Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Live Together, Die Alone

When I first heard about Joe Holmburg's illness I immediately started trying to find practical responses.

Suddenly my online world looked spectacularly inadequate to handle this. I went looking for peer-to-peer computing projects that looked likely to do some good. And eventually, I found the World Community Grid and particularly the Help Conquer Cancer project.

Well, maybe that's worth a shot. I've donated a few hours of computer time to it since then - but far too little. Even though I plan to keep up with it.

I wondered what all this social networking could do. There is The Joe Holmberg Appreciation Society Which is a nice idea and I hope was instrumental in organizing something.

But, really, are we trying hard enough to look after ourselves?

Are we putting the undoubted co-ordinating power of the web to work fighting disease? Are we using the new sense of "autonomy" that we get as netocratic "dividuals" to take responsibility for our health?

There are, of course, some companies promising to help us. But can we trust them? Is the market the right way to organize this? Is the government? Is a blogosphere?

Those questions haunt me. But let me self-indulgently digress for a second.

A few months or so ago I went with some friends to a kind of party that is called a "sarau" here in Brazil. A party based on the guests reading poetry, singing or performing some other kind of entertainment for each other. I go, and, in a sense admire this. But, late-20th century anglo-saxon that I am, I can't exactly enjoy it. I don't feel comfortable. I don't sing.

Not because my voice is particularly terrible. At least, no worse than some of my friends who sing away quite lustily. My usual excuse : that I can never remember the lyrics. But at this party, we had a laptop hooked up to the internet, and any lyric you could imagine was easily available.

But I still couldn't sing. And I had a strange insight into why not.

None of the songs I like are social.

The songwriters I like, that I call my "favourites" : Momus, Current 93 etc. are obscurantist, sly, cynical, an elitist in-joke. Not the kind of thing that can be innocently shared, or entered into as a group. And I realize this is my experience of music in general. I grew up in the UK in the 80s. I listened to John Peel on the radio in the evenings. I collected exotic recordings which I listened to alone in my bedroom, and occassionally swapped with like-minded afficionados through the medium of "mix-tapes". As an adult I programmed computers to produce music to amuse myself, caring little about any other audience. I shared Indie Rock Pete's plaintive motto : "Nothing is any good if other people like it.

What does music have to do with other people?

But how can that experience be compared to, or even considered as part of the same universe as the sarau where everyone sings their party piece?

Or carnival? Where everyone goes out to sing together in the street.

Or the incredibly rich popular tradition in Brazil which has dozens of styles of music, from different regions, played during specific festivals throughout the year, localized but where the whole city takes part?

Recently I wrote about Jacques Attali's "Noise" and in particular, I wrote approvingly about the mode of "composing". My mood was celebratory, interpreting "composing" as an era of small-pieces of autonomous self-expression loosely joined by "sampling" or reference or quotation or linking. Music made to the ideals of an isolated English teenager in the 80s with a hoard of cassettes, an 8-bit sampler and "tracker" software on his home computer. I celebrated because I saw in "composing" the exit from an era of mass-production and the capitalist market, a music that could herald the wider break-down of such oppressive social and economic institutions.

In this I was explicitly influenced by netocracy theory and so, I now realize, indirectly by Deleuze and Guattari who see the world as composed of "desiring machines" and we, people, as nexuses in impersonal flows of desire. In this tradition, unleashing the flows of desire and breaking free from constraining institutions is utopian. (Or at least, the only way to lead an "anti-fascist" life.) Bard and Soderqvist cast the elite netocratic class as enthusiastic Deleuzians, and flows of desire are reinterpreted as manoeuvrable network connections. But their dividual is also fragmented and mercurial.

But there's another way to read this. That the lonely teenagers listening to their personal hoard of recordings in their bedrooms herald a quasi-autistic world; a netocracy of the worst sort. A netocracy where we cut ourselves off entirely from each other, shielding ourselves with a technology that only lets filtered, software mediated, connections through. Where Facebook et al have succeeded in enclosing and privatising our friendships and routinely rent them back to us (rent in the sense of making us look at adverts while we engage in them). The isolation we mistakenly believe is autonomy and self-management and escape from overbearing institutions (as we carry our protective musical shells around in our MP3 players) is really the absence of connection, the flight from responsibility and the destruction of the shared tastes and traditions that hold communities together.

In such a world there's no place for the sarau, for a year clocked by samba at carnival and forro at the juninho party.

Put that way, "composing" sounds rather horrible. Opportunistic appropriation is a very meagre way of interacting compared to being a member of a band. Neighbourhood as "pilfery". Squabbling sea-birds always robbing pebbles from each other's nests.

Of course, the other world, the world of shared festival is actually the primitive mode that Attali would call "sacrificing" ... where music exists to mask the violence of everyday life. And, true enough, for all the apparent community you might read into carnival, Brazil is riven by class differences and prejudices to a degree that the 20th century English kids would find hard to imagine (except through reading 18th century literature). Violence in the "communities" is high - between rival gangs and between gangs and police it is astronomical. Nowhere in Brazil escapes the shadow of violence. Nor the fear which keeps the middle-classes in their fortified houses and condominiums. John Robb's post-nation-state world of global guerrillas and "armed suburbs" sems closer to reality in Brazil than his US and certainly more than my UK. (Or is that so? You don't feel that a gang of teenagers in Brazil is more dangerous than in the UK. In Brazil, violence is forgotten or ignored easily. In the UK, moody kids glower menacingly from under their hoodies (allegedly))

So which kind of music prevails? The nation state, "project man", (the mode (roughly) that Attali calls "representing" in that music is intended to represent the harmony of society) is in decline. Are we reverting to medieval "sacrificing" or going forward to "composing". And is composing a true, post-modern, post-capitalist utopia where our economic activity is (roughly again) "look around at cool stuff and spontaneously re-appropriate it to make something of your own that's cooler" (the peer-production economy of free-software, blogging, scratch video and sampling, Facebook, and free-improvisation) Or is that a happy facade, the reality for a few elite netocrats while the rest descend into the drudgery and banality of the consumtariat?

One can, perhaps, gain a new insight here : In netocracy, the netocrats "steal" the social links from the consumtariat.

While the netocrats are busily managing their portfolio of links, the technology that trickles down from them pollutes the social space. Slide and RockYou are destroying my friendships! People who I was rather glad to meet up with and find out about every couple of years are now nothing but virtual conduits for an endless stream of meaningless polls about 10 things I have no interest in and would never do but somehow have to put in order of which I'd be more likely to, just to find that I'm only 73% similar to my erstwhile friend.

The flip-side of the coin of "everyone can have their own little media empire", is that "everyone is as ignorable as a media celebrity we don't care about" On the internet it doesn't matter that X was a guy who I quite liked to go to the pub with a few years ago. Now he's just another blog that isn't interesting enough to read.

The end-game ... we consumtariat stick our white earbuds into our ears and filter out the community. We are "composing" with instruments handed down to us by the elite. (As Attali warned) And so we are isolated.

When people die, it's often written that their loved ones and family were by their side. I realized, long ago, that I don't want to die surrounded by friends and family. What on earth would you talk about?

Are you expected to make light chat about what they plan to get up to once you (and the boring bureaucracy of the funeral) are out of the way? Are they just gonna sit round looking gloomy?

No, long ago, I figured that I'd like to die alone, but listening to music. Only music is soothing and mentally engaging enough (without being taxing) to cushion the sheer terror of waiting for it to happen. I could almost be relaxed waiting for death ... if I have control over the sound-track.

And yet, now I worry, is this not, perhaps the final end-game logic of isolation? This is the state to which netocracy reduces all of us. By making social connections a means to an end rather than an end in themselves, a tool rather than the condition within which we live, we have stripped them of all real significance or value. They have become dead. We have become dead. Out capacity to participate has been eroded even as we gained a capacity to curate.

Or is this getting overly morbid and pessimistic?

An old joke seems apposite at this point : Someone dug up Mozart's grave, and found the corpse busily erasing the marks from pieces of scored manuscript paper. "What are you doing?" they asked. "Why?", said Mozart, "I'm decomposing". :-)

And so, rambling on, more new years resolutions.

6) I'm not planning on dying yet. And nor should you. But what should you do instead?

My first enthusiastic announcement of OPTIMAES was once billed as "Phil vs. Capitalism : Round 1" - nothing wrong with a bit of ambition. Now I think hackers (of both the technical and social kinds) should be looking into how to use their art to tackle the big issues. One thing I want to think about this year is what can a society moving into a netocratic / spime era (ie. with ubiquitous connectivity and computing power) do to confront death : to take on the big scary diseases : cancers, AIDs, malaria, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, heart disease etc. We really *aren't* trying hard enough, are we? Compared to all the other fripperies we waste our time and money on.

7) I'm reading Deleuze and Guatari's Anti-Oedipus at the moment. I will finish it.

8) I'm back to writing simulations, currently of competitive network formation (more on this soon). In Erlang! And Erlang, it turns out, is very very cool. It's a little bit ugly to my eyes; I wish it could have been a bit cleaner (in the Python / Haskell direction). But nevertheless, it is very concise. I've managed to write my whole agent framework in about 150 lines (compared to about a 800 to do something similar in OPTIMAES in Python; although that was, admittedly, when I was still writing Python as if it was Java). My evolution into a functional programmer is continuing apace.

9) Perhaps most importantly - I'm looking for participatory, social, music in my life. I was wrong to think this was about "Brazilian" music. What's really important is the other understanding of composing that Attali gives (it was me who goes astray into digital sampling and name-dropping) - the "hippie" spontaneous communitarian, improvisatory, free-jazz, jamming, lick-swapping "composing". The sarau and singalong around the camp-fire. This is, after all, the way to stay in touch. To stay alive. However embarrassing it sometimes seems. ;-)


John Powers said...

You always say so much in your little posts. This one is going to take a while to digest. I'm hitting an age when the deaths of people I know is becoming more frequent. I'm no expert on death and dying, and certainly no expert on what you want. But I reacted rather viscerally to the notion of your wanting to die alone.

It's not that I don't see good reason why you would feel you'd like to die alone listening to music. But it's the people who want to be with you at the end that turned my head. Mostly people don't check out rather suddenly, and often in that period between life and death there's not much talking. But sometimes, with a good death, there is a purity of love that defies verbal description; rather how it's so hard to put into words music that moves you.

I would not want you to miss the experiences of love at the time of dying. That love may be imanent alone or together, but I strongly suspect it's connected among all those attending. OTOH I'm happy you're not intending to check out anytime soon.

Scribe said...

Wow, good post, but too many criss-crossing ideas to respond coherently or fully. Initial thoughts below , maybe I'll get round to replying properly some time:

1. I think this sentence may help to pick things apart a little:
Opportunistic appropriation is a very meagre way of interacting compared to being a member of a band.
There are 2 axes here - firstly, whether something is done socially or not, and secondly, whether you are creating or consuming. Both the latter can be done socially, or independently.

Hence, as a autisticish netocrat embedded in a post-consumer technology realm (I always wanted to say that), you are torn between consuming (which is what the technology is set up to let/make you do) and socialising.

The difference between a carnival and the flailing Oscars is that you (Can) participate in a carnival, but you consume the Oscars. The latter is nothing but a celebration of other people's creativity.

I've been thinking about Flash Mobs the last few days, and I think they tie in neatly here. (Or vice versa.) Flash Mobs are sociable, but they also set out to create, not consume. The fact that they're considered "pranks" shows just how much we bend over and accept consumerism as THE way of life nowadays. Not so long ago, getting lots of people together and doing something - together - would seem the "Normal" thing to do.

2. The JHAS, seen from the point of view of Facebook, and hence from that of Microsoft et al, and hence that of Those In Charge Of Economic Wellbeing, is all about monetary value. We are at the point where the "priceless" things in life - as Mastercard would have it - are rapidly becoming "priced", albeit at a very abstract level. I've long wanted to blog properly about this (if I haven't already ;) but yes, in essence, why are so keen to sell out our friendships and communication? Is it really that exciting?

3. Music is weird and says much, much more than words.

phil jones said...

Thanks for comments guys :

John : "I reacted rather viscerally to the notion of your wanting to die alone."

That's the payload of the whole essay really, isn't it? :-)

This ambivalence. Is this a rather beautiful, zen, attitude to take. (Which is the way I always thought of it.) Or is it a symptom of corruption by a system which has used music to isolate me from love and mold me into consumtariat?

Scribe : I think the point is "consumtariat" isn't quite the same as good-old-fashioned-consumer. The consumtariat are active, but in Attali's metaphor, "singing karaoke", not making their own instruments. It's the same problem as "user generated content" when seen as a rather cynical exploitative strategy by some media companies. That's the subtle zone of conflict that's playing out at the moment : real "composing" vs. "false composing".

But yes, ultimately I am still seeing an opposition between "socializing" and "consuming" (Maybe is this naive given the previous paragraph?)

Nice point about flash-mobs. Yeah, social software obviously *does* bring back the social. And the social is not always scripted by the netocrats. It is an opportunity to reclaim something else.

Music is weird. But what's fun about Attali is that he makes it a sociological tool to study history.

Scribe said...

The natural question then is: is death* a (socially) constructive event?

It's odd that in such times, so much comes out. Friendships are renewed, memories are re-invigorated, and even things like charity donations are summoned up. Taking stock can be a hugely positive, hugely enthusing, and hugely life-changing process to go through. But to do so, I think there must be social ties surrounding a death.

This is, of course, a different way of looking at it. Perhaps the "cynical" perspective (dying alone) sees death as a personal, yet destructive act, and sociality surrounding that purely as a means of comfort.

But on the other hand, maybe a "positive" perspective places it as a constructive, social act. "I am dying, but I had a good life." It's much harder to realise the value of life when you think you have loads of it left.

Uh oh, I've ventured into Hollywood territory. I'm going to stop there.

* Sorry to be so morbid/down-to-earth about it all. I've been thinking about it a lot as of late...

phil jones said...

Scribe :

Wow! *That* is profound. Death as socially constructed, and only the isolated / cynic sees it as "destructive".

I think I agree, but that's one to really meditate on.

John Powers said...

I keep thinking about this post. A part of it is I have such high hopes for commons based peer production, and suspicious my hopes are exaggerated and misplaced. You have great insight so despite my disinclination to look at the dark side of netocracy, confidence in your insight encourages me to.

A couple of pieces I read recently seemed worth pointing to. The first Social Networks Are Like the Eye a talk with Nicholas A. Christakis.

The second The Truth About Autism: Scientist Reconsider What They think They Know.

I'm not really sure how that second one relates. What's fascinating is the Wired story reports about Amanda Baggs autistic who while is unable to speak is able to type and use speech synthesis software to tell us about what's going on. She says that the repetitive movements she makes are a language for interacting with her world.

Singing together is a funny ritual, actually not the same sort of ritual as getting together and friends taking turns in performance. But all social rituals are probably much more complicated than we think.

In my family we don't often hug and kiss, at least that's how I remember my childhood. Not surprisingly we're not good dancers either. Yet I remember well dancing with my mother at weddings and various social occasions. These dancing occasions are memorable, and rather a part of a language of the sort that Amanda Baggs is referring to when she talks about interacting with the world. At least similar in the sense that the "language" is so different from what we think of as language.

Just for fun, a little toy Moire Patterns

phil jones said...

John : thanks .... yeah that autism story very impressive.

(Of course, I was using the term in a lazy, colloquial way, appologies to all autists out there.)

phil jones said...

John : In general, of course I *am* very optimistic about the social technologies. The pessimism (or scepticism), of posts like this is something I deliberately cultivate - a bit of counter-thinking.

Although obviously there's some seriousness behind it.

You're right about singing together not being the same as getting together with friends, and social gatherings being far more complex.

And it's funny how powerful touching can be. I'm definitely not good at it. Very resistant :-(

dariushsokolov said...

agree with the devil in Master and Margarita: "Wouldn't it be much better to throw a party with that twenty-seven thousand and take poison and depart for the
other world to the sound of violins, surrounded by lovely drunken girls and dashing friends?"

Ben said...

You wrtoe "I went looking for peer-to-peer computing projects that looked likely to do some good."

In the mid-70s, involved in a big "citizen involvement" project having to do with the UN's 7th Special Session (on "The New International Economic Order" ... the stuff we now call "globalization") I realized that most communications were "phatic", that the majority of communications had to do with social posturing, either flattering one's own ego, flattering the ego of someone else with an eye to gain, or dissing someone else's ego with an eye to looking clever and assertive.

30 years later we're generating 100 times as much verbiage but still not grappling with the issues effectively.

I talk about implementing Hesse's "Glass Bead Game", I mean really actualizing glasperlenspiel as a common/shared/interactive world encyclopedia and get glib replies, if/when I get any replies at all.
I talk about implementing the "discourse-based document portal" to create a system for "evidence-based desision support" and get similarly glib replies, if at all.

I can honestly say I've spent over a decade on this one design (Basically, coming to grips with why/how concept mapping has never and will never become a popular method, however well that method handles wicked problems.) and what I see, consistently, is that the doers are looking for another MySpace or Facebook, or another Twitter or Flickr ... in other words: the doers are aiming for sizzle and buzz. (You might have seen me tweet on the themes of #borg and #matrix and #oligarchs ... that's what I'm talking about.)

My http://bentrem.sycks.net/gnodal/ is intentionally coy ... I'm too old and too poor to give away the work that's come into being after 3 decades of dedication ... and both are place-holders at the moment, again because I'm in stealth mode. But I haven't seen any substantial interest. (OpenSource is supposedly so magnanimous, but the project to create a web-based accounting front-end for Grameen Bank has barely crept forward.)

I just spent a while in your Thought Storms ... a lot prettier than my wiki, but the similarities are there, so I'm daring to run my mouth here.

I have connected with so many really clever Web2.0-types, but not a single one has shown the slightest interest in what I call "participatory deliberation". So I ask you: what's boring about linking OpenAccess documents to discourse and discussion about public policy?

From a profoundly Zen perspective I have to say: folk are addicted to "buzz". I mean addicted. I mean brain-addled, ADHD, and compulsive. Money and prestige are the only valid motives.

We're living a terribly dangerous moment.

phil jones said...

Ben, this is short because I'm racing to finish two things over the next couple of days.

I think a lot of people recognise the extreme potential of hyperlinked open electronic communication systems. But no-one's quite figured out *exactly* how to make it work. I think wiki is a massively important clue. Wiki is one of the best things I've seen. But even that isn't good enough ... and while I think that the optimization of writing over reading is correct, wiki desperately needs something to help organize the content for the readers, and to help writers refactor and maintain it.

I have a couple of thoughts on something I called "Typed Threaded Discussion" (you can find on ThoughtStorms) ... but frankly they fell flat. No one really liked it at all.

Like I say, I don't think anyone's yet figured out exactly the right formula.

I had look at the Gnodal stuff, but yeah, for me it's too "coy" to for me to get much of an impression. I understand your concerns about not giving too much away, but that's the paradox. The real devil is in the details, and without having enough details, people aren't going to be able to judge it.

I have no real answer to this, I tend to give as much of my stuff away as possible in the hope that the value of the attention it gains me, outweighs any loss. But as it doesn't gain me much attention at all, it's hard to say if it's a net win.