Vijayendra Mohanty on media, culture, and creativity.

Friday, March 16, 2018 

Time to free the short story!

The music industry was changed forever when mp3 files came to be the default unit of music media. Before the single soundtrack became the fundamental unit in the music market, that position belonged to the record. That is why the sellers were called “record companies” and not “song companies”. Music lovers bought a CD of 10 songs and ended up truly enjoying only one or two of them. They couldn’t choose to buy individual soundtracks unless they illegally ripped songs off a purchased CD. In an ideal world, a record company would have noticed the demand for such a market model and embraced the mp3 format, but it didn’t happen that way. The companies fought legal battles against teenage downloaders and spent money on advertising campaigns that made downloading music seem like a mortal sin. In due course of time though, the single song did find its way into the record companies’ good books. They slapped DRM tags on it and went about their way in the usual fashion.

The good thing that came out of all this was that no longer could a bad song ride into people’s music libraries simply by being in the same CD as a good song. Good songs get downloaded, bad songs get ignored. That is what the new single-unit model made sure of.

Oddly enough, the flexibility of the web hasn’t done much to the market that deals in words — book selling. This is especially odd because the web is fundamentally a text-based environment. The web is different because it is based on a whole lot of words (text, code, source etc.)

The default unit in the book market remains the paper book and the nature of our favourite genres hasn’t undergone much of a change either. Novels are still long and chapters are still the building blocks that go into their making. This is not surprising since, even in the music market, it was the distribution mechanism that changed and not the form of music.

But that is not entirely true, is it?

The record can be split up into songs and the songs can have their own independent existence. The novel loses everything if the chapters become independent. This is why it is unrealistic to expect the web to change the book market. The form factor does come into play when we consider web compatibility. Forget book-length narratives, people won’t even sit through a 5000-word article.

What the web can do is become a field for short fiction. The single short story can become the equivalent of the single soundtrack. In the minds of those who read fiction, the short story is still part of a collective — an anthology, a collection, or a series. While the idea of a short story collection may not be something evil, this collective does not have to be a tangible construct. It can simply be an identifier — a label — a title or description to help contain a mass of short narratives.

What that means is that the short story does not have to be part of a physical book. It can exist on its own as a work of fiction. If it needs context, then that can come from a label. Each Byomkesh Bakshi detective story is an independent work, but it gets context from the title and the shared character set. A reader, if/when he finds a Byomkesh story, does not need a physical construct (like a book) to be able to place it in the right folder in his mind. In the music market, such contextualising happens by way recognising artist names. In the book market, it can happen through author names and franchise names.

Think about an online marketplace where you go and find short stories listed. Some are independent of franchise context, some belong to a particular series (Byomkesh Bakshi?) and all stories are brand new. You read excerpts and click on the buy button next to the stories you find interesting. You pay… what? about 10 rupees for a story and it is added to your library.

The problem is, we don’t have suitable micro-payment systems in place to make such a marketplace possible. In addition, I have a feeling that such a market will work more for short fiction that falls under some manner of concept umbrella. For example, people will be more likely to buy stories featuring their favourite characters or stories by their favourite authors than go for something standalone (both in idea and author terms). Think about it — Would you rather buy from or A story’s presence is felt not just in the words it uses, but also in the anchors it places in the backs of our minds.

It is possible to free fiction for the web, but it will take some serious thinking and a rather adventurous spirit among publishers. Heck, if the micro-payment thing wasn’t in my way, I would have done this myself by now.

This essay was first published on Medium in February of 2013. Things have changed somewhat since then and I am exploring the possibility of launching a web fiction platform some time in 2019. Stay tuned. Help me by filling out a short survey please?

Wednesday, March 14, 2018 

Epified enters 100K club on YouTube!

Some of you might know that I was running a YouTube channel called Epified for Culture Machine for slightly over a year. The channel officially started in April of 2015 and I left it in December of 2016.

Some time in the last month, the channel crossed the 100,000 subscriber mark. To mark the achievement, YouTube sent Culture Machine a silver button. My former colleagues there were kind enough to share some images.

I keep getting emails, tweets, and suchlike from fans and followers of the channel to this day and it feels nice to have played a role in creating something that touched so many people even if I am no longer working on Epified. If you have tuned in to TV’s Epic Channel in the recent past, you might have seen Epified animations there as well.

I think it is safe to say that Epified was one of the first (if not the very first) Indian YouTube channels to have its content syndicated to a mainstream television channel.

Credit of course is due to everyone at Culture Machine who supported team Epified and helped it get where it is today. Team Epified was Ina Siwach, Meghna Deb Roy, and Pradeep Yadav. Girish Malap also worked on much of the channel’s art in the early days. Voicing the videos were Sukant Goel, Jyotsna Sastry, Akanksha Seda, Ratnabali Bhattacharjee and many others.

And there was I of course, along with a host of other people both inside and outside Culture Machine providing support with marketing, social media, video editing, and translations.

I hope my next project makes a home inside people’s heads too. At the end of the day, that is what decides the fate of a media property — how people remember it, and how well they remember it. Brand recall, as kids these days like to call it.

If you want to stay updated about my new projects, subscribe to my email newsletter. I’ll keep you posted on how things are going and where.

Monday, March 12, 2018 

How much is a story worth?

Over the course of a conversation with the producer of a YouTube comedy channel some time ago, the matter of money came up. The videos published on this channel are, like almost every video online, free to watch. The producers of the channel make no money from viewers. The money comes from ads -- not only the ones that run inside and around the video player, but also ones that the channel produces for brands.

I was informed by my friend that something peculiar happens when they publish a "brand video". He said that in the comment section of these videos, viewers accuse them of "selling out" and becoming "commercial". We wondered if that is such a bad thing. Why is it that the smell of money seems to taint creativity in the eyes of some viewers?

Creators have more or less come to terms with the fact that advertising is a harsh reality of their lives. Ads sell video channels, TV programmes, and even newspapers. Without the money that advertisers invest, the business of creativity will not run.

That is not a universal truth though. Cinema halls have always charged money for tickets. Newspapers cost money too. Recent years have seen some experimentation with paid content models wherein creators and producers ask viewers to pay money to read / watch their work. But by and large, ads continue to be the default monetisation route for creative people who do not wish to die of starvation, or worse -- get a boring job.

But it would seem that at least some members of their audience want them to not touch ad money with a barge pole. These people presumably work under the assumption that creating art does not require money, or at least should not require money. You might think that if these people were made aware of the fact that their beloved creators were short of cash, they would be happy to pool in contribute funds. But you would be wrong in assuming that. You would be right however, if you assumed that people will steal creative content and feel no guilt for having done so illegally.

People want their stories, their videos, their music for free. Actually, people want everything for free, but they would prioritise almost everything else over creative work if it came to paying money. Somewhere deep in the heart of our culture, stories have no monetary value.

Our culture has stories at its very foundation. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata, along with a host of puranic tales that embody an elaborate mythological universe, travelled the length and breadth of the world on the backs of storytellers. These stories have, over millennia, moulded our civilisation into the shape that it is in currently. Then why would we not pay for them?

The answer is simple -- we won't pay for them because we think we already own them. And this sense of ownership (entitlement?) stretches out and pulls in all stories, even ones that have never been told before. We won't pay for them because we have never paid for them. Because we have never paid for any story. We believe stories to be a communal inheritance -- things anyone can tell anyone, anywhere, and at any time. The bards who travelled with folk tales memorised, and the village theatre groups which enacted stories for eager audiences everywhere, never charged a dime for their efforts.

Stories have always been free. And in doing so, they have marked the act of storytelling as a free service as well. Most people who have taken writing up as a profession will know what I am talking about. Writing is not considered a "real" job. In the utilitarian world we all occupy, it is a hobby at best and at worst, a waste of time. After all, why do something anyone can do? Why expect to make a living doing something nobody will spend money on?

That's our problem in a nutshell. It is a matter of culture. The solution to this problem has to be cultural as well. And it boils down to how we answers questions like this:

  • Do artists deserve to be able to make a living with their art?

  • Are stories worth money?

  • What are the ways in which creative people might fund their endeavours?

People have been looking for answers to these questions for quite some time. And the fact that they are still looking, gives me some measure of relief.

Monday, March 12, 2018 

A Black Panther for India?

It seems to be a truth universally acknowledged at the moment that Black Panther is amazing. But only a small part of this awesomeness is due to it being a good movie. Black Panther is being appreciated also because of what it says about power, privilege, race, representation, nationalism, culture, and identity.

Among African-American audiences, the movie is a success because it strikes the right notes in matters of representation. The movie shows the Black identity as something independent - distinct from the Whiteness against which it has been traditionally measured, both in Hollywood and in popular culture. The titular character named T'Challa is an African man who grew up in Africa, free (and largely unaffected) by the cultural influences that mark the existence of Black people in America and elsewhere.

But something funny happened in India recently. I got a call from a radio station which was doing a segment on Black Panther prior to the movie’s release.

Their question? Do you think a movie full of Black characters will be appreciated by international audiences? My answer, understandably, was: Why wouldn't it?

On the one hand, the question seems more like something a White American might ask. On the other hand, being Indians (and despite being discriminatory towards Black people here), we are perhaps closer to the fictional nation of Wakanda than we are to America. From the point of view of the culture that has overshadowed the Black identity, we are indistinguishable from the kind of people for whom Black Panther has become something sacred.

The phrase "international audiences" is somewhat vague. But it does imply that the person using it identifies (perhaps unconsciously) with the White American viewpoint more than they do with their own.

Of course, I say this with full awareness of the fact that Black Panther is an American adaptation of an American comic book written by Americans primarily for Americans. That it works elsewhere in the world is a bonus.

Having said that, what might an Indian Black Panther look like? Which popular Indian story can be told to Indian fans to such effect that they start thinking on the lines of "wow that's a break from mainstream culture that normalises a marginalised community in ways that both empowers them and enriches our culture"?

I Googled "Indian superhero" and in the team photos that turn up, all except one superhero is male. Of the men, four are toads, one is a jungle beast, one is a cyborg who used to be a man whose second name is never mentioned. Of the ones who do have second names, two are Vermas and one is a Mehra. And the aforementioned female character is actually a goddess whose human alter ego also doesn't seem to have a second name.

But perhaps I am being too picky. After all, Indian comic book superheroes are nowhere close to the mainstream. But there is a genre of literature which occupies an inordinately large slice of popular consciousness -- Hindu mythology. Is it possible to tell a Black Panther-like story set in an Indian mythological universe? A story that takes the real India -- with its divisions and discords and complexity -- and places it among the gods. Or a story that brings the gods down to live and suffer among modern-day Indians.

What made Black Panther effective was that it took both its goals seriously. It was a socially relevant movie yes, but it was also a good superhero flick. Similarly, our story will have to be something that takes the people in it as seriously as it takes the gods (and vice versa). Modern popular literature featuring the gods has traditionally been little more than power fantasies. And stories that dealt with the gods from the human point of view have tended to be angry tirades against religion and calls for ridding society of superstition and social ills.

There is some middle ground there. It's hard to spot because there is so little of it. But it can expand and be home to an Indian Black Panther.

Friday, March 9, 2018 

A Transhumanist Conceit

During a talk that astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson gave some time ago, he brought up a “fascinatingly disturbing thought”. It addressed, in a way, the oft-repeated question of why humanity has not so far made contact with extraterrestrial aliens.

Tyson forgoes the question of why it has happened and asks why we must assume that we are even worth contacting. He observes that human beings share with chimpanzees more than 99 percent of their genetic material. And in that less-than-one percent genetic material lies all of human civilisation — art, science, culture, literature.

He then asks his audience to imagine an alien civilisation that is as removed from humanity as humanity is removed from chimpanzees. What would these beings be like? Perhaps they would have access to realities we can not even imagine. Perhaps what we consider the greatest mysteries of the known universe — dark matter, dark energy, the nature of time and space — would be primary school science to them.

Maybe when they view us, we appear wholly unremarkable to them — like ants, or germs, or particulate matter even. Nothing worth writing home about. And definitely nothing worth actually talking to.

Tyson makes a fair point. I want to take it a step ahead. Specifically the part about the genetic difference that makes human beings human beings.

When speaking of evolution, there is a tendency to speak in Panglossian terms — assuming that evolution is somehow linked with progress and increased capacity. We keep talking about how some species are “more evolved” than others and how some are “unevolved”. 

In truth, evolution is a rather more dispassionate process. It does not weigh species on the scale of any subjective measure of quality. It only cares if the species will survive the prevailing conditions at any given point of time.

When we use our imaginations to peek into our collective future and see that the human species has spread out through the galaxy, we are not only being vain, we are also being unrealistic. It is perfectly possible for such conditions to arise that would make evolution turn us back into hunchbacked apes foraging in the bushes for fruits and the occasional small animal.

Transhumanist Fantasies of the Future

Transhumanism is a school of evolutionary thought that believes human beings are now in a position to decide the course of their evolution by use of augmented body parts and genetic engineering. They believe that through the use of these patently human advantages, we may take humanity in a direction of our choosing and not be subject to the unpredictability of the evolutionary storm.

Before I go into a lengthy explanation of why this is not necessarily the best of ideas, let me write a little about the way evolution works.

It is a game that two players play. One player is you, the species. The other is your environment. You change your environment in small ways and your environment changes you in small ways. For the most part, the impact a species has on its surroundings is in sync with the kind of changes the environment can take. For example, a caterpillar eats leaves and seems to destroy the environment but it is something that is, in a manner of speaking, accounted for. The caterpillar is one of the many ways nature uses to keep the balance. The caterpillar and nature serve each other.

If the caterpillar started believing that nature is holding it back from becoming all that it can, it might start thinking of doing things that transhumanists are thinking of doing. It might think that if it becomes capable of eating and digesting soil, it will not have to rely on nature’s supply of leaf. It might decide to create artificial leaves in labs to fulfill its needs. It might even decide that it has no need for hunger and go for the elimination of the need to eat.

There is nothing wrong with transhumanist thinking. On the whole, human beings are no different from caterpillars. We consume our surroundings and our surroundings consume us. We put some effort into preventing being consumed by our surroundings of course. We fight against our natural lifespans, we resist forces of nature, we cut through things that are in our way. In addition, we also spend time feeling guilty about all this and berating ourselves for not being more like the lovable caterpillar.

Transhumanism is the other end of this spectrum. It believes that human beings occupy a special space in the order of things — one that allows them to transcend the boundaries set by nature, perhaps even deny that these boundaries exist.

But let us consider transhumanist thought for a while.

We change as a result of evolution because we are subject to pressures from our environment. This pressure fuels mutations and over the course of generations, we become something we are not right now. Evolution moulds us into shapes better suited to survival. But it is still a moulding force. It applies pressure and it hurts. Many die before those worthy of survival come into being. The human species may be making the mistake of seeing this creative pressure as a destroying force. Evolution brings death yes, but it also brings necessary change.

When transhumanists talk of placing the human species out of death’s reach, what they are essentially talking about is ending evolution’s grasp on us.

Perhaps it is not possible to do so. And if it were possible, how advisable would it be to do so?

Imagine that in the future, the human species has somehow managed to prolong its lifespan and become practically immortal. Death is no longer a part of the human equation. In this future, evolution by natural selection still works on other animals and plants, but not on us. We would have effectively created a bubble that separates us from all that is out there.

This would mean that the “out there” no longer plays a part in our lives. The changes that happen to human beings no longer happen because nature chose them. They happen because we choose them.

This appears to be empowerment until you start wondering: On what basis are the changes are being chosen? What are our criteria for deciding what enhancements are good for human beings and which ones we should not go for? In other words, given complete freedom to choose any evolutionary direction, which one would we take?

Taking charge of one’s evolutionary path sounds like a good idea until one realises that it is not a matter of simplifying the existing equation. It is creating a whole new equation.

Are we making humankind stronger by augmenting our bodies with artificial enhancements as a matter of standard procedure? If, at some point in the future, the Earth begins to suffer regular electro-magnetic pulses from outer space, it could mean crippling the entire population.

Are we working towards a better future for humankind by giving everyone increased physical and mental capacities? What form would these capacities take? How do we decide which genetic factor is of most value to humanity?

In short, if we take upon ourselves the mammoth task of doing what natural selection has been doing so far, will we be able to do it justice?

The bubble that we surround ourselves with has to be absolute. Once we make the conscious decision to stop being participants in natural selection, we will also become extremely vulnerable to the pressures that nature exerts upon all creatures. The resistance we have built against these pressures will be one of the first things to go out the window when we take the proverbial reins into our own hands.

Of course, no technology we have right now allows us to remove ourselves completely from the forces that nature exerts on humanity. So what I am worrying about may very well never come to pass.

Vijayendra Mohanty on media, culture, and creativity.