Disinformation in Macedonia

Veles, Macedonia, August 2016

Nobody had planned for this to happen.

Veles is a Macedonian town with a population of 40,000. It has a few small nightclubs and, in the summer of 2016, young people were partying hard. The local teens had discovered this one weird trick for making money with little effort; more money than they made going to high school, that’s for sure. The clubs could barely keep up with the demand for vodka bottles and ice buckets. Some young people bought champagne, despite not liking the drink, spraying $100 bottles of Moet about the room.

Back in the 1960s, the Discordians came up with a scheme called Project Mindfuck. The idea was to use disinformation for good. Confronted with crazy ideas, people would see how flimsy was the basis for most of their beliefs. To this end, stories about the Illuminati were planted in the underground press. The problem is that, rather than the misinformation providing a revelation of reality’s true nature, people often believed what they read.

As the 2016 US election approached, the world became aware of incendiary and inaccurate news reports distributed online, particularly via Facebook. Many of these stories linked back to small WordPress blogs, a disproportionate number amount of these coming from Veles. But the sites’ owners were not propagandists. They had simply discovered that posting particular stories brought in clicks. It started with a single locally-run website called healthyfoodhouse.com which provided diet advice – not necessarily medically proven, but the sort of thing that gets shared on the web. Then other people realised the potential of politics. The articles were copied from other sites and links to the blogs shared via social media. The stories didn’t even need to be true. Lies spread faster than any retractions and they bought in clicks, even from people who didn’t believe them.

Few people in Veles cared if Trump won or not, the election merely a way of generating clicks and making money. As Wired points out, the average wage in Veles was about $371 a month, and one person claims to have made $16,000 from two pro-trump sites in 4 months. Another claimed to have brought in $27,000 in their best month. A local nightclub organised special nights to coincide with Google’s monthly payment schedule.

This isn’t even lies in the usual sense. It’s not even bullshit in the definition used by philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt: “The liar cares about the truth and attempts to hide it; the bullshitter doesn’t care if what they say is true or false, but rather only cares whether or not their listener is persuaded.” There’s no desire for persuasion here. It’s just information for people to click on.

As the election approached, President Obama would apparently talk obsessively about a Buzzfeed article on what was happening in Veles. Journalists visited the town, trying to figure out how this backwater might have turned a US election. Nobody explained why it had happened here of all places.

There was no real intention behind the Veles mindfuck campaign. It just worked with a system. Writers are paid by advertisers when people click on ads; social media distributes content people like. Online news platforms had already established the best ways of persuading people to click on ads, how to craft irresistible headlines. Of course someone was going to do this. It was legal, it seemed ethically harmless, and the companies involved were willing to pay out, taking their cut along the way.

We’re living in a world out of the science-fiction of the 90s. It’s noticeable how William Gibson went from writing his futuristic Sprawl trilogy, with cyberspace and neural inputs, to a post-millennium trilogy which was set pretty much in the present day, while still maintaining the same feel. But the dangers of this new world are unpredictable.

James Bridle’s recent book, New Dark Age talks about the weirdness of how these systems are working on Youtube. Software generates potentially-lucrative titles for videos based on popular keywords; then human actors in content farms act them out. These have become increasingly weird and disturbing, and nobody seems to be stopping it.

On November 24th 2016, after the US election, Google pulled the advertising on many of the fake news sites. The gold rush in Veles was over – what Google gives it can as easily take away. Some of the teens had bought sports cars, but the more sensible ones invested in real estate. There would be fewer parties.

The problem is that we live in an information monoculture, and there is no mechanism for stopping these feedback loops. Some of these have had recent unforeseen effects including lynch mobs and sectarian violence. But the system continues to work to produce revenue, the sites becoming more addictive. As early Facebook employee Jeff Hammberbacher put it: “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.”

Project Mindfuck had a goal, just like any disinformation mission. In Veles, people were simply acting out the incentives provided by the network. There was no other aim than arbitraging attention via social media to make cash appear out of nowhere. John Higgs, inspired by the designer Amoeba talked about the need for a project Mindfix. The question is, what shape this can take.

This is what the KLF is about

“This is what the KLF is about – also known as the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu -furthermore known as the JAMMs”

Listening to Last Train to Transcentral back in 1991, I had no idea what the lyrics were going on about; but this was obviously not a regular dance track. But I didn’t have the clues to interpret it, didn’t know to read the NME rather than pop magazines. It would be a little while longer before I was given a copy of the KLF annual and started to figure things out. And a little after that I read the GURPs: Illuminati book and had a clearer explanation of Illuminatus! and discordianism.

The band were a mass of pseudonyms and aliases. The two main members, King Boy D and Rockman Rock were actually Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty. They’d even had a massive number one record with Doctorin’ the Tardis as the Timelords in 1988. The following year they published a book, The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way), which laid bare the secrets of the music industry. Few people followed it all the way through, but one example was what wikipedia refers to as an “Austrian Eurotrash band”, Edelweiss, who sold 5 million copies of Bring Me Edelweiss. Do not listen to this track as it will stick in your head forever.

In 1991 the KLF were the biggest-selling singles act in the world. They performed at the Brits in 1992 with Extreme Noise Terror, firing machine gun blanks at the crowd. In May 1992, deleted their entire back catalogue. They then tried to subvert the art world, including an attempt to sabotage the Turner Prize. Then they burned a million quid before signing a contract preventing them from talking about the incident for 23 years. This is not your average pop band.

(While burning a million quid is the more obviously nihilistic act, deleting the back catalogue and disbanding the group probably cost them more money in the long run).

I loved the KLF. At university, someone had the older records, introducing me to 1987 (What the Fuck Is Going On?). At 18, wandering through a newly opened HMV at Lakeside in Essex, I found a copy of Chill Out. I don’t know how they’d stocked that record shop, but I found a load of rarities on the racks, things that I’d been hunting for years. Chill Out is an ambient record, a 45 minute journey across America, with different sounds fading in-and-out, and still one of my favourite albums. It’s now easy to find online.

In December 2012, twenty years after the KLF disbanded, I read John Higg’s book The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds. I’d read his first book, a biography of Timothy Leary, and was excited to read his take on one of my favourite bands. But, rather than tell a simple story about record sales and Top of the Pops appearances, Higgs took a path through the magical and counter-cultural networks linked by Cauty and Drummond.

Last year, the contract Cauty and Drummond signed, banning them from talking about the KLF, finally expired. While the JAMMs returned last year with the Welcome to the Dark ages event and the novel 2023, and there was some discussion of the burning money, the KLF has never really returned. I like the idea of keeping the legend intact, and the strange shapes that legend has taken over the last few years.

A brief introduction to Discordianism

What is discordianism? It’s a joke described as a religion; or possibly a religion disguised a joke. It was first revealed in the Principia Discordia, written by ‘Malaclypse the Younger’ and ‘Lord Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst’, the first edition of which was published in a tiny print run in 1963 .

The Principia Discordia is a spoof of religion texts. Inside are divine revelations, joke parables, bureaucratic forms, and outright contradictions. Members are explicitly encouraged to form schisms and cabals, and everyone is a pope (including you). Saints of the religion include Emperor Norton, the only ever Emperor of the United States. Reading it cover-to-cover can be a little wearing – not all of it works, and some has dated – but it has inspired many people over the years.

There is a coherent mythology too, based upon the Greek Goddess Eris, who suffered ‘the original snub’. When Peleus and Thetis got married, Eris was not invited due to her reputation for causing trouble. Which she did anyway, throwing a golden apple into the crowd. It was engraved ‘Kallisti’, ‘to the prettiest’, and ignited a row between Hera, Athena and Aphrodite which ultimately led to the Trojan war.

The first edition of the Principia Discordia was printed on Jim Garrison’s photocopier. Garrison was a lead investigator into the Kennedy assassination, later played by Kevin Costner in Oliver Stone’s JFK. There is another Kennedy link because Kerry Thornley, one of the book’s authors, wrote a novel about Lee Harvey Oswald before the Kennedy assassination. This manuscript was subpoenaed by the Warren Commission, investigating Kennedy’s death.

The Principia has all the things a religion needs, such as a symbol, in this case the Sacred Chao:

There are some great pieces of writing, such as a passage Thornley referred to as he was dying:

And so it is that we, as men, do not exist until we do; and then it is that we play with our world of existent things, and order and disorder them, and so it shall be that Non-existence shall take us back from Existence, and that nameless Spirituality shall return to Void, like a tired child home from a very wild circus.

My personal favourite bit is the discordian game of sink (click on the image at the bottom of the post to open it in a new browser window)

The book has had a strange ongoing life. It inspired the Illuminatus! trilogy, which was then made into a play by Ken Campbell, and provided the background mythology for the KLF. These tangled strands have re-emerged recently with a strange movement growing in the UK.

Finding A New Route through Psychogeography

I was delighted to be asked to talk at the Sunday Assembly. And possibly a little flattered at the invitation, which meant I said yes more eagerly than I should have done, particularly when the subject was something as contentious as ‘psychogeography’.

I’ve given talks on this before, at the Catalyst Club and White Night, and they were well received. But I didn’t want to give that same talk again. One issue was the slightly unfashionable reputation psychogeography has developed, such that many practitioners disavow the term. I also hated the idea of another talk where a middle-aged man explains things, with slides, about things other men have done. So I decided to take a different route through psychogeography that I normally would.

I’ve had a number of friends who’ve talked about representation in art to me, particularly Kate Shields. I wondered if I could give the talk without hitting the usual litany of names – Guy deBord – Iain Sinclair – Richard Long. What if I gave the talk without saying any men’s names, focusing on art by women? My aim with this was not virtue signalling – but I needed to find a way to make this subject fresh for me.

At first I worried that this constraint would ruin the talk – where would I find the resources to do this? But then there was Amy Sharrock’s response to Iain Sinclair saying there were no women doing art around walking: “male artists and curators have a responsibility from their positions of power to do better research, as do we all.”

And that research was not so difficult. There are many women who have done art relating to walking, and books such as Walking and Mapping by O’Rouke have even done the work of collecting these. Tina Richardson’s recent book about contemporary British psychogeography has some other examples. And there are some excellent papers on women walking artists by Dee Heddon and Cathy Turner.

The talk soon opened out. The subject felt more excited, no longer carrying about that air of male dampness and bad fry ups that had emerged. As Morag Rose has written “An uncomfortable undercurrent of misogyny and colonialism lurks within much psychogeography and has since its inception”. There was more than enough material to produce a 15-minute talk, and Morag Rose’s vision of psychogeography provides a more compelling framework for introducing psychogeography than the incomplete experiments of the Situationist International.

Diagram by Morag Rose

In giving the talk, I didn’t want to discuss this common lack of focus on female psychogeographers. Noting the imbalance would simply reinforce the idea that women’s work was secondary. Anyone googling the subject will quickly find the male figures; but I wanted to show a different view of the subject for anyone seeing it for the first time.

I don’t know if it worked, or if not mattered – or even if this approach to the subject was perhaps patronising or rude. Possibly it should not have been a man giving this talk. But I enjoyed taking this subject in what was, for me, a new direction. I’ve revitalised my interest in the subject and produced a talk I’m very happy with – even if it was a lot more effort than regurgitating the same talk I did in 2011.

A Walk in Shropshire

One of the great things about hiking is discovering how many beautiful places there are in England. A couple of weeks ago I went up to Shropshire for a weekend of hiking near the Long Mynd. Sadly my plans were interrupted by a migraine. I couldn’t start the main walk, and arranged to join my friends half way.

I set out to meet them at Pole Bank, and took the wrong direction. The rendezvous was ontop a ridge, with various valleys etched on the edges. I picked the wrong valley, striking north-east rather than north.I should probably have taken a map, as the combination of a photographed section of OS and smartphone was not enough.

Climbing the hill I was weak too, barely able to breathe. I was an hour from the rendezvous, lost on a golf course and realised I was going to have to turn back. This was the first time I’ve had to give up on a walk, and I was disappointed. I’m used to planning over-ambitious walks then managing them. Giving up half way was not easy but it was the right thing to do. At least mobile phones meant I could let everyone know what was happening.

I did manage a couple of smaller walks, the first an afternoon stroll up Carding Mill Valley. And the following day, early in the morning, we drove a short way along Watling Street North to climb Caer Caradoc. We had thirty minutes to ascend before turning back for home – we still needed to check out of the airbnb.

I managed the climb and was rewarded with some amazing views of the local area. It made up for my failure on the earlier walk. The hill was meant to be the site of Caractacus’ last stand against the Roman invasion. There was supposed to be a cave near the summit, but we couldn’t find it. According to legend, the cave can only be found at dawn, so maybe we’d arrived too late for that.

We also tried out the local curry house, and Church Stretton’s Jaipur Lounge was excellent.

Speaking at the Brighton Sunday Assembly on June 24th

This Sunday, June 24th, I’ll be speaking about ‘Psychogeography’ at the Brighton Sunday Assembly. The event is free and starts at 11am, at St Andrew’s Church on Waterloo Street, Hove (opposite the Southern Belle pub, formerly the Iron Duke).

The Sunday Assembly is “a worldwide network of non-religious gatherings which aims to uplift and inspire through readings, talks, silent contemplation and classic pop songs”.

There will be a food-bank collection at the main entrance for “any in-date, non-perishable food and toiletries that you can spare (ie. tins, packets, jars and bottles)“. After the service there is free tea and cake.

Being asked to give a talk about psychogeography is interesting as many practitioners take issue with the subject as it’s normally defined. I’ve tried to find a different way through things than the usual Guy deBord to Iain Sinclair route. Hopefully, I’ve made the subject seem fresh and avoided the usual cliches.

(Not that there’s anything wrong with Iain Sinclair, obviously; but even he has been pushing back against the psychogeography label recently)

Eris: Why I need more chaos in my life

Sometimes, people ask me for advice about hiking or travelling. I’m not an expert, but all they want to know is how to get started. And I explain that the most difficult part of any journey is committing to going. You pick a date, you book transport, then you set off. It might not work out, but as long as you go, you’ll learn something and it will be easier next time.

On my first major hike, I walked from Winchester to Eastbourne along the South Downs way. I’d wanted to do it for twenty years or more, but never found the moment. I discussed it with an ex-, and was soon mired in complexity. If we were to slice it into the 12-mile sections they wanted, we’d be walking for 8-10 days. The whole thing was too complex to even begin.

That Autumn, single again, I decided I had to just do it. I found six free days, booked some accommodation and set off. I’d planned a lot, knew where I was staying and had checked off my equipment against suggested lists. But I was not able to plan all of it. Sorting out proper footwear was an expense and a complexity too far, so I set off in DMs. As a result, I murdered my feet, but I made the walk. Katharine joined me for a day, and I completed the journey with Dr. Rosy Carrick by my side. They were good days.

I’m very good at itineraries. Ask me to organise you a trip and I do a pretty good job. The only problem is the impossibility of scheduling in spontaneity or chaos. Deep down I fear being misplaced, even though the most powerful days of travel I’ve had are when I’m lost. The best trip I’ve ever made was a journey from Varanasi to Darjeeling, which turned into chaos. I was sick, sometimes scared, and stranded with my Dad in Patna. There are a handful of times in my life I would want to live again, and that is one of them.

Even knowing how life-affirming being lost turned out to be, I find it hard to let chaos in. One time I booked a trip to Morocco, wanting to relax for a few days before starting a new job. I decided not to open a guidebook until I got on the plane. After a few hours in Marrakesh I decided I couldn’t stand the city and booked a bus to Essaouira for the following day. I had three nights in the country, and that rushed trip to Essaouira was another great day of my life.

But planning spontaneity is difficult. How do you maintain an ordered, safe life while at the same time having just enough chaos and strangeness to keep things interesting? How do you let in chaos without it taking over?

How I Found Discordianism and What I Didn’t Do With It When I Found It

When I was about 16 years old, I was into role-playing games. While these are meant to be a social activity, I was more interested in them as a form of fiction. I loved reading rulebooks and sourcebooks, seeing how worlds hung together. I’d design campaigns that were never going to be played, and I don’t think that time was wasted.

I must have been 16 or so when a friend, Mark Smith, lent me a copy of the GURPS: Illuminati sourcebook. GURPS was a universal role-playing system, allowing different genres to mix. Want to know how a spy can fight a dinosaur? Or need to resolve combat between Bugs Bunny and a delta force operative? GURPS would help you with this. They even did a version of Bunnies and Burrows, the 1976 game based on Watership Down, noted as one of the first games allowing play as non-humans. (I wonder if anyone has ever done a Watership Down meets Lovecraft GURPS campaign? Maybe I should make some notes on that, even if I never intend to run it).

The Illuminatus sourcebook was a guide to conspiracy theories. It talked about men-in-black, the Illuminati and referred often to Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s books. It was one of those volumes that opens a gateway to a whole world of strangeness. I don’t have a copy to hand, but I bet I’ve read most of the bibliography in the time since. It also introduced me to Discordianism, a joke disguised as a religion (or possibly vice-versa).

GURPS: Illuminatus was published in 1992 by Steve Jackson Games (SJG). There are some interesting stories behind the book. For a start, I think there was an issue with the rights. Also, at the same time as this was worked on, SJG were raided by the FBI. This was caused by their work on a cyberpunk volume, which the authorities believed might help hackers. This was one of the events leading to the founding of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Of course, SJG claimed that the FBI were really trying to suppress the Illuminatus book.

At 18, I found copies of the Illuminatus Trilogy at Sussex University’s Wednesday market. Those copies are long gone, abandoned between house moves, and I miss them, same as I miss my copy of the 1992 KLF annual. I found the Illuminatus trilogy confusing and difficult, but exciting too. I was aware this somehow crossed over weirdly with the KLF, who name-checked the Justified Ancients of Mu-Mu on their 1992 UK #2 hit, Last Train to Transcentral. I tried to lend the book to a few friends who weren’t interested; four years later, they started raving about this amazing book they’d read, and had I heard of Illuminatus? I followed the threads of Discordianism on the web, printing out a copy of the central text, the Principia Discordia.

Discordianism and the Illuminatus Trilogy changed a lot of people’s lives, but it didn’t for me, just like the Invisibles never changed my life. That sort of weirdness was too far outside my normal, ordered life. But it was an entertaining thing to follow, even if nothing weird ever happens to me. Although that is starting to change. The UK’s Discordian revival is growing, and it’s linking together a lot of interesting people. Maybe, even now, it’s not too late for the Illuminatus Trilogy to change my life.

Brexit is impossible – so how do we deal with that?

Back in July 2005, London won the right to hold the 2012 Olympics. Obviously, preparations began before the bidding process. According to Wikipedia “The British Olympic Association had been working on the bid since 1997, and presented its report to government ministers in December 2000.”

Even with so much preparation there were issues: the initial cost estimate was £2 billion, and this spiralled to 9 billion by the time of the bid. The event very nearly fell into chaos with the army stepping in to support G4S, who failed to provide the promised staff.

The 2016 referendum has committed the country to a massive project, even though there is no clear idea what people want. May’s tautology that “Brexit means Brexit” is unhelpful here. People have joked about how everyone claiming to be experts on customs unions didn’t know they existed a year ago – voters are now learning that many of the critical issues about Brexit were not discussed in the run-up to the poll. The Leave campaigns were not responsible for plans or timescales – and were never obliged to be. They only fought on the terms of the limited question asked.  Indeed, some people have suggested the Leave campaign would have preferred a close loss, allowing time to prepare for a second, more substantive referendum question.

Today, June 6th, we are 296 days from article 50 taking place. We have 919 days until 31 December 2020, the end of the transition period (which is yet to be confirmed. From wikipedia: “On 19 March 2018, the transition period has been agreed while it can not be considered legally binding until after ratification of a wider agreement on withdrawal”).

If we’re leaving Europe, where are the preparations? HMRC say there is years of work to be done after the decision on customs systems is made. Jon Thompson, chief executive and permanent secretary at HM Revenue and Customs, said in a committee session that it is possible that a functioning border could be ready for January 2021, but that it might take between 3-5 years to implement the solution. However, “foreign ports might not be ready”.

In the same session, HMRC also said that the customs arrangements could cost businesses £20 billion a year. This is an emotive figure as it is slightly more than the £350 million a week that was promised to the NHS on the campaign bus. Admittedly Downing Street then referred to HMRC figures as speculation, which is alarming in itself – HMRC is possibly at odds with the government about such an important issue.

Setting up new major IT projects is expensive, difficult and rarely works to schedule. Universal Credit was originally estimated to cost £2.2 billion, which has since risen to £15.8 billion. The project has been dogged by IT problems – and this is a system that was critical for people’s lives.

Ian Dunt (a remainer who works on the Remainiacs podcast) has claimed that there is also a need for massive regulatory infrastructure, which would have to be in place before the end of any transition period. Without remaining part of certain EU bodies, we would need to reinstitute them from scratch. As he goes on to say, “Setting up a new regulator takes a lot of time and money. You need to lease a building, set up a management structure, hire and train thousands of members of staff, and develop complex technical expertise.”

I’ve not seen any indication of these things taking place. The obvious conclusion is that the government/civil service have decided that Brexit is not happening and this is a charade. Because the alternative is a very dangerous type of brinksmanship. Surely everyone involved knows this is the case? That is is possible impossible and dangerous to try leaving the EU?

Daniel Hannan has mocked these concerns as a continuation of Project Fear. His examples of countries surviving outside the EU are irrelevant, as what we’re talking about here is changing how our country works with a fixed deadline. Remember how KFC switched suppliers and ran out of chicken? Just-in-time supply networks are incredibly vulnerable to disruption. Remember the fuel protests in 2000? Some supermarkets rationed food, and “Sainsbury’s warned that they would run out of food within days having seen a 50% increase in their sales over the previous two days”.

Brexit has become an end in itself. We have focussed our entire politics around the idea of leaving the EU, something that is probably not possible in the deadlines that have been imposed. Because there was no clear goal related to the exiting of the EU (whether standards of living, national pride, control of the borders, whatever it was) we have no way to see if we have made this a success. And we have no way of evaluating other means of achieving these goals.

I’m seeing a lot of platitudes about Brexit, and a lot of reassurance from people who’ve never delivered projects of this scale. I’m seeing no substantive plans, even as we approach the deadlines. I’m not sure what the answer is (it’s certainly not holding another referendum). But we need to admit now if this is impossible. And we also need to work out what we want beyond Brexit. We are currently an unhappy and divided country, and without facing our problems that is going to get worse.

Adventures on the South-West Coastal Path

I’ve heard the South West Coastal Path being compared to Everest. Which is a bold comparison, but it’s one that the official website makes too. Over the path’s 630 mile distance, it manages a total ascent of 35,000 meters, which is almost four times the height of the world’s highest mountain. But, the website boasts, the SWCP is even better as “completing the 630 miles will see you cross 230 bridges, catch 13 ferries, open (and close!) 880 gates, climb over 436 stiles”. There are no ferries on Everest.

Back in March we walked a small section of the path, from Exmouth to Beer. This is a long way from home in Sussex – I’d originally suggested walking a section from Dorset, but something was lost in translation, and we ended up walking a section in Devon.

The main impression of the SWCP is hills. There are slow climbs up long soaring cliff-sides, before dropping down to sea level once more. On the second day there was a race from Exmouth to Seaton, which looked amazing and made me very sad that I can’t run these days.

Two other impressions from the walk: a lack of coffee and far too much mud.