Sunday, December 14, 2014

Living/Dead spaces and the distracted death

Fascinated by After, a video by Victoria Lucas showing Sheffield's Castle Market shopping centre, now waiting to be destroyed. (Via Some Thoughts on the Unbecoming of Places) The video is haunting, but gorgeous. Seems to despair, yet revolve with love. Is empty and silent, yet lets something else speak.

I've noticed that this emptiness and silence of space has a particular hold on me. "After" is, in one world, of exactly the same ilk as Titan City in Minecraft - a realm that is not quite sure if it is alive or dead. However, where Titan City was always built in order to be built - and to be populated is merely a bonus - Castle Market is on the way out, a place in the same state, but going in the other direction.

(In contrast to other forms of unpopulation, such as Candida Höfer's Architecture of Absence, which are simply in between people.)

Looking back, even a small photo/haiku project A World of Corners opened with an empty room, and seemed to mainly consist of rooves. Some of my favourite memories are of wandering round libraries after closing hours. Letting a space speak for itself - that's the challenge. People are so terribly noisy.

This moment between not-quite-populated/alive and not-quite-unpopulated/dead (and someone must be there to experience either) is perfectly underrated. We think of spaces as places for people to go, to gather, to function. Indeed, a "function room" can never simply be just a room ever again - it has been named, and designated its ultimate lot. It is only a space which is living up to its name at a moment in time, or failing. The humble "dining room" suffers the same fate. Don't even think about "living rooms".

We seem to struggle with silence and with emptiness these days. Empty rooms are filled with noise or pictures. Quiet can only be achieved through massive institutional influence - such as religion for cathedrals, culture for theatres, knowledge for libraries.

Contrast this to other, distant worlds which are less upset by minimal outlooks. (Kakuzo Okakura's Book of Tea is a good place to start.) To 'retreat' into silence is actually nothing of the sort. In reality, we use noise and distraction to force the mind into submission, to retreat back into its shell. We cannot allow ourselves to enjoy the space we're in - and by extension, we cannot enjoy the enjoyment either.

This is not a call for silence with one finger held to the lips, but a call for an appreciation of the environment - a humility that the world exists without humans, that it can exist, and moreso that it will continue to exist as such.

Might as well get comfortable.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

The unreal space of censorship - Protocols vs Companies

One


I'm kind of fascinated by the technical approaches to community "censorship" - in quotes because the word has taken on too many connotations to use casually.

Twitter has just announced new tools to discourage harassment, obviously in light of GamerGate. In the announce, they say "We are nowhere near being done making changes in this area." Along with Facebook's constant revision of privacy tools and policy, it's clear that controls over communication are being fought out in the realm of service provision (rather than, say, being user-controlled). The masses of users are, in all cases, totally dependent on the people providing the service.

I'm not saying that's a bad thing. It's just a fascinating thing given the history of this realm of control. It is fascinating having grown up with mailing lists and IRC as a collection of yardsticks, for instance.

In the "olden days" as my son would call them, you didn't have service providers. (Well, you had AOL. I'll come back to that.) You had protocols, and the protocols let anyone set up their own space. Sometimes there are spaces within spaces, such as IRC channels inside a particular IRC network. The protocols were vital - by being open standards, anyone can jump anywhere that uses them. Protocols encourage liquid connections. This is important.

Under normal protocol rules, the spaces that interactions happen in are real and not real; they can form and unform in a moment's notice. They are simultaneously everywhere and nowhere - easy to be established forever, and equally easy to be destroyed on a whim. Real ghosts.

Contrast that with Twitter. Twitter is a "thing" in itself. It is not a Twitter protocol. Twitter must survive because people need to make money from it. Twitter cannot be cloned nor destroyed. It must be preserved.

Two


The cypherpunks mailing list was deliberately chaotic. Email is inherently non-authenticated, and the list added to this by attempting to preserve pseudonymity through a series of remailers that masked sending locations. Censorship - blocking - was purely the preserve of the receiver. If you didn't want to read missives from someone, it was your own filtering - usually a 'killfile' - that handled it.

It's possible to spend all day talking about killfiles, but the essential thing is that they were yours, no-one else's.

On IRC, things are different again. Anyone can set up a channel, or a chatroom. The "founder" of the channel has deity-like powers ("operator" access) over who can be or speak in the room, and can extend powers to others. From this simple set of rules, a system of reputation forms - those who gradually earn trust in the channel may eventually receive ops powers - or not, it depends on the way in which the channel was set up, and runs.

However, it is not the IRC protocol that sets those rules, or even the IRC network. It is the channel itself. If you don't like the rules, create your own goddamn channel.

I'm not saying any of these are good, or better. I'm just saying this is how things are in other places.

Three


Twitter has a responsibility to its users that a protocol can never have - it is the provider, the police, and the politic. It defines how you interact as much as whether you can interact. It sets the terms. It determines the functions without a vote. How much does it define you?

Think back to AOL, which runs off the same lines, the same model as Twitter. It is the policed space that attracts a certain trust in its users. Without that trust, it is nothing more than a technical spec. Its business model is trust, and letting that slip results in debacles similar to Habbo Hotel in 2012. For a company, trust is everything.

But if that trust becomes the raison d'etre for a technical service, what does that mean for its users? Do they trust themselves any more? Are they disempowered? Or is the force wielded by the service they use something that they could never hope to impersonate anyway? What does it mean if they can't vote on the rules, or even work they way into the ranks, IRC-style?

You can blacklist but you can't whitelist. You can leave but that's it, you're out.

Either way, you're on your own.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Memes and Money and Bitcoin and Bits and Me and You

One


Money is many things to many people - a memory system, a way of sustaining civilisation, a game. At worst, it is a religion. No, wait. At worst, it is a cult.

Money is too real these days, too alive for its own good. People stress about it, feel good about it, die for it. Money buys you food, but it turned into a simple medium for buying food later on into an entire industry in itself.

Not just an industry - a cult. Or a culture. A theme park that is more real than what it is being exchanged for. “Value for money” became a Thing. A gradual acceptance of Greed in the 80s turned into a long-term, ingrained study of personal economic efficiency. The trendsetters set the terms. Everyone else tries to fit those terms into the square hole of their lives, and gloats when a corner seems to fit. Supermarkets have become purveyors of “money hacking”.

Two


The net was always a fictional world for me. Disembodied words from strange countries I would never visit. People spilling their lives out like a book in real-time. It was more real than real, and it was never real. Real-time wasn’t real because time is warped on-line. Words do as they want.

The net was, and is, a plaything. Identities come and go. Groups gather and disperse. Websites appear, mutate, lose their way, get eaten by wolves and come out the other side as just shells. The path between idea and reality is shorter than ever, as distant as registering a domain name.

But reality itself is being forgotten. No, worse, it is being subsumed, reflected, reanimated. The illusion of the net is more powerful than the red dust of what we had before. The “twats of David (@david_cameron) Cameron’s world were born from a hyperreal society that inherently hypervalued media and attention already. We are all political leaders now. Democracy is a game, a dangerous, deadly, fucked-up game of Russian Roulette.

I was drawn into the net because it was and wasn’t real. It had weight without substance. Power without force. Violence without guns. I love living there.

Three


Bitcoin is a money that I can understand - a faith system founded in bits and rules. It is an open-source hydra, free of any responsibilities to itself, and yet self-contained to the point of nonchalance. It is sage-like in its independence. It will live or die, but care not.

It was reading about Slenderman (via James) that got me understanding: Bitcoin is a myth.

Money is a myth. A religion. A cult. It has value because people talk about it.

Bitcoin is a meme. It has value because people pay attention to it.

The net has power. It has value because people can trade words on it.

My attraction to Bitcoin is the same as my attraction to the net. Bitcoin is to money as the net is to democracy. It is real and yet not real. It is no more real than what it pretends to disrupt - or to mirror, to parody, to usurp. Reality is a bunch of crap. Reality on the net is just more obviously a bunch of crap.

Four


Bits can be destroyed at any moment, and yet simultaneously they can be created, copied, cloned endlessly forever. How can this be? No, that’s not important. The important question is: Which is the real copy?

In the real world, democracy and money are made real through guns and bars. Counterfeiting is possible but discouraged. Power struggles are contained within grandiose halls.

In the net world, counterfeiting is a way of life. Open source projects are forked like staring through a series of kaleidoscopes. Power struggles are moved into new spaces. Same problems, different approaches. Was the colonisation of America merely a fork of Europe?

If money is fungible, is creating new money a form of cloning?

Five (because four is a symbol of death)


What is real? Nothing? No, that’s not possible. Something is real because the word “real” exists. You are reading this now, aren’t you? So there is something here. Perhaps it is just that what we think of reality needs re-pointing, re-grounding.

If bits are real and not real, and the things those bits reflect are real and not real, do the bits and the things they reflect both ultimately refer to something real? Is that reality merely “us”? You? Me? Should I define democracy in terms of myself, or myself in terms of the democratic system of political inter-struggles I was born into?

If money is a memetic system, are all memes equally valid forms of defining the substances that make us up? And if so, can I choose to jump between such memes just like a can choose to convert all my Pounds Sterling into Euros?

I wish I could draw this to a halt, an artistic conclusion that leaves the reader with a sense of fulfilment. Sadly, I think there are only empty highways, scarily open fields, and the void of a space yet to be truly discovered. It is worth packing blankets at this point.

I have run out of things to say. There is only the speed of thought, and beyond that, the speed of the heart.