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Monday, November 26, 2012

Facebook Privacy Dis-Agreement

It's been a little while since the inhabitants of Facebookistan got all fired up about something--  where are you now Kony2012?-- so I was half-delighted and half-disheartened to see the newest brouhaha to hit the social media site, which I'm calling the Facebook Privacy Dis-Agreement (FPD).  As these things tend to happen, FPD had been simmering just below the surface for the past several weeks, with only the most forward-thinking kool-aid drinkers having already, like good Zapatistas, posted their "communiqués."  But, for some reason, today everyone else caught on and FPD exploded.  If you haven't yet seen one of the FPD declarations, and I really cannot imagine how you could have avoided them, they're basically a jargony, legalese-laden pile of nonsense "notifying" Facebook that the user has rejected all contractual responsibility (and common sense) and has declared every publicly-shared bit of his or her so-called private life henceforth copyrighted.  C'est-à-dire, the FPD is an attempt to undo the Facebook/Facebook-user agreement. Just for kicks, let's look at the actual FPD post that's making the rounds, though.  It reads as follows:
In response to the new Facebook guidelines I hereby declare that my copyright is attached to all of my personal details, illustrations, graphics, comics, paintings, photos and videos, etc. (as a result of the Berner Convention). For commercial use of the above my written consent is needed at all times.
(Anyone reading this can copy this text and paste it on their Facebook wall. This will place them under protection of copyright laws. By the present communiqué, I notify Facebook that it is strictly forbidden to disclose, copy, distribute, disseminate, or take any other action against me on the basis of this profile and/or its contents. The aforementioned prohibited actions also apply to employees, students, agents and/or any staff under Facebook’s direction or control. The content of this profile is private and confidential information. The violation of my privacy is punished by law (UCC 1 1-308-308 1-103 and the Rome Statute).
Facebook is now an open capital entity. All members are recommended to publish a notice like this, or if you prefer, you may copy and paste this version. If you do not publish a statement at least once, you will be tacitly allowing the use of elements such as your photos as well as the information contained in your profile status updates.

Thankfully, the rumor-busting website Snopes.com is already on the case with a thorough debunking of FPD.  I can't really understand why anyone would need such a debunking, since the idea that one could vacate all responsibilities pursuant to a contractual agreement by simply saying so is a hustler-move that wouldn't even fly on a pre-school playground.  Like most everyone, I imagine, I also haven't read the "Terms of Agreement" that I (digitally) signed with Facebook... though I'm like 1000% certain that nowhere in those Terms is a clause that says "If you decide at any point you don't like these Terms, just post it as your status and it's all cool, man."

One good thing about FPD is that it provided excellent fodder for discussion in my Political Philosophy class today, which was in part about "rights"-- what they are, where they come from and how (if at all) they can be philosophically grounded.  I'm a good enough Derridean to recognize that all so-called rights are somewhat violently "declared" before they're grounded, justified, inscribed into law and protected.  So, if people want to declare their right to privacy on Facebook, there's a little part of me that respects that.  But don't pretend you've got the force of law behind you on this one.  That's just crazypants.

The other potentially good thing about FPD is that maybe, just maybe, a few people will take the time to actually look into the statutes, codes and conventions that are (erroneously) appealed to in the FPD statement.  First, there's the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works-- not the "BerneR" Convention, as it is misspelled in the FPD statement-- which is an international agreement governing copyright.  Second, there's the Universal Commercial Code (UCC), which basically serves the purpose of regularizing and harmonizing rules of sale and commercial transactions within and among our 50 states.  Both documents are interesting, if somewhat dry, reads and can teach you a lot about how far we've come-- and how far there is yet to go-- in terms of our thinking about how to protect not only our privacy but also our (intellectual, literary and artistic) productions.

Perhaps the most hilariously WRONG element of the FPD statement is its appeal to the Rome Statute, which is the document that established the International Criminal Court and defines the jurisdiction of that court over human rights violations like genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression.  I can only assume, generously, that the original author of the FPD meant to appeal to the Rome Convention (and not the Rome Statute), which governs the protection of performers, recording artists and broadcasters. That is to say, whatever evil Facebook may be engaging in with the stuff I post on my profile, I doubt it rises to the level of a human rights violation.

Anyway, the wave of FPD rage will soon wane. Consider this my attempt to capture what people in my line of work call a "teachable moment."

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Storytelling and Incredulity

The new film version of Yann Martel's 2001 novel Life of Pi, directed by Ang Lee and starring the  wide-eyed and captivating Saraj Sharma in the title role, is (exactly as the posters promise) an "epic journey of adventure and discovery."  And that's the problem with it.

I read Life of Pi shortly after it was released years ago and I found the book transformative not only of my longstanding prejudice against the genre of magical realism but also of many of my own deep philosophical commitments and understandings: of tragedy and redemption, of nature, of the relationship between human and non-human animals, of religious exploration and, perhaps most of all, of the morally, psychologically, metaphysically and epistemologically complex practice of autobiographical storytelling.  It's impossible, of course, to avoid comparing cinematic renderings of literature against against the works that inspired them, a comparison that almost always finds the former deficient, but few stories insist upon that comparison more than Life of Pi.  Martel's novel, like the film, is also an epic journey of adventure and discovery-- recounting 227 life-altering, inspiring, terrifying and often gruesome days at sea of its protagonist Pi aboard a tiny lifeboat-menagerie-- but Martel's Life of Pi was much more than standard bildungsroman fare.  It was, in the end, as much about Pi's telling the story of the "life of Pi" as it was about the events and adventures of Pi's very unusual life.  As it is framed in both the novel and the film, the story of the "life of Pi" is one that "will make you believe in God."  Given those profound theological stakes, in both the novel and the film, the rest of us hearing/reading/watching are not only prompted, but compelled, to ask of the story of the life of Pi: but is it true?

[*Spoiler alert*: The following will include some spoilers if you haven't read the book, though you should be fine if you haven't seen the film.  In either case, I wouldn't count these as devastating spoilers, but I try to keep spoilers to a minimum on this blog and to alert readers when they're coming.]

The large part of the novel/film is told as flashback, with the adult "survivor" Pi narrating his life to a writers-blocked writer who is looking for a story not only to write, but to believe, if not also a story that can make belief itself possible.  That the "life of Pi" is so unbelievable is, therefore, not a merely accidental element of Life of Pi.  It is the heart of the story.  Having recounted his quite literally impossible story of survival to insurance investigators attempting to account for the shipwreck of which Pi was the lone survivor, and having included in his recounting a quite literally fantastical story of a boy's endurance for almost a year at sea in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, the adult Pi finds himself face-to-face with the insurance agents' faces of incredulity.  So, Pi re-tells the story of the life of Pi, this second time substituting the literal for the metaphorical, the plausible for the incredible, the likely for the impossible.  No one knows-- not the insurance investigators, not Pi's family, not his newfound writer-friend and even less so we, the audience-- what, if anything, of Pi's story is true.  Only Pi knows.  And so Pi asks: "Since you can't prove the question either way, which story do you prefer?" 

What is at stake in Pi's question is a deeply philosophical, deeply existential and deeply moral issue that seems unique to the particular kind of animal we are, these reflective talking-apes that we call "human."  We find our lives shot through and through with accident, elements of the unlikely, and yet it is in our constitution to find these accidents indicative of something more and to try to weave out of their chaos not only a life, but the story of a life.  Sometimes those accidents are thoroughly, boringly, mundane.  Sometimes they are brilliant, gesturing toward the transcendent.  And sometimes they are horribly, painfully, gruesomely and unimaginably tragic.  Martel, through Pi, insists that the stories that we tell of ourselves, what we are able to achieve and to endure and to survive, "give things a meaningful shape."  Whether or not those stories are factually, forensically true, whether or not we can believe them or persuade others to believe them, is as much a matter of volition as it is a matter of verification.  The story of the life of Pi is the story of a survivor of unspeakable tragedy.  And yet, like all survivor stories, it is a story that must be spoken.   Life of Pi is a story about what sorts of stories we prefer.

I worry a little that Ang Lee was so enamored with the opportunity to tell this "epic journey of adventure and discovery" in all of its stunning CGI-manipulated detail that he missed the point of Martel's work, which is not, in the end, really about the "journey" or the "adventure," however epic they may be.  In fact, Lee's images are so arresting, so captivating and so believable that they may even have gotten in the way of Martel's (and Pi's) story... a story about "discovery," in particular, the discovery of which sorts of stories we prefer to tell about life.  To be fair, there are moments in Lee's film that are sublime, even beautiful, and to the extent that Pi's adventure must be held in that liminal space between the possible and the impossible, Lee's rendering does accomplish that.  But I, for one, could have stood for more of the subtlety of Lee's Brokeback Mountain or The Ice Storm-- both of which exhibited truly admirable aesthetic restraint for the sake of emotional, psychological and narrative intensity-- and less of the technical cine-gymnastics of Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hulk.  Martel's Life of Pi warns against the kind of myopic dedication to factuality that might lead one to "miss the better story."  Ang Lee's Life of Pi, perhaps, errs in the other direction; that is, Lee is so dedicated to the incredible story that he may have inadvertently robbed his audience of the chance to decide that the incredible is just, well, not credible.  There are as many good reasons to prefer the factually true as there are to prefer the fantastically true, and I'm not sure that Lee's film presses hard enough on the tough decision between them.

If the story of the life of Pi persuades you to believe in God, or in human endurance and perseverance, or in the survivability of tragedy, or in the virtue of allowing for the possibility of the impossible, then it no doubt will be a transformative story.  But so also will it be if you remain unpersuaded of any of these.