Fading Skylight

Looking back through the SLS archives, I noticed that I seemed to have spent a lot more time in Second Life last October than I managed this year. Back then I wandered around Burning Life for ages and took in several Halloween activities; this time around I haven’t been in-world for more than about ten minutes. The problem is that I never have time to sit down in front of my desktop computer these days, and, since I can get most of what I want from the internet via my phone anyway, I don’t often have the inclination either.

I, therefore, must be exactly the target audience for the browser-based interface the Lab is rumoured to be working on. I’m obviously no expert in this area, but I do wonder about the timing and economics of such a move. I imagine that server-side rendering would massively increase hardware and bandwidth costs, and would need a big leap in revenue-generating visitors to make it pay off. That might have been possible a couple of years ago when SL was still getting a lot of attention, but now, I’m not so sure.

In Dreams

Writing in Nature this month, neuroscientist Dr Moran Cerf claims to have developed a system that can read and record people’s dreams. That’s the attention-grabbing headline at least; the actual technique seems somewhat less refined, though the researchers do appear to be able to identify which neurons are activated when the subject thinks of a particular image. It does involve planting electrodes into the brain, which I imagine might limit its attraction to the casual dreamer.

Dr Cerf does hope to come up with more user-friendly mind-reader, and I guess eventually we might have the sort of machine one reads about in pulpy sci-fi, a helmet connected to a TV set which shows pictures of the subject’s thoughts, or the perception-recording devices they had in the classic cyberpunk movie Strange Days.

This might seem to pose a threat to those of us in the psychiatric profession; who needs to see a shrink when you can just wire up your head and look straight into your unconscious? I’m not too worried though – knowing what someone is thinking or dreaming is one thing, deciphering why these things are in their mind and what it all means is quite another. The interpretation of dreams (and nightmares) has been a lucrative wheeze for thousands of years; it will take more than some new technology to put us out of business.

Red Ties

Back at the start of this month I posted a piece about the limitations of social media as tools for political action. It has subsequently come to my attention that Malcolm Gladwell had published an article in the New Yorker the previous month which makes substantially the same points, though much more eloquently of course. We even used the same Gil Scott-Heron reference as a tagline.

Unsurprisingly, Gladwell’s piece generated rather more response than mine, from, among others, Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic, David Dobbs at Wired and Zeynep Tufekci at technosociology. All make good points, mostly focusing on Gladwell’s juxtaposition of weak and strong social ties, but I don’t think that any of them really address the central strand of his (and my) argument; effecting meaningful social change is a difficult thing to do, because it requires directed activity sustained over a long period of time, something that calls for a centralised and hierarchical organisation of the kind which social media is ill-suited to foster.

Having thought about this a bit more, I’m starting to wonder if scepticism about the revolutionary potential of social media is a generational thing. All my political experience has been in movements based around the sort of strong ties that are implied by the word “comrade”, with people, some of whom I have known for decades, that I have worked, lived, studied and socialised with, and who I would trust with my life. Of course these days we communicate by email, Twitter and especially SMS, and conduct our agitation through the web as much as on the street, but our relationships are still founded on those personal bonds. I can’t imagine the same thing developing from contacts that are exclusively internet-based, but maybe that’s just because I haven’t grown up in a landscape where electronically-mediated communication has become the dominant form of social discourse.

Perhaps for future generations “Facebook Friend” will have the same resonance as “Comrade” has for us old Bolsheviks, but I doubt I’ll ever come round to that way of thinking.

Soon it will be gone forever

So, Philip Rosedale is stepping down from the CEO role at Linden Lab again, if in fact he ever came back. As might be expected this has fuelled the ongoing speculation about the company’s future, with the consensus (based on my entirely unscientific survey of the usual SL blogs) being that the move is a sure sign that the Lab is headed for merger, sale or liquidation.

I have no contacts among the Lindens, nor any inside knowledge of the industry, so I have nothing useful to add to the debate. I don’t usually let that stop me sharing my uninformed opinion of course, but I’m in the middle of a “Second Life? – meh” phase at the moment, so I can’t really summon the energy to think about it.

I’ll have to get interested again soon though, since I have to come to a decision about whether or not to renew my Premium account next month.

How invested am I in Second Life? I have a patch of mainland which cost me about US$16 back in 2007, though I doubt it’s worth that now, and about L$35K in virtual cash, which is, what, US$120? If I shelled out for another US$85 annual membership I would be in for around US$200, which isn’t a huge amount, but it is a sum of money that I could spend on something else.

The obvious solution would be to cash out my Linden dollars and use the proceeds to pay my subs, and I expect that’s what I’ll do. I’ve stuck around this long, I may as well see it out to the end.

Cut Away

I hadn’t been near a cinema for months, but this weekend I managed to catch two films on the big screen; a belated viewing of summer hit Inception at the multiplex, and a late-night screening of The Social Network, with drinks and friends, at our local arthouse movie theatre.

I’ll review the films themselves in later posts, but for now I’ll just wax nostalgic about how my movie-going habits have changed over the years.

My earliest memories of the medium are of going to the Saturday morning shows at the long-vanished art-deco cinema that once stood on the seedier side of our town centre. It had a vast auditorium, that could sit something like two thousand people, which would be packed full of hyped-up kids, buzzing on the sugar from the bags of cheap sweets on sale in the foyer. We would see a few cartoons, an old serial like Buck Rogers or King of the Rocket Men, and one feature, usually something from The Children’s Film Foundation, which were usually pretty imaginative, or occasionally an old Hollywood action movie; I remember a showing of Kelly’s Heroes that inspired our playground games for weeks afterwards. This was all in the mid-70’s, not long before the rising popularity of Saturday morning kids’ TV more or less killed off the picture shows. I enjoyed staying in on a cold morning and watching the box as much as anybody else, but I did miss the social aspect of the cinema a bit.

In my early teens I would go with friends, or the occasional date, about once a month to see mainstream movies, and towards the end of high school I started to get into independent cinema. It was when I left home to go to University that my cinema addiction really kicked in though; I joined the campus film society, which screened five or six movies each week in term time, and I often skipped classes to catch matinee shows at the arthouse, so I must have been seen well over 500 films during my college years, from just about all genres. Once I started working I had to cut back a bit, but I still caught a film most weekends, and occasionally would go on little binges when I was on holiday.

Sometime over the last decade I seemed to lose the habit; now I’m in the cinema maybe ten times a year. This is partly because I’ll watch a DVD instead of going out on a Saturday, but I think it’s mainly because I have substituted internet addiction for my celluloid fix.

I do have some regrets about this; my imagination seemed to be highly stimulated when I was more immersed in film. I used to do a lot of writing when I was in college, but now this blog is about all I can manage; I haven’t penned any proper fiction for a long while. I think there is something about following a film narrative that particularly exercises the creative faculties, by demanding attention over a relatively long time. I guess reading does this too, but with a book I tend to concentrate in shorter bursts, so it doesn’t have quite the same effect, and when I’m surfing the net I’m rarely on one topic for more than a couple of minutes.

I’m going to try to make it to the cinema at least once a fortnight over the next few months; we’ll see if that revives my dormant Muse. I might even catch something at the drive in.

Subterranean Hope

I’m sure I’m not the only one for whom the story of the trapped Chilean copper miners has called to mind the classic novel Germinal.

A vividly-drawn tale of the struggle for survival in the coalfields of northern France in the mid-nineteenth century, Zola’s naturalistic masterpiece is one of my favourite books, but it is rather grim. I had to stop reading it for a day or two at several points, to take a break from the relentless tide of misfortune that befalls the central characters, who are pictured so realistically that it is impossible not to empathise with their suffering. It does end on a note of optimism though, with one of the most rousing passages in literature:

“Beneath the blazing of the sun, in that morning of new growth, the countryside rang with song, as its belly swelled with a black and avenging army of men, germinating slowly in its furrows, growing upwards in readiness for harvests to come, until one day soon their ripening would burst open the earth itself.”

Nearly two centuries have passed since the period portrayed in Germinal, but it’s worth remembering that mining remains one of the most hazardous professions in the world, with more than twelve thousand workers losing their lives every year. Even in safety-conscious Switzerland eight men died during the construction of the Gotthard tunnel.

Let’s hope the discipline and solidarity shown by the 33 miners of San Jose inspires workers the world over to unite, organise and demand an improvement in their conditions.

Into the light

Whenever I’ve felt tempted to grumble about my job over the last few weeks I’ve reminded myself that I’m not working down a Chilean copper mine. Now that this story looks certain to have a happy ending I think it’s worth reflecting on the fact that our virtual playgrounds all depend on the labour of men in the darkness deep underground, digging out the metals that build the bones of our modern world.

Give Peace a Tweet

The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded this week; it went to Chinese human-rights activist Liu Xiaobo, who is currently languishing in jail for his efforts. It’s hard to argue with the committee’s decision (unlike last year), but part of me was rooting for one of the other nominees, the Internet.

Riccardo Luna, editor-in-chief of the Italian edition of Wired, is one of the proponents of the Internet for Peace Manifesto, and writes persuasively of the Net as “the first weapon of mass construction … day after day, search after search, tweet after tweet, it is laying the foundation of a new era where sharing, common knowledge and mutual respect will prevail”.

Regular readers will know that we have previously noted the Internet’s capacity to bring out the worst in human nature, and it’s hard to see the network as an unimpeachable force for good when one reads about things like this. We’ve also been sceptical about the Net’s much-touted ability to galvanise social and political movements, and pointed out that it is just as likely to further ignorance and division by allowing people to receive only the information that they want to hear.

Despite all this, I do think that the Internet can live up to the vision that Luna outlines. The key thing to recognise is that the Net, like any other medium of communication, does not exist in isolation from the social relations that produce it. As long as we live in a system that is based on the exploitation of the masses by a ruling elite the Internet will reflect the power imbalances, along lines of class, gender and race, that exist in our society, with all the ills that accompany them.

Once we reach a form of social organisation that eliminates all these injustices – in other words, once we have world communism – then the Internet, like humanity itself, will be able to attain its true potential. Until then I think the accolades will have to wait.

Universal Gloom

The Tory Party Conference is under way, and the headline news today is George Osborne’s plan to abolish child benefit payments to higher rate taxpayers.

This is a smart political move, as the fuss the cut will generate among the middle classes will dominate the media, and provide cover for the even harsher cuts he has in store for poorer sections of society (the full horror of which we probably won’t know until the conclusion of the spending review at the end of this month), promoting the fallacy that “We are all in this together”.

The attack on child benefit isn’t just about saving money though, it is a strike at one of the central pillars of the Welfare State, the concept of Universality. The idea that all children have the same entitlement, whatever their background, is a powerful statement of social equality, and eroding it is part of the Tories’ plan to turn back the last 60 years of progress and return us to the divided society of the pre-war era.

There is already a two-tier education system, which will be extended by the plans to allow Universities to charge what they like for tuition, effectively reserving higher learning, and the economic advantages it bestows, for the rich. The NHS in England is going to be dismantled in favour of a patchwork of privatised provision, and the general benefits system is threatened with huge cuts. All this while a double-dip recession looms, and millions face joblessness. The wealth gap may have grown massively over the last decade, but it looks like it may get mediaeval in the years ahead.

Grim times. It would be nice to think that things were looking brighter on the other side of the Atlantic, but it seems that the right is set for an unlikely resurgence there too. This month’s Rolling Stone has an excellent article on the Tea Party, their regressive politics (summed up succinctly by writer Matt Taibbi; “After lengthy study of the phenomenon, I’ve concluded that the whole miserable narrative boils down to one stark fact: They’re full of shit”), and how, ironically, their incoherent populist anger is being co-opted by the Republican Party to serve the interests of the financial elites that the TP-ers supposedly despise. The Democrats, meanwhile, seem to have been stunned into inaction by the disappointment that has been the Obama administration.

Grim, grim times. We can only keep working away, and hope that the cold winds of change blow some life into the embers of revolt.

The Revolution Will Not Be Twitterised

4chan seems to have been in the news a lot recently, and the /b/tards have been presented in a rather more sympathetic light than hitherto. I’m used to thinking of 4chan in terms of Lolcats and trolls, a place I’m aware of but would never admit familiarity with, at least in polite company. (Though naturally I’ve always had a soft spot for their war on Scientology). It jars a little then to see the Anonymous masses described as “internet activists” who have apparently developed some sort of social conscience.

The immediate cause of this rehabilitation, around here at least, seems to have been 4chan’s role in tracking down the infamous kitty-binner, a popular move in our pet-loving nation. They followed this up with something more substantial; going after ACS:Law, the UK lawyers notorious for their intimidation of alleged file-sharers. (Ars Technica has an excellent dissection of ACS’s reprehensible shakedown scheme). 4chan’s “Operation Payback” looks like it may put the final nail in the coffin of aggressive copyright enforcement, in the UK anyway, which can only be a good thing for both consumers and content creators, if not for lawyers.

Any romanticisation of the 4chan crowd as mischievous scamps who stand up for the little guy and stick it to the Man is obviously absurd, but it does tie in with a more general idea that the internet, and social media in particular, have levelled the political playing field, and given the ordinary citizen a weapon to wield against the power elites who run the world. One hears this from all sides; Peter Ludlow had an article in the The Nation this month on “Hacktivism”, specifically referencing Wikileaks and 4chan, over at World Affairs they think that Twitter will bring down the Chinese government, and Tea Party organisers laud the power of Facebook.

Perhaps I am just too wedded to old Bolshevik notions of the vanguard party, but I am very sceptical about all of this. While the web may be able to facilitate ad hoc attacks like “Operation Payback”, the sort of sustained campaign that would be needed to really change society requires a central organisation to give operational and, more importantly, political direction to the movement.

Substituting diffuse social media links for a more traditional party structure seems attractive, but I think it may be counterproductive. It might feel like one is part of a collaborative enterprise, but it is more atomised than it looks, and there is little opportunity to develop a collective consciousness. The Twitterverse has no effective memory, and there is no mechanism for a social media movement to learn from its experience. These things – pooling knowledge and experience, remembering mistakes and lessons, passing it all on to new generations – are the functions of a revolutionary party, and I can’t see that there is any way to replicate them virtually.

Internet activism can burn bright, and it has the potential to score transient victories, but I think it lacks the stamina for the long, hard slog that is the struggle to challenge entrenched power. If you want to change the world you have to face the truth:

You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.

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