Saturday, 21 October 2017

#288 Taking shape

Philosophy. Creative writing. General thoughts. Those were the three categories into which I tended to sort my blog posts. At least in my head. I sometimes wished I could narrow down the general stuff. Maybe I could, if I searched through all the general posts and looked for common themes.

Why bother?

Since starting to use social networks more, I'd been reminded that the majority of people making content for the web were making it about something. This was a fact I'd always known but for my first few years of blogging, hadn't cared about. I posted once a week and occasionally, not more than once in a month or two, someone might say that they'd read it. Lately, I'd been writing every day and someone always read it.

Keeping it general was my dream. At least, it might have been if I'd been the sort of person who had dreams. If I could make myself into a character... describe my thoughts and situations through the eyes of a character, then like a person from a storybook, I really could write about anything and it would still be sufficiently entertaining.

If JK wrote an eight book where Harry didn't do much except drink tea while sat King's Cross station people watching, plenty of punters would buy it. Of course, it'd help that it was about none other than the legendary Harry Potter, who couldn't even go into a book shop without making the front page.

I didn't need to make the front page. My own book didn't need to sell half a billion copies. I did want more from my writing though. I'd spent countless hours tweaking the webpage. The formatting. The fonts. The title. Getting a domain name. The social buttons. Playing with the HTML to customise the parts that Blogger's options didn't cover.

I'd been investing my time and would carry on doing so. I wanted to carry on writing daily. Finding topics. Building on past themes. Building character. Defining my thoughts and experiences as they occurred.

Friday, 20 October 2017

#287 Is death the end?

Ines Beyer was HIV positive. During an emigration-related medical exam at twenty three, she had learned in an instant that her relationships, aspirations of motherhood and life expectancy had been dramatically compromised. At least, that's how it had seemed to her.

A fan of alternative medicine, the young German elected not to take the prescribed antiretrovirals, which she believed most sincerely to be life threatening too. Ines opted instead for a course of natural remedies. She tried meditating, kept her fitness in check and she always, always ate all her veggies.

Several years went by. Ines experienced no alarming ailments at all. That changed. Her health rapidly deteriorated. Unsurprisingly, those around her amped up their advice that she reconsider her treatment options. Ever the Little Miss Stubborn, Ines declined and descended into what she saw as a chaotic inner battle over her fate. Would she be killed by the virus or the medication? Did it matter?

Drowning in a flood of illness and nightmarish thought cycles, Ines began to search for a brand new option altogether. Building on her existing interest in metaphysics, she found a log to cling to in the shape of a belief in what she saw as a duality of herself and her body, an idea that enabled her to believe that a part of her could survive her own physical death.

* * * 

My butt ached. I'd been sat on a hard wooden chair in Watkins Books for forty five minutes, wedged in on either side by what I could only guess were two vulnerable people, out in search of some hope of their own. The lady on my left seemed almost as restless as I was and kept fiddling with her ring. Did she hate wooden chairs too or was she just anxious? After her talk, Ines, who had eventually decided to start taking the pills and was in much better health, took plenty of empathetic questions. Voicing skepticism would have been like interrupting the vicar during a church sermon.

Ines' talk wasn't my first foray into the philosophy of death. A couple of years ago, I'd sat through Shelly Kagan's undergraduate lectures on the subject from 2007, a class so entertainingly popular that Yale saw fit to record it and make it available for free on Youtube. However, the two speakers' positions on the topic could not have been further apart. 

Interestingly to me, the contrast in the two speakers' viewpoints did not seem to affect the comfort of their audiences, both of which had contained individuals who were themselves facing their own mortality. Could the act of discussing beliefs and reconciling thoughts surrounding death be as helpful as the beliefs themselves, or was it that arriving at a belief was comforting, regardless of what that belief was? I didn't know. I sat on the edge of the group listening to their conversations. Then when it was over, I grabbed my hoodie, made a beeline for the door and skulked out into the night.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

#286 Google Plus

It'd been around for ages but I'd never used it. Countless times I'd seen that little red circle with "G+" in it and had just ignored it. Upon recently discovering it, I wished I'd done so ages ago.

Thousands and thousands of people. Millions. All nattering away about whatever subjects took their fancy. Communities. Threads. The place was exploding with viewpoints, information and lore. It wasn't a bad place to share a blog post or two either.

I knew why I'd taken so long to start using it. I didn't know anyone on there. Or rather, I didn't know if I knew anyone on there. I'd been able to get by for years with just Facebook. Dabbled a bit in Instagram. Twitter was still fairly new to me.

I'd joined the careers, philosophy, psychology and relationships groups. Each one had plenty of new topics added every day. The waterfall-like front end of each community kept all the content current although I did wonder how and where all that material got archived.

For all of the enjoyment and engagement that I could see myself getting out of G+, I knew it wasn't going anywhere fast. Relative to Google's size and brand strength, G+ had been a flop. It was almost like the Wimpy of social networks. It had earned its place though. The G+ Youtube community had 3.6 million members, making it a solid platform for sharing and discussing videos. Its largest subject area groups each had a million or two followers.

With over a hundred million users in total, G+ wasn't some dusty, quiet corner of the internet. It was an active, fast-flowing source of knowledge and attention. The fact that it couldn't compete with the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram didn't matter. It seemed to be doing just fine. It had taken a long, long time for me to notice it but once that happened, I was quick to start using it more often. After just a short while of playing around with G+, I was more than happy to drag the little red circle up to my favourites bar.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

#285 I live in a cursed house

Yesterday the oven stopped working. It lit up and the fan blew but my pie had gone in expecting to come out golden brown and to its dismay, it was still cold.

This would be surprising except that it occurred under the roof of this house. The house in which no lifeform or object behaves in exactly the way it should.

I think the pipes leak. I can hear them. I hear dripping noises. Two weeks ago, someone was having a shower upstairs, except I could hear it downstairs. Upon opening a kitchen cupboard, I was treated to the spectacle of what looked like an Asian monsoon. Not only was it raining in the cupboard but there was some kind of smoke, or steam or... I don't know, I just closed it again. I never used that cupboard much anyway.

It almost makes me miss the infestations. The Dulwich house was cursed too but in a more biblical sort of way. We had mice, ants, beetles and most annoyingly, mites. Generally speaking, the smaller the creature, the harder it was to get rid of. For the mice, we called pest control. For the ants, I think we used flour. They wouldn't cross it. We made a white ring around the outside of the kitchen. Even the cat knew to step over it. For the beetles, I think we worked out they were coming from a gap under the bathtub, so we sealed it. The mites required some serious dryness. The letting agent gave us one dehumidifier for each room and after a day or two, they were gone.

At least the boiler's working now. That was the worst.

I don't want to live here forever.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

#284 Hungry fish catch themselves

I stood leaning against a clock, watching the passers-by. There were plenty of them. It was five o'clock and the buildings had started emptying. I sized up each commuter. Which of them looked like they wanted attention? It was only the second time I'd undertaken the "ask a stranger" exercise and I was already bored of it. Still, it was good practice in case I ever became homeless.

Two men spotted me and headed my way. One wore a white T-shirt. The other was carrying a camera. "Could we ask how you feel about the weather?" they asked me. "It's crazy" I told them "I've never seen anything like it. I've lived here a good few years and it's never been like this before." I meant it. An hour earlier, the sky had suddenly turned a dark mustard colour. Apparently sand had blown over from the Sahara, courtesy of hurricane Ophelia. Thanks Ophelia.

"Can you help me?" I asked them "I'm meant to request a favour from a stranger as part of an exercise". "You could borrow someone's pen" said White T-Shirt. "Do you have one?" I asked him. "I meant that's what you could ask someone". "I wanted to ask you" I said, in a slightly parental tone. "Well... you might appear on TV" he tried "that's kind of cool". "That was you asking me for a favour" I told him, now almost snarling. "How about a selfie?" I reasoned. "Ok" he said "but it has to include Gary as well".

Me, White T-Shirt, Gary

Monday, 16 October 2017

#283 Mental Capitalism part 2

This follows part 1.

Having outlined his four assertions to describe a new phase of the capitalist economy, one in which attention is the primary currency, Franck's Mental Capitalism paper goes into detail on what he sees as the privatisation of the public's 'experience-space'. I think he could be bolder here and call it the privatisation of experience.

Franck's paper is somewhat ahead of its time. In 2005, there was no Youtube and no Twitter. We might therefore excuse his next few paragraphs, which talk of billboards and television. However, his theory is spot on. He identifies the increasing availability and usage of measures of audience engagement as the means by which attention has become commoditised, while acknowledging that such measures came about through the technological development of an infastructure capable of broadcasting and capturing attention with increased sophistication.

Franck goes on to talk about the increasing reliance of celebrities and politicians on the media, an observation so familiar to all that it needs little explanation. He then takes four premises of capitalism and admits that for his observations to carry any real weight, those premises would have to ring true similarly for mental capitalism. Here's my interpretation of the ways in which he proposes to test that:

1) Attention would need to be produced or captured not just for its use value, eg. broadcasting important announcements but for its exchange value, eg. the price of buying a thousand Twitter followers.

2) There'd be an increased level of "creative destruction", a term coined by the economist Schumpeter to describe innovation through the replacement of inefficient processes with more efficient ones. eg. Facebook evolving countless times since its inception. The popularity of older features such as 'poke's effectively being destroyed, along with the introduction of newer ones like the option to 'love' a post.

3) production relations getting varnished with ideology and beautification to hide their true commercial nature. The largest tech companies will say that they want to connect people or provide access to information but is that their real aim?

4) exploitation and social conflict. There would need to be an increase in mental health issues and a revolt against narcissism.

Having listed his criteria, Franck proceeds to discuss the extent to which the world meets it. For test 1), he observes how relativists view scientific fact as more of an exchangeable commodity than a representation of reality. For test 2), he tries to use the scientific community's dealings in rationality as an example of creative destruction. He compares it to industrial capitalism and admits that the scientific community operates without drawing as much criticism. For test 3), he simply argues that the attention of the masses is a huge factor in determining what we come to regard as true and untrue. For test 4), he suggests that fringe groups fly controversial flags in protest, to get attention they could not otherwise receive.

The economist closes by writing that celebrity is not new but is today backed by a greater volume of attention than ever before and now impacts a greater number of people to a greater extent. Individuals become wrapped up in micro-cults surrounding their own personality (eg. blogs...). Such behaviour is narcissistic in nature but demand and supply in this area are both increasing. For the time being, the trends continue.

My thoughts are that yes, some of our attention is becoming commoditised, to a far greater extent than Franck realised at the time he wrote this, which adds an almost prophetic quality to his words. I think he could have made reference to different types of mental capitalism. I think his claim that attention has become more important than money is too bold. It might be observable in certain situations but Franck could do more to define what those are, unless I've missed that. I read it quite quickly. Overall though, it seemed a reasonable enough attempt to coin the term mental capitalism. I could do some further research to look for other people's reactions to the paper and comments on it.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

#282 Mental Capitalism part 1

About two weeks ago, the term "mental capitalism" popped into my head. I'd been thinking about the strains from which the modern economy suffered and also how our interactions with our networks facilitated the exchange of social currency and similarly mental currency. What then would the term "mental capitalism" mean?

To suggest that our wellbeing had been privatised seemed like a stretch from what I was thinking. It wasn't that I suspected that the world of business had taken control of society's mental health. I was simply considering a kind of free trade, at both the conscious and subconscious levels. A trade in units of our emotional wellbeing, with all those we met. How some might acquire wealth in that currency as others became impoverished. It seemed analogous to capitalism.

I Googled the term. A 71 year-old German polymathic economist named Georg Franck had written a paper bearing the title back in 2005, when he was 59. What's more, he'd stretched to the idea of real world businesses capitalising on our mental bandwidth. I reckoned his paper could be distilled into succinct paraphrases that had the makings of a poem but for now, I opted to sketch out the beginning, which ran along these lines:

Incentives explain the use of advertising in business but do not explain why more recently, publicity appears to have become an end in itself, sometimes to surpass even profit. Advertising is everywhere. Why? Of what is it symptomatic? Mental Capitalism.

Franck made four assertions, which I decided to paraphrase.

1) Traditional experiences occurred in the social realm. Now, much of our experience is online, in an environment which is far more corporate-controlled. The space of experience has been privatised.

2) The breadth of information sources with which the average internet user connects digitally is far greater than the number of sources with which they would have connected thirty years ago. Information providers compete increasingly for consumers' attention rather than just their money.

3) Attention is not a means of payment (we still pay our internet service providers using money) but it does become a currency when it is traded in homogenous units which then circulate.

4) The circulation of attention relies on institutions just as the circulation of money relies on banks and stock exchanges. The institutions that facilitate the circulation of attention are those that make up the mass media.

Franck's paper is available to read here. I'll make this into a two part post while I continue reading it.