Remember Science Fiction? No not that stuff with leather suits and spaceships that go whoosh. I mean stories about the future written in the past. The sort of Science Fiction that sparks your imagination not dulls your intellect.
Back in the ‘80s I subscribed to two magazines; Analog and Omni. Analog had been going since the 1930s and was a slim novel size magazine printed on pulp paper. Omni was the young upstart. A full colour glossy launched in 1978. Between them they presented ideas from science and technology. Many of the ideas are now mainstream but Analog and Omni got there first. Remember fractal images on old PCs? Omni ran articles about fractals before home PCs existed. The concept of memes has now been so debased as to mean a trending tweet but Omni covered memes years ago. Mars landings? Analog covered that in June 1981.
In my late teens and early twenties I read this stuff and regurgitated it down the pub. The reaction of my friends was mixed; the usual talk was of motorcycles and drinking. The potential for secret messages embedded in the waffle blurted out by talk radio hosts was not something they normally considerred.
Ben Bova, Orson Scott Card, Freeman Dyson, Alvin Toffler, William Gibson, William Boroughs. The magazines were not short of quality contributors. Some of those old stories stuck with me because they were based on thoughtful insights regarding the nature of humanity in a changing technological world. Regular readers may recall references to The Marching Morons.
Today, memories of another story arose through the cobwebs of decades though I can’t recall the title. It was about a group of astronauts who returned to Earth after many years in space. As they surveyed the earth they realized that a great catastrophe had taken place. The cities lay in ruins. The people were all dead. Wild animals roamed freely. After some observations they noticed that something else was going on. Tigers roamed the world and now hunted in packs.
I’ll cut to the chase. The people of Earth had figured out how to become telepathic and decided to make everyone on Earth telepathic by means of a kind of massive irradiation of the planet as far as I can remember. Suddenly everyone knew exactly what everyone else was thinking and the results were predictable. Pandemonium ensued, along with rioting and massive blood letting. Mix in the fact that all the animals also had became telepathic and you have packs of tigers working together to become formidable hunters.
In short, if we all knew what everyone else was thinking then civilization would collapse.
So what brought this to mind? Why am I reminded of this today? Because we all now know what everybody else is thinking. A brief glance at social media reveals the uninformed blinkered prejudice. The hate and the bile. The ranting self riotous bigotry. From all areas of the spectrum. All of us. All we need is to see something with which we disagree and we feel the need to sound off like Adolf fucking Hitler safe in the spurious certainty of our own morality. Digital media seems to have enabled a very general form of telepathy. The mass expression of our collective unconscious is now visible to everyone and it’s not pretty.
All of our dark demons and paranoid fears are expressed online. It’s popular today to dismiss the teaching of the Classics but I wonder if their emphasis on primal fears and almost Jungian archetypes may have been good lessons in the risk of unrestrained negative emotions which social media lies bare.we are all susceptible.
Every politician who’s views contradict our own becomes a Nazi, every actor who stumbles over some politically correct phraseology becomes a racist. Every Muslim becomes a terrorist. Every American an imperialist. Every union leader a Trotskyist, every discussion of World War 2 liable to allegations of anti-Semitism. Every motive assumed to be malicious. The online world seems now like an ancient Greek epic poem with evil tyrants, traitors and conspiracies.
These days the leading experts in Artificial Intelligence (AI) are the social media companies like Google and Facebook. Their algorithms absorb everything we write. Every time we rant our abuse that sentiment is noted.
When scientists go on telly and bang on about their AI systems assimilating knowledge they mean all the good stuff but they ignore the vast quantities of drivel that their systems are accumulating. The current obsession with screen controlled apps may soon give way to voice control apps. Microsoft have a voice controlled version of Outlook. Other companies make voice controlled computers for accessing the web. I can already yell commands at my smartphone. All this means that “the system” will be listening to us ALL THE TIME.
Civilization relies on trust. It is nurtured by discretion, politeness and respect. It requires a suppression of our knee jerk reptilian brain responses. Our hate and our fears. But the Internet is ever watchful. It reads our tweets and it sees our microexpressions. As the algorithms observe and learn they embed neurosis and psychosis at the heart of the system. As our subconscious thoughts are revealed what hope is there for trust?
Perhaps I’m too pessimistic. In an article on the BBC web site today, the prescient Charlie Brooker states: “There may be a lot of toxicity online, but I think eventually humans will work out a code of conduct without the need for legislation”. Looking at the candidates for the position of world’s top legislators I’m not encouraged. Many parts of the Clinton / Trump debates seem little more than irate trolling. It’s baffling that a nation as educated and privileged as the United States, with an adult population of nearly 250 million people, has boiled down its leadership prospects to these two…….ahem……people.
Technology seems to be veering away from its power to liberate and becoming a tool for oppression. The steam engine and the fridge were good ideas but big data and cloud computing endow most of their benefits to the powerful. Sure you can hail a cab without getting up from your pint but you’ve given the state and Big-Corp power to monitor your whole life.
Last week The Independent ran an article decrying the silence of Labour over the proposed Snoopers Charter allowing police to see Internet connection records without a warrant. The bill had previously been thwarted by resistance from the Liberal Democrats. Now it seems the plans have been revived and Labour will be abstaining from the vote. Odd since the former director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, is now shadow Attorney General.
The new bill will allow government to spy on citizens by requiring Internet service providers and mobile phone companies to maintain records of each user’s internet browsing activity (including social media), email correspondence, voice calls, internet gaming, and mobile phone messaging services. The bill also creates arrangements to interrogate and match data from different data sources. We’re talking about Social Network Analysis.
Social Network Analysis is used by Facebook, Google and Linked to analyse who we know and what we like in order to flog us more stuff. Thanks to Edward Snowden, we know that the United States government also takes an interest and developed a clandestine surveillance program ( PRISM ) to collect communications from US internet companies and this includes a facility where associations between individuals can be visualised. The upshot is that spooks can more easily track the relationships between a tiny minority of terrorists amongst a population of millions but the downside is that the authorities have another tool to control the general population.
I have been reading “Selfish Whining Monkeys” by Rod Liddle. His expletive laden style may not be everybody’s cup of tea but he makes some bloody good points. One of his hobby horses is nepotism in British public life. John Sentamu, for example, remember him? Archbishop of York? Very well known he was a few years ago. Very up and coming. Very courageous. Very personable. A bishops since 2002 he was on TV all the time. An obvious candidate for Archbishop of Canterbury when Rowan Williams went to make his maker in 2013. But no, not quite. He didn’t quite cut the mustard. Who did get the top job you ask? Justin Welby. He who’d only been a bishop for a year and spent much of his working life in the oil industry. There may be good reasons for appointing Welby but one can’t help wondering if his being an Old Boy from Eaton might have played some part in the decision?
Liddle points out that people from fee paying schools comprise 7% of the UK population yet make up 62% of diplomatic service, 58% of those working in the law, 80% of high court judges, 55% of senior civil servants, 60% of top City wallas, 70% or surgeons and consultants and 55% of journalists rising to 70% for national newspaper columnists and editors.
He goes on to damn the North London elite of “faux lefties” who install each other on numerous quangos and committees and takes a pop at Shami Chakrabati in the process. He invented a game to demonstrate what he’s on about. He calls it The Long March Through the Institutions and it works like this: Think of a quango, public body or charity then Google it to discover who runs it. Then look up the biography of that person and you will find that they are on the board of five or six other organisations. Pick one of these, Google it and find who runs that. Google a name and see which other boards they’re on. And so on….
According to Liddle, if you do this for long enough the same names will crop up again and again. The people on the boards have no particular expertise but the common thread is that they are paid for by the tax payer.
Ah, ‘twas ever thus, you might think. The powerful entrench their power and the rest of us are treated like mushrooms. Much of this information is a matter of public record but digging through it is a difficult task. It would be like….oh…like …. trying to track the relationships between a tiny minority of terrorists amongst a population of millions.
What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander though Liddle seems unaware of the potential of technology to automate his game. Americans journalists are a little more savvy. Journalists in the United States use social network modelling tools to track the rich and powerful. Muckety is as web site which uses interactive maps powered by Adobe Flash to show relationships between people, businesses and organizations. The Economist described it as an “American site which enriches news stories with interactive maps of the protagonists’ networks of influence“.
Muckety is fairly limited but gives a flavour of what’s possible. LittleSis is a free database of who-knows-who at the heights of business and government and claims to “bring transparency to influential social networks by tracking the key relationships of politicians, business leaders, lobbyists, financiers, and their affiliated institutions.”
All very nice you may think but aren’t we becoming the thing we despise? Are we not emulating the snoopers charter?
I’d say no. Homo Sapiens have been around for very roughly 80,000 years. We’ve only been mucking about with farming and machines for about 10,000 years. In essence our psychology is no different from the hunter gatherers that roamed the planet thousands of years ago. We are hard coded to exist in groups of around 100 people where the actions of the leadership are known to all. It should not be surprising that we tend toward working with people we know but in the modern world this translates to nepotism.
“Civilisation” and technology have allowed the creation of cities comprising thousands and nations comprising millions of people. Crucially this necessitates massive delegation of power. It enables the joint stock company and limited liability. It allows the rich to diverge from the poor. Technology allows some of us to live segregated and secretive lives of plenty while others are homeless. Some can set up shell companies in tax havens while others live hand to mouth. Some appoint their mates to committees and employ experts to invent ways to evade tax while others stand alone before the automated power of the state unable even to talk their way out of a parking ticket. Technology now makes our social world so vast and complex that only the powerful are capable of fully exploiting the opportunities created.
I’m some kind of liberal. I believe that the antics of others are none of my business but they become my business when they involve public funds or involve the workings of organisations endowed by society with privileged status such as public office, charities, the joint stock company or limited liability. Complexity and technology have rendered the working of such organisations opaque but public access to authoritative Social Network Analysis has the potential to go some way to remove the veil of secrecy to which the powerful have grown accustomed. It will allow us to understand social power structures far more thoroughly and thereby improve democratic accountability. Much of what will be revealed will be obvious. Business and religion are big players. Many of the powerful are alumni of top education institutions. Merely exposing this detail should not necessarily be an argument for erasing it; we all rely on networks and both religion and business have their part to play in society. But power and influence should be visible, proportional and the individuals accountable.
An amalgamation of big corporations and big government now plan to monitor practically everything we do. They will monitor our email, our Facebook, our telephone calls, our car license plate and use of public transport and hence our physical movement. They monitor what we buy and what we sell; who we meet and what we eat. Personally I am against much of this but it is happening anyway, pushed through by greed for efficiency and the fear of terrorism.
We need an equal and opposite force including tools to track and monitor our elite. Along with political sites such as TheyWorkForYou.com, Muckety and LIttlesis are a good start. At the moment specialist skills are still needed to make best use of the technology but this should improve.
It won’t be easy. The elite have grown used to secrecy. Peter Mandelson once said that he was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”. As usual, he was Talking Bollocks! It wasn’t the people who eat in McDonalds and shop at Primark who created the biggest threat to the UK since 1939; it was the rich. So rather than snooping on our telephone calls and Facebook posts attention should be focused on exposing the machinations of those in power. And of course this includes Peter Mandelson relationship with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska while Mandelson was EU Trade Commissioner.
Black holes are a myth it was claimed yesterday in a startling development which runs contrary to the majority of self-riotous TV boffins like the smug and grinning Professor Brian Cox.
Mr. Jones, a former shelf stacker at Mac Fisheries, made the claim yesterday in an interview with this web site while sitting in front of his television. He stated that, theoretically, anything could escape a black hole though he added the caveat that escape would require an enormous amount of fuel and conceded that there may be engineering challenges related to tidal effects that make implimentations of black hole escape impractical. However he aserted that this “…doesn’t make it a scientific impossibility for fuck’s sake….”. His findings refers to the oft stated supposition that nothing can escape a black hole because the escape velocity of a black hole is greater than the speed of light and nothing can exceed the speed of light.
However, Mr. Jones points out that a rocket moving out of a “gravity well” does not actually need to attain escape velocity to escape, but could achieve the same result (escape) at any speed with a suitable mode of propulsion and sufficient propellant to provide the accelerating force on the object to escape. Escape velocity is only required to send a ballistic object on a trajectory that will allow the object to escape the gravity well of the mass.
The implications are obvious said Mr. Jones “…these lame TV scientists with their stupid corduroy jackets and patched elbows think we’re all bloody stupid…”. If true his claim could have far reaching and fundemental implications for accepted cosmological theories and render the concepts of dark matter and dark energy obsolete.
Mr. Jones explained the background to his conclusion while quaffing large glasses of a fair to middling bottle of Lidl Barolo saying “I spoke to this blond bird who was some kind of astronomer at a science fair last weekend….” and he belched and drooled for a minute before collecting his thoughts, ”….She got all confused when I put it to her…” and Mr. Jones sniggered but went on ”…there may be other factors preventing stuff leaving a black hole but when they bang on about the light speed limitation for escape velocity they’re Talking Bollocks! Why the fuck can’t they tell us the truth? That’s what I’d like to know….these bastards on the TV, Cox got an OBE for Christ’s sake! I could do his job….why can’t I have an OBE?…..”
Mr. Jones then became incoherent and the interview was terminated. Professor Cox has yet to respond.
Once again technology seems to be the spirit of the age. While The Daily Telegraph warns of another looming financial Armageddon the TechMARK index stands at its highest level ever. Big Data, cloud computing and smartphones are just the thin end of the wedge. Artificial Intelligence is now what its about. The creation of a fully automated “global world” (ugh!).
It seems to me that a lot of this new technology is not driven by human want or need but by massive corporations with massive amounts of cash and nowhere to put it. The world economy is shafted and they can’t make money from existing industries so they’re inventing new markets. For the economy this could be a good thing but for humanity, I’m not so sure.
Take driverless cars for example. For decades there has been no great demand for this. In 2014 there were 1,775 road deaths in the UK. A lot admittedly and arguably the media should be more upset about this than the handful of deaths caused by terrorism but as a society we are inured to road deaths. The government, the car industry and the population have agreed to turn a blind eye to road casualties probably for two reasons: First driving is so bloody useful and secondly because it’s great fun.
However, driverless cars are the now the thing and it can’t be long before Brad Pitt emerges from a driverless car at the Oscars. As technology improves and stats emerge that driverless cars are safer than cars driven by people expect to face a barage of stories to frighten us into allowing laws banning human piloted automobiles. All in the interests of road safety you understand. (Ka-Ching!).
Of course driverless cars will be safer but they’ll also means a further step in the absolute pacification of mankind. While we’re driven to work in our air conditioned personal transport pods – lights flashing and the voice of Stephen Hawking announcing “Attention, vehicle in motion” – we’ll need something to entertain at us.
We’ll need to “consume” more shit films or TV programs about cake. We’ll watch music videos of some blond millionaire twenty something from Los Angeles telling us how she’s had it tough but is sticking it to the man and we can all be like her by paying for her music. We’ll play Grand Theft Auto and pretend we’re speeding around Los Santos in a Porsche rather than trundling along at a constant 30 miles per hour in a creaking plastic box from a dormitory housing estate near Chelmsford to a job at a factory office near Stratford.
Technology peaked in the 1940s with the introduction of the home freezer, everything that followed has been efficiency gains, keeping up with the Jones’ or, as Herman Hesse would have it: “…no more service to man than as an escape from himself and his true aims, and a means of surrounding himself with an ever closer mesh of distractions and useless activities”.
Hesse didn’t understand the half of it. In the 21st century, we are busy constructing the dystopia that previous generations only read about.
Was up The Scurrying recently. Piccadilly. The Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition. The web site says: “Discover exciting new talent alongside established stars of the art world”. As with most art web sites it’s almost impossible to figure out what the fuck is going on but it seems to me that this is an exhibition of the art produced by the last batch of graduates. I may be wrong. The “hanging committee” had planned the layout very well. As I walked in I was surrounded by some very mediocre attempts at modern art. This set my expectations. However, the clever thing about the layout is that as I persevered, as I wandered around I stumble across some absolute gems.
One work seemed to be writing painted on a backdrop of beautiful tiny coloured tiles but close inspection revealed this to be merely a lot of dots of paint. An elongated bust of a man’s head was extremely interesting. The appearance was that of an image with its aspect ratio stretched in Photoshop but this was a real 3D object and as I moved around it my mind grasped for the correct viewpoint which would normalise the image…..but of course this did not exist. Some nice plates which, at a casual glance, appeared to be nothing more than some old crockery in fact depicted surrealist images of weird Toby Jug men and naked ladies. But my favourite work was a simple painting covered with numerous flowers engendering the feel of old 1950s wallpaper. As I paid closer attention I could see a woman lying naked on a bed, a window, a 1950s style bedroom, a wardrobe, but wait; what’s that on top of the wardrobe? Is that an old man in a suit and is he conducting or is he sprinkling the flowers? A strange and surreal image. Many other works were well worth a look but hurry. The exhibition closes on 21st August.
Prior to motorcycling around France I had not appreciaited just how hot it gets in summer and how France lacks the usual supply of bars and cold drink stores.
After a hot day’s traveling I drove around the roads near my hostelry on the outskirts of Marseille in search of a bar or a 7-11 selling cold drinks. I found only an endless series of pharamacies and patiseries.
However, where your Frenchy sees cultural imperialism your Yank sees a chance to make a fast buck. The only place capable of asauging the heat exhaustion of your traveller is an American chain restauarnt. If it were not for McDonalds or KFC providing the occasional air conditioned refuge and cold drinks the cities of France would be litterred with dead foreigners.
Speaking of dead foreigners, I was not surprised to be told that France has a worrying number of road deaths. After about a week on French roads I can report that there are two main reasons for this. First there is the fact that the road system has been designed by idiots and second is the fact that all the French drivers are wankers.
First take the road layouts. It’s a cliche that your German likes his rules, your Brit is a bodger and your Frenchy likes his elegant theories. For the French road system this means a mind boggling and complicated set of rules, signs, roundabouts, crossings, lights etc. But this is not enough. Eash one of these parts has been broken down into a pleathora of sub parts. A set of traffic lights might be one of many types. Zebra crossings might occur imediatly before roundabouts, imediately after or in an undiscoverred wilderness where no human has stepped foot since the dawn of creation. The traffic lights are distributed freely everywhere. One tends to spend aproximately half ones driving time in French towns waiting at red lights, alone, without another car for a hundred kilometres.
I suspect that your Frenchman has determined: “But Monsieur, zere must be a roundabout here”, and his collague will say “yes, yes, but zere must also be a roundabout”, and an assitant will say: “But ze theory dictates zere must be a crossing. We must impliment zem all Monsieur”. So you end up with a roundabout, a set of lights, a crossing and an archipelego of traffic islands where one false move means instant death.
Your German, would have redesigned the whole thing, your Brit would have thought “Bugger it, the Roundabout is good enough”. But the Frenchman. No, he must impliment them all in the same place.
Perhaps I generalise too much. An alternative theory is that the work party sent out to build various traffic controls over a 100 kilometre stretch of road got so fed up standing under the intense French sun that they thought “Bugger it! Let’s just install it all right here and go and get a croisant”.
Then there is your French driver. The cardinal attribute of your French driver is indecisiveness. Indicators mean nothing as the driver has probably changed his intentions since flicking it on. Most of the French roads are either single lane or two lane roads. The result is that your French driver is in a constant frenzy of trying to overtake the guy in front or trying to get back into the inside lane to allow the bully behind him past. Driving behind a carravan or truck one constantly is cut up by someone who then breaks hard and tries to pull out.
“Yes meseur. I shall overtake your silly slow moving vehicle with my powerful fast French car. There! It is done. I shall cut in front of you to illustrate how slow you are travelling but no!! What is this? Another car in front of you!? Who could have forseen such a thing? I must now pull out again, but there is an idiot tailgating me and so I shall pull out half way and we shall all weave around at breakneck speed like imbeciles. Then there are the toll roads! Take one wrong turn and you’ll find yourself paying for the privilege of driving half an hour in the wrong direction.
So, why do it? Why come to France in the first place? Because it is fantastic! Because in the north east the roads are long and straight and lightly populated. Because they pass through some little villages that apear not to have changed in centuries. Because of the breathtaking Millau Viaduct. Because of the mountain roads and the magical valleys between mountain peaks. And, most of all, because much of France seems undiscoverred by the global tourist industry.