Coup de tweet

In another sign that Animal Crossing is turning into the Second Life de nos jours, notable politicians have been spotted on the platform. Perhaps Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez visiting islands owned by her Twitter followers isn’t quite on the scale of Hillary Clinton setting up an SL campaign HQ back in 2008, but it does, rather depressingly, suggest that no corner of cyberspace will a haven from the upcoming Presidential election, which is shaping up to be even uglier than feared.

This shouldn’t be a surprise of course; with the stakes so high for Donald Trump there is no gutter he won’t stoop to. A couple of months ago it looked like he might be able to coast to victory on the strength of being the incumbent at a time of relative prosperity, but his disastrously inept response to the coronavirus crisis, and the subsequent economic implosion, have left him staring defeat in the face, with little option but to continue his steady erosion of democracy.

So we have been treated to the spectacle of the President of the United States of America using his Twitter account to traduce a dead woman’s reputation, as part of a ludicrous conspiracy theory aimed at one of his many critics in the media. This seems like lunacy, and perhaps it is, but it also fits in with his strategy of portraying himself as an outsider, battling the liberal establishment, which, predictably, has reacted with outrage to this latest transgression. The evidence of 2016 suggests that his core voters will lap this up, but it does risk alienating his more marginal support. To cover that angle, Trump has also been tweeting baseless allegations of potential electoral fraud, a move transparently designed to prepare the ground for him refusing to accept defeat if the vote goes against him in November.

This is all quite alarming. Since the fabled checks and balances of the US constitution have proven to be worthless in the face of Trump’s dictatorial ambitions, it might appear that the only thing that can prevent the most powerful nation on the planet falling completely under the control of an unstable despot is his own party turning against him. Given that the GOP refused to even look at the evidence for impeachment, that seems like a forlorn hope.

Fortunately though we don’t have to depend on the Republican Party to stop the putsch. For all his bombast, Trump’s support across the nation is very much a minority, and any attempt to steal the election will, I’m sure, provoke a popular uprising. As ever, when bourgeois democracy is under threat, and the liberals vacillate, it’s the proletariat who are called upon to save the day.

Furry traversing

As we enter another month of lockdown, with the majority of the population still sundered from friends and family, there comes news that increasing numbers of people have been signing up to a virtual world, where they can customise their avatar, decorate their homes, craft their own clothing, and experience the social contact that has been denied them in these difficult times, recreating all sorts of communal gatherings, including weddings. All this has drawn the attention of big brands, who are rushing to establish a presence in the metaverse.

This story might sound familiar to readers who have been around since the early days of this blog. However the virtual world in question is not Second Life, but New Horizons, the latest instalment of Nintendo’s Animal Crossing franchise.

ACNH does have some things in common with SL – a non-linear structure, user-generated content, and an emphasis on social interaction – but also some key features that have helped propel it beyond being a niche interest, like the easy-to-grasp user interface, the cute graphic design, and the highly-regulated family-friendly ambience. Its biggest advantage though is that it can be accessed on a relatively low-cost console, or on mobile devices using the NookLink app, instead of forcing would-be residents to shell out for a PC with a high-end graphics card.

Linden Labs’ persistent failure to produce an iPhone or Android app has always puzzled me. It’s clearly technically possible – there are plenty of graphically-intensive mobile games around, and a third-party viewer was available for Android for a while – and even if the smartphone client didn’t have all the bells and whistles of the desktop viewer it would still be enough to keep more casual residents engaged. I suspect it has something to do with the somewhat extortionate revenue-sharing terms that both Apple and Google apply to their respective app stores, but other developers seem to be able to make money in that market, so I don’t see why an SL app wouldn’t be viable. If one existed it might give ACNH a run for its money, particularly among more mature demographics.

Perhaps though the real problem has been one of timing. If current events had unfolded back in 2006, then SL might have been well-positioned to meet the demand for a virtual social hub, and could even have cornered the market for remote business meetings. As it is, a combination of the ubiquity of smartphones, the popularity of social media, and much-improved video-call technology has left the erstwhile pioneer nothing but a cautionary footnote in metaversal history. Sometimes it’s possible to be too far ahead of your time.

Scritti di Twitter

So, only a day to go until what most observers agree may be the most consequential election of the modern era. The nation is faced with a clear choice; Labour, offering a modest package of tax rises and state spending that would just about bring the UK into line with the social democratic model of most European countries, or the Conservatives, who promise a fantasy of national renewal and prosperity through the dark magic of Brexit and unregulated free markets.

On the face of it there should be no doubting a Labour victory, but, as they were last time around, the Tories are strong favourites. If the opinion polls are to be believed – and the pollsters claim to have fixed the flaws that derailed their predictions in 2017 – then huge numbers of working class voters, particularly in the north of England are going to vote directly against their own economic interests, and usher Boris Johnson back into Downing Street.

This is, of course, a conundrum that has troubled the left since the days of Marx – the problem of false consciousness. One might think that, in the prevailing economic landscape of low wages and precarious employment, not to mention ecological crisis, progressive socialist ideas would be more popular, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Economics, as Gramsci noted nearly a century ago, isn’t everything. Culture, and who is in control of it, is equally, if not more, important, and modern life, in post-industrial societies like the UK at least, is increasingly mediated by online experience.

The last few years have seen a rise in critical interest directed towards the way in which the internet, especially social media, influences electoral politics. A lot of anxiety has been generated by the role it plays in propagating the outright falsehoods that seem to make up the greater part of political discourse these days, but I think this misses a bigger point. The main problem is that these new forms of communication – and the old ones they are supplanting for that matter – are dominated by the corporations that are the contemporary embodiment of capitalism, and, as such, are central to generating the sort of hegemonic “common sense” that Gramsci would recognise, perpetuating our current system of rampant inequality.

Can these immensely powerful tools be subverted to further the cause of raising class consciousness? I was sceptical about that at the start of the decade, and have only become more so in the time since then. Perhaps we need to throw away our smartphones and start talking to one another again, if we are to rebuild the proletarian solidarity we need to take on the ruling class.

In the meantime I’m hoping that things are not as far gone as they seem, and that the residual anti-Tory traditions of working class life will derail Johnson’s plans, and put us back on the track of, if not revolution, at least some modest reform.

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?

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.

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.

Irresolute

I’m not a huge believer in New Year resolutions; experience has taught me that, once you get past about 30, making a serious change to your life takes more effort than simply deciding to do it, and being too ambitious just sets you up for disappointing failure.

However this time last year I did resolve to alter my behaviour, albeit in a fairly trivial way, by giving up looking at Facebook, which had been consuming an inordinate amount of my time for very little reward. I’m pleased to report that I was entirely successful in this endeavour, having maintained my abstinence for the last 12 months. I didn’t take the obvious precaution of deleting the app from my phone, figuring that maintaining some temptation would make the achievement more satisfying, though I have got rid of it today, just in case complacency undermined my forbearance. In celebration I’m allowing myself this one post to crow about it, but I promise that I’ll never mention it again.

Buoyed by this minor act of self-improvement, I’ve been trying to think of a resolution for this year. Unfortunately, very few of my remaining shortcomings, which are legion, lend themselves to so straightforward an answer.

It’s a well-recognised psychological maxim that the best way to stop unwanted behaviour is to substitute some more positive action, but that tends to work best for circumscribed habits like smoking, rather than more nebulous problems like “being a slacker”. I’m leaning towards a target of doing more writing, but I’m sure that my subconscious is making up excuses for my failure already. I guess that I could see how my blogging productivity holds up over the next few weeks before deciding whether to start working on a novel.

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.