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.

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…