Collateral Murder

This post, I’m going to be performing an analysis of a video that popped up on my Facebook feed earlier this week; but, before I link it, it’s worth giving you fair warning that the content is pretty graphic, and the content is not to be taken lightly. The video in question is nothing especially new (the content was released by Wikileaks in a video entitled ‘Collateral Murder’ back in 2010), and deals with a snapshot of the Iraq war; namely, the killing of a group of apparently mostly innocent civilians by the crew of a US army Apache helicopter gunship.

This particular video tells the story of this events through the words of Ethan McCord, a soldier in the army who was on the ground at the time of the incident. But he begins with some mention of the tactics employed by the army during his time in Iraq, so my analysis will begin there. McCord talks of how, whenever an IED went off, soldiers in his battalion were ordered to ‘kill every mother****er on the street’, issuing 360 degree rotational fire to slaughter every person, civilians and insurgents alike, unfortunate enough to be in the area at the time and how, even though this often went against the morals of the soldiers concerned, a failure to comply with that order would result in the NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers, aka high-ranking soldiers) in your platoon ‘make[ing] your life hell’. The death toll and slaughter this practice must have caused could hardly be imagined, but McCord does his best to describe it; he talks of ‘the destruction of the Iraqi people’, of normal, innocent people being massacred just for being in the wrong place in the wrong time. McCord also talks about ‘Ranger Dominance’ operations, in which a couple of companies walked unprotected through New Baghdad (a district of the larger city of Baghdad) to perform counter-insurgency tasks. An example he gives are ‘Knock-in searches’ (I think that’s the phrase he uses), in which soldiers knock on doors/break in in order to search for potentially insurgency-related material.

The reason for these missions, for this behaviour, and for the seemingly nonsensical, murderous missions these soldiers were asked to perform comes, basically, down to the type of war being fought. Once Saddam Hussein had been removed from power, many in the US government and army thought the war would be over before very long; just cleaning up a few pockets of resistance. However, what they didn’t count on was that a mixture of their continued presence in the country, their bad behaviour and the sheer dedication of certain diehard Hussein loyalists, and before very long coalition forces found themselves combating an insurgency operation. Insurgencies aren’t like ‘traditional’ warfare; there are no fronts, no battle lines, no easily identifiable cases of ‘good guys here, bad guys over there’. Those kinds of wars are easy to fight, and there’s no way that the military juggernaut of the US army is ever going to run into trouble fighting one in the foreseeable future.

Insurgencies are a different kettle of fish altogether, for two key (and closely related) reasons. The first is that the battle is not fought over land or resources, but over hearts and minds- an insurgency is won when the people think you are the good guys and the other lot are the bad guys, simply because there is no way to ‘restore stability’ to a country whilst a few million people are busy throwing things at your soldiers. The second is that insurgents are not to be found in a clearly defined and controlled area, but hiding all over the place; in safe houses, bunkers, cellars, sewers and even in otherwise innocuous houses and flats. This means that to crush an insurgency does not depend on how many soldiers you have versus the bad guys, but how many soldiers you have per head of population; the more civilians there are, the more places there are the hide, and the more people you need to smoke them out.

Conventional wisdom apparently has it that you need roughly one soldier per ten civilians in order to successfully crush an insurgency operation within a reasonable time frame, or at all if the other side are properly organised, and if that sounds like a ridiculous ratio then now you know why it took so long for the US to pull out of Iraq. I have heard it said that in the key areas of Iraq, coalition forces peaked at one soldier per hundred civilians, which simply is not enough to cover all the required areas fully. This left them with two options; ether concentrate only on highly select areas, and let the insurgents run riot everywhere else (and most likely sneak in behind their backs when they try to move on somewhere else) or to spread themselves thin and try to cover as much ground as possible with minimal numbers and control. In the video, we see consequences of the second approach being used, with US forces attempting to rely on their air support to provide some semblance of intelligence and control over an area whilst soldiers are spread thin and vulnerable, often totally unprotected from mortar attack, snipers and IEDs. This basically means that soldiers cannot rely on extensive support, or backup, or good intel, or to perform missions in a safe, secure environment, and their only way of identifying militant activity is, basically, to walk right into it, either intentionally (hence the Knock-in Searches) or simply by accident. In the former case, it is generally simple enough to apprehend those responsible, but successfully discovering an insurgent via a deliberate search is highly unlikely. It is for this reason that the army don’t take no for an answer in these types of searches, and will often turn a house upside down in an effort to maximise their chance of finding something. In the latter case, identifying and apprehending an individual troublemaker is no easy task, so the army clearly decided (in their infinite wisdom) that the only way to have a chance of  getting the insurgent is to just annihilate everyone and everything in the immediate vicinity.

That’s the reasoning used by the US forces in this situation, and it’s fair to say that in this regard they were rather stuck between a rock and a hard place. However, that doesn’t negate the fact that these tactics are, in the context of an insurgency operation, completely stupid and bull-headed. Remember, an insurgency operation aims, as military officials constantly tell us, to win hearts and minds, to get the civilian population on your side; that’s half the reason you’re not permitting your soldiers to show ‘cowardice’. But, at the same time and in direct contrast to the ‘hearts and minds principle’, this particular battalion commander has chosen to get his soldiers battering down doors and shooting civilians at the first sign of trouble. Unfortunately, this is what happens when wars are badly managed and there are not enough men on the ground to do the job; stupid things becomes sanctioned as ideas because they seem like the only way forward. The results are shown quiter plainly in McCord’s testimony: soldiers of the 1st infantry ‘the toast of the army’, men who ‘pride themselves on being tougher than anyone else’, are getting genuinely scared of going out on missions, fear welling up in their eyes as they wander unprotected through dangerous streets praying they don’t come across any IEDs or snipers.

And that’s just the tactics; next time, I will get on to the meat of the video. The incident that Wikileaks put on show for the world to see…

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Personal History

Our lives today are more tracked, recorded and interconnected than ever before, for good and ill. Our phones can track our every moment, CCTV and other forms of physical recording have reduced our opportunities for privacy whilst out in public and, as the Leveson inquiry showed, modern technology makes it easier and easier for those who want to to keep tabs on all our activity. However, the aspect of this I want to discuss today concerns our online presence, something that is increasingly becoming a feature of all our lives.

On this blog, I try to be careful; I don’t mention my name, age or specific location and never put any photos of myself up. I also try, wherever possible, to be careful in other places online too; I don’t put photos on my Facebook page (since photos can be seen by anyone, regardless of whether they are your friend or not), try to keep a hold of my tongue when on forums, and try to operate a ‘look don’t touch’ policy in most other areas. But then again, I’m kinda lucky in that regard; I am not highly sociable, so rarely find myself in the position of having 100 embarrassing photos & videos put up concerning ‘that HILARIOUS thing you were doing last night’, and am not a public figure in any way. Basically, I am able to maintain a reasonable degree of privacy on the web by virtue of the fact that other people are unlikely to… contribute to my online profile.

Others are, of course, not so lucky; either that or they don’t especially care, which is, I suppose understandable. Sharing information about ourselves is, after all, pretty much exactly what Facebook and the like are for. However, we are frequently told how damaging it is to have such a wealth of information about us so blatantly available online; a quick Google and Facebook search of a client is now pretty much standard procedure when it comes to job applications, and even if there aren’t any pictures of you with underwear round the ankles vomiting into a fountain, they can build up a negative image of a potential client. An interviewer (well, a presumptive one) might, for instance, take a look at all the pictures showing you hanging round with mates at a club and think you are a habitual drinker and partygoer, neither of which exactly say ‘productive worker who’s always going to be in on time and in top condition’. Even beyond the world of work, there is the potential for serial embarrassment if pictures that were meant to be shared between friends make it out into the big wide world, and there is even the worrying idea of ‘cyber stalking’, made so easy thanks to the internet, entering your life.

However, perhaps most interesting are those in the public domain, both people and companies, who must control what totally uncontrollable, and usually unknown, people can choose to put online about them. Not only can this be personally hurtful for individual people, but for many such figures their livelihood is dependent on their reputation. All it takes is a spree of bad press reports for a negative image to tar one’s brand for a long old time, and all of the incalculable lost revenue that comes with that. The internet has a large memory and billions of people to contribute to it, and even a few particularly vociferous bloggers can keep bad words in the Google suggestion bar for a very long time.

This has lead, in the last few years, to the rise of a new industry; that of online reputation management. These companies have a simple enough remit; to disassociate their client from negative connotations online wherever possible. Unfortunately, this isn’t a matter of just shutting people up, because this is the internet and that kind of thing never ends well.  No, these businesses have to be a mite more subtle. For example, let us imagine, for the sake of implausibility, that Benedict Cumberbatch is linked with a rabbit-murdering syndicate, and although nothing is ever nailed down there are enough damning news bulletins and angry blogs that this thing is going to hang around forever. A reputation management company’s initial job would be to get this off the front page of Google, so they have to create some more content to hide the bad stuff; 94% of Google searches never get off page one. However, they can’t just produce huge numbers of spam-like articles to the vein of ‘Benedict’s a nice guy! Look, he’s cuddling a kitten! He gives money to nice charities!’, because people are smart enough to tell when that kind of thing is happening. So, a large amount of neutral or neutral-positive stuff is generated; certain sites might be paid, for example, to talk about the next film or theatre project it’s announced he’s appearing in. A variety of content is key, because if it’s all just carbon copies of the same statement people will smell a rat. Once the content’s been generated, there comes the matter of getting it circulated. Just writing a program to generate hits artificially isn’t enough on its own; this is where the world of sponsored Facebook links comes in, trying to get people thinking and talking about non-rabbit murdering stuff. This prevents more negative content from being generated and existing stuff from getting traffic much more effectively. The job is, however, an extremely slow one; a news story that breaks over the course of a week can take a year or two to fix, depending on the ferocity of one’s opponents.

When the world wide web, or ‘the information super-highway’, as it was also known back then, first came into our workld back in the 90s, people had high hopes. We could learn things, share things, discover stuff about one another, foster universal understanding. And, whilst we can now do all these things and more, the internet has become infamous too, scaring corporations and people alike with what billions of interconnected people can make happen. It is a strange place that many try to tame, out of necessity or out of fear. For many, it’s a battle they are doomed to lose.

PS: I feel like I should slightly apologise for not really having anything to say here. I guess I didn’t really think of a conclusion in advance

“Oh man, you gotta see this video…”

Everyone loves YouTube, or at least the numbers suggest so; the total number of siteviews they’ve racked up must number in the low trillions, the most popular video on the site (of course it’s still Gangnam Style) has over one billion views, and YouTube has indeed become so ubiquitous that if a video of something cannot be found there then it probably doesn’t exist.

Indeed, YouTube’s ubiquity is perhaps the most surprising, or at least interesting thing about it; YouTube is certainly not the only and wasn’t even the first large-scale video hosting site, being launched in 2005, a year after Vimeo (the only other such site I am familiar with) and well after several others had made efforts at video-sharing. It was the brainchild of three early employees of PayPal, Chad Hurley, Jawed Karim and Steve Chen. A commonly reported story (that is frequently claimed to be not true), the three had recorded video at a dinner party but were having difficulty sharing it online, so being reasonably gifted programmers decided to build the service themselves. What actually happened has never really been confirmed, but the first video (showing Karim at San Diego zoo; yes, perhaps it wasn’t the most auspicious start) went up in April 2005, of course, is history.

To some, YouTube’s meteoric rise might be considered surprising, or simply the result of good fortune favouring them over some other site. Indeed, given that Apple computers used not to be able to display videos using the Adobe Flash video format used by the site, it’s remarkable (and a testament to Microsoft’s dominance of the PC market for so many years) that the site was able to take off as it did. However, if one looks closely then it isn’t hard to identify the hallmarks of a business model that was born to succeed online, and bears striking hallmarks to the story of Facebook; something that started purely as a cool idea for a website, and considered monetisation something of a secondary priority to be dealt with when it came along. The audience was the first priority, and everything was geared to maximising the ability of users to both share and view content freely. Videos didn’t (and still don’t) have to be passed or inspected before being uploaded to the site (although anything flagged by users as inappropriate will be watched and taken down if the moderators see fit to do so), there is no limit on the amount that can be watched or uploaded by a user and there is never any need to pay for anything. YouTube understands the most important thing about the internet; it is a place with an almost infinite supply of stuff and a finite amount of users willing to surf around and look for it. This makes the value of content to a user very low, so everything must be done to attract ‘customers’ before one can worry about such pesky things as money. YouTube is a place of non-regulation, of freedom; no wonder the internet loves it.

The proof of the pudding is, of course, in the money; even as early as November 2005 Sequoia Capital had enough faith in the company (along with superhuman levels of optimism and sheer balls) to invest over $11 million in the company. Less than a year later, YouTube was bought by Google, the past masters at knowing how the internet works- for $1.65 billion. Given that people estimate that Sequoia’s comparatively meagre investment in the company netted them a 30% share in the company by April 2006, this suggests the company’s value increased over 40 times in six months. That ballsy investment has proved a very, very profitable one, but some would argue that even this massive (and very quickly made) whack of cash hasn’t proved worth it in the long run. After all, less than two years after he was offered $500 000 for Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg’s company was worth several billion and still rising (it’s currently valued at $11 billion, after that messy stock market flotation), and YouTube is now, if anything, even bigger.

It’s actually quite hard to visualise just how big a thing YouTube has now managed to be come, but I’ll try; every second, roughly one hour of footage is uploaded to the site, or to put it another way, you would have to watch continually for the next three and a half millennia just to get through the stuff published this year. Even watching just the ones involving cats would be a full-time job. I occasionally visit one channel with more than one and a half thousand videos published by just one guy, each of which is around 20 minutes long, and there are in the region of several thousand people across the world who are able to make a living through nothing more than sitting in front of a camera and showing their antics to the world.

Precisely because of this, the very concept of YouTube has not infrequently come under fire. In much the same way as social networking sites, the free and open nature of YouTube means everything is on show for the whole world to see, so that video you of your mate doing this hilarious thing while drunk one time could, at best, make him the butt of a few jokes among your mates or, at worst, subject him to large-scale public ridicule. For every TomSka, beloved by his followers and able to live off YouTube-related income, there is a Star Wars kid, who (after having the titular video put online without his permission) was forced to seek psychiatric help for the bullying and ridicule he became the victim of and launched a high-profile lawsuit against his antagonists. Like so many things, YouTube is neither beneficial nor detrimental to humanity as a whole on its own; it is merely a tool of our modern world, and to what degree of awesomeness or depravity we exploit it is down purely to us.

Sorry about that, wasn’t really a conclusion was it?

“The most honest three and a half minutes in television history”

OK, I know this should have been put up on Wednesday, but I wanted to get this one right. Anyway…

This video appeared on my Facebook feed a few days ago, and I have been unable to get it out of my head since. It is, I am told, the opening scene of a new HBO series (The Newsroom), and since HBO’s most famous product, Game of Thrones, is famously the most pirated TV show on earth, I hope they won’t mind me borrowing another three minute snippet too much.

OK, watched it? Good, now I can begin to get my thoughts off my chest.

This video is many things; to me, it is quite possibly one of the most poignant and beautiful, and in many ways is the best summary of greatness ever put to film. It is inspiring, it is blunt, it is great television. It is not, however, “The most honest three and a half minutes of television, EVER…” as claimed in its title; there are a lot of things I disagree with in it. For one thing, I’m not entirely sure on our protagonist’s reasons for saying ‘liberals lose’. If anything, the last century of our existence can be viewed as one long series of victories for liberal ideology; women have been given the vote, homosexuality has been decriminalised, racism has steadily been dying out, gender equality is advancing year by year and only the other day the British government legalised gay marriage. His viewpoint may have something to do with features of American politics that I’m missing, particularly his reference to the NEA (an organisation which I do not really understand), but even so. I’m basically happy with the next few seconds; I’ll agree that claiming to be the best country in the world based solely on rights and freedoms is not something that holds water in our modern, highly democratic world. Freedom of speech, information, press and so on are, to most eyes, prerequisites to any country wishing to have any claim to true greatness these days, rather than the scale against which such activities are judged. Not entirely sure why he’s putting so much emphasis on the idea of a free Australia and Belgium, but hey ho.

Now, blatant insults of intelligence directed towards the questioner aside, we then start to quote statistics- always a good foundation point to start from in any political discussion. I’ll presume all his statistics are correct, so plus points there, but I’m surprised that he apparently didn’t notice that one key area America does lead the world in is size of economy; China is still, much to its chagrin, in second place on that front. However, I will always stand up for the viewpoint that economy does not equal greatness, so I reckon his point still stands.

Next, we move on to insulting 20 year old college students, not too far off my own personal social demographic; as such, this is a generation I feel I can speak on with some confidence. This is, probably the biggest problem I have with anything said during this little clip; no justification is offered as to why this group is the “WORST PERIOD GENERATION PERIOD EVER PERIOD”. Plenty of reasons for this opinion have been suggested in the past by other commentators, and these may or may not be true; but making assumptions and insults about a person based solely on their date of manufacture is hardly the most noble of activities. In any case, in the age of the internet and mass media, a lot of the world’s problems, with the younger generation in particular, get somewhat exaggerated… but no Views here, bad Ix.

And here we come to the meat of the video, the long, passionate soliloquy containing all the message and poignancy of the video with suitably beautiful backing music. But, what he comes out with could still be argued back against by an equally vitriolic critic; no time frame of when America genuinely was ‘the greatest country in the world’ is ever given. Earlier, he attempted to justify non-greatness by way of statistics, but his choice of language in his ‘we sure as hell used to be great’ passage appears to hark back to the days of Revolutionary-era and Lincoln-era America, when America was lead by the ‘great men’ he refers to. But if we look at these periods of time, the statistics don’t add up anywhere near as well; America didn’t become the world-dominating superpower with the stated ‘world’s greatest economy’ it is today until after making a bucket load of money from the two World Wars (America only became, in the words of then President Calvin Coolidge, ‘the richest country in the history of the world’, during the 1920s). Back in the periods where American heroes were born, America was a relatively poor country, consisting of vast expanses of wilderness, hardline Christian motivation, an unflinching belief in democracy, and an obsession the American spirit of ‘rugged individualism’ that never really manifested itself into any super-economy until it became able to loan everyone vast sums of money to pay off war debts. And that’s not all; he makes mention of ‘making war for moral reasons’, but of the dozens of wars America has fought only two are popularly thought of as being morally motivated. These were the American War of Independence, which was declared less for moral reasons and more because the Americans didn’t like being taxed, and the American Civil War, which ended with the southern states being legally allowed to pass the ‘Jim Crow laws’ that limited black rights until the 1960s; here they hardly ‘passed laws, struck down laws for moral reasons’. Basically, there is no period of history in which his justifications for why America was once’the greatest country in the world’ actually stand up at once.

But this, to me, is the point of what he’s getting at; during his soliloquy, a historical period of greatness is never defined so much as a model and hope for greatness is presented.. Despite all his earlier quoting of statistics and ‘evidence’, they are not what makes a country great. Money, and the power that comes with it, are not defining features of greatness, but just stuff that makes doing great things possible. The soliloquy, intentionally or not, aligns itself with the Socratic idea of justice; that a just society is one in which every person concerns himself with doing their own, ideally suited, work, and does not concern himself with trying to be a busybody and doing someone else’s job for them. Exactly how he arrives at this conclusion is somewhat complex; Plato’s Republic gives the full discourse. This idea is applied to political parties during the soliloquy; defining ourselves by our political stance is a self-destructive idea, meaning all our political system ever does is bicker at itself rather than just concentrating on making the country a better place. Also mentioned is the idea of ‘beating our chest’, the kind of arrogant self-importance that further prevents us from seeking to do good in this world, and the equally destructive concept of belittling intelligence that prevents us from making the world a better, more righteous place, full of the artistic and technological breakthroughs that make our world so awesome to bring in. For, as he says so eloquently, what really makes a country great is to be right. To be just, to be fair, to mean and above all to stand for something. To not be obsessed about ourselves, or other people’s business; to have rightness and morality as the priority for the country as a whole. To lay down sacrifices and be willing to sacrifice ourselves for the greater good, to back our promises and ideals and to care, above all else, simply for what is right.

You know what, he put it better than I ever could analyse. I’m just going to straight up quote him:

“We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons, we passed laws, struck down laws for moral reasons, we waged wars on poverty not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbours, we put our money where our mouths were and we never beat our chest. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, acted like men- we aspired to intelligence, we didn’t belittle it, it didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election and we didn’t scare so easy.”

Maybe his words don’t quite match the history; it honestly doesn’t matter. The message of that passage embodies everything that defines greatness, ideas of morality and justice and doing good by the world. That statement is not harking back to some mythical past, but a statement of hope and ambition for the future. That is beauty embodied. That is greatness.

One Year On

A year is a long time.

On the 16th of December last year, I was on Facebook. Nothing unusual about this (I spent and indeed, to a slightly lesser extent, still spend rather too much time with that little blue f in the top corner of my screen), especially given that it was the run up to Christmas and I was bored, and neither was the precise content of the bit of Facebook I was looking at- an argument. Such things are common in the weird world of social networking, although they surely shouldn’t be, and this was just another such time. Three or four people were posting long, eloquent, semi-researched and furiously defended messages over some point of ethics, politics or internet piracy, I know not which (it was probably one of those anyway, since that’s what most of them seem to be about among my friends list). Unfortunately, one of those people was me, and I was losing. Well, I say losing; I don’t think anybody could be said to be winning, but I was getting angry and upset all the same, made worse by the realisation that what I was doing was a COMPLETE WASTE OF TIME. I am not in any position whereby my Views are going to have a massive impact on the lives of everyone else, nobody wants to hear what they are, and there was no way in hell that I was going to convince anyone that my opinion was more ‘right’ than their strongly-held conviction- all I and my fellow arguees were achieving was getting very, very angry at one another, actively making us all more miserable. We could pretend that we were debating an important issue, but in reality were just another group of people screaming at one another via the interwebs.

A little under a week later, the night after the winter solstice (22nd of December, which you should notice was exactly 366 days ago), I was again to be found watching an argument unfold on Facebook. Thankfully this time I was not participating, merely looking on with horror as another group of four or five people made their evening miserable by pretending they could convince others that they were ‘wrong’. The provocativeness of the original post, spouting one set of Views as gospel truth over the web, the self-righteousness of the responses and the steadily increasing vitriol of the resulting argument, all struck me as a terrible waste of some wonderful brains. Those participating I knew to be good people, smart people, capable of using their brains for, if not betterment of the world around them, then perhaps a degree of self-betterment or at the very least something that was not making the world a more unhappy place. The moment was not a happy one.

However, one of the benefits of not competing in such an argument is that I didn’t have to be reminded of it or spend much time watching it unfold, so I turned back to my news feed and began scrolling down. As I did so, I came to another friend, putting a link up to his blog. This was a recent experiment for him, only a few posts old at the time, and he self-publicised it religiously every time a post went up. He has since discontinued his blogging adventures, to my disappointment, but they made fun reading whilst they lasted; short (mostly less than 300 words) and covering a wide range of random topics. He wasn’t afraid to just be himself online, and wasn’t concerned about being definitively right; if he offered an opinion, it was just something he thought, no more & no less, and there was no sense that it was ever combative. Certainly it was never the point of any post he made; each was just something he’d encountered in the real world or online that he felt would be relatively cool and interesting to comment on. His description described his posts as ‘musings’, and that was the right word for them; harmless, fun and nice. They made the internet and world in general, in some tiny little way, a nicer place to explore.

So, I read through his post. I smirked a little, smiled and closed the tab, returning once more to Facebook and the other distractions & delights the net had to offer. After about an hour or so, my thoughts once again turned to the argument, and I rashly flicked over to look at how it was progressing. It had got to over 100 comments and, as these things do, was gradually wandering off-topic to a more fundamental, but no less depressing, point of disagreement. I was once again filled with a sense that these people were wasting their lives, but this time my thoughts were both more decisive and introspective. I thought about myself; listless, counting down the last few empty days before Christmas, looking at the occasional video or blog, not doing much with myself. My schedule was relatively free, I had a lot of spare time, but I was wasting it. I thought of all the weird and wonderful thoughts that flew across my brain, all the ideas that would spring and fountain of their own accord, all of the things that I thought were interesting, amazing or just downright wonderful about our little mental, spinning ball of rock and water and its strange, pink, fleshy inhabitants that I never got to share. Worse, I never got to put them down anywhere, so after time all these thoughts would die in some forgotten corner of my brain, and the potential they had to remind me of themselves was lost. Once again, I was struck by a sense of waste, but also of resolve; I could try to remedy this situation. So, I opened up WordPress, I filled out a few boxes, and I had my own little blog. My fingers hovered over the keyboard, before falling to the keys. I began to write a little introduction to myself.

Today, the role of my little corner of the interwebs has changed somewhat. Once, I would post poetry, lists, depressed trains of thought and last year’s ’round robin letter of Planet Earth’, which I still regard as one of the best concepts I ever put onto the net (although I don’t think I’ll do one this year- not as much major stuff has hit the news). Somewhere along the line, I realised that essays were more my kind of thing, so I’ve (mainly) stuck to them since; I enjoy the occasional foray into something else, but I find that I can’t produce as much regular stuff this was as otherwise. In any case, the essays have been good for me; I can type, research and get work done so much faster now, and it has paid dividends to my work rate and analytical ability in other fields. I have also found that in my efforts to add evidence to my comments, I end up doing a surprising amount of research that turns an exercise in writing down what I know into one of increasing the kind of stuff I know, learning all sorts of new and random stuff to pack into my brain. I have also violated my own rules about giving my Views on a couple of occasions (although I would hope that I haven’t been too obnoxious about it when I have), but broadly speaking the role of my blog has stayed true to those goals stated in my very first post; to be a place free from rants, to be somewhere to have a bit of a laugh and to be somewhere to rescue unwary travellers dredging the backwaters of the internet who might like what they’ve stumbled upon. But, really, this little blog is like a diary for me; a place that I don’t publicise on my Facebook feed, that I link to only rarely, and that I keep going because I find it comforting. It’s a place where there’s nobody to judge me, a place to house my mind and extend my memory. It’s stressful organising my posting time and coming up with ideas, but whilst blogging, the rest of the world can wait for a bit. It’s a calming place, a nice place, and over the last year it has changed me.

A year is a long time.

Attack of the Blocks

I spend far too much time on the internet. As well as putting many hours of work into trying to keep this blog updated regularly, I while away a fair portion of time on Facebook, follow a large number of video series’ and webcomics, and can often be found wandering through the recesses of YouTube (an interesting and frequently harrowing experience that can tell one an awful lot about the extremes of human nature). But there is one thing that any resident of the web cannot hope to avoid for any great period of time, and quite often doesn’t want to- the strange world of Minecraft.

Since its release as a humble alpha-version indie game in 2009, Minecraft has boomed to become a runaway success and something of a cultural phenomenon. By the end of 2011, before it had even been released in its final release format, Minecraft had registered 4 million purchases and 4 times that many registered users, which isn’t bad for a game that has never advertised itself, spread semi-virally among nerdy gamers for its mere three-year history and was made purely as an interesting project by its creator Markus Persson (aka Notch). Thousands of videos, ranging from gameplay to some quite startlingly good music videos (check out the work of Captain Sparklez if you haven’t already) litter YouTube and many of the games’ features (such as TNT and the exploding mobs known as Creepers) have become memes in their own right to some degree.

So then, why exactly has Minecraft succeeded where hundreds and thousands of games have failed, becoming a revolution in gamer culture? What is it that makes Minecraft both so brilliant, and so special?

Many, upon being asked this question, tend to revert to extolling the virtues of the game’s indie nature. Being created entirely without funding as an experiment in gaming rather than profit-making, Minecraft’s roots are firmly rooted in the humble sphere of independent gaming, and it shows. One obvious feature is the games inherent simplicity- initially solely featuring the ability to wander around, place and destroy blocks, the controls are mainly (although far from entirely) confined to move and ‘use’, whether that latter function be shoot, slash, mine or punch down a tree. The basic, cuboid, ‘blocky’ nature of the game’s graphics, allowing for both simplicity of production and creating an iconic, retro aesthetic that makes it memorable and standout to look at. Whilst the game has frequently been criticised for not including a tutorial (I myself took a good quarter of an hour to find out that you started by punching a tree, and a further ten minutes to work out that you were supposed to hold down the mouse button rather than repeatedly click), this is another common feature of indie gaming, partly because it saves time in development, but mostly because it makes the game feel like it is not pandering to you and thus allowing indie gamers to feel some degree of elitism that they are good enough to work it out by themselves. This also ties in with the very nature of the game- another criticism used to be (and, to an extent, still is, even with the addition of the Enderdragon as a final win objective) that the game appeared to be largely devoid of point, existent only for its own purpose. This is entirely true, whether you view that as a bonus or a detriment being entirely your own opinion, and this idea of an unfamiliar, experimental game structure is another feature common in one form or another to a lot of indie games.

However, to me these do not seem to be entirely worthy of the name ‘answers’ regarding the question of Minecraft’s phenomenal success. The reason I think this way is that they do not adequately explain exactly why Minecraft rose to such prominence whilst other, often similar, indie games have been left in relative obscurity. Limbo, for example, is a side-scrolling platformer and a quite disturbing, yet compelling, in-game experience, with almost as much intrigue and puzzle from a set of game mechanics simpler even than those of Minecraft. It has also received critical acclaim often far in excess of Minecraft (which has received a positive, but not wildly amazed, response from critics), and yet is still known to only an occasional few. Amnesia: The Dark Descent has been often described as the greatest survival horror game in history, as well as incorporating a superb set of graphics, a three-dimensional world view (unlike the 2D view common to most indie games) and the most pants-wettingly terrifying experience anyone who’s ever played it is likely to ever face- but again, it is confined to the indie realm. Hell, Terraria is basically Minecraft in 2D, but has sold around 40 times less than Minecraft itself. All three of these games have received fairly significant acclaim and coverage, and rightly so, but none has become the riotous cultural phenomenon that Minecraft has, and neither have had an Assassin’s Creed mod (first example that sprung to mind).

So… why has Minecraft been so successful. Well, I’m going to be sticking my neck out here, but to my mind it’s because it doesn’t play like an indie game. Whilst most independently produced titled are 2D, confined to fairly limited surroundings and made as simple & basic as possible to save on development (Amnesia can be regarded as an exception), Minecraft takes it own inherent simplicity and blows it up to a grand scale. It is a vast, open world sandbox game, with vague resonances of the Elder Scrolls games and MMORPG’s, taking the freedom, exploration and experimentation that have always been the advantages of this branch of the AAA world, and combined them with the innovative, simplistic gaming experience of its indie roots. In some ways it’s similar to Facebook, in that it takes a simple principle and then applies it to the largest stage possible, and both have enjoyed a similarly explosive rise to fame. The randomly generated worlds provide infinite caverns to explore, endless mobs to slay, all the space imaginable to build the grandest of castles, the largest of cathedrals, or the SS Enterprise if that takes your fancy. There are a thousand different ways to play the game on a million different planes, all based on just a few simple mechanics. Minecraft is the best of indie and AAA blended together, and is all the more awesome for it.

The Hidden Benefits

Corporations are having a rather rough time of it at the minute in the PR department. This is only to be expected given the current economic climate, and given the fact that almost exactly the same feelings of annoyance and distrust were expressed during the other two major economic downturns of the last 100 years. Big business has always been the all-pervasive face of ‘the man’, and when said man has let us down (either during a downturn or at any point in history when somebody is holding a guitar), they tend to be (often justifiably) the main victims of hatred. In essence, they are ‘the bad guys’.

However, no matter how cynical you are, there are a couple of glaring inconsistencies in this concept- things that can either (depending on your perspective) make the bad guys seem nice, make nice things seem secretly evil, or just make you go “WTF?”. Here we can find the proverbial shades of grey.

Let us consider, for instance, tourism. Nobody who lives anywhere even remotely pretty or interesting likes tourists, and some of the local nicknames for them, especially in coastal areas for some reason, are simultaneously interesting, hilarious and bizarre. They are an annoying bunch of people, seeming always to be asking dumb questions and trailing around places like flocks of lost sheep, and with roughly the same mental agility- although since the rest of us all act exactly the same when we are on holiday, then it’s probably better to tolerate them a little. Then there is the damage they can do to a local area, ranging from footpath erosion and littering to the case o the planet Bethselamin, “which is now so worried about the cumulative erosion of 10 billion visiting tourists a year that any net imbalance between the amount you eat and the amount you excrete whilst on the planet is surgically removed from your body weight when you leave- so every time you go to the lavatory there it is vitally important to get a receipt” (Douglas Adams again). The tourism industry is often accused of stifling local economies in places like Yorkshire or the Lake District, where entire towns can consist of nothing but second homes (sending the local housing market haywire), tea shops and B&B’s, with seemingly no way out of a spiral of dependence upon it.

However, what if I was to tell you that tourism is possibly the single most powerful force acting towards the preservation of biodiversity and the combating of climate change? You might think me mad, but consider this- why is there still Amazonian rainforest left? Why are there vast tracks of national path all over southern Africa? We might (and in fact should) be able to think of dozens of very good reasons for preserving these habitats, not least the benefits to making sure that all of our great planet’s inhabitants are allowed to survive without being crushed under the proverbial bulldozer that is civilisation, and the value to the environment of the carbon sink of the rainforests. But, unfortunately, when viewed from a purely clinical standpoint these arguments do not stand up. Consider the rainforest- depending on your perspective this is either a natural resource that is useful for all sorts of namby-pamby reasons like ensuring the planet doesn’t suffocate, or a source of a potentially huge amount of money. Timber is valuable stuff, especially given the types (such as mahogany) and sizes of trees one gets in the Amazon delta. Factor in that gain with the fact that many of the countries who own such rainforest are desperately poor and badly need the cash, and suddenly the plight of the Lesser Purple-Crested Cockroach seems less important.

And here tourists come to the rescue, for they are the sole financial justification for the preservation  of the rainforests. The idea of keeping all this natural biodiversity for people to have is all well and good, but this idea backed up by the prospect of people paying large sums of money to come and see it becomes doubly attractive, interesting governments in potential long-term financial gain rather than the quick buck that is to be gained from just using up their various natural resources from a purely industrial point of view.

Tourism is not the only industry that props up an entire section of life that we all know and love. Let me throw some names at you: Yahoo, Facebook, Google, Twitter. What do all of those (and many other besides) have in common? Firstly, that all are based on the internet, and secondly that the services offered by all three are entirely free. Contrast that against similarity three, that all are multi-billion dollar companies. How does this work? Answer, similarity 4: all gain their income from the advertising industry.

Advertising and marketing is another sect of modern business that we all hate, as adverts are always annoying by their presence, and can be downright offensively horrible in some cases. Aggressive marketing is basically the reason we can’t have nice things generally, and there is something particularly soulless about an industry whose sole purpose is to sell you things based on what they say, rather than what’s good about whatever they’re selling. They are perhaps the personification of the evils of big business, and yet without it, huge tracts of the internet, the home of the rebellion against modern consumer culture, would simply not be able to exist. Without advertising, the information Facebook has on its hundreds of millions of users would be financially useless, let alone the users themselves, and thus it would not be able to exist as a company or, probably, an entity at all, let alone one that has just completed one of the highest-value stock market flotations in commercial history. Google would exist perhaps merely as a neat idea, something a geek might have thought of in college and never been able to turn into a huge business that deals with a gigantic stake in web traffic as well as running its own social network, email service and even the web browser I am typing this on.

This doesn’t make advertisers and tourism companies suddenly all angels in the light of the world, and they are probably just as deserving of all the cynicism they get (equally deserving, probably, are Facebook and Google, but this would ruin my argument). But it’s worth thinking that, no matter how pushy or annoying they start to get, it may be a small price to pay for the benefits their very existence lends to us.