Diablo Cody: How would religious people react to life on Mars?

If a bunch of freaky-looking extraterrestrials actually made contact with us, I think that might blow a few minds. Can you imagine the reality show? ‘What happens when this Kansas family befriends a sassy Uranian? Here Comes Beezeltron XV14.’

A few weeks ago, I was wide-eyed and wired at 3am. As the mother of a toddler who shrieks in the night as new molars breach his virgin gum tissue, being awake at this hour is not terribly unusual for me. However, on this night, I was Out (which is terribly unusual for me).

I was sitting on the terrace of a hulking Italianate McMansion with a friend of mine, a Nasaemployed doctor who invented a prosthetic hand that sends actual sensory input to the wearer’s brain. Obviously, I’m much more impressive than he is, since I write movies. I mean, I guess the godlike ability to replicate nerve impulses is OK, but it’s no Jennifer’s Body.

My friend and I were, appropriately, looking at the stars. Not the actual stars, but fake laser galaxies that were projected on to the walls and floor of the terrace via a contraption from the mailorder gadget firm Hammacher Schlemmer.

The universe swirled around us, illuminating the gaudy ironwork and Venetian plaster that made the house look like a theme-park pavilion. The real stars were reduced to background players, winking dimly in the polluted California night. Two storeys below us, a group of revellers soaked in a colour-changing Jacuzzi, passing a wet cigarette back and forth and laughing about something.

My friend suddenly turned to me and said: “Do you know what event would completely change the world?”

I thought hard. “If someone brought us another round of vodka-grapefruits?”

“Well, yeah, that would be great. But really, there would be a huge mass consciousness shift if only we had proof of life outside earth,” my friend said, getting all Nasa on my drunk ass.

“Sure,” I said. “If a bunch of freaky-looking extraterrestrials actually made contact with us, I think that might blow a few minds. Can you imagine the reality show? ‘What happens when this Kansas family befriends a sassy Uranian? Here Comes Beezeltron XV14.’”

“I don’t even mean a full-on alien invasion,” my friend said. “I mean just proof that they exist. Even though most people can intellectualise that there are planets in the sky, the mere idea that something exists beyond us could trigger a spiritual revolution.”

I got what he was saying. In earth’s most popular religious traditions, the concept of God is wholly human-centred.

As a Catholic, I was raised to believe that God created me in His image; if you think about it, this teaching infers that God has nostrils, ear wax, tibiae and fibulae, a butt, and so forth.

That’s pretty arrogant. How would the world’s believers reconcile the idea of God with, say, a sentient vapour from Mars? Or the idea that we’re not the “perfect creation” we believed ourselves to be, that there are 200ft star-gods who stalk Alpha Centauri Bb?

I’m not even comfortable with the existence of Angelina Jolie, let alone a throbbing telepathic brain stem from the outer edge of the solar system. I need to feel that I am a superior being, not a primitive, stinking flesh-poppet from a stupid mudball called earth.

I write movies, after all.

Diablo Cody is a screenwriter, producer and director who wrote “Juno” and “Jennifer’s Body”

Diablo Cody. Image: AFP/Getty

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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Fark.com’s censorship story is a striking insight into Google’s unchecked power

The founder of the community-driven website claims its advertising revenue was cut off for five weeks.

When Microsoft launched its new search engine Bing in 2009, it wasted no time in trying to get the word out. By striking a deal with the producers of the American teen drama Gossip Girl, it made a range of beautiful characters utter the words “Bing it!” in a way that fell clumsily on the audience’s ears. By the early Noughties, “search it” had already been universally replaced by the words “Google it”, a phrase that had become so ubiquitous that anything else sounded odd.

A screenshot from Gossip Girl, via ildarabbit.wordpress.com

Like Hoover and Tupperware before it, Google’s brand name has now become a generic term.

Yet only recently have concerns about Google’s pervasiveness received mainstream attention. Last month, The Observer ran a story about Google’s auto-fill pulling up the suggested question of “Are Jews evil?” and giving hate speech prominence in the first page of search results. Within a day, Google had altered the autocomplete results.

Though the company’s response may seem promising, it is important to remember that Google isn’t just a search engine (Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has too many subdivisions to mention). Google AdSense is an online advertising service that allows many websites to profit from hosting advertisements on its pages, including the New Statesman itself. Yesterday, Drew Curtis, the founder of the internet news aggregator Fark.com, shared a story about his experiences with the service.

Under the headline “Google farked us over”, Curtis wrote:

“This past October we suffered a huge financial hit because Google mistakenly identified an image that was posted in our comments section over half a decade ago as an underage adult image – which is a felony by the way. Our ads were turned off for almost five weeks – completely and totally their mistake – and they refuse to make it right.”

The image was of a fully-clothed actress who was an adult at the time, yet Curtis claims Google flagged it because of “a small pedo bear logo” – a meme used to mock paedophiles online. More troubling than Google’s decision, however, is the difficulty that Curtis had contacting the company and resolving the issue, a process which he claims took five weeks. He wrote:

“During this five week period where our ads were shut off, every single interaction with Google Policy took between one to five days. One example: Google Policy told us they shut our ads off due to an image. Without telling us where it was. When I immediately responded and asked them where it was, the response took three more days.”

Curtis claims that other sites have had these issues but are too afraid of Google to speak out publicly. A Google spokesperson says: "We constantly review publishers for compliance with our AdSense policies and take action in the event of violations. If publishers want to appeal or learn more about actions taken with respect to their account, they can find information at the help centre here.”

Fark.com has lost revenue because of Google’s decision, according to Curtis, who sent out a plea for new subscribers to help it “get back on track”. It is easy to see how a smaller website could have been ruined in a similar scenario.


The offending image, via Fark

Google’s decision was not sinister, and it is obviously important that it tackles things that violate its policies. The lack of transparency around such decisions, and the difficulty getting in touch with Google, are troubling, however, as much of the media relies on the AdSense service to exist.

Even if Google doesn’t actively abuse this power, it is disturbing that it has the means by which to strangle any online publication, and worrying that smaller organisations can have problems getting in contact with it to solve any issues. In light of the recent news about Google's search results, the picture painted becomes more even troubling.

Update, 13/01/17:

Another Google spokesperson got in touch to provide the following statement: “We have an existing set of publisher policies that govern where Google ads may be placed in order to protect users from harmful, misleading or inappropriate content.  We enforce these policies vigorously, and taking action may include suspending ads on their site. Publishers can appeal these actions.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.