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.