The arts, politics, and technology

panel at Citizen of Nowhere
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(pic of the panel courtesy of Emma Hughes)

This morning I took part in a fascinating panel discussion about the intersections of art and technology – with a focus on theatre because it was hosted by the National Theatre of Scotland as part of this year’s Neon Festival in Dundee ⁦@NTSonline⁩  ⁦@weareneon⁩.

A couple of dozen noble people came out on a chilly saturday morning to hear us think out loud about our practice, our concerns, and our dreams, and it was a pleasure to be there with Lizzie Hodgson @ThinkNat Mark Stevenson @Optimistontour Emma Hughes @LiminaImmersive Ruth Catlow @furtherfield and Annie Dorsen @AnnieDorsen, all chaired by NTS Digital Thinker in Residence Harry Wilson @theharry_wilson.

We each had five minutes to introduce our theme, and this is what I said in my attempt to keep the conversation lively. (yes, I’m quoting the Big Chill.. you can’t stop me)

My notes for speaking

My notes for speaking

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Can Truth Prevail Online?

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(image: noticeboard at Newspeak House)

We have been anticipating the internet’s impact on the political process for over two decades now, with talk of ‘the first internet election’ going back to at least 1997 in the UK, a time when political parties and candidates built their first websites and started emailing supporters in the hope of influencing their voting.

We have come a long way from the first online MP’s surgery, which I ran for Cambridge MP Anne Campbell in 1996, or the mailing list and website archive that constituted the Nexus ‘online think tank’, and it’s clear that we now have what we asked for: it is impossible to disentangle the political process from the network, and all politics seems to have an online dimension, even in countries where net access is limited.

However the consequences are clearly not those that early advocates of networked politics might have hoped for.  Far from the network ushering in a new age of deliberative democracy fuelled by active and engaged citizens, online activism has become a tool for those who would undo the Enlightenment’s gains and push pack many of the social changes that have characterised open societies.

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Public Service: beyond the Open Internet

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Anyone who has followed my writing, talks and broadcasting over the last two decades will know that I have a very consistent view of the ways in which we need to manage the Internet (I’ll grant myself the privilege of using an upper-case I to talk about the network I’ve been living and working with since the mid-80’s – it remains a singular thing to me) in order to make it work for people and society.

From my pamphlet on the mutualism of the Internet for the Cooperative Party in 2000 (https://medium.com/@billt/e-mutualism-or-the-tragedy-of-the-dot-commons-489bfbd965ea), through my inflammatory essay for The Register in August 2002 (https://www.theregister.co.uk/2002/08/09/damn_the_constitution_europe_must/) , and my Cybersalon Christmas Lecture at the ICA later that year (https://medium.com/@billt/in-december-2002-i-gave-the-cybersalon-new-media-knowledge-christmas-lecture-at-the-institute-of-97f7510e4eb8), and on through many columns, talks and extemporised rants over the years, I’ve argued that we need to create rules that allow us to deliver a network that genuinely supports free expression, and that this requires engineering effort, because a dumb, unregulable, end-to-end service that simply delivers bits does not properly serve the public interest.

I’ve always argued that we don’t get free speech by having no rules online, but by building a network that can have rules applied and then winning the political arguments for laws and regulations which guarantee that free speech, within the bounds of a specific group, country or culture, and according to their agreed standards.

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Reality Ain’t What It Used To Be

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In his remarkable essay ‘The Last Days of Reality’ [https://meanjin.com.au/essays/the-last-days-of-reality/] Mark Pesce surveys the ways Facebook exerts its influence on our lives, reviews the impact of machine learning technologies on the analysis of the personal data we all leak into the datasphere, and channels his inner Huxley to conclude that:

the future of power looks like an endless series of amusing cat videos, a universe cleverly edited by profiling, machine learning, targeting and augmented reality, fashioning a particular world view in which we will all comfortably rest”. Forget the boot, stamping on the face of the opppressed – Facebook will bring our slippers and pipes so we can sit comfortably by the fire, with no desire the challenge the authoritarian orthodoxies of our rulers.

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Fixing a Wheelchair on Christmas Eve

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[Me and my mum, off to a Royal Garden Party in about 1999]

It’s Christmas Eve and I’m spending it in Casole d’Elsa, a small town not too from Florence and remembering a December thirty years ago when I brought my mum to Florence for Christmas as she’d always wanted to visit but her limited mobility – she needed a wheelchair for all but the shortest trip – had made it harder for her to get around.

It occurs to me only now that she was the age I am now – 57 – but in my memories of the time she is older and more infirm. Her choices in life had been so severely limited that it is perhaps unsurprising I see her that way – by her late fifties she had few opportunities open to her.

So we went to Florence for a week on a package holiday, staying in a small hotel near Santa Maria Novella and enjoying the city, the culture and the people. We managed to get up the stairs to the Uffizi, and I wheeled her along the Arno and across the Ponte Vecchio.

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Buying a ticket with a Network Railcard at 0945…

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This is of minority interest, but if I put it here it becomes findable…

There is a bank of ticket machines at Cambridge rail station and they will sell you tickets. Some tickets. If you have a Network Railcard (valid after 1000) and you buy a ticket to London at 0945 the machine lets you select your ticket and click Add Railcard but it won’t let you select Network Railcard because it’s ‘not valid at this time’.   Except it will be valid when you get on the train, which you are about to do.  Someone, somewhere, has hard coded this logic and it’s annoying especially if you’ve got to the station early to avoid the queue.

However today Maria, who is a station marshall, showed me a workaround.  If you select ‘travel in future’ you can select TODAY as the future day you’re going to travel on and give it a train time AFTER 1000. Then when you’ve selected your ticket it will offer the Network Railcard option.

I hope this helps. It helped me.

Juvet AI Retreat

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I’ve been at a retreat the last few days, twenty of us at an astonishing hotel in Norway talking about design and artificial intelligence.

Here’s a photo from Matt of how insanely beautiful Norway is. and here’s what the space we met in looks like:

Juvet

Juvet

And from the inside:

Juvet meeting

Juvet meeting

 

Here’s a list of who was there, plus some more background on the retreat from the organisers.

And here’s the view from the wooden shelter opposite

The river

The river

 

And if it looks familiar, that may because you’ve seen Ex Machina – the hotel was one of the main locations.

I’ll write more about what we discussed – I’m still processing a lot. But Matt and Cennydd have started the process.

 

The Liminal Library: My Talk to the SCONUL Conference

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I gave this talk to the SCONUL Conference, in Gateshead, June 7 2017. Sconul is the Society of College, National and University Libraries.

This was what I intended to say, and roughly what I did say.

To Begin…

The cat is alive

The cat is dead

This is a time of superposition of wave states because tomorrow many of us vote – some may already have voted, like I have – in the most important UK General Election since 1945.

The act of observation will be important. And we speak before it.

So we won’t know if the cat is alive or dead until many, many boxes are opened – ballot boxes and boxes of postal votes around the country..

We do not know which world awaits us.

I will not be partisan. But my talk is written in the light of a possible future for your libraries and for the idea of a library that is predicated on enlightenment values, scholarship, humanism and humanity; an open, liberal, inclusive society that values every citizen and appreciates that we are all connected and interdependent, which embraces diversity and differences of all types – including philosophy and business model; and which is confident in itself – confident enough to be able to address the major challenges that face the biosphere as weather systems change, and that face the species as the food web shifts and comes close to collapse.

Each of you will have your own view of how that future can be delivered. I couldn’t possibly comment.

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We tell ourselves stories in order to thrive

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Tom Shakespeare’s recent BBC Radio 4  essay about stories, and the need to drive policy through stories that work, stories that are based on facts and can be used as the basis of compelling narratives, resonated with something I’ve been thinking about recently so here are my ramblings. They also owe a lot to the Dark Mountain project, which has been increasingly shaping my waking and sleeping thoughts.

Art eats politics for breakfast.
The ideas from which we build our politics have to come from somewhere.
They come from
our parents
our family
our teachers
the social groups we inhabit or create
They come from the stories we are told
Both those that are true
And those that are made up but speak to truth
Today, as always, there are competing narratives. In some we are humane, and love. In others we tear things apart in fear.
Our goal is to tell the stories of the thing we want to be true, of the things we want to form the basis of our politics and thereby create the imaginative space needed for others to decide to build the world we envisage, a world in which the things we say are true are made true and the things we say are not true are not made true.
To make something (true), first make it imaginable.
We need to feed the dreams of the next generation of citizens, politicians, parents and storytellers.  And we need to tell stories that can be retold from generation to generation.
Because the ways we tell stories change and old stories must be told in new ways
Because the details of the old stories become familiar, even if the message needs to be transmitted
Because the sets used to wobble and the makeup was obvious and the actors would ham it up.
Because the faces of the storytellers are no longer famous or familiar or exciting.
And because each generation grows in the shadow of another and the way the light falls changes.
Because each generation wishes to cast its own shadow.
Civilisation will never be finished, and the thought that there is ‘progress’ is a story that we should be trying to untell. What we have built will always decay, whether a temple or an idea, and it will need to be rebuilt, reaffirmend and revised. This is normal. This is to be expected. This is the real world.
If we want to retain a memory across the institutional generations we can embed it into practice so deeply that those carrying it out are not even aware of the story they are telling, or we can hide it in stories that they will want to retell.
And because there will be times when it is important to know where the story came from and what it used to say, we need to retain, somewhere, enough to reconstruct its history and origins.
When the journalist Joan Didion wrote ‘we tell ourselves stories in order to live’ (in The White Album, 1979) she was expressing a deep truth about how we construct meaning in our lives. Now we need to find stories that will help us thrive.