Black Mirror isn’t science fiction anymore!

This is, essentially, ‘Nosedive’:

Sesame Credit, a credit-scoring agency setup by Alibaba and Tencent, is designed to make Orwellian self-surveillance a reality. As well as creditworthiness, it measures political loyalty – based on user data gathered by China’s two biggest internet companies. People with low scores won’t get job offers, loans or high-speed internet; people who network with people with low scores will also get downgraded. The project, which is awaiting regulatory approval, has been decried by human rights groups as a mass surveillance tool. But it is nothing compared to what China is planning with artificial intelligence. Last month, the Chinese state issued a strategy designed to achieve global leadership in AI by 2030. As part of the plan, the private sector is ordered routinely to share its user data with the state. This puts China in the unique position among major powers of having no formal barriers to state exploitation of private commercial data. If it succeeds, China will create a consumer market whose customer data is completely interpenetrated with state surveillance mechanisms, and a population whose behaviour can be predicted right down to their choice of underwear.

Paul Mason

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What is fiction for?

There is an amusing review of Salman Rushdie’s Golden House, published by New Statesman in September:

“Salman Rushdie’s new novel has been billed as a return to realism, which in relative terms is true enough” … “The Golden House offers the weary, ever-hopeful Rushdie reader a Dexedrine-fuelled hotchpotch of place names, brand names, sort-of-puns […] mothballed observations […] failed phrase-making […] outmoded film theory, WTF quotations […] offhand highbrowism […] plugs for micro-memes and quasi-crazes […] cameos for Werner Herzog […] bewildering suppressions of the words “Spike Lee” […] cogitations on phenomena including satirists and sitarists, shoehorned references to King’s College, Cambridge, and, to facilitate most of the above, the rhetorical device known as amplification.” … “Aversion to choice is the governing principle. Adjectives come in twos – in the novel’s first page and a half, we read, among many other pairings, “thick and strong”, “large, dangerous”, “huge, clumsy”, “sociable and neighbourly”. And the tendency towards excess is replicated on a larger scale; for example, when the spry reference to Nero Golden’s “way of walking toward closed doors without slowing down” is spoiled by the explanatory “knowing they would open for him”.” … “As a rule, Rushdie deploys language without concision or precision. One chapter opening takes a swift dive from mock-epigram into polysyllabic sludge” … “Things that aren’t amusing on their own are rendered nonsensical into the bargain.” … “holding forth is deemed the best way of transmitting narrative information.” … “the relationship between subject and backdrop is lost amid so much verbal noise.” … “here we have Salman Rushdie – who, as the author of Midnight’s Children as much as The Satanic Verses, embodies the novel’s powers of resistance – offering a book that seems little more than an exercise in googling, an attempt to sell the listicle as literature.”

As the reviewer points out, Salman Rushdie published works of fiction that affected the real world, but can fiction ever really be ‘important’?

I keep coming back to Kurt Vonnegut’s quote: “During the Vietnam War, every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.”

As I have said already, watching TV is not, and never will be, activism; and if I am entirely honest, I doubt reading or watching The Handmaid’s Tale has, regarding women’s bodily autonomy, changed the mind of a single adult.

And as shown by this year’s emmys, giving Sean Spicer the chance to poke fun at himself and hang out with the stars, the TV industry isn’t actually interested in challenging the status quo.

If fiction can’t change the world, what can it do? Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote: “I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose = words in their best order; – poetry = the best words in the best order.” Which is fair enough. I guess Sturgeon’s Law, “ninety percent of everything is crap”, applies across the board. If A Little Life is genuinely ‘award worthy literature’, then literature is a joke.

We use fiction to manipulate ourselves, to layer on technicolour ersatz emotions so that we know that we are really feeling something. Fiction is, at best, a lie that helps us understand the truth, it can help us articulate an idea or an emotional state we have difficulty accessing/expressing otherwise (real emotions have to be pried out of the side of a mountain with a pick-axe); fiction is putting a fake horn on a real unicorn so that we can see it. The rest of the time it is mere escapism, or voyeuristic gawping.

Human beings will always tell each other stories, it seems to be a fundamental part of our nature to do so, the thing that allowed us to make sense of the world before modern science, a way of passing on ideas and cultural norms.

Despite my cynicism, there are always glimmers of hope. Philip Pullman’s new book came out recently, teaching children to challenge blind obedience and totalitarian thinking.

“Writing is always some kind of encounter with another person that lives in your head”

Harkaway says he wrote the novel “like a 3D printer”, swivelling round in his chair to demonstrate how he would add a chunk of narrative to each strand in turn before swinging back over to add the next piece. By spring 2016 he had a first draft and enlisted the help of seven or eight people to make sure it all made sense. But when the queries started coming in, he found his own novel had escaped him.

“It’s the first book where I’ve been totally unable to carry all of it in my head,” he says. “I had to use a whiteboard, I had thousands and thousands of notes in my Evernote folder, I had photographs of the whiteboard. This office, when I was editing it for the final time, looked like one of those terrifying nests that psychopaths make in American cop shows.” In the end, he “had to trust that I knew what I was doing when I put it together”.

Sometimes editors would pick up on something they thought was particularly clever and Harkaway would have to hold up his hand and say it was a consequence of the way he’d written the novel. “Writing is always some kind of encounter with another person that lives in your head, but this …” He shakes his head. “I hadn’t realised the extent to which, if you really crank up the complexity level you start to get responses that feel alive.”

Nick Harkaway interview

“His characters are robotic silhouettes spouting gaudily profane wisdom that is dispensed two hundred and eighty characters at a time”

“Three Billboards” is a game, too – a cinematic game in which the writer and director, Martin McDonagh, feigns empathy with a magician’s sleight of hand. His characters’ ordeals, demands, sacrifices, and redemptions fit together like, well, a jigsaw puzzle, and he retrofits their traits and experiences to fit. In “Three Billboards,” I have the sense that, despite the fulsome emotional displays, McDonagh is far more interested in his narrative contraptions and contrivances than in his characters, who exist solely to play their part in the plot. His characters are robotic silhouettes spouting gaudily profane wisdom that is dispensed two hundred and eighty characters at a time; his excellent actors have to sweat every line, weigh every gesture, and pose every gaze, pouring every ounce of their skill into humanizing the flimsy simulacra that are written for them. (McDormand’s controlled fury, more than any other factor, keeps the film unified and dramatically engaging even when little else does.) McDonagh also scatters progressive political crumbs throughout the film, and his obscene trivialization of their substance is displayed in the cavalier casualness with which a black woman’s arrest and imprisonment on trumped-up charges drops in as a plot point and out with a smile.

As for violence and gore, McDonagh seems more turned on by it than the Spierigs are. Though I’m squeamish, I found the scenes of grotesquely and meticulously imagined torture in “Jigsaw” to reflect a degree of restraint, bordering on aversion – which suggests that the filmmakers’ actual interests lie elsewhere. McDonagh’s theme of expiation by violence plays a repellent double game; even as his plot pivots on the acknowledgment of misdirected anger and the emotional effort to overcome it, the movie reflects an almost erotically tantalizing excitement at the prospect of showing the gory impact of that warped rage. McDonagh seems excited by it, and he displays it with a blend of suspense-building anticipation and blatant enthusiasm that reflects his own arousal and is meant to arouse viewers as well.

Richard Brody, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and “Jigsaw” Are the Same Movie

“The Case Against Civilization”

War, slavery, rule by élites – all were made easier by another new technology of control: writing. “It is virtually impossible to conceive of even the earliest states without a systematic technology of numerical record keeping,” Scott maintains. All the good things we associate with writing – its use for culture and entertainment and communication and collective memory – were some distance in the future. For half a thousand years after its invention, in Mesopotamia, writing was used exclusively for bookkeeping: “the massive effort through a system of notation to make a society, its manpower, and its production legible to its rulers and temple officials, and to extract grain and labor from it.” Early tablets consist of “lists, lists and lists,” Scott says, and the subjects of that record-keeping are, in order of frequency, “barley (as rations and taxes), war captives, male and female slaves.” Walter Benjamin, the great German Jewish cultural critic, who committed suicide while trying to escape Nazi-controlled Europe, said that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” He meant that every complicated and beautiful thing humanity ever made has, if you look at it long enough, a shadow, a history of oppression. As a matter of plain historical fact, that seems right. It was a long and traumatic journey from the invention of writing to your book club’s discussion of Jodi Picoult’s latest.

John Lanchester, The Case Against Civilization

“You basically can’t separate transhumanism from capitalism”

“Transhumanism doesn’t have much to say about social questions. To the extent that they see the world changing, it’s nearly always in a business-as-usual way – techno-capitalism continues to deliver its excellent bounties, and the people who benefit from the current social arrangement continue to benefit from it,” says Mark O’Connell, the author of To be a Machine, who followed various transhumanists in Los Angeles.”You basically can’t separate transhumanism from capitalism. An idea that’s so enthusiastically pursued by Musk and Peter Thiel, and by the founders of Google, is one that needs to be seen as a mutation of capitalism, not a cure for it.”

Silicon Valley is characterised by a blind belief in technological progress, a disregard for social acceptability and an emphasis on individual success. It’s no surprise, then, that it is here that the idea of living forever seems most desirable.

Musk has publicly declared that we have to merge with artificially intelligent machines that overtake humanity in order to survive. Ray Kurzweil, the inventor and futurist who pioneered the Singularity, is now an engineer at Google. O’Connell points out that “you’d have to be coming from a particularly rarefied privilege to look at the world today and make the assessment, as someone like Thiel does, that the biggest problem we face as a species is the fact that people die of old age”.

[…]

It would be remiss to tar all transhumanists with one brush. In 2014, Istvan claimed in The Huffington Post that the membership of transhumanist societies and Facebook groups has started to expand in number and in diversity, drawing in young and old people of all political persuasions and nationalities.

There are some prominent transhumanists who don’t fit into the Silicon Valley mould. Natasha Vita-More, the former Chairman of the Board of Directors of Humanity+ , the global transhumanist organisation, has spoken about the potential for a posthuman society to address issues of economic justice. Other academics and philosophers have even spoken about the need to explicitly ground diversity and tolerance within posthumanism, such as Nick Bostrom, the head of the Future of Humanity institute and one of the original modern transhumanist thinkers.

It remains the case, though, that the majority of the money invested in making transhumanism a reality comes from rich, white men. As the descendants of a species with a tendency to exploit the downtrodden, any posthumans must guard against replicating those same biases in a new society. For some, potentially in the near future, death might become optional. For others, death will remain inevitable.

Sanjana Varghese, The first men to conquer death will create a new social order – a terrifying one