5: Is there any future in blackmail?

In his post The Interactive Blackmail Squad: NEW SERVICE!, Will McInnes suggests an upcoming business opportunity: "You give us a list of up to 25 up-and-coming people you think will be movers and shakers in the next 10 years… we immediately start collating as much of their digital footprint as possible." Once the targets become successful, the investors have access to a huge pool of blackmail material.

What happens to the indiscretions and errors documented on social media? In August 2010, Google's CEO Eric Schmidt, interviewed by the Wall Street Journal claimed "apparently seriously, that every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends' social media sites."

Which seems like a lot of trouble to go to. When everyone has 'youthful hijinks', any one person's indiscretions will seem less interesting. Gossip is boring unless you know the people well and with a whole Internet of novelty you have to do something pretty extreme to stand out. The Claire Swires email of 2000 would seem boring today. Now you have to re-enact the Tauntaun scene from Empire Strikes Back using a dead horse while naked to stand out. 

At the recent launch of Sussex University's Centre for Creative and Critical Thought, Peter Boxall delivered a paper that quoted from JM Coeztee's novel Diary of a Bad Year:

"There are to be no more secrets, say the new theorists of surveillance, meaning something quite interesting: that the era in which secrets counted, in which secrets could exert their power over the lives of people (think of the role of secrets in Dickens, in Henry James) is over; nothing worth knowing cannot be uncovered in a matter of seconds, and without much effort; private life is, to all intents and purposes, a thing of the past."

The loss of private life sounds threatening but it will be replaced with new rights and new responsibilities. Much of the comment on privacy is based around the idea that the rights were have now are universal, throughout space and time. Yet these rights have always been changing – privacy is not a right that  people have claimed throughout history and many languages have no word for the concept. As important as privacy is, such rights will always be in negotiation. 

In the future, novels based on secrets may come to seem anachronistic, but new stories will come to fill the void. Our current problems with surveillance are unlikely to tip us into a distopian future but the resulting world will be very different.

UPDATE (18/8/12) An interesting post by Charlie Stross on similar issues, "The Internet is for Porn": Blackmail in 2033. Stross also points out how the Internet makes it easy "to construct social networks among people with minority interests", that people can now easily meet other like them, no matter how obscure their interests and passions. There are communities being built now that would have been very unlikely to form in the past.

2400 years of technology panics

I remember a stand-up comic (I think it was Chris Rock) describing his grandmother's complaints about modern life. She felt that young men were less polite than they used to be, no longer smiling or opening doors. The comic explained the reason for this – the young men were no longer trying to sleep with her. While crude, the joke illustrates the danger of using personal experience to make judgements about the world as a whole.

Another example – the queen was once asked about her travels. What was the main impression she had of the world? The queen is supposed to have replied that it smells of fresh paint. The queen's personal experience is very different to yours or mine.

I think that a similar lack of perspective occurs when people talk about new technology. Recently there have been a number of books about the dangers of social media, such as Sherry Turkle's Alone Together, Jaron Lannier's You are not a gadget and Andrew Keen's The Cult of the Amateur. Similar books have been written about texting, television, computer games and the Internet in general. This sort of doomsaying seems to be an effective way of selling books.

Debates about the dangers of new technology go back to at least as early as Plato's time and arguably haven't changed much. In the Phaedrus, Plato describes the risks of writing. While writing works as an aid to memory, Socrates claims that writing is a remedy for reminding, not remembering… with the appearance but not the reality of wisdom. People can read about a subject without understanding it whereas a human teacher can make sure someone truly understands – writings are silent; they cannot speak, answer questions, or come to their own defense. According to Socrates, the technology of writing would undermine civilised society.

Similar issues have been raised with other new technologies – children using text speak will be less competent with language; using Google to research facts results in shallower understanding. I believe there was even debate about the problems with listening to music alone on a gramophone. New technologies come, they're absorbed, and the world continues.

I think that part of the problem is a lack of historical perspective about technology, something discussed in David Berreby's essay The Myth of 'Peak Attention'. We tend to think of our position in history as special, that the challenges we face are greater than any in the past, rather than the latest in a continuing series. One good example is the claim that the amount of information in the world is constantly rising. This results in discussions of our society as uniquely stressful and the coining of buzzwords like 'information diets' and 'peak attention'. The biological bandwidth of the human mind has not altered in the last few decades, so we have not suddenly increased the amount we can absorb. So, in what way is modern information different?

In his essay, David Berreby refers to the Copernican Principle. In short, it suggests not assuming that you're in a special place unless you have a very good reason: It may be that we live in an era unlike any other in its demands on the human mind. But it's not probable. And in fact there have been other eras in which people thought demands on attention were outstripping human capacities.

When people talk about increasing amounts of information they need a clear definition of 'information'. Are we, perhaps, ignoring other types of information that would have taken for granted in the past, so much that they are rarely explicitly referred to? It's too easy to assume that people in the past were much simpler because they didn't have the same technologies as us. Regular people three hundred years ago probably had as rich and meaningful an inner life as we did, even without blogs, Twitter and mobile phones.

When we predict the effect of a new technology, the main comparison point we have is to our own experiences. As Chris Rock points out, we need to be careful that we are not comparing our early life to the present and using that to draw conclusions about the wider world. Another example: as people grow older they become more physically vulnerable. Youths on the street seem more threatening, leading to a feeling that society is more dangerous than it used to be, despite a trend of falling crime rates.

Any useful new technology will be disruptive. Technologies such as cities, farming, plumbing and supermarket supply chains have all produced changes to social frameworks and such change is often threatening. Such disruptive change is a common experience throughout human history – and it always feels as if each new change is more significant than any other.

When considering the threats and challenges of a new technology, it is important to maintain a sense of perspective. Any new technology is one in a long line. Is it any more of a threat than other changes that have been harmlessly absorbed? Will your argument date quickly and seem ridiculous when people go back to it in fifteen years time? (Much of the critical theory about the video revolution in the 80's and 90's was rendered obsolete and ridiculous by the widespread adoption of the Internet.)

To quote the philosopher Jacques Derrida what is changing the face of everything on the face of the world in this way is but a little fraction of a fraction of a second in a history which has been transforming the relationship of the living organism to itself and its environment… what we are living through and talking about… occupies the time and place of a miniscule comma in an infinite text. (Paper Machine, p18)

Ambient Literature

Facebook and the End of Literature is a short essay about the internet's effect on writing. A download is available here.

The essay is informed by a number of things, such as my PhD studies, Kenneth Goldsmith and the KLF, but most of all by Warren Ellis. Ellis coined the term ‘ambient fiction’ on his Bad Signal Mailing list, and the essay’s format and tone are explicitly inspired by his short book Spirit Tracks.

I wanted to talk about how literature might be changed by social media as well as the idea of ‘ambient literature’. This focusses on texture above plot and characters, and direct progression is less important. The essay is therefore divided into a series of short sections, each independent but building with the others to create a larger experience. The order of these sections should be unimportant so I wrote some software to shuffle them each time the PDF is downloaded. The argument would be less effective if presented in a single, static version of the text.

It will be fairly obvious that this isn't intended as an academic piece of writing – there's a lack of clear citation for a start. Quotations are obvious, however, and all accessible through a decent search engine.

I may make changes to the document in the future. Any significant alterations will be noted at the end of any future versions.

3 problems I have with the ‘New Aesthetic’

My post yesterday about the New Aesthetic was positive – I don't like being snarky on my weblog. But, after speaking to my housemate, I thought I should list a few issues that I have. I'm not saying these are novel or particularly inciteful, but they may be of interest.

Note that I've not spent a great deal of time looking for evidence to back-up or refute these issues. They are simply some misgivings I had while researching yesterday's post. It may be best to look at them as comments on my response rather than the 'New Aesthetic' itself.

1 - There is something elitist about the New Aesthetic. It's almost always unintentional, but it is there. Re-reading Sterling's essay, there is a constant separation of people into those who will get it and those who won't. His essay is explicitly aimed at "you" – "the people who marinate themselves in 5,000-word critical exegeses about contemporary aesthetics" – not the ones who get distracted by tumblrs. He talks about "attempted imposition on the public" of the term.

There is something interesting about the way 'you' and 'we' are used when talking about this New Aesthetic. I loved James Bridle's talk, We Fell In Love In a Coded Space. However, at one moment, he shows some graphs, and says that 'we all know what this is'. Who is the 'we'? I certainly didn't recognise the image, and also had to google Kevin Slavin. While a talk is aimed at a physical audience, watching on video the question of who 'we' were was more pointed. Who is the New Aesthetic for? Who does it belong to? (UPDATE – see below)

Also, most of the articles I've read seemed to focus as much on the personalities as the aesthetic. In addition, Sterling's essay seemed somehow paternalistic – there is something odd about how the 'Viridian pope' sets out to canonise Bridle as the "Andre Breton-style Pope of the New Aesthetic".

2 - Something Sterling points out is the risk of anthropomorphising technology. Are the machines and spambots really our friends? How do the politics of the New Aesthetic respond to surveillance culture, and Britain's export of it? What does the New Aesthetic mean for people with less access to technology? It's a fairly obvious point – I'm sure that the politics of the New Aesthetic have already been discussed and will be in the future. (UPDATE – see below)

3 – Most important, what is the New Aesthetic for? The term groups together some interesting things, but people like Kenneth Goldsmith have been exploring these areas for some time. The New Aesthetic will ultimately be judged in how good a tool it is – what can we do with it?

One last issue I have: should the term New Aesthetic be capitalised? In quotation? Maybe I should use a monospace font? To avoid any further risk of faux-pas, I'll stop now.

UPDATE (11/4/12) – Adam Rothstein has written about the politics of the New Aesthetic, with a response by James Bridle here: "I’m disappointed that the politics of NA… have not been so evident that those interested should think they have to start that “module” from scratch

Also, the Kevin Slavin graph that Bridle refers to in his Lift talk was featured in Slavin's talk at Lift, so it is fair to expect the physical audience to recognise the image. 

The New Aesthetic and (Uncreative) Writing

I’ve been seeing references to the ‘New Aesthetic’ for a while but never really understood the term. A rainy Bank Holiday Monday seemed a good time to try and understand what this is all about.

Following a recent panel discussion at South-by-Southwest, Bruce Sterling wrote An Essay on the New Aesthetic. Much of this feels as if Sterling is declaring that he, for one, welcomes our New Aesthetic overlords. There’s a slightly bullying tone to the article, an us-and-them separation which occurred in several pieces I've read about the New Aesthetic.

It is 5 paragraphs before Sterling attempts a definition: “The New Aesthetic is image-processing for British media designers”, apparently. Sterling sees this as an art movement, referring to Cubism, Impressionism, Constructivism and Futurism. "This is one of those moments when the art world sidles over toward a visual technology and tries to get all metaphysical. This is the attempted imposition on the public of a new way of perceiving reality," one that "concerns itself with 'an eruption of the digital into the physical'"

Sterling’s essay left me bemused. He seems more interested in the New Aesthetic as a movement than a category, which seems to be a common trope. But I didn’t want to dismiss this (after all, it took me weeks to decide that deconstruction wasn’t just clever pedantry). New things often take time to grasp. But it’s hard to find a clear description of the New Aesthetic – it is too new or else judged to be too insignificant for a wikipedia page. 

The New Aesthetic is often defined by its strong visual element, as demonstrated on the Official Tumblr Feed. This visual style is summarised by Damien G Walter as "glitches and corruption artefacts in digital objects, render ghosts, satellite views, retro 80′s graphics" (the New Aethetic's love of 'retro 80's graphics' has prompted an interesting response by Dan Catt).

There is no recording availble online from the SXSW panel, although there are some good summaries. James Bridle, the panel's chair, writes: "One of the core themes of the New Aesthetic has been our collaboration with technology, whether that’s bots, digital cameras or satellites (and whether that collaboration is conscious or unconscious), and a useful visual shorthand for that collaboration has been glitchy and pixelated imagery, a way of seeing that seems to reveal a blurring between “the real” and “the digital”, the physical and the virtual, the human and the machine". Bridle's related talk at the Lift Conference, We Fell in Love in a Coded Space is well worth the 20 minutes it takes to watch.

But the article that really persuaded me about the New Aesthetic was one by Russell Davies, another of the SXSW panellists: SXSW, the new aesthetic and writing. Starting from a simple typo on a printed notice, Davies goes on to say that "lots of what's great about reading and writing is the direct connection between reader and author, but what's exciting me at the moment is the idea that there's a third party in there too – machines, software, bots".

And it’s in the world of writing where this makes most sense to me. Writing is always mediated by some sort of technology, and different technologies have different effects. The poet Kenneth Goldsmith stated that, with the Internet, writing had met its photography, that the effect of being able to publish, distribute and generate text on such a scale would have as significant an effect on writing as photography did on painting. 

Goldsmith responded to these issues, among others, in his book Uncreative Writing. One can see many other bizarre and fasinating examples of what modern technology does to writing. The company Narrative Science are working on software to automatically write news stories. Realtime website analysis is leading to media companies such as Gawker and the Mail Online optimising their stories to most efficiently produce advertising revenue, with fascinating effects on their style and content. There are content farms automatically producing ebooks and selling them on amazon. Recently Google Ngram was used to spot anachronistic language in Downton Abbey (what happens when word-processors add real-time detection of such things?). And then there is robo-poetics, poetry written by software to be read by software. Writing is becoming stranger than ever.

I don't know if all of the examples above fit within the New Aesthetic (is there an inspection council? A grading system of some type?). The issues questioned by the New Aesthetic are obviously not new, but it's good that those things have a name, and thus a means to collect and analyse them.

UPDATE: I've written a brief follow-up

My new project: A PhD!

I'm returning to Sussex University in April. This will be my fourth course there since I studied for my BSc in Theoretical Physics during the 90's. This time I'll be working part-time towards a Doctorate in English Literature.

The topic I'll be investigating is the way in which the Internet has undermined counter-culture. One of the major influences on my proposal was Barry Miles' fantastic counter-cultural history of London, London Calling. At the end of the book, Miles laments:

"…with the coming of the Internet, underground publication has effectively disappeared. There can be no avant-garde unless there is a time-delay before the public knows what you are doing… whereas artists in the sixties could work for years with no media coverage, the hardest thing now is to not have thousands of hits on Google or a page on Wikipedia."

There seem to be a lot of people questioning whether counter-culture is less exciting than it was before the Internet. Of course, this could be due to those people getting old and becoming out-of-touch; but despite the fantastic things the Internet provides, there do seem to be some things lost at the same time.

I'm going to investigate the question through Jacques Derrida's Postal Metaphor. Derrida was one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century. One of his achievements was questioning the concept of communication. Derrida used the metaphor of the postal system to illuminate certain paradoxes about how language worked (or didn't work). In one of his more playful books he declared that "the end of a postal epoch is doubtless also the end of literature". I want to see whether that is true or not.

So, from April I'm going to be working two days a week on the PhD and will be looking for programming/DBA work for the other three. It's going to be a lot of fun. 

Why music needs to be hard to find

I'm fascinated by the Internet's effect on counter-culture. For example, at the end of London Calling, his history of London's underground scenes, Barry Miles argues:

"With the coming of the Internet, underground publication has effectively disappeared. There can be no avant-garde unless there is a time delay before the general public knows what you are doing… Whereas artists in the Sixties could work for years with no media coverage, the hardest thing now is to not have thousands of hits on Google or an entry on Wikipedia."

The Internet has also produced subtle changes in the way artists innovate. A recent article in Slate by Bill Wyman, Lester Bangs' Basement, remembers the days before we could take the Internet cultural treasure-house for granted:

"The music you wanted to hear wasn't played on the radio and you couldn't find the records you wanted to buy. You couldn't even find the magazines that told you what records you should want to buy. It was almost impossible to see filmed footage of the artists you wanted to see. And movie fans? We scurried like rats after what could be, for all we knew, once-in-a-lifetime viewing opportunities to see this or that film at movie theaters or in unexpected showings on television.

He quotes a review of the recent Keith Richard's autobiography that discusses what it was like to make music when other music was scarce:

"Mick had seen Buddy Holly play, and played the Buddy Holly songs he heard—if he didn’t play them, he wouldn’t hear them—in bars around Dartford. Anyone reading this review can go to YouTube now and experience Muddy Waters, or Chuck Berry, or Buddy Holly… the experience of making and taking in culture is now, for the first time in human history, a condition of almost paralyzing overabundance. For millennia it was a condition of scarcity… The Rolling Stones do not happen in any other context: they were a band based on craving, impersonation, tribute: white guys from England who worshiped black blues… The early Stones were in a constant huddle, dissecting blues songs in front of the speakers and playing them back for each other and then for their few fans. They thought of themselves, not even as a band, really, but as a way of distributing music the radio never played.

This idea of making music inspired by music you love but have little access to has turned up a few times in my reading. Most recently in Days in the Life by Jonathan Green, during an interview with Peter Jenner:

 "At [Pink Floyd's] finest, it was very extra-ordinary free improvisation, in the purest psychedelic sense… We thought we were doing what was happening on the West Coast, which we'd never heard. And it was totally different. Attempting to imitate when you don't know what you're imitating leads to genuine creativity, and I think that's what happened with the Floyd."

Earlier in the book there is another interview with Peter Jenner, talking about rhythm and blues:

"Eric Clapton would never have seen Muddy Waters playing live; the Stones would never have heard Bo Diddley live. You'd have heard a couple of records and just tried to get the spirit. In fact they'd have been rather brought down if they'd seen them. I saw Muddy Waters live in America in 1960 and he played sitting down. That would have really upset the Stones."

Another example: Kurt Cobain spoke of his discovery of punk rock in Aberdeen, Washington, through reading about the Sex Pistols:

"My first exposure to punk rock came when Creem started covering the Sex Pistols' U.S. tour. I would read about them and just fantasize about how amazing it would be to hear their music and to be a part of it… After that, I was always trying to find punk rock, but of course they didn't have it in our record shop in Aberdeen. The first punk rock I was able to buy was probably Devo and Oingo Boingo and stuff like that; that stuff finally leaked into Aberdeen many years after the fact. Then, finally, in 1984 a friend of mine named Buzz Osborne [Melvins singer/guitarist] made me a couple of compilation tapes with Black Flag and Flipper everything… I'd already been playing guitar by then for a couple of years, and I was trying to play my own style of punk rock, or what I imagined that it was, I knew it was fast and had a lot of distortion. Punk expressed the way I felt socially and politically."

Sometimes glimpses of a culture are more inspiring than access to the full resources of that culture. There are many obvious advantages of the Internet's cultural treasure horde, but some things are lost too. Is there any way to regain the benefits of cultural scarcity?

Miscellany: small publishers, red squares, hitch-hiking

What can we learn from Hitler and Hume?

In his talk on Algorithmic Art, Tom discussed the sales on his Hitler and Hume project. Tom used Mein Kampf as an input to music generation software and has put it for sale on Amazon and iTunes. Tom openly admits that ambient marimba and woodblock music is not a great musical innovation. However, he surprised me when he announced, "I'm selling nearly £25 a month of this rubbish at the moment. Vast majority EU, then the US. Grossed about £250… I have friends with actual musical talent who've sold less."

The interesting question here is: what are people buying when they buy a record from HItler and Hume?

Tom's discussion of his project made me think of some interesting posts I've read lately:

Which is not to compare Hitler and Hume to scammy ebook publications. But, what's interesting is that 

  1. Amazon is such a low-friction way of selling content
  2. People who want to buy the Hitler and Hume EP are finding it (even if there are only a small number of potential fans out there)

I think this is, potentially, incredibly exciting.

Is the amount of information in the world really increasing?

Googling for something else yesterday, I found this paper by David Berreby: The Myth of Peak Attention.

As Berreby points out, people tend to take the view that their current situation is unique in history. He shows that the idea that life is speeding up, that too much information is being produced, is an old one, dating back to the start of the twentieth century and before. The assumption that there is more information nowadays is dubious, and reflects our personal feelings about the world around us.

I wonder how much of the belief people have that 'things are getting worse' comes from a selection effect, in that they tend to compare the world with what they remember from their youth – a time when they were healthier, more optimistic and had less responsibility.

Without having people to review old texts, like Berreby has done in this essay, it is easy to fall into the trap of making baseless assumptions about the present. With the current attacks on the humanities in UK universities, we could easily lose an important perspective about the scale of the changes in the world around us.

What if the amount of information in the world is a constant?