Category Archives: Big Ideas

Look after your brain. They don’t issue new ones.

Bobby Fischer was arguably the greatest chess player of all time. American chess champion at 14, grandmaster at 15, world champion at 28. A brilliant but brief career cut short by schizophrenia. By the time of his death in 2008 Fischer was a ranting, anti-semetic caricature of insanity.

There are a number of possible reasons why Bobby Fischer went mad. Genetics perhaps. An unbalanced upbringing. The pressures of celebrity. The possibility his paranoia regarding CIA and KGB plots to control him was less than 100% paranoid. But the idea I find most credible is put forward in the documentary film Bobby Fischer Against the World, that Fischer’s insanity was intrinsic to his greatness, both caused by diving too far in to the near infinite complexity of chess.

It is estimated that there are the same number of potential moves in chess as there are atoms in the entire solar system. “Look in to the void, the void looks back in to you” as Nietzsche said. And the infinite complexity of chess is a void of a kind. The mind can contemplate it forever and never reach a conclusion. Which raises the very real possibility that the mind and brain will work themselves in to states of madness in the attempt.

Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy suggests that many mental health disorders including depression and schizophrenia can be caused by cyclical rumination. Thoughts turn over and over in the mind, literally overworking the brain which becomes physically exhausted, running out of receptor chemicals which support neurone communication. In the short term this produces negative mental states. Over time it can cause irreparable damage. Thinking too much can literally drive you insane.

A complex system like chess or a hard math problem can do this. But so can your emotions. Intense unhappiness, anger or traumatic experiences can drive the mind in to downward cycles of rumination. There is often no answer to be found to these emotions intellectually. All the thinking serves to do is exhaust and possibly damage the brain, and exacerbate the problem. Which is why not thinking about a complex problem or emotional situation is often the first step to finding the answer. The brain recovers its chemical balance, and unconscious processes that do much of the ‘heavy lifting’ of cognition provide an answer.

A novel, or any sophisticated work of art, can be thought of as both a very complex AND emotion centred problem. Your mind is trying to track all kinds of patterns on levels of plot and theme, whilst also experiencing the heightened emotional states common place in fiction. It’s worth considering that if, as many writers do, you find yourself affected by depression or other mental health problems, while they may have many extrinsic causes, they may also be intrinsically related to the writing project at hand. And it’s also worth considering ways of looking after your mind and brain whilst working on any major project.

A few ways of avoiding mental exhaustion whilst writing:

1. Write on the page, not off it.
If you find yourself thinking about the story at all times of day and night, try putting these thoughts on hold and keeping them for the periods when you are actually writing

2. Take regular breaks.
And actually stop thinking about the story during them. Experience some real life instead.

3. Is the project too difficult?
This can be a hard thing to admit. But our intellectual powers grow with practice. If you are struggling to write the project, you may just not have the technical or intellectual skills for it yet. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was Game of Thrones. George R R Martin had decades of experience in fiction and screenplays before he tackled an epic work. If he hadn’t, he might well now be a gibbering wreck now too!

4. Sleep
One of the things about sleep deprivation is that it masks its own effects. Chief among which are bad judgement, which can persuade you you’re actually practicing good judgement. Quality of sleep is also important. Hence why that coffee is a bad idea, as stimulants interfere with your deep sleep patterns.

5. Meditation
A useful practice for a healthy mind in general, but particularly if practiced immediately before you write. We all bring an immense amount of mental clutter to each writing session. Learning what it is can help you put it to one side and focus on the task at hand.

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The New Aesthetic and I

Every creative is always looking for a new aestehtic. And now there really is a New Aesthetic.

I will date the New Aesthetic to Bruce Sterling’s essay on the subject, in response to the SXSW panel chaired by James Bridle. But I’ll date my personal interest to the AlterFutures talk I gave recently, where it came up as a subject of conversation.

A better question might be ‘What will the New Aesthetic be when it stops being interesting?’

The most interesting period in a new aesthetic is its molten youth, when it picks up random debris from the surrounding landscape and no one can say for sure what form it will solidify in to or what parts of human society will be destroyed by its flow. So asking ‘What is the New Aesthetic?’ is like trying to fast forward through the big budget disaster movie. A better question might be ‘What will the New Aesthetic be when it stops being interesting?’

The New Aesthetic has been given a name by a group of London based design and creative types, and maybe it’s taking off because its just about loose enough to encompass one of those ideas that is emerging among many creative people; who given the social conditioning of creativity still at large in the early 21st C, are likely all of a similar age and social class; 20 to 30 somethings with the educational privilege to understand both contemporary culture and the technology driving it all.

The visible tropes of the New Aesthetic are: glitches and corruption artefacts in digital objects, render ghosts, satellite views, retro 80’s graphics. If you look through a tumblr of New Aesthetic imagery thats kind of what you will see. But it tells you nothing, so forget it.

Here’s a better way to think about it. The early 21st C has spawned an entire class of ‘cultural creatives’. Maybe 10-15% of the population of modern post-industrial nations like the UK are employed creating text, imagery, video, animation, sound, for the entertainment and advertising industries, and sometimes even as art. Expand your definition of creative to comfortably accommodate coders and some other knowledge worker types, and it all tallies up to a lot of people creating a lot of stuff every moment of every day. Start thinking about user generated content and you can increase the amount of stuff by factors of ten.

You could call the New Aesthetic the ‘Apple Mac’ Aesthetic

But. Actually what all of these people are doing, now, is using a computer. You could call the New Aesthetic the ‘Apple Mac’ Aesthetic, as that’s the computer of choice for most of these acts of creation. Images are made in Photoshop and Illustrator. Video is edited in Final Cut Pro. Buildings are rendered in Autodesk. Books are written in Scrivener. And so on. To paraphrase McLuhan “the hardware / software is the message” because while you can imitate as many different styles as you like in your digital arena of choice, ultimately they all end up interrelated by the architecture of the technology itself.

Horizon, one of my early published SF stories, is arguably a New Aesthetic story.

Every item of clothing in TopShop, whatever fashion style it is aping, has more in common with every other item because they are all products of the same digital creation / automated manufacture process. The cities of Britain are increasingly just agglomerated masses of Autodesk wireframes constructed from the most economically profitable prefabricated building blocks. Films and television are driven by innovations in CGI, and the superhero franchise reigns supreme because once you have all the digital assets in place, there is no reason not to make the Nth Spiderman movie.

I’ve strayed too far in to negative critique here, some of the outcomes of all this are actually quite beautiful I imagine. And also, this isn’t new. It’s been emerging for a generation. And it’s not what the New Aesthetic is or will be. Think of the New Aesthetic as the totality of our response to this as creators, and we might be getting closer.

Imagine the world’s creative community as a huge colony of meerkats, hanging out on the digital savannah, every single one of us wired and responding to the same stream of information via Twitter, YouTube and Tumblr. If you’re one of us, don’t ever fool yourself in to thinking you’ve found an idea first. Even in the old days of telephone calls and television, no one ever had an idea without a few thousand other people having it as well. If you got lucky, you were the person in the right place and time to capitalise on the idea. Ideas are built from the repurposed components of other ideas. Creativity is re-combinatorial. Curation is the core creative act of all artists, even if only of their own work. And now with social media the speed of viral idea transmission has topped out the acceleration graph. At any given time hundreds of thousands of people are having the same idea, built from the same blog posts and tweets and videos and e-books. And the New Aestehtic is one of these ideas, and it is the aesthetic that arises from understanding that this is how ideas are now.

And that’s another demand of the New Aesthetic worth considering. The constant demand to let go of I.

Which is a challenge. Because I can’t own the idea. And neither can you. Or at least you’ll need an unspeakably monstrous ego to take ownership of something like the New Aesthetic in today’s networked world. And that’s another demand of the New Aesthetic worth considering. The constant demand to let go of I. Because our I can’t grasp the New Aesthetic. It’s a thing of We. A thing of the network.

There are 7431 CCTV cameras in London. I would like to put forward their combined video output over any given 24 hour period as a work of art in the New Aesthetic. Firstly, there is no I present for any of the images being recorded. They are electrical impulses recorded as 1’s and 0’s in magnetic storage. We might sit and watch the footage back in various combinations. We could edit it in to a two hour feature presentation. But that would be at best an introduction to the 178,331 hours of footage that is the complete text. It’s humanly possible to watch all the footage, but would take – as previously mentioned – a monstrous act of ego. And I could hardly claim to be the creator of this artwork. As for any meaning the footage might reveal, its far beyond the the reach of any single I to ascertain it.

The world, the universe, confronts us every day with a vast complexity that we can not hope to understand. One purpose of mediated objects is to give us an edited and abbreviated version of that complexity which our very limited perceptions can comfortably grasp. Films and books that tell limited stories which we can understand. Fashion that makes the world coherent enough that we can adopt a role within it. Visual imagery with a finite grammar that remains somewhat familiar. The New Aesthetic are the mediated objects which in one way or another return us to the actual complexity of reality. As such they become once again frustratingly impossible to grasp through the limited construct of I.

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Stop. You are not a machine.

I do not know the origin of this. But I agree with it entirely.

 

 

Stop. You are not a machine. Your natural design does not tolerate 2-4 hours of travel per day, 8-12 hours of slave-labor 5-6 days per week for whatever monetary compensation on 5-6 hours of sleep in a system built on penalistic principle and a life under judgmental surveillance. Like it or not, you are human. Stress, harassment, constant financial worries, fear and sense of inadequacy destroys the health of any human. This is a scientific fact. So why is it that we accept and tolerate a system that in actual reality demands that you erase your needs, and in effect commit a slow joyless suicide for someone elses profit? You have a choice, stop pretending that you don’t.

Left and Right share the fight

Occupy Wall Street has seemed genuinely hopeful and constructive to me since its first emergence. I hadn’t been able to identify why, so thanks to Lawrence Lessig for stepping up and putting his finger on it:

In brief, Lessig believes that Occupy Wall Street has the potential to become something more than a Left leaning protest movement against a Right centred political system. I agree, and hope it is possible.

We all need to openly admit to ourselves that our democratic political system has become corrupted. No political system is ever without corruption. But since the financial crash of 2008, the system many of us believed to be historically less corrupt than any other, has proved to be much more corrupt than we hoped. We’ve seen that corruption in the inability of our political institutions to reform a financial system that everyone agrees is broken, and we’ve seen it in in the open corruption of our media, in particular the Murdoch media, which has been proved as nothing more than a protection racket and propaganda machine.

At the heart of this corruption, as with all corruption, is  money. Money has always bought power. But it seems at this moment in history to have overwhelmed any and all opposing ideology. Our political system today only serves the interests of money. And that is the very essence and definition of corruption.

Corruption of this kind is not in the interest of any person of any moral standing, whether they are on the Left or Right of the political spectrum. Yes, the arguments of the Left in defence of society’s poor and disenfranchised must be addressed. Yes, the arguments of the right in favour of our innovators and wealth creators must be advanced. Public spending has to be reigned in, just as corporate profits must be effectively redistributed. All these arguments must be had.

But none of this can happen until corruption has been defeated again. The political argument has been hijacked, on both sides, by people who hold no political ideology, who have no moral standing, who believe in nothing but themselves and their own power. These people are always there. The sociopathic fringe who crowd around power like those ugly mutated deep sea fish around volcanic vents. We can’t ever get rid of them. But we do need to learn to recognise them again. We need to learn to see them on our own side, as well as on the opposition. And we need to unite with our opponents, however much we disagree with them, if we are to have a chance of tackling our real enemey, the corrupt and cowardly few who are doing so much damage to the world today.

Occupy Wall Street is, and must continue to be, not a protest of Left against Right, but the seed of a united movement of Left and Right against the corrupt and criminal elementperverting our political system. I believe it can be, if we make it so.

Thoughts on economics

So. We’re facing the worst financial crisis ever. Don’t believe it for a second. This isn’t a crisis. It’s a collapse. The final and overdue collapse of a system that has been in a constant state of crisis, with brief periods of remission, for at least the last few decades.

The really sad, and I mean tear inducingly sad thing about the incredible pain and suffering many people are going through because of this collapse, is how utterly avoidable it all is. It requires only a shift in perception to cure the entire problem. But then, perception shifts, even tiny ones, are among the most difficult thing to achieve.

What would that shift be? Hmmm…let’s see.

Many, possibly most people, believe that you get wealth by taking something from somebody else. It’s a belief that people hold on many different levels, from people who think that its OK to invade another country and enslave their people, to those who think its OK to employ workers and drive down their pay over time to create your profit margin. In the last 30 years this belief has come to dominate our economic system. Consequentially, we now have an economy which is dominated by ever more complex ways for a few people to take stuff from everybody else.

Some people, maybe, on a good day, a slim majority of people, understand that wealth comes from trade. Which, in an idealised Sesame Street version of the world, is also called cooperation or sharing. The more humans cooperate, the more wealth we all end up with because our economy becomes more and more efficient. If I grow wheat, while you catch fish, and we trade / cooperate / share, then we both end up with wheat AND fish, for the same total amount of work. Scale that up to the modern post-industrial era and you have the one and only reason why our lives are so much nicer and comfier than they were back in the day.

Taking wealth can work in the short term. But in the long term, you destroy the actual trade and cooperation which is creating the wealth. Which is why all evil empires collapse. They grow too quickly on the wealth they take, then collapse when the source of that wealth is destroyed. Does that seem like a familiar picture to you? Even slightly?

Capitalism isn’t entirely evil. Much of a our modern wealth does come through trade and cooperation. That’s something we can all be proud and happy about. We’re argubly more cooperative than ever before. But. Over the last 30 years or so, we’ve all been party to the resurgence of the belief that it’s OK to get wealthy by taking something from somebody else. We’ve taken stuff from third world people by wearing the clothes and using the manufactured goods produced in their sweatshops. (Hardly surprising that they are now not very sympathetic about or plunging living standards…) We’ve taken stuff from poor people by driving down relative pay for people employed in ordinary jobs. We’ve taken stuff from our neighbours by selling worthless consumer products to each through forceful sales and advertising techniques. We’ve even taken stuff from our parents by forcing down spending on the elderly, sick and infirm. Oh, and now we’re taking stuff from our own children by forcing them to shoulder vast debt just to get a standard education. WELL DONE US! WOO HOO!

You can’t build a strong economy on the basis of fucking each other over. What we are watching now is the inevitable collapse of our attempt to do so. The response to this collapse has been for the richest to work ever harder at fucking over the poorest. And of course, this has set-up a positive feedback loop which has sent us spiralling ever quicker in to collapse. And thats the direction we will continue to go in, until we shift our perception, away from ever more strenuous attempts to fuck each other, and on to finding better ways to trade, share, and cooperate with the tremendous wealth we have made in the world, while we still have it.

Does social media reveal a ‘silent liberal majority’?

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...
Image via CrunchBase

The media often projects the consensus that the majority of the population hold conservative viewpoints. For instance, it’s generally agreed that a majority of the UK population support capital punishment. When that does not prove to be true in practice the terms ‘silent majority’ or ‘moral majority’ are used to imply that for various reasons that majority is not heard.

Today a major debate was sparked about capital punishment in the UK. It is a manufactured debate, arising from the re-launch of the UK government’s e-petition scheme. A well known UK political blogger started a petition to bring back capital punishment and, with the support of right wing parts of the media, claimed he had or would soon have the 100,000 signatures needed to gain a parliamentary debate on the subject. This has proven to be untrue. Signatories are not supporting the petition at anywhere near the expected rate. In fact, the opposing petition has, at the time of writing, approximately twice as many signatories.

I think this surprise outcome is largely due to social media.

Twice now, first with the News International phone hacking case and now with the capital punishment debate, I have observed through searches and hashtags that a vast majority of Twitter users were in support of the liberal perspective in both cases. While both conservative and liberal supporters use social media, their effect seems to be to amplify the liberal argument far more strongly than the conservative one.

Why would this be? I think it is possible that social media empowers a ‘silent liberal majority’. People who do not engage with traditional media and traditional politics because they do not feel it can change anything. They likely hold very strong political ideals, but feel there is no way to really act on those ideals in the real world. In my experience the number of people who feel this way is very great, but their viewpoint is not often expressed in our political dialectic. Twitter and other social media allow that liberal majority to make themselves heard easily and , more importantly, effectively. Social media then brings a large section of the population back in to the political system who have gone unheard for a long time. If this is true, then UK politics is about to take a major step to the left.

not a game a man is supposed to grow strong in

I’m writing whilst debating whether to spend £6.99 on the iTunes download of Rollerball, the original Norman Jewison version of 1975. (There are of course other options, including renting the 2002 version for £2.49, but this is not really even an option). It’s not the money alone giving me pause, but the irony of purchasing a film about the rise of ‘corporate society’ from the worlds most powerful entertainment corporation. (To add further irony Apple inc. was founded in 1976…)

I first saw Rollerball when I was ten or so, at the start of one of those summer holidays that seemed to go on forever (at least until the last day of August when we went shopping for school uniforms and pencils and text books and it all seemed suddenly far too short) and I spent much of the holiday cycling a child size BMX around the concrete playground at the heart of the housing estate, pretending to be a motorcycling Rollerballer. I’m not sure I got the poltical sub-text of the movie then, but I thought the spiky gloves were cool and the Japanese death-blow was the coolest thing EVER.

(It’s likely that one of the most formative factors in my love of weird tings was being allowed to stay up late most nights and watch really quite weird and violent telly.)

Rollerball is set in 2018, in a utopian / dystopian (depending upon your viewpoint) future society where corporations control every aspect of society. No one is poor, no one is sick, but neither is anyone free and humanities darker side is expressed in the ultra-violent future sport of Rollerball. The trailer is really rather excellent:

As we come closer to 2018 Rollerball seems ever more prescient. Behind the the rhetoric of recession and austerity, the true process at work in the current economic collapse is the complete ceding of power from nation states to corporate structures. The vast debts now carried by the industrialised nations are a stone over which to break them. The only question is how much longer the puppet shows of national politics will continue, and whether our corporate structures will develop any form of democratic process beyond shareholder privilege.

The uncomfortable truth is that for those who value material comfort and wealth, the ‘corporate society’ will be as great a step forward as was the industrial society of nation states before it. The average person will have tremendous material wealth, almost unimaginable today. But at what cost? If the trends of today continue, the price will be conformity and inequality. For the masses life will come pre-packaged and perfectly tailored to fit your biometric profile. As long as you don’t ask too many questions, you might even be able to believe you have chosen your life. But you’ll never be more than a component in closed system designed to empower others. The elite controlling those systems will have unbounded wealth, and the pick of new technologies that will transform their existence so far beyond our own that it’s hard now to even imagine. A sci-fi fantasy? I might have said so a decade ago, but as the masks which covered the staggering inequalities in our society are stripped away by the recession, it seems an ever more likely future.

There is a mind-game which asks ‘If Steve Jobs ran the whole society like an Apple product – let’s call it iSociety – so that it functioned perfectly but gave no freedom of choice, would you rejoice or rebel?’ Your answer to that question may well determine your response to the decades ahead.

Wisdom 2.0 and the growth of mindfulness

What would Christianity be like today if someone had videoed the Sermon on the Mount and put it on YouTube? Would Jesus get more views than Justin Bieber? Unlikely. But I believe that if such a video appeared today, our understanding of Christianity would be profoundly transformed.

We don’t have the Sermon on the Mount. But there are sources of wisdom available today via the wonders of the interwebs that would have been unimaginable even a decade ago.

Wisdom is an underused word these days I think. We talk about intelligence and knowledge. But to quote from buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield from the video below – we are technological giants and ethical infants. If intelligence is the ability to build a nuclear bomb, wisdom is the ability not to use it.

Jack Kornfield and Jon Kabat-Zinn are two people that I would qualify as genuinely ‘wise’. Today I found a video of them speaking together at the Wisdom 2.0 conference just a few days ago. The video is over an hour long, so you might want to watch it when you have time to give it some attention.

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/20411862]

The topic of their discussion is mindfulness. If any single idea is emerging from the viral spread of wisdom through the internet, it is mindfulness. It’s an idea that can be found in all the worlds spiritual traditions, but belongs to the dogma of none of them. It’s a simple idea. To be mindful is to be aware of the moment you are in, and through that awareness become able to make better, wiser decisions. And it is an idea that is quickly being adopted in medicine, psychology, education and politics.

I would argue that many of the problems we as a world face today – environmental destruction, economic collapse, the continued spread of warfare and violence – are not caused by a lack of intelligence, but a lack of wisdom. Maybe then the solutions are not to be found either in grand political ideologies, or in forceful revolution, but simply in every single one of us learning to be mindful of the moment we are in. The consequences of that might be truly revolutionary.

Here is Thich Nhat Hanh also talking on mindfulness.

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/14176868]

This is not a recession, it is the end of an era

UPDATE : WordPress.com won’t let me embed the Prezi, so you’ll just have to make use of your opposable thumbs and click the link.

If you haven’t discovered Prezi yet, you really should. It’s one of the most powerful communication tools on the interwebs, and possibly a minor-revolution for the written word. But this isn’t a post about Prezi. It’s a post about one line of text in the rather wonderful Prezi below.

New Economy, New Wealth presents an idea that has been lingering in my, and I’m sure in many other peoples heads, for quite some time. Namely, that this thing we call ‘The Economy’ seems to have stopped working. And it’s showing no signs of starting up again. And it never made any sense in the first place, when you look at it in the cold hard light of the Post0Capitalist now. I’m not going to explain any more, because the Prezi below does it better.

The line to look out for is the title of this post, ‘This is not a recession, it is the end of an era.’ I think this is an important idea to start spreading, because it’s something we all need to wrap our heads around double quick. We aren’t just going to return to the consumer economy most of us are used to. We’ve tipped over the brink in to the information economy. This is a good thing. BUT. The transition is going to hurt in direct proportion to the length of time it takes us all to realise it is happening. In fact, this recession has really been caused by people who either don’t realise or are in active denial about the changes we are facing.

Anyway. Feel free to not believe me. Just remember in ten years time when you are living in an autonomous localised commune, printing musical instruments from your 3D printer and trading your compositions for Wuffy, me and the Science Fiction people told you so.

New Economy, New Wealth on Prezi

We need a National Library Service

I know the political climate is not good for encouraging large new public initiatives, but the current problems facing our local, community libraries, with an estimated 500 facing closure this year as a result of government spending cuts, needs to be seriously addressed.

As today’s National Save Our Libraries day protest demonstrates, libraries are among the nations most beloved institutions, with a perhaps one of the strongest grassroots campaigns of any service threatened in this period of government cuts. And yet, a vast national programme of library closures is underway. By the end of this year it’s entirely possible that half the nations libraries will have been closed. A few years further out, with the libraries crippled beyond repair, we may find we lose them all as they become an ever softer target for cost cutters and privatisers. But, no one actually wants this to happen. Even The Sun is in favour of libraries. But no one quite knows what to do about them.

The irony of the library closures is that no part of our nation’s political spectrum is in favour of them (it would be a bit like being in favour of selling grannies or kicking puppies). Libraries have fallen between the cracks of our political system. Local authorities are being faced with the very literal choice between closing old peoples homes or closing libraries. They can hardly be blamed for caving in to the short term expedient of keeping elderly people from starving on the streets. National goverment has washed its hands of the situation. So the national provision of libraries is being destroyed, even while everyone applauds the value of the service.

So. Along with the campaign to save libraries, we need suggestions, or possibly even demands, for how they are saved. I suggest they should be along these lines:

1. A moratorium on library closures until…
2. …national review of library services…
3. …sets a national strategy for library provision.

There are two things to consider with this. The first is that the strategy must at the very least establish a central agency for libraries, even if its remit is largely focused on supporting local communities in developing their own libraries. The second is that libraries are in need of reform, and where it does not compromise the campaign to save them first, the need for reform needs to be part of the discussion.

And until those suggestions are met, SAVE LIBRARIES!

The Price of Victory…

…is eternal sleeplessness. It’s approaching 5am GMT and having watched Obama take one state after another and cross 270 in the electoral college, until now he is on 338 and very much the President Elect. The rumour is that Obama will be making his voctory speech soon, so sleep is not yet an option.

There were two stories in tonights election. One is the victory of Obama, and the other is the defeat of Bush. John McCain gave a speech so gracious in defeat that many people would remember the maverick McCain that seemed to disappear through the election. And remember that McCain was never the true candate being judged. George Bush and the hideous cynicism, selfishness and corruption his administration represented were defeated at this election.

Oh…here he comes…back in a tic…

Continue reading The Price of Victory…