Monday, January 30, 2012

Little Angry Synthetic Men Learn About Love




When Xavi, trying to describe the mental process he undertakes in a World Cup semi-final, says it’s like being on the PlayStation, it is yet another way in which a metaphor becomes reflexive—another instance of a word becoming its meaning. Xavi tells us that being Xavi is like being in a video game. Of Xavi.

(Supriya Nair)


The ball whistles two metres wide of the post. The shooter looks back in disgust, while a team-mate gestures to him that he should have passed instead. It is the rote behaviour of footballers that the television cameras are set up in advance to capture, the reaction shot being just as integral to the spectacle as the live action with the ball in play. We watch to see the emotion as much as to admire the skill or cheer for our team, which is why there is something peculiarly frigid about exhibition matches, even if they produce more goals and more conventionally defined spectacular plays than ordinary ones. It’s not just that we ourselves have less of a stake in the result. It’s that we can tell that the players don’t feel anything.


Subbuteo players betrayed no emotion after missing a goal, and never remonstrated to each other. They didn’t cheer or even raise their arms. Their default pose, their only pose, was the static one of a pre-match line-up. Except for the goalkeeper, permanently frozen in a stationary dive.


Subbuteo players were replicas. They did not behave. Yet unlike toy soldiers you could flick them about, make them do things, and not just produce static images. So they combined the frisson of that minute fidelity to the objects of the simulation (when I was nine or ten I either painted myself, or my best friend did, or otherwise I acquired a Juventus player with grey hair, like Roberto Bettega, and this thrilled me no end) with the capacity to actually simulate some of their actions. But still not their emotions. Those you had to supply yourself.

Subbuteo ceased production around 2000 and some time later Hasbro, who bought the rights, started marketing a new version with ‘photorealistic’ player cards in place of the classic plastic figurines, producing an odd hybrid in the era of ultra-realistic videogames. And while the old Subbuteo maintains an avid base of players and collectors, nowadays videogames are what defines the boundaries of simulation and what counts as realism.

A nu-Renaissance portrait created by FIFA 11
To hear the name of your favourite player being called by a real commentator. To command that player, make him score a goal. To hear the home crowd react in a stadium that looks just like the stadium of your favourite team. It’s difficult to get over these things, to maintain a critical distance in the act not of watching or reading, but playing, manipulating that reality directly. So in the odd moments when the commands fail to respond or the players don’t behave as real players would – when they just freeze near the ball, or inexplicably look away from the action – or when the commentators get it wrong, praising a woeful miss as a good attempt on goal, or repeating themselves robotically, you reflexively make that mental check, yup, I’m playing a videogame, and that act, the having to remind yourself, brings home in turn how real every other moment feels.

However we need to define what ‘real’ means in this context. The synthetic reality of games such as Fifa 12 or Pro Evolution Soccer is not correlated to the experience of playing ordinary football, but to the dual experience of playing and simultaneously watching on television top-level professional football. This involves augmentation, in that you acquire skills you are unlikely to possess in real life, and a displacement or split, in that real football players can’t watch themselves on television while they play. Let’s add to this a further dimension: that in controlling multiple players one also simulates the experience of being a fan and cheering for one’s team, with all the anxiety/frustration/elation that that involves, mixed in with the desire to push the boys forward, to materially help them succeed through force of will alone.

If it’s reality, then, it is far from unmediated, but relies heavily on generic and symbolic conventions and languages, meaning the rules of the game, its codes of behaviour and the style of its televised presentation, and more broadly on psychology, as much as on the rules of physics and human physiology.

This is to say that more so than the mechanics – what is known as gameplay – what matters is a game’s emotional texture, its capacity to produce and reproduce realistic psychological events. The commentary must be understood and evaluated primarily for how well it fulfils this function, for how effectively it punctuates the gameplay on an emotional level (which you can judge by this trailer. And here’s a Subbuteo precursor, sourced from this site).

Featuring ‘all new authenticity’, the soundtrack by Clive Tyldesley and Andy Townsend for Fifa 12 and Pro Evolution Soccer promises for instance the following:
Hearing both commentators getting excited in a very natural way when scoring a cracker, will make gamers feel the moment like never before in the entire PES history.
What counts just as much as the contextual responsiveness of the commentators is that they get excited in a very natural way, meaning in the all-but-natural way of contemporary television commentators – the obvious undercutting point being that real commentaries are highly coded and conventional. And indeed the fact that they can be so easily simulated by picking from however large a store of scripted sentences is as much an indictment of the current style as a reason to praise the programmers.


Important as the commentary is, even more important is the players’ own expressiveness and emotional behaviour. At the time of the first fully-fledged football arcade game, not long after I stopped playing Subbuteo, this was limited to some very stylised and wholly repetitive cheering after each goal. These days the celebrations are fully choreographed animated sequences lasting several seconds, and players vent their emotions after almost each play. They commiserate after a missed opportunity, or complain petulantly to their team-mates that they were wide open. They bow their heads or punch the turf after conceding a goal. They cheat, typically by raising their arm for a throw-in for their side when the last touch was theirs in a close-call situation (in which case do they know? Should they know?). They bicker with the referee when a penalty is given to the opposing team, or a player isn’t booked who ought to have been. Sometimes they even threaten to take matters in their own hands.


This is of course quite absurd, as is the commentators’ praise or surprise concerning the conduct of the referee: the computer knows if it was a hand-ball, or whose the last touch was, or if a tackle warranted a free kick or a booking. All of these things to do not just happen, they are calculated. Yet the little men get angry. Angry at themselves, but more often at others, as if they perceived an injustice. They get absurdly, cosmically angry, simply because without that particular emotion, if their range was limited to joy or stoic acceptance, the game just wouldn’t be realistic. Something would be missing.

Yet they never lose it completely. The little men don’t punch a fan or attack the referee; they don’t say rude things about another player’s sister and get head-butted in the chest in return. There is a limit, not so much in the combinatorial nature of the gameplay itself – which is likely capable of generating a near-infinite number situations, if not quite exhaust the kind of moves that real players could come up with – but more particularly in the players’ emotional range, which never rises above contained levels of joy, petulance and anger. A line is drawn, possibly because too many randomly generated abnormal events could make the simulation stray too far and too often from the norm.

Not Klimt's The Kiss
The image above was produced during regular play following the introduction of Electronic Arts’ new ‘impact engine’ for Fifa 12, and is therefore ostensibly the product of a random physical collision. Here you can see how the engine works. Here, you can see how it doesn’t work, but the ‘Fifa fail’ tag points in fact to an entire genre of videos dedicated to cataloguing events ranging from the highly implausible to the physically impossible recorded during the game. I find some of these scenes – notably the ones in which half a dozen tackled players fall onto one another in balletic fashion – practically hypnotic, yet it’s hard to argue that they constitute as many fails, so long as the goal was to enhance the game’s realism and not enter into a conscious hyperreal.

But what do we make of the kiss between Andy Carroll and Lukasz Fabianski? Is the impact engine writing its own story here, trying to produce its own brand of romantic fiction or social criticism? The next frame, informs us The Daily Mail, shows that Fabianski ‘does not appear to have enjoyed the ordeal’. I think quite the opposite, but judge for yourselves:


The torrid moment, followed by a languid embrace. I wonder how the canned commentary team dealt with this one, or if it could be taught to react more passionately and intelligently than writers at The Daily Mail, or the YouTuber who called it a fail. Were it that reality failed so gracefully, or so sweetly.






This week I'm also featured in the special Occupy issue of Overland with an essay on the eurozone crisis.


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Liveblogging the Apocalypse (8): The End of the Internet



‘Imagine a world without free knowledge,’ intoned Wikipedia lugubriously last week in lieu of its usually prompt and cheerful way of answering our every query. Next to the message, a large black W cast a long shadow to reinforce the intimation that we might witness in our time the twilight of free speech, perhaps of culture itself.


The internet is not entirely new to this sort of display. Wikipedia suspended its services in Italy last year to protest similar measures to the ones being considered by American lawmakers, while in 2009 the New Zealand web adopted the symbolism of the blackout during the discussion of the so-called three-strikes legislation against copyright infringement. This is the cause that moves us, then: the curtailing of free expression under the guise of combating the illicit traffic of entertainment. For this particular battle is no longer about software, or patents. It’s about Rihanna songs.

It would seem that protecting this young woman’s right to make money from her music – for she currently lives in an abject state of penury – requires granting law enforcement in the United States the power not just to remove pirated copies of said music but to shut down entire websites, which as we have also seen over the weekend is of course a power they already possess and aren’t afraid of using, but that the new laws would have further enshrined and extended. As Glenn Greenwald has argued, these law proposals and the conduct of investigators and prosecutors fit within a decade-long and staggeringly successful dismantling of the very notion of due process in the United States. So I’m not suggesting that the cause isn’t worthy. Merely observing that the internet does not black itself out against war, or for Bradley Manning. It reacts only – and perhaps appropriately, certainly unsurprisingly – to what threatens its ideological foundations. We want knowledge to be free. We want to be able to share and expand this store of knowledge without fear that somebody might come and black it out for us without just cause, or at all.

To underscore the value of what we do, in the tradition of the labour strike, we stop doing it. But the comparison isn’t straightforward. Wikipedia might suspend its services, that is to say withhold the products of our own labour from us; or we might drape in black our avatars on Facebook or Twitter, which is more akin to a silent protest; or we might choose not to update our blogs, or not to participate in social media for a day – in which case what would the repercussions be, and for whom?

In the event, the temporary and partial closure of Wikipedia was quickly cauterised by the social networks in a couple of ways: by poking fun at it – chiefly via the #factwithoutwikipedia hashtag and the assiduous compiling of the most clueless reactions – and by setting up some on-the-fly alternatives, either by pointing out that there are in fact other online sources of information at one’s disposal, or by creating a sort of live crowdsourced version of the thing, which was by far the most interesting response. So on a level one could say that there was no meaningful disruption. And why should there have been? Wikipedia has been around for a mere ten years, which is not nearly enough to make us forget entirely about all previous forms of quick information gathering, such as old fashioned libraries or paper encyclopaedias, to say nothing of online alternatives, beginning with Google itself. For we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that, before Wikipedia came along, search engines laid sole claim to the capacity to grant free access to the sum of human knowledge.

The business of individual participation in these protests is a little more complex. If in the flesh world we defy by occupying, on the internet we defy by vacating. We black out our avatars or observe a brief silence. And we go without. Without Wikipedia. Without Reddit. Without Know Your Meme. Without IcanHasCheezburger. (I’m not kidding.) Without all the sites that took what Jimmy Wales called ‘the extraordinary action’ of going black. It’s our new stoicism. We go without these sites as if they were essential, or we write one fewer blog post or tweet as if the gesture symbolised in its own small way the vanishing of the social networks, or the unravelling of the web itself. Which perhaps it does.

Above all, I liked the mechanics of it. It’s not that Wikipedia wouldn’t load, or the appeal page loaded instead of it. First you caught a brief glimpse of the page you were looking for, for less than a second. Then the appeal page would pop up and cover it. This is what digital censorship might look like: a glimpse of the offending content, followed by a take-down notice; the momentary illusion that you might be about to see the page you were hoping to see, to let you know what you were missing, followed by an explanation of why you were missing it.

I put forward some time ago that the image of the progress bar and the experience of having to wait for software or content to load defines our relationship with computing and the internet in a way that may not be sufficiently acknowledged. And that’s sometimes what will trip up older computer users who grew up with earlier electronic technologies: they halt procedures or cause crashes because they can’t tell when it’s required of them to just wait for a few moments. Conversely, to have a webpage load instantaneously only to disappear just as quickly may make concrete and present a peculiarly under-imagined dystopia: that of the end of the internet.

For a while we had Y2K, with its idea of an ‘off’ switch hidden inside the system, ready to be activated at a symbolically charged moment in time and cause the instantaneous collapse of the informational networks. It was a crude narrative, but not without its appeal. However in those days what most people feared the most wasn’t the disappearance of the internet itself, but rather the collapse of functions that it had taken over: say, public utilities, or the banking sector, or air traffic control. The internet wasn’t yet perceived as an essential infrastructure in and of itself. Now the voluntary suspension for a single day of one in a number of online encyclopaedias is a major world event. Wikipedia’s blackout page was viewed by 162 million visitors. 8 million Americans visited the pages of their elected representatives. (Source.) Support in the US Senate for SOPA – one of the two bills targeted by the protest – collapsed, and the bill was hastily withdrawn. This after many commentators, including our own Juha Saarinen, had warned for months that the proposed measures might precipitate that almost unutterable event.

Can we actually fear that of which we cannot speak, or that we don’t bother to imagine? Behind the clever exorcisms of the blackout on Twitter and the like, in spite of the jokes and the workarounds and the instant memes, I think we witnessed an undercurrent of genuine panic the other day. And what made the protest all the more spectacular, effective, terrifying, was that it was so brief, and that it involved such a small number of websites. Because what we have all come to know and to depend upon about the internet is that it is always on. There may be local disruptions, and we have all had experience of being unable to connect at some time or other, but we cound on the network always being there, and perhaps because of its historical origins there is a vague but diffuse and likely exaggerated sense that it would be near impossible to take it down, even in the event of a global military conflict. It is not surprising therefore that any scenario that disrupted this notion, exposing the fragility of the system, our neurotic over-dependence on a particular piece of it, or both, would be a source of anxiety.

Another thing that is always on, another thing whose complete disappearance is very hard to conceive of, so long as there are more than a handful of humans about, is culture. And as is the case with most new communication technologies, we have come to ascribe to the internet some of its essential characteristics. ‘Imagine a world without free knowledge,’ says Wikipedia, as if Wikipedia, or the internet, and not culture, not human agents had invented free knowledge and figured how to share it. The internet is but the latest delivery mechanism. Yet to say that what ought to have been instructive about the blackout was how little it mattered, and that nothing had truly been taken from us, would be to miss the point – for a free and open internet is worth fighting for, in the same way that a free and open press was in its inception, and continues to be.

As is often the case, the challenge, as I see it, is to abstract progress from technology. What would make Wikipedia truly wonderful and transformative, and not just a time-saving convenience, would be if we were able to think of it without the internet. If we could imagine rebuilding it offline, should the inconceivable need arise; and I don’t mean in book form, regressively, but as a form of organization, a working practice. Perhaps we can. Perhaps we would.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Flow My Tears, the Minister Said



They call it the government of the technocrats. They say that they take their orders from the market, or from the European Central Bank. Passera, Severini, Terzi, Gnudi, Giarda, Catania, Catricalà, Clini, Profumo, Ornaghi, Fornero. Who had ever heard of these people? They sound like the lineup of a third-division football team, but they are lawyers, economists and academics. They used to work for banks, international regulators, the IMF. They consulted widely and sat on dozens of boards. Then one day in late November they were sworn in as Ministers, at a time when the lack of political affiliation or experience had suddenly become the main qualification for the job of politician.

Italy is not new to these arrangements: Carlo Azeglio Ciampi led such a government in 1993-94, then again Lamberto Dini in 1995-96. It seems that periodically we need people who are able to rise above politics, or possibly crawl under it, and fix things, which generally means getting the nation’s finances in order and stave off the collapse of the public administration ahead of the next election. This is achieved in turn via the time-honoured practice of asking salaried employee and pensioners – the only two categories of citizens who haven’t yet figured out how to hide their money – to give a little more. In times of need, the country always turns to the needy.

Nonetheless, there is an etiquette to these things. We ask of our technocrats that they reassure us that while everybody will have to contribute, those who have more will be asked to give more. This never actually happens, of course. In truth we wouldn’t even know how to ask. A couple of years ago Berlusconi's government, in one of those very ordinary extraordinary measures that Italian politics has developed into an art form, instituted the so called ‘tax shield’, whereby people who had illegally transferred their capital out of the country to avoid taxation were allowed to re-import it, with no questions asked and in exchange for a nominal tax, mainly so our banking system could benefit from the injection of cash. It was a very polite arrangement. Please, Mr. Blood-Sucking Parasite sir, we would just like to take a look at your money. We promise we won’t touch it.

So it goes, and this time was no different, with the exception that the state of our finances had become an international story, which everyone bought. Italy’s current fiscal problem is not the current account – which is in fact reasonably healthy – but rather its debt, which at just under two trillion euro is one of the highest per capita in the world. Servicing such a large debt requires a sufficient pool of creditors who trust in your capacity to keep up with the repayments. If the pool shrinks, the interest rates go up and lo!, suddenly you find that you really can’t pay back the money. Loss of confidence has a way of becoming self-fulfilling like that.

Which is not to say that Italy’s economic problems are all in the mind – for one, the lagging of our productivity relative to the rest of Europe over the last two decades is well-documented – but rather that we lack a political class capable not only of addressing them, but also of questioning the narrative of the crisis. This narrative – which is loosely structured along the lines of the popular fable of the ant and the grasshopper, with the north of Europe in the role of the ant, and the south in that of the grasshopper – has succeeded in persuading us that perhaps we really don’t deserve modern hospitals, or to retire after forty years of strenuous physical work, or to be protected from arbitrary dismissal by our employers, because we just don’t work hard enough to earn these things. They are beyond our means.

Technocrats – these odd, unpolitical creatures – couldn’t reasonably be expected to do anything other than operate in accordance with the dominant narrative, hence with the logic of austerity, just like an accountant must operate according to standard accounting practices. (‘Creativity’ is frowned upon in both, and occasionally leads to criminal charges.) And so we passed yet another emergency budget, and called it – for real, in Parliament, not in the press – ‘decreto Salva-Italia’. We might expect a document so-named, this saviour of the nation, to be inspired by lofty principles or aim to achieve momentous goals, but no: it was the usual collection plate put in front of the usual people, making it that much harder for those on mid to low incomes to make ends meet, and for what? To kick a twenty-four billion pebble off a two trillion mountain. And on top of that, structural reforms, aimed at making older people work five, six, seven years longer (this will create more jobs for young people) and making it easier for employers to fire their employees (this will help more people into work).

You may question the logic, but what is important to understand is that the efficacy of these measures is irrelevant. What matters is that they are what the markets expect of us. Markets – much like mob lynchpins – don’t need to give explicit instructions. Instead, they send coded messages regarding what they consider a desirable outcome, or let you know when they’re displeased with you. They were very displeased with Greece when it threatened to let its citizens vote on the bailout package, weren’t they? Oh my! It’s like there was a horse’s head in Papandreou’s bed that night. But often the signals are more ambiguous than that, which is why it is important to find yourself technocrats who can correctly interpret them. To wit: if interest rates on your debt plummet after you’ve just announced a round of austerity measures, success! The measures worked, and confidence is restored. If they climb back up to where they started within two weeks of your nation-saving efforts, don’t worry! It just means that the measures weren’t harsh enough. You needn’t fear that you impoverished half the population of the country for nothing.

The extent in which Mario Monti’s government has behaved according to these expectations, as if it were colouring-in by the numbers a picture of Italy two, three, five years from now, much poorer but somehow still solvent, has been and continues to be something to behold. Except for one episode, a little unscripted moment, during the press conference in which the first round of measures were introduced, and Social Development and Labour Minister Elsa Fornero tried to say that it was with a heavy heart that the government was about to ask its people to make yet more sacrifices. But instead, this.


The word just wouldn’t come out. Sacrifices. Somebody else had to say it for her. It was a quietly moving little moment in which the technocrat let her feeling show, and demonstrated without the need for words that these highly skilled professionals whom we put in charge of saving us from ourselves aren’t a bunch of automatons after all, they are just ordinary people in charge of making difficult choices, and that it’s a hard task and that it too entails a sacrifice.

Alternatively, you know, fuck her.

Elsa Fornero is one of the foremost world experts on savings and old age pensions, so – had she actually mustered the nerve to do so – it would have been particularly galling to hear her announce that the single best idea that the government had come up with to save Italy was to halve or abolish the indexation of pensions, with the sole exclusion the very lowest level of benefit (under €470 a month). Combined with the reintroduction of the tax on home ownership and the increase of value-added tax and of the duty on petrol, this measure spells hardship for millions of retirees, and yet it was – in number terms – the centrepiece of the decree, being expected to net three times as much money as the very modest one-off taxation (1.5%) of the capitals protected by Berlusconi’s ‘shield’. The symbolism wasn’t lost on the public, who singled it out in opinion polls as the most abhorrent measure introduced by the government, and the clearest indication that the ‘sacrifices with fairness’ promised by Monti upon taking office were going to lean heavily on the former and tiptoe around the latter.

But Fornero didn’t announce any of that, she just couldn’t. What we got instead was an awkward silence and the welling up of tears, until Monti took pity and took over, exhorting her to at least correct him if he should get some detail wrong. It was a telling little moment, and no doubt the Minister was genuinely moved, but I’d rather we had been spared the spectacle. For it read as a thesis on the crude necessity of austerity measures, to which even the just must capitulate, and as such was far too political a gesture for a supposed non-politician.

In any event, Fornero regained enough of her composure in the following days to announce her plans to go after article 18 of the Workers' Statute, the provision that subjects arbitrary dismissals to the scrutiny of a judge, that ‘Italian anomaly’ – in the eyes of the EU and its central bank – that must be corrected in order for our country to regain its competitiveness and start growing again. This is the real battleground for the Monti government and in this campaign, which will unfold in the coming months, Fornero has already given every indication that she’ll be a ruthless strategist, beginning with her refusal to meet with the joint representatives of the unions. That a technical, unelected government should even think of undertaking such profound reforms, whose aims and rationale are quite disconnected from the urgent administrative tasks that supposedly underpin its constitutional legitimacy, is bad enough. The least that they could do is not to put a human face on it.

So please, from here on in: no tears.






Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Endings



Like a book, suddenly unwritten. There are blogs that cease to exist just like that, that disappear without so much as a whimper, or that linger but in mutilated form, their archives hacked into digital pieces. I’m fascinated by these endings, whether hesitant and stuttering or lucidly planned and executed. And I want to put forward two ideas: firstly, that to the extent that they even exist in time, blogs have no duration. Secondly, that a blog doesn’t become a text until somebody puts an end to it.

The talk of an end of blogging started years ago, but has become rather more intense of late. There may be some objective truth to it (at least in term of a general decline of the phenomenon from its peak), although it seems to me that the data used to back the proposition – in report such as this one – is a little contradictory. At any rate, I’m not very interested in whether or not blogging is in fact on the wane. It is quite possible, as a number of people have pointed out, that other forms of social networking such as Facebook and Twitter, or that adorable hybrid, Tumblr, are competing for some of the medium’s original functions, namely the sharing of links and photographs and the posting of quick entries, autobiographical or otherwise. Really, though, who cares? Except insofar a relative decline in the popularity and degree of saturation reached by blogging may motivate us to better interrogate the form.

Scott Hamilton attempted to do just that last week, arguing that blogs currently stand to the other social networks (which he labels ‘inferior innovations’) as the medium for thoughtful and critically engaged writing, and that blogging ‘may become an act of resistance against the dumbing down of culture and political discourse in the twenty-first century’. There is possibly not a single sentence of that post that I agree with, and I would be quite happy if we made 2012 the year when we stop quoting Nicholas Carr except to disparage his vapid arguments, but it is intriguing that blogging has gone in the space of a few years from being charged with dumbing down traditional journalism and commentary to being hailed as the saviour of the same. Intriguing, and at the same time unsurprising: there is a circularity to these media arguments that has become very familiar, even comforting.

But back to those endings, of which there seemed to be a lot in 2011. Nina Power retired the enormously influential and much cherished Infinite Thought, deleting all the entries previous to last summer’s riots. The Deterritorial Support Group abandoned Wordpress, liquidating blogging as a stale medium suited mostly to ‘link-baiting dross or dull, rote journalism’. Evan Calder Williams put an end to the Socialism and/or Barbarism (on which more below), Alan Jacobs to Text Patterns. There were some false endings, too: merc briefly closed down Love Is a Symbol, and by the time he reopened it the artworks that accompanied the old entries no longer appeared (people familiar with merc’s work and the intimate and painful history that it communicates will realise the extent of this loss, however partial); Marian Evans declared the end of the research project at Wellywood Woman, but continued posting; Francesca came close a couple of times to letting go of Buchi nella Sabbia – the blog that makes me wish more of you could speak Italian – but relented. And then, as always, there is the unnerving business of the indefinite hiatus. Memory, Amnesia and Politics hasn’t been updated since last April; k-punk since July. Owen Hatherley posted very little (although he trawled), Jolisa Gracewood only three times, and Douglas Murphy, who kept at it, was not alone in commenting on the effort blogging takes, suggesting that the hill is getting steeper.

One of the peculiar things about blogs is that they are rarely conceived of as finite writing projects from the beginning, yet they mostly end at some point, and not just because the author has become permanently incapacitated (in fact the facility of scheduled posting allows for the intriguing possibility of regular posthumous writing, if one were that way inclined). Oftentimes what causes a successful blogger to stop updating her blog is that she is getting paid to write the same stuff elsewhere, but even when this is not the case – and one can hardly be blamed – there is the issue of the effort, the work of blogging, whose returns and usefulness, of whichever nature they might be, are liable to diminish for a variety of reasons. There is an economy to this ostensibly free exchange of immaterial labour, if only because the time occupied by blogging could be spent doing something else.

Many of these issues were grappled with by Evan Calder Williams in the sensational final post of Socialism and/or Barbarism, a blog that I reviewed last year along with one of the two books that it spawned. I won’t comment much on the post, which speaks very eloquently for itself – all 4,000 words of it – except to say that it makes very interesting reading against Scott Hamilton’s polemic, particularly in terms of its evaluation of what is politically and creatively useful, as well as its sacrosanct defence of ephemerality (‘perhaps what was, and perhaps continues to be, the most important aspect of the form of online writing’) and of the need to cultivate a degree of discomfort with the form.

Socialism and/or Barbarism is (was) a blog concerned primarily with genre and form, typifying what Jody Dean calls in her book on Blog Theory ‘reflexivity, all the way down’, including at times misgivings about its own rhetorical strategies – which spilled out and culminated in the disorienting critique mounted alongside China Miéville of Evan’s own book on the occasion of its launch. What made the book available to this critique was precisely its coming into being in that printed form, an event which is by definition untimely – hence the image of the birthgrave, of the beginning that is also an end, and viceversa (in which moment, as I have argued, the text demands not to be evaluated but re-evaluated, recovered, as something that is already obsolete).

Which leads me to the business of blogs having no duration. Whilst it is not factually incorrect to say things like ‘I’ve been blogging for three years’ (so long as it happens to be the case), a blog only exists in the moment when it is called up – and effectively ‘created’ – on a computer screen. Before and after that moment, it’s just a scrambled string of numbers. Let’s say that on a certain day you printed a page of a blog, or the whole thing: even if we stipulated that the text thus produced were a good enough representation of the original, this doesn’t fix the blog in time, it merely creates a time-stamped copy of it. There could be no guarantee that the electronic version wouldn’t undergo modifications after that moment, thus falsifying the printed copy. In this respect, like every other electronic text, a blog – lacking a material context – is a virtual construct with no time dimension; alive, while it flickers on your screen at the requisite Hertz frequency, yet not quite fully in existence.

If you think that this is a sophism, or just plain silly, I invite you to consider how easy it proved to be for Nina Power to disappear a blog that had had, and continued to have, many thousands of readers, and contrast this with how hard it is to withdraw a book from circulation once it is out there, and for reasons that aren’t merely contractual.

However what makes a book a text, just as much as its material instantiation, is the fact that it ends – as indeed it must, in order to become an object at all. And so too blogs with an explicit ending, however provisional, become quite different things, and have their meaning restructured by the authorial act of saying enough of this. Just as they lose the fundamental quality that makes a blog what it is, namely, the expectation of future updates, it becomes possible to evaluate them in a different way, to treat them as proper objects of critique, for they have exhausted, or claim to have exhausted, the drive to mean more.

At this moment, perhaps, in order to be true to itself, a blog should be deleted, and cease to exist altogether, but that would imply a belief that its meanings could only be correctly interpreted in the continual present of their ongoing production, and not salvaged, recovered at a later stage, in circumstances and for purposes that may be vastly different from the original ones. In spite of their uncertain temporality, these relics also constitute a fragile archive of the early age of the internet, a document of our first collective attempts to establish a set of native forms. In this they might well prove more useful in death than in life.

All that said, and in the full knowledge that when the time comes I very much doubt that I could bring myself to do it, I have just as much admiration for the blogger who chooses to press ‘delete’, an act of non-compliance second only to not writing in the first place. The texts that cease to be there, too, are an integral part of this thing we call internet.

So here’s to the doubters, and to those who found better things to do, and to bold endings.



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