Xbox: Stand Alone Complex

laughing man

So everybody and their grandma is talking about the “Xbox 180”: Microsoft’s complete about-face and their decision to take back everything they said about the Xbox One’s online policies, intrusive DRM, mandatory daily account verification, the elimination of used games and game-sharing, etc etc.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff being written about that, especially as regards the victory of consumers over short-term corporate greed and professional PR message-massaging.

I don’t really have anything to add to that stuff, and frankly, a lot of it was already said a year or two ago, when Bank of America tried to add fees to checking accounts or whatever, and then backpedaled after massive consumer backlash.  The internet has arrived, the consumer is king, and the basic paradigm of market capitalism is undergoing strange and unprecedented changes.  Huzzah!

But here’s an interesting thing I do want to discuss: the curious and exciting event that emerged via Twitter right after the announcement.

Earlier in the day, Giant Bomb’s Patrick Klepek broke the story.  “Inside sources” said that Microsoft would, by the end of the day, announce major changes being implemented to its much-maligned plans for the Xbox One.  Before people could even question Klepek’s sources, indeed even before people could open their mouths to speak–less than an hour after his story hit!–the official Microsoft announcement dropped.

Five minutes after that, #Xbox180 was trending worldwide.

I coined that hashtag, yknow.  Or at least, I thought I did.  So did a lot of other people, it soon turned out.  We all came to the same stupid little pun completely independently, and, putting the chicken before the egg, jumped it up to a worldwide trend before we even realized it was an actual Thing.  If you were to take on the Herculean feat of combing backwards through the tweets from around the time the story broke, you’d find a common pattern:

1) User tweets something humorous and coins the hash-tag #Xbox180

2) User congratulates self on coming up with a good joke

3) User expresses surprise that #Xbox180 is already a popular hash-tag

4) User expresses shock (and/or delight) that #Xbox180 is trending worldwide.

It might sound like I’m extrapolating from my own experience, but I’m really, truly not.  I saw this happen dozens of times with my own eyes, in the short time I had #Xbox180 up on a realtime search; people tweeting things like “Aw, I thought I made that up” or “Damn you Internet, you think you’re so clever”

So what gives?  How does this happen, and why?

Let’s break it down.

Now, it’s no secret that I’m a tremendous fan of Ghost in the Shell.  I’ve read the mangas, watched the movies and both TV shows (which I feel are the franchise’s best incarnation) and am breathlessly looking forward to the new series, Arise, coming out in just a few days.  I feel Ghost in the Shell is one of the most important works of cyberpunk ever created, right up there with Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” and William Gibson’s “Neuromancer”.

But it was only today that I realized I never truly grasped, at a practical level, the themes put forward in “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex”.

In the fiction of the show, a “stand alone complex” is defined as an informational phenomenon that occurs when a commonly-shared stimulus pushes a large number of people to undertake the same action en masse, in a way which seems, to the outside eye, to demonstrate a degree of coordination or cooperation toward a common end.  The simplest metaphor I can conjure to mind are zombies.  You know how zombies “work together” but are not, really, ACTUALLY working together?  When a bunch of zombies knock down a wall because they all heard the same noise and pushed on the same spot at the same time — that’s a good way to think of a stand alone complex.

We had a stand alone complex today.  Thousands or hundreds of thousands of gamers all invented the same silly pun at the same time, in such force that it became a phenomenon.

And really, is it any surprise?  The joke is a pretty self-evident one.  The Xbox 360, Microsoft performing a 180 — the joke writes itself.

I mean that literally.

From a set of commonly-shared stimuli, a bunch of unwitting meat-bodies play the unwitting host-vector as the joke writes itself.

But what makes this especially interesting now — and is basically proved by the entire “Xbox 180” announcement itself — is that thanks to Twitter, the Internet, the narrative-driven nature of new media, etc, these kinds of phenomena actually carry weight now.  Whether positive or negative, the reaction to Microsoft’s announcement will have a tangible effect on the net PR they either gained or lost today.  That will translate directly to sales, come year’s end.  THAT will translate to a direct effect upon the financial livelihood of a megacorporation.

Think about that for a second.  The combined force of a hundred thousand nerds all making the same silly joke at the same time could ripple outwards and have an effect to the tune of BILLIONS of dollars.

It already did. 

That’s mind-blowing.  That’s some Butterfly Effect -type stuff.

The question now is: how far does this go?

As technology renders the feedback loop smaller and smaller, and the cycle of information-reaction becomes faster and faster, how dominant a role will events like this play in the economy?  Politics?  War?  Will technology and culture become so seamlessly entwined that the world’s reaction to an event and the event itself are one and the same?  That the public conversation about something and what is actually, tangibly happening to that something occur simultaneously?

Ghost in the Shell sure thought so.

I’m starting to understand why. –[]

As a side-note, if you’ve never seen “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex”, I highly recommend it.  It’s a thought-provoking piece of philosophically-inclined cyberpunk, presented as a solidly-entertaining police procedural.  Plus, it’s got one of the most interesting female leads I’ve ever seen in any piece of fiction anywhere.  You can actually watch the entire series on Youtube (with commercials) starting here.

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4 thoughts on “Xbox: Stand Alone Complex

  1. Julian Perez says:

    Every time I talk about groups like Anonymous that act en masse without coordination, some pedantic prick would correct me when I say they’re an organization by saying “they’re not an organization.” It eventually occurred to me these guys weren’t being pedantic at all, it’s just at the present time, our language doesn’t have the words to accurately describe certain kinds of spontaneous, organic events communication like the internet makes possible.

    I’m not a video gamer. I don’t plan to buy any of the next gen consoles. But I am disturbed by the recent erosion of First Sale Rights, or the idea you buy something and afterward, can do whatever you like with it. I’m disturbed by the expansion of intellectual property rules at the expense of the public and the consumer. Make no mistake, this is a copyright issue: cel phone unlocking, maybe the biggest assault on ownership, is prohibited by copyright rules, specifically, how the DMCA prohibits cracking/circumventing of encryption even on things you own.

    Even Barack Obama, the most powerful man in the world, said he’d LOVE to end it…but the DMCA is held in place by international treaties.

    Wonder why people are so opposed to TPP, despite the fact a treaty like that can’t do anything already existing national laws can’t do? Because they make it that much harder to actually enact reform of any kind.

    I am absolutely delighted to see this triumph of angry people taking a stand together, mostly because people couldn’t do that kind of thing in the past with the immediacy and impact they can now. Anyone says the internet makes us worse or dumber, tell them about this. The internet has made us better people in some ways and does good. I hope this kind of thing has the effect of making us less cynical.

    And this was not over a “little thing.” Technology that treats you like a criminal is wrong.

    The last time I saw something like this was how over the course of a week, sure-thing SOPA-PIPA became toxic. This was a spontaneous materialization of popular will spread via networks. The ugliest thing I’ve seen since 2012 has been conspiracy theory claims of those taking the lobbyist position, in the most clear-cut case of projection seen in my entire lifetime, of accusing big money lobbies of being behind killing SOPA via astroturfed organization. Really! I almost died laughing at the projection. This was by CreativeAmerica, openly founded by the RIAA/MPAA (not innuendo or conspiracy theory; they say so up front).

    I’ve never really been fond of cyberpunk. I became a science fiction reader around the time cyberpunk was starting to become a dated joke, when people started to laugh at 80s-90s “edge” as posturing (e.g. Mortal Kombat, Spawn comics, Mountain Dew, Poochie, any non-ironic use of “X-Treme”), and hacker movies became laughably hilarious as technology became so everyday the errors became funny (“I’ll enter the internet!” and “I’ll hack into his power source!”).

    Finally, Cyberpunk heroes are what nerds think cool people are like. It’s no coincidence Ted “Theodore” Logan was Johnny Mnemonic AND Neo.

    I’d compare Cyberpunk to Flash Gordon-like dated ideas of the future, but at least Flash Gordon had whimsy and didn’t try to have edge. Cyberpunk was a product of its time, mood and moment in history, like Film Noir.

    • Cyberpunk definitely has a strong cheese element.

      I think it draws me so much as a genre primarily because even when the things that are happening are pretty much impossible from a practical standpoint, the genre nonetheless tends to take a “hard sci-fi” tone, using stories to explore ideas regarding technology and society in a way that is palatable and interesting for people who might not otherwise be all that into reading a straight-up nonfiction text addressing the same concepts.

      Cyberpunk is one of the few ways you can approach the layman and ask something like “Hey, what do you think constant exposure to blogs about cats might be doing to our brains? Let’s you and I talk about that.”

  2. Julian Perez says:

    If Ghost in the Shell did predict Anonymous or SOPA protest-like events, that’s interesting and they’re more prescient than I gave ’em credit for being.

    In social science, there’s a term for these kinds of spontaneous gatherings, “aggregates.” An example would be a riot. These things seem random, but when analyzed show interesting characteristics.

    • Yeah it ABSOLUTELY did. That’s pretty much the cornerstone of the plot of the “Stand Alone Complex” series: an ephemeral figure called “The Laughing Man” who spawns this mass of digital copycats.

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