Arisia 2017 recap and decompression

I've been back for a little while now. I did a lot of sleeping yesterday and today. Arisia was exhausting -- and, also, was amazing! It's definitely a broader con than Readercon is. Readercon feels like a high-density weekend at the best college ever; Arisia felt like Anime Boston but without all the stuff that's the reasons I haven't been to Anime Boston for like 8 years. It's a geek culture con, but not in the icky way.

Anyway, here's a recap of what my panels were like. (In retrospect: I really should have written these decompressions after each panel, rather than, y'know, Tuesday. My memory is like a document written on bread that was super readable at the time but has now started to mold.)

Varied Expression of Gender in Games

This was a really fun panel, full of people who had really nuanced ideas about and strong relationships with games and gaming. 

One of the major points that we repeatedly came back to, because it made a really great specific example, was the choice of gendered characters in Fallout 4. Apparently at the beginning you make two characters, a man and a woman, and then choose which one you want to play as. But despite the fact that you build these characters yourself, and this is how you choose your in-game persona, you're constrained to a backstory: if you choose the man, you're a war veteran. If you choose the woman, you're a lawyer.

What this illustrated is the existence of games that provide the framework of a complex approach to gender, but don't follow through. This is as opposed to games that provide massive choice (e.g. the Sims 4, which recently updated to include custom gender options) and games that just have a predetermined viewpoint character.

What's frustrating about it is that by incorporating the bit of flexibility they do, Fallout 4's developers removed the possibility of the protagonist's gender informing their relationship to the world. That's a major structural choice when it comes to plot (and is something else we talked about, which I'll circle back to), and to build a game that's clearly structured to sustain high identity variability and then not provide it is frustrating. (I feel like maybe it's akin to queerbaiting somehow? Choice-baiting? Self-manifestation-baiting?)

Back to the point about gender and plot: we also talked about how plot events can scan very differently based on characters' genders. A woman being chased by a man into a dark alleyway calls up a very different cultural script than a man being chased.

The answer, I think we broadly concluded, was that games that allow for a lot of player power to determine their identity are great, but it's also really important to have a lot more games that do have a proscribed gender for the protagonist, particularly ones that put all players in the viewpoint of marginalized genders. (And also that principle applies to all kinds of representation.)


In this panel we talked about the way fashion shows up in SF/F -- like how William Gibson often uses it really well, or like how many SF works feature entire civilizations who all own the same jumpsuit.

Major points included:

Even not engaging with fashion sends messages through your clothing choices that speak to your status, beliefs, and identity.

Style is often poached by "tastemakers" from marginalized groups -- in fact, there are professionals whose whole job is to find people that are doing interesting aesthetic things and reporting back to their bosses about what's gonna be cool soon.

The famous speech from The Devil Wears Prada:

Which lead to a conversation about high fashion vs formalwear -- which, though they seem to be on the same side of a scale that ranks clothes by cost, are also on opposite ends of a scale that describes clothes in terms of experimentation and radical change.

We talked about how high fashion -- the really weird, unwearable stuff -- isn't supposed to be worn, it's supposed to experiment with the forms of clothes.

Disposability came up: the fact that under capitalism we've backed into a corner of pseudo-scarcity where clothes are made artificially cheap and degradable to ensure that the market for them doesn't go away.

We talked about a lot of other really cool stuff in this panel, too, and I wish I had taken better notes. 

Punk Turns 40

This panel was the highlight of my weekend. I've got 8 new bands just on the high priority list for stuff to check out.

The other 4 panelists had all been punks in the 70s, and it was really amazing to get to have a detailed conversation about the relationships between punk as a set of ideas and ideals and punk as a community, a culture, and a style of music.

The panelists all agreed, first of all, that punk hadn't turned 40 this year, since there was important stuff that was unambiguously punk before the Sex Pistols. 

The other panelists talked in detail about the communities, subcultures, and insular groups within punk. We covered the very important point that the Nazis in punk (just like Nazi hipsters today) didn't emerge naturally from the community; outside neo-Nazi groups deliberately infiltrated and co-opted punk as a way to normalize Naziism and attract disenfranchised youth to their hate groups.

We also talked about the idea that punk is, and should be, inclusive: that punk gives people a script to be true to themselves when they know doing so means facing a hostile mainstream, and that it's really important that vulnerable people don't get gatekeeped (gatekept? gatekeepered?) out of punk.

I was nominally there to represent the current generation of punk, to say punk's not dead and talk about its present and future. Mainly I was really there to listen to four amazing people tell stories about their experiences, but I did also say things.

I proposed a definition of punk as "aesthetics as a form of open opposition to post-industrial capitalism," or slightly more compactly, "aesthetics in opposition to capitalism." The other panelists agreed with me, which made my fucking year.

I also proposed shitposting as a current manifestation of punk, and gave this example, which I played about 10 seconds of. My argument was that, much like the feedback and distortion of early punk music, shitposting represents people taking the cutting-edge of advanced equipment and using it improperly and inexpertly, in ways that would never come about through use by trained professionals, to explore and discover new possibilities for aesthetic experience that could never have existed without the new tech.

I asserted, and nobody challenged, that solarpunk is definitely punk.

We talked about punk being inherently optimistic -- about how resistance only makes sense if you believe in the possibility of victory.

We also talked (in response to an audience question) about punk's anti-capitalist nature, and whether that conflicts with people making money on punk. It doesn't. Regardless of their beliefs and goals, punk artists still need to survive under capitalism, and survival isn't automatically selling out -- although not all punks necessarily agree with that, and some have certainly taken a more hardline anti-marketability approach than others.

Another audience member raised the fact that funk and disco had significant influences on, and relationships with, punk, and that they were also media of resistance. That lineage also points into hip hop. On that topic we talked about the racially coded divisions in genre, and the fact that there are punks (and artists from many genres) deliberately undermining those divisions. We also talked about market segmentation -- the fact that capitalists make a proactive effort to divide the audiences for different kinds of music so that they can sell to everyone more efficiently, a practice that perpetuates all kinds of bigotry and that punks should actively fight.

This is the one I've got the most notes on. I also recorded a video that night about it, which will be going up tomorrow.

Is Optimism Just Nostalgia in Disguise?

I'm thrilled to say that this panel's premise was met with a unanimous "No."

I'm less thrilled to say that near the beginning of the panel I made an embarrassingly poorly thought through point about generational differences that was immediately and effectively refuted, which I'm writing here mainly because if anyone who was in the room reads this I want them to know that I know that wasn't a good point.

We talked about what narratives of optimism exist that aren't nostalgic, about what it means to be nostalgic and whether referencing the past is the same as recreating it. 

The panel's moderator talked about how a culture of intense optimism and high ambitions in her childhood had had an immense effect on her accomplishments as an adult.

We also talked about how narratives of the past shape what people believe is possible in the present and future, specifically in the context of the movie Hidden Figures.

We talked about whether optimism in SF is likely to be fruitless, based on the idea that SF is a bubble -- so we talked about media spread and growth, and about the porous nature of media bubbles.

We talked about SF failing to provide hopeful narratives for people whose current hopeful narratives are rooted in the mechanisms that we need to change: for example, people in Appalachia depending on coal mining and industrial work for their historical living, being asked to embrace alternative energy without any script that says alternative energy projects will help them specifically.

We also talked about telling positive or hopeful narratives in settings of larger distress, and about how dystopias tend to feature characters whose experience is a metonym for the state of the whole civilization.

Finally, we talked about what we want to see in optimistic SF/F coming out in the future. I said I want to see more dot-connecting narratives, telling stories about worlds where things still suck, but people are successfully making the necessary changes to lead to a world that doesn't suck.

Fellow panelist Nalin Ratnayake also wrote a recap of this panel.

The Future of Work

I have literally one note from this panel -- "King Arthur Flour -- entirely employee owned" -- because it was literally in the last panel time slot of the con and I had run out of steam for note taking. But also, since it was my last panel of the con, I think I have a fair chance of remembering some of it.

We started with talking about stuff like reverse income tax, basic income, and other mechanics of state support. If I'm remembering correctly, this was mostly an infodump section, with everyone on the panel taking turns sharing information about the histories and theories behind different attempts to provide for citizens -- and, I think, also collectively agreeing that it's bad to let people die because they can't find work.

I brought up the fact that we have an abstract notion of what work is in civilization: "You do something useful for civilization and civilization rewards you with the resources necessary to live," which unpacks to the more accurate mechanism, "You do something useful for a specific person who already has a large resource-base (a capitalist) and they provide you with support that is less than the amount of value you create for them." This difference becomes important as more jobs become automatable and important civil needs are not met.

Other panelists pointed out the fact that the above narrative entails the suggestion that people have to earn their right to exist, and that America's right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" has been warped to "right to work."

We also talked about the way that outsourcing and manipulation allow corporations to engineer a permanent shortage of jobs, which gives them extraordinary leverage over their employees -- leverage that would be eliminated under a basic income.

Another major point of discussion was the "gig economy," which we all agreed makes no sense if the majority of people don't get their income from outside the gig economy. I proposed that a structure like the gig economy could be how people meet their emotional need to do useful stuff under the hypothetical (but legit possible) future of fully automated luxury communism.

I know there was a lot more in this panel. It was a very dense and rich topic. But my brain is just not cooperating on that front anymore.

Arisia was amazing, I'll definitely be applying to be a panelist next year.