Violence and the Internet

I’ve been trying to work out why pretty much everyone treats everyone else like pricks on the internet, and also to figure out how far verbal violence online is starting to spill over into what we must for the sake of our sanity regard as the real world. For the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, it is the face to face encounter with the other which gives birth to ethics and hence to the development of moral and social codes of behaviour. I suspect that the fact we increasingly interact via screens allows us to hide from that encounter and avoid the vulnerability, the threat of fellow feeling it engenders.

Discussing serious subjects online is almost always a total waste of time: the weak links that bind us mean that if a discussion gets too awkward or we stand to lose face, it’s easy to disappear back into the ether. There’s little risk of commitment and thus a lack of mutual obligation, not only to others but also to ourselves insofar as we abandon our duty of solitude. Technology frees us from the need to reflect on our thoughts and deeds. (Few of us are blameless in this regard, as Oliver Burkeman explores here.)

Sherry Turckle talks of the hope of the early days of the internet, in which protecting our identities could seen as be a positive thing, allowing us to explore other ways of being in a (to borrow a phrase from the then-future) safe space, with no risk of physical violence. But it’s become clear that the exploitative form of our relations offline, all the exploitation and bullying and pornography that in our day-to-day encounters we manage to get on in spite of, determines what happens online, and in turn the form of our online lives influences our social lives.

As the internet has developed (but not matured) I’ve noticed a spilling over of violence, as digital threats become embodied in physical encounters, like a fist or bullet coming straight through the screen. One obvious form this takes the form is doxxing, sharing address details of online antagonists (which the British fascist Tommy Robinson is endeavouring to turn into a form of entertainment), but there’s also the cases of sexual abuse facilitated by apps such as Uber and Tindr. The internet is an embodiment of Labi Sifre’s assertion that violence is never just physical. The film ‘Unfriended‘ is a very literal but not entirely trivial example of how online threats can transgress the boundaries of the hyperreal.

In that case the identity of the online tormentor is not clear; he or she may even be from the afterlife. As things stand, we can often track who is trying to turn online rage into offline violence. Anyone happy to dismiss the role of Russian trolls in seeking to undermine US democracy would do well to reflect on this. Charlottesville was a rally of internet trolls who’ve come to see fascism as a natural extension of their online tastes and habits. Much far-right bullying and deliberate disinformation is for to have derived from the teenage hate forum 4chan. Four or so years on from Gamergate, rape and death threats against any woman who dares to speak out against non-approved targets are increasingly coordinated. In an unerringly similar way, Isis seduces its potential recruits using online tools, mostly Snapchat and Skype. While it’s comforting to think of such platforms as forming us into an inclusive global community, the fact that terrorist attacks are planned and coordinated via Whatsapp rather takes the shine off the whole enterprise.

For anyone wanting to argue that World War 3 has already broken out online, metaphors abound, from ‘sniping’ to ‘troll armies’ to ‘weaponising anger’ to ubiquitous talk of ‘entrenched’ opinions. Political debate is often adversarial, but social media has opened up many more fronts, partly thanks to its dehumanising tendencies. The adage that the first casualty of war is truth is particularly apt to describe the ‘post-fact’ age. Maybe that is how we see our online interactions with strangers: as a battlefield in a tribal war. Certainly the polarisation of news sources, with each side only exposed to its own propaganda is very evocative of wartime. Although, given that I’m using the very same media I’m condemning, I’m obliged to mention the benefits, and acknowledge that the end of net neutrality in the US is a frightening prospect, right now I think that anything that reduces the attractiveness of the online world may be a good thing.

The effects on children is one subject that’s close to home for two reasons, partly because I’m currently teaching in a high school where the abuse that digital media makes possible is having horrendous effects, and also because we have a very young daughter whose face lights up at the sight of a smartphone and who will, unless we’re extremely careful, soon start demanding to be hooked up to Youtube. The notion that the chief danger the internet poses to children is exposure to predatory pedophiles is a hackneyed one, but stories from Mexico of young girls being seduced by men who then sell them on are are not just apocryphal.

The internet is amoral because it reduces that basic recognition that Levinas identified. It’s a cartoon representation of reality, so all the bullying that goes on social media is cartoon violence. Until, suddenly, it isn’t.

You think Youtube’s bad? Wait til you see Russia Today’s kids channel

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What a jape!

I saw the best minds of my and other generations destroyed by Youtube videos, friends sending me 3am emails furiously denouncing the conspiracy by the powerful to sell us the idea that the climate is changing, kept awake by the conviction that the Twin Towers were a mere hologram, or convinced that Isis is an illusion created by the CIA.

Having just sent some thoughts along those lines to a friend who had also read this essay detailing how soon and how easily our offspring are, thanks to Google, being entranced by and drawn into a world which is infinitely crueller and more absurd than our own, I was startled to see that the very first comment on the piece included a link to another article centred on the very same poem I had (in my glib manner) just quoted.

Such serendipitous connections are, of course, infinitely abundant on Youtube, which plays a particular role not just in the lives of very young children but also, as another friend recently pointed out, in the growth of the alt-right. As the writer says, and as that semi-regular succession of emails from newly- (and, mercifully, usually briefly-) converted conspiracist friends confirms, the role of the platform in the spread of political propaganda is terrifying to the point of nausea. In a not unrelated phenonmenon, it’s a salutary and unsettling experience to see how our baby daughter’s face lights up when it meets the screen of our phones. Like all sensible parents we had decided that we would keep the whole world of digital screen technology a dirty secret from her for as long as humanly possible; anyone who sets out with this intention soon finds that given the preponderance of Whatsapp calls, Skype and so on combined with our evident dependence on it for our own purposes, the talismanic qualities of the device are impossible to disguise. One creeping influence is indeed Youtube, with its immediate and infinite access to hours of nursery rhymes. We are allowing her to be led right into the jaws of the monster that will seize her imagination and attention as soon as it gets a chance.

The article describes how the word salad titles of the billions of videos aimed at infants (typical example: Wrong Heads Disney Wrong Ears Wrong Legs Kids Learn Colors Finger Family 2017 Nursery Rhymes) right from the moment they can tap on the device are an indication that they are produced not by conscious humans but by algorithims set to maximise views and thereby income. Perhaps the non-syntactical way in which such mechanisms operate resembles or is a part of the same phenomenon as Trump’s seemingly incoherent appeals. Such messages, although ostensibly nonsensical, bypass our rational brain and go straight for the limbic system, triggering our deepest and least conscious fears and desires. If we combine what we know about Youtube on a political level and the formative effects it has on very young brains, it starts to make any dystopian fantasy such as The Matrix or Brave New World almost quaint and comforting. Even leaving aside the horrors of Twitter (which at last now with 280 characters stands a chance of becoming more thoughtful and respectful) Youtube is becoming the 24-hour two-minute hate, opium-of-the-masses and soma all in one.

More disturbing still are some of the reflections contained in this must-must-must read account of how the Brexit and Trump nightmares came about, which includes several points of crossover with the previous article. The head of Russia Today once said that

“It is important to have a channel that people get used to, and then, when needed, you show them what you need to show. In some sense, not having our own foreign broadcasting is the same as not having a ministry of defense. When there is no war, it looks like we don’t need it. However, when there is a war, it is critical.”

Evern worse than finding out that a friend has been spending dozens of hours puffing away contentedly on the crackpipe of Youtube conspiracy nonsense is discovering that they are being exposed to the pseudo-radical manipulations of RT (often in the form of Youtube clips). I know that within a couple of years our daughter will start clamouring for access to the likes of Nickelodeon and Cbeebies (along with, it should go without saying, Youtube); if Putin and his cronies ever hit on the idea of creating a version of Russia Today for children, we really are screwed.

Why I regret that I stopped buying records and CDs

Every generation discovers music anew, regardless of the media on which it’s carried or transmitted. It just so happens that the format via which I first encountered recorded music – grooves on a plastic disc – were also those on which music was first recorded. Of course, prior to the advent of recording technology, there was notation: music was etched, scratched onto the page. Beethoven may not even have understood the concept of ‘recorded’ music. I grew up with the performance as central, the production as paramount, mostly focussed on the voice. From the early 20th century onwards, vinyl was the medium for folk, country, blues, rock, punk, hiphop, house, and so forth. Now music can be plucked out of the air, but when I listen to Bob Dylan talking about Leadbelly, there’s a frisson which comes from having experienced music in exactly the same way as he did. I can relate to that; I’ve lived a very similar revelation. I can’t conceive of (for example) hearing certain New Order*, Teardrop Explodes or, for that matter, George Michael songs, music that had a profound emotional impact on me as a teenager, I can’t imagine that without picturing the environmental context for my experiencing of the sounds. I believe that the loss of the physical format partly explains the deterioration of my relationship with music per se. Although I don’t agree with Dylan that downloaded music ‘ain’t worth nothing’, the move from physical to ephemeral shows that Marx had a point when he wrote that as capitalism develops, ‘all that is solid melts into air’.

To quote another prophet of capitalism and culture, everything that was directly lived has moved away into a mediated representation. This now happens instantaneously, live, as, locked into our headphones, we view ourselves walking down the street to a private soundtrack of a film in which we are always the star and hero. I’ve pontificated previously (in relation to the documentary about Zinedine Zidane) about how in an age of intensified self-consciousness of our own performance as social actors, our experience of our lives has become more and more like the film ‘Boyhood’, with every one of our gestures immediately recounted back to us in the form of fantasised cinematography, dramatised by individually-curated theme tunes. 

This is connected to the relationship between music and advertising, particularly the vampiric dependence of the latter on the former. The role of marketing cash in financing or subsidising the lives of those who produce music has meant that music itself is increasingly obedient to an image or logo. It’s true that a lot of art – particularly popular music – benefits from and plays with the tension between the comercial and the artistic, but more than ever nowadays exposure as part of a marketing package means one’s music is experienced as a mere soundtrack to sell prospective consumers an image of themselves inhabiting the world of the given commodity. Music has, in a much more profound sense than with the advent of MTV, become evermore subservient to the image rather than defining its own purpose.

As is the case for any such diatribe against the internet, it’s essential not to overlook the affordances of technology in terms of both production and consumption. Hyper-accelerated access and avid overconsumption is made possible by downloading and streaming. When I first got an MP3 player twinned with a proper internet connection, I quickly discovered that I felt compelled to skim through my exponentially expanding music collection – the prospect of listening to a particular album or piece of music had become a more powerful experience than actually doing so. Once something becomes infinitely available, it’s hard to value a single instance of it. Value is produced by scarcity, not abundance.

I’ve written before about how hard I find it nowadays to commit to a single song, album or artist. Nick Cave Syndrome is the name I give to what I think is now a universal experience: I could, if I so chose, spend a few days immersing myself in the work of the Bad Seeds and Grinderman, etc, but I never actually do. There’s too much digital distraction, too much white noise to engage with newmor unfamiliar music. I’m open to charges of laziness, but I’m by no means alone: the KLF’s Bill Drummond once embarked on a series of experiments to reconnect with music, including spending a whole year only listening to artists who names began with a particular letter of the alphabet. To get that connection back involves somehow making music finite and thus more precious.

Music dramatises space and time but also requires space and time to produce and experience. Mark Fisher and Momus have both written about the restrictions that gentrication and permanent austerity imply for young people wanting to experiment with sounds and images. Early Human League in the documentary ‘Synth Britannia‘ showed some of the abandoned industrial spaces which made their existence possible, while Jarvis Cocker in his ‘Musical Map of Sheffield‘ stressed how important dole money was to his artistic survival. The same goes for the art colleges which formed David Bowie and Malcolm McLaren. They inspired the kind of artistic invention which anyone spending three years on a desultory £9,000-a-year business studies degree course anticipating a lifetime of internships would struggle to replicate.

Of course, no matter how little physical space you have, you can nowadays make and remix music on your phone or laptop while unemployed in a slum or drinking coffee in an airport. Momus makes hugely inventive use of the internet to gather samples and images and Youtube to share it – but then he does have a fanbase built up over more than 30 years. I probably wouldn’t listen to Pillycock or Scobberlotchers if I hadn’t pored over Tender Pervert and Don’t Stop the Night as a teenager. Who’s really going to listen to new music? (Or, for that matter, find the time to read blogs?). It was actually Momus who predicted that on the internet everyone would be famous for 15 people. But what if you can only get those people’s attentions for 15 minutes? That’s a thumb-twitching epoch online.

The human relationship with music is both intimate and (as Schopenhauer argued) spiritual, both individual and social. Having long along lost or given away the tens of thousands of discs I once had, how do I recover the value that music used to have for me? The answer is, of course, to collect it in its physical form. But maybe my relationship with music is too far gone now. Maybe I’ll never get it back. While writing this, listening to an algorithmically-curated selection of tracks by Francesco de Gregori (who has released something in the order of 30 albums, all of which I can access with a tiny gesture of my thumb but none of which I will ever get round to really listening to**), we had a powercut. Although it was mercifully short, it screwed up our Internet connection for a good two hours or so. It made me think of people in Puerto Rico, suddenly deprived by a capricious climate of running water and electricity. If there’s one thing we can predict with some certainty about the future, it’s that we won’t be spending so much time online. The internet presupposes the stability of too many physical, social and economic infrastructures. Even wifi, I once learnt, is vulnerable to climate change. If the only access we have to music is via Spotify, then we will lose access to it whenever a passing storm so decides. Music is far too valuable for that.

*Incidentally, ‘Regret’ is not my idea of a great New Order song, it just tied in with the title, which may be no classic as titles for blog posts go, but is at least hopefully more enticing than the original one, which was ‘Music, technology and spectacle’, which is, let’s face it, shit, although not nearly as shit as either Bad Lieutenant or the third Electronic album.

**His album of Dylan covers is great fun. You can find it on, er, Spotify.

Is this a transitional object I see before me?

aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaThis is the opening paragraph from the book ‘Post-Truth: How bullshit conquered the world’ by James Ball:

The US government stockpiled 30,000 guillotines, stored in internment camps – including one in Alaska large enough for two million people – ready to wipe out Second Amendment supporters at a rate of three million an hour. Trump supporters at a New York victory rally chanted, ‘We hate Muslims, we have blacks, we want our great country back’. Denzel Washington endorsed Donald Trump – and Trump actually won the popular vote in the US election, despite the mainstream media telling you otherwise.

I’m sure you can see the item in that list that ‘triggered‘ me. Within seconds I was already drafting an outraged response to shout into the ether. Even though I knew full well that I was reading a book about fake news, I dearly wanted the report in question to be true. As the Italian phrase has it, ‘Se non è vero, è ben trovato’, or as they say in Jamaica, ‘If it not go so, it go near so’. I dismissed those stories that conflicted with my worldview immediately. It took concentrated reflection – System 2 thinking – to realise that the headline which had raised my hackles must also have been false, and then some more mental work to understand that many faced with the same set of headlines would have had the exact opposite reaction, would have found the fake news story about guillotines similarly compelling – and, in a way, comforting.

This blog is not a fake news outlet. Everything on this site makes a claim on the truth; I’m not Paul Horner or Beppe Grillo. Satirical articles are clearly labelled as such. Although satire aspires to be (as Picasso said of art) ‘the lie that tells the truth’, I’m aware that the kind I feel compelled to write sometimes cleaves too close to the truth. Headlines such as ‘NRA condemns mass murderer: ‘Poor guy, must have had a bad day or something’‘Mail editor Paul Dacre to be knighted at long last’ and ’21 facts that PROVE Donald Trump is NOT racist’ are designed to mislead, and I’ve come to accept that any such misinterpretations and any accusations of spreading ‘fake news’ are, to an extent, my responsibility. After all, 59% of shared articles are not read by the person liking or reposting them. Anyone writing online should be aware of how their ‘content’ contributes to the deluge of bullshit. This site doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but among millions of others that are deliberately misleading.

According to James Ball’s taxonomy of potentially dodgy sites, this blog falls into the category of ‘extremely partisan’: it mostly tells people what they want to hear. Nonetheless, unlike operations such as Breibart and The Canary it makes no pretence to be a news site. I found it amusing that when my post about Trump snapping went viral people were arriving at my site by googling ‘Is Internet Coincidence reliable?’. That particular post triggered people’s sensibilities at just the right moment, and probably fed illusions that Trump’s reign would be over before we knew it, a momentary bad dream. The act that such an assumption has been revealed to be bullshit doesn’t, I think, mean that my argument was bullshit, but it does indicate a lack of political acuity, as further evidenced by headlines such as ‘A prediction: Trump will tweet in favour of Catalan independence‘ and I’ve put money on it: Rees-Mogg will be the Tories’ answer to Corbynism’. At the end of the day, Brian, this is not a very reliable source of information. Thank God it’s just a blog.

In any case, the principal currency of the internet is not information per se. Google and Facebook aren’t, contrary to the boast of the former, ‘organising’ but rather editing what we find according to a set of ambiguous but consistently amoral and manipulative criteria. The real dollars don’t lie in accurate detail, but in headlines and pictures which may be misleading but do connect with that sweet spot between outrage and pleasure. Breitbart understands this very well – although by no means all of its stories are outright fakes, the posts that get shared the most are the blatantly dishonest ones, instantly transmissible as memes – and once the lie has been embedded into an emotionally arresting image, the information it contains cannot be countered by rational argument and fact-checking. The internet thus resembles a playschool, decorated in colourful images with clear, simple messages, a place where everything has a familiar and reassuring meaning. Everything we see on social media tells us: these people feel the same as I do. As for encountering other perspectives, we are slowly realising that the conversational model has little to do with dialogue and much more to do with either reinforcement or confrontation. No one changes their mind because of an internet debate, a meme, or a piece of satire. In fact, there is abundant evidence shows that the online sharing of opinions reinforces and possibly even polarises entrenched points of view. One word I haven’t noticed in the articles and books I’ve read about online identities is tribal, but it seems to me that the affirmation of belonging to a particular group fulfills that atavistic need.

So why write satire, or why for that matter produce any internet content at all? Principally, if I’m honest, to cheer myself up. It’s satisfying to feel that I’m part of a tribe, that I have a few twigs to throw on the campfire. It consummates a basic human need for belonging. It’s gratifying to see that people like and share something I’ve created, to the point, inevitably, of becoming, as John Kelly said of Trump’s relationship with Twitter, a ‘habit’. I use my device, as I think most people do, to some extent, as a source of emotional support provided by devices. Posting online is one way of feeling that I exist and that my existence matters. Thus I can relate to Trump’s apparent need to feel triggered. To paraphrase Sherry Turckle, I post, therefore I am. This is not, I recognise, a healthy or a mature condition, but neither is it a rare one. The internet is in its adolescence, so it’s inevitable, if not exactly natural, that so much of it resembles ‘Lord of the Flies’. Hopefully phenomena such as 4chan and characters such as Milo are symptoms of a development which is not permanently stunted. That’s not to blame the state of affairs on the young: neither I nor Donald Trump, to choose two random examples, are ‘digital natives’.

As it happens, over the last few months I’ve become a keen student of the process of human physical, emotional and intellectual development. Like my first experience of university, this often involves manic bursts of impromptu studying at very irregular hours. For example, when she was between four and five months old, our baby daughter, who had previously slept, well, like a baby should, developed trouble getting to sleep and staying there. In desperation, responding to advice we’d obtained, oddly enough, online, we tried ‘controlled crying’: letting her cry herself to sleep in her cot, with our reassuring interventions taking place at longer and longer intervals. The method is controversial – some believe that babies should never be allowed to cry, ever*. The most cunning element of the plan was the deployment of two fluffy characters called Bunnywunny and Bunnywunnywunny. With their help she was almost immediately able to sleep for ten or so uninterrupted hours. BW and BWW were examples of comfort or security objects, or as Douglas Winnicott called them, ‘transitional objects‘, which teach infants to rely less on their parents and to start developing emotional independence and their own sense of ego/self. Since then, whenever she wakes up at night, they are the first thing she grabs for. Feeling comforted by their presence, she immediately falls back to sleep.

Some of this should ring a bell, unless that is you’ve got your brain turned to silent or vibrate. Freud argued that the primary function of dreams is to allow us to go on sleeping. As we transition towards a reality which for so many will resemble a living nightmare, it seems to me that the role of our devices is to provide us with emotional comfort, and to enable us to control our waking dreams.

*These seem to be the same people who don’t believe in protecting children from disease.

Why I avoid Twitter

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Cartoon from xkcd.com.

My memories of the few times I’ve lost my temper about politics when talking to strangers IRL are mostly shameful to the point of trauma. In a cottage in the west of Ireland in early 1999, I was introduced to a friend of the couple I was visiting. I’d worked with my Dublin friend Barry in the kind of stupid software call centre job which everyone was only pretending to pretend that they were doing. He was hugely witty, sharing my predilection for massive acts of seditious timewasting and tactical work avoidance. He was also teeming with goodwill, even towards the idiots phoning up, and was massively gifted in terms of Scandinavian languages and various forms of stringed instrument. I was one of the first people with whom he shared the news that he and his Swedish girlfriend Ana were going to have a baby. However, I don’t want to dwell on self-pity because I wasn’t the victim, but rather the protagonist of an attack of rage. I have no idea what it was all about. Maybe the integrity of the Irish Labour Party. Or the Millennium Bug. Or EU piscine policy and its relation to the price of fish. Regardless of the content, the form was drunken shouting. All that mattered was winning. I regret the whole incident, not so much for its consequences (I never saw my friends again) but because my behaviour was just plain wrong. I was subsequently too ashamed and they were (I presume) too angry to contact me again. I’d ruined a valuable friendship and been a total prick to someone who definitely didn’t deserve it and could herself have become a friend.

There have been other times (not recently, I’m pleased to say). One New Year’s Eve a couple of years ago I got angry with the partner of a friend for excoriating Jeremy Corbyn. Luckily I knew by then that I had a choice, that although I could if I wished give in to the seductive impulse to let my blood boil over, to allow myself off the leash, it was wrong in the fullest sense to do so. On that occasion I was able to reign myself in and treat a fellow human being who happened to hold a slightly different opinion with respect rather than scorn.

Unless (as I often need to remind myself) you’re dealing with someone whose sole motive is to abuse, annoy or in some other way antagonise you, it’s far better to identify points of agreement and try patiently to move forward from them, no matter how swampy or thorny the territory. While it can be great fun to throw off the constraints of politeness, in any sort of meaningful social reality there is no way that you can or should do so. We are after all civilised creatures, socially interdependent beings. Only if you actively want to alienate yourself from a particular social group can you rant and rave to (as it were) your hate’s content.

The first rule of civil debate is not to attack the person themselves. In an attack of rage there’s always an element of the personal. Fury always seeks a target, and almost always finds the wrong one. That’s what’s refreshing about Twitter. There are no real people, only avatars. Thus it doesn’t matter if you hurt someone. It doesn’t matter if someone unfollows, mutes or blocks you, or vice versa. Or, when you prefer, you can join in on ripping to shreds someone who, on the basis on fiften or sixteen words at most, appears to deserve it. Jon Ronson’s book ‘So you’ve been publicly shamed’ is an excellent primer on how pile-ons can resemble rapidfire pogroms or instant witchhunts. Taking part in such orgies of digital violence is like participating in a Milgram experiment being conducted on a planetary scale and producing much the same results. As a Twitter user you have your own microfascist coup at you fingertips: you can eradicate dissent with the tiniest gesture of the thumb. And, of course, trolling is huge fun, creating an imaginary audience for your savage japes, while all the time alert to the danger of being trolled yourself. Thus we all get to be bullies, and then when called out on it pretend to be victims. Or often we’re long gone by that point. We never see our victims again but did they even exist in the first place? Twitter is a world without moral consequences, rather like a dark room of hate.

How am I so sure of this? It’s a game I’ve happily played in the past. My own life on Twitter has gone through several stages, including more than one phase of outright addiction. I used to see myself as scourge of Britain’s far-right, and wasted several months of my life trying to reason with people opposed to reason itself. I was also guilty of all the bad habits described in the previous paragraphs until eventually (in the day after the Brexit referendum, my wife reminds me, when it was clear that the far-right had basically won) I finally deleted my account, which at that point had a balance of around 1,200 followers (who for comedy purposes I referred to as my disciples) and around 47,124,132 mostly angry tweets. I was drawn in again recently by the sweet opium smell of Trump’s catastrophic presidency. Although, of course, Twitter is not so much opium but crack cocaine. Over the course of a few intensely fruitless days I went on a binge, throwing the odd firecracker into rooms that may have been empty, hoping to hear an explosion. It was not by any standards an edifying or improving experience.

If you search for mentions of Trump on Twitter you see immediately that there are two worlds that only skirmish and very rarely engage in any meaningful way. The next civil war is being rehearsed, this time first as farce and then quite possibly (almost inevitably at this stage) as tragedy. Viewed as a game, Twitter is a first-person shooter, in which the main activity is sniping. It involves as little human engagement as two people sticking their heads above opposing walls, acknowledging each other’s existence only insofar as they’re trying to eradicate each other. Just like a baby wishing its parents dead because it has no sense of what that might mean, if I’m arguing on Twitter I want to annihilate the other person.

Then there’s the question of time. A few years ago there was a story doing the rounds about a Korean couple who were so busy raising their virtual baby that their real one died. I didn’t quite get to that point over the last week, but I did come close to falling into that mysterious black hole of time that, as Thomas Pynchon puts it, produces most internet content. Twitter is an intensified form of social media in that even more than Facebook it rewards minimal effort with an infinite abundance of stimulation. My overuse leads to extreme irritability upon even momentary withdrawal. No wonder it is the perfect medium for Donald Trump.

Maybe it is the medium itself that’s the problem, maybe not. Some people make wonderful use of it, and by no means everyone uses it to track down and antagonise political adversaries. Perhaps in a better world where people were in a more cheerful mood…but I don’t think so. Much as has been written of Zuckerberg and Facebook, the ways in which his immature notion of friendship has come to dominate the world, Twitter doesn’t serve our needs, or at least not in any way which we can consider healthy. In my experience, the notion of social media as a community is risible. People in communities share various complex facets of their daily lives. For me, Twitter brings out the very worst side of me – the side which craves instant affrimation and adulation in return for very little imagination or effort, along with an aggressive and sadistic streak which I’d really rather not encourage. That’s why I deleted my account again and will endeavour not to get drawn in again in the future. Tl/dr: instant updates –> instant asshole.

We need a global progressive alliance against the far-right

NB: I wrote this two days ago and now that I am no longer overcome with/by fury can see it has big holes in it. I am starting to accept that the argument for abstention had some political justification and that my own partial and privileged position has, along with my ignorance, prevented me from understanding the importance of certain dynamics. Thanks to those who have corrected me and I apologise for calling anyone who even knew anyone who was thinking of abstaining a connard. I’m posting it without fanfare as I think it has some merit and also because I want to use it to mark my resignation from my self-appointed role as a commentator on French politics.

The fascists lost. That’s by far the most important thing about the French Presidential election. They tried to cheat, hack and smear their way to victory and failed. There is no doubt whatsoever what they would have done with power: installed a regime based on violent repression. I think their defeat is absolutely worth celebrating at a time when so little else is.

Nonetheless, 33% voted for a Nazi and twelve million abstained. That’s twice the number murdered in the Holocaust denied by the family and friends of the candidate they couldn’t be bothered to vote against. I understand there were reasons to abstain or spoil one’s ballot but I think they were invalid. Had circumstances been slightly different Le Pen would have won and been in a position to continue the work of her father, who has a direct connection to Vichy and the Third Reich.

The Front National is now the main opposition and parliamentary elections could consolidate their position and cripple Macron’s administration. Nonetheless the global far-right wanted another figurehead and they didn’t get one. This is a massive setback for their project. Her victory was in the script. Even my political science masters students saw it as inevitable: Le Pen’s victory would be followed by that of Grillo/Salvini here in Italy, then Germany… Supporters of the far-right on social media are right now hurt and demoralised. Such armchair fascists thought it would be easy. Putin’s photo with Le Pen looked threatening a few weeks ago, a ready-made meme lacking only the cartoon toad; now it just looks like an awkward photo of two arrogant people who probably barely even spoke to each other.

As for the Left which actively encouraged people to abstain, I’m left feeling a little like those left-wingers who in previous generations lost faith with Stalinism upon seeing the brutal repression in Hungary in 1956 and Prague in 1968. Just as the initial burst of support for Mélenchon was encouraging, his subsequent abdication of moral responsibility was shocking. Le Pen could actually have won. Macron had no automatic base of support. The establishment right could have swung over (I don’t think by the way they would have supported Mélenchon). An opportune terrorist attack could have created a bloodthirsty atmosphere which Le Pen would have luxuriated in. The desperate attempts at hacking (seemingly started by the US far-right with Russian assistance and then actively promoted by Wikileaks) could have been better coordinated and might have worked. Perhaps a fascist government wouldn’t have damaged the immediate life chances of the teenage edgelords running round Paris last week, but overnight the plight of refugees would have worsened immeasurably and the whole infrastructure of human rights, climate action and international cooperation per se would have collapsed. I find the lack of solidarity with fascism’s potential victims contemptible. Credit to those Mélenchon voters who voted for the centrist to stop the fascist at a time when the arrogance and delusion of a generation of failed left leaders was on unproud display.

On the other hand, Macron (as everyone in the world knows) is a ‘Neoliberal’. This week I got my students to study his English in the form of a BBC interview about what he stands for. He produces neoliberal buzzwords like a windup toy: Innovation, Competition, Markets, Reform, Liberalisation… Nevertheless, he is a highly contradictory figure: he’s also instinctively and consistently socially progressive. His comments on French colonialism in Algeria were principled and brave. To dismiss him as a mere apparatchik of a soviet-style regime is misleading and unfair. Neoliberalism is not a monolith and in any case an appreciation of the role of markets doesn’t make you a neoliberal zealot. If the French Left were to ease off on using that deeply problematic term they could choose to view him as a social democrat and put pressure on him to behave as such.

Such an idea won’t go down well with those who insist that there is no difference between capitalism and fascism, between a ‘banker’ and a Nazi. The notion that voters are being ‘blackmailed’ between the two plays into the hands of the far-right. Žižek argues that we are all being held to willfully held to ransom by an elite and that we should refuse their terms, an argument that quickly gained currency. In reality it’s a deadlock, one in which progressives are objectively forced to join forces with all those opposed to fascism, even those who we judge to be responsible for its resurgence . Evidence of the folly of the blackmail thesis is is all over social media in the form of increasing crosspollination in the discourses of the far-right and the far-left. From pro-Brexit Labour supporters to Jill Stein fans and supporters of Mélenchon I’ve detected a confluence with the far-right, particularly in the escalation in attempts to be seen as something other than ‘liberal’. This is a zero sum game in which only the only winner is the far-right. The frequency with which the antisemitic canard of Rothschilds has been pointedly evoked reveals undertones of anti-semitism. I’ve always rejected the notion that the two ends of the political spectrum meet up, but thanks partly to the inanity of online political ‘debate’ that dismissal is becoming more and more valid.

Some times over the last few weeks I’ve found myself thinking: if this is the left, maybe I no longer want to be part of it. But then as a friend sagely retorted when I put the thought to her, where else are we? As a result I’ve finally come round to thinking of it as no longer a helpful category. We need to know who’s really on our side, who we can trust in a context where political feelings are subject to massive manipulation. This has to be the last time that anyone pays any attention whatsoever to Wikileaks. Žižek’s ulraleftist posuring demonstrates yet again that, just as he argues in relation to poets, philosophers don’t make good political leaders. People like him are far too given to iconoclasm and provocative thought experiments. Nor are his political prescriptions plausible: for all his edgy neomaoist statements about divine revolutionary violence, his actual political interventions have tended to be reformist in nature (for example DIEM 25).

We progressives also need to accept that Facebook is not our friend. To quote a former executive for the company, by flicking a switch they can change the results of elections. We are just beginning to understand (too late) how insidious microtargetting is. Monstrously powerful far-right interests are able to tap with eerie precision into secret wells of resentment beneath the surface, to direct psychopathological undercurrents in directions which serve their requirements. Anyone who has not done so needs to read Carol Cadwalladr’s terrifying and riveting piece on just how connected, powerful and pernicious the digital far-right is. Companies like Cambridge Analytica may well be the most dangerous forces on the planet. As repression and manipulation heat up degree by degree in step with the warming climate, we will need to stay out of the hothouse of social media, where our worst innermost fears and recriminations are being cultivated in a way that makes Soylent Green look like a children’s TV cartoon.

I think the global priority for progressives must be to crush the far-right, to humiliate them as Macron did so well in the debate. We have to insist that our media ostracise them rather than allowing them to present themselves as normal. Just as Daesh and their followers are not given access to the airwaves or granted debating rights, our homegrown extremist terrorist organisations should not be either. Europe’s equivalents of Isis are also agents of Putin, who the results of the last few elections (Austria, The Netherlands, France) is far less omnipotent than he and his acolytes pretend. In some ways Putin’s Machiavellianism is a busted flush. Macron’s team’s way of dealing with the hacking was a masterpiece of defusing a powerful weapon and will make it far harder for Putin and his acolytes to manipulate public sympathies via spectacular leaks.

The world is facing a confluence of massive crises and life cannot go on as it is. Nevertheless, as Paul Mason argues, Macron’s victory is evidence that racism need not be a inevitable defining element of the future. To fight back against the forces of the far-right I think we have to (regardless of its complicated history), make full use of the term ‘progressive’. What exactly that term means is not a question that cannot detain us. On certain shibbloths of the left we we will have to accept differences of opinion. There are specific things we could all agree on, unambiguously progressive causes: Climate change, an alternative to a growth-led economic model, an end to the power of fossil fuel companies, internet privacy and much more. I find much to recommend in Yanis Varoufakis’ thesis that it is the job of progressives to save liberal capitalism from the extreme neoliberals. Markets do have a part to play in the economy but the idea that they are always the answer has no credibility. Neither do protectionism and nationalism: some form of social democracy is probably the best we can hope for, and in order to achieve or hang onto it we have to insist on human rights, the primacy of the environment, democracy, and freedom of the press. Protecting the media from political and commercial corruption means subscribing to publications which we consider important.

How does a progressive movement relate to those who are righteously angry about the role and rule of the banks? I don’t know. But as Sunny Hundal points out, contemporary political affiliations are not just about the economy. We can partly undermine the appeal of the far-right, to challenge its self-portayal as voice of the economically disenfranchised, by constantly exposing its contradictions and compromises, emphasising that the Le Pens and Trumps and Farages just represent a deeply corrupt and illiberal elite. While it’s not a question of mounting a naive defence of the EU as perfect, we can also recognise the efforts of politicians like Merkel in trying to stand up for immigrants. Although this is a defensive battle we must also make clear that we have aspirations to a world which is better than this one, as distant as such a prospect may appear.

In doing so we can’t adopt populist language: no sneering at ‘liberals’ and ‘cosmopolitans’. Liberalism is not our enemy. Our foes are Trump, Putin, Le Pen, Erdoğan, Farage, May and all others like them. There is now a broad global movement based on hostility to democracy and liberal values, on racism and climate denial. The opposition to it needs to involve everyone who understand that those things matter, that we live in the space between democracy and fascism. If we allow ourselves to think, as I have seen some argue in nominally progressive fora over the last few weeks, that we already live in a fascist society, then all is lost. Such attitudes are a form of slow suicide. Democracy may in some ways be a facade, but it’s a facade which protects us from the elements in stormy times.

In order for this movement to exist, I believe that those who are not already members should join a progressive political party. Individually we are powerless, prone to snapping up every product that briefly assuages our feelings of fear, powerlessness and guilt. I have rejoined the UK Green Party and will be encouraging friends and family to do the same. I agree with Caroline Lucas, Compass and others that progressive people should campaign for the person best placed to beat the candidate of the increasingly far-right Tory Party. Knocking on doors and handing out leaflets on windy shopping precints may be demoralising but it is one of the few chances we have. Facebook is useful for organising activities but it is emphatically not itself a form of political activity. We will not be able to defend refugees and protect the climate online. In whichever country we live, we have to join together in person with people we disagree with about some of the things we care most about. That will be tough but is is absolutely necessary. After a few years in which the notion of political parties has lost some appeal partly due to a widespread sense that our individual feelings and identities are more important, I think it’s that model we have to return to. That does not mean subordinating everything to election cycles. As Aditya Chakrabortty says of what the British Labour Party needs to do to survive:

It needs to turn itself into a social institution. It should be providing welfare rights advice to those whose benefits are being cut, legal support to tenants battling greedy landlords and arguing with the utilities to provide cheaper and better deals. 

We can’t afford any more ideological purity: no more refusing to vote against candidates who can defeat fascists. And we can no longer pretend that political parties are dead. Macron built one and won, and Mélenchon created a vehicle for radical political change which still has a huge role to play. The far-right organise through them. We need them to exist and the best way to make sure they do is to play an active part, pushing for our progressive agenda where possible. Doing all of this doesn’t mean that we will win; in the words of one of Thomas Pynchon’s characters:

“Maybe it’s unbeatable, maybe there are ways to fight back. What it may require is a dedicated cadre of warriors willing to sacrifice time, income, personal safety, a brother/sisterhood consecrated to an uncertain struggle that may extend over generations and, despite all, end in total defeat.”

Sounds daunting, but we don’t have a choice. 

My days as an early internet scamster (and troll)

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In the British sitcom ‘Only Fools and Horses’ Uncle Albert would always bore the shit out of everyone by droning on about life ‘during the war’. I used to wonder what my generation’s equivalent would be, and I didn’t have to wait long to find out. When I try to explain to my students that life before the internet, smartphones and etc didn’t just involve sitting round in black and white waiting for those things to be invented I can almost hear them groan. As it happens I was involved in one of the first internet scams, and was also one of the first people to realise the potential of the web for what would become known as ‘trolling.

The first ‘proper’ ‘job’ I had (I’d already done about 15 things by the time I left school, from delivering the world’s shittest newspaper and selling dusters door-to-door to being shouted at in restaurant kitchens), was with a company based in Battersea which went by the sublimely Delboy-esque moniker of Business Trade Bureau. My bosses were a resting Islington actor who worked a little on our RP vowels and a dapper elderly gentleman who had a touch of the Frankie Frasers about him; my colleagues included two ribald white Kip Tiwnians who had left Sith Ifrica after the end of apartheid because of all the (ahem) ‘crim’.

Here’s how the scam worked. ‘Our’ ‘secretaries’ would phone round numbers from regional editions of the Yellow Pages: one week it would be plumbers, the next electricians, etc. Their ‘bosswanted to talk to the sole trader about something important, some work, in fact – their company had been ‘recommended. This was the bait, and as it was recession-deep 1993 small contractors usually leapt like adolescent perch at it. Most called back and were put through to a pseudonymous version of ‘me’ (there was much fun to be had doing ‘rallies’ round the office, transferring the call until they hung up. I think the record was sixteen.) We would, sounding as pompous as humanly possible (I’d never seen or heard Boris Johnson at this point, but…), lead them through a bullshit questionairre designed to see if they could satisfy the needs of our ‘subscribers’, who paid us a ‘handsome’ sum to access our ‘website’ (a ‘sort of private computer database’ which they accesed via a ‘modem’, ‘a bit like teletext, but considerably snazzier’ ‘it doesn’t matter what it is, because it doesn’t exist’ – that last explanation I often omitted) and get the details of ‘topnotch’ ‘handpicked’ contractors in their area.

What’s a modem? people would ask, usually sounding a bit tired. I’d never seen one, and I wouldn’t get the chance to go online for another year or so, at which point I would mostly use it to get Simpsons scripts and send rude messages to members of the Wu-Tang Clan (I never got a reply, thankfully). Some people were satisfied to be told that the system was similar to Minitel (I didn’t really know what that was either). I usually explained that a ‘webpage’ was like a fax machine, but with computer information instead of paper. This wasn’t a bad guess as it goes.

My spiel was often interrupted by weary queries as to the inevitable cost of this to them, the contrators. I would imperiously bat away such footling concerns, telling them it was our clients who paid for the service. The trick came at the end when, having obtained their go-ahead, I would tell them I’d be faxing the contract right away and if they could send it back post-haste (suddenly speaking impossibly fast) along with a cheque for £145 plus VAT we’d get them set up asap (pronounced asap). Cue drawing of breath, cursing, remonstrations about twenty wasted minutes followed quickly by my slightly hurt-sounding placatory protest that it was merely the cost of designing their non-existent ‘website’ (I didn’t say ‘non-existent’) which was done by a crack team of (with all the fogeyness I could muster) ‘whizzkids’.

Desperate business. At least it taught me the vitally important life skill of sounding self-important while lying through my gums. Given that we were paid mostly on commission there was a strong incentive to work hard but what we were doing was clearly so sociopathic in nature I often just covered the phone with The Guardian (the desk had no computer on it – how quaint!) and pretended there were no calls. Often, when I was called or forced into action, the acting bit was fun but there was a certain point at which the caller, after a couple of minutes of spiel, would refer bitterly to an uncannily similar-sounding conversation they’d had a few months before with a representative of another telltellingly-banally-named firm which had ended up scamming exactly £145 plus VAT off of them. That firm had, as it happened, operated from the exact same premises on the exact same premise. After I got wise to this I began to anticipate it, saying there were ‘cowboys’ in any ‘trade’ and it was essential to weed them out. I stuck out the job until I got a much better offer consisting of going to live in Dublin and signing on for a couple of glorious but now somewhat smoky years during which my skills at mini-pool and my indepth knowledge of Aerosmith videos developed considerably but my job prospects sort of stultified.

Within a few years I had been corralled back into the workforce and was spending all my working day online. The job consisted of helping people with their computer virus issues and mind-numbingly dull problems with (nods off) utility software. The company was located in the uniquely uninspiring setting of a subsuburban business park in comparison with which central Slough would have been like Djemaa El-Fna. I also spent a lot of time trying to avoid answering the phone. At least I got properly paid, although this was Dublin, in 1998, which generally restricted my disposable income to three pints of Harp and a red lemonade for the lady. The day was spent employing the usual skives: donating blood at lunchtime and spending the afternoon in a selfless snooze, urgent private tete-a-tetes which actually just consisted of paper plane competitions, trying to get the French speakers to direct calls my way so I could get in some invaluable language practice, and etc. Luckily I found an original way to perforate the tedium: the virtual version of Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam. I’d passed through the real place a few weeks before on my way to Singapore so was tickled to find that I could return in the form of a (rudimentary) avatar. The trick was to walk up to ‘people’, engage them in innocuous conversation and then let fly a series of uproarious Afrikaans obscenities copied and pasted from another website we’d tracked down (‘Jy was uit jou ma se gat gebore want haar poes was te besig, ‘Ek wens jou vingers verander in vishoeke, en jou balle begin te jeu and the classic ‘Jou ma se hond se poes). This would usually result in the deliriously rewarding sight of seeing their insuffiently-pixellated digital representative wordlessly turn around and totter off ‘in’ the ‘direction’ of another non-existent ‘part’ of the poorly-rendered ‘luchthaven’.

I’m not particularly proud of either of these episodes, but looking back now I do sort of miss those times when I had all that spare time at work to mess around and totally waste my time on the…er…internet. These days, I have to…er…what time is lunch?

In which I renounce blogging

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So far today 3,300,798 blog posts have been written and shared. This is the 3,300,799th, or probably, by the time I’ve finished probably the 3,333,333rd. (You can check for yourself here).

Someone has to read all this stuff and (shamefully) it’s not me. I don’t read many other blogs, or at least not regularly. This one is not part of a community of such sites, with fellow bloggers commenting on each others’ latest thoughts and discoveries. Such things can happen (when I was in China it was the case) but it hasn’t this time round. Thus I feel like I have a direct, individual relationship with the Internet rather than being part of a congregation or community of faith. It’s a Protestant relationship, in that there’s no mediating hierarchy and it encourages hard work towards an unclear reward.

Come to think of it, the Internet shares certain properties with a Christian God:

  • Its existence manifests itself almost exclusively thorough rituals (such as status updates, blogging and posting photos)
  • It offers the faithful the very occasional miracle (see below)
  • It’s omniscient
  • It’s ubiquitous
  • It’s omnipresent.
  • Its mood is alternately punishing and consoling

As you can see, theology is not my forte. On this blog I’ve written mostly about what could broadly be considered political questions and my relation to them. Around twenty years ago, for a period of about four years while I was living in Dublin, I was active in (and occasionally wrote for the publications of) a left-wing political organisation. My individual identity was subordinated to the needs of the party. As a foot soldier my time and energy were given over to hard work and disclipine on the basis of a shared faith in a common project. This necessitated being involved in relationships which were never entirely political and never wholly personal. Arguments ensued whose resolution often obliged me to swallow my pride and accept that I was wrong, that my perspective was too limited to see essential details or to grasp the bigger picture. As for writing, I mostly wrote reviews of films or books, evaluating them in terms of how well they contributed to the revolutionary struggle and stalinistically rebuking the cultural worker who had produced them if they had failed to do so.

Inevitably, I find this activity (blogging) much more satisfying. It allows me to fully express my personality and my identity with hardly any risk of admonishment. It engenders no personal dischord and involves as much or as little ‘discipline’ as I like. I am completely unaccountable, whether in terms of choosing what to wrote about or in terms of how true or how good what results is. There is no measure of success or failure. Whether I scribble some mild satire about Theresa May while my students are doing a test and only 25 people read it, or bash out some anti-Trump diatribe on the way to work that (after my having done the rounds of anti-Trump groups on Facebook) gets a couple of thousand views, what I post here is (for the most part) gloriously/frustratingly inconsequential. At the same time, I’ve got some lovely responses from some extremely knowledgeable and thoughtful people who’ve come across the site and whom if I’d never put finger to keyboard I would never have encountered, I’ve discovered some others who make astonishingly inventive use of the medium, and no one’s spat on me outside the GPO for being a ‘Trot’.

Politically, however, it’s hard to make a case for the usefulness of blogging. (Plus it remains a uniquely unpleasant-sounding word.) Even the most popular thing I’ve written here (by far) was essentially urging passivity and complacency. That explains why it took off as it did. The dream of any blogger came true for me – this was the miracle I referred to earlier. My post went viral, with 750,000 views in about four days. The feedback almost universally positive; very few took issue, which was extremely gratifying if also a little perturbing. Hard to keep up with, because a week later, we had a baby, which put things into some perspective.

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The internet is a good fit for Herbert Marcuse’s concept of repressive desublimation, in that it allows people to let off fetid bursts of steam while constituting no threat to power structures. On last week’s ‘Under the Skin‘ podcast the filmmaker Adam Curtis argued convincingly that the development of late ’60s hippy counterculture led to an explosion of individualism which consumer capitalism was all too ready to facilitate. Nowadays, the Internet encourages us to believe that our individual feelings, rituals and gestures mean something, that they register on some elusive scale of value. While I may believe that I’m expressing my individuality, my unique perspective on the world, it just so happens that there are probably 30,000 people out there saying exactly the same things. The internet is a perfect manifestation of the power of the spectacle, one adapted to the pretensions and projections of every individual who accesses it and one in which we frantically produce and consume images of ourselves as productive and influential beings; the spider’s web of communicative capitalism eats up all individual protest, all the rants and outbursts and cogently-argued denunciations and feeds upon them. In providing me with a virtual patch of land in which to cultivate my narcissism, it allows me the illusion that I am engaging politically. Who benefits most is wordpress.com, which profits from my (briefly vomits) ‘content’ and that of millions of individuals who are all convinced that what they are doing is unique and important.

The role of the internet in relation to our political consciousness also validates the pessimism of the Frankfurt School, and the subsequent reflections of critical theory as to what Saul Bellow called ‘the late failure of radical hopes’. Our migration to a life lived online is partly responsible for and partly symptomatic of the fact that in the face of the absolute need for immediate and massive political transformation present generations are (in the modern era) unprecedentedly conservative. Adam Curtis hones in on the ubiquity of risk aversion in contemporary finance, and the ways in which this colours our everyday expectations and aspirations. Something I’ve noticed among some of those opposed to Brexit is a sense that everything was perfect before June 23rd and that the vote is a brutal intrusion, an ugly flaw in an otherwise unproblematic reality. For those who benefit from a certain measure of economic stability, any social or political change is something to be feared rather than encouraged. Seven years of talking to (mostly young) exam candidates from around the world, hearing and reading their thoughts about political and social issues, has for me repeatedly confirmed Mark Fisher’s diagnosis of ‘capitalist realism’, the notion that no matter how bad things get there is simply no other horizon to look towards. Curtis gives the example of Yemen – the resignation which which we greet the news that our Governments are funding – indeed, profiting from – what appears to be genocide. Speaking out against such horrors might put our own status at risk. The taboo that governs mentioning climate change on social media is reminiscient of those scenes in which the line-up of troops on parade quivers with fear, terrified that if they stand up against the bullying commandent they will be next to be humiliated. In this case its our peers who we fear might see us overly earnest or excessively serious in a medium designed for irony and levity – or, in the case of Twitter, irony and abuse.

The famous statement that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world that a slight alteration to capitalism implies that we would be unable to respond to anyone who demands to know what our alternative is. Instead we respond to gruesome disasters with Facebook prayers. Some sneer at Twitter hashtags like #prayforparis without reflecting on what a status update or a shared meme is but an invocation of, an appeal to, a higher power. Like Kierkegaard said of prayer itself, it is more useful to the person doing the updating than anything else. And what do memes resemble if not religious icons? The priests of this religion are those wannabe-demagogues who have a sufficient command over the arcane means of diffusing their messages or who already have access to a sufficiently elevated pulpit. Comedians do politics and politicians seek first and foremost to entertain, mostly by evoking outrage and giving it a clear and convincing focus. TED Talks mask the fact that for all that we live in a time of stupendous technological wizardry our age is also one of social stasis marked by economic ruination and a profound and widespread lack of moral and political agency.

Jodie Dean wrote in ‘Communicative Capitalism’ about the illusion that what we share must register in some significant but vague way, and the fantasy that posting online constitutes a meaningful political intervention. Lacan’s Big Other, that invisible and ineffable authority before which we genuflect, is somewhere online, reading everything we write. The Matrix is an increasingly efficient metaphor. FOMO is largely driven by fear of no longer existing. Disconnection means death.

There’s something deeply religious about all this frenetic online blathering, this blind compliance with the rituals of the world’s biggest ever cult. But while most Gods are benign, this one definitely is not. I want no more part in propagating these illusions, principally my own. It’s time to end this vanity project and to get involved in something useful.

Maybe that Louis CK had a point

I come into work about 25 minutes early with my classes already prepared: I’m going to write an essay on the big screen while the students watch, and then they’re going to write similarly-themed essays on their own computers. Yesterday’s lessons with these two groups were frustrating as I was trying to play them bits of ‘Let Them Eat Chaos’ by Kate Tempest but the IT system kept playing up. In the staffroom most pcs are busy. The only one that isn’t takes ages to load – ten to twelve seconds. While I’m waiting I use my phone. I email myself a memo for an article I’ve started writing about music. When the pc is finally ready I open Google Chrome, but then I’m interrupted by a dialogue box, which asks me if I want to restart the computer now or wait one, two or three hours. My patience is already worn thin by the 30 or seconds the whole process has taken so far. I set it to restart in four hours’ time. Someone else can deal with it. I’ve got things to do that can’t wait. Once my email has opened I check my email to myself has arrived and then click on Google Drive so I can paste the contents of the email into a new document. Opening Google Drive always takes an eternity (sometimes up to five seconds) so I look around and greet a couple of newly-arrived colleagues. Most of the other staff are busy on their pcs or phones. When I look back at the screen the Google doc is ready, so I do what I need to do, open another new blank doc and type this. I check the spelling, close it and log off so that I can go up to class early and log onto the classroom pc in time for the lesson.