Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Web of Things company Evrything and Plato's theory of forms

Went to see Evrything yesterday - an interesting Internet of Things start-up with a heritage in the really rather clever Web of Things group at Zurich University. Lots to say, much of which I will cover in a proper Ovum report in our new 'On The Radar' format. A few things that won't go into that can go here though.

I couldn't help being struck by some of the philosophical aspects of what the company is trying to do. Essentially it wants to create a digital version of physical objects, and to use this to link to applications and control systems. It's not all that interested in exactly how to establish the linkage between the physical and the digital object - it knows that this can be done, and that there are various communications media and protocols that can be used. It's more interested in managing the digital version of the object. There is no particular reason why the digital version of the object should not continue to live on after the 'death' of the physical object from which it was derived - the digital avatar of my Ikea table lasting longer than the table itself.

This reminded me of Plato's theory of forms, whereby actual cubes are but imperfect copies of the 'real' cubes which exist in the perfect world of forms. I think that the Gnostics developed something of a spiritual and moral doctrine out of this, and a theological one that said that the imperfections of the physical world proved that it was created by a malign demiurge rather than the perfectly good God who was the real ruler of the universe.

Not sure exactly what relevance this has to Evrything's technology or business model, but I can't stop thinking about it - and about the implications of physical manufactured goods beginning to have digital lives of their own, separate from their physical antecedent.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Reflections on The Year of the Flood

I've been thinking a lot about 'The year of the flood' lately. I read it a couple of years ago, but I haven't stopped thinking about it. It's a good novel – not exactly enjoyable, because it is a dystopian fantasy, but very thought-provoking and not entirely devoid of hope.

It's set in the same scenario as 'Oryx and Crake'. There are some good characters and plot twists, but the real business of the book is the group known as God's Gardeners. The group is interesting because it is a survivalist cult with liberal, left-wing leanings. The group is religious in form. It prays, it has sacred books and songs, and it teaches its youngsters through catechisms and repetition. There is a strong suggestions that this has been a deliberate strategy by leaders who don't believe literally in their own religious teachings, and who have covertly used aspects of the modern world like computers that they present to their followers as somehow unkosher.

The Gardeners expect that some sort of catastrophe is coming – the 'waterless flood' – and their practices are mainly about preparing for that. They teach the members, especially the young ones, how to grow food, prepare medicines from natural materials, and how to defend themselves against attack. They prepare stashes of food and materials in secret, inaccessible places called Ararats, and they learn how to get by without many modern tools and social structures. Perhaps most important, they prepare mentally and culturally for the inevitability of disaster. Although their ideology might be thought of as deep green, they are primarily survivalists rather than political activists, though some are involved in conventional political activity sometimes.

When it comes, the flood is not what they seemed to have been preparing for. It's not triggered by the internal contradictions of a civilization that has drawn too heavily on its supporting environment and fouled its own nest, though Atwood depicts that toxic reality very well. Instead, the collapse is caused by an extraneous factor – the laboratory-made epidemic distributed via combined aphrodisiac-contraceptive pills described in Oryx and Crake. The plot concentrates on the experiences of a few of the Gardners, both before and after the collapse. There is no attempt to portray the survivalism as an overwhelming success, but it nevertheless does help a few cult members to live through at least the initial stages of the disaster.

Survivalism is rare among greens. This is surprising really, because lots of us are not particularly optimistic about the future. A lot of the climate change activists that I know have little faith in the readiness or the ability of politicians or states to deliver the change needed to prevent even runaway climate disaster. “Sustainable business” is mainly greenwash, and community action and bottom-up initiatives are whistling in the dark – they make the people involved feel better, but they do nothing to turn the supertanker that is our catastrophe-bound civilization.

So why aren't more of us preparing our own personal or even communal adaption and mitigation strategies? Is it because it isn't done to admit defeat on the political question, for fear that if only we had held on and continued to believe we might have achieved a happy ending? Or because we've grown up with too many movies and books in which the central characters win through in the end, despite overwhelming odds and a seemingly-impossible situation?

Interestingly, the Right doesn't have this problem. Before their recent turn to climate scepticism, the BNP used to think a lot about ecological catastrophe – particularly around the issue of Peak Oil, which fitted nicely into a nationalist world-view. Rightwing blogs and websites carried a lot of discussion about how to move to the countryside, grow food and prepare for the coming collapse. I haven't looked lately, so I don't know if it's still there – there is only so much poking around in those corners that one can take.

Perhaps it's time we at least started to have some conversations about community-based responses to climate change. To its credit the Transition Town current (which elsewhere I have been rather critical of) at least does this, albeit in a rather apolitical, Poujadist sort of way. At least it's a start. Time to engage; at the very least, the sign of us actually preparing to deal with catastrophe will have some rhetorical value, as evidence that we really do think that the shit is going to hit the fan – that we are not just talking about climate change as part of some bureaucratic conspiracy to cheat honest Daily Mail readers out of their God-given right to cheap electricity and petrol.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Fifty Shades and the sadomasochism of everyday life

Lots of women are reading 'Fifty Shades of Grey'. Really really lots. They read it on trains, on planes, in airports. Quite a few of them complain that it was badly written and that it was a struggle to read all five hundred pages, not to mention what a drudge it was to read the sequels. Some compare it adversely to 'The Story of O', which was much more literary, apparently. Few mention that it was any sort of turn-on.

What's unusual about Fifty Shades is that it's S&M for women. Although it's often taken for granted that womens' sexuality is somehow linked to masochism, there isn't much evidence of this in the form of material actually aimed at women. There's a huge amount of material designed to gratify male masochism. S&M permeates 'straight' male porn, and non-porn or 'soft porn' depictions of sexy women. Fetish clothes and props like whips and riding crops abound. These objects have more or less become signifiers of sexualisation. Images of men being dominated by leather-clad women with whips are commonplace in fashion photography and in music videos. What was once a slightly shameful 'outlaw' sexual orientation is now heading for the mainstream.

What is behind this? I think that sexual masochism, for both women and men, is a response to the increasingly complex demands of modern life. Everyday life involves ever more choices. Some of these are trivial (like which of 27 different kinds of milk to buy), but they still take up brain resource. Others are both very difficult to make and of great consequence – how to save sufficient money to avoid an old age of misery while still managing to live somewhere decent enough to bring up a family. This paradox of choice has been much commented upon. It's been observed that the richer you are, the less time you seem to have – because having more money means that more options (even for pleasure) are open to you, competing for your time and mental resources.

Everyday life involves more role conflict than it used to. We are parents for longer, because though our 'children' have their own ideas about how to dress, socialize, and spend their time earlier than their predecessors, they are financially dependent on us until much later in life, because the demands of the education system, the labour market and the current housing market are much more cruel to them. We are children for longer too, because our parents live longer than their predecessors, surviving the physical ailments that used to kill them to 'enjoy' a life of declining mental faculties and social disadvantage in a culture that does not celebrate or value old age. The flexible labour market means that our jobs are not secure, the 'delayering' havoc of repeated waves of management consultant-led reorganisations have done away with the expectation of a career path, and a self-managed career means both frequent job changes and lots of effort to demonstrate 'good attitude'. And that's at the same time as being a good parent and a dutiful child.

There are a few palliatives to this. A few people can manage to practice mindfulness and meditation, consciously and actively clearing this stuff from their minds when it isn't helpful or appropriate – but this is really hard word that takes a lot of training and effort. Activities that offer total engagement and 'flow' can do the same thing via physical discipline, which some people find easier than mental training. Joyful submission to a religious system cuts down on lots of choices and gives strong guidance on how to resolve those that remain. For those looking for a quick fix, safely bounded fear of the kind offered by a horror film or apparently dangerous theme park ride can provide a few hours or minutes of relief by focusing the mind exclusively on present circumstances.

And then there's S&M sex. Sexual arousal provides the focus on the moment, and sexual submissiveness provides the abication of responsibility and the demands of role. Under the control of another, it's possible to escape from all those choices and conflicting demands. For the time of the session, the submissive is completely absorbed in their own feelings, of both pain and pleasure. It's been suggested that the these two sensations are linked rather than opposites, that the distinction between them is not as clear-cut as sometimes supposed – or that at least some people have their wires crossed in such a way as to confuse the way that they experience pain and pleasure.

That may be so, but I think the pay-off from sadomasochism is primarily social and cognitive rather than physiological. The benefit is the freedom from choice and responsibility; pain is the price that the submissive pays in order to lend versimillitude and make it feel like the freedom is genuine. That's what the props are for too – the whips, the bondage, the fetish clothing. They are necessary to sustain the fantasy, in the same way the price of a lottery ticket is needed to sustain the brief fantasy of winning the lottery. Having nasty things done to you, or being forced to do nasty things, is proof to yourself that you really can't make any choices, and are therefore genuinely 'free' from your responsibilities.

This has usually been presented as the domain of high-status men (as depicted in the film about Cynthia Payne 'Personal Services', where all of the clients seem to be generals and high court judges), but it now seems to work for lots of men, and as the success of Fifty Shades illustrates, for women too. We've all got too much responsibility and too many choices now.

The consequence is that S&M comes to stand for the kind of transcendence from the everyday that sex used to represent. When music videos represent a woman as sexy, she wears leather or latex and waves a whip about. Whereas once a sitcom would get a laugh out of allowing a couple to be discovered having sex, now it depicts them as having S&M sex. When an advertisement depicts an executive having a session with a prostitute in his office, she is a dominatrix. For many men, the props of S&M have become quite literally fetishes, in that they are imbued with the aura of sex even though they are not sexual objects.

Ultimately this is bound to lead to disappointment. As  S&M becomes mainstream, it loses the power to offer total absorption. It's one thing for Madonna to suggest that she is a bit of a dominatrix in her personal life as part of maintaining her fifty-year-old 'edginess'; when Kylie Minogue not only incorporates S&M scenes into her stage act but is also is photographed at a charity event with a pair of nipple clamps we've entered a new phase.

The extent to which S&M is already a familiar theme in advertisements suggests that this process is well under way. Eventually that whip will remind you to buy shoe polish rather than take you out of yourself.

There is another reason, too, why S&M sex is not a useful escape route from the pressures of everyday life. Acting out domination fantasies actually takes a great deal of care and attention. Few people really enjoy serious amounts of pain and discomfort. There is a thin line between sustaining the pretence that the submissive has surrendered control and actually hurting. As the anti-porn feminist Andrea Dworkin, and lots of others more sympathetic to S&M have noted, it is the submissive who is really in control of the S&M session. But where can the submissive find someone who is up to this difficult task? More men might be inclined towards submission, but there isn't a corresponding increase in the number of women who want to play the role of the dominatrix. They're all out looking for their own Christian Grey.

S&M is not an escape from the pressures of everyday life but a dead end, an engagement with yet another set of roles and responsibilities to be negotiated. Maybe it would be different under socialism...

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The sharing economy and the casualisation of labour

I love sharing and the sharing economy. I think the idea of collaborative consumption, P2P 'production', and commons-based economics is great. I'm attracted to the idea of sharing physical goods, either through joint purchase, through commercial sharing schemes (like car clubs) which provide 'thing as a service', and through making my stuff available when I am not using it. The internet makes all of this a lot easier, though it's important not to overstate this - after all, public libraries are an old idea.

I like the sharing of 'non-rival' goods even more. There are some things that I can share with you without having to give it up myself - digital goods are an example of this, though not the only one. If I put my music collection in the cloud, other people can enjoy it as well as me, and even at the same time as me. Lots of people do this without any expectation of reward, as part of a reciprocal thank you to other strangers who do the same thing. It's wrong and silly to call this piracy or theft, and to put it on a par with going into a shop and stealing a physical object.

At the same time, it's clear that this does have implications for the earnings of the producers of non-rival goods. We can argue about whether the way that the value chain for such goods is structured means that the main losers are not the actual producers but the bloated middle-persons who sit between the producers and the consumers. But it's obviously true that the internet is making sharing easier, and thereby reducing the returns to the ultimate producer. It's harder to make a living as an independent artist producing recorded music. A little bit of artisanal production and the life-style that went with it has been destroyed by the forces of the internet. These forces include not only me and you sharing our records on an 'outlaw' website, but also the massive advertising businesses of the internet, who make their money by selling our eyeballs to the sellers of physical and other goods. These are as much winners from the sharing economy as the musicians are losers.

This is not a unique phenomenon in history, as the history of printing, and then radio, show. There was a time when the production of illuminated manuscripts allowed some people (mainly monks) to sustain a higher standard of living than the pure sale of their labour power would have given them. There was a time when being able to manipulate a wooden pen and steel nib to produce nice handwriting was skill enough to provide a decent living.

The latest generation of 'sharing' internet projects takes this one stage further. Taskhub and the older Taskrabbit are happily endorsed sites like 'People who share' as if they were a benign, P2P community-building phenomenon. Taskhub's launch video portrays it in exactly that way, with a little group of more or less equal people taking each other's dogs for walks, doing each other's ironing, and then getting together for a party. This is just dishonest. These 'task' sharing sites are not about sharing at all; they are about making the market for low-grade casual service work available to more buyers, and making that market work more efficiently so as to drive the price of casual labour down. It's a nineteenth century hiring fair, with all the misery that this entails, but hidden away behind screens and avatars.

The return of domestic service over the last twenty years has been little discussed. Alongside Downton Abbey and the return of Upstairs Downstairs, many people who cannot afford full time servants nevertheless buy domestic service on a part-time, cash-only, undocumented basis. The proliferation of dog-walkers, cleaners, child-minders and so on indirectly provides a cheap labour subsidy to these people's who employers, who can get them to work for longer hours because the reproduction of their labour power is done for them more cheaply than they could do it themselves.

Many of the buyers of domestic services see the relationship as mutually beneficial, and so it is - as are all buys and sells of labour power in a 'free' market. They are just not equally beneficial. One side in the market is in a much weaker position than the other. They are often women, often immigrants without documentation or language skills to get better jobs, often needing to work around their own childcare needs. The absence of little lace caps and aprons as servants' uniforms makes this culturally more acceptable.

Task sharing sites are not part of a 'commons-based' approach to sharing out the work; they are away of expanding the market for domestic service to a new layer of users, and in the process driving down the price of casual labour to the lowest possible level.