This Ain’t Walden Pond, Mate

Generic blog post about turning shit off.

A ways back, Venkatesh Rao coined the term waldenponding.

The crude caricature is “smash your smart phone and go live in a log cabin to reclaim your attention and your life from being hacked by evil social media platforms.” It is less of a caricature than you might think.

The above is drawn from the long and contrarian essay he wrote about it, AGAINST WALDENPONDING. How contrarian?

as an attitudinal foundation for relating to society and technology, Waldenponding is, I am convinced, a terrible philosophy at both a personal and collective level. It’s a world-and-life negation. A kind of selfish free-riding/tragedy of the commons: not learning to handle your share of the increased attention-management load required to keep the Global Social Computer in the Cloud (GSCITC) running effectively.

Oh yeah. I have recently noted that Venkatesh has muttered darkly about becoming a “post-Twitter being” and has locked his account, so I’m guessing he’s trying out the other side of his hellish joke. You should read the whole thing – it’s unfettered vantablack comedy.

Everybody’s made excellent points, now well-trodden, about offlining as privilege and privilege-signal. And, at the end of the day, I’m a freelance writer, and I can’t go completely offline forever.

What I can do is recognise step-changes in my career and adjust accordingly.

I always encourage everyone to tune the tools at hand until they work for the individual’s specific situation. This is something that’s gotten harder and weirder in the contemporary moment, because monolithic enterprises have grown from the financialised mechanic of making you miserable. To the point where, now, everyone does it. Here’s a whole bit from a newsletter I sent the other week:

I was going to just stick a bunch of photos of my shelves in here, but that felt like cheating, and repeating the point that streaming media doesn’t serve everybody and social media is boring. I went out of town during the week, didn’t check social media once and only listened to downloaded podcasts or music I own separately from services like Apple and Amazon. When I got home, I threw up my Tweetdeck lists on the big screen in the office as usual, and it did not appear that anything had changed in the intervening 24 hours. Except that maybe it becomes clearer that serious testing has informed all media companies that making you angry, sad or confused rrrrrreally brings the clicks home.

“Melbourne dog attack leaves boy with serious facial injuries.” Is this world news suitable for placing into your global Twitter feed, The Guardian? No.  World-class news story there – dog bites somebody.  But it will make people sad and angry, right?  “Megan Rapinoe: Can a pink-haired lesbian be an American hero?” That’s from BBC World News.  And someone has actually thought about that, because it invites Ian Betteridge’s “law” – any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.  So, angry and confused and sad.  All the clicks.  You would kind of hope The Guardian and the BBC would do better – the BBC isn’t even “a business” as is commonly framed, it’s a public-funded national entity, the oldest and largest broadcaster on the planet, and it does not need to show its arse for clicks.

(I wrote all this last night while v tired, and was going to delete it this morning, and then BBC News South East lead out with “two puppies die in fire” so fuck it)

And that’s just the social media-facing corporations. That doesn’t even take individual actors into account. The Global Social Computer in the Cloud — which, as ever, is mostly just people hired to sit in badly lit rooms and slave themselves out for data entry – is just noise. Murky, immiserating noise that demands sorting-braincycles that I can put to better use elsewhere.

I process a lot of stuff, and keep up with a lot of things, and a shift is required to allow for the career step-change. You can’t be dogmatic about anything. Situations tend to be fluid and dynamic, and you need to be able to flow and adjust in response.

I’ve been filling my office with DVDs and Blu-Rays and CDs for reasons.

I’ve killed all social media notifications, moved IG to a folder at the back of my phone where I will quickly forget about it, deleted some of its more egregious news apps (bye, New York Times) and generally turned stuff off. I’m not doing that thing of “making a dumbphone” or greying out the screen. Perhaps counter-intuitively, I am likely to have to appear more present on some services in the immediate future, but I’ll be doing that in as mediated, buffered and time-shifted a way as possible. This is a whole new stage of gone for me, and we’ll see how it goes.

And this whole post has really just been a way to lay it all out in front of me so I can see it properly.

How I Nearly Died

While I’m telling stories, I don’t think I ever told this one.

Four years ago, I woke up and the right side of my body was dead. Couldn’t move it. Couldn’t feel it. My right lung wasn’t working. Vision was weird in my right eye. Confused. I sleep on the right side of the bed. I couldn’t get out of bed. Flopped around like a dying fish. Tried to yell for help for a while. Which would not have immediately done me any good because nobody was home at that precise point. Someone came home ten minutes later. Breathing was becoming interesting at that point, but I managed to make enough sound to summon help.

I was helped out of bed. I was fully aphasic at that point. Two minutes later, I was fine. Very weird. But I thought, shit, I better go to the hospital, right? I was clearly still confused, because it didn’t occur to me to call an ambulance. I packed a bag and went to the hospital under my own steam. Checked in at the counter, gave them a full report of the experience, and sat down to wait to be seen. Sixty seconds later it happened again. It took three people to wrestle me into a wheelchair and transport me into the room. I was conscious but aphasic and the right side of my body was dead. Five minutes later, I was compos mentis enough to understand that I was being conveyed to the Acute Stroke Unit.

I was there three days.

On the first day, I was told I’d had a massive stroke.

On the second day, they told me it was a trans-ischemic attack, which was explained to me as an early warning for a stroke.

On the third day, they told me they had no idea what the hell had happened to me, because there was no trace of stroke or TIA and you can’t cure a stroke by standing up, and so they named it a Miscellaneous Neurological Event and sent me home.

Now, fifteen years previously, I’d had what they believed to have been a high blood pressure event (although it turned out at least one visiting doctor thought it was a brain tumour and had told my partner to call him if I was still alive in the morning) that rendered me mostly unconscious for some six weeks. So, yeah, this wasn’t the first time I nearly died. This one did give some clarity. It’s not high blood pressure, it’s “massively fluctuating” blood pressure, in tandem with acute hypertensive stress and some physiological fluke wherein the pressure surge or drop happens across a cluster of nerves that control or affect a bunch of stuff in the right side of my body. Basically, if my stress reaches a certain point, it trips an Off Button.

“You’re young to have hypertensive stress this bad,” said the consultant.

“Hi, I’ve been a freelance writer for twenty-five years,” I said.

I’ve had a few brushes with it since. And, frankly, the last couple of weeks haven’t been great. Anything that smells of threat or crisis, the numb patches start appearing and I get vertigo and blurred vision. But, so far, I haven’t needed to be back at the hospital for more than a day, so we live in home that we have the procedures to calm it until it’s fully understood.

I remain a source of frustration to doctors, because they can’t figure out how the mechanism works. Until they do, all I can do is carry the meds that’ll save me if I can get to them, and try to avoid stress.

Hi, I’m a freelance writer and producer who works in television and comics. How do we think that’s working out?

So that’s how I nearly died, that time. Hopefully the next one will be nearly too.

FARO DOCUMENT

This is a documentary by Ingmar Bergman about the island of Faro. It is, frankly, as miserable as you can imagine.

It’s like a compressed version of the decades-long British “Up” documentary skein – footage from different eras repeating staging, schoolkids interviewed on a bus found years later so we can see how their dreams died. An island slowly being choked off by neglect. Bergman lived and worked on Faro on and off for forty-odd years. Articles about Faro tend to cast it as an enchanted island. Apparently very few people on Faro saw it that way. But there is a sequence in the middle, where dozens of people come together to thatch a barn in a traditional style, that does approach magic. One of the old men overseeing it explains how the local reeds are used to waterproof the structure, showing how the rain runs down the fold of the reed. Of course, during that whole piece, there is this exchange too:

nimiia vibié: Jenna Sutela

Aspiring to connect with a world beyond our consciousness and our planet, nimiia vibié sounds the interactions between a neural network, audio recordings of early Martian language, and microscopic footage of extremophilic space bacteria. Here, the computer is a medium, channeling messages from entities that usually cannot speak. However, it is also an alien of our creation. 

Drawing on nimiia cétiï, Jenna Sutela’s project on machine learning and interspecies communication, the record manifests a more-than-human language. This language is based on the computer’s interpretation of a Martian tongue from the late 1800s, originally channeled by the French medium Hélène Smith and now voiced by Sutela, as well as the movement of Bacillus subtilis, an extreme-loving bacterium that, according to recent spaceflight experimentation, can survive on Mars. The bacterium is also present in nattō, or fermented soybeans, a probiotic food considered as a secret to long life. Beyond Bacterial-Martian culture, or Martian gut bacteria, the project attempts to express the nonhuman condition of computers that work as our interlocutors and infrastructure. 

(from the statement on the Bandcamp page for this wonderful thing)

My Kevin Smith Story

I had drinks with a screenwriter earlier today, and the subject of Kevin Smith came up, so I told him my Kevin Smith story. It occurred to me on the train home that I’ve never told this in public before, so here it is.

I don’t know Kevin Smith. Never met him, spoke to him, or communicated with him. I was given to understand, many many many years ago, that he was a bit pissed off with an offhand comment I made in an interview one time. So that’s the context.

This is all, as I say, many years ago. This guy emails me and says, my best friend’s in the hospital and it doesn’t look like he’s going to come out again. And he loves all Kevin Smith’s stuff. He works in comics like you, and you guys all know each other, so is there a way to, I dunno, get a letter from Kevin Smith for my friend, or a phone call, or a signed something, I dunno?

I don’t know Kevin Smith. I did meet Joe Quesada about five years previous, and I don’t know him as such at that point, and I don’t have a relationship with him, but I do have an email address for him, and I know he knows Kevin Smith. So I send the email to Joe and say, I know we don’t really know each other, but would you be okay with forwarding this to Kevin Smith?

A few months later, I get an email saying, I’m the guy whose best friend was in the hospital. And here’s what happened.

Joe, who had no reason to read any email from me, saw the email and with huge kindness forwarded the email to Kevin Smith. Kevin Smith has no reason to read an email with my name on it either.

Kevin Smith stands up, makes some calls, gets on a plane, flies all the way across America and goes to the hospital and spends an entire day with the guy’s best friend.

I still don’t know Kevin Smith, and have never spoken to him, but here’s what I know about Kevin Smith. He stands the fuck up.

And that’s my Kevin Smith story.

MORPHING CLOUDS: Scav

I discovered this a few months ago, and only just got around to picking it up. It is nine improvised soundscapes with no edits. It is, as you may imagine from the title, like listening to someone paint the sky. There are raw, rumbling textures that are very nearly the sound of the pigment against the tooth of the paper. MORPHING CLOUDS is a good place to be tonight.

On Finishing A Book

First off, a book is rarely “finished.” It’s just that various factors weigh in to make you stop fiddle-farting around with it.  Second, never ask anyone who’s just finished a book if they’re happy with it, because the answer is always IT’S AWFUL MY CAREER IS OVER GET AWAY FROM ME I WILL TEAR YOUR FUCKING HEART OUT AND EAT IT IN FRONT OF YOU. There’s a terrible space between the conclusion of the copy-editing and the release of the thing where you’re convinced that it’s a rotten piece of work and you’re going to be Found Out and everything is over. You start telling the wall — because you don’t know anybody any more, because you’ve been indoors for months destroying a laptop with your crap — that if you only had another six months, if you could just alter a couple of things, if you could just maybe take out and replace a plotline, and maybe the main plot, and all the characters, and change the title, and write a whole different book, then everything would be fine.

You won’t start liking it again until six months after your “friends” have helpfully forwarded you all the bad reviews.  You come out from under your bed muttering “…wait, what? Did they even read the fucking thing?” And, as this delusion of competence takes hold, you start thinking about writing another book, having completely forgotten everything in the first paragraph.  

(written 31 May 2016 , recovered from morning.computer)

The Polite Landscape

I was thinking about cave lions.  These were British lions that were the size of a car, that haunted Britain ten thousand years ago.   And by haunted, I mean the myth of the British lion extends into Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden.  And by myth I mean the persistent story of a wild British countryside.  Lions and brown bears, aurochs and lynxes and wolves.  The brown bear vanished in the Dark Ages, and the wolf was going while Shakespeare was writing As You Like It.  The Tarpan horse was gone before people started walking the Ridgeway.  The Neolithic enclosure was permanently altering the landscape millennia before the Enclosures Act. This is why people talk about rewilding, and why, in A BRANCH FROM THE LIGHTNING TREE, Martin Shaw talks about having to go halfway up Mount bloody Snowdon to find “wilderness.”  It’s a small island, heavily managed for many thousands of years, and nature long ago became a story we tell ourselves while we tramp down footpaths and national trails on the powdered bones of giant lions.  

(originally written 16 October 2014, recovered from morning.computer)