Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Conspiracy Theologists

Where there is an event, there's someone to give an explanation on what happened. As the way we perceive and store information from the world around us is imperfect, the process of recollection and rationalisation is imperfect too. That's why to write history we look for empirical evidence and check for independent eyewitnesses. Yet despite all this more often than not we don't know the full story, not even in the age of media saturation and recording devices in everyone's pocket. In the movie Cloverfield when everything starts going to hell, people pulled out their phones and recorded it. Snapshots of the time, and that is very indicative of the information age we live in. But there are still gaps, and in those gaps we create narratives to explain them. In the past people used to put religion in those gaps. These days some still do but others who have since abandoned the supernatural aspect but kept the same ethos and come up with something just as implausible: the conspiracy theory.

Taunts and Tautologies
The similarities between religion and conspiracy theories are astounding, they work in the same basic way. It takes the unknown and applies something sensational to fill in that unknown, the narrative that works on a largely emotional level that somehow makes the implausible seem favourable. Like religion it plays on fears, a whole malevolent and nefarious contraption by those in power to control the population. Like religion there is no direct evidence, it's all hearsay and indirect links pieced together. Like religion it relies heavily on community support for it to spread and be maintained. And like religion it is quite tautological in that the absence of evidence is evidence.

There is a certain distrust of the government that helps fuel the fires that are conspiracy theories. And this distrust can easily be manipulated as the theories themselves more often than not play on the basic idea of control. It's an indirect play on one's basic fear for security, where the government who controls the population is much more malicious than they would like you to believe. There is no evidence to support this of course, but it's believable. The people who have the power want to hurt you, they don't regard your life at all other than a tool to further their own interests... Well not really but that's basically what it amounts to. If someone yells out fire in a theatre, people by nature will act on fear and get out of there regardless of whether their really is a fire.

The primary difference between someone yelling out fire in a theatre and convincing someone the government is out to get them and that is time. The fire is an immediate threat, there is no chance to assess it's validity, while a conspiracy is not. So when there is an absence of primary evidence, there needs to be secondary evidence to fill in the gaps. How conspiracy gets around it is by using a tautology. The absence of evidence is evidence, of course this doesn't stand on it's own. The main trick used is bombarding you with anecdotal evidence, stories that add the illusion of plausibility to the veracity of the claim. It's building little support structures, hopefully enough to hold their main argument up. But because people are so willing to believe anecdotally that really isn't as hard as one might think it would be.

Anecdotal evidence is vital to the success of propagation of the idea. If it's done really well, it's often becomes memetic, and creeps into the greater social conscience. By this stage the amount of evidence to support it is really irrelevant and thanks to the instant global media network ideas can spread quicker than ever without anything more than anecdotal evidence. Chain emails are the perfect example of how misinformation spreads, people see what is written, take it as fact then propagate it further. Honestly it's not hard to double check, but how many people do? Obviously not enough for it to clutter up my mail box. It's the same principle here but on a grander scale. Pass it on, and hope the other person is so taken in that they refuse to check for themselves.

Above all else, the most alarming exhibition of cult-like behaviour is the absolute mentality exhibited towards those who aren't part of the "truth movement". Where I see the division is that they feel they are on the side of the sceptics, after all they are questioning as a sceptic would. But because they are so willing to believe the absurd without subjecting that new belief to the same intense scrutiny they are laughed at by the greater sceptical population. Again the parallel with creationism is obvious. Yes, question the official story. But no, your beliefs are subject to that same questioning. That's why there is a strong focus on evidence to back up the claims in the sceptical field. I've been taunted about towing the governments line, just because I didn't think there was any evidence to suggest what they were saying happened. That absolutist mentality prevails to the point where the average punter wouldn't be able to oppose them. And that is the danger of movements like 9/11 truth, if there was strong backing I'd be all for it. But it doesn't spread through rational discourse, it spreads through fear and misinformation.

The Mundane and the Magic
Penn and Teller did it all before me, and better. When you have decades of experience in exposing bullshit, rank amateurs like me can only sit back in awe and hope one day that we we've got the skills to rival that of professional charlatans but on the side of truth. People like Penn Jillette, Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins and James Randi are all heroes of mine. And they are that way because not only are they able to see the frauds for what they are with evidence to boot, they are able to expose those frauds and provide a voice of empiricism in an anecdotal society. In the end, it could be anyone writing books or making TV shows. The person authoring doesn't matter. What is important is the empirical evidence behind it, and with that evidence we can determine reality in as close to an unbiased manner as possible. That's why I have such opposition to them, like religion they are fascinating stories. They make for entertaining television, The X-Files is still my favourite show of all time. But is it so hard to recognise they are just that - stories?

The narrative is very fascinating, the truthiness really shines out. It's very much like religion in that one person has "discovered" something more to life than there really is. It makes that person feel special, feel important. And you don't have to be an expert in that field with conspiracy theories, it's all about individual empowerment. While scientists, historians, etc have years of training to be able to be qualified to talk, these authorities are ignored for the sake of anecdotal titbits by people who's training is nothing more than a personal curiosity. I've talked before about confirmation bias and again it applies here.

Why do we need to mix reality with the extraordinary? We as a species seem to allow ourselves to get bogged down in the trivialities of life far too easily, it gets to the point where reality is a cruel place for some to inhabit. We are moving more and more towards an impersonal world as we become more and more a global community, as John Doe said in Se7en: "Wanting people to listen...you can't just...tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer. Then you'll notice you've got their strict attention." That is a sad reflection on our current state of affairs. Maybe people aren't being noticed when they ask for more information about say 9/11, so they make up a story that is the metaphorical equivalent to using that sledgehammer. Maybe there are things the government isn't telling us, though I'm willing to bet if there is, it's not going to be as the conspiracy theorists say.

Maybe it would be more pertinent to make time for others, to treat them with respect and actually listen to them. It should not take a fanciful story to get your attention, whether that story be about god, government conspiracies or even celebrity gossip. Humans crave contact and validation from others, it's part of the human condition. That contact and validation is how we've been able to thrive as a species. Life is magic as it is, sometimes we forget that and instead of working towards finding that magic in each other, we are pandering to magical tales as if they were reality. We need to make people feel special in the here and now, but I fear that in a world where television sells us the lie that we are all destined for something great it would be too little too late.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Live music Q1 2008

I've found it too much effort to write a blog after every gig I go to, by the time I'm home I'm so physically drained that it's hard to gather my thoughts and write up a satisfactory review. So I'm going to try something different this time and rely on my memory to recap the concerts I've seen over the last 3 months.

The shows
22/01 - Rage Against The Machine:
After my internal hype for this show, I couldn't help but feel slightly let down. RATM simply aren't the force they were a decade ago, but I still was excited to see the show. After downing a few too many brews pre-gig, I made my way into the middle of the floor at the SEC, and watched the 2nd half of the Anti-Flag set. It wasn't terrible, but not very impressive either. I like the band but the live show seems to cater around an undeserved sense of accomplishment playing to the wrong audience.

RATM themselves were solid, played a decent setlist with some of my favourites like Know Your Enemy and Vietnow. Tom Morello was my guitar hero growing up and inspired much of the music I create so seeing him live was a dream come true. A short set and limited crowd interaction from Zack made me feel the price was a bit steep but overall I was still glad I went.

23/01 - Battles / Warp Show:
My 2nd night in Sydney and with a bit of a hangover and not much sleep, I was still looking forward to rocking out to the experiment math rock quartet that is battles. The Warp Show was more than that, opening were two DJ sets with Melbourne band Pivot in between. Apart from some cool visuals taken out of 60s films interlaced with sexy images to a not-so-sexy beat, the music was just an annoyance to talk over. I found Pivot to be most entertaining, their music was good and their live show had potential. Now they are signed to Warp it will be interesting to see what they come up with in the future. After downing a couple of bottles of Beck's Beer, it was time to watch Battles.

The set was very heavy on material from Mirrored, which to me was great to see how each song is constructed. The musicianship was faultless and they were very energetic. It's the music I would feel like dancing to if I danced, but I was too busy standing in awe to really do anything else but watch & listen. As it was Sydney Festival, it made for a really odd crowd mix, though as a whole it was a nice atmosphere to be in.

24/01 - Brand New:
Day 3 of my four day Sydney trek and by now the youth hostel beds mean I'm really down on sleep. Finished reading the sublime novel Ender's Game, saw the captivating movie Cloverfield, and dined out at the Lansdowne to pass the time before the concert. With no opening act, Jesse Lacey came out and played 5 tracks acoustic. That was a nice opener, though I only recognised one of the tracks. The main set consisted mainly of tracks from their latest album, with the notable exception of Limousine. Millstone was probably my highlight of the night.

The Enmore is my favourite venue in Sydney, though the upstairs area is something of a let-down. It will be interesting to see what it's like once renovations are complete and the upstairs bar area is completed.

25/01 - Big Day Out:
It was my 8th Big Day Out, and it will probably be my last. I'm getting too old and impatient for Aussie festival crowds, especially when I see most the bands playing at sideshows. Skipped the early bands and didn't arrive until mid-afternoon. First band I saw was Regurgitator who were a lot of fun, and it made my brother happy to see his favourite band. After that, caught the end of the Spoon set and enjoyed what I heard. The Nightwatchman was a lot of fun, Tom Morello had really good crowd interaction. Unkle were alright, though someone taking a piss in front of me then watching people walk through it made me leave the boiler room quickly. Caught the end of Battles who were just as fun as two nights earlier, watched a bit of Karnivool then went to the mainstage to see the end of Arcade Fire and get in a good spot for RATM. Their performance was a little better than at the sideshow, but I was disappointed that the set only had one change. Would have loved to see Tire Me live. When they finished with Killing In The Name, the entire stadium was moshing, from the D-circle to the stands. It was the most epic moment I've witnessed at a Big Day Out.

And with seeing one of my favourite childhood bands, I really couldn't think of a better way to finish my annual trek to Australia's premier music festival. The travel is just too much, the crowds have gotten to me and I really want to do something more than use my holidays to see a music festival that I don't enjoy going to anymore. It's been 8 times for me, was hoping to get to double figures but I've had enough. The latent jingoism manifesting in the crowd is quite disturbing. Seeing people draped in Aussie flags for a music festival seems wrong. Fair enough it's one thing to be proud of your country, but it's been taken to another level where to an extent it's being used as a divisive symbol connotating segregation and xenophobia. The Aussie flag is the new black, evidence that our country is becoming more like the United States. It's so frustrating that a symbol supposedly being representative of a multicultural country is being used in such a manner. The shirts with "love it or fuck off" is jingoism on parade, and it's a parade I don't want to be a part of.

30/01 - Dream Theater:
Finally a band that would cater to my need for prog, technically and musically did not disappoint. 2h45m of standing was a bit much, but it went by so fast. The visuals were a bit of a let down, the stage production was still quite good but not as good as the press release implied it would be. Still having cameras on the instruments meant that I could get an appreciation for how technically brilliant the musicianship really is. My personal highlight was seeing In The Presence Of Enemies in it's 25 minute entirety. John Petrucci looked so effortless while playing, and John Myung performed one of the best displays on the bass I have ever witnessed. Fantastic show, it is the highlight of the year so far.

09/02 - Iron Maiden:
This concert was an interesting experience for me. I consumed a hipflask worth of Jager on the trip up, but by the time I got to the gig I was sober. Had a good day drinking in a pub in Newtown with veteran metalheads though. Skipped the opening bands in a futile attempt to keep my buzz, but Behind Crimson Eyes wouldn't have been worth watching in the first place, the reaction of booing from the crowd as they attempted to cover Ace Of Spades echoing through the halls of Acer Arena was quite amusing. Positioned myself just in front of the mixing desk, where the visibility wasn't fantastic but the sound would be at it's best.

I've got to say I'm not a huge Maiden fan, but the show was really solid. The band has a great stage presence, the musicianship was fantastic and the theatrics were amazing. The set was very Powerslave heavy, though that was to be expected, it still would have been nice to see a few more tracks of Number Of The Beast. Rime of the Ancient Mariner was my personal highlight, and there was enough soloing to keep me satisfied. A great show, I felt vindicated in attending.

31/03 - Coheed & Cambria:
First gig in almost two months, it left me a little underwhelmed and unsatisfied with just going to rock shows. C&C are one of my favourite bands, and it was a great experience to see them live, I'm just over the whole rock crowd. Again the musicianship was fantastic, Claudio Sanchez is a fantastic performer. He wasn't afraid to show off his skills even if some of the AFI-shirt wearing 15 year-olds that made up half the crowd didn't exactly appreciate it. The encore at the end was possibly the greatest encore I've ever witnessed, including the 20 minute version of the final cut with each band member performing an amazing solo. Though it was a shame the crowd as a whole were upset they didn't put in 2 or 3 more songs instead. I didn't care, I was there for the music and I saw some fantastic displays. Chris Pennie is a machine with the sticks.

Coming up
Over the next three months I have lined up:
  • Porcupine Tree / Sleep Parade
  • Helmet
  • Alchemist / Pod People
  • The Dillinger Escape Plan / Coliseum
  • Cog / Jakob
  • Rosetta
I'm expecting a lot, hope they can keep up with the quality I've seen so far this year. 4 of those gigs are in Canberra so I won't have to travel to Sydney constantly, that can only be seen as a good thing. Unfortunately I have to miss The Mars Volta as it's on a weeknight in Sydney, but that's life. I've seen them twice before anyway.