Dave Cullen – Columbine

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You can look at the story of Columbine and think it’s just a bunch of whiny, privileged white males. That’s okay. People write off people’s troubles in similar ways. As we know, black people are less intelligent and cultured, so who cares what’s going on in Africa?

The world is full of stories. People murder and cause terrorist attacks all the time and it’s not something I feel comfortable reading. The purpose of the storyteller is to extract the meaning out of it. This book is not just the recounting of the events in Columbine and what came after/before. It’s a gigantic argument why the story even matters in the first place. Cullen does an amazing job. No scene is without purpose. No scene exists only to spout details. Each detail has insight into another topic. Like the best non-fiction, Columbine is more about other subjects than its title.

Cullen dispels two big, contrasting myths. There’s the ‘psycho villain’ myth, and the ‘revenge of the nerds’ myth. The truth is actually somewhere in between, or at least split between the killers. The truth was, Columbine Massacre was instigated by a single person.

The writings about psychopathy here are integral. Psychopathy was the cause of the massacre, and also what people miss. People believe in Just World and want to believe that moral people are also good social presence. If someone’s charismatic and hot, then he cannot be bad. However, the fat dude who sends you a message on Facebook is a creep. Such a world is ordered, easy to navigate and we know what to fear.

Psychopaths blow it apart. The true danger isn’t the socially inept person. He’s too timid and his doors are blocked. In order for him to cause social crime, he first needs to become a part of society. Psychopaths are the most desirable people. They’re aces in imitating social cues and personalities but they have no good intentions. They don’t even have empathy.

In truth, there’s nothing like ‘what a killer/rapist/thief’ look like. People who want to deliberately harm – and psychopaths do – need to conceal themselves. How else can a rapist do his crime, if he can’t convince his victim to trust them in an isolated setting? Eric Harris was successful. Women loved him. When he apologized, everyone was convinced. He knew exactly how to hint about the killing to see who’s on board. People couldn’t believe Eric would do it because of his social skills, but his high social skills are directly related to his lack of empathy which pushed him to massacre. It’s a bizarre thing. The most dangerous people are designed to look benign.

What’s ironic is during all the time leading to Columbine, it was Dylan who got the most flak. Dylan was only in it to kill himself. The journals are up online if you want to read it. Dylan was soaked in self-loathing. His character was truly tragic. While I’m not excusing what Dylan did, he’s perhaps just as a victim as the others. He barely even shoot during the massacre. His depressive state and feelings of powerlessness made him an easy target for a psychopath needing an accomplice. Harris provided him a way out. Psychopaths are hard to stop, but what if someone reached out to Dylan before?

This situation reveals something dark about our society. It’s caused by our overall preference for socially skilled people over everything. Yes, this would happen again. In the end, what we want are people who can act like Harris. We want charismatic people who can lead, who look good and can tell jokes. Dylan may have been almost innocent, but socially he’s useless. What’s there to do with a depressive suicidal? Speaking from an evolutionary standpoint, we will always support Harris over Dylan. Harris can navigate social situations gracefully, and for a social animal nothing is more important.

Aside from the killer’s psych, the book reveals the many shades of tragedies with multiple victims. Not everyone comes out the same. The stories of survivors, or the bereaved, are vastly different. Cullen tells the story they deserve with empathy. After such a tragedy, you need a spotlight on your unique position. No matter how many suffered with you, your misery is still real. Lumping it up with everyone else is insulting.

It’s also a story of media, and how the way we report events affect their influence. For those who are interested in media studies, this is essential. The parts about the eyewitnesses’ unreliability are fantastic. Such tragic stories have a stronger demand for precise details. These situations, by their nature, confuse us and we need every information we can have to understand them. The intensity of these situation also leads to confused memory. It’s almost funny how people thought there are multiple killers. One person saw Dylan & Eric with trenchcoats. Then they took off and a different person saw them.

An important arc is the story of Cassie, the supposed martyr. Initially it was reported she claimed to believe in God right before being shot. In reality this exchanged happened with a different student who survived. Yet people were quick to believe Cassie’s story and stuck to it even once the truth goes out. It goes to show you what kind of moral responsbility the media has. The reporting of this story affected lives. A survivor in trauma who needed her story told has been pushed aside while everyone lives in a lie.

I don’t think the conclusion of this book was that tragedy was inevitble, that Eric and Dylan were pure evil and we’re all victims. What makes the book so dark is that it shows how badly we function when tragedy strikes. Aside from the aforementioned psychopathy, there’s a coverup, ganging up on parents without knowing why and a parent who becomes a ranting anti-abortion activists. If anything, it’s almost fatalist. What could we do? We’re only human. Why disclose that we could’ve prevented it, and put us in harm’s way?

Cullen’s prose is sometimes too fiction-esque. Writing a non-fiction book like a fiction one, with dialogue boxes makes it look silly. The author wasn’t there, and if he were he could only have this exactness if he recorded it. I prefer writing as summary, since that’s the only thing you can do. Cullen’s prose is also precise enough to let it slide. He’s fantastic in choosing the right details. Physical descriptions never enter. Instead, it’s all about the people and what they did. I know a lot of people who say they can’t read a book without understanding the physical reality of it. Here, Cullen wrote a powerful story by only describing the people in it.

Some will write this off and say it’s just two white privileged white kids. Perhaps, but perhaps underneath every school shooting or underneath every crime rests a story like this. The difference is, we had a lot of cameras on the scene. Columbine is important because of what it tells us about us – that, yes, this will happen again. As social animals, we’ll always take Eric Harris above others. We’ll tell stories that make us feel good – our son is a martyr, they were just evil villains, they were just bullied kids. Cullen does have answers, they’re just incredibly pessimistic.

4 out of 5

The Facebook Suicide Algorithm or: Getting Closer to Getting Further Away

Recently, Facebook announced they got a new algorithm that’s supposed to spot suicidal behavior. What I’m about to present isn’t a claim for or against this. This doesn’t have much to do with my philosophy of suicide. Rather, I’ll analyze the technology based on the McLuhan-ian view of technology as extensions of man. My purpose is to present this analysis and let people decide whether this technology is worthwhile. Spoiler alert, I think the conclusion means it’s bad.

First off, here’s the basic theory of McLuhan. When McLuhan talks about ‘media’, he talks about any technology. Any technology is an extension of a function of us. A ‘weapon’ isn’t something that sprang out of nowhere. Every weapon is an extension of our ability to hurt other people. Another integral fact is that every extension is meant to be more effecient in achieving its end, but means less involvement.

A hammer is an extension of our ability to hit things. What the hammer does and what the hand does when they beat the nail isn’t any different. The difference is in the effiency and involvement. The hammer is better at knocking the nail, can insert it more quickly into the surface. Once we use the hammer, we’re also less involved in the process. This is more vague, but what it means is our experience is limited. When we knock the nail with the hammer, we don’t feel the nail.

To use the weapon example, think of the atom bomb. It is just an extension of our ability to cause destruction, only far worse than a fist hitting a board. When you hit something with your fist in order to destroy it, you’re deeply involved in the process, you feel the surface of the object being destroyed. The object has to be close to you so you’ll use your fist. The atom bomb makes us less involved, since we don’t feel the surface of the buildings being destroyed. We don’t even see the victims since we have to drop the bomb from far away. This fact explains why technology leads to far deadlier wars, since people are less involved in the act of killing.

Of course, it’s possible this is not exactly what McLuhan meant. His writing can be cryptic, but this is the framework I’m working with here.

Now, for the algorithm. People have the ability to reach out to people that they consider in need of help. In our case, being suicidal means needing help. Life’s positive value is an axiom for many. Currently users can report posts they consider problematic – by that, I mean containing signals of ‘self-harm’ or suicide. I’m not sure if this can be called an extension of our ability to reach out, since it is already embedded in a technology – Facebook, which is an extension of our social circle/neighbourhood. What the algorithm does is search for these signals of ‘self-harm’ and report them, instead of users doing it.

Our ability to offer help is extended via this algorithm. It serves the same function, yet unlike a single person it scans thousands or millions posts a day. This alone makes it more efficient, since no post will go unnoticed and every distressing signal will be reported. In general, people will report a distressing suicide if it will be explicit. A show of hands: How many of you had people reaching out to you because you expressed something sad? By ‘reaching out’, I don’t mean commenting but engaging in conversation. If our current methods were efficient, we wouldn’t create an algorithm to do this. We wouldn’t feel the need to extend this ability if we did it right, just as we don’t have a machine to extended our ability to chew because our teeth work.

Now comes the bad side. Extensions of ourselves make us less involved, which is good if the experience wasn’t worth much. No one is going to miss feeling the pain of hitting a needle. In this case, the algorithm makes us less involved because we’re no longer reaching out as a person. Many in Sanctioned Suicide mocked this. We’re less involved since we’re no longer giving personal feedback, seeing the distressing signals with our own eyes and containing it. We don’t contact the person and hear what they got to say and hear their feedback to our attempts at help. Although this algorithm will be more efficient at finding distressing signals, we will be less involved in the experience of reaching out.

The question is, is this bad? My answer is, yes.

Involvement is critical when it comes to personal issues. Else, we’d all confess our sins to Cleverbot. A common complaint against psychotherapy is that the therapist isn’t actually involved and doesn’t really care. It’s a profession for them, they ask questions for the salary. The whole idea of caring demands involvement. In order for someone to care for us, for our troubles to mean to them something they need to be involved in our life. They need to find our troubles affecting, consider them important. Try reading about a serial killer and then watching an interview with him. In the second instance, you’re more involved with this person, you see them and hear their voices. Empathy demands involvement, since we can’t be empathetic unless we imagine ourselves in the position of the person suffering.

The algorithm, by making us less involved in the process of reaching out to people undermines itself. By removing ourselves, we remove the most crucial thing. The basis of reaching out is that someone actually cares about your troubles and wants to be involved in getting through them. Remove the person who cares, and there is no ‘caring’. An algorithm cannot care, it is not a person.

The main message this algorithm sends is not that someone is so caring they’ll invent this technology but the opposite. Someone is so uncaring that they’ll invent a technology that will do the caring for them. You can lead a horse to water, but a bunch of professionals showing up at a person’s house doesn’t send the message you care but that you want control. The reason communities like Sanctioned Suicide work compared to R/SuicideWatch is that the people in SS are deeply involved with one another, they communicate and exchange ideas, don’t aim for a specific result but are just there with a person.

Let’s assume we take the position that suicide is bad. This algorithm is another symptom of our pathetic attempts at controlling people, rather than helping them. If suicidal people are really in a bad situation and in need of help, how can we help them by patronizing them, caging them, trying to control them rather than reaching out to them? We can’t complain about being mystified by suicide since we don’t even try to understand it. Technology now extends our ability to reach out for others, to letting them know we hear their troubles in such a way that actually tells them we don’t care.

If we really did care, we wouldn’t need to invent a technology to do it for us.

Network (1976)

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Someone decided to take all the literature by Neil Postman and Jerry Mender and make a film out of it. Countless of films and works about technology are praised for ‘staying relevant’. It’s a vague statement. A lot of works remain relevant because many themes are universal. Network is still relevant because it doesn’t actually criticize television, but viral content.

Content becomes viral when it gets people talking. Viral content has built-in emotional appeal. It’s immediate, doesn’t demand too much of us and is escapist. It makes us either mad as hell, or forget that we should be mad as hell.

There was a story about a girl who became an ‘advice animal’, and how this disabled person was exploited for cheap laughs. It’s no different than what the network, or even the world does to Howard Beale. People get their entertainment and their release, so they don’t care that the person on TV clearly needs some help. Sometimes the person has to exploit themselves on TV in order to get ahead. Budd Dywer exploited the viral nature of suicide on TV for his own gain.

Some viral content may seem like it has a noble purpose, but it is all just emotional manipulation. Beale rants and raves about a deal with the CCA. Sure, it got the people to send telegrams to the white house but it did more harm than good. That’s because the people didn’t care about learning or understanding. Viral charities give us a simple cause – an evil corporation, a terrible disease – and encourage us to do something simple to solve it. Problems aren’t just solved by pouring ice on ourselves, and spamming the government with uninformed telegrams only leads them the wrong way.

Of course, there’s great irony in the fact this is a film that criticizes television. A book called Nation of Rebels deals with this situation. Often, ideas are co-opted by the same groups the idea fights against. Television destroys or makes presidents, but both are good for them. Criticizing television can also make for great TV, because every idea can be oversimplified.

This is what’s so scary about the medium and why Jerry Mender doesn’t sound so irrational in his book. No idea is too pure that it can’t be simplified, commodified and stripped of its depth. Both fear and sedation make for great television. Beale hates television, but the institution is so strong that it swallowed him. Instead of fighting television, he made it stronger by criticizing it on television. Instead of people turning off their sets like Beale tells them so, they keep watching to hear his rants against television.

It’s the format that simplifies those ideas. When watching TV, a video of terrorist shooting up the place is more attention-grabbing than their background. These various types of content – terrorists, funny videos, weather are all smashed together with no rhyme or reason. Neil Postman pointed out the absurdity of this, how news is more entertainment than informative.

The information is supplied by beautiful or charismatic people. The presenters choose the content based on what will grab the most attention. The show jumps from one topic to the next with no connection, complete with cool transitions.

While the film doesn’t elaborate too much on the nature of profit (besides a slightly cheesy monologue), it does presents how it harms the news. The purpose of news may be to inform people about the world, but the network needs money. News shows are in competition with all other shows. The only way to compete is create viral content. Diana cares more about viral content for that reason, a story that will grab people’s attention rather than inform them.

It’s a dark film, but not a grimdark one. What makes it so dark aren’t the people but the ideas. Jensen’s monologue is a perfect example of that. It should’ve been a weakness since it lays out an idea, rather than show it. However, it’s both written well and helps the film focus on its purpose. It’s not a story of cruel people being cruel to innocent ones. Rather, it’s how certain ideas – profit, viral content – are so tempting, and make us into cruel people. As Schumacher criticizes Diana, he points out the specific thing that turns her into a profit-chaser. Beale is just as guilty as everyone in the network, since he goes along with his exploitation.

The darkness of the film isn’t like real news. Its purpose isn’t to shock the audience but make them understand. Diana’s main role is to warn us of the appeal of viral news. If it’s hard to watch, it’s only because we see ourselves in Diana. Such a film isn’t misanthropic. It’s concerned about humanity and its nature, so it tries to show us its flaws in-depth rather than just make us hate them.

It does suffer from being very obvious. It has a clear mission statement and never for a second it pretends it’s realistic. People give off long, meanigful monologues that only happen in online communication. The balance is a little off, since it often wants to be and then satirical and then dramatic. Eventually though it settles on being exaggerated instead of realism. This way the writers take advantage of their skill. Even if the monologues are obvious, they’re beautifully written. Jensen’s monologue doesn’t make us hate him, but persuades us.

Network is a brilliant film. It may not have a stylistic quirk to make it viral, but then again the purpose is exist is to criticize the nature of viral content. The only hooks it has are satirical and a few good jokes. It’s a well-written, thrilling film that’s emotionally engrossing and explores its subject matter to the limit. People who think entertainment and thoughtfulness are mutually exclusive clearly haven’t watched this. Besides being a little obvious in places, it’s a brilliant film.

4.5 messages out of 5 mediums