Sunday, January 31, 2010

Facebook, the internet and community

One of my minds many backburners has been simmering away for months at the idea of quitting facebook. Sure, I could have better used that backburner on some research question which would improve the grade quality of my degree, but we can’t be all work.

I haven’t been methodical, weighing pros and cons, or categorising the things I have read when I look at the broader implications of a facebook universe. To be completely honest, I had a gut instinct long ago telling me to escape from this particular digital moebius strip, and have waffled because my realtime, actual, face-to-face social network is so miniscule, that what the devil offers seems like a good compromise.

Like many of life’s bigger decisions, after prolonged reflection, calculated deliberation and an adequate weighing of the facts, I reneged on making a decision, I prorogued my personal government, I acted as though not deciding was not a decision in itself. I am not an elected official in my own personal kingdom, and yet I often treat controversial decisions as though I were. Seriously, what am I going to do in the face of a poor decision, fire me?

My understanding is that facebook has hundreds of millions of users. I'm sure there is wide variation in how their usage breaks down. Some use it as a convenient message board, some escape and procrastinate through thousands of mindless applications(which exist mostly to capture information –it’s called data mining), some invest exorbitant energy into constructing their online identities and work hard to ensure lots of activity on their page. Some users , like wallflowers of yore, watch the world around them, except with profoundly far reaching abilities—not necessarily stalkers or spies, just a casual ability to view virtual approximations of events in a sort of world very separate from themselves..

All of us, to one degree or another enjoy strange new social properties unheard of in human history. We watch the daily unfolding of life in statuses and comments and links for a brief acquaintance we made decades earlier who we haven’t seen, in years, nor will we ever see again who lives on another continent, and who maybe we have no direct communication with beyond that initial decision to click yes to a friendship request. And, with the esoteric nature of what is private and what is not, we may end up exploring the photos and lists and profiles of friends of friends of friends(and think about how tenuous the link of “friend” is in the first place).

Compare this to a few years ago. You are walking down the street in some city you live in, or are visiting. Across the street, you recognise someone, vaguely . What did you do in this situation versus what do you do now in a facebook universe? Let’s assume the person you recognise isn’t some loathed ex romantic interest, or some other enemy(though people often add these to their friends lists--combining the distant safety of online relations with the desire to promote networks). Let’s say the person across the street is simply someone who was once a neighbour, a classmate, a co-worker. Someone who you knew by first name, even if you were never even full acquaintances, let alone friends—just someone you were aware of. In the analog days of physical interaction, you might have ignored them, even avoided eye contact, because you were too busy to stop for a minutes empty chat, or you might have stopped and said hi, and exchanged a few honest pleasantries. And that would be it.

But today, the “street” you run into another in is the internet, perhaps facebook. The ensuing moment of contact results in a permanent link, keeping you and that other fully up to date on all your daily goings on, and providing some level of access to everyone that each knows.

Now, you are bored at work, or at home on a Saturday night with no good tv shows on, and you are surfing facebook. You see an amusing status update from this near stranger who is now part of your network and you make some pithy comment on their update. Or maybe they voice some cryptic emotional statement and you comment with some human solidarity. This goes on occasionally, back and forth over the months and years, and yet you never interact with this person in any direct or individual way. You look through their friend list for other old schoolmates/colleagues etc. add a few more to your network. And so it goes with pseudo interactions with ever more nebulous contacts who all exist in the category of “friends”.

Would anything remotely like this have occurred in the world where you crossed paths in your real bodies walking down real streets. What does it mean? Does it mean anything? Does it mean anything meaningful? Is it distracting? Does it siphon the little bit of energy you have to contribute to your social health into thousands of meaningless pseudo interactions between essential strangers?

Here is another comparison. Previous to the modern internet, you would have spoken to another person via face to face communication, phone call, letter, even e-mail. In that world, how many of your status updates would you have pronounced to anyone, let alone everyone you have ever known?: “enjoying my coffee”, “hate the rain”, “a certain someone should drop dead, you know who you are”, “is bored”, “wants you to answer question x and then copy and paste said question to your own profile”. We spend real time imagining ourselves and our public personae when we make these pronouncements that we never would have made to any individual, let alone to everyone. Does this say anything about how we think of self and other? About communication, about connection?

I would imagine that most facebook users have happened into contacts they are grateful to have been reunited with, or have been rewarded with human contact during a dark tea-time of the soul because someone responded to their cryptic status update. And that is nice--journalists write warm human interest pieces about such things. But is this representative of the brave new world of facebook and other social network sites?

Maybe it is just the internet in general. Almost nobody makes contact in the real world, meets strangers, strikes up conversations in cafes, bars, or outside movie theatres, but we desperately engage all day and all night on our social network pages, and on semi or completely anonymous comment sections of websites. We write blogs--some people having half a dozen blogs, some private, some public, some anonymous—what a schizophrenic cacophony of identity. We so badly want to be heard and to hear others, maybe engage, maybe be validated, maybe get in a good argument—as long as we don't have to put our real self on the line and engage with another real self that might have some real consequence, some lineage, some history, some reality we have to abide by and react to. We want absolute control on how we are received and when and how much we accept of others. We want our most momentary whim to communicate to be gratified, and then to turn off that tap at another whim, and never revisit it. We want to avoid any responsibility concerned with social engagement. We certainly get to sidestep the kind of responsibility incurred in any real community, and yet we call all these gossamer communications communities. Does the word still retain any meaning?

I am sometimes an alarmist, sometimes a pessimist and often a luddite. But it truly is worth noting, that in a very short span of time, communication technologies have completely changed the way we relate to ourselves and to others. We take it all on in stride amazingly and with very little question or reflection.

Senior citizens who grew up without computers, whose first experience with a mouse that wasn’t made of flesh and blood dates back months, are all out there facebooking, myspacing, blogging, railing in the national papers commentary sections, playing little interactive games. Children born in the last decade or so have no concept of any other world. They learn the iconology of computers before they learn their mother tongue—they can speak to a computer before they can speak to us.

Are we more networked? Do we have stronger communities? Can we get our voices heard in matters that matter? Do we feel less alone in the universe? Are we closer to people who matter? Do we spend more time in high quality social engagement? Are we more deeply engaged in meaningful relationships with others than we were? I'm not really in a position to answer, I am a bit of a misanthrope, so my answers are skewed. Despite my biased viewpoint, I feel fearful about the answers to these questions.

I read about strong communities and about revolutionary activities that benefit communities, but they never have anything to do with the internet or facebook. I am a deeply immersed internet person and I begin to feel that my life was more active, contributed more and was more interactive before the point and click universe became the norm. And yet, what do you do with that kind of thought? Drop out? Run away? Disconnect? Ironically, write about it on your blog? It’s not really different from feeling you don't believe in your government, or the current economic system—it’s not like you can easily leave it behind. What does it mean if you have a gut instinct that tells you to disconnect in order to be better able to connect, but you have no ‘plan b’?

Friday, January 29, 2010

movies again. . .that's winter for you

We are deep into that time of year when I find myself watching far more tv than usual in a desperate bid to cope with cabin fever and SAD. If I could hibernate I would. The next best thing is a mental escape. Not only to I spend more time in front of the tube, but I'm usually looking for viewing with maximum kick. I need something flashy enough to get through the fog and simple enough for my dulled senses to appreciate.

The flic I just watched completely took me away. It had everything I adore in a movie. The camera was decadent and took me places far-flung from my normal experience. The characters were larger than life. It had rich resonant themes, portraying conflicted loyalties, bids for freedom against all odds, and the power of love. And it had utterly breathtaking special effects that had you squirming in your seat. Not least, it sure didn’t hurt that it had a sweeping dramatic score.

The film takes the audience to a lush tropical paradise populated by a tribe of happy carefree natives who live closely aligned to the rhythms of nature. This Eden-like place, though has been occupied by a cold capitalist colonial force, portrayed in stark contrast to the child-like natives. The mingling of cultures does produce sympathizers among the colonials, as indeed, we the audience are directed. The story introduces a cocky, fearless and good-natured hero, whose adventure is set in motion when he tries slipping on the appearance of the foreigners. There really isn’t anything that special about the hero except that he is the rallying spirit of the people.

The director shakes you all about, you experience glee and lightheartedness watching the natives, you channel some anger and indignant sense of injustice and some moral outrage. There is suspense, and hope. And, watching the tragic decimation of the natives, there is heartbreak. By the end of the film, there is freedom, redemption, transformation.

I suppose some criticism is easy enough to level.

The characters were a bit cardboard cut-out, the dialogue stilted in places, occasionally painfully so. The tale may have been a bit on the unlikely side and it had a simplistic kind of morality to it.

I imagine some people watching it lament the dumbing down of cinema, and grouse about the nature of blockbusters with their pretty, vacant faced stars. And while everyone was impressed with the special effects(I know I was), some people probably were so taken by the spectacle as to wonder if it wasn’t a game changer, forever raising the bar for how dazzled we expect to be and what kind of content we want in film.

Have you had a chance to see the film I'm talking about? It’s called The Hurricane; it was directed by John ford in 1937. (and, yes, in 2010, the special effects are still awesome and nerve-wracking). I won’t say anything more about the story of The Hurricane, other than that it isn’t much like Avatar at all, despite my deceptive comparisons. But, I do highly recommend watching it, it is a powerful film.

So, The Hurricane just got me thinking about the kind of movies we love. We enjoy clever twist movies, and slice of life dramas, lofty period pieces, romantic films, and we love our thrillers. But the sort of movies that chew up the most box-office, the kind we most often revisit, re-watch, those films take distilled elements from all the other kinds of stories we like, ratchet them up and package them in the most outlandish stories set in exotic places, told at dizzying pace with every bit of eye-candy Hollywood can muster. The characters are often reduced to symbols of the trait they embody, or their role in the plot. The plots themselves don’t withstand the slightest bit of deconstruction and mighty loads of disbelief needs be suspended to get us all the way through to the resolution.

We call them blockbusters. Critics typically hate them. Everybody laughs or grumps about what is silly about them. But we flock to them time and time again. I'm never sure why it is the norm to be derisive or dismissive of the kinds of films that so many people obviously enjoy. it's like we can't get enough of them, but then are ashamed afterwards and have to distance ourselves from the child-like glee we felt

We are moved by Keannu Reeves love for Carrie Ann-Moss in The Matrix and in the third film we get our cinematic kiss filmed in a beautiful homage to the golden age of cinema . We bite our nails with tension when the dinosaurs are after the children in any Jurassic Park movie. We root like mad for the rebels and their strange mystics to give a come-uppance to the empire. We’ve been astonished and saddened by King Kong in various incarnations for nearly 80 years. We are enchanted to be taken to utopic Shangri-La in 1937’s Lost Horizon(which at the time was the most expensive production ever made)

People often label the blockbuster as something invented or discovered with the movie, Jaws. Or some date it to Star Wars, but the truth is Hollywood has always delivered blockbusters, mainly because we like them. Hell, Homer and Ovid were delivering blockbusters long, long ago. And yet blockbusters are viewed as some kind of insulting de-evolution of film and story-telling. Audiences feign disdain while rushing out to get tickets for the next over-blown hoopla. They wish for better movies, but there isn't actually a shortage of "better" movies, it's just not where the audience dollar tends to go.

I think blockbusters often offer us a wonderful gift. They invite us to leave our brains at the door. You know, our tired, stressed out, consumed-with-mundane-details-of-life brains. The blockbusters disarm us and leave us open to wonder. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate a complex psychological drama that lets me explore aspects of the human condition and gets me thinking and leaves me with new perspectives and reflections when the lights come up. But I also really love swooping emotions, epic arcs, desirable ideals, heroes you can trust, identifiable villains, madcap adventure, thrills and danger, allegories.

Deep in the icy belly of winter and its engulfing nights I find greater comfort in Raiders of the Lost Ark than The English Patient even though I loved them both. Ghandi was a tremendous movie that influenced me during impressionable adolescence, but I have seen it exactly once, while I cannot count how many times I’ve seen Jurassic Park(especially during winter). One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest was a groundbreaking movie, but Star Wars became part of English vernacular, and is still relevant to people, and if it were put back in the theatre would still be selling out seats.

I wonder at the etymology of the word blockbuster. The image I always have, is line-ups of people that wrap around the block. I remember these line-ups(before the era of multiplexes). I remember them for Superman, for the Empire Strikes Back. I was such a small child in those lines, but remember them. When the Spiderman movie came out a few years back, even the multiplex made everyone line up outside. It was miserably hot, my gang of nerds had no water and it was hours of waiting. And yet you could feel the thrilling hum in the line-up: Building in anticipation and excitement.

Avatar had been playing for more than a month before I managed to get tickets. That wasn’t artificial hype because the distributors were restricting the number of screens it played on--it's been playing on almost every screen, sucking up revenue from all the other films screening. And that bugger lived up with perfect blockbuster qualities!

Without a shred of irony, here's a mid-winter cheers to blockbusters!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

We are wild animals

I have been blessed lately that every film I have released my sweaty dollars to recently has been gorgeous, rich, and deep in reflective fodder. If I wasn’t lazy, and busy with other things, I would write lengthy appreciations of them all. As it is, I just want to meander for a moment on a theme that emerges from them despite differing genres, mediums and what not. So without further ado, here are some thoughts on recent theatre excursions that all left me feeling enriched rather than only distracted.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox. This is a glorious and unique visual spectacle incorporating every animating technique there is. It takes a sophisticated (in its own right) child’s tale, by master, Roald Dahl, and imbues it with all of Wes Anderson’s charms—understated wit, an element of surrealism, awkward spaces, some poignant existentialism, and a genius use of sound and music.

Mr. Fox is a chicken thief, arrogant and cheeky and in love with his own cleverness, that is, up until his mate announces her pregnancy. The inevitable settling down occurs, and Mr. Fox does a fine job of being a father and husband, yet is unsatisfied with his life, and longs for things that are more true to his nature.

Throughout the film, even as events get more complicated, Mr. Fox maintains a maxim, and underpins all his ideas with the bold statement “we are wild animals”. It’s a lament and a call to arms. A plea and a definitive motto to change the way the characters conduct themselves. It is difficult not to question a parallel here. The animals in the film are sedate, middleclass sub-urban types, with civil jobs, conservative clothing, and all the trappings of civilization. And yet, our hero longs for his animal nature. He longs for a simpler existence that makes more sense to him. Mr. Fox is a buffoon, and does not make sound plans despite his charms, and yet, by the end of the film, he wins over his fellow animals with his own modern compromise to being a wild animal.

Avatar. I grew up on James Cameron, and his allegories about technology, society and the military forces that support empires. His new film, while surpassing all others visually, in creating a living breathing alien world that leaves your mouth hanging open, is a continuation of themes he has pursued throughout his career. Avatar utilizes all the classic tropes of myth. A hero from afar, the heroes journey of growth and discovery. Transformation. Prophecy. Reconnection with nature.

Our heroes journey takes him from being human, to being animal. He leaves his uniform and machines behind to live in a body with a tail and keen sense of smell and hearing, and to live in the jungle. Once he is accepted into the tribe, he is told, in no uncertain terms, “we’ll see if we can cure you of your insanity”. And here we have the whole film.

The bad guys aren’t evil, they’re nuts. They live in a psychotic break from reality and are isolated from everything meaningful. The corporate face says to his people, in frustration, “we don’t have anything they want.” And there it is. All the trappings and comforts of wealth and civilization mean nothing to the beings of Pandora. Everything we have achieved and hold dear, and can think of to offer to trade for a mineral beneath their soil amounts to nothing to the Naa’vi. so much for economics.

Our hero, enters the story a cripple with lifeless legs, who wishes more than anything, in Pinnochio fashion, to be whole. His adventures on Pandora make him whole again by teaching him that it wasn’t his legs that held him back from being whole. In essence, our hero renounces his humanness to embrace his animalness.

The Princess And The Frog. I'm not a big fan of Disney, by any means, but I have to say, this one harkened back to the look and feel of films from 40-60 years ago. Gone are the incongruous references to pop culture and other self-referential nonsense meant to amuse adults while disconnecting everyone from the story. And gone are the ugly angular drawings of modern fare. I am reluctant to say it, but this was Disney magic.

Unlike many animated stories, rather than simply having anthropomorphic animals, our heroes are humans, transformed into animals and for both the hero(the girl) and the sidekick(the prince) the way they both overcome their shortcomings and finally achieve valuable things in their life, is through animal experience. Towards the climax of the film, you wondered if they were going to remain frogs—as a happy ending.

And like the animal world that we try and pretend doesn’t exist, and certainly shield our children from (inexplicably), the danger in this story is palpable. Our motley band of heroes, despite praying to the stars, are at risk, and one dies before the end of the film.

This may sound strange, but I was so overjoyed, sitting in the darkened theatre with my daughter, to see that the villain was scary, and the images of his supernatural world were frightening, and that he was a true villain and snuffed out one of the heroes. I don’t know what kind of world we want lie to our children about, or how that gives them the emotional experiences that will prepare them for adulthood, but just like Grimm’s tales, this film allows children to explore different spaces and states of mind in a fairly safe place to learn from. I'll take film trauma over film pablum everyday of the week, thank you very much.

Fairy tale or not, the humans in this tale only achieve the day by regaining their animal senses.

Where The Wild Things Are. One of the most turbulent times in life is a very specific moment in childhood when a person individuates. The passage from being a child, where everything is simply related to one’s own perspective and needs, to the realization that one is separate from others is chaotic and painful. Suddenly there is a pandemonium of individuals and needs in conflict with each other and the child begins to see his own role in the tempest.

I can’t think of anyone who could have done this better than Spike Jonze. This is not an easy film, or a feel good film. It is difficult and distressing and confusing. I hope it becomes a classic. I hope teachers show it to children in the classroom and let them ask difficult questions.

The visual image we are given of this terrible yet necessary journey, is Monster Island, populated by creatures representing various aspects of emotion. The emotions are raw, powerful and in conflict, and so are the creatures, each formed from amalgams of different animals.

The important thing to remember in this film, is that the boy does not go anywhere—this is not the Neverending Story, this is the adult version of the Wizard of Oz. Carol, and Ira and Judith and all the rest are parts of the boy’s psyche that he is trying to sort out. It is wild, and chaotic and traumatic and painful, and terribly frightening. And along with individuating, the boy has to contend with reconciling his wild animal nature with his humanness and social nature.

There really is nothing brief to say about this film. I would say, if you watch one film from 2009, watch this one. If you are only going to watch two films from 2009, watch this one twice.


I have noticed a trend in the last decade, in childrens films, that there is an increasing criticism of modern life, and a growing theme of ecological realities. As well, I have noticed a re-embracing of the warmest sense of our Darwinian nature—that we are primates, an animal, on one branch of a tree connected to all the other animals in the world. We are no masters of the world, despite our destructive capabilities, and we are hardly stewards either. It remains to be seen whether these informing myths of our modern age will shape the direction our children go in, but the truth remains, animals find their niche within the greater biosphere, or else they vanish. We are wild animals; I wish we could accept that as good enough.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The lost world

I once watched a film. It must have been forgettable because I cannot remember any of it, only a joke that a child tells an adult. I believe it was in an effort to console the adult about some impending doom, but I won’t swear by it. The muffin joke.

I loved the joke and have regaled partygoers with it ever since. It has the benefit of being the only joke I can ever remember, and it is also absurd, so by telling it I can let someone know that I am a silly bugger and they can then either enjoy my company, or wander off hoping I don’t make eye contact again.

How is this temporally relevant? I spent part of my weekend engaged in erudite conversation in a “comment diversion” on a website I frequent, which began its diversion with “a man walks into a bar”.

Now, I have many tales that begin with “a man walks into a bar”, but despite this website being deviant, subversive, prurient and downright nasty at times, I wisely stepped back and asked myself, do they really want to hear of my lovecraftien tales that begin with ‘a man walks into a bar’. I surveyed the comments already added, and concluded that I was indeed right. This was no place for the kind of Kurtzian gore that often results from my walking into a bar, even if it my apocalyptic memories are chuckle worthy to myself.

So, I looked inside for that elusive thing called funny, and called forth my famous muffin joke, which I am always willing to humbly admit is not my own joke, but purloined from a celluloid seven or so years old. I retrofitted my joke in a creative fashion to fit within the current meme and launched it lovingly and sat back, waiting for the laughs to come in.

Like any comedy, at the midpoint, it wasn’t laughs I enjoyed but disaster. Not only did no one laugh at my joke (which I fully expected, I have learned that it is only funny to about nine people on the planet and I have only met two of them other than myself) but someone sourced it to a really embarrassingly bad sitcom.

So, now I have been experienced as someone who repeats bad humour from terrible(and by terrible, I mean some hero should come along and take a boom-stick to the writers) sitcoms.

I cannot have this.

I didn’t worry though. I live in google universe. I was certain with a few short searches that I could find MY source for this ridiculously funny joke that no one laughs at. My first action should have been to begin searching, get a head start on the enemy, like. But, unfortunately I was so confident, I continued in my evenings endeavours (noble efforts) which led inevitably to a sound and dead sleep. Now it is the cold and unforgiving A.M. and I am no longer in the same jovial state I was last night and rightly so!

My searching has lead to no answers, only further questions(I feel like those great detectives of fiction) and I have this lurking feeling that if only I had engaged this search in my “enhanced” state last night, I might have come to better results.

I have been unable to source my delectable morsel of humour, to a movie or the dreaded sitcom to which it(and therefore I) was most unceremoniously reduced.

I did find that various versions of this joke have been whizzing along the invisible lines of the internet for years. Indeed, my sad little joke, almost Charlie-brown-christmas-tree like in its stature has been championed by other humour challenged folk for a long time.

I now felt like I had history and momentum on my side!

I even found several deep philosophical arguments on academic websites that offered penetrating deconstruction of why I laugh my arse off at this joke. I know these articles were deep because I couldn’t understand what I read, and my beloved joke very nearly became unfunny.

Never fear, I am chuckling now, even as I think of my joke.

The best thing I found was a university crowd who used the joke as a litmus test to decide who was “in” and who was “out”. I kid you the fuck not. You might be an incredibly hard working and clever young thing, and try desperately to get into an elite group of scholars. You might take many tests and endure many hardships, but your acceptance might hang in the balance of a moronic child-like joke that you heard in a supposed free conversation that you never knew was an interview. Had you been polite, and laughed, you might have passed. Oh well, have fun flipping burgers knowing your career was derailed not by a tsunami or macroeconomics, but by a wink and a nod.

I found a great many things, but not what I was looking for. I will not fault google. Google is, for better or worse, the Delphic oracle of our times and we act on what we receive. It was not my lot in life to find my reference and redeem myself in the eyes of my time-wasting website constituents.

I am at the end of my journey no further ahead in this matter. On the upside, I am now an expert in the joke that no one finds funny.

By now, you are no longer reading, or you are desperately waiting to hear the joke, either to enhance your own material or simply because you are obsessive. Fuck blogs for revealing your shortcomings.

Never fear, I am not a cipher or a sadist. I would never begin a piece about a joke without actually launching the joke. I am feeling a little shy though, because no one ever laughs. Maybe I should warm my audience up. I read another joke, during my researches, which cost me a snort of beverage through my nose that should have gone down my gullet. So, allow me a tangent.

Non-crucial joke:

A dog walks into a telegraph station, aflustered with urgency. He says, “woof, woof, woof, woof woof woof.”

The telegraph agent informs him that they have a sale, you may receive 7 words transmitted for the price of six, and would he like an additional woof.

The dog looks at him incredulously and says, in exasperation, “That would make no sense!”

So, I read this, in the cold blue light of a unforeseen morning headache and laughed my hind quarters off. Then I read further that this joke was not funny, and that most people told this joke did not even smile or snicker let alone collapse into paroxysms of laughter. If I cared more about my well-being, I might have been afraid that I had passed some test that revealed myself to be some kind of antisocial and was now on a FBI watch list. If my paranoia is true, your reading this will add you to the same list, HAH!

OK, you have indulged me enough. I proffer now, this holiest of holy jokes to you, in hopes that someone whose brain is more intact than mine might remember the film I found it in.

There is a box of muffins.

Inside(where all the drama occurs), one muffin is in a panic.

“Oh my god, we’re all going to die! They’re going to eat us! there’s nothing we can do to stop it”

A really distressed muffin.

“what will we do, HELP!; Save me, I don’t want to be eaten!”

A second muffin looks at the first who has been screaming and says


“Holy shit, it’s a talking muffin!”

Ok, there’s no accounting for tastes(who said that, and is it really true?) I still need to know where I got that gem from. I will not be sourced to one of the world’s worst sitcoms ever. I have a true soul and deserve better than that.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

. . .It’s what separates us from the animals

Opposable thumbs. That was supposed to be a good one, except other apes, raccoons and even some cats have opposable thumbs.

We’re bipedal, that’ll do it; except penguins, meerkats, those dang raccoons and any other number of animals, including chimps and bonobos climb up on their haunches as well, when they want to see something at a distance.

I once heard that missionary sex, indicating eye contact and love separated us, but again many animals do this too.

Some cynics argue that deceit separates us from the animals. But even birds feign wounds to distract predators from little chics, cats pretend indifference when they are paying attention, and apes play up indignities for political gain.

Then the idealists come in. It is altruism, our ability to care that separates us. but that doesn't cut it either. Leaving the philosophy of what altruism really is aside, many animals will take in strays, of their own species or others. Dolphins rescue humans, who eat them for gods sake!

It goes around and around. The size of our brains, our organization, our arts. So many folk, for one reason or another trying to differentiate us from “the animals”. I have to ask why? Why is it so important to see ourselves as separate? Does it justify domination? Stewardship? Freedom to exploit? Is there something deeply frightening about the idea that we may be all closely related?

Some of the people who are distressed by human activity say it is our capacity for cruelty that separates us. I say they have never owned a cat. Or they bring up our capacity to inflict violence on our own kind. Again, these folk never owned hamsters who had scrabbled up against the hard limits of their environment. All carnivores are violent, comes with the territory. All carnivores will eat each other when resources and habitat become tight. Yes that includes hamsters and humans.

So what is this desperate need to differentiate ourselves from the other creatures of the world, with whom we share so much DNA as well as behavioral habits? The reason it is so easy to make animal metaphors is that we are little different. Army ants. Plague of locusts, king of the lions, the treachery of jackals, the persistence of salmon. The songs of whales. Loyal dogs. Promiscuous bonobos. Sycophantic hyenas.

I often think the desperate passionate need to differentiate ourselves is the same bid for survival as any other creature feels. Let loose some bacteria in a petrie dish filled with sugar solution, and the little buggers multiply like mad until all the food is gone, then they die off. Humans do think about things more than other creatures seem to, so we need to justify things to ourselves so we don’t get ulcers. One of the things we need to justify to ourselves is consuming everything in sight to the detriment of other less successful species. We are locusts, but we have to find ways to reflect on our locust activities.

I saw an animated movie a couple of years back, involving forest animals who marvelled at how the humans ate everything and had found ways to ensure an endless supply of everything being directed at their mouths. That was the way animals understood everything we do—ensuring more food. It was meant to be humorous, with just a morsel of truth in it, but as a student of environment it was kind of horrific and blatant.

We’re like all the animals, only more efficient. We breed like rabbits, we survive like cockroaches, we transform in ways beavers, spiders, birds and termites could never imagine and we use everything. When we come across something that looks useless, some clever human comes along and finds a way to consume it.

And we are like those bacteria in the petrie dish. Only earth is our petrie dish. Despite a hundred years of exciting science fiction we are not on the cusp of launching our voracious appetites out among the stars. We have this one planet to eat. And despite all our engineers, scientists, philosophers and seers, we can’t help but follow our animal instincts and say “super-size me”; no matter what limits we are capable of seeing.

3D movie technology seems to separate us from the animals, maybe SUV’s do too. But basically, we seem quite the same as all our cousins of the animal world. Undoubtedly we could learn a few things from the many thousands of species that have been doing their thang longer than us, but we probably won’t. Why? Because we are animals and we are doing what comes natural to us.

So maybe that makes us a kind of locust. Denuding the land, depopulating the habitat; hell, even changing the climate in ways that won’t actually benefit us in the long run.

But like a rutting deer that says “be damned with traffic in the road, I'm gettin' me some”, so too do we careen drunkenly into the future, eating and breeding to the fullest possible extent, and like every other animal in its habitat, we will drunkenly enjoy that party until we hit the limits and then we will continue to fit into ecological reality as we die off. Some species stay a long while on earth, some enjoy success through grand changes. Some do not. Again, it is the elegant system of evolution.

In the very short-sighted sense of time I have, things seem dramatic, tragic even, but if I were a geologist or biologist and was able to step back and understand the way things occur over time—the rise and fall of mountains or ecological niches or climates, maybe nothing would look amiss.

Humans have achieved great things planetary wide including transforming global climate, but no one will care since we have been the only species so far that thinks about such things. There won’t be a later historian to document our meteoric rise and fall. Everyone else is just busy frolicking and doing the birds and bees. That special place we occupy, in our minds, will come and go, a tiny blip on history’s radar—that brief strange bald species that wore the skins of other animals to stay warm, all the while feeling superior. The strange scavenger predators that so briefly were so good at eating everything. We will have left our mark, left the planet different, and cost a good many other more civilized species their demise. But in the end, the weird and unlikely process known as life will continue tickety-boo without us.

I'd bring up the lemming metaphor, except it is a myth. Lemmings do not follow each other off of cliffs the way humans do. It’s one of the things that separates them from us.