Wednesday, May 19, 2010

I'm in ur base, bein ur mayor.

The advance of civilization is nothing but an exercise in the limiting of privacy.
 - Isaac Asimov

What is foursquare for? I signed up the day after receiving my shiny new überphone, having heard that it was one of the must-have apps for any self-respecting technology nerd. Somewhat sheeplike, yes, but I went into this brave new world of smartphones and whizzy, often unstable software offerings determined to keep an open mind. If an app was cool, or useful, I'd keep it; if not, well, it would be simple enough to toss the thing back into the digital ether from whence it spawned.

For those tumbling arse over tit in the wake of the great frothing wave of technological innovation, foursquare is a location-based service which uses your fancy phone's GPS to track you, and encourages you to 'checkin' to any number of user-created locations as you pass through them during your day-to-day. It's a game, of sorts, in which you receive points based on the number and frequency of your checkins, and for discovering new places, and for sharing tips on the locations you visit. So you might recommend a certain dish at a restaurant, or point out something cool in your local park which people might overlook. You also receive badges, which are like achievements on Xbox Live and the like, for - well, all manner of things, from being a prolific checker-in (checkinnerer?) to visting far-flung places to becoming the mayor of certain numbers of locations...

Yes, mayorship - the other main achievement foursquare hands out. Whoever has checked in to a location the most is considered its mayor. With this post comes great responsibility, tireless work for the public good, and the respect of your peers (or backroom politics, brown envelopes full of deniable donations and a surfeit of succeptible interns, depending on personal preference and fictional genre).

Actually, with this post comes nothing. Maybe a badge, which is just another flavour of nothing. But it's all part of the game, and in the same way as Farmville and other tedious grinds can be interpreted as fun, so can this. You compete with your friends, try to get more badges or oust them as mayor of a closely-contested location, or simply share your thoughts and experiences of the world you inhabit with an Internet's-worth of strangers. It's a social networking site where the building blocks of interaction aren't mass uploads of holiday photos or pithy snapshots of daily life, but the places we go and the things we do there. It's building a picture of our world and layering it with information, recording our movements in something approaching real time and using that data to better understand the way society ticks.

The implications of which are juuust a little bit creepy, a point which was driven home last week when I checked into 'Home' to find I was no longer alone. I had, in fact, been ousted as mayor of my own home, and there was an intruder in my place. Absurd, isn't it, the amount of shock I felt at this? The sense of violation? The location I'd called 'Home' was nothing more than an arbitrary marker in a digital map. It didn't even correspond with the position of my 'real' house (once it occured to me, some three hours after creating the location, that perhaps advertising my home address and pinpointing it to within three square feet on Google Maps wasn't the wisest course).

But it was my home. I'd named it, staked out my claim to this particular patch of digital real estate. And more importantly, I'd invested in it emotionally. To find this private spot - which was, of course, publically available on an open website - so casually invaded was enough to make me want to quit foursquare without looking back. I changed the name of 'Home' to 'Foundry Lane' by a kind of reflex, an autonomous distancing mechanism, and didn't open foursquare again for several days.

Now I'm back on it, and engaged in a furious struggle with a complete stranger - who is, presumably, one of my neighbours - for mastery of Foundry Lane. If my digital home invader has done anything, he's made me consider the foursquare service and location tracking as a whole in a rather different light. Yes, a techno-savvy burglar might be able to plot my movements and ascertain the ideal moment to break in and ravage my prize collection of discarded beer bottles and fossilised spiders - but anyone could do that just by watching to see when I'd left the house, or hell, breaking in during the nine-to-five and trusting that probability'll swing in their favour.

The more troubling implications are inherent to the service itself. What I'm effectively doing is voluntarily submitting to intensive personal surveillance, where my movements and actions are recorded and held by an anonymous corporate agency. Of course this is nothing new; the amount of information possesses regarding my shopping habits is doubtless enough to deforest a couple of square kilometres of eponymous rainforest, were it to be printed out. Likewise, I shudder to think of what Google can piece together about my personality, preferences and embarrassing pecadilloes, particularly since I signed up to iGoogle, effectively allowing all my searches to be more precisely collected and analysed - selling my digital soul for little more than a set of shiny bells 'n' whistles.

But there's still something a little... uncanny about foursquare, a troubling sensation that what you're doing is somehow in violation of the rules. Seaches and internet shopping don't have the same tangibility that your physical location does, that sense of unease that comes with someone watching you. I've yet to checkin at my workplace, despite at least one other foursquarer doing so and our head office address being clearly displayed on every page of the company website. Perhaps its paranoid, but I don't want somebody at foursquare to be so easily able to piece together every aspect of my daily life.

All the uproar regarding ID cards and the surrender of civil liberties, yet here we are submitting to a more genteel version of a home monitoring device. I'm effectively my own Big Brother.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Audacity of Hope

Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.
 - John Kenneth Galbraith

By two minutes past ten on Thursday 6 May 2010, the hope I'd been nursing was dead. I wasn't expecting miracles, nor the descent of a yellow-winged angel to anoint Nick Clegg as the chosen prophet of progressive politics. For the secular Clegg, I imagine the blessing of the most high would be a little like receiving the personal endorsement of a mass murderer. I wasn't expecting the sort of upset which turns the political world on its head, nor an Obama moment when you can feel change in the air like the first breath of spring after a long, cruel winter. All I hoped for was that the promise which had been made in the wake of the first live leaders' debate, when polls and pundits alike showed the Liberal Democrats' popularity at unprecedented levels, might in some small way have been made good upon.

I'm English, and hope isn't something I've been conditioned to accept - I tend to view it with suspicion, like you would a trail of twenties leading down a dark alley. But I dared to allow myself a trickle of cautious hope, that the Lib Dems might build slow and steady  to the sort of position which'd stand them in good stead for the next election. Small steps, I told myself. Nothing worth doing comes easily. But the burst of popular Lib Dems support was nothing more than a mirage to the desert wanderer.

And here we are now. A man who's been the beneficiary of the best education money can inflict, who's lived a life of privilege yet dares to decry those who say "what are my entitlements" rather than "what are my responsibilities", and whose 'Big Society' pledge is little more than a front for the dedicated strip-mining of public services which don't meet his lofty ideals, is now in charge of our daily lives.

Yet... I don't feel as afraid as perhaps I should do. Cameron may have emulated outrage that Labour dared to cling on to Number 10 even after 'losing their mandate', but the crux is this: even after 13 years of spin, unjust war and complicity in torture, the Tories still can't get a majority. If anyone's demonstrated they lack the mandate to rule, I think it's you, Dave. In a way, it's a triumph for progress and the rejection of archaic, self-centred politics that the Tories have been forced to dilute their poisonous policies with a healthy dose of social justice. It's shaken their smug assertion that theirs is the default setting for British parliament, and whatever happens 'twixt Conservative governments is merely an abberation to be wiped from the history books as soon as they can be re-written.

Yes, we'll see some rolling back of civil liberties and attitudes towards the disadvantaged, the single parents and those who don't adhere to the cosy image of home-counties pipe-and-slippers Englishness. Not as many as there might have been without Nick Clegg in the Deputy PM's chair, nor without Lib Dems in the cabinet. They may have made a deal with the devil for the sake of a country in need of governance in a time of need, but don't imagine the Lib Dems are lining up outside White's Gentlemen's Club for their membership papers.

They're still the same progressive, compassionate party they've always been. And blood-signed bargain or no, they'll fight where they can to curb the worst excesses of the Tory government.

At least, I somehow manage to hope they will.

Monday, February 22, 2010


Technology is a way of organizing the universe so that man doesn't have to experience it.
- Max Frisch

I love me my technology. I'm not a hardcore codemonkey like many of my friends are, but the Internet is an integral part of my daily life. More than that: it is my daily life. I work on the web, I get my news from the web, I interact with my friends over the web, I write reviews on the web, I play games over the web, I write my blog on the web; I spend more time in front of a computer than I do anything else, with the exception of sleeping... and even that's probably only neck and neck.

But the fascination doesn't end at the boundaries of my online existence. I want to know what's changing, what's new; the latest gadgets, the latest phones, the latest possibilities. I don't even want to own them, particularly, although the sweet siren call of the iPhone is becoming harder and harder to resist. I just want to know what's out there, to see how far the boundaries of potential have been pushed back today. And more than that, I want to see how the infinite adaptability of humankind has coped with today's latest piece of tech - how we've taken something and given it new life, new meaning; new purpose its designers never intended. How we've shaped something, let it grow beyond its humble origins.

And how it's shaped us. It's a Newtonian law: every force has an equal and opposite reaction. It's quantum physics: you can't observe something without changing it - without it changing you, whether you want it to or not. Society is in flux, unable to keep up with the implications of the new possibilities opening up in front of us. How did we keep in contact before mobile phones, before email? How did we find our way to a strange address before satnavs? How did we organise parties before Facebook? There were ways, of course there were; but we look back at them now and think: how primitive, how slow, how inefficient. Isn't it wonderful, how from Switzerland my friend James can organise his Scottish wedding among guests living in Exeter, Southampton, Kent and Winterthur? How he can find and hire the castle he and his fiancée have dreamed of; how they can discover in humanism the perfect philosophical match for their relationship; how they can have wedding rings made to their individual tastes by a jeweller in Cambridge; how they can search the world of literature for books to suit each and every guest, and quotations for each with which to tease and guide their friends and family. This wedding would have been impossible without technology, without the constant innovation and relentless invention which drives the changing face of the world.

But after we'd scoured the 'net to find the cheapest hostels, flights and hire cars, and googlemapped our way to the middle of snowhere, all the mobile signal fell away and we were alone in the quiet. And it was so quiet, so peaceful and still, a century removed from the frantic dynamism of modern life. All through the wedding, through the whole two days we stayed at Dalmunzie, no twittering beep or whistle disturbed the peace. People laughed and joked together, really together, face to face. They exchanged remembrances, disagreed and reconciled their conflicting memories, forming a shared reality and reinforcing the bonds of friendship in the oldest ways. Humanity isn't even close to evolving beyond its hardwired emotional responses, and there's an intensity to proximity and physical contact that no amount of email or IM banter can compensate for the loss of.

There are other things technology can't compensate for, too; skills which become redundant in the face of sufficiently advanced magic. Just because we've developed beyond the point of need, there's something to be said for self-reliance. For knowing how to read a map, not just a satnav; from knowing how to lay a fire; for cooking a meal from scratch rather than firing up the microwave; for making and building and writing and haggling, not just buying and assembling and tweeting and I don't just mean in case of arbitrary technocalypse, although being a geek that's naturally the first thing that comes to mind. I mean in terms of being a contributor, not just a consumer - of having made something through the skill in your hands or the words in your mind, of the unadulterated satisfaction which comes from being able to do something and do it well, and have something to show for it at the end. Something lasting, something tangible. The more we surround ourselves with technology, the further we step from the world around us. The more we hand control of our loves over to someone or something else, whether it's Google or Amazon or the Government.

I look at the stark majesty of the rural wilderness, and I want to throw away my phone. I want to live somewhere beyond even the omnipresent intrusion of the web, where I don't need money and I live off the land. Where I rise early and settle in with the dark, and work for the joy of it. Already a little voice in the back of my head is reciting a litany of objections, from the lack of modern medicine to my lack of wilderness survival skills. And I know in my head this kind of romantic idyll is a fiction, that pre-industrial life is hard and unforgiving and only a fool who doesn't know how good he's got it might want to throw away all the benefits of modern living and retreat into yesterday. But part of me doesn't care, and so I'm riven - torn between the future and the past.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Lost Art of the Semicolon

Sometimes you get a glimpse of a semicolon coming, a few lines further on, and it is like climbing a steep path through woods and seeing a wooden bench just at a bend in the road ahead, a place where you can expect to sit for a moment, catching your breath.
- Lewis Thomas

The semicolon is, apparently, going out of fashion. Ignoring for the moment the fact that those articles are all at least a year old, I have noticed a tendency in modern useage to eschew this much misunderstood punctuation mark. Whether this is due to ignorance, uncertainty or inverted snobbery is difficult to say, but I'm firmly convinced that the final wheezing breath of the semicolon would leave the English language poorer.

Not to go all Lynne Truss, but the rules as they stand aren't all that complicated. The first and simplest is in a list, to separate items which are already made complicated by multiple sub-clauses and commas. The semicolon is weightier than the comma, so you use it to mark the end of each item and let the internal commarage fight among itself.

Purpose two, and this is the one I would fight to protect: linking together two complete and otherwise independent clauses. It's easy to write simple sentences. They're short and punchy and tend to stick out. More complex sentences allow a certain poetry to leak into prose, with their subordinate clauses bringing a lyrical elegance to the page. Of course it's possible to go too far with regard complex sentence structure, creating something of a Frankenstein's Sentence where clauses, embedded in the middle of already multiply nested clauses, lead the reader, increasingly bewildered, deeper into a labyrinth of deepeningly, perhaps maliciously, postmodern prosody, occasionally branching off on diverse and whimsical tangents to discuss matters such as whether postmodernism, as a genre, could even be said to truly exist or if, as often claimed by those perhaps rightly suspicious of the difficulty of telling postmodern from poorly written, it's just a backlash against the rigid formalism of the 50s, or possibly an outgrowth of the punk era, although both of those arguments are undercut by works like Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which so severely pre-empt the period usually associated with 'modern' art, never mind postmodern, that they might be called pre-modern postmodernism, before returning to the original thread of discussion, which starts to resemble nothing so much as an Escher staircase (and parentheses never help, of course), with such abruptness that the reader, even if they were able to hold all the necessary information in their heads, and adequately separate all the red herrings and other superfluous data from the central line of syntax, is likely to faint, grow nauseous, or most often hurl the offending material at the nearest wall.

Yes, it's easy to write simple sentences. It's easy to fall into the flow of words, too and let them unfold flowerlike on the page. But what a semicolon alone allows is for a conceptual link to be built between two clauses; there's none of the comma's wishy-washy prevarication, nor the full stop's rigid demarcation. Only a subtle nudge to the frontal lobes, taking the reader gently by the hand and leading them to some secluded beauty spot they might otherwise have missed. It's punctuation as a intellectual tool, designed to provoke unexpected thought; yet at the same time the semicolon is an aesthetic necessity, slipping perfectly into the niche between comma and full stop. It's a pause with an authority the former lacks, but which possesses none of the latter's vulgarity; it adds rhythm and soul to an otherwise empty page, and I wouldn't do without. To so thoughtlessly abandon so delicate a tool seems a sign of Neanderthal crudity, like the proverbial hammer-wielder to whom every problem resembles a nail; or perhaps, as George Bernard Shaw once acidly commented, it is simply 'a symptom of mental defectiveness'.

Finally, in answer to Richard Hugo's graceless charge that the semicolon is not only useless but ugly to boot, I leave you with an opposing view:
It's the way the curve of the lower section seems to slide past the absolutist dot of the upper section. Irresistible!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Ich stelle ein Minarett auf mein Hausdach

Nothing is worse than active ignorance.
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

My friend Jim moved to Switzerland a while back, to live with his girlfriend Olivia. They're getting married in February.

But today she, who is usually so proud of her country, was full of disgust. For the Swiss people have spoken, and the building of minarets is to be outlawed.

In a country with around 400,00 Muslims, where Islam is the second largest religion, there are currently four mosques sporting minarets. Four. One minaret per hundred thousand worshippers. That's one seriously complicated rota system they must have going there.

Martin Baltisser, general secretart of the Swiss People's Party (SVP) which first pushed the referendum, told the BBC: "This was a vote against minarets as symbols of Islamic power." Which is a very serious issue, I'm sure you'll all agree. But even the BBC had such difficultly finding a picture of a Swiss minaret to accompany their story that the image they eventually put on the BBC newspage has a church spire in the background. I'd like to think that this is some subtle and brilliant piece of satire on the part of the BBC's image sourcing department, but really, is there any more obvious a metaphor than that?

It's not unlike the apocryphal tale of an American woodsman, living in a cabin on the side of a mountain, utterly alone. One day he looks out, sees a faint puff of smoke rising from the next valley over. he shakes his head, mutters something about the neighbourhood getting too crowded, and starts to pack.

Of course, for all the mockery, this sort of thing is worrying when considered in the context of the French headscarf ban and other anti-Islamic legislation. Never mind that the United Nations Human Rights Committee said Switzerland would violate international law if it bans minarets, or that the Swiss justice minister has said "a ban on the construction of new minarets is not a feasible means of countering extremist tendencies". Legal issues aside, the damage this sort of thing does - not just to Switzerland's image but to that of the entire western world - is incalculable.

It's an act of collective stupidity about on a par with...well, I was going to say voting for Hitler but even that probably seemed like a good idea at the time... Voting Bush in for a second term, maybe. I can't think of anything more likely to alienate the Islamic world and turn moderate young muslims into potential extremists. You may as well start publishing obscene cartoons of Muhammed on state documentation and be done with it.

Tolerance breeds understanding. Understanding breeds respect. Respect breeds harmony. Don't people get that? Or are they so terrified of anything 'alien' that they'll lash blindly out and create the very enemy they fear. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy - when the first suicide bomber hits the Geneva underground, all those people who voted against 'Islamisation' will turn to their similarly ignorant friends and say 'I told you we couldn't trust them.'

There's hope, though. A referendum isn't the same as writing the ban into law, so pressure groups and human rights organisations have time to start building opposition. And Facebook already has a protest group suggesting Swiss residents start erecting minarets on their rooftops. Like with the Trafigura incident, perhaps new media can make a difference, exert some pressure and change the shape of the skyline?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Moving on

All things must change to something new, to something strange.
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Last night, for the first time in a good long while, the Soton geeksquad were all back together. And although it was a staggeringly good party, I felt something this morning which cast it in a slightly more melancholy light.

While the hangover wore off by midday, something of that feeling remained. Seeing everybody together, laughing and enjoying themselves like we did at the best of times, only reminded me how rarely I see them all now. University was another time, another life, a common bond which drew us all together. But when it was over, one by one, they all drifted away. Back to the places where they came from, or to distant jobs, or to new relationships.

And now my friends, my good friends, are scattered around the country. Around the world, even - my oldest friend, whose best man I'll soonly be, lives in Switzerland with his fiancee, and has made a life for himself there. Time passes and distances stretch, and we accumulate the scars of growing old - the houses and children and responsibilities which come of adulthood. And against the bright colours and high contrast of new things, the past is a sepia-tinted picture in an unfashionable frame, fading into obscurity. It takes effort to remember, to keep the picture bright, and no matter the good intentions some things always get forgot.

So here am I, about to take a new job in a new town, and I wonder how many of the friends I've made at work will remain a part of my life. I'll meet new people, make new friends, and see them every day. Will we meet up on occasion, those old friends and I, and remember why we cared? Or will they fade, like all things must, into the shadows of memory?

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.
- Eleanor Roosevelt

I started playing a game called Borderlands about a couple of weeks ago. It’s a first-person shooter masquerading as an RPG, which means that the excuse for Rambo-esque levels of mindless violence is an endless proliferation of noble quests, fetch-and-carry exercises, hunting expeditions and attempts at ethnic cleansing.

The reward for all this effort? Experience, of course. The slow accumulation of those arbitrary little points, mounting towards the blessed number at which the counter resets and I achieve the unlimited powers of a level two Hunter. Which will let me go out and kill and kill again, with more effectiveness than ever before, and face greater challenges and fiercer foes, that I might accumulate more experience and rise to the pinnacle of human achievement that is level three, that I might become yet more powerful and render yet greater species of wildlife extinct, that I might accumulate more experience and reach the demigodhood of level four, at which point I can depopulate whole continents with the mere twitch of an eyebrow, gaining unprecedented piles of experience in order to reach level five, at which point…

You get the idea. In less entertaining games, this is called grinding – the endless, tedious repetition of the same actions in order to access content not yet available. I remember with gritted teeth my month in World of Warcraft’s torturous, mindless xp-mills; I see my better half’s inexplicable addiction to Facebook’s FarmVille, the very definition of pointless grind.

When you play a regular shooter, it’s for the exhilaration of combat and to progress the storyline. Borderlands, and any other RPG, you play for the levelling up. Everything else, including any pleasure taken from the front-end gameplay itself, becomes secondary. The very existence of experience levels changes the dynamic, defining the game not in terms of storyline or other abstracts but with reference to a series of short-term goals. But even though it’s a series of diminishing returns, as the reward is separated by increasingly longer periods of time and effort, we still do it anyway. And not just do it, but become addicted, obsessed with ‘just one more’. Why?

Probably because there’s something very comforting about the straightforward relationship between work and reward. Humanity has a tendency to reduce the irreducibly complex to something simple, straightforward, easy to understand. Look at Fox News, if you’re struggling for an example. Life isn’t simple, it isn’t easy to understand cause and effect. Things happen for reasons nobody really understands, and there’s no guaranteed correlation between the work that you do and your reward. That handsome chap at work spends most of his time surfing the internet rather than working, while you do all the little jobs nobody wants to do – who do you think’s going to get promoted?

But a level-based game quantifies that relationship, allows you to reduce something indefinable to something manageable, and rewards you just for showing up. It’s a guarantee that if you spend enough time, you will succeed. It’s replacing the uncertainty and challenge of skill-based gaming with the promise that enough time spent grinding through easily beaten enemies will eventually give you the tools you need to win. And since knowing your level and the level of your enemies lets you predict the victor of any given combat with reasonable accuracy, it’s simple good sense to play cautiously. When the reward for facing significant opposition is far outweighed by the penalty should you fail, the very game itself is rewarding you for avoiding risk. It’s a situation guaranteed to promote boring, grind-heavy play.

And those aren’t skill-based tools, like the sort of hand-eye coordination you develop from playing too much Pac-Man, but statistics-based ones. Abilities within the computer, not within yourself. Abilities anyone with enough time and patience could receive.

It’s this certainty of success, combined with humans’ tendency to break long-term goals into a series of smaller ones, which makes the level-based approach so successful, and so attractive. When carrying out a long, boring job, or at the gym, on the treadmill, who hasn’t started calculating halfway, one-third, one-quarter checkpoints? The sense of achievement you receive from hitting those goals, and the promise of a similar feeling when you reach the next one, provides the emotional drive necessary to continue at an unpleasant task. And keeps people coming back for one more hit, keeps them paying money into the coffers of MMORPG designers.

And these factors make grinding inevitable, even in a game which is quite a lot of fun. In something like FarmVile (no, that’s not a mis-spelling), it’s the whole of the game. And the addictive qualities of levelling are prompting quite sophisticated monetization of browser-based games. By allowing players to pay actual money for virtual cash and bypass some of that tedious grind, the developers are creating a built-in gold farming system and guaranteeing themselves a steady revenue stream, while those developers who eschew grind-based mechanics in favour of less exploitative (and more enjoyable) innovations are being left behind.

When I was a teenager there was a Playstation game called FutureCop, which had a side-salad game called Precinct Assault. The objective was to capture turrets and outposts, gaining points with which you could generate mini-tanks, which would then sluggishly trawl the length of the arena and eventually, hopefully, breach the walls of your enemy’s base. Naturally, he was trying to do the same to you. Your opponent was a computer-controlled flying machine called ‘Sky Captain’, who was tougher, faster and more manoeuvrable than you were. While you trudged around the arena on foot, he flitted over walls and away, claiming turrets you couldn’t reach and conducting hit-and-run attacks on your columns of tanks. All the odds were stacked against you.

But when you beat him on the hardest difficulty setting, after three hours of focused, controller-gripping tension as the balance of power wavered your way and his… when that little tank crossed the threshold of his base, and Sky Captain produced such a howl of frustrated rage that you shivered a little, in front of the screen… that feeling’s something I’ve never experienced since. I was lifted into the sky, tapdancing on clouds. And the reason I felt such elevation was the knowledge that I’d done something remarkable, something which had required genuine effort, genuine skill.

I didn’t just turn up.