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?

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.

2018: The Year in Review – Part 1: Culture

Time for our annual run through my cultural highlights of the year – as usual everything is on our Tumblr.

Music – buying records has become my main cultural pursuit over the last few years; I’m fortunate enough to have the resources to purchase anything that catches my fancy, and, since nothing is more than a click away these days, I do get a lot. That said, the stuff I actually end up listening to regularly doesn’t tend to vary that much. Here, in no particular order, are my top ten albums of the year:

  • Floating Features – La Luz
  • Wide Awake! – Parquet Courts
  • Goners – Laura Gibson
  • Quit the Curse – Anna Burch
  • Future Me Hates Me – The Beths
  • Paycheck – Pip Blom
  • Fall into the Sun – Swearin’
  • Possible Dust Clouds – Kristin Hersh
  • Clean – Soccer Mommy
  • The Lookout – Laura Veirs

I kept up a fairly regular rhythm of gig-going; my favourite show was Parquet Courts, though La Luz and The Beths were a lot of fun too.

Film – I had a pile of DVDs I wanted to watch this year, but didn’t get around to; I don’t seem to have the time, or perhaps the attention span, to sit through a whole movie very often these days. Of the few I did see, The Love Witch was my favourite. My few cinema trips were mostly social affairs – I saw The Greatest Showman, and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, neither of which I would have chosen to go to alone, but both of which I enjoyed unironically. Far and away the best film I saw all year though was one I did go to see of my own volition – Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs.

Books – I’ve been reading a lot about existential philosophy in the last half of the year, no doubt because I’m getting older, and struggling more with the absurdity of life. Mostly it’s been articles in places like the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, but also The Myth of Sisyphus by Camus, and de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity. It’s not an area that I was unfamiliar with, though I hadn’t read much of the original material before, but it does seem a lot more relevant now than it did when I was in my 20s. My fiction highlights were completing my annual volume of Proust, The Sweet Cheat Gone (only one more to go for the set), belatedly catching up with Shark and Phone, the sequels to my favourite book of 2013, Will Self’s Umbrella, and taking a rare dive into poetry with one of the Booker Prize nominees, The Long Take, by Robin Robertson. My favourite read of the year though was more existentialism; Simone de Beauvoir’s 1954 novel The Mandarins. Although the questions debated by the characters in the book may seem to be dated – there’s a lot about the Soviet Union – the underlying message, of the responsibility we have to engage in political activity to at least try to change the world, couldn’t be more relevant in today’s troubled times.

Next up: The Year in Blogging.

2017: The Year in Review – Part 2: Culture

While posts on this blog have been a little sparse this year, I have managed to keep our Tumblr up to date, providing a handy list of all my cultural experiences over the last 12 months; here are my personal highlights:

Music – I’ve been steadily buying more records every year since I gave up my fixation with physical objects and started downloading albums back in 2014, so picking out my favourites has been getting harder; this is a fairly arbitrary top ten for 2017, in no particular order:

  • Antisocialites – Alvvays
  • Semper Femina – Laura Marling
  • Life Without Sound – Cloud Nothings
  • The Gold String – Devon Sproule
  • American Dream – LCD Soundsystem
  • Modern Kosmology – Jane Weaver
  • Pleasure – Feist
  • Masseduction – St. Vincent
  • MILANO – Daniele Luppi & Parquet Courts
  • Visions Of A Life – Wolf Alice

I managed to go to more concerts than usual this year too; my favourite was probably Cloud Nothings, though the Pixies gig was a fun blast of nostalgia.

Film – most of my cinematic experience this year was watching DVDs of stuff that came out last year; High Rise and The Neon Demon stand out. Of films I saw in an actual cinema easily the best was T2 Trainspotting, perhaps unsurprisingly, since I am exactly the demographic to appreciate it, having aged along with the protagonists, and shared their experience of change and maturity, though rather less dramatically.

Books – I completed another volume of Proust, The Captive, and filled a slightly embarrassing gap by finally reading some Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. My intake of more recent literature wasn’t great, but I did manage last year’s Booker winner The Sellout, by Paul Beatty, which seemed worthy of the prize, though it did run out of steam towards the end. My favourite fiction of year was another old one that I’ve been meaning to read for ages, The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, a hard-headed yet inspiring treatment of the challenges facing individuals in a communal society. I read rather less history, science and biography than in years past, Patti Smith’s M Train my pick of the latter category.

So that was 2017, insofar as it is possible to sum any year up in a few hundred words. I do regret not posting more this year, especially about politics; right now I feel resolved to do better in the months ahead, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Anyway, I’ll round off by wishing a Happy New Year to anyone who may be reading this, and hoping it finds you healthy and prosperous.

King of the Living Dead

Regular readers will know that we have a bit of a zombie obsession here at SLS, so I was sad to hear of the passing of George Romero, who, more than anyone, defined the undead aesthetic that underlies just about every modern zombie-themed film and video game.

Night of the Living Dead is a groundbreaking classic of course, but, for me, Romero’s masterpiece is Dawn of the Dead, which inserts its shambling horror into the all-too-recognisable mundanity of everyday life to truly terrifying effect. If it has a fault it is that it’s too terrifying; despite it being one of my favourite films I haven’t watched Dawn of the Dead for years, because I know that a viewing will give me vivid nightmares for days afterwards.

Anyway, here’s a link to our very first zombie post from 10 years ago, which I think is still relevant today, and some valuable tips for when the worst happens…

They shoot Youtubers, don’t they?

I may affect indifference towards the fact that, according to the merciless WordPress statistics page, virtually nobody ever comes to visit our little blog any more, but the truth is that I miss the days when we had lots of traffic, and I’d do anything to attract a few more views again.

Well, perhaps not anything; I’d probably draw the line at having my partner shoot live ammunition at my chest in a misguided attempt to capture the attention of the notoriously fickle YouTube demographic. Depressingly this story isn’t an aberration; there are plenty of examples of would-be social media stars abusing their children, leaping from high places, lighting themselves on fire, or doing other stupid stunts in the hope that it will be their ticket to internet fame, and the fabled wealth that comes with it.

The spectacle of the desperate poor demeaning themselves for our entertainment is nothing new; there were dance marathons and other indignities during the Depression, truck-touching contests have a proud history, and as recently as 10 years ago people were dying to win a video game console. Now, in our wonderful modern world of 24/7 digital connection, it’s not even necessary to leave the house to join in; that’s progress I guess.

Ten Years After

Rather remarkably, today is the 10th anniversary of the very first post on this blog, and, while I started out full of enthusiasm, I don’t think I would have predicted that I’d still be churning them out a decade later.

It’s not been a steady stream of course – when I did a retrospective on the occasion of our 5th birthday back in 2012 I had a lot of material to work with; the pickings this time around are somewhat slimmer. There have been a few highlights though; here are my favourites:

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

So there you have it, 16 worthwhile pieces in 5 years. Is that a good enough return to justify keeping this blog going? On balance, I think so, though I guess we can revisit the question in 2022. In the meantime I’ll revive one of our traditions, which had sadly fallen into abeyance, the contrived musical link.

Well, how did I get here?

Back in 1985 I moved right across the country to go to college in a new city. For various reasons I arrived a couple of months before the start of term, and consequently was pretty much on my own until the other students started showing up a few weeks later.

One evening, to ease my isolation, I ventured out to the cinema, which seemed quite adventurous at the time, as the movie I wanted to see was showing at a place on the other side of town, and I hadn’t really figured out even the basic geography of the city, let alone complicated things like the bus schedules. I eventually made it to the cinema though, and was rewarded with an enviable double bill; Talking Heads concert documentary Stop Making Sense, with the Coen brothers’ debut feature Blood Simple in support.

I came out of the movie theatre around midnight, facing a long walk back to my lonely flat, but buzzing with the excitement of living a new, free, life where such cultural delights were mine to enjoy on a whim.

That feeling lasted a good few years, probably until my late 20s, but, without me really noticing it happening, my life eventually became complicated by responsibility, and these days even something simple like taking in a new movie requires so much planning that I seldom manage it.

So it’s kind of bittersweet to recall that night; as it recedes further into the past the memory becomes increasingly infused with a sense of loss. I’d hate to forget it altogether though, since I don’t want to believe that it’s impossible that I’ll someday feel that way again.

Anyway, I was thinking of this tonight after hearing that Jonathan Demme had passed away. I have Stop Making Sense on DVD somewhere; I’ll have to dig it out for old times’ sake…

2016: The Year in Review – Politics, Culture, Blogging

I’m going to compress my review of the past 12 months into one post this year, partly because, in common with everyone else, I’ve been, like, fuck 2016, and want to spend as little time thinking about it as possible, but mainly because my blogging activity has been pretty sparse of late, so there’s not very much to review.

Politics first; if I had any suspicion that I was old, and out of touch, then my fears were more than confirmed by the way I was blindsided by the two big political developments of the year, Brexit and Trump. To be honest I’m still pretty much in denial over both of them; I feel sure that the Founding Fathers must have written something into the Constitution to head off the kind of clusterfuck promised by a manifestly unfit President, and I can’t believe that the Tories, who have always looked after the interests of the national bourgeoisie, will follow through with the economic suicide of leaving the single market. Then again I guess it’s such naivety that stopped me seeing these disasters coming in the first place; that, and my effective retirement from active politics in the last couple of years. Anyway, I think I’ll refrain from making any more political predictions until a bit of time has passed and I’ve got at least some of my bearings back.

Culture is a bit more straightforward; my taste in music, literature and film (as recorded in our Tumblr) is more or less the same as ever, so my favourites are fairly predictable.

Top ten albums, in no particular order:

  • New View – Eleanor Friedberger
  • Welcome the Worms – Bleached
  • Human Performance – Parquet Courts
  • Crab Day – Cate Le Bon
  • Desire’s Magic Theatre – Purson
  • Empire Builder – Laura Gibson
  • Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not – Dinosaur Jr.
  • My Woman – Angel Olsen
  • Undercurrent – Sarah Jarosz
  • Let It Be You – Joan As Police Woman & Benjamin Lazar Davis

Plus lots of other good stuff; if I had to choose one it would probably be Empire Builder.

Favourite books – back in January I read a lot about time, relativity and cosmology, which was a bit of a downer, confirming as it did my view that human existence is insignificant and essentially random, so for the rest of the year I stuck to the comforts of fiction. I managed another volume of Proust, Cities of the Plain, leaving me on course to finish the set before the end of the decade, and a fair mix of other books, old and new, the most enjoyable probably Purity, by Jonathan Franzen, and David Means’ Hystopia.

Top films – I only visited an actual cinema once this year, to see The Force Awakens, which was distinctly underwhelming, even in 3D. I have acquired some of the year’s other releases on DVD, though the only one I’ve got round to watching is Hail, Caesar!, so I guess it gets my vote for film of the year. I will try to see High Rise and The Neon Demon before too long.

And so on to blogging. I actually managed to post a bit more this year than last, but traffic is down more than half, and we’re pulling in barely 10% of the hits we used to get in the glory days of 2010. This is partly due (I tell myself) to the general decline of blogging as a medium, but I have to admit that lacklustre content hasn’t helped. As I’ve already noted my political analysis was practically worthless; apart from briefly mentioning the passing of Bowie and Prince, I didn’t really touch upon any cultural issues; and, most embarrassingly, there was a complete absence of anything even vaguely resembling psychological insight into virtual life, which is supposed to be the whole point of this blog. The only post from 2016 that I would highlight is this one about the Chicago Cubs, which does show a little of our characteristic whimsical nostalgia, but overall it was far from a vintage year.

Anyway, for the record, here are our ten most popular posts of the year, all, unsurprisingly, from the archive:

  1. Second Life demographics – a brief review
  2. Free Pussy Riot!
  3. On Second Life and addiction
  4. Watching the Okhrana
  5. Fly me to the moon
  6. Ferrisburg, Vermont
  7. What’s up
  8. Bastille Day 1989
  9. No man is an island
  10. There is no land beyond the Volga

Our geographical reach has contracted a bit recently, but we still had hits from 63 different countries this year; here are the top ten:

  1. United States
  2. Brazil
  3. United Kingdom
  4. France
  5. Germany
  6. Italy
  7. Canada
  8. Australia
  9. India
  10. Spain

So that was 2016. I was going to preview next year too, but I’m running out of enthusiasm, so I’ll leave it for another day. In the meantime, I’ll wish a happy and prosperous New Year to all our readers.

Anti-Social

There’s a passage early in Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting where protagonist Renton decides to kick his heroin habit, which he manages, though not without some difficulty (and a trip to the Worst Toilet in Scotland). Afterwards he finds that his friend Sick Boy has come off the smack too, just to piss off Renton by showing how easily he could do it.

In a similar spirit, I resolved last month to quit Facebook, just to prove to myself that I could. Rather to my surprise it’s been pretty painless; after a couple of days the urge to click the familiar blue icon on my phone more or less completely faded. I was a bit worried that, divorced from my carefully curated timeline, I might fall out of touch with world events and popular culture, but it turns out that looking at the BBC news a couple of times a day and listening to the radio are just as effective in this regard as compulsively checking the latest minor updates every few minutes, so I don’t feel that I’ve lost anything terribly valuable.

What have I actually gained though? A gratifying glow of smugness when I sit on the train and look at all the sheeple hypnotised by their corporate overlords of course, and probably something intangible, like a deeper connection with the natural world around me or the like. I can’t say that I’ve done anything particularly constructive with the hour or two a day freed up by this change in habit, but I guess regaining the ability to just do nothing for periods of time is actually quite valuable.

In the story Renton eventually relapses, and his subsequent detox is exponentially more horrifying than the first, so I suppose that I shouldn’t get too complacent after just a few weeks of abstinence. I need to find some other diversional activity – perhaps I’ll take up blogging again…