Monday, May 30, 2016

Names in SFF interlude: GSU Boaty McBoatface

Hi Jo, what did the name Boaty McBoatface symbolise for you?

Hi Soph, the name Boaty McBoatface perfectly captures the equivocal nature of scientific seafaring in the public imagination. The name has the virtue of reminding us that the object in question is a boat. Yet it also acknowledges our need to personify it, to give it a face. Perhaps on some level we recognize that the ocean is just as scared of us as we are of it: in making our vast machines in our own likenesses, we express our desire to meet monsters and gods on their own terms.

Sure. In the grand scheme of things, was "Sir David Attenborough" a better name choice than Boaty McBoatface?

I think the public are probably ahead of the curve on this one. I'm an academic researching the science fiction work of Iain M. Banks, and I'm intrigued by his approach to spaceship-naming. Different classes of warship are given nasty names - Murderer, Gangster, Torturer - as a reminder that what they DO is nasty. Banks was always suspicious of giving things dignified names. Banks was keenly aware of the complex relationships between exploration, scientific research, and military conquest. In his utopia, which is called "the Culture," spaceships always have strange and provocative names. They're called things like Big Sexy Beast and Unacceptable Behaviour and Very Little Gravitas Indeed and Someone Else's Problem. Whether or they're dignified or not, honourable or not, is a matter of what they ACHIEVE, not what they're called. Maybe on balance it's better to have silly names. I don't know.

I would definitely say that the Sir David Attenborough is probably the worst possible name. Why is nature so weird? One theory is that David Attenborough's gravel-and-syrup voice is so trustworthy, nature itself changes to conform to his delirious ramblings. Have you seen an aye-aye's thumb?

I haven't actually. If you had a boat, what would you call it? 

I would be tempted by RRS Sir Jo Lindsay Walton. One of its smaller remotely operated sub-sea vehicles could be called Dave in honour of the government's suggestion. In light of the kind of data the vessel is likely to gather, another possibility would be to call it We're Fucked. Or there could be a compromise between sovereign and popular power, such as Davey McDaveface. The point is that every suggestion that I or anyone thinks of off the top of my head is better than the RRS Sir David Attenborough. Although it will probably cheer him up which is nice.

What angers you most, if anything, about the entire ordeal? 

Well, it would have been good if they had actually called it Boaty McBoatface. They sure missed a trick.

But what does the government’s decision say about democracy?

As many stakeholder engagement theorists will tell you, it is no good engaging people unless you also empower them -- and you know what, that means actually figuring out how to DELEGATE some power IN ADVANCE. No backsies. I suspect people are especially cynical about government consultations of all kinds. Often the policy direction has been pretty much already decided, and the consultation is just a bit of cheap market research, to figure how best to sell it.

Actually, it can be WORSE than that -- the consultation can start to market the policy, by hinting that they're going to do even more horrific stuff, raising fears, lowering expectations, and mopping up the energy of resistance. Then they can "compromise" by doing whatever they wanted to in the first place. That's why I don't think anybody is really surprised about Boaty McBoatface, except that we probably thought they'd let us get away with a bit of trivial silliness so that we could at least feel empowered.

So what's next for the Boaty McBoatface movement? Is this the end? Or do you foresee more petitions? Protests? Etc. 

Tactics must suit the context. In one sense, perhaps a name is a rigid designator which flares into existence at the baptismal moment, permanent and real. In another, a name is just what people call something - never mind what letters are printed on the side of the thing. Think about the Boris Bikes: sorry, Barclays! It's another bank that sponsors them now, isn't it? I can't even remember. Maybe they'll be Sadiqycles soon. The point is, the ship is called Boaty McBoatface, because that's what we'll call it. I'm sure if it comes up again in the news -- if it sinks or something -- VICE will respect the will of the people in its coverage.

OK, thanks Jo.

It's interesting we get this announcement just as the local election results are rolling out. Sometimes when things are opened up to a popular vote, you get bizarre results, like the continued election of Conservatives. Sometimes the public just perfectly nails it, as with Boaty. There is a lot of scary and exciting work to be done on what popular sovereignty means in a digital networked era. We know as a collective we can be brilliant or fucking stupid. To me it's pretty obvious that a secure welfare system and substantive economic equality are totally necessary prerequisites for democracy to even slightly work. Otherwise, everybody is too busy trying to stay alive and sane to work out who to vote for -- except for flashes of brilliance like Boaty, obviously.


SFF names #16: Alice interlude
SFF names #15: eggs interlude
SFF names #14: YA interlude
SFF names #13: Benedict Cumberbatch
SFF names #12: Luke Skywalker interlude
SFF names #11: Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver
SFF names #10: Bobby Shaftoe
SFF names #9: Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen
SFF names #8: Ged
SFF names #7: Shevek
SFF names #6: Buhle
SFF names #5: Parva "Pen" Khan
SFF names #4: Beth Bradley
SFF names #3: Rumpelstiltskin
SFF names #2: Lucy
SFF names #1: Winnie

Elsewhere: VICE: "We Spoke to Some of the People Upset about 'Boaty McBoatface' Losing to David Attenborough"

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