Thursday, 17 September 2009

A is for ‘Access’ - 18,825 words -

- at last the wind dies
now a stillness calms the trees
now silence descends - katsuichi yamashiro (1990-2043) - george case -

So...things did not go as smoothly as planned; we still don’t have internet access at our new place, and won’t until Monday, but hopefully roughly weekly posting will be up and running again after that. In other news: my computer’s decision to corrupt a boot file and, after a litany of errors, lose six years worth of accumulated electronic detritus (i.e. the bits of your digital life that you don’t back up because they’re ‘not essential,’ but actually turn out to be ‘who you are’), well, that’s some kind of sick prank played by the binary gods right?

Anyway, being without internet access, at least beyond the somewhat terrifying process of checking email on my housemate’s mobile broadband (with its draconian/Machiavellian charge system for going over your limit, and no, you can’t check how much you’ve used so far), has brought into slightly sharper focus some of the debates surrounding the U.K. government’s proposition to disconnect copyright infringers from the internet. A similar proposal was recently declared ‘unconstitutional’ in France within a few weeks of being enacted, but I have a feeling we won’t see this go away as quickly, despite the protestations of Damon Albarn et al. (N.B It’s particularly interesting to see Elton John arguing against the disconnections seeing as he called for the internet as a whole to be turned off a couple of years back. Times = a changin’).

Some commentators, up in arms at the threat of such a cut-off, have been suggesting that internet access has become a human right (the Digital Britain Report certainly comes within a breath of saying the same in defending the urgency of providing broadband access to the U.K’s poorest homes) which would be curtailed by such enforcement measures. Then again, the standard punishment for most crimes is a curtailment of some section of your rights - if this kind of piracy is really going to be criminalised then it’s absolutely the right response, or at least an appropriate one.

To argue against the punishment, rather than the strangeness of the offence, seems counter-intuitive; the problem (quite aside from the massive privacy issues involved in tracking infringers) is that we are criminalising behaviour we don’t yet understand the true implications of, and at every level we see disproportionate responses aimed at curbing what is rapidly becoming a majority behaviour among internet users, rightly or wrongly. Things have, to be honest, gone too far - a whole generation is growing up believing that content should be free or so cheap as to be functionally negligible. In this light something like Spotify seems a far more meaningful and sensitive response to the decline in control over the distribution of content than any attempt to try and cut off the hands which feed the industry at the same time as they force it to restructure.

Human right or not, I’m pro-access - if it exists and it does no harm, or can be successfully kept from affecting vulnerable parties (I know this is thorny territory, please pardon the short-hand in lieu of the more extensive debate), then I consider the optimum state for any content to be: ‘freely available’. ‘Sensible paid access’ would be a close second, whereas ‘fighting for elusive content under the threat of sanctions and incarceration’ would be considered un-ideal.

I’ve been put on the defensive about access after a friend recommended George Case’s fascinating Silence Descends: the end of the information age 2000-2500. A history of 500 years yet to come, it’s a commentary on/scathing indictment of our media saturated times, and the way they may be headed. Early on, around 2040, it is access to always-on media, or ‘Information’ as it becomes known, which heralds a catastrophic series of events on the global(ised) stage - Information can never be outright blamed, but it never helps, and subtly hinders, reassures when its time to panic, and panics those in need of succour. Access, it seems, is the enemy in Silence Descends - we should crave being cut-off; we should be downloading the whole pirate bay so we’re never allowed on again.

But in amongst this despair, Case gifts us two striking things: a utopian vision of what comes next, and an untitled poem by Emily Dickinson from 1862:

After great pain, a formal feeling comes -
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs -
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?

The Feet, mechanical, go round -
Of ground, or Air, or Ought -
A Wooden way
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone -

This is the Hour of Lead -
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow -
First - Chill - then Stupor - then the letting go -

And I’m reading and re-reading this poem because I know I’m going to need it someday. You see, there’s going to come a time, after some trauma, when I’m going to say to myself “this is awful…I - shit - I feel completely numb…but remember that poem…,” and it’s going to seem, disingenuously, like I just recollected something I read once, when in fact, right now, I’m wrapping a part of myself with it like psychic armour.

(Digression: Jerry Holkins (from Penny Arcade) recently had another child and his post detailing the day of the birth is really really great. I’m only thinking about the use of secret defences because I’m indebted to his words there:

“I have always felt that I was too conservative in naming your brother, in naming him comfortably, in giving him a name without sufficient destiny. I determined that this would not be your fate, Ronia. You also have a Q, in Quinn, so that when you are forced to append some meaningless form or other with your middle initial, you will deposit a Q thereupon - unleashing it, very nearly unsheathing it, young lady, to dazzle thine enemies. I need you to be thus armed because I fear your mother and I have played a trick on you; we have brought you to a place where hidden weaponry is sometimes necessary. In our defense, and I recognize that it may be insufficient, this was the only world available to us”)

This is what art can do: be knowingly, or unwittingly sequestered away in order to protect us from an uncertain future. Currently, I don’t think our culture really provides for this very well. The stories we hear and see, those we read, and those read to us everyday, are stories of celebrity, of decadence, of producer’s manipulations of the same tropes each week on ‘talent’ or ‘reality’ shows which have a pathological fear of revealing any such things. Cultural indicators such as Dan Brown holding several of the best-selling novels in British history, Twilight treating every school in the world as a T-RE, and Radio 1’s rotation dictating “the soundtrack of our lives™”, represent a real danger: our drawing our sources of strength from a generic repository. Armour probably isn’t one-size-fits-all.

My faith in access stems from a belief that if all is equal then people start to make their own choices about what to put into their lives, a long tail with the vestigial head cut off, a gecko’s tail with more life than the body it left behind. If everything is equally available then, hopefully, you don’t get marketed at, you get recommended things, and the difference is marketing’s expensive, homogenous, corporate, and annoying, and recommendations are ideally free, personal, and something you seek out from friends and trusted sources. The switch from the predominance of one state to the other isn’t going to happen in my lifetime, but I look at the internet and it seems like the work of generations really is beginning, that we’re approaching a situation where me might have a library of the world accessible to the world, for free or for a negligible fee. The ‘criminal’ beliefs of the current generation will become the lives of the future users.

As Case’s voice of hope puts it:

“Men and women everywhere still held the right to choose crass sensationalism over pure edification, an option they had exercised more often than not in the past – but in the mid-twenty-first century, men and women began to choose differently. As Julius La Cerra (2014-2086) wrote in Alpha:

We have come to realize that free speech doesn’t mean only that the state cannot restrict what we have to say, but also that nothing can: not avarice, nor fear, nor vanity, nor ignorance, nor lust, nor any of the mental fetters that once bound expression as firmly as legal ones. Truly free speech must be the voice of the entire individual rather than his superficial impulses”

Maybe I’m being na├»ve to assume that infinite choice could ever equal infinite variety in human animals which are essentially gregarious and thrive on acceptance. All I can say with any certainty is that it’s got to get more personal than this; we best protect ourselves with things we make bespoke.



- from thesis chapter 2, on different ‘intelligences’ -

“The next chapter will look at the potential impacts of a ‘digital’ way of thinking, and we will consider further how objects, particularly reading devices, might restructure the way we think, how new ways of thinking in one area can, maybe even must, be mapped onto our other intelligences. For now it is enough to note that ‘digital intelligence’ like ‘print/oral intelligence’, isn’t just about reading practices, any more than ‘social intelligence’ is just about hierarchies, or ‘technical intelligence’ merely about the use of tools. ‘Intelligences,’ ways of thinking, cooperating modules, are about hosts of practices which can become so widely used within a society, so explicitly discussed and implicitly deployed that they permeate the culture in which those minds reside, affecting all who have access to it, or will be exposed to it in the future. In this way ‘print thought’ affects everyone, in spite of their literacy, in any society which produces significant conditions for a secondary heuristic based on that mode of thought; in Ancient Greece, for instance, ways of thinking became available to philosophers and their audiences regardless of every member of that group being able to read. Similarly, as we will see, a movement toward a ‘digital intelligence’ will affect both sides of the digital divide”