The WOW! Factor and Its Nemesis

When I first obtained a computer in about the year 2000, a cheap second-hand one worth a few hundred pounds, a CD arrived on the back of one of my daughter’s cereal packets which I thought I would try, not expecting very much. It turned out to be a demo version of the eJay musical game “Dance eJay” and boy what a surprise! Not only was it simple enough for a 5 year old to be able to enjoy but I think mums and dads of all ages would love it as well. At it’s heart is a selection of CD quality music samples ranging from base and drum lines to guitar, piano, synthesiser, sung samples and many others which you can put together on an 8-track timeline Basically it is a kind of musical jig-saw requiring no musical ability, except an ear for what samples sound good together. Within half an hour you can have a very presentable track put together. Of course none of this is going to knock Pink Floyd, Moby or Beethoven off their perches anytime soon, (nor would I want it to as I enjoy listening to their music too much), but it’s fair to say that doing this exercise gave me as much pleasure, if not more, than listening to Pink Floyd, Moby or Beethoven. Thinking about it a bit more deeply the thought also struck me that it was now possible, with the cheapest of equipment, to do what had only been possible in a multi-million pound studio a few years previously, that is create CD quality music. So I began to explore further in this area and soon began to discover the FruityLoops, Steinbergs and all the other DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) which can literally turn your bedroom into a recording studio. (If you have any leanings in this direction then the excellent Cakewalk by Bandlabs is worth checking out. Just a few years ago it would have cost you about $500, but is now completely free.)

When Punk Rock exploded onto the music scene in the 1970’s, it’s most lasting legacy was not the style of music, although that was distinctive and original, but the “do-it-yourself” attitude it brought to music-making. At the time the music industry was completely dominated by half-a-dozen mega-companies and the public was reduced to passively accepting whatever was served up to them, from amongst their (relatively) small pool of “chosen ones”. With the advent of Punk Rock hundreds of independent music labels sprang up all over Britain, two of the most famous being “Stiff Records” in London, which enjoyed some success for about 10 years, and “Factory Records” in Manchester, whose success was partly driven by the celebrity manager Tony Wilson. But in a way they were just trying to re-invent the wheel, trying to do in a cheaper and more independent way what the major labels were already doing. Inevitably, sooner or later, such projects would either be absorbed or crushed, probably both, by their more powerful Big Brothers. The full potential of do-it-yourself music was not realised until the end of the 1990s with the widespread use of computers and the Internet. The reverberations of the explosion in the music industry that that “Musical Revolution” caused are still being felt today. Today anyone can listen to any type of music they want, from any era or background, literally at the press of a button. That is an enormous change to what was possible only twenty or thirty years ago. They can also produce music, if they have musical skills, at a tiny fraction of the previous costs.

When I began to discover Machinima a few years later I felt it had the same WOW! factor similar to what was already taking place in the music industry. But when people began trying to understand Machinima as a “new” or “cheaper” way of doing Hollywood I think they completely missed the point of the enormous potential contained in the idea. Machinima was about to do something that Hollywood could never do, and is in fact bigger and more important than anything that Hollywood is capable of doing, and that is to give the ability to make films to anyone anywhere in the world who has access to a computer. How this will play out in time is anyone’s guess and I doubt if it will be exactly the same as the music industry, although there are many similarities. Hollywood no doubt will go on doing what the “Dream Factory” does best (and despite itself, also creating the occasional masterpiece such as “The Godfather”), that is churning out endless fantasy cliches about “good defeating evil” and “boy meeting girl and riding off into the sunset of eternal happiness together”. Cliches which have no connection whatsoever with the real world where might nearly always prevails over right and where two thirds of all marriages sadly end in divorce. Machinima on the other hand gives real people the opportunity to tell stories about the things that really matter to them, whether it be comedy, fantasy, tragedy, science, politics, philosophy, art, sport, religion etc. etc. the possibilities are as endless as people. Although one bright arc of the Machinima flame was finally stamped out by guess who? yes, that’s right, Warner Bros, I think we have yet to see the full potential of what is contained in the Machinima germ.

Supermarket Syndrome (or Feet through Tills.)

In one way food supermarkets are great, you can get a whole weeks shopping in about half an hour, with goods from the four corners of the globe. If a person from a third-world country was suddenly transported to one they would think they had died and gone to heaven. But so much has been lost along the wayside in our ever greater need for speed and efficiency. Once upon a time every town, village and city in Britain had it’s own unique set of shops of all different types and varieties. In fact whole cottage industries were developed around some of them, where quality and customer service were top priority. As everyone knows 95% of these small enterprises were disappeared, never to return, by the rise of the supermarket and giant shopping mall. A whole culture and way of life was lost. Now shopping in one giant mall or supermarket is pretty much the same as any other. If you have visited one you have visited them all. They are giant warehouses, all very bland and soulless and whose main priority is to get as many feet through tills as fast as possible. When I have to go to one I grab what I need as fast as possible and leave as quickly as possible. In many ways I am the ideal customer, getting goods to tills as quickly as possible.

In developing this site I naturally gravitated towards the CMS (Content Management System) e107, that served “Machinima Premiere” so well. In those days there were at least about 20 different CMSs, all very powerful and with very active communities and you could choose the one you thought would best suit your needs, and build a website unlike any other on the web. Today there is one giant supermarket of a CMS, “WordPress” which totally dominates the space (apparently almost 50% of all websites are now built with it) and is sucking the life-blood out of all the others. Yes it’s so easy to use that your granny could have a working website in 10mins, but  I wonder how much can really be done with it? I don’t mean window dressing, which is there in abundance, but under the hood. Could I for example, ask for and have delivered within a few hours, a completely bespoke voting system that no other website in the world was using, which was done with “Machinima Premiere”?  Even if I could, that doesn’t detract from the main point being made that once a monopoly takes over a market, that signals the death of that market. e107 is still a very powerful CMS, but the community, a vital part of it, is a shadow of it’s former self and is clearly dying.  So after struggling for several weeks, with lack of support and outdated themes and plugins, I had to admit defeat and join the WordPress stampede.  WordPress has outstanding Themes and Plugins and migrating the site took a very short time, with no problems.  I do wonder though what will happen when WordPress has 95% of the market?  Probably a lot less free, and a lot more pay-as-you-go, applications.

In the golden days of the PC (and laptop) about 2000-2010, one of the most important forms of communication was the Forum. For practically every human activity imaginable there was a forum somewhere talking about that activity. People who were expert in that field gravitated there, as did people who wanted to become expert in the field, and they were great mines of information for people who had no knowledge in the field. They were the kind of “specialist shop” of the Internet, that once were found in every town and city, and now could be reached at the touch of a button from your home. They were also great social-centres for people of like-minded interests to hang out. But when mobile phones took over as the main form of Internet device there was a change to “Social Media” as the the main form of communication. Now social media is neither person-based nor subject-based, it is profit-based. They are multi-billion dollar industries whose only duty is to increase profits for their share-holders. The individual user is only of interest to the extent they can be monetized as “click-bait”. What they seem to specialise in most of all is a kind of empty and pointless gossip around “personalities”, usually celebrities and politicians, it doesn’t really matter which as tomorrow they will be completely forgotten and replaced by another celebrity/politician, whose lives bear no resemblance whatsoever to an ordinary persons. This kind of fatuous and insubstantial “personality” rubbish is now so all-pervasive that it passes for 99% of all mainstream news. Think Trump on our screens 24/7 for 4 years, the ultimate celebrity/politician and billionaire “Reality” tv star all rolled into one. What we have here is the social version of the “Dream Factory”, specifically designed to stop you thinking about such minor inconveniences as climate catastrophe, already engulfing some of the poorest parts of the world least able to cope with it, the ever increasing proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the main driver behind it all, the ever increasing inequalities in wealth and power, whilst at the same time keeping you engaged with situations you can do nothing about. On wealth inequality for example, the well-known mega corporation “Shell” made triple the profits in the first quarter of this year compared to what they made last year, whilst elderly people in Britain were forced to choose between eating and heating their homes!? And that’s not even mentioning the fact that Shell have been, and still are, one of the major players in climate change, whose ultimate costs world-wide will be incalculable. The monopolising of news and media in these kind of ways are the complete antithesis to what for example, the forums were about, and serve only one purpose which is to get as many click-bait feet through as many click-tills as fast as possible, and to hell with everything else.

So many “babies are being thrown out with bathwater” that to say there is a massacre taking place is an understatement. These deep and profound changes to society will have an effect for generations to come, and not in a good way. The only solution I can think of is to take the advice of the Punk Rockers of 50 years ago and “do-it -yourself”. Because if you don’t do it no-one will, and nothing will change, with things only getting worse along the totally artificial and manufactured paths outlined above. Paths which are clearly heading towards major disaster.

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