On one hand, ISIS tries to appear like a state that is somewhere out there and that does stately things. Building roads, providing food and entertainment, or even punishing criminals – whoever those might be under their jurisdiction. But then there is also the propaganda that tries to recruit young people in the West and locally. This propaganda has a different appeal to it. This is the propaganda that tries to look young and fresh. Could it be, that this propaganda looks different because it is part of a youth culture?

We have to keep in mind, that at least in part, ISIS is the result of the Arab Spring, which in itself was driven to a huge extend by a disillusioned youth. Countries, that have been encapsulated by a crust of old elites, with little to no hope for a better future, served as a hotbed for a revolting youth. And when the promises, that were made, were broken, ISIS filled the void by promising an even brighter future.

In my youth, I had been fascinated by radical left ideas. I desperately wanted to fight for a better world. It just happened, that my own endeavor never turned violent, but I guess, I might have been walking a fine line. There were certainly violent groups and players that had an appeal to me; in hindsight though, I have come to realize that the promises they made back then were lies. I wanted to struggle for freedom and liberty and these groups pretended to do fight for the same goals. Yet, the stories by folks like Che Guevara or Ho Chi Minh and reality are two different things. But it sounded tempting.

When I was at that age, I might have been just lucky that there were not so many revolutions easily accessible, that were calling for volunteers to fight. Even if they would have, I could have never afforded to book a flight to, let’s say Nicaragua.

Of course, the things done by ISIS and Co are terrible, but I wonder how we will be able to cope with the next way of unrest, if we merely look at ISIS as something solitary. As something that is rooted in some specific issues, of some specific time. There is this aspect as well. The set of problems at work in the Middle East post Arab Spring are different than the problems in Cuba under the rule of the Batista regime. But there is also the struggle of the youth every society has to cope with.

The growing inequality in many societies, the overpopulation, the disappearance of job opportunities, due to the coming AI breakthrough, climate change, these problems – and many more beyond our horizon -, mean that coming youth generations might have even more reasons to feel disenfranchised in the society they live in. Struggling violently, might seem even more tempting than it is now.

I think it is very dangerous, to look at the problems ISIS seems to cause amongst the youth around us, as something that is just linked to groups like ISIS and therefore as something we might be able to defeat on the battlefield. Members of coming generations are going to take up arms again and fight their own fight. ISIS is going to disappear. And the radical forms of religion are going to grow out of fashion amongst many young people. But religion is just some banner to unite under in a world that seems to hate you.

ISIS, Putin and the claim of responsibility

An image from a recent attack on a casino in the Philippines. Contrary to initial reporting and even a tweet by Donald Trump, the perpetrator was no ISIS member, but rather an indebted gambler.

Claiming or denying responsibility for things that happen, seems to have become almost an art form.

Imagining a criminal, confessing to a whole bunch of crimes he did actually not commit, is quite an extraordinary thought. But this is pretty much normal, if it comes to certain terrorist organizations. It appears as if ISIS in particular, claims almost everything at one point or the other. Sure, there are the official looking ISIS channels who seem somewhat more cautious, but even they did claim responsibility for the shooting at the Pulse night club in Orlando for instance, where the perpetrator in part seemed to have been motivated by his inability to cope with his own sexual orientation. OK, if I think about it, this might exactly be the reason that incites a huge chunk of religious violence, but normally this is not the stuff a group like ISIS wants to be openly associated with.

The point is though, that Islamist terror groups tend to claim responsibility for far more attacks and events, than what they have actually organized. The attacker in Orlando might have mentioned ISIS in a phone call, he made to the local police during his attack; so, he might have been inspired by the Islamic State; but if we look into it, there seems to have been little actual relationship between the attacker and the group he did mention. Inspiring someone and being fully responsible for his actions, are indeed two separate things.

One the other extreme we find Russian president Vladimir Putin. Whenever someone makes any claim of Russia being involved in anything, Putin instantly seems to deny any connection. Be it meddling in the US election, the support of separatists in Eastern Ukraine or the killing of figures of the Russian opposition in Russia and abroad, he instantly denies any involvement and frequently calls the accusations conspiracy theories.

Neither Putin nor ISIS are stupid, let alone inexperienced, so rather than dismissing their difference in style as merely a personal preference, one should look at this as a strategic decision.

A terror group like ISIS tries to spread terror and fear, precisely to extend its otherwise very limited reach. Claiming responsibility for a multitude of events – these do not necessarily need to be attacks – does make sense. Especially in a media environment with an ever-shortening attention span. The way events are perceived is decided in the first couple of hours, until the whole media circus moves on. So, by pretty much claiming everything almost instantly, some claims might make headlines and that is all ISIS needs. That way, ISIS is more of a claim-machine than one that needs to orchestrate terror.

To law enforcement or the judiciary system – and to the victims – it is important to determine, if something had been an attack and who was behind it. But the panic element, that makes terror so devastating, relies on fast paced judgements. If prosecutors, weeks after an event, find out that a blast had been a technical malfunction, the battle over our perception has already been lost.

The reaction of denying any wrongdoing seems quite “reasonable” as well. If you deny any involvement in anything evil, that might limit your liability. Every two-year-old knows that. It becomes odd, when everyone knows that you are lying. Take for instance the fighting in Eastern Ukraine that goes on for years now. Putin denies any support for the so-called separatists. That seems odd, since the lack of support by official channels in Russia make it very hard to explain, where all the shiny new Russian tanks and small-arms are coming from.

Everyone knows, that there is support from within Russia and either Putin is extremely naïve, or he is lying. But constantly lying might in fact be a clever political move. People know that you do at least some of the things people claim you do. By appearing untrustworthy to your opponents – in Putin’s case the West -, people might start to believe that you are responsible for almost everything. You might become the focus of a conspiracy theory.

Conspiracy theories are funny, since, when you fall for them, they always seem to be directed against you. I have yet to find a person, who thinks that there is a conspiracy going on that aims at making his life better. That way, these conspiracies are always aimed at something extremely powerful, lurking in the shadows. But what if you are at the receiving end of such a theory? To some groups – i.e. the Jews, Freemasons, Communists -, this can have dire consequences. But if you are an organization that holds real power and whose job it is to use that power, people associating even more power to you, might certainly have some benefits.

I believe for instance, that American institutions, like the NSA and CIA, that are constantly under suspicion, do certainly realize that this conspiracy theory that is associated with them isn’t necessarily the worst thing. There are quite a few people, that almost believe in the omnipotence of these US agencies. And you do not want to pick a fight with such a powerful organization willy-nilly. That way, the CIA reaches parts of the world, where there is no agent present.

Strangely claiming everything and denying everything might create a similar outcome. It widens your reach. But the constant claim is the tool of the weak and the constant denial is the tool of the actor, people already think is powerful. There comes the point, where you should start switching from one to the other. If you have widened your virtual reach to a point, that people start believing in your godlike powers, it might become favorable to deny everything.

How to report on terror attacks

In light of the recent terror attacks, I believe that the media is obliged to report these attacks with a high level of care. The reach of terrorism is always extremely limited and terrorist organizations heavily rely on the media attention their attacks create to spread fear. The role of the media should not be to widen this reach, but moderate it.

These are some guidelines I believe might be important to follow.

– Treat it as a crime, until local law enforcement says it has been a terror attack.

– Ignore statements by ISIS, al Qaeda and such. What they are saying is propaganda and should therefore be ignored. By repeating their statements, you spread propaganda and therefore make the attack more successful. Just because they make the claim, that they have orchestrated something, does not mean anything.

– People feel the need to upload videos and images taken during attacks. Other people have the urge to search for these videos. Refrain from using these videos. The information value of these videos for the public is extremely limited, unless your goal is it to show people in distress.

– Images of the perpetrator should only be used when law enforcement asks the media to do so. What you might believe is reporting is in fact a glorification of attackers?

– Report facts and not feelings. Of course, people had been confused and scared during the attack. There is no point in putting emphasis on that, unless you wish to spread fear and uncertainty further.

– Only report things that are important for the public to know. Overreporting makes things more difficult for law enforcement and makes it harder for the public to understand.

– Try not to report everything law enforcement does live. If you want or not, you might help the attackers.

– If the whole event is still unfolding, does the general audience really need to know the names, genders and ages of the victims? Let the families come to terms first and then, later, we might join them in their grief.

– If you make a claim, that later proves to be false, at least have the decency to report your correction with a similar emphasis than your original statement. Otherwise the misleading claim is going to stick with the audience.

Perception Perception Perception

What makes terror so devastating is not the reach of a certain blast or the number of people killed; it is the way it manages to embed itself deep into our perception. It makes us scared and keeps us preoccupied with an idea of constant danger.

This feeling of terror has to be understood at a personal level. Each one of us is a possible target that might be overwhelmed by this feeling.  Only at a later point would the reaction of our society as a whole be of interest.

We personally feel threatened. Terror is this invisible threat that seems to be directed at people like us and therefore might harm us any moment from now. So being afraid almost seems to be a valid idea. The way we feel these threats apparently needs no explanation to be real.

What is much harder to grasp, is to understand threats that are directed at people, we do not associate with – others. Empathy might enable us to get a hint of what the other person might experience, but even with an empathetic approach, there is little present of this deep-seated feeling of terror.

This feeling of terror is linked to phobias in that the threat might be real, but my reaction has little connection to the level of the threat. I for instance am afraid of heights. To some extend that is a valid fear, since falling off a ladder might carry some dire consequences. But most people don’t just fall off ladders. Accidents happen, just not all the time. Normally being careful should be enough. My phobia does not care though. Standing next to a ladder and looking up, very often the fear of the height feels illogical – even to me. Once I try to ascend it though this question of whether it is logical or not completely disappears. Friends of mine “know” that I am afraid of heights. Can they understand it? I have my serious doubts. They are be able to see the same threat I do – falling off a ladder – just it does not seem to be similarly directed at them. For them, “being careful” is all that is needed.

With the way Islamist terror currently has a firm grasp on media attention, it is somewhat hard to see that there are other, quite similar, threats aimed at other groups. And this, I believe, is a very serious issue. If we look at racist violence against immigrants, the drone warfare by the US in different parts of the world or the police violence in the US against people of color and so on; these are all things that cause a similar form of anxiety in those who feel under threat. I am not saying that police violence in the US is a terrorist operation, but it does certainly create the feeling of being terrorized in those who feel targeted. The threat become something that is unavoidably directed at you.

I recently had a discussion with an openly racist person here in Germany. He did not deny that there were “some” acts of violence against refugees in Germany, what he denied though was my claim that this is terror quite similar to the terror by Islamists. For him one thing is merely a series of criminal events and the other stuff is pure terror. This is what I tried to explain earlier. Terror is very hard to see if it affects others. Or, to phrase it differently, terror is what affects you.

Most of us will never become victims of terror attacks. Most refugees in Germany will never be harmed by Nazis. Most Afghans are never personally harmed in drone strikes. And most people of color in the US will never be harmed by police. Yet, the feeling of terror that unites these groups, isn’t entirely baseless. There are people that are harmed or killed. And the feeling of terror is real. So how should we address this?

Even though this is hard, we must try to separate the personal level from the level of society. The events that cause terror, like attacks by ISIS and Co, attacks by Nazi on refugees, the police brutality, these are real life events that have to be addressed. This should be the job of lawmakers or law enforcement. But the terror itself, in that it exists on a personal level of perception, is trickier to address. We see the main problem already. If we look at a country like Poland that hasn’t seen a single Islamist terror attack and that has a minuscule number of Muslims, we might still be able to find a similar level of terror in ordinary people, then within a society that suffers heavily from this kind of attacks.

So, if even the absence of terrorism is no guaranty for the disappearance of the feeling of terror, not too much hope should be spent on extremely tough laws and wide-reaching surveillance. Even outrageous demands like the deportation of all Muslims would just not help. The terror is a feeling that rests in us and it is quite hard for the government to rescue us from ourselves. On the contrary. Us, being afraid, is quite handy. Laws and restrictions are easily argued for and populism feasts on it.

The lack of empathy – or the limited reach of empathy – makes things quite difficult to cope with. When different people with different fears communicate, quickly it feels like both sides just won’t take the other side seriously. When Germans show their fear, when a terror attack takes place, and refugees do not show a level of outrage that is considered adequate, this is understood either as their them being complicit or them lacking compassion. But the same could be said the other way around. When refugees are under attack, so many Germans just do not seem to care? Are they complicit? Do they lack compassion? Some certainly do, as do some of the refugees in the first example. But I believe that most just do not really understand that the whole thing is that big of a problem.

Take the troubles in Israel and Palestine. Just imagine that both sides might be right and both sides might do wrong. It could be, that some of the actions both sides undertake, might be understood as acts of terror on the other side.

 

Terror Propaganda for the Computer Age – And for the Lazy Content Creator … I guess??

Some time ago – late 2014/early 2015 or so – there appeared a mod pack for the shooter game Arma III that allowed you to play the game as a member of ISIS. In case this needs some explanation, mod packs are software additions to computer games that enable you to change the appearance or the rules of a game beyond the things normally available. Very often these mod packs can be created by anyone technologically savvy enough and are meant to broaden the community appeal of games. Very often this creates almost entirely new games on the framework of the original one.

Screenshot from the original Arma III ISIS mod pack.

Here though, in the case of Arma III, a shooter by a Czech company, that would normally focus more on a western perspective, all the sudden became something very different. That is at least the way the media picked up on the story.

I must confess I did not follow the story back then, but from what I find on the Internet today, it seems more likely to me that at the time a group of script kiddies was merely trying to give the game they were playing a very contemporary appeal. To me that makes sense. Late 2014 saw the emergence of the Islamic State as it swept through huge chunks of Syria and Iraq. It still had a lot of sex appeal to it – so much so that even Vice Magazine reported on it in their fancy style. I have even found a quote in a forum that discusses this mod, where someone comments: “The IS units on the other hand are based directly off of footage from VICE News.”.

The true terror was not fully revealed and neither was the true extend of the oncoming struggle. It just must have seemed like something that was out there and that was new. I might be completely wrong, but from the way I have seen ISIS propaganda develop, 2014 seems to be too early for them to produce this kind of mod pack. But it would have been a great story, since this would have perfectly followed the narrative that ISIS is a highly-sophisticated organization, that follows the US Military in its footsteps.

The US military has indeed quite a history of using computer games as a means to recruit young men (mostly men). The game “America’s Army”, that in 2002 started a whole series that continues up to today, would be a classical example. Targeting young men through computer games – they definitely know their audience!

It certainly would make sense for ISIS and Co to utilize similar mechanisms and I am quite sure that you would find plenty of people who ended up fighting in Syria or Iraq, that indeed did play with the ISIS mod pack, but most people who played it would have since then just moved on to other games.

That does not mean that these groups do not utilize digital techniques, beyond video and photographs, when it comes to the creation of their propaganda. For instance, groups close to ISIS have, in the past, released at least two apps that were aimed directly at children. So maybe a full-scale computer game might be too big of a task, but relatively simple apps are certainly within reach.

Very crude example of CGI been used in older propaganda videos.

The thing that brought me to write this brief text isn’t something interactive, but rather a 6 ½ minute long video that is entirely computer generated. I have seen other examples before, where these visuals appear, but so far these made up only parts of the video and were always of a very questionable quality.

What is fascinating about this new video is, that it tries to resemble closely a common type of propaganda videos, that makes up quite a big part of the propaganda output at the moment. These videos show attacks by little remote controlled drones on soldiers and fighters in Syria and Iraq. The parallels drawn to these videos are striking. The first scene shows two soldiers launching a drone. This drone flies through a dessert landscape and carries out a series of attacks.

Drone flying into the sunset.

It is already striking that the way these attacks – the ones in real life – have spurred an iconic way to depict them. Shot from straight above the first shot shows the bomblet being dropped, then the scene same scene is repeated with the image zoomed in to show the target more clearly and give an idea of the result of the attack. Naturally, since the zoom is done digitally in retrospect, the footage of the second part is quite grainy and shaky – even this is reproduced in the animated video. That I find quite fascinating.

Real attack.
The CGI version.

Even though this video looks quite sophisticated – and to some extent this certainly need some skills –, upon closer inspection it becomes clear, that this is very much related to the example of the Arma III mod pack. Similar story, different game. It is quite clear that the basis for the video is the latest edition of the Grand Theft Auto series of games. The landscape shown therefore is not originally meant to represent the Middle East, but rather a fictitious Island that is modeled after California. A clear hint is given when a truck is shown and the license plate reads “San Andreas”. This is the name of the main city in the game.

Still, even though much of the work was done using a preexisting game that provides many of the graphics, it would have taken quite a bit of work to create this video. Why bother? Especially, when it tries to copy many of the scenes available as real-life footage? I can only provide some guesswork. One detail worth mentioning is that the Telegram channel that uploaded this video. Was none of the “more official” ISIS channels. And even though it uses the flag ISIS uses as a logo, this flag is on the left side of the image (as far as I have encountered it is always on the right) and the name “Al-Haqq Media” does not ring a bell. I have never heard of this media outlet (please remember that there are in fact different “official” media outlets in the ISIS sphere of influence), nor does a quick Internet search provide much information.

So, the source might be just an enthusiastic individual, or a group of people who have little, if any, real connection to ISIS. But that is so important to me. I find it fascinating that the propaganda that emanates pot from the Middle East has already become iconic in itself. I have mentioned quite a few examples before (the way people are executed, the way suicide attacks are filmed, etc.), yet here, the whole genre of Islamist propaganda, is copied into another medium. The way the storyboard of this short film is developed could serve as the blueprint for a huge chunk of storyboards found in terror propaganda at the moment. True, there are also different types of videos, but the one this resembles (Preparation – Drone Strike – Car Bomb shown – Suicide Attack – Execution of a Prisoner in Orange) is extremely common at the moment.

Even an execution is included in the video.

But then it also reveals the bigotry of people involved in the creation of this kind of propaganda. Of course, whoever has created this video has also played the game. That is just something you do. You are not going to buy or download Grand Theft Auto V as if it were a video editing program with the sole intention to produce a ISIS style propaganda video. You have to play the game first to see its full potential. And the worldview represented by such a video game – love it or hate it – certainly has little to do with the world view of ISIS. And no, I am not going to agree with people who are going to say: “That makes so much sense, ISIS calls for violence and Grand Theft Auto calls for violence, therefore both are related.”. Games like GTA are about violence, they let you envision violence. That is nothing new. The medium is, yes, but there have always been tales of violence and brutality been told within our cultures, very rarely were they meant to incite violence.

 

 

The Stuff that is wrong with Intelligence

I have listened to the latest podcast by Sam Harris earlier today. I am not following him that closely, so when he was talking about the heat he was getting on the Internet recently that was new to me. I did not spend too much time looking into it but merely rely on what he was telling on his podcast, but that I take as an excuse to write about something that bothers me for quite some time.

So, Harris seems to have drawn a lot of criticism for talking about research that links intelligence to genes – more specifically genes that are linked what is classified as race. The second cause for outrage seemed to be that he was talking about this with Charles Murray, a right-leaning researcher that talks maybe slightly too much about this connection to be considered open minded about the topic of race – to be polite. Harris complains about the debate culture today, that prevents researchers like him, to talk about certain findings in certain fields, that cannot be addressed without facing criticism on the basis of political correctness.

I have serious issues with the idea of political correctness as it is enforced by some groups and individuals today and would be the first to protect Sam Harris in that respect. I think this has become a curse, that makes a badly needed public discourse in these fields unnecessarily hard and plays in the hands of groups on the right. The left had always had a wonderful talent to tear itself apart, rather than focusing on it’s real opponents.

That aside, I do believe that Mr. Harris is badly wrong in many ways.

Let us just assume that there is no issue with the general concept of intelligence – I’ll come back to this point later, since this would be my key theory. So, let’s assume that intelligence does exist and it can be measured, since this is definitely a prerequisite when arguing that intelligence and a selection of genes are somehow connected. To say that changes in certain genes have a positive or negative effect on the level of intelligence, one has to define what would be counted as intelligence.

The problem I see with this is one that has to do with the general nature of human beings. Humans tend to form groups and associate themselves with others that share interests and traits. In a professional environment that seems quite logical. Physicists have more in-depth interaction with other physicists than say with janitors. But this lumping creates little echo chambers. Not only are you biased on your own towards what your interest is in, but the people around you give you the impression that these biases might be valid. Conferences are a good place to see this in action. I went to a conference, where archivists all agreed that their field was the most crucial for the development of society and I went to another, where historians claimed the same about their trade. I guess that this might explain why many janitors share some prejudice against “learned people”. The janitors know something we have missed – that is that the world would fall apart without them. At least that might be the stuff janitors agree on.

Maybe you get my point.

I believe that a similar thing is at stake once we look at how intelligence is measured. If the definition of what intelligence is and the development of adequate tests would be left up to the combined force of janitors, the outcome might be different from what we have in place now. But they are not the ones to decide. It is another sub-set of society that has taken on this task. Still, the problems are the same. Whatever group plays the most important role in developing the definition of intelligence, social science relies on mostly, there are certainly a lot of similarities between its members. And these members – knowingly or not – are biased to include those things in their classification that are skills needed to be successful in their own trade. If they even work on a classification of intelligence, well they have certainly to be included – right?

Sam Harris, in his podcast, talked about quantum physicists as a group that certainly excluded people of average intelligence. Ok, I have rarely met quantum physicists, but the physicists (more of a macroscopic kind) I have met would have a hard time holder a hammer at the right end. Not saying that this would be a skill that best defines intelligence; I am rather trying to make the point that any definition of intelligence might be tailored to include certain groups and exclude others.

Of course, this is oversimplified. These definitions are not developed with a group of people having some beers and musing over what it is that makes them so amazingly clever. It is far more subtle and I have no doubts that most of these researchers have the best intentions. They work hard to make their definition as waterproof as possible. Still, the bias, it always finds its way.

Even if one could come up with a virtually bias-free setting, this still would be no solution for the issue I am having.

The fundamental problem with the concept of intelligence

A certain level of intelligence is something we attribute to each and every individual. And I believe that herein lies the problem. Humans have never existed outside a group structure. Even if you would end up – Robinson-style – on a remote desert island, you would still rely on every knowledge society has bestowed upon you to that point. But not only our practical knowledge relies on the knowledge already in existence within the society that surrounds us, but so is every last concept of abstract things, such as logic.

I think we ought to look at intelligence as something that is inherit in our society as a whole rather than something that could be coped with on an individual level. I find it very amusing, when people freak out about the rise of intelligent machines. “Oh my god! Computers are going to be more intelligent than humans!”. That is the fear. If we just look at humans and the idea of intelligence, we should realize that even though there might have been a person with the highest IQ amongst them all, this person was always just a speck within the bigger group. No matter how intelligent you are, you are insignificant compared to the group you are in. This way, Computers are merely going to add their intelligence to the group total – as was true with the very clever hunter in the Stone Age.

This way, intelligence is derived from diversity. The more diverse a group is, the better it is able to tackle new problems. This reflects back to the basic concept of intelligence. If we test individuals for their IQ, we tend to look at how well they react to different kinds of problems. In a group of people, this is somewhat related to genetics. When a new disease appears, a population that is genetically diverse has a better chance of dealing with the new threat than one that is genetically very homogeneous.

The question of which way to look at intelligence – on an individual level or on the level of the group as a whole – isn’t merely one of a certain perspective. Rather, I would argue, judging intelligence on a person to person basis is highly dangerous.

It is tempting to judge every individual based on his or her intelligence. This way, it is very easy to alter the intelligence of a group by adding more intelligent people or removing less intelligent ones. Sounds familiar? Sure, this is Eugenics. Something that was very much en vogue in the late 19th and early 20th century. Then it lost a little bit of favor due to the work of wee men with concentration camps. But with the promises made by genetical engineering, it is once again gaining ground. It is strange to see that, once more, scientists and racists are combining their forces.

But of course, the “intelligence” they want to enhance is shown by skills they tend to cherish in themselves. Maybe it should be classified as a cloning operation, rather than one that is aimed at improving the average intelligence of our society.

Again, I am arguing that the average intelligence of a given group rises with every different member that is included. This is why, multicultural societies are going to prepare us much better for things to come that the Easter-Island-style of culture racists dream about. Having handicapped people, people with mental problems, healthy ones, old, young, gay, straight, religious, atheist … this is the stuff that raises our intelligence – and don’t forget janitors for gods sake! And if the machines are raising? We’ll just invite them in. They will certainly be able to add their share.

 

The ghost of van Gogh’s ear and the wonders of being misunderstood

I was at a big event conference recently and during one talk there were two people on stage complaining about the fact that many of the issues they were addressing were taboo and therefore had little exposure in the media and in society. And yet, there they were. On stage, in a room with a couple hundred people, at a conference with some thousand attendees and having their talk recorded to be shared on different websites. And journalists everywhere. Somehow the fact that there seemed to be an audience for their talk did not dawn on them. Even though there were a couple hundred people right there. Just in front of them. I find that amazing. Maybe, just maybe, art could be able to teach us something here.

Ever since, on December 23rd, 1888, Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear, failure plays a weird role in the arts. Of course, I am aware that at the time no one took notice of this mentally ill man in a small French town, especially no one in the art world – which is part of the whole issue. I am just mentioning this one event for the sake of my argument and to make things slightly more funny. Years later, when van Gogh posthumously started to be sold for huge wads of money, the world finally took notice of his plight. The ear and the fact that he was financially unsuccessful during his lifetime became the material for 500 Euro questions in TV shows and answers in beginner’s crosswords puzzles. And it became a curse.

The story that society fails to see the real genius that hides in plain sight isn’t merely the stuff that keeps untalented hobbyists painting, it rather might form the basis for much of what is understood as “avantgarde”. Every new avantgarde seems in part to feast on the idea of being misunderstood within the surrounding society. It is almost as if this has become a measurement for the real success. Even collectors and gallerists have fallen in love with this mechanism. “Outsider Art” is an ever-changing sub-genre that carries those who are handicapped in a multitude of ways. Once an outsider starts being valued by the market, new kinds of outsiders appear and take over the classification. And then there are bullshit artists like Jonathan Meese, who make lots of money from being “outsiders”.

This might explain the arrogance that comes out of many art schools. Much of what is created is hard to understand – even for me and I studied fine arts. Some time ago, I went to an “photography” exhibition with works from current students at a big art school. There, I tried desperately to explain some of the works to an architecture professor I met there. Desperately, since much of it remained unexplainable to me. I think that this is problematic. If a professor at the same school does not understand what the stuff is about … well, the works seem to lack something. Not necessarily from the perspective of the young artists though. I believe that there is the curse of the misunderstood artist at work here. To them, not being understood might not be an issue at all, but rather a weird sign of success.

Being misunderstood or mishandled, underrepresented or underreported has become almost something like an accolade, not only in the art world. Of course, the world is full of people who are underreported or victims of a multitude of mistreatings, but these are the people we are not hearing about, because they lack a voice. I am rather talking about complaining on big stages that your ideas are underrepresented – that seems weird to me. Reading or seeing statements publicly that begin with “No one talks about ….” almost feels like theatre of the absurd. And the Internet is full of it.

Sure, if you want to be a revolutionary, you should distance yourself from whatever mainstream there is. That is not new. What is new is the sheer number of people, groups or organizations who simultaneously claim to be “the revolution”. Even a billion dollar news-network like Fox News chips in, by trying to pretend not to be “mainstream”. Everyone wants to be an outsider, since only as such you can be a true revolutionary. So, there are millions of little revolutions with little – or no – agenda in place. Who needs an agenda, if you get your justification from the fact that you are misunderstood? The idea that you might not be represented to the full extend, because your ideas are just not worthwhile, almost never occurs. Everyone just smells a conspiracy theory directed against them.

As we have seen with Fox News, today, even representatives of the status quo claim to be the victim and thus demand the role of the revolutionary.

Yet drowned are the voices that really deserve to be heard. But how to find them, since everyone is so much better connected than those who are truly desperate? Now, this might cause anger, since every little group of equal minded people always comes to an agreement that their cause is the most valuable – or certainly amongst the most valuable. This way journalists, bankers, white nationalists and feminists meet for once on a similar playing field.

Interview with Arte Tracks

This is just a video still. To watch the video, please follow the links below.

Last month, the team of Arte Tracks came for a visit to my studio. The short piece they have produced has been released to YouTube. Unfortunately embedding the video is blocked, so I just post a link to YouTube.

The German version is here
https://youtu.be/gAwQTnK9OxY

There is also a dubbed version in French
https://youtu.be/uM1SbbVyVTA

Sorry, no English version available.