September 8, 2020

The internet is not forever

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 8:00 pm by chavisory

“A few of the younger Symphony members…remembered the stories they’d been told about WiFi and the impossible-to-imagine Cloud, wondered if the internet might still be out there somehow, invisible pinpricks of light suspended in the air around them.” -Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

A few years ago now, I was up very late, sipping bourbon, listening to the Cubs’ World Series-winning game, and trying to resurrect autistic community history from the dim corners of the internet.

And it was a frustrating and grueling experience. It was Autistic History Month, so founded by Maxfield Sparrow in 2013, and I think people had been realizing for a while that our community collective memory only went back about five years and that it was starting to be a serious vulnerability. (Honestly it still is.)

On one hand, it was certainly a good thing that so many people were being newly diagnosed as young adults, and sometimes as older ones, and deciding to be openly autistic online. On the other, there was no obvious way to direct this huge influx of people starving for community to the resources and information that did already exist, and so there was a whole lot of reinvention of the wheel going on. Neurodiversity.com, which had served that function for many of us who entered the community in the very early 2000’s, was already an inactive archive by that point, and while the references it contained were progressive for the time in which it was founded, many were out of date even just a decade later.

Twice I queried social media for people’s favorite “older” autistic blog or writing, defining “older” as being from before 2010.

Both times, nobody could name a source that wasn’t Neurodiversity.com, Ballastexistenz, or something by Jim Sinclair. And not to denigrate the importance of those voices, but there was so much more than that.

A friend posted a list of a dozen important autistic writers and activists from the early days after the neurodiversity movement moved online in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, and asked how many of them other people recognized. I knew who six were.

Multiple, currently prominent activists knew of none of them.

I’m using the autistic community as an example a lot in this post, but this isn’t exclusively about autism or the autistic community; that’s just where I’ve been consistently involved enough to notice and be affected by long-term dynamics. I suspect similar issues may be at play in other internet-centric communities.

*

One thing I feel has happened—and this may well be the subject of a whole other post—is that many people, especially if they’re relatively new to the community, are under the impression that autistic Twitter is effectively the online autistic community. And it’s not. Not only is it not, even now, but before Twitter was anywhere near as big a platform, before it was a thing at all, the character of the online autistic community was entirely different.

It’s different for both better and worse. The easily discoverable hashtags #ActuallyAutistic and #AskingAutistics make it incredibly easy for newbies to find other autistic people on Twitter and where to ask questions. It used to be harder, or you had to be extraordinarily lucky, to stumble upon the blogs that served as cornerstones of the community. Even while there are a lot of things I don’t like about it as much, the character and quality of conversations on Twitter are probably more accessible for some people. (And less so for others.)

The point, though, is that it’s fundamentally different.

*

I’m an Oregon Trail generation kid. Almost anyone my age or younger has almost certainly been lectured ad infinitum about how “The internet is forever” in well-intended warnings about being cautious in what we say and do online.

But the older I get, the more I find the internet is actually surprisingly vulnerable to human frailty.

There is so much writing that is just gone. So much community, so many of the best, most constructive and compassionate conversations happened in the comments sections of blogs that have been taken down or locked by their owners. Not just the content of those blogs, but the entire culture of the way people formed relationships around them, is gone or radically altered.

Servers are gone. People stopped being able to pay for web hosting. Or got tied up in life, illness, parenting, or more offline activism or scholarship and don’t have time to maintain archives and keep links updated. Neurodiversity.com is still there as an archive, but about half its links are broken. (I’m not saying this to blame Kathleen. Life happens.)

People died. Friendships imploded. People got burned out and simply disappeared off the internet, and unless there was an active effort to preserve and archive it, their work often followed a few years after, if only because they stopped paying for their web domain.

Some of that world made it into the Wayback Machine if you know exactly how to look for it, but a lot of it didn’t.

*

For a couple of years before I started this blog, I was a frequent commenter at Salon.com. I was doing a lot of temp work at the time and it was a way to pass the 9-hour days stuck at a reception desk. Debates in which every single comment was a worthwhile essay unto itself, frequently superior to the original article, would wind on for days. I easily spent hundreds of thousands of words there and God alone knows how many hours of my life. And I don’t regret it; I learned a lot about the kind of blogging I wanted to do there. But I had pretty significantly curtailed the time I spent there by midway through 2010, partly because I had just grown not to enjoy what the culture there had become, partly because I was deliberately spending my time here instead, having realized that with the amount of effortful writing I did there, I could have something of my own to show for it. But at some point Salon revamped their account and comment section structures. I didn’t sign up for a new account or I might’ve tried but found it onerous and before long I was locked out of my old one. And I lost access to all of it.

Then WordPress itself a few years ago either suffered a glitch or changed a setting—I never succeeded in getting an answer—and users lost all of the data about how many times posts had been shared on other platforms like Facebook.

One post of mine had been shared over 20,000 times. The counters were eventually reset, and that post logged another 8,000 shares or so before the counter disappeared again and stayed gone this time.

I have no idea whether WordPress lost the data, or still has it but decided to stop providing it to users without premium accounts.

More recently, Tumblr attempted to purge its platform of adult content [Content note: Linked story contains discussion of sexually explicit material, including child pornography] in an event popularly known as the “Tiddy Ban.” Many erotica-focused blogs were removed entirely, others were allowed to remain but were made unsearchable and dashboard-accessible only. And countless other users had individual offending posts removed from our blog archives utterly without recourse. Over the ensuing months, many of the confiscated posts were restored upon appeal, having been judged to have been wrongfully snared by deeply faulted screening algorithms.

But one of my posts, to which I have never been able to regain access (despite several other much sexier posts having been returned), was a long and multi-layered discussion of executive dysfunction and diagnostic disparities among autistic women and the politics of self-diagnosis.

Whether because the author of the article I linked to works as a stripper and said so in her bio, or because the preview image for the article depicts the bare knee of a young woman sitting on a bed, I’ll probably never know. I’ve protested multiple times to Tumblr staff, but at this point don’t hold out much hope of getting it back. It had over 1,000 notes in multiple reblog threads.

People who’ve lost work in previous fandom purges have similar and far, far worse stories.

*

I’ve been rewatching the X-Files over the past couple of years. And it’s a different experience than it was during the original run. At least partly because, watching with subtitles turned on, I catch at least 50% more information from dialogue than I did then. But also because watching episodes in close time proximity instead of spaced out week by week, or multiple weeks during holidays and production breaks, or months during the summer, or years, like between the end of the original series and the second movie and the revival, brings out whole different sets of resonances and parallels and sneakily revealed information than what was obvious the first time through.

And I have so many questions about whether anyone else has noticed them, or wants more back story about the same things I do, and while there are XF communities on Tumblr and Twitter now, they’re hugely dominated by younger, newer viewers and overwhelmingly MSR-obsessed (which is not a sin, obviously, and I’m also starting to find exceptions to this) and gifset-driven. There’s not a ton of in-depth discussion of other issues. I was a dedicated lurker of the AOL message boards circa 1994-1998, and what I’d really like is to go back to some of the boards I didn’t follow then and see if these were in fact things that people were talking about at the time even if they weren’t the things I was seeking out discussion about then. Those boards are lost to history, though, or at least to anyone without deep access to AOL’s servers and archives.

To some extent you can tell from the fanfic of the time what other fans were preoccupied by—Gossamer and a couple other archives of long-form fic are still there. But as far as speculation about any subject that didn’t make it into a lot of fanfic, those discussions, if any, have been made completely inaccessible to any average present-day fan.

I can’t tell you the number of posts or comments important to me that I thought were safe in my bookmarks, only to try to go back and find a blog taken down or locked or a domain abandoned.

In a couple of cases, authors have been kind enough to send me files to keep for myself of work they decided to take offline. But I’ve started just downloading or printing out hard copies of anything particularly important to me before it disappears in the first place.

Growing up when the internet was a brand new and barely understood resource to most families, we were told “The internet is forever” in caution against revealing personal information online by elders who mostly didn’t understand it very well or how it would change over time, and now we’re the ones telling parents, and especially parents of disabled kids, the same thing when it comes to putting photos or information about their children online.

And I don’t want to undermine the seriousness of the risk of just how unpredictable and wide-ranging the impact of personal information or depictions of children in private and vulnerable moments released on the internet can be. I deeply believe that parents should think twice about this.

But the irony is that in too earnestly believing certain warnings about the internet, we’ve grown to trust it too much. In some ways, the internet, far from being forever, has actually proven a remarkably poor medium for preserving cultural memory.

It turns out that the cultural resources and internet communities we value and want preserved don’t just last without attention and work and love.

October 21, 2018

The lost children of the X-Files

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 7:40 pm by chavisory

I meant to write this post months ago but in truth I’ve been thinking about it this whole time. (Note: This post should be considered to contain massive spoilers, mainly for seasons 5, 9, 10, and 11.)

I tended to give season 11 of the X-Files higher marks than most other viewers I knew. I found the episodes high-quality, the characterizations of an older Mulder and Scully believable and the chemistry between them still undeniable. Although the author of this post managed to capture in one line, more concisely than anything else I’ve read, why I felt the revival failed to ever quite find its footing in a very changed political climate “when power refuses to go through the motions of concealing its most brutal machinations,” I found the standalone episodes as strong and often stronger than in the original series, and in general felt season 11 struggled less than season 10. But there is one regard in which the season 11 finale left me feeling betrayed and hollow and I’m still struggling a little with it.

And my complaint isn’t with the decision to leave Scully (miraculously) pregnant (again) with a child that she knows for sure is hers and Mulder’s. That is only theirs, together, not the consequence of any experiment or alien intervention, indisputably and without any suspicion otherwise.

Unlike a lot of other fans, I wasn’t particularly turned off by the decision to characterize Jackson as not a very nice or good person, either. I think that choice could’ve provided a lot of opportunity for interesting character development and tension, if Jackson weren’t going to be so terribly shortchanged by the story in virtually every other regard.

It’s that the way the finale dispatched with Jackson was not only abrupt and callous, but illuminated certain troubling trends throughout the series.

Inter-relatedly, I found it a grave mistake and a baffling one on virtually everyone’s part to take at face value CSM’s claim that he was Jackson’s true father. CSM has never been a reliable narrator. Even when telling the truth, he is always seeking his own self-aggrandizement. DNA TESTING EXISTS. There is no reason for Skinner to just believe him because he says this. There is no reason for Scully to just believe this because Skinner says CSM told him so. Scully knows more about reproductive biology than Skinner does and would seek independent verification of this assertion, unless she were to decide, understandably, that she’d rather not know, and in that case, that’s an emotional arc I would wish to see. That Carter himself has apparently decided CSM’s claim to be true, within the dreadfully constrained storytelling time he had available this season, put his characters in the indefensible position of acting not only out of character but out of all consideration for their own history and everything that both they and we know.

It’s a betrayal of too much.

But then, Chris Carter himself has notably not always been a reliable narrator with regard to the truth of his own creations. And that may seem a remarkably arrogant statement from a fan, but consider the span of time during which Carter swore up, down, and sideways that Mulder and Scully would never be together romantically.

beyond the sea

[Yeah, this looks like an entirely normal professional interaction between two people who have worked together for a low single-digit number of months, but sure. Okay.]

Much of the background trajectory of this story has involved Mulder and Scully both devastatingly and relentlessly losing their entire families, beginning with the inciting incident of the whole story arc in the abduction of Samantha. Over the ensuing 25 years, we’re witness to the near-complete decimation of both characters’ families (with the exception of Scully having two living brothers, though I’m not left with the impression that she has much of a relationship left with either of them. Charlie she describes as estranged from the family, and her relationship with Bill seems strained at best the last time we hear from him) and it feels right to me that, at the end of it all, they have this chance to start again. To have a family entirely their own again.

And yet.

On one hand, I appreciate Chris Carter’s determination that the X-Files not turn into a domestic drama, that that was not the kind of show he was interested in making or most of us in watching.

On the other, this story is strewn with abandoned and forgotten children and it doesn’t entirely sit right.

I’m largely leaving aside children who were centrally involved in “monster of the week” cases to draw attention to those who seem to have been created entirely for the sake of advancing the mythology, but little to no further thought given to them as people or even as characters.

1. The Samantha and Kurt* clones. There were a lot of them. And in contrast to Jeremiah Smith’s assertion that they were nothing but drones, we see several of their adult iterations in multiple episodes (“Colony,” “End Game,” “Memento Mori”), and they act not only with consciousness and agency, but with conscience.

(There’s a small detail in “Herrenvolk” which touched me when I caught it while rewatching, which is that somebody, at the house where the cloned worker children live, somebody has—again, despite Jeremiah Smith’s characterization of them as drones without language—bothered to paint labels on objects around the house. The doorbell has clumsily been labeled “bell” in white paint with an arrow. Somebody is or was around who thinks at least slightly more of them than Smith portrays to Mulder.)

herrenvolk2

2. What about the other experimental hybrid children of Emily’s generation? The children, technically, of Penny Northern and the other women abducted and subjected to the same experiments as Scully. Did they all sicken and die in toddlerhood the way Emily did? Maybe, but… the nature of Emily’s illness was bizarre and dangerous in a way that threatened to attract a lot of attention. Is the horrible truth that most or all of them wound up back in the clutches of the Syndicate and the hybridization experiment, the fate that Scully allowed Emily to die to save her from?

3. Where’s Gibson?

I can buy that Gibson’s resentment of Scully’s ultimate failure to protect him might’ve been too much for him. But it has never felt okay that a kid who Scully cared so much about basically fell off the face of the earth to her.

(Edited to add: I got reminded that in the season 9 finale, it turned out that Mulder had been in hiding with Gibson in the Southwest during most of that year, and as both Mulder and Scully go underground, Reyes and Doggett promise to try to keep him safe. But…Reyes apparently shortly wound up in the employ of the CSM. And Doggett…we don’t really hear from again. So my concern for Gibson’s fate being dropped as an issue remains pretty much intact.)

And then there are parallels it’s nearly impossible not to draw between the way that Scully’s dialogue treats Emily and Jackson. That more than once, the children Scully is most apt to describe as “not meant to be” are her own. Who she fights for relentlessly, until the moment she doesn’t, with remarkably similar words.

Although I find myself more sympathetic now for Scully’s decision at the end of “Emily” than I was when the episode first aired. It’s not just that saving Emily would likely be difficult and painful, or that she would always require complicated medical care in order to keep alive. It was that, every moment she remained alive, especially if Scully failed in seeking custody, she risked recapture by the Syndicate and subjugation to God knows what.

Is it the same with Jackson, at the end? That she says these nearly indefensible words not in order to write him off but in an attempt to protect him from further torment? Is this the only way she knows how?

*

It’s hard to reconcile the person who so recently agonized over the autopsies of two children only a couple episodes ago (“Familiar”), one of whom was named Emily (which, if that choice wasn’t calculated to remind us right then of Scully’s other doomed child, was literally the dumbest character naming oversight I have ever seen) with the one who is so ready to give Jackson up as dead and get over him after learning, supposedly, that he was an experiment and not Mulder’s. After 17 years of pining. After the monologue we heard her give to Jackson in “Ghouli.”

It doesn’t add up.

Only, if it were intended to be true to Scully’s character and not simply that Chris Carter needed both Emily and Jackson out of the story, then I begin to see why CSM would even remotely think that upon learning Jackson was his and not Mulder’s, that Scully would go with him and not Mulder.

And I want to be sympathetic that Chris Carter was working with an extremely constrained amount of screen time in these last two seasons, but it still feels like a deeply discordant conclusion for a character who has always, always, been on the side of the vulnerable and especially on the side of threatened children in this story, even when she’s failed.

For a show so thematically occupied with what kind of a future we’re making, it seems to consider the trail of children it’s created remarkably narratively disposable. And I don’t actually believe that is Scully’s belief with regard to Jackson, but the words she’s given to speak make it unsettling close to being indistinguishable from it.

*

The only way I can manage to justify that dialogue is as an attempt by Scully to pre-empt her own grief for a child who she always knew, in the end, she’d never be able to keep. Who she’d already lost twice and mourned as dead once. That she’s just moments ago, “lost” more figuratively in terms of what she thought she knew about his very existence.

That at that moment, she just couldn’t let herself go through it again.

Or that what she’s trying to justify to Mulder is to let Jackson go because he desperately doesn’t want to or can’t cope with being found. (She would, after all, know very shortly or even perhaps already does that Jackson survives.) The Cigarette-Smoking Man is dead, but who else may not be or may still be in pursuit of what Jackson represents is still, in this moment, unknown.

I don’t know about anyone else, but personally, I find support for this interpretation in looking at her face rather than listening to her words in the final scene of “My Struggle IV.”

my struggle iv pic

This isn’t a loss to which she’s reconciled. She knows that this isn’t a happy ending. I don’t believe she believes her own words. These are not people at peace with Jackson’s loss here.

But I don’t believe in my heart that Chris Carter actually did any of that emotional calculus, as opposed to simply needing to exit from the story yet another kid that he doesn’t actually know what to do with. This is not any variety of a resolution as it seems we’re expected to accept; it’s a continuation of the very same ongoing tragedy.

 

*Digressive footnote: Where and who, by the way, is or was the original Kurt Crawford? I realize this is not an issue integral to the story or a “plot hole,” it’s just information we don’t have, but I’ve always wondered. One of the other children of Syndicate members taken with Samantha? Just another abductee like Max Fennig or the women of the MUFON group? We see a lot of him for someone whose very essence of character remains a complete cipher, and he’s a weird, weird foil in that regard to Samantha, whose existence and therefore absence was so very central to the character formation of Fox Mulder and the motivating force for his entire quest. We do see the real Samantha Mulder, if only in flashback and eventually in spirit; we have a sense of who she was, if not her point of view. We never see the real Kurt Crawford. He exists in the narrative not even in flashback but only as an echo, and yet he’s pervasive in it. I’m not sure that’s the case for any other character, and it places him among the very weirdest ghosts in the X-Files to me.

February 10, 2016

When did ‘The X-Files’ get this cool?

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 2:01 pm by chavisory

This is a screen capture of the top headlines from the New York Times Television section one day last month.

The_New_York_Times_-_Breaking_News__World_News___Multimedia

[Image description: Under the section heading “Television” on the New York Times online home page, featured headlines are “How Well Do You Know Your ‘X-Files’ Monsters?” “The X-Files Season 10 Premiere: A Crazier Mulder Than Usual,” and “A Word With: William B. Davis: The Cigarette Smoking Man of The X-Files Resurfaces.” Accompanying photograph is of actor Doug Hutchison as Eugene Victor Tooms, with glowing yellow eyes.]

It is a little bit hard to get words around my bafflement at this state of affairs. People are gushing with happiness all over my Facebook news feed. People who I never knew previously were huge X-Files fans. People who I don’t remember as being similarly obsessed when the show was last on the air.  (Some people who I just didn’t know yet, and I’m thankful that I do now, and not only for the purposes of squealing about The X-Files.)

Don’t get me wrong; I’m happy about this. That I can flail about The X-Files pretty visibly these days; everyone else is, too.  Maybe it just seems that way.

That somehow, between when I was 11, or 21, and now, it’s become perfectly acceptable, if not normal, to be openly obsessed with The X-Files.

It’s a weird thing to feel a little betrayed and befuddled over.

When I was a kid, when I was in college even, and got on about The X-Files, other people tended to get quiet and move away. People who had professed their mutual love of it just moments before. My adoration of this show was mostly something vaguely embarrassing, tolerated, indulged. Over the years I had a couple of friends who shared my interest to a limited extent…I was really excited when I met one other girl at camp who was into it, too. But we didn’t get close.  For a short span of time, I had the AOL message boards, but I was too young to have really great conversations there…and then AOL itself became more grief than it was worth, and I didn’t anymore.

A lot of teenagers would say they liked it, but then would shy away from actually talking about it. Were they saying they did just to make small talk? To placate me? Because that was the thing to do, when someone said they liked something, was to say you liked it, too, regardless of how clueless you actually were, because to admit you didn’t understand something that someone else did was the cardinal sin? (That would explain a lot, actually. Though I feel like I tried that a couple of times and it didn’t work out well.) Did they really, but it was too uncool to admit how much they did, especially to someone like me?

Was it the aliens?

My dedication remained no less steadfast over the years of the show, but it was something I got more and more embarrassed of, and in the later years of the show even fellow serious fans started dropping away. I know, I know, I missed Mulder, too. (If you watch some of those season 8-9 episodes now, they’re actually good—even I had no memory of some of them and was surprised at how good they were upon re-watch—but everyone was so disillusioned by Mulder’s departure that they just gave up.) But stuff just doesn’t let go of me that easily. And it became one of those loves that left me more and more alone over time instead of less.

I kind of just packed it away in my heart after the end of the show. I had a load-in the night of the series finale, which I made peace with videotaping for later. It was time to move on. The second movie got uniformly bad reviews; I continue to maintain its release was mishandled.  But I didn’t even get to go with anyone to the theater to see it.

A decade later I got onto Tumblr and was stunned to find a trove of loving, thoughtful, incisive commentary on the show, by people who were too young to have even watched it in its original run.

And now we’re at this point.

What happened? What changed?

Granted, for one thing, I have more neurodivergent female friends now. Dana Scully turns out to have been a cultural touchstone for a lot of girls who felt chronically weird and out of place. But that isn’t all; a lot of it isn’t coming from those people.

Did pervasive mistrust of the government come to seem less silly and paranoid in the post-9/11 Bush years?

Did everyone just get sick and tired of the culture that required we be aloof, indifferent, and uncaring?…of constantly swallowing their enthusiasm and sincerity and hiding what they loved?

(Even when I was too young to really get a lot of what the show was about, I think that may’ve been a huge factor in what attracted me to it. Mulder and Scully just cared so damn much, when all the grownups in my life always seemed to be telling me to care less.

Care less about the environment. Care less that school was an unfair, mean, and stupid waste of my time. Care less about being home by 8:00 on Friday night.)

It’s really great. It’s more than a little incredible to me. It feels in a way kind of like I just stumbled into the world the way it always should’ve been.

But I also can’t help but wonder, where was all this when I was 12, when it could’ve meant everything?