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…

Waking from the virtual dream

Towards the end of 2011 I wrote a post about the different strands of my online life; back then this blog, and my associated Second Life persona, were by far the most time-consuming portion of my virtual existence.

Fast-forward to today, and we find SLS almost moribund, and my avatar utilised only sporadically. The total time I spend online is about half what it was, and my most active presence is the Facebook account which carries my real name.

Does this shift away from anonymity and virtuality have any deeper meaning? Probably not. My retreat from the (relative) depth of blogging into the shallows of social media seems to be in line with general trends, and there are various personal factors that have kept my focus on reality of late. I’m not sure whether these are good developments; the time I spend consuming mindless click-bait on Facebook probably would be better employed in composing thoughtful posts on this space, but I can’t say that eschewing SL interaction in favour of seeing my real friends a bit more has been an entirely bad thing. I am a bit sad that the liberation from corporeal limitations that Second Life seemed to promise never really materialised though.

I guess these things go in cycles. Perhaps come 2017 I’ll be be re-immersed in whatever iteration of virtual life is fashionable, and boring the world with my pseudo-philosophical pieces on the significance of it all. In the meantime I am going to keep on blogging – I’ve managed at least one post in each of the last 89 months, which seems too good a streak to break…

Social emotions

I’ve been feeling kinda bummed out over the last week or so; I had been putting it down to having to go to work in the nice weather, but now I’m wondering if it’s because Mark Zuckerberg’s minions have been editing all the fluffy kittens out of my Facebook feed in a deliberate attempt to make me miserable.

Ethical concerns aside (yes, they should have sought informed consent, but it’s hardly the Tuskegee Experiment), the study’s results are actually quite interesting; contrary to cynical expectations, seeing friends being happy increases contentment, rather than delivering a demoralising blow to self-esteem (as long as you accept the proposition that a person’s emotional state can be gauged by what they post on social networks).

On one level that’s good news; despite all the things one reads perhaps the average online citizen is not a completely terrible person after all. On the other hand it is rather depressing to think that our emotions can be so easily manipulated, and a bit scary to imagine what might be done with that power, especially when one considers how secretive and unaccountable the likes of Google and Facebook are.

Now that thought’s got me down again. Perhaps this whole story is just part of some meta-study into how social media can really mess our heads up…

The value of application

I’m middle-aged, and sensible, and a bit dull, so of course I have a monthly contract for my cellphone, with unlimited minutes and texts (not that I ever use many of either, since I don’t have much of a social life to speak of). Anyway, I guess that means that I’m well outside the target demographic for WhatsApp, and not really in a position to even begin to understand why it might be popular among the youth, or what its revenue model might be.

Even if I did comprehend how money can be made by facilitating gossip among teenagers, I’m still not sure that I would be able to get my head around the fact that Facebook just paid $19 billion for the app. How did they come up with that valuation? Why not $12 billion, or $25 billion, or some other random figure? For $19 billion they could have got a proper, profit-generating, corporation like ConEdison, and still had some change left. I know that the deal was mainly financed with Facebook stock, which may or may not hold its value, but reportedly there was about $4 billion in actual real cash involved too. The guy who sold them Instagram must be feeling he left some money on the table.

I probably shouldn’t care what Silicon Valley venture capitalists choose to waste their money on, but it’s impossible to read about these astronomical sums being thrown around and not wonder if some more productive use might have been found for the cash, like, you know, fighting world hunger or something.

No doubt such naive sentiment would earn me a stern lecture from today’s tech entrepreneurs, about how enriching the wealth-creators is the true road to global prosperity, just like Ayn Rand said, but even if I was a hard-headed capitalist rather than a soft-hearted communist the WhatsApp deal might raise a few concerns. If the rate of profit in traditional industries has declined to the point where capital is forced to find a home at the risky edge of new technology, then it doesn’t auger well for the economy as a whole. Of course tech enthusiasts will argue that we’re talking about a new, disruptive paradigm, and that the old rules don’t apply, and that the sky-high valuations of internet stocks are completely justified and not at all based on any sort of irrational exuberance, but that’s what they’ve said about every bubble since the days of tulip mania.

At least us poor folks can look forward to the whole edifice collapsing at some point in the future, though the Googles and Facebooks are probably already preparing plans to lobby the Government for a bailout when the crash comes, because these arch-objectivists do tend to embrace corporate socialism when times turn hard (for them). In the meantime I guess we just have to keep organising, and resisting where we can.

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…

Power and ideology on the internet: thoughts on the Violentacrez case

I guess anyone reading this will already be familiar with the story of Gawker’s exposé of notorious Reddit mod Violentacrez; if not, the short version is something like this: Violentacrez was well known on the social media site as the éminence grise behind various unsavoury subreddits, like “Jailbait”, which featured pictures of young girls culled from their Facebook pages, and “Creepshots”, a collection of leering photos of unsuspecting women; writer Adrian Chen, feeling that Violentacrez should accept responsibility for his actions rather than hide behind a pseudonym, did a little detective work which revealed Violentacrez’s real identity, one Michael Brutsch, a programmer from Texas; following the Gawker article Brutsch lost his job, and presumably has had some awkward conversations with friends and neighbours.

What are we to make of this? Gawker and Chen have been heavily criticised by the Reddit community for supposedly limiting Brutsch’s right to free speech by violating his privacy and exposing him to intimidation. On the other hand, Brutsch was happy to get his kicks by trespassing on the personal space of countless girls and women without their knowledge or consent, so he can hardly claim that his own boundaries should be sacrosanct.

So three cheers then for Chen and his righteous take-down of a sleazy douchebag. But isn’t there a nagging problem? Like, who elected Chen to be sheriff of the interwebs? How is he accountable? What if tomorrow he, or someone like him, decides that bloggers I agree with, like critics of repressive governments, deserve to be stripped of their anonymity too? What if he thinks I need to be exposed for my serial offences against good literary style?

There are two issues to consider here. The first is the liberal notion of Free Speech, as summed up in Voltaire’s (misattributed) dictum “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”. I fundamentally disagree with this. Not all opinions are equally valid, and there are some that are so toxic that they need to be suppressed. I may get upset when viewpoints which have my sympathy are censored, but I’m not so bothered, in principle, when the likes of Brutsch are marginalised in the public discourse.

(That’s the theory anyway; in practice it’s a little more complicated. The second thing we have to think about is who actually has the power to regulate the promotion of ideas. The people who run the world are not, by and large, fans of my leftist ideology, so if there was an effective mechanism for controlling what appears on the internet, most of the time it would be employed to squash things I am in favour of. Thus I generally find myself campaigning against web censorship, though on pragmatic rather than principled grounds.)

The underlying point is that society is divided between classes whose ideas are incompatible; the liberal ideal of a society where all points of view are given equal respect, presided over by a benign state that sits above the class conflict, is an illusion. The dominant ideology of the ruling class finds its expression in many ways, from the high politics of a presidential debate to the low culture of Reddit’s misogynist underbelly. We can fight this as it presents itself, but we will never fully defeat it until we build up our forces to a point where we have the power to eradicate the ideology of our class enemies; a dictatorship of the proletariat for the information age. This will solve the problems of democracy and accountablity, for, as Lenin put it:

…proletarian dictatorship is the forcible oppression of the resistance of the exploiters, i.e. an insignificant minority of the population, the landowners and capitalists. It follows that proletarian dictatorship must inevitably entail not only a change in democratic forms and institutions, generally speaking, but precisely such a change as provides an unparalleled extension of the enjoyment of democracy by those oppressed by capitalism…

As ever, the problems that arise in the course of online life turn out to have their roots in more fundamental aspects of society; the solutions lie in the offline world too.

Can you Digg it?

Interesting news from the world of social media this week, where the sale of plucky internet start-up Digg raked in a cool $500K for investors, a sum they might have been excited about had their stock not cost $45 million just a couple of years previously.

Add in the doubts about Facebook’s revenue model, and one might fear that the social media bubble is about to burst. I guess I’ll have to postpone the SLS IPO…

(Here’s the music link which partly inspired this post, but which I can’t work out how to shoehorn into the main text.)

We got five years, my brain hurts a lot

Today is the fifth anniversary of the very first post on this blog. To mark this auspicious occasion I had been thinking of collecting our best 100 pieces into an ebook, but then I realised that that might be just a little narcissistic, even for me, so I’ve settled for compiling a (slightly) shorter list of the posts I’ve been most pleased with over the years. They’re in chronological order, to show the development of our style, such as it is. Most are from 2009-2010, which was really our golden age, but every year has had some highlights.

Actually, what’s been my favourite part of writing this blog has been working in all the references to music I like; here’s another one.

2007

Virtual intimacy
This ain’t the Mudd Club
Attack of the Mutant Space Zombies
On the Game Grid
Working for the Linden Dollar
The thousand natural shocks
Elf actualisation

2008

Conduit (not) for sale
Diane …
Reptilia
A foreign country
Bunny worship
Uncertain principles

2009

Modern Romance
The best laid schemes
Nietzsche work if you can get it
Cargo cult consciousness
Greenies may have invaded some time ago, we hear
Et in Arcadia ego
Less than zero
Plunging Necklines
Live from East 3rd Street
Twilight of the Replicants
Ferrisburg, Vermont
Do boys make passes at avatars with glasses?
No man is an island
Flogging a dead zombie
Twixt and between
The killer awoke before dawn
Scenes from the Class Struggle in Second Life
Why we hate and fear the BBC
On being kind not cruel
Liberté, Egalité, Virtualité
Virtual Bakumatsu

2010

You say you want a revolution
Two Galleries
O Superman
The Kid With The Replaceable Head
The Linden Principle
Прощай Woodbury
Digital Death Day
That gum you like is going to come back in style
From Off the Streets of Cleveland
Bastille Day 1989
On the unreliability of memory
Virtual alchemy
Upon the dismal shore of Acheron
Anatomy of a scandal
The rest is silence
The Revolution Will Not Be Twitterised
Cut Away
Red Ties
Reoccurring Dreams
That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

2011

The Social Network
The wrong move at the right time
The Great Gonzo
The Leopard
The Solution
Spaced Out
Do You Believe in Rapture?
The Physical Impossibility of Running an Art Gallery in Second Life
Subdivisions

2012

Planned obsolescence
I’d work very hard, but I’m lazy

Subdivisions

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.

Kloutless

I really need to get back into gear with the blogging and the tweeting; last time I looked my Klout score had declined to a miserable 16, which is not going to get me into any of the cool parties.