Monthly Archives: September 2013

Consumerism – In itself, it’s just crass.

It’s one of these topic where almost everyone who speaks about possesses a polarised view on the subject. Either you take a look at the world today and see a society that rejects previous methods of being happy in favour of a shallow, crass desire for material wealth propagated by large corporations via the media. Or, you see consumer society as a good thing, a place where a wide range of products can be bought, and with such competition it’s easy to get goods at a bargain rate. From slight variations of these two opinions, the topic never seems to get any further, which I find is lamentable. If you have a look around, the majority of posts on this topic fall into those two broad camps, outlined above, with little room for grey areas.

Consumerism, turning is into mindless zombies!

This problem is reflected even in the definition of consumerism. Source: http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/consumerism

noun

[mass noun]

  • 1 The protection or promotion of the interests of consumers: the growth of consumerism has led to many organizations improving their service to the customer
  • 2 Often derogatory the preoccupation of society with the acquisition of consumer goods: many people are becoming increasingly conscious of the environmental impact of consumerism

For those of you who love wikipedia, their definition gives a greater sense of this divide. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consumerism

 

  1. One sense of the term is to describe the efforts to support consumers’ interests.[4] By the early 1970s, it was the accepted term for the field and began to be used in these ways:[4]
    1. “Consumerism” is the concept that consumers should be informed decision makers in the marketplace.[4] Practices such as product testing make consumers informed.
    2. “Consumerism” is the concept that the marketplace itself is responsible for ensuring economic justice and fairness in society.[4] Consumer protection policies and laws compel manufacturers to make products safe.
    3. “Consumerism” refers to the field of studying, regulating, or interacting with the marketplace.[4] The consumer movement is the social movement which refers to all actions and all entities within the marketplace which give consideration to the consumer.
  2. While the above definitions were being established, other people began using the term “consumerism” to mean “hih levels of consumption”.[4] This definition gained popularity since the 1970s and began to be used in these ways:
    1. “Consumerism” is the selfish and frivolous collecting of products, or economic materialism. In protest to this some people promote “anti-consumerism” and advocacy for simple living.[4]
    2. “Consumerism” is a force from the marketplace which destroys individuality and harms society.[4] It is related to globalization and in protest to this some people promote the “anti-globalization movement“.[5]

Although the definition varies from source to source (this is why language has no truth, due to no fixed meaning) the latter sums up the problem here in greater depth. Consumerism exists in society as an ‘either or’, where each stance effectively defines itself against the other. To be blunt, it seems you either think it is crass materialism or it isn’t, or you think it either ensures fairness in society or it does not. There is little in between, little grey and if you ask me, it exists little more as a sensationalist term. It’s even trendy to say you’re against consumerism; making you a conforming non-conformist, another fun matter entirely.

What is my point? We don’t allow our thoughts about consumerism to reflect reality. I wonder, how many of you reading this laughed with scorn and thought it a sad state of affairs when people queued overnight for the release of the latest iPhone? How many of us would then actually quite like to own an iPhone? How many of us do? It shows a double standard, where we might mock those who appear to slavishly follow consumerist trends, while at the same time you’ve already done so, since you now own that very product. I wonder, are any of you reading this on an iPhone? If so, you’ll in the exact position I want you to be for thinking about this problem. Even with the above example, we encounter a problem if we peel back our narrow view on the subject.

At face value, this is just crass consumerism.

There are other things we queue overnight for, even camp out for. Back in time, you used to do the same thing for movies at the cinema, ticket sales for festivals, and still today people camp overnight and queue for hours to get tickets at Wimbledon when the tennis is on. But we don’t scorn them, we don’t say they are slaves to materialism. You’re paying for an experience; the ticket gives you access to it. We view watching great sportsmen and women play as something that is priceless, as it is an experience, but when you break that down, you realise it’s still a product. Just because there is no material object involved does not mean it is not a product. Something is being sold, something is being bought. You don’t just pay for an iPhone after all, you pay for the experience of owning one. I can go into an apple store and experience it, but only if I buy it can I own that experience. In the same way, I can watch the Wimbledon final on the TV, but there’s this tangible sense that I don’t own the moment, since I’m not there in person – there’s no physical link, not attempt at ownership by being there.

Are we all just hypocrites then? Have we fallen into some trap where we don’t realise how deeply we subscribe to consumerism? Are we all mindless slaves, driven to buy products without even noticing it? No. That’s sensationalist. That’s deluded. I’m leading you with those sentences towards a conclusion that is another polar extreme, not an actual understanding. I tend to find in artists that we are very often in the camp that rejects materialism and consumerism. We create for our own benefit, we produce (see where this is going – think about why I’m using ‘produce’ here) for ourselves. What do artists produce? Art. Do we offer commissions? Yes. Do we therefore sell our products? Yes. Does art have a material value? Yes. Is art necessary? No. So what do artists do? We create a product that has no real value in terms of practicality, and then we sell it to those who collect products. It’s a more permissive form of economic materialism, but it still is.

So how do we escape from this? We can’t. Don’t be dismayed either; dismay comes from one of the polar extremes. In reality, what happens? Do we mindlessly collect art? If you view art as worthless, yes, if you see art as impractical, yes. But if you see art as something of value? We view those who appreciate art or literature as cultured; we see those things as motifs of “high culture” but what makes it any different to buying a pair of shoes? I might see no value in a pair of high heels, but others do. Does that make the person who buys art and different to the person who buys shoes? No. What’s the issue then? It’s not that you’re buying something, that everything can be viewed as either a necessary product or an unnecessary one. The problem we fail to recognise in our polar attitudes towards consumerism is that it relies on what you judge to have value. Value is permissive, value has no fixed definition. It varies from person to person. What even constitutes value is not fixed. Some define value in terms of how much money it’s worth. Some have defined the value of a product as relational to a sale price and the price of labour in producing it – that was Marx. We can define value as something that is based on necessity. Do we need that product? Yes/No? Then depending on the answer, the product either has value or does not. Need is of course determined by the individual’s circumstances, and even then, what do we mean by need? We’re getting caught in an endless attempt to define. Even simply, value can be determined by whether we like it or not. It can be as simple as that.

Value. Yes, you can buy a car, clothes and work in a job. Or you can have no job, walk everywhere and be naked – because we don’t need it. It’s all about how you interpret value.

If you’re still here, take a breather. I promise we’re almost done.

What this means for us is that we can neither escape consumerism nor can we be part of it. Others can say our purchases are not based on necessity. I can go buy a pair of walking boots, but someone can turn around and say that is not necessary because I can always walk anywhere barefoot. It just gets silly – and that’s what this is. It’s silly to apply one person’s ideas of value onto another. It’s silly to say that purchasing something because you like it is consumerist, because our like of a thing is a measure of value.  It’s silly also to suggest that we should make everything ourselves and therefore avoid money. Some of us will be better at other things, so we’ll naturally trade things, rather than just continue making our own bit of rubbish. If, say we are hunter-gatherers, I might be better at hunting animals, and you might be better at making clothes from animal fur. It would be mindlessly stupid for me to hunt and then make shoddy clothes myself, or you to try to hunt but not catch the right animals. Net result, we wouldn’t survive winter unless I went out and hunted for us both, and you then made clothes from those skins for us both. This is called the division of labour, and you know, Marx said this. Read the German Ideology – it’s in there. Society is basically made up by dividing labour and then trading based on our merits. We are no longer hunter gatherers, but the principle still applies. Have a think. Dividing labour makes sense, and is also efficient. However, the hunter gatherer can also learn to hunt or make clothes, which does throw a wrench in that. I guess that means dividing labour only then works if we don’t have the time to do that all.

So to conclude? It’s foolish to think of consumerism in a simple way. There are complex interactions going on, which can both label us as consumers or not. What is crass materialism to one isn’t to another. Our everyday actions reveal both consumerist tendencies and non-consumerist tendencies at the same time. I for one have commissioned artists. I’m a consumer. At the same time, I’m teaching myself to draw. So with that, I’m a consumer who is not a consumer. Doesn’t consumerism just feel silly now?

 

Total War: Rome II Review

I’ve always been a fan of the Total War series, so it came as no surprise to me when I pre-ordered the creative assembly’s remake of a classic title – Rome Total War. Released on the 3rd of September, this latest instalment from the franchise made some big promises, chiefly that it would have more content that any previous Total War game. Well truth be told, I was extremely sceptical of this latest release. The last Total War game I bought was Shogun 2, many months after it’s release when it comes up in the steam sale. Shogun left me feeling that the Creative Assembly were taking things in the wrong direction. Shogun, despite its gorgeous graphics and improved performance left me feeling that the future of Total War was short, simple arcade battles where X unit counters Y unit every single time and that the days of Campaigns that took whole days to finish were gone. Instead of building your empire from the ground up, it felt that you were meant to rush into every conflict without any pause for strategy because your amount of turns would soon be over.

How far would I go for Rome? At first, not very.

When it came to announcing Rome II, I didn’t hold out much hope. The main games of the Total War series I play are actually Medieval II and its expansion, Kingdoms. Those weren’t the vanilla versions either, but community mods like Stainless Steel and Third Age Total War. All very deep, very well made community mods. I stuck with the title for the reason that the community stepped in to fill the gaps in both difficulty and historical accuracy, stretching the game’s interface further from its simple design. The promotional question, “Who far will you go for Rome?” ran sarcastically in my mind, the answer being getting it on the cheap in the steam summer sale a year later.

However, I’m pleased to say some of the worrying trends have been reversed. In terms of immersion, having historical accuracy is crucial to keeping it feeling like you’re forging an empire. Rome II does an admirable job of doing this, with their mantra of authenticity instead of accuracy. All this means is that it creates a balanced vanilla game that refers to history though not slavishly, nor does it get lost in arcade style battles. I will say, the one, tedious, slightly annoying thing I’ll say is this. Victory Points. Why? In siege battles, this just takes the same duty as the central plaza did in all other Total War games. However, as the defending side in battles on the field, you can be forced to stay next to a victory point that is conveniently the worst place for you to defend from. It effectively kills the advantage of the defender choosing the terrain. However, this did appear only in a battle where the enemy was attacking me in the field while laying siege.

I’ll boil the main good points down. Very detailed units, beautiful campaign map, good AI – I had a siege battle on normal difficulty where the attacking computer constantly tried to find a way around my defences, hanging back from committing all it’s forces into one slog-fest that used to always happen in previous titles. I know some reviewers have had problems with the AI, but I haven’t encountered any in my gameplay so I can’t comment. Back to the list of the good. The campaign map is huge. The way cities are built and provinces are managed is a great step up from previous titles. Armies and recruitment are a lot more streamlined, and the days of the Rebels faction are gone. Every province belongs to a faction, even if it is one of minor importance. This really helps with immersion, as it feels like time has been spent researching the period at large, not just the main, well-known factions.

It really is that pretty.

Downsides? I think there is a horrible spectre lurking in performance. I’m running Rome II on extreme graphics, on a new desktop computer I got only about a month ago. Quick run-down of specs: 4th Gen Intel i7 (over-clocked to 4.3Ghz) , 16GB RAM, Nvidia Geforce GTX 770. However, I think like Shogun 2, they will release patches that improve performance, however I don’t think this is a game that you can throw at a computer that is already struggling. The main bulk of user problems will be down to hardware, so I’d advise against buying it and being disappointed if your rig can’t cope with it. There are plenty of reviews online slating the game for user performance issues – one of which blamed the game even though it was being run on an anaemic laptop where the user had upgraded RAM instead of finding the bottleneck. On balance, performance demands have never been a new thing to Total War.

It gets close, but in reality it probably won’t look this good on your rig.

However, I’m not quite done. After playing for hours, and once the initial excitement had worn off, I found myself asking what will keep me playing this game? It all works very well, it’s all very pretty, but what will make me keep coming back to it? It seems the more you play Total War, the more weary you become of vanilla modes. I’m already starting to get bored with the Spear Levies, the Hoplites and light cavalry. Where are the special, faction specific units? The ones that make you feel like you’re not playing a clone or some mysterious alter ego? I’m hoping from the small unit lists for some factions, more units will be added later. Otherwise, I fear we’ll have the same situation as in Shogun 2 – Katana Samurai beats infantry, Yari beat cavalry…

The verdict? A good, solid game, however Total War fans shouldn’t rush into playing it without asking questions.

Ideas – They Don’t Just Pop Into Your Head

I’d say the greatest challenge for a writer is quite a simple on actually. It’s not writing well, or getting published. Even at a push, I’d say it’s not about staying motivated either. It’s having lots of ideas.

When we think about writing, we have this notion that ideas are the one thing you can’t change. Either you have a good idea or you don’t, either you can think up of many ideas or you can’t. It’s a bit of a naive attitude though, because it relies on the fact that ideas for writing simply stroll into our heads, that we have sudden moments of creative genius that happen outside of our control. It’s sensationalist, and encouraged because of its appeal, but it doesn’t do much good in reality.

If a writer were to say the idea for their entire book just walked fully formed into their head, I’d tell them to stop being overly dramatic. What are ideas? They’re by no means so tidy or obedient even. When you pause to break it down, the idea for a work is more of a single one, a stub, a starting point. One idea might be something very simple, and as you think about it, you come up with more. Whenever I write, I start with a small idea in mind. It’s my goal for what I’m going to do. Then as I continue, I get more ideas the more I think. I don’t just sit there waiting for inspiration to hit me, I ask myself questions about the idea I’ve had. Sometimes I get answers. Sometimes I don’t. But it creates more ideas for you to play with, rather than struggling with just one.

In reality, a story is an amalgamation of many ideas. One idea starts the process off, but then others join it. Some contradict each other, and some turn the story away from your original idea. But as you ask yourself questions, you build up a single, cohesive story. It’s like building a rubber band ball. You start with the first one, and as you add more the ball takes shape, until all those rubber bands behave like a single ball, rather than a pile of them.

So, you can think creatively by asking yourself questions. That’s a start, but it’s still limited in boosting your imagination. I’m not going to launch into a long paragraph about reading other books, because that’s a stock response. I’d say, read a selection of books. Ones that interest you, ones that you know nothing about. Even ones you think you won’t like. Don’t stop with contemporary fiction, but go back in time. Have a dig. Don’t limit yourself to fiction, but look at non-fiction. History is a very good place to come up with ideas, as you ask “what if” questions as you read. What if Rome didn’t fall? You can have some fun with that. Even then, I’d encourage brave writers to read philosophy. Stories will give you ideas for events, and philosophy will give you understanding of different modes of thought, which means, better characterisation.

Life experience is a great asset too. You know how looking back at your past work is almost always something that makes you cringe? That’s greater experience talking. How can you make your work better? By going out and living. Gain experiences, don’t just slave away at the keyboard. You can draw inspiration from the experiences you’ve had yourself, and the great thing about this is that it is free, and it’s going on all the time. If you can travel, then do, but if you can’t try to experience other cultures. Books, encyclopaedias, TV, these will all give you experience.

Ideas aren’t just a solitary affair. Have willing volunteers read your work. Discuss ideas. It’s always good to have friends that are writers for this purpose, and even better if you have a mentor. So in short, there are things you can do to have more ideas. It isn’t just about creativity on its own, because it is extremely hard to pull something from nothing, even if it is in your head. Experimentation is key, and you must not limit yourself by sticking to only what you like.

My question is how do you come up with ideas? Do you struggle, or do you have too many?