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Douglas Rushkoff on Wed, 30 Sep 1998 06:51:32 +0200 (MET DST)


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<nettime> Consider for nettime book


The Godzilla Factor
By Douglas Rushkoff

How was Wired magazine to have known that "Godzilla" would prove to be such
a flop?  With a three month lead-time, America's pre-eminent futurists are
bound to make a few wrong guesses.  Putting Godzilla on their June cover, in
anticipation that the over-budgeted lizard flick would live up to its hype,
probably seemed like a good bet.

Just as good a bet as the "new economy" their Godzilla cover heralds.  For
if they can't predict the success of next quarter's movie, why should we
trust them to predict the success of next century's global economy?

Godzilla must have looked like a sure thing.  As sure as the sun rising from
the so-called East.  But like so many of the business world's faulty
assumptions about the global marketplace, the Godzilla gambit proved
disastrous -- and for precisely the same reasons.

Let's look at just the movie, for the moment.  Although most critics are
pointing to Godzilla's poor ticket receipts as a sign that the age of the
special effects blockbuster is over, the real reasons for the movie's
failure are much simpler: this was a bad blockbuster, with bad special
effects.

The filmmakers only showed their Godzilla in the dark, in the rain, and
usually underground -- where the technical complexities of shadows, light
sources, and color matching would be kept to a minimum.  By using the
now-ancient computer animation techniques of "Jurassic Park," and
implementing them in the safety of darkness, Godzilla's filmmakers doomed
themselves to smirks and yawns from the young, tech-savvy audiences for whom
such effects are intended.

By the end of the film (and, presumably, their schedule and budget), the
effects crew settled for replaying mirror images of already-used special
effects sequences, or even putting baby Godzilla heads on sticks and pushing
them through doorways.  Simple Lesson one: if gee-wizardry is your trump
card, you'd better be doing something that hasn't been done before or
better.

Even if the special effects had been up to today's standards (as set, I'd
argue, by the brilliantly rendered giant insects in the fascism satire
"Starship Troopers") "Godzilla" would have still needed a story or character
capable of sustaining our interest.  In theory, the delightful B-movie
monster that we have all known and loved since the 1950's should have
fulfilled this purpose.  Why didn't he?  And why couldn't a still-relevant
story about the dangers of technology survive this high budget adaptation?

Because neither Godzilla the monster nor Godzilla the fable can be fit into
the mold of an American disaster movie.  Godzilla is *Japanese*, damn it.
Not everything bigger and more American is going to be somehow better or
more profitable.

The Godzilla movie myth emerged from a nation that had survived a nuclear
holocaust.  The monster was less the enemy of the Japanese than he was the
embodiment of their own defeated spirit, rising like a giant sumo wrestler
to avenge the carnage wrought by Western technology.  He is not nature, but
a man-made freak of nature, with his own personality and free will.  This is
why he failed so miserably when cast in a role equivalent to the mindless
tornado in the American-style natural disaster movie "Twister."

It is an identical set of blind spots leading today's technology pundits
into equally absurd assumptions about the ability of American economic
models to improve -- no, overtake -- the global economy.  That's why Wired
chose Godzilla as cover-reptile for its "Here Comes the New Economy!" issue.
According to the Wired-promoted "long boom" scenario, new technology and
open markets will allow the economy to reach the colossal proportions of
Godzilla and, presumably, the mega-box office Hollywood hit in which he was
about to star.

The New Economists believe that the development of new technologies will
fuel the creation of essentially infinite wealth.  But what happens when,
like kids reacting to the special effects in movies, people lose their
fetishistic attraction to anything hi-tech?  Will our level of technological
development ever reach a plateau, even temporarily, as it did in motion
pictures this year? Or what if a few of the countries we're counting on to
"buy in" to our techno-ponzi scheme simply run out of money?  Is Japan
really supposed to fuel an Asian buying frenzy even though the nation just
reported its first year of negative earnings in two decades?

The New Economy also depends on the seamless integration (read: absorption)
of the world's economies into the American capitalist system.  Not
everyone's "bottom line" is money.  No matter how "open" we can make the
markets, we'll have as hard a time melting some nations into our pot as
American filmmakers had reducing Godzilla to a Western disaster movie.

This is because, like the doomed "Godzilla" team, New Economists fail to
recognize the personality and humanity of the societies they hope to absorb.
To the techno-capitalist, the economy is like nature or the weather.  There
is no personality within.  It's just like a tornado.  Our only choice is to
join in or get out of the way.  Human or government intervention is seen as
inefficient meddling.  The only policy is no policy.  Let nature run its
course.

The Internet they envision is not a collection of societies but a gateless
marketplace.  Humanity and, dare I say, spirit are sacrificed to corporate
transactions and broadcasting, just as participatory USENET groups and
bulletin boards were overrun by commercial web sites and java applets.  But
like Godzilla's filmmakers, the New Economists will keep technicalities
(like Indonesia or Singapore) in the dark and underground so we can't see
the mat lines (or labor practices).  It can't last for long.

The New Economy will probably have as much trouble absorbing Asia as
Hollywood did abducting its monster.
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