BBC centenary

It was one hundred years ago today that the British Broadcasting Company, as it was then, transmitted its first programme on the wireless, a news bulletin from London, covering, among other things, billiard scores and the foggy weather. Or it may have been a children’s programme broadcast the previous day from Manchester; records of those pioneering days are a little sketchy.

Whatever the details, when viewed from the perspective of today’s fractured and fractious media landscape it’s hard not to feel a sense of longing for the days when broadcasting was viewed as a way of “spreading culture and good sense”, an antidote to the horrors of the Great War. More recently, the internet seemed to hold similar promise, but that hasn’t really worked out either. Perhaps the next telecommunication revolution will be more successful…

Web of reaction

I’m sure I wasn’t alone last week in struggling to believe the news from New Zealand; no matter how many atrocities one hears about there is always shock at the latest one, especially when it occurs in just about the last place one might expect. I guess there have been a lot of stories in recent years extolling NZ as a haven from the turmoil of the world, which might attract the demographic that is anticipating an apocalyptic race war, but still, it is unsettling to learn that even a seemingly peaceful backwater like Christchurch apparently has a thriving white-supremacist scene.

It doesn’t seem so long ago that the internet, and social media in particular, was being hailed as an unstoppable force for progress, but now, as nazis live-stream massacres and shadowy corporations undermine liberal democracy, the consensus has shifted to view online culture as a menace to civilisation. As ever with these things, the truth will be somewhere in between, though the alt-right do seem to be weaponising the web more effectively than we leftists at the moment.

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.

Information overload

Today is apparently the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web (again), which seems like a good excuse to reflect on the future of our own little contribution to the medium, namely this blog.

One of the many statistics that I’ve seen bandied about today is that, of the billion or so web pages in existence, around 75% are inactive. I’m not sure exactly what the definition of “inactive” is in this context, but I’d have to admit that SLS, with our relaxed update schedule, must be at least flirting with it.

Why is this? It’s not as if I’ve become any less opinionated in the last couple of years, and there’s certainly no shortage of subjects to comment upon. If anything that’s the problem; the sheer deluge of information, handily delivered at all hours of the day, means I never have time to stop and write about anything before I’m distracted by the next item on the timeline. Even when I do pause long enough to start to formulate some thoughts on a subject, I tend to be discouraged by the feeling that someone else will undoubtedly have already expressed them, and probably more eloquently, a suspicion that I can usually confirm with a couple of clicks.

Would it really matter if this blog slipped into a permanent limbo? To the world, I guess not, but I would feel more than a twinge of regret. I enjoy reading our old posts, and it would seem like a shame to give up just when we are closing in on our tenth birthday.

So what’s to be done? I have to drop back to a slower pace of news acquisition; perhaps I should start reading actual papers again, instead of addictively clicking on a Facebook feed. I could get rid of my smartphone and attempt to wean myself off of the need to be constantly connected. I might even try just hanging out with my friends and talking about stuff, like we used to do back in the old days.

Oh, who am I kidding? I’ve tasted the sweet drug that is the modern internet, and I’m not about to give it up. I’ll just have to try harder not to be so passive…

This “Internet” thing might catch on

It’s a quarter of a century since Tim Berners-Lee submitted his proposal for what became the World Wide Web; I got on board in 1996 via a 14.4 modem, Compuserve, Netscape Navigator and Geocities, but it wasn’t until May of 2007 that the medium finally reached its full potential with the debut of Second Life Shrink. I think it’s fair to say that there have been no significant developments in online culture since then, but we’re working on it…

Green Typewriters

And we’re back… Slightly longer summer break than usual this year, for various reasons, not all connected to idleness. Mostly connected to idleness though.

But who can blame us for staying away from the internet? What with twitterised death threats, cyber-bullying, extreme porn everywhere, topped off by the NSA snooping on us all, browsing the web these days feels less like strolling around a virtual utopia, and more like dodging the cops in the town’s sleaziest neighbourhood.

It’s hard to believe that only a couple of years ago everyone was saying that social media was going to save the world, and even nominating the internet for the Nobel Peace Prize. One might almost suspect that these scare stories (mostly concerning phenomena which, while obviously serious, have been around for years) were being hyped up by the authorities, and their allies in the old media, to convince us that we should steer clear of any online content that isn’t government-approved.

Anyway, I’m thinking that we should take a tip from the Russians, and start producing SLS on paper, with typewriters. We could hand out hard copies in the street, to anyone who looked vaguely interested. Our productivity and readership couldn’t be any worse than they are now…


Regular readers will recall that I am a big fan of the work of Sherry Turkle (though, shamefully, I haven’t read, or even purchased, her latest book Alone Together yet; I might download a copy if someone gives me a Kindle for Christmas.) I’ve been particularly influenced by her 1997 paper Multiple subjectivity and virtual community at the end of the Freudian century, in which she advances the idea that online interaction allows one to dis-integrate the various strands of one’s personality, in a way that allows one to gain greater insight into one’s internal mental landscape, and, in theory at least, escape the restrictions of a unitary conception of the self.

This was in my mind the other day, when my Second Life Premium membership came up for renewal. I duly handed over the $80 or so, which is small beer in comparison with what I spend on other types of entertainment, but enough to set me thinking about how many different online identities I have, and how much they cost me each year.

The answers to those questions depend on what one considers as a separate identity; my virtual presence divides into four main groupings which have no overlap at all, but within these there are multiple blogs, web-pages, Twitter, Facebook and forum accounts, and, of course, virtual world avatars. Most of these are free, but I must pay out about $200 annually in hosting and subscription fees, not to mention all the valuable time I spend maintaining the whole show.

Is this worth it? Have I become more self-aware by disaggregating my personality traits? Do each of my four core online identities represent a pure strand of my self, uncontaminated by the other three, and better for it?

Not really. I certainly appreciate the freedom to express myself in certain contexts without having to worry too much about how people who know me through different channels would react, and this has sharpened my understanding of how I function internally, highlighting some strengths, but also a lot of flaws. In each guise I do, in some ways, feel more like my “real” self, but also that there are important parts of “me” missing.

The main thing I have learned, if that’s not too grand a phrase, is that I actually like my messy, complicated, contradictory, every-day, real-life self a lot better than any of my supposedly idealised avatars. Maybe it’s because I started off from a good place; if my self-esteem was lower I might be more inclined to identify with my virtual representations. Perhaps it’s harder to reinvent oneself online than it might appear, and I’m actually just reproducing myself over and over, and delusionally believing that each time I’m somehow different. Or it could be that I am at heart a conformist, and I’m subconsciously inhibiting myself from embracing the full liberating potential of virtual life.

Whatever. It seems unlikely that, at this point in my life, I’m going to be changing much, so I guess that you, my dear readers, the parallel audiences for my other projects, and those fortunate enough to know me in real life, will have to go on putting up with the same old nonsense.

Off the wagon

So, that’s me back from my digital sabbatical, though, to be honest, it wasn’t really one of those straight-edge digital sabbaticals that one reads about, since I took my cellphone (though I did manage to cut down my usual rate of calling and texting), and I only gave up the mobile internet because I was in a region remote enough to have no wi-fi hotspots, and prohibitively expensive data roaming charges.

Still, I’ve come back with a renewed appreciation of life off the grid. I was a bit restless for the first couple of days, but after that I hardly missed it at all, and passed my time at a leisurely pace, reading books, listening to music, thinking, writing a little, and even doing some exercise.

I had just about convinced myself that I wasn’t really addicted to the internet after all, but, I’m sad to say, I hadn’t been home more than a few hours before I succumbed to the temptation to quickly check my blog stats, then while I was online I thought I might as well see what people were saying on Facebook… and it was all downhill from there. Last night I spent three hours watching Beavis and Butt-head clips on YouTube. Rapid reinstatement indeed.

Strangely enough I haven’t had any notion to visit Second Life yet. Perhaps the pleasures of SL are too rarefied to give me the quick fix I’m looking for; it’s a fine malt compared with the bathtub gin of social media.

The wrong move at the right time

Regular readers will know that I have an interest in internet addiction, but I came to that via impulse control disorders in general, and pathological gambling in particular.

The BBC reported this week on the release of the British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2010, produced by the National Centre for Social Research for the Gambling Commission. It’s a fairly hefty document, and I’ve only managed to read the executive summary, but even that contains plenty of food for thought.

The headline figures are that 73% of the adult population gambled in the last year, up from 63% the last time the survey was done in 2007. Problem gambling, as measured by the DSM-IV criteria, was up from 0.6% to 0.9% in the same period, though it hadn’t risen significantly on the Problem Gambling Severity Index (0.5% in 2007 and 0.7% in 2010). These numbers are similar to the rest of Europe, but lower than the US and Australia.

One thing that surprised me was that the prevalence of online betting hadn’t increased much in the last three years. Excluding online purchase of lottery tickets, which they didn’t measure last time, the rate was 7%, up from 6% in 2007; 81% of gamblers place their wagers exclusively offline. Within this certain types of online betting are more popular though; 39% of casino gamers play on the internet.

The betting landscape has certainly changed a lot since I was a child. My grandfather liked to play the horses, which back then involved visiting the local bookie, a sinister establishment next to the pub, with blacked-out windows and a permanently smoky atmosphere, frequented by the shadiest-looking characters in the neighbourhood. He used to take home the little pens to give to me, which my mother would immediately confiscate, lest I take them to school and shame our family with the association of vice. I take after my grandfather in a lot of ways, but I must have internalised some of his daughter’s disapproval, because to this day I have never set foot inside a betting shop. I’m rather ashamed of this, as it feels like I’m betraying my working-class roots in favour of a notion of bourgeois respectability, but my mother’s scruples have probably saved me a lot of money over the years.

My grandfather’s other flutter of choice was the football pools; a sacred ritual in our family was gathering around the television at about ten to five on a Saturday to listen to the classified results. As eldest grandchild I had the responsibility of recording the scores as they were announced; the mention of lower-league English teams like Huddersfield or Gillingham still takes me back to cosy teatimes all those years ago. I was sad to see that the explosion of alternative gambling opportunities in recent times has all but killed off the pools; only 4% of the population put on a coupon now.

The change in social attitudes to gambling can be traced back to the introduction of the National Lottery in 1994; overnight gambling became a government-approved leisure activity rather than a disreputable habit looked down upon by polite society. The whole industry was deregulated, with bookies allowed to put signs in their windows advertising what went on inside, and to install seats to encourage their customers to linger; a far cry from the dens of ill-repute my grandfather used to frequent.

Card gaming, poker in particular, has had quite a makeover too. It used to be a game associated with cowboys and gangsters, or at best the idle super-rich in places like Monte Carlo. I do remember, in my youth, being quite taken by Steve McQueen’s character in The Cincinnati Kid, but “professional poker player” was never going to be among my career choices. The advent of internet and televised poker tournaments has changed all that, and now the game is played by a whole host of perfectly respectable, and decidedly unglamorous, doctors, lawyers, accountants and the like.

A year or so ago I was seeing a client who had a bit of an issue with internet poker, and, out of curiosity, I registered with one of the online casinos and tried playing for a while. I’d like to say that this plunged me into a House of Games-style maelstrom of underworld intrigue, but since a) I limited myself to a $10 roll and nickel-and-dime tables and b) I am a dreadful poker player and lost all my money in short order, nothing nearly so interesting happened.

Every so often, usually when I am bored at work and daydreaming about alternative income streams, I return to the virtual tables, generally with the same result. This last month was different though; despite playing my usual ham-fisted game I went on a pretty good run, boosting my $10 stake up to over $60, before enduring an equally persistent losing streak, which had, by yesterday, reduced my stack to $15.30.

This experience has given me a bit of insight into some of the psychological phenomena associated with gambling that I had previously only read about. Simple arithmetic tells me that my latest session has been much more successful than previous forays, since I have ended up 53% ahead rather than 100% behind, but that’s not how it feels, and the temptation to chase my “losses” by playing more, or moving to a higher-stakes table has been pretty strong. It’s also been interesting to note how my feeling for the game mechanics, particularly the balance between luck and skill, has changed as my fortunes have varied; when I was hot I was convinced that I was playing masterfully, but as the money ebbed away I found myself cursing the bad cards I had been dealt.

I guess I should be happy that I’ve received some valuable professional education, and been paid $5.30 into the bargain, but I can’t help thinking about the $45 that got away, and how, if I just kept playing a little longer, the law of averages would throw a few good hands my way again…

Where Is My Mind?

Wikipedia is 10 years old today. As an early adopter and regular user, I can honestly say that I can’t remember how I managed before the invaluable, and mostly reliable, reference source was available.

In fact there is a lot I don’t remember these days, stuff I used to be able to recall instantly that now lurks frustratingly beyond the borders of my conscious memory, like the date of the Paris Commune, or the title of the Pixies’ second album, or the name of that guy I stood next to in anatomy class. I’m sure this is mostly attributable to my advancing years, but I do wonder how much the smartphone/Wikipedia combination has encouraged me to transfer knowledge from my brain to my pocket. This should, theoretically, free up my neurones for higher pursuits, though all I actually do with my liberated intellectual capacity is write this blog, so maybe it’s not such a great trade-off after all.

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