Thursday, December 30, 2010

Patton Oswalt on how the Internet is producing weak otaku

On December 27th, Wired posted an article by Patton Oswalt entitled: Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die. I thought it was quite insightful, more than a little provocative, and definitely entertaining. He wrote:

When everyone has easy access to their favorite diversions and every diversion comes with a rabbit hole’s worth of extra features and deleted scenes and hidden hacks to tumble down and never emerge from, then we’re all just adding to an ever-swelling, soon-to-erupt volcano of trivia, re-contextualized and forever rebooted. We’re on the brink of Etewaf: Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever.

I know it sounds great, but there’s a danger:

Read the full article here

Oswalt discussed a lot of topics that I care about, so I decided to share his article on Twitter, Facebook, and now here.

On Facebook, I wrote:

Patton Oswalt's essay on how the internet is making otaku culture weak. It mirrors what me and others (such as Toshio Okada) have been saying - the formation of otaku requires scarcity more than abundance. In my talks and papers, I talk about the otaku's information fetish, where true information = things that are unknown and unavailable. The problem described by Oswalt is what I talk about when I discuss "Otaku issues and challenges". I refer to it as "The Otaku's Dilemma".

This resulted in a nice little comment thread (shared below, with permission):

Mollie Dezern wrote:

I feel like there is a major flaw in this reasoning, and that is that with obsessive interest comes abundance. When I engage in searching for more of that thing, I am diligently hoping to increase exposure. I think what he is expressing is a sense of bitterness that people don't have to work to access the Old thing, and his infatuation with it makes him incapable of seeing that there is a new type of underground that is both away from but facilitated by the internet (for example: doujin collecting). I also don't think he wants to acknowledge that need-love, that is comprised of re-consuming and reconsidering the material, happens even in a supersaturated media environment. Just because there is always something new/now doesn't mean that everyone has transitioned to the new/now. Nerds are archivists, and we function despite the turmoil outside our archive.

In reponse, I said:

Thanks for the thoughtful response, Mollie!

I know there's a lot to disagree with in Oswalt's essay, but I'm not sure it's because his reasoning is flawed. It's not so much that obsessive interest results in abundance, it's just that abundance is simply what we have (now, compared to before; this is a real qualitative difference due to things like the low cost of data storage and transmission).

In terms of what he's longing for, it's a particular feeling. Yes, when we look for something, we hope to find a lot of whatever that thing is, but there's a different feeling associated with looking for and finding that which is uncommon versus that which can be attained with just two or three mouse clicks.

Perhaps he is a little bitter that 'people these days have it too easy', but I don't think it's just jealousy. There's also an understanding that scarcity (even if it's "artifical") has real value in terms of people's happiness and desire for creativity.

I agree with you that there are always going to be niches that are mostly unexplored or have not been co-opted by the internet. That's always been my approach to this problem--always look to the edges of mainstream experience (without falling off the cliff). However, the game has indeed changed. Even doujin collecting (and comic book collecting in general) means something different in this day and age of easily accessible scans (and legitimate digital distribution).

You're totally correct that re-consuming and re-consideration still happens, and I'm sure he knows it still happens, but I think there's truth to the idea that there's less of a need to do so (for many, but not all people). As someone who once watched Tron 8 times in 2 days, I find it hard to imagine doing something like that now (considering how much I own or have access to, including old school stuff, that I haven't had time to read/watch). It's not a purely either/or situation where people consume strictly for depth or strictly for breadth. The Otaku's Dilemma is about otaku optimizing their behavior to maximize their information intake.

Mark Yoshimi wrote:

I think that Oswalt's article reflects the thoughts of a "bitter" geek. Essentially, many of us who could be considered "OG-Geeks", are simply getting older and we've found that many of the things we used to find solace in has now become commercial and mainstream. Our niche in society is no longer a clique. Everywhere you go now you see is Apple logos. Atari, Mario and NES are stamped on t-shirts galore. Now comic book heroes are all over Hollywood (note that they are played by good-looking, non-nerdy actors!). It's now chic to be geek! "Who you gonna call? Geek Squad!" I know when I was little it all started with Star Wars and an Atari 2600. It was only natural for an imagination like mine to move onto the early home computers ala Atari 8-bit. At that time, I was one of the only kids at my elementary school typing my essays. Teachers and other kids thought I was "strange" because I was able to do this and had such interests as hacking and downloading files from BBS's. I was in band and hung out with computer nerds in high school! Who would ever have thought that one of my childhood 8-bit heroes, Steve Jobs, could become one of the prolific icons of the 21st century. One that I now despise as being the root of all corporate evil?

I responded:

Hey Mark,

Thanks for your thoughts.

I still think it's possible to be an "OG-geek", as you call it, without feeling bitter or indulging in nostalgia for its own sake. I've decided a long time ago (with Carol's help) not to look down on mainstream/commercial things. I've met people who think I'm unable or unwilling to enjoy popular entertainment--and they're sometimes disappointed when they see how common my tastes actually are ;)

Of course, I still love niche subjects, and when they're co-opted (as so many good things are), the best recourse (IMO) is to move onto new things and/or use our knowledge (of previously-fringe subjects) that is now in high demand. So, maybe we can feel bittersweet instead of bitter, and hopeful (though possibly adrift) as we look for new challenges, unconventional diversions, and uncommon artifacts...until they invent replicators. ;)

PS: Hooray for BBSes!


  1. I for one love the fact that what used to be niche has now gone mainstream. It's a vindication that what we always thought was secretly cool finally caught on. No one has to meet in anyone's garage to discuss their usenet group or what cool accessory they got for their Amiga or Timex Sinclair. There's so much culture out there now that the mainstream can pick and choose while the elitists create and mold the next would-be cool thing. Between the Internet explosion, social networks, and a generation of kids growing up with this as the norm, no one can predict how cool and geeky the next thing coming is (and blooming idiots that think this is all just a fad can curl up in a box with their dead picture tubes and need not apply.)

  2. "Sometimes I wish I were back in that garage." ;)

    Kidding aside, I agree with you, there's a lot to be happy and hopeful about. What I try to remember, however, is that there's no implicit guarantee that future innovations will be as good (in terms of improving life) as past innovations.

    That's not to say we should stop moving or go backwards. We need to look forward, fully awake and with our hands on the steering wheel. We have the power and responsibility to make sure the conditions are in place that will result in a better future.

  3. One other point that comes to mind is that, to some degree, I think there's a good subset of "niche" that's going to stay firmly so in spite of a wealth of readily accessible knowledge.

    Table-top RPGs, for example, are unlikely to catch on like wildfire in the "mainstream". I think it's because the RPG culture is engendered in the procedure of play. It's difficult to convey an appreciation for the value of a timely saving throw, or the devastation wrought by a failed diplomacy check. Frequently, the specifics of these events cannot be made part of a shared context except in the most broad sense of the significance of the mechanic to the overall play. A tabletop campaign is most often a very personal thing, a niche of one game group that relates to the canon of another group at the mechanical level. Like soldiers sharing war stories with other troops and trading jibes from past sorties with comrades, it's beyond the ken of "civilians". Anyone can look up play records of a game, and depending on the writing, may even enjoy the tale; but that same person is not usually riveted by my account of time my 18th-level Elementalist accrued a debt of 960,000 gold and fell in battle against ice golems trying to pay it off. But we're here. We've been here and will be here, passing our lore on, wherever there's a table and open ear. We were _there_ after all.

    Hyperbolic much? Oh, absolutely! But that, too, is the way of Otaku.

    Also, half-formed thought: something about doujin, and how the overall manifestation of this will to create has an unusually high barrier to entry. Even as a consumer, one has to have niche interests within a niche to get involved (acknowledging the mainstreaming of anime and manga; rise of moe, etc). The culture of extremism and abundance of graphic content may well be a deterrent force that keeps it strong. Importantly, it's only scarce from the outside, because production far outpaces consumption at the individual scale. And once again, you have the small-group factor. Circles of one or two people; the circles they table next to at events; the fans that come to read their work and socialise; the fans that are dedicated to niches within the niche, such as K-On! lesbian fiction, or girls with headphones... It's a subculture that the "mainstream" culture can't help but find unpalatable, and I can't see our Puritanical core values withering away so quickly as to ever allow the collective works of Black Dog or Ishikei (or hell, even Taka Tony) anywhere near the reality of normal people. But, as with RPGs; a select few will hear of it, recoil overtly, investigate privately, and a new member will join the fold. Some find it a bad fit, others take to it with a gusto; chaff and wheat.

    To some degree I think of Otaku as specialist librarians, curators of their passions, and this necessarily colours my thoughts on the matter. People showing interest in a library's collection is rarely a bad thing (unless they're Mongol hordes), and Otaku are almost always interested in talking about the knowledge they've cultivated (provided you mind the height-restrictions and be honest. Posers and people that don't "get it" are frowned upon, because Otaku have elitist tendencies). But when the nature of the collection conflicts with deep-rooted tendencies, or is obfuscated by complexities of context, the result seems to be a chain of successive levels requiring more and more engagement, fostering isolation from the mainstream. In this way, could we say that specialisation is its own defense against assimilation?

    As a final note (whoops, long-windedness strikes again), I'd like to point out that that the process he suggests be undertaken seems highly reminiscent of what Azuma Hiroki observed in 2001 in 動物化するポストモダン―オタクから見た日本社会 (Trans. Abel and Kono (2009) "Otaku: Japan's Database Animals"), so he may well be a decade late on the beginning of this.

  4. Thanks for your thoughts, Wyatt.

    There are indeed many things that resist assimilation, but it's often surprising to see what makes it into the mainstream (even if it takes a long time).

    I have the Azuma book. If you have time, could you point me to the specific chapter/passage that best illustrates his approach to this? For the record, while I mostly agree with Oswalt's assessment of the problem, I feel that his solution (causing the intentional implosion of pop culture) was intentionally tongue-in-cheek (his "personal fantasy", as he put it). I'm not sure it's practical as a real-life solution.

    But if you mean that Japanese pop culture started to buckle under its own weight many years ago, that makes some sense. Certain postmodern aspects of Japanese culture have always been a step or two ahead of similar trends in the United States.

  5. I'm so glad you wrote about this, Lawrence. When I wrote my own article about otaku, the first thing I did was reread your essay on the origins of the word.

    The way people are referring to Oswalt as a "bitter geek" reminds me of the "oldtaku" argument, about how there's a divide at conventions between the young fans and the people who are saying, "Back in MY day, we had to swap a moldy VHS of Ranma 1/2 and we LIKED it!" I disagree that scarcity defines a "strong" otaku.

    To me, what makes a true otaku is somebody who creates, who gives back to the fandom, who does not just absorb it passively. "Weak" otaku don't feel the need to do anything other than drop $19.99 on a ready-made Nintendo shirt. But I've seen teenagers who, while they could just pick up anime online and be done with it, are still writing epic fanfics about their interests. Nothing weak in that to me!

  6. Thanks, Lauren!

    Here's a link to your post (so others can see it):

    I definitely believe that different generations of fandom have had very different experiences, for better or worse. I don't like saying one set of experiences was/is overall better than the other, but I do think there are positive elements of both old school and modern fandom that deserve our attention.

    As you know, there are many different definitions of otaku; the ambiguity/flexibility of the word is what makes it both infuriating and incredibly useful depending on the context.

    Even in my own particular definition, there are several factors that define "stronger" versus "weaker" otaku. [Note: I don't actually have a problem with the proliferation of 'weak otakuism', though I do worry that 'strong otakuism' might be in trouble. I also come from the school of thought that treats 'otaku' as a word of honor (as opposed to being an insult), but I'm not encouraging anyone to look down on non-otaku or 'weaker' otaku either.]

    For me, scarcity is important for otaku culture to thrive because it stimulates the creative impulse. I completely agree that creatively contributing to a larger community of fans is an integral part of being an otaku, and yes, fans who have easy access to media (and each other) can be quite creative and prolific.

    In the case of fans who are writing fanfic, I feel that scarcity plays a part here as well. For various reasons (including their personality), certain fans feel that the official narrative is not enough. They feel like something is missing in the original story, whether it's an account of what happens next, what happened before, what happened on the side, unexplored character relationships, alternate versions of the story, etc. These are fans who are compelled to make more of what they need and don't have (as opposed to passively waiting for the next official release or some other fan to do it for them).


    Here's an excerpt I like from an interview with Toshio Okada (no longer up, but originally at ):

    AUDIENCE: Do you feel it is easier for social outcasts to be creative, to invent original ideas?

    OKADA: That's right. Basically, creativity will not come out of happy lives, but from people who become outcasts. There is no reason for you to become *purposely* unhappy. 'Cause everybody who watches anime is happy--the people who watch it who are *not* happy, are the people who make it [LAUGHS].


    Similar to my response to Mollie, we don't need to create a false dichotomy--where only the previous generations of fans were compelled to create (because of scarcity) and newer generations are wholly passive (due to abundance). There was plenty of passive consumption in the past, and there is plenty of amazing fan creativity in the present.

    What's different is the abundance currently afforded by the internet. This relative abundance means that there's less of an impetus/necessity for many (but not all) people to be creative, which may mean proportionally fewer 'strong otaku', and it certainly presents a challenge for all otaku who are trying to decide whether to go for depth (focusing on particulars) versus breadth (exploring all the choices), which seems to be the difficulty you articulate regarding the appropriate focus of your Geek Event Guide.

  7. Quick clarification:

    The Okada excerpt was from a panel (at Anime America '96), not a traditional interview.

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