Tweeted out

Earlier this week Twitter announced that they intended to free up some server space by closing down inactive accounts, purging anyone who hadn’t logged on in the last six months.

There are two Twitter accounts associated with this blog; our original one-tweet @slshrink, and the slightly more active @johnny4sls. Both were in danger, since the last activity on them was in 2009 and 2014 respectively, so I rushed to log in and save them for posterity.

I think I’ll leave @slshrink alone in its zen-like purity, but I might start tweeting out links to new posts on @johnny4sls again; that used to generate a few hits, back in the days when we actually had some traffic. Despite five years of silence I still have 63 followers; I might yet be able to carve out a career as a micro-influencer

Questionable things

It’s November 2019, which, as all sci-fi fans and film buffs know, is the month when the events of Blade Runner take place.

We wrote about Ridley Scott’s dystopian masterpiece back in the early days of this blog, when 2019 still seemed like the semi-distant future, and, while I did have an inkling that the decade to come was going to be a bit grim, the way things have turned out in reality makes Rick Deckard’s neo-noir Los Angeles look quite attractive in comparison, despite the perpetual rain, and the homicidal robots.

Interestingly, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel which provides the source material for Blade Runner, is in many ways a more accurate portrait of 21st century life. It envisages San Francisco in 2021 (or 1992 in the earlier editions); the elite have long fled to off-world colonies, leaving ordinary citizens struggling to survive in a world overtaken by ecological catastrophe and drowning in the detritus of a collapsing civilisation, their lives ruled by unaccountable corporations in a brutal police state, finding solace only in technological simulation of lost nature, and bogus virtual-reality religion.

The book and the movie do share a common theme about the nature of humanity, but the former is significantly darker, and much more downbeat in its conclusion. Dick died shortly before the film came out, but he did see a pre-release version, and apparently liked it, though he felt it complemented his story rather than directly reproducing it.

While android technology may not have advanced as far as Dick imagined, the cleverness of today’s Artificial Intelligence does seem to exceed that displayed by the replicants in the story. Roy Batty may trick his way into Tyrell’s residence with an unexpected chess move (though he’s actually just reproducing a game played out by humans back in 1851), but chess is old hat for modern AI; just last month it was reported that Google’s Deep Mind program had mastered that most advanced of intellectual pursuits, the online real-time strategy game.

Some people warn that AI is approaching the Singularity; the point where it can improve itself faster than humans can keep up. This is generally followed, in classic science fiction at least, by the newly-conscious super-computer taking over the world, though this does depend on humans doing something stupid, like handing it control of all the nuclear weapons, and it usually all works out well in the end, once we manage to teach the machines the power of love or something.

I do sometimes worry that AI will kill us all eventually, though not with an army of cyborgs; it will just get us to do the job ourselves, by using social media algorithms to divide us into mutually destructive tribes, or, failing that, to convince enough of us to eschew vaccination that we all die of measles.

At heart though, I’m still enough of a techno-utopian to believe that humankind is sufficiently smart to stay in control of the technology we create, and that our social organisation will evolve to allow the whole population to benefit from the advances that, at the moment, are just enriching a few. All going well, the future will be less like Blade Runner, and more like … actually I can’t think of a sci-fi film where the utopia doesn’t turn out to be a dystopia before the second reel. Maybe Logan’s Run, for the under-30s?

Out of the wild

Every summer for the past decade or so I’ve thought to myself that it would be good for my long-term sanity to get away from civilisation for a few weeks, and just mellow right back. Unfortunately I’ve always had too many pressing responsibilities to make this a reality; until this year, when, through a fortunate confluence of circumstances, I managed to drop out of society for the best part of two months.

I didn’t go to live in on old bus on the tundra, Christopher McCandless-style, but I did rent a fairly remote cabin, which, while not entirely off the grid, was isolated enough that I could go days without seeing another human. I couldn’t quite bring myself to completely ignore the news, but I did eschew the internet, instead perusing the newspaper once or twice a week when I ventured into the nearest village for supplies. I read a bit, listened to some music, took some long walks, and scribbled a few observations in a notebook, but most of my time was spent just sitting in the woods, tuned into nature and letting my thoughts wander. (There were some mind-altering substances involved, but not to the extent that one might expect).

So what did I learn during this sojourn in my head? That the world actually moves quite slowly, and I don’t need to update myself every five minutes. That I’m comfortable, perhaps a little too comfortable, with just myself for company. That I’ve reached a point in my life where I enjoy remembering the past more than planning the future. That I haven’t lost the ability to spend hours just watching clouds, and sunlight on grass, and leaves moving in the breeze, like I used to do when I was a kid.

I’m certainly tempted to make this a permanent arrangement. I could just about afford to, financially, and untangling my various relationships, while a little more tricky, wouldn’t be impossible. Just thinking about it makes it seem more attractive.

The current state of the world seems like another good reason to check out, but it’s also the thing that gives me pause. It’s clear that there are going to be some battles to be fought, and it would feel self-indulgent to absent myself from the field just when things are hotting up. Not that I think that any contribution that I might make will be decisive; more that, for my own self-respect, I need to be around to be counted.

So it looks like I’ll have to reluctantly re-engage with society. I’m going to give myself one more night before I face it though…

Reach for the stars

Regular readers will recall that we’ve posted on the topic of space travel several times in the past, marking, among other things, Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering flight into orbit, and Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon.

The tone of our previous pieces has been mostly elegiac, noting with regret that the promise of manned cosmic exploration, which seemed just around the corner in my youth, had largely stalled in the years that followed. There have of course been great strides in robotic exploration, from Mars all the way out to Pluto, and ever more sophisticated telescopes have peered into the furthest depths of the Universe, but I still find it deeply disappointing that Moon bases and space tourism aren’t a thing in the 21st century.

It’s interesting then to see that the latest anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, which, 50 years ago today, put the Eagle lander on the lunar surface, has been greeted with quite a bit of enthusiasm. I haven’t heard anyone arguing that it wasn’t a good thing to do, and there seems to be a general feeling that it’s the kind of endeavour that humanity could do with undertaking again some time soon.

I’m sure that, at least in part, this wish to travel out into the final frontier is fuelled by a desire to forget about how dispiriting the immediate future is looking here on Earth, but, whatever the motivation, it’s good to see a resurgence of belief in the idea of progress. I may reluctantly admit that I’m probably too old now to make it to Mars in person, but I’m still hoping to see some other human get there before I die.

Boris in Brussels

There are still a couple of weeks to go before the final result of the Conservative party leadership contest is due, but Boris Johnson already seems assured of victory. (I was going to add a qualifying statement like “barring some unexpected development”, but actually I can’t even imagine a scandal of sufficient gravity to derail him now).

No one, not even the man himself, seems particularly enthused by this state of affairs; it is as if the country has just accepted this latest humiliation as another inevitable stage of our long national decline. For all the candidates’ talk of going back to Brussels to get a better Brexit deal, it’s inconceivable that any of them actually believe such an outcome is possible, which means that, once he is ensconced in Number 10, Johnson will immediately be faced with a tricky choice between presiding over a catastrophic no-deal exit, or explaining to the electorate that his tough talk was mere bluster, and that he will have to accept the deal on the table, Irish backstop and all.

The support that Johnson has gathered across the parliamentary party seems to indicate that more moderate Tory MPs are banking on him following the latter course of action, presumably calculating that, like Nixon in China, he has a high enough standing among the Brexit true believers to sell the necessary compromise. This is questionable, to say the least; the hard right is poised to denounce any hint of concession as a betrayal, severely limiting Johnson’s room for manoeuvre, and there is no sign that the EU27 are in the mood to offer even cosmetic changes to the deal to help him out.

The no-deal option is no more straightforward; there is still just about a majority in the Commons determined to block it, and the talk of dismissing parliament, aired by some on the wilder fringes of the debate, would surely be too dictatorial, even for Johnson. A general election would be politically suicidal, so logic points towards Johnson taking a populist gamble and trying to secure a mandate in a second referendum. Logic hasn’t exactly been an infallible guide to events in this saga so far though…

Battle for the past

Back in 2014 we wrote about the 70th anniversary of D-Day, noting that the event had started to take on the character of distant history, as it slipped beyond the reach of living memory. Five years on, the surviving veterans are fewer in number, and the connection between the reality of their experience and the role it plays in present-day political discourse has grown correspondingly tenuous. This is especially true in the UK, perhaps unsurprisingly; given the state into which the country has descended in the last three years, we can hardly be blamed for looking back fondly on a time when we could still claim to be a global power. This does require some re-writing of history; even the normally-reliable BBC has been attributing the defeat of the Nazis entirely to the battles on the Western Front, without even mentioning the significant contribution of the Soviet Union. (Recognising this does not lessen our respect for the bravery of the troops who stormed the beaches in 1944; the action in Normandy may not have been on the scale of Stalingrad or Kursk, but it still involved a ferocity that is almost unimaginable in our more peaceful times).

Politicians using history selectively to further an agenda is not a new development of course, but it is depressing to see the sacrifice of those who fell in the titanic struggle against fascism being exploited to advance the petty schemes of the modern-day right. It shows the importance of defending the internationalist spirit that should be the true legacy of that generation, and opposing those who would see Europe once again divided.

There may be trouble ahead

So, after hanging on grimly to her premiership for what seems like forever, Theresa May has bid us a tearful adieu. The identity of our next Prime Minister, and with it the fate of the nation, and perhaps the continent, lies in the hands of around 300 Conservative MPs, who will choose two candidates to go forward to the final reckoning, at the end of which a victor will be anointed by the hundred thousand or so elderly oddballs who make up the Tory party membership. What could possibly go wrong?

Incassable

As I’ve noted previously, I’ve had some good times in Paris, so it was sad to watch fire ravage Notre Dame cathedral last night. Fortunately, the skill and courage of the Parisian sapeurs-pompiers ensured that the flames were extinguished before the whole structure collapsed, but it’s still going to take years, if not decades, to restore.

It’s tempting to see this event as some sort of metaphor for the fragility of seemingly eternal European institutions, but I suspect it may end up symbolising exactly the opposite; the ability of the EU to survive temporary conflagrations like Brexit. Whether the UK will be part of that future remains doubtful, though the chances of a remain outcome are certainly better than they were a few weeks ago, and seem likely to be further boosted by a good showing for pro-EU parties in the European elections next month.

As time passes, the fire at Notre Dame will become just a footnote in its centuries-long history; hopefully Brexit will fade into a similar obscurity.

Once more on Wikileaks

It’s nearly seven years since we last posted about Julian Assange and Wikileaks; our take at that time was that freedom of information was a good thing, but that promoting it didn’t give anyone a pass for sexual assault.

Now that Assange’s falling-out with the Ecuadorian government has brought the issue back into the news, should we reconsider our position? Since 2012 the waters have been significantly muddied by the role played by Wikileaks in the 2016 US election, but I see no reason to think differently; we would oppose his extradition to the US on hacking charges, but think he should answer the rape accusations in Sweden.

More broadly, I think the last decade has seen a change in the way that the ruling class tries to control information. Keeping secrets by throwing people like Assange (or Chelsea Manning, who is much more deserving of support) in jail seems old-fashioned; it’s more effective to undermine the whole concept of objective truth by flooding the internet with conspiracy theories, so that any real scandal that leaks out can be plausibly dismissed as fake news. Social media, which promised to democratise information flow, has instead concentrated control in the hand of a few secretive corporations, with links to government that we can only speculate about.

We’ve known since the days of Marx that workers’ control of the economic levers of society is a precondition for progressive change, but economics is not everything; Gramsci illuminated the importance of cultural hegemony in maintaining the dominance of capital. Today our culture is more than ever mediated through the control of information; transferring that control from the bourgeoisie to the masses is perhaps the most pressing task facing revolutionaries in this era. The lesson of the Wikileaks story is that such work is too important to be left to fallible individuals; it must be a collective, democratic enterprise.

Intergalactic perspective

I always feel that, in uncertain times like these, it’s helpful to step back and take a cosmic view, so I was interested to see the image from the Event Horizon telescope of the black hole at the centre of the Messier 87 galaxy, 55 million light years away. When one can actually see an object six billion times as massive as the sun, warping time and space with its unimaginable gravity, and spitting out particles heated to billions of degrees at nearly light speed, it’s hard to get too bothered about the petty squabbles of this insignificant planet.