The Internet Is Not Some Giant Living In The Hillside Coming Down To Visit The Townspeople


I’ve seen a bit of end-of-year commentary recently saying things along the line of “let’s take the internet back” “the internet in 2013 was awful” “in 2014 we fix the internet” etc. and it kind of baffles me because it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what the internet is, and exacerbates the very problems people want to address.

The internet is not the problem. Twitter is not the problem. They possibly don’t help the problems, as medium they are not passive etc. and they shape and form the messages transmitted, but in the end we’re the problem.

In the opening to his classic album “Black On Both Sides” Mos Def says the following:

People be askin me all the time
“Yo Mos, what’s gettin ready to happen with Hip-Hop?”
(Where do you think Hip-Hop is goin?)
I tell em, “You know what’s gonna happen with Hip-Hop?
Whatever’s happening with us”
If we smoked out, Hip-Hop is gonna be smoked out
If we doin alright, Hip-Hop is gonna be doin alright
People talk about Hip-Hop like it’s some giant livin in the hillside
Comin down to visit the townspeople
We are Hip-Hop
Me, you, everybody, we are Hip-Hop

I think you can use the exact same argument about “the internet”. “If we doin’ alright, the internet is gonna be doin’ alright”. If “the internet” seems like a shitty, broken place, it’s because the world is a shitty broken place. But the place to start fixing it, isn’t the network, it’s the nodes that make up the network. It’s us. Racism, misogyny, violence, hatred, are problems we have as people. They are not problems of the internet.

The network has problems itself; but again these problems are caused by the people on the network. It’s controlled by massive corporations and all watched over by state security agencies because we’re controlled by massive corporations and all watched over by state security agencies.

To say “let’s fix the internet in 2014” is to say “let’s fix human society in 2014”. That’s fine, that’s worthy, but it’s not easy and you have to remind yourself what the real problem is. And, like the network, I believe you can’t fix it until you start fixing the individual nodes. And that means ourselves.

“What’s gonna happen with hip-hop?
Whatever’s happening with us?”

Selfie-Hatred

In response to it being named as the Oxford Word of the Year, the Irish Times ran a piece today on the phenomenon of ‘selfies’ that in its vague emptiness sums up the silly furore over the word. The article argues that the ‘selfie’ is the most appropriate – or “depressing” – “symbol of the kind of society we have become” that “sums up our age of narcissism”. But Jennifer O’Connell never really explains how this act (of taking a picture of yourself) points to this grave social illness, or how the ‘selfie’ is in any way a new activity.

People, with the means, have been commissioning self-portraits of some manner for centuries. All that has changed is that the means to do so (and broadcast) have become readily available to the masses. If ‘selfies’ tell us anything, its that the means of production of self-portraiture have been acquired by all, not just the elite. That in itself might be interesting, but it shows us that the ‘narcissism’ (if it’s true) has always been there.

One of the ‘selfies’ described in the IT piece is of a family out at a meal who take a picture of themselves. That is a family picture at a meal. I assume it was a ‘selfie’ because one of the members of the family physically took the picture themselves? Had they handed the camera to a waiter to take they would be doing something that has never prompted a columnist to write about it before. But it seems the act of being in a picture, whether alone or with others, whilst also taking the picture, magically transforms it into the narcissistic ‘selfie’ – the act that ‘sums up our age’. This family portrait was “the perfect nuclear family for the age of ego.” When me and my family posed awkwardly with our nan in 1986 it was a cherished memory we were only talking about the other day. But this family in a pizza restaurant took a ‘selfie’, and we should sneer it as such.

The 1985 Philadelphia MOVE bombing

I heard about the Philadelphia MOVE bombing for the first time earlier this year when I saw the trailer for “Let The Fire Burn”, a new documentary about the incident. I couldn’t believe what the film was about, mainly because I couldn’t believe I had never heard of the event.

In 1985, following years of tension between the City of Philadelphia and a radical revolutionary “back to nature” group called MOVE, a stand off on a suburban street turned to mayhem when police dropped a bomb on the roof of MOVE’s house which that had refused to vacate, ultimately burning the house and the surrounding neighbourhood to the ground. In the end 11 MOVE members, including 6 children, were dead, and over 60 family homes in the neighbourhood were completely destroyed. Only 2 members (an adult woman and a child) survived.

MOVE are a fascinating group, essentially a cult based around a mysterious man, John Africa, who the members supported loyally. Whereas many people pay lip service to the environment and animal rights, MOVE walked the walk, to an extreme fashion, eating only raw veg, eschewing most technology (except, for instance, guns) and electricity. On paper, however, their way of life seemed quite positive. I have always been fascinated by cults, radical groups and communes, from Aum Shinrikyo, to the Weather Underground. (This weekend I also saw “The Source Family” about a 70s hippy commune, again orbiting around a central father figure)

It baffles me that MOVE isn’t more widely known. Maybe it is in the States, but given we live in such a US-centric, connected globe that this never took on the international infamy as say Waco is strange. But, then again, when you consider that the vast majority of MOVE’s members, and all who died, were African-American, sadly, maybe it isn’t that strange. To think that police forces dropped a bomb on civilians in order to end a siege seems unthinkable, but it happened.

While I wait for the film to get released here, I’ve started reading the book “Let It Burn” which the film is more or less based on. It’s been great so far, a matter-of-fact documenting of what led up to the inferno. I’ve also been soaking up everything I can find online about the MOVE standoff, including this 25th anniversary retrospective, and some interesting videos of a 1978 standoff that had resulted in the death of a police officer.

Review: “The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band Who Burned A Million Pounds”

In 1990/91 I was ten years old and a Michael Jackson fanatic. Beyond that I was aware of pop music, but not really interested in much beyond The King of Pop. A few years later hip-hop would steal my heart and keep it exclusively for over a decade before it would allow me to talk to other people. But I remember even then being aware that the British dance/pop/art duo the KLF were something different. They had catchy tunes, and more strikingly videos which were really memorable. Hooded people, armoured cars, and men with massive horns coming out of their foreheads. Oh, and Tammy Wynette on a throne singing about ‘Justified Ancients from Mu Mu’.

A few years later a friend in school had a copy of “The White Room” on tape and we used to listen to it along side N.W.A. and Ice-T. (I still have that copy. A long time borrow turned into ownership at some stage :) )

The KLF's "The White Room" on cassette tape

I didn’t really think much about the KLF for a long time after until a few years ago I suddenly remembered how great they were and began rediscovering their music. I also remembered and fully appreciated now their infamous final act where they burned the one million pound profits the hugely successful group had earned.

John Higgs has released a new book about the KLF. But it’s not like any musical bio you have ever read. It’s about much more than the KLF, it’s about synchronicity, coincidence, chaos, magic and rationalism. It’s a pretty good history of the group, but by it’s own admission, it’s not as thorough as it could be, because at any opportunity it uses the KLF as a platform to discuss a wider issue.

It devotes time to:
Discordianism
Robert Anton Wilson
The JFK Assassination
The Demise of Doctor Who
Carl Jung
Alan Moore
Magical Thinking vs Rationalism
The Value of Money

and much more…

It’s a hugely entertaining and thought provoking read. Even if you are only vaguely interested in the KLF I would recommend it. At it’s heart this book is really about how we view reality. It constantly refers to how we make mental models to make sense of the world and how we mistake our mental models for reality, a topic Wilson was hugely interested in, as was Alan Watts. The book makes the case (in a very powerful final chapter), as did Wilson and Watts, that a major cause of our ‘problems’ is mistaking our ‘models’ of reality for reality itself. In a way the KLF is used as a case-study to show this and the final chapter is almost like a thought-experiment using the KLF to force you to consider how you view the world. It’s also a great yarn about one of the truly original music groups of all time.

This book has given me a new found love for the KLF, Robert Anton Wilson and ‘the map is not the territory’.

I’ll be thinking about it for some time.

Two quotes

“When we’re genuinely engaged in working with others we’re automatically working with ourselves as well.”

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche #buddhism

“Someone said to me ‘Do you believe in God?’ and I said ‘I’m a faithful agnostic’ so I just don’t have a fucking clue. I feel that like you can live a good life if you think about it. It’s just a matter of being considerate of what’s going on. If that’s not spiritual then I don’t know what is”

Ian Mackaye

Things Fall Apart

Last night two black, plastic electronic devices I wear on my person broke, leaving both essentially unusable. They still both function correctly, but can no longer be worn – they became static objects where mobility is one of their main reasons for being. These days the fact that our expensive electronic gadgets are perishable is hardly worth mentioning. We all know that our phones will crack, our X-Boxes will die and the hands of our watches will one day stop turning. It is a testament to our consumerist age, our relative wealth, and our lack of ecological awareness that this is shrugged off. Google even made this fact, that our plastic gadgets are essentially ‘throw away when used’ as a marketing tool for their Chrome Operating System. This is not to mention the dual problem of obsoleteness – the shoe box full of Minidiscs, Mini-DV camcorders, and myriad gaming consoles, stacked on top of the shelves full of VHS tapes never to be watched again as technology marches on.

My broken watch and headphones

This all struck me as within hours of each other my watch strap snapped and my headphones cracked. Now, watches are usually a fixable thing, but this watch in particular is the iconic Casio F-91W (a watch so ubiquitously cheap that I remember as a kid they were sellotaped to the front of Fairy Liquid bottles as a free gift – hence one Monday every child showing up in the yard at lunch time with the same watch…). It costs roughly 15 quid in Argos and has a plastic strap. The only way to fix it would be to replace one side of the stap and it strikes me that this would not be worth the time or money as it is so cheap. And so it goes; this is my 3rd Casio F-91W in 3 or 4 years. Almost annually this very same thing happens and I’ve become accustomed to simply wandering into the Jervis Shopping Centre and picking up another one. This habit started a few years ago and quietly became a standard practice.

For years I wore an expensive-ish heavy Casio G-Shock watch that served me well, until one day the latch got too loose and it was prone to fall off. I put it on my bedside locker and resolved to fix it. A few days passed and my long-held inability to feel right without a watch (despite the mini super computer sitting in my pocket which can tell me the time and a whole lot more) got to me and so I temporarily filled the void by buying a cheap replacement that had the added bonus of nostalgia and retro-hipster-chic. As a man who has always tried to put function-over-form I was set, and the old chrome G-Shock eventually gathered a layer of dust, until it was shuffled off to the dreaded shoe-box under the bed; the final resting place.

Then one day the F-91W went the way of the dodo – but this time there was no chance of recovery, so I simply replaced it. And thus I became a man who wore disposable watches. But it wasn’t the only such thing in my life. I had also become accustomed to going through headphones at an alarming rate – either through their natural disintegration (that moment when one speaker begins to cut out and you are on a long bus journey..noooooo) or through loss (I believe many a pub seat has ear-buds stuffed down between the cushions.) So I did the same thing as my watch – I would march into Tower records and pick up the very same pair again and again (I should note I do the same with runners and trousers – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it).

Last night, however, I was struck to think about this. Earlier this year I decided to test out some of the uber-hip “over the head big can-style” headphones that are all the rage. Tower have a helpful stand where you can plug in your own device to hear the difference. Once I heard Public Enemy’s paraolympic-anthem “Harder Than You Think” booming through a pair; the tinny, pathetic 15 quid ear-buds just didn’t cut it anymore. I decided to invest in a moderately priced, lower-end-but-still-relatively-expensive pair. After a brief moment of self-awareness where I wondered if I looked like a twat, I decided that sound quality trumped personal appearance.

I also thought that this was the end of my rampant headphone replacement schedule. How wrong I was when I took them off last night to feel them disintegrate in my hands, as my watch began to hang off my wrist. I realised how relaxed I had become with just consuming these plastic gizmos so rapidly and I felt a pang of guilt. Not only is this a waste of money, but I also felt like I was directly adding little blogs to the monstrous island of plastic living below the Pacific Ocean. The relative expense of the headphones annoyed me much more then my previous litany of watches and cheap ear-buds so I paused to reflect.

In thinking about my attitudes to property and waste etc. I realised that one of my main problems is the relative lack of respect I show these things. My things. I take off my headphones and just cram them into my pockets. My laptop gets tossed about freely and would make many Apple fanboys scream with its bumps and bruises, and my phone is not even one years old and sports the kind of crack that would send some people mad. I am relatively O.K. with this; I can’t stand phone covers or screen protectors – a device is designed to be used as is, I don’t want to wrap it up in a space suit to protect it from it’s user, but at the same time am I dooming myself to wasting money and resources constantly replacing them as I hurl them about. I am not anal about the aesthetics of these devices – in fact I feel like all tools they should bare the marks of usage, but is this at the expense of their lifespan?

This lack of respect I show I think stems from a culture of consumption and disposability. We are constantly made to want the latest thing. A phone is obsolete by the time you have got it home from the shop. Add this to the fact that such devices are simply not designed to last, and whilst trying to avoid the tin foil hat, are probably designed NOT to last, if you get me. The recent PhoneBloks idea (which I love but have to agree with others and say is almost certainly unrealistic) plays on these ideas. Electronic devices have become increasingly unfixable; especially things like computers, where the ability to customise and replace parts becomes harder and harder (Apple, of course, are the chief culprits here) and as we make things more and more out of moulded plastic they become inherently harder to fix. Of course, we have great things like sugru and 3D printing is promised to bring power back to the masses (let’s not talk about it’s effect on the giant plastic island, though) but these are minority interests. Most of us are not going to fashion a home made replacement for the tiny piece of plastic that just flew off our headphones. We are going to bin them and buy new ones. Like good consumers.

All of this is also a good reminder of impermanence. Things fall apart, nothing lasts forever, you cannot fight it. But this is not an excuse to then accept that and that we should devour more and more plastic goodies. Impermanence should make us consider how we consume and our attachment to these trinkets. I have no attachment to them as individual things because I do not mourn their passing but rather see them as imminently replaceable, but I am attached to them as ideas, as things I should own, and so I race to replace them.

These broken, sad bits of plastic sitting next to me as I type have made me think about my relationship with objects. My laptop is whirring away, starting to get a bit slow, and so I have entertained myself by looking at the latest treats on Apple’s website. It’s not that old though, and maybe I could swap out the hard drive for an SSD?

And when I’m done with that, I’ll dust off the old G-Shock under the bed and bring it down to the jewellers to get it fixed.

The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology

I saw the new Slavoj Žižek movie “The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology” last night, directed by Sophie Fiennes, wherein the Marxist-Lacanian-cultural-critic-slash-philosopher uses film as a medium to explain how ideology works, citing examples such as Titanic, The Dark Knight, Jaws and They Live, along with more direct examples such as Triumph of the Will and The Fall of Berlin. I quite enjoy Žižek’s stuff for the most part (when I can understand it) and TPGTI is pretty good. It’s a bit long and he tries to cram way too much in, so you find yourself agreeing, and nodding along, but he’s already on to another point and it can be hard to keep up. It’s not really his failing – its what he does – but the editor’s really. You could have chopped half an hour off (or made two films) and really concentrated on a few aspects of ideology. Still it’s pretty fun and thought provoking, it does a nice trick (as also found in it’s predecessor “The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema” where Žižek is inserted into the sets of the clips he is showing that elicits a few laughs from the audience and I found it pretty hard to disagree with his stance.

At War With The Mystics

I really dislike when people use the word ‘mystical’ as a pejorative term. It’s usually used as a signifier for some kind of airy-fairy New Age thing, or generally for religion itself. Someones religious views are dismissed as ‘mystical nonsense’ – even if the beliefs themselves have nothing to do with mysticism. I read an article today about a Catholic priest’s views on abortion which was labelled as ‘mystical’. I don’t think these people have any idea what mysticism is, or that it has an actual meaning.

Bitcoin and the nature of money

I’ve quoted Alan Watts before on the nature of money, and written on the topic in more detail.

What wasn’t understood then, and still isn’t really understood today, is that the reality of money is of the same type as the reality of centimeters, grams, hours, or lines of longitude. Money is a way measuring wealth but is not wealth in itself. A chest of gold coins or a fat wallet of bills is of no use whatsoever to a wrecked sailor alone on a raft. He needs real wealth, in the form of a fish rod, a compass, an outboard motor with gas, and a female companion.

And I thought of it again whilst thinking about bit coin. Bitcoin is a ‘digital currency’ that is in the news at the moment due to its wild fluctuations. In fact, whether we can call it a ‘currency’ or not is part of its problem. There’s been loads written about it recently, some of which is quick to claim that it’s not a currency at all.

I quite like the Washington Post’s take on it. It deals with what is for me the most interesting thing about bit coin – it is forcing people to think about what money is.

…money has almost nothing to do with physical form. It also doesn’t have much to do with who creates it: The dollar bills were issued by the Federal Reserve, the checking account created by my neighborhood bank, the money market fund was created by a mutual fund manager, the gold was mined out of the ground, and the refrigerator was made by General Electric.

Rather, what makes money money is what you can do with it. If you can purchase the goods and services that you want and need with it, it is money; if you can’t, it isn’t. Money is memory, said Narayana Kocherlakota in an important 1996 paper (he is now president of the Minneapolis Fed). It is the way we as a society record how much capacity to buy stuff each of us possess.

They also reference an Onion article entitled “U.S. Economy Grinds to Halt As Nation Realizes Money Just A Symbolic, Mutually Shared Illusion.” to help make their point.

This is inline with Watts talk of money as measurement. Bitcoin idealists I guess use this to legitimise themselves; it is just another, radically different (in its lack of centralisation) measurement tool. The Post, however, posit some retorts – one of which is that currency like the Dollar is not just ‘socially’ accepted as currency, it is effectively enforced by the most powerful entity on Earth – the U.S. government. And both the Post and the Guardian bemoan it’s like of liquidity and central control to keep it liquid.

Still, it’s nice to see this debate being played out. Watts was keen to get us to remember that money is not wealth. Bitcoin helps us remember this, I think. Interesting times ahead.

See also: Money and Wealth