Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The weariness of the satyr

Originally posted at Overland.

If it were made into a film or a play, it would have to begin near the end: from the parties that were held in the weeks and days before the trial, when the girls tried to grab the last of the money and favours whilst talking privately about him with open, at times ferocious disrespect, calling him a ‘flaccid arse’ and other things. ‘He’ was at this time the Prime Minister of what is still formally regarded as the world’s seventh largest industrial power. They, ‘the girls’, were a disparate group of women ranging in age from 17 to 27, some foreign, some prostitutes, some studying towards a degree, some aspiring to make a name for themselves in the world of televised entertainment, many a combination of the above, but all struggling right now to make the most of those last few parties. To corner him, to persuade him to help them start a business – which was code for receiving a large payment, practically a severance – or even, as they dreamed, to have the deed for one of the apartments in which they lived in Via Olgettina, in the outskirts of Milan, transferred into their names, so that they could ‘settle’, walk away with something.

In the day-to-day, or rather night-to-night, the competition consisted in seeing who would receive the thickest, richest envelope at the end of the party. ‘Aris got nine pretty flowers the other night,’ says Nicole Minetti in one of the phone calls recorded by the police. This means that Aris Espinoza, then 22, was handed an envelope containing 9,000 euros at the end of that one evening spent at Berlusconi’s palace in Arcore. In exchange for what? For being beautiful and being available, I think, would be the most accurate answer. For being pretty. For being there. Whether or not sex was part of the transactions, or of which particular transactions – whilst of material interest to the prosecutors and of largely prurient interest to the public – seems to me a much less interesting question. One of Berlusconi’s lines of defence in the media has always been that he gave all that money because it’s in his nature to help people in financial strife. It just so happened that the people in question where all young, beautiful women. ‘Girls’, as he always called them, as they called each other. And this story could not fail to be not only about power but also about the subservient role of women in Italian society and the role of the female body in the national psyche.

At one of the national demonstrations organised by the feminist movement If not now, when?
Berlusconi’s women weren’t sex workers. They were a live-in harem, serving as wives, housewives, companions, lovers, all supposed to be available whenever ‘the boss’ or Papi (‘Daddy’) asked the caretaker of the group – former dental hygienist and current regional councillor Nicole Minetti – to organise one of the parties known to the world as bunga-bunga. The international press has concentrated on the ‘last days of the empire’ nature of these festivities, the grotesque dress-ups. One of the girls once dressed as Obama, another time as Ilda Boccassini, the public prosecutor who had led most of the trials against Berlusconi (including, eventually, this one). You can see why people would focus on such things. But there is a much harder edge to this affair, and it becomes most evident when the Olgettina system is about to be dismantled. You can read it in the increasingly fevered pitch of those last requests, even as the girls started meeting with Berlusconi’s lawyers to receive the necessary coaching on how to speak and what to say to the magistrates. They knew they had given this 75 year-old man, whom now they frequently and openly confessed to each other to finding repulsive, their one shot at youth, beauty and a good, clean name, that is to say their most valuable assets in a society that trained them to see themselves not as possessing but as being those things (and a special chapter ought be devoted, when somebody writes the book, to the parents who reassured their daughters in the recorded phone calls, pleading with them not to walk away, at least not before having secured a large enough sum of money.)

It is in those final days, when the stakes were raised, that the market logic of the system became impossible to conceal – and besides there was less of a reason to bother with the decorum. What Berlusconi got out of the exchange was the ability to switch between a series of roles within his private theatre: he could be loving uncle, flirty friend, insatiable lover to all of these women, who were his. If you wonder how badly he could possibly have needed those psychological comforts, consider that he had a whole other mirror bunga-bunga party system going in Rome (where he spent half the year as Prime Minister), about which we know very little other than the fact it existed and was likely as large. Now the Olgettina girls were setting aside all of the pleasantries, demanding to see the money. On one occasion they did so openly and in a group, almost acting as a collective, to which an angered Berlusconi replied that they shouldn’t complain about getting in one night what it would take a factory worker five months to earn.

This is clearly the mirror not just of a nation’s moral decline, but also of its broader social and economic relations. The boss owns your body, your personal history, your future. At the end of the day’s work, he sets the price for your services. Because he is the market, he tells you how much you are worth. It is almost always less than you think.

I feel I should write a much longer post about this. I read the 400-page long court summons. I listened to the phone calls. I waded through two years’ worth of media reports. There is so much detail, and so much of it is exhausting, enervating. It is said that power wears you out, and weariness is a strong theme in this entire story. The standard narrative about the end of the Olgettina system pits a tired, fragile Berlusconi against his increasingly impudent, greedy menagerie, and is tinged with an undercurrent of melancholy sympathy for the old man. The sentiment is quite misplaced. Now we now from yet more recorded conversation from another wire that he had moved on, that he soon started partying elsewhere, even as the Olgettina trial got going. He found himself a new group of young women and boasted that his lovemaking was leaving them exhausted. In fact – reveals wryly his friend in the recording – they had quickly worked out that all they had to do to make him happy was to cry ‘enough, I can’t take it any more!’ after a couple of his pelvic thrusts.

Adesso basta – ‘enough is enough’ – was also the slogan of the feminist marches at the height of the bunga-bunga scandal. It captured the mix of weariness and anger that so many of us feel. How many of the same battles for women and the Left have had to be fought over and over again in my lifetime? But exasperation is no strategy on which to build alternative futures. The demonstrations came and went. They made no difference. Berlusconi’s fortunes only came to an end once he had tired himself out.

I should write a much longer post about this. Begin again from the beginning. I haven’t even told you why Berlusconi is on trial for this. Almost everything he did was legal. But I won’t. Ça suffit. It’s enough.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Leaving Middle-earth

First it was rugby and the America’s Cup, and sometimes Katherine Mansfield and Jane Campion (thank you very much). Then The Lord of the Rings came along and it became the thing that people knew about New Zealand. That, and that it was a place of great natural beauty.

It’s funny what people know about other nations. ‘If they commit suicide and the king rides a bicycle, it’s Sweden.’ I think Alan Bennett said this. New Zealand is the kind of place that people seem to know two things about. Seldom less, seldom more.

Years ago a friend in the tourism business who specialised in South-East Asia and the South Pacific told me that she visited New Zealand as little as her role allowed her. There’s nothing to see there, she explained, nowhere you’d want to be. Too much nature, not enough culture. It was a one-way conversation as I had no direct knowledge on which to build a counter-argument at the time. I’m not even sure I could successfully muster one now – not when she could turn around, pick up a brochure from a shelf in her office and wave it triumphantly in my face.

Image from the Tourism New Zealand website
This is how the country markets itself at this time. The $10 million campaign goes by the name of 100% Middle-earth and its main vehicle is a 60-second ad created by TBWA ‘placed on TV and cinema in selected offshore markets’. At the end of the ad, which tracks a fellowship of tourists as they tramp and frolic through a series of scenic spots, we come to the hobbit burrow shown above. The tourists look at each other in delight and wonder. Cue the campaign slogan: ‘Traveller: your dreams are waiting.’

It’s not just awful, but a special kind of awful. The last place shown in the ad before getting to the hobbit village is a hilltop dotted with carved Māori pou (voiceover: ‘where you can play on mountains protected by the gods’). Thus a direct, seamless transition is set up between the true and fake indigeneity, allowing the traveller to grab one of each. This New Zealand without cities, this nation without culture, is open to such reinventions.

The recipe is a kind of colonial mille-feuille. New Zealand can stand in for Middle-earth not just because of the entrepreneurial genius of Peter Jackson and the capital supplied by Warner Brothers but also because its native landscape was remade by British settlers in the image of their (and JRR Tolkien’s) motherland: hence when the Tourism Board boasts that ‘the fantasy of Middle-earth is in fact the reality of New Zealand’, as opposed to manufactured in post-production, it glosses over the pre-production work carried out by generations of colonizers. Another delicious layer of the cake consists of the arrangements that made the films possible, and the remarkable contortions (and outright deception) that led Warner to secure significant tax breaks and have a direct hand in drafting our labour legislation. Which efforts in turn – and we’re getting to the cake’s crunchy base – were targeted not at supporting a national film industry but rather at increasing the flow of foreign tourists.

The New Zealand of 100% Middle-earth is thus – to borrow Irena Ateljevic and Stephen Doorne’s phrase – the perfect postcolonial consumer fantasy: pre-packaged via entertainment products that are already thought of as pieces of tourism marketing, then sold as pure experience, a vast empty signifier that is up to the traveller to fill. There is no indigenous meaning here, not even in the shape of the land. We stand before you, all nature and no culture, ready to be remade in your image.

A true New Zealand landscape
The trouble is that none of it is real. Not 100% Middle-earth, which is just stupid, nor 100% Pure, which is the slogan of the parent campaign and only marginally less dishonest. New Zealand is neither of those things, and our target audience has cottoned on to this, as evidenced by the strange spectacle of the Prime Minister being grilled on such claims on Hardtalk last year (‘I think for the most part, in comparison with the rest of the world, we are 100% pure,’ was his inspired response) or most recently by a New York Times article timed to coincide with the release of the first Hobbit film.

Nonetheless, if The Hobbit is even a moderate success I’m sure that we’ll register an increase in the number of tourists, and the stats will be crunched and it will be found that the investment was worth it, all of it, including auctioning off our labour laws to a Hollywood film studio, for the people came, and they went to the hobbit village at Matamata, and they weren’t bothered by the fact that those lovely hobbit houses have no inside – they are just pasted onto the side of the hill – nor did they go away thinking you know what, in a funny way the entire country is like that: not quite real, a bit of a trick. You open the door, and there’s nothing there.

With thanks to Anna Caro. She knows why.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

This tree is made of tweets

IRL. In Real Life. As if this life were unreal. As if my writing this blog or my tweeting about going to a book fair during the weekend existed in a separate dimension of virtual interactions, and those interactions were collectively meaningless, immaterial, or at any rate less meaningful and material than what happens In Real Life.

Nathan Jurgenson is right to point out that this is a fallacy. Emails belong to real life just as much as letters or verbal communication. Facebook is real. But for Jurgenson IRL is more than just a fallacy: it’s a fetish. Calls to disconnect from electronic media and reconnect with the physical world as ‘something more real’ are, in his view, nonsensical, because there is no there there to return to. The online and the offline world are now so enmeshed that Real Life no longer exists except as a nostalgic construct to be accessed by those who wish to affect an uncommon sensitivity. He writes:
What a ridiculous state of affairs this is. To obsess over the offline and deny all the ways we routinely remain disconnected is to fetishize this disconnection. Author after author pretends to be a lone voice, taking a courageous stand in support of the offline in precisely the moment it has proliferated and become over-valorized. For many, maintaining the fiction of the collective loss of the offline for everyone else is merely an attempt to construct their own personal time-outs as more special, as allowing them to rise above those social forces of distraction that have ensnared the masses.
In response to this mindset, and to the ‘digital dualism’ that underlies it, Jurgenson has been working for some time on the concept of augmented reality, which is supposed to account simultaneously for ‘the merging of material reality with digital information, as well as the augmentation of digitality with materiality’, that is to say for the feedback loop between the digital and the material world. In the simplest possible terms: relationships that originate and take place mostly online may at times dominate one’s social existence, but so too the store of knowledge of the networks is comprised of information that is generated mostly offline. In the final analysis, it becomes not just impractical but futile and conceptually flawed to attempt to separate the two.

Which is fine as far as it goes, although Jurgenson runs into some difficulty when he tries, or tries not, to explain how and at what level of abstraction the enmeshing of bits and atoms is actually supposed to operate if ‘augmented reality’ is to be used for other purposes than to denounce digital dualists, and is not to produce another kind of dualism (digital vs. analogue). There is also some irony in the fact that the main target of Jurgenson’s critique, the Sherry Turkle of this admittedly less than impressive New York Times opinion piece about the lost art of the face-to-face conversation, owes her scholarly fame to a 1995 book – Life on the Screen – that was amongst the first to address these very same issues. It’s while conducting her research for Life on the Screen that Turkle was told by one of her informants ‘RL is just one more window, and it's not usually my best one’, a quote correctly suggesting that the end product of the internet revolution would be not so much an enmeshing as a series of slippages between socially constructed meanings – of what is media, of what is experience, of what is life, of what is real.

I am of course not alone in thinking that living at a time when the troubled settling of these meanings can still be noticed and – to some extent – contested is a historical privilege. Barring a forced and catastrophic resetting of the technological clock, future generations will likely find it as hard to think in pre-internet terms as a literate culture does when it tries to imagine what life was like before the alphabet was invented. Even now I think I am starting to struggle, and I didn’t own my first computer until the age of fifteen or encounter the internet until the age of twenty-six. Recollecting previous habits of mind is one of the hardest things. But at least I still know people who are internet-illiterate. I can rely on their experience, face what is at times the challenge of relating to them after spending the entire day or week on the other side of the paradigm shift. I can even defer the development of this literacy in my children, if my partner and I agree that they might benefit from a gentler introduction. Such not-yet-radical gestures, too, are privileges that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Which is why I find the fallacies and fetishes that Jurgenson decries less problematic than the rhetorical framing of his critique. This involves heavy use of what I have taken to calling the Wired ‘we’, a magical pronoun that captures the entire range of behaviours and attitudes towards electronic gadgets or digital media in order to allow a writer to make a universal point about these technologies. Turkle herself makes a dreadful abuse of that ‘we’ in her piece, but the retort is worse. These are all from Jurgenson's TNI essay.
While eating, defecating, or resting in our beds, we are rubbing on our glowing rectangles, seemingly lost within the infostream.

Twitter lips and Instagram eyes: Social media is part of ourselves; the Facebook source code becomes our own code.

It’s not real unless it’s on Google; pics or it didn’t happen. We aren’t friends until we are Facebook friends. We have come to understand more and more of our lives through the logic of digital connection. Social media is more than something we log into; it is something we carry within us. We can’t log off.
There is a very suasive flow to these passages. That we is so tempting, enveloping. It almost makes you forget it’s tosh, and I mean all of it. We aren’t friends until we are Facebook friends? Who thinks that? And I know it’s not me in bed or on the loo with the glowing rectangle, and that I’m the only person in my immediate family who’s even on social media. There is no we around me, not yet. And even if there was, even if we were all issued with smartphones and unlimited data, this picture wouldn’t be us but rather the global society as imagined by Wired magazine, made of people who all used the technology to produce the same social formations and meanings, all coming to understand our lives through the logic of digital connection. This is simply another fallacy.

Over at Cybergology, Giorgio Fontana has written a nuanced and much more sympathetic critique of Jurgenson’s work which covers some of these same issues, but for some reason I ended up stuck on a throwaway sentence: ‘A tree can exist without the net; a tweet simply can’t.’ This is true in the sense that he meant it, but I mentally quibbled: not if the people who planted the tree came together on the net for the express and shared purpose of planting trees. This is how I would tackle the IRL fallacy, as the incorrect opinion that the physical world can be said to make sense independently of the social. In that respect, a life lived surrounded by books is neither less nor more real than a life spent playing chess or surfing the web. The web may in fact be the best option, if what you wish for is to rearrange the world.

However what Sherry Turkle and Robert Kaplan and others for the most part are saying, with varying degrees of persuasiveness, isn’t that spending one’s time online amounts to living a life less real, or that we should prefer a mythical, edenic IRL to its digital simulacrum, but rather that the demands that the internet often entails – chiefly the requirement to always be on, always be available, both affectively and professionally – have a cognitive and social cost, not least since, as Jurgenson himself implicitly acknowledges, the internet aspires to occupy the whole of your RL and to subsume all other means of experiencing the world and other people. This, I feel, is a very legitimate argument, and if anything I wish it were taken up more articulately and forcefully.

As for the most persuasive part of Jurgenson’s essay, I don’t think it would be ungenerous to say that it was already formulated quite perfectly by this xkcd cartoon of some years ago called ‘Bored with the Internet’. I think about it quite often.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Kill File

‘When you rely on a particular tactic, it starts to become the core of your strategy — you see the puff of smoke, and he’s gone.’

(Paul Pillar, former deputy director of the CIA’s counterterrorism center)

It was as much a question of bandwidth as of attention. Loading all of those derailing posts, and all of the responses to all of the derailing posts, took time and eroded the cap on my painfully slow dial-up connection. So I started using a kill file.

At first I just killed the known trolls. There were epic ones in the newsgroups I frequented in those days. The one known as Maria Strofa ruled over it.cultura.libri like a warlord-poet. In some of the largest newsgroups devoted to politics or science-fiction, the trolls travelled in packs, so if you decided to go down that route you had to add new people to the kill file on a daily basis. I say new people, but sometimes it was the old people under new names. That’s how the internet worked before social media and the identity wars.

Bandwidth, attention. In the early days of the global internet they were metaphoric synonyms. Somebody might say they only had so many megabytes or RAM to devote to a certain topic or problem. The mental and social space was mapped onto an ideal, platonic computer, or an ideal, platonic network. Improving the workings of those machines became therefore a way of improving communication and the quality of online relationships. Online was still seen as having its own ecology, and killing people was promoted as a way of preserving that ecology.

It was considered poor form to share the contents of your kill file, but if you decided to kill a particularly objectionable person, sometimes you’d do it in the open. Plonk. That was the sound that the kill file made, as if you had dropped the person into a giant empty metal bucket. I did this. I used that word, as an adult, more than once, to signal to somebody on the internet that I was going to kill them. In fact I just had, at that very moment. Plonk. You’re gone.

Killing people was very effective. The next time you downloaded the content of a newsgroup, they just disappeared. People still talked about them. Sometimes they even debated them, as if they were still alive. But they weren’t. Not to you, anyway. The best newsreaders allowed you to remove the ghostly conversations by eliminating the responses to messages posted by a user that you had killed.

Killing people was effective but a blunt instrument. So the kill file evolved. You might want to silence somebody only temporarily. Or you might want to kill certain topics instead of individual users, or posts with phrases that might indicate spam. Thus in newsreaders like slrn and Xnews the kill file became the score file. A more subtle, sophisticated tool. Every topic and every user started at 0. By setting the appropriate regular expressions, you could assign positive or negative scores to either, and then set the threshold for the material you wanted to read. For instance you could ask just for the topics or posts with a positive, as opposed to neutral, score. The score –9999 became equivalent to the old instruction ‘kill’. But now you could do so much more.

It was common for users on dial-up to consume forums offline, so the score file gave you the means of creating a sanitised local version of the internet on your machine. In some newsgroups it was a necessary measure. Nobody was in charge and most communities hadn’t developed effective ways of managing themselves, so it was up to you to clean up your feed.


The web has changed. Newsgroups exposed people to vast, unregulated discussion forums. Now you are expected to choose the people you want to converse with as opposed to a limited set of topics of conversation open to (theoretically) everyone. And if you made the decision to ‘friend’ or ‘follow’ someone then it would make little sense for you to kill them, wouldn’t it? You could just rescind the friendship or the follow, with or without stating the reasons or recurring to onomatopoeia (unfriending and unfollowing don’t make a sound, as far as I am aware).

Yet the kill file hasn’t disappeared. It has just changed form, adapting to the dominant ways of encoding social relationships on the networks.

Take Facebook. On Facebook you cannot score people or topics according to your own criteria – the company won’t let you hijack its product to that extent – but there is a way of unfriending people without their knowledge. The feature was launched in 2009 and is called ‘hide’. Hide a friend and they’ll quietly disappear from your feed, just like in the old kill file, whilst continuing to ‘see’ you as if nothing had happened. However thanks to hiding you can not only unfriend people without any of the unpleasantness but also critically undermine friending itself. So long as it is possible to friend someone knowing in advance that you will never have to pay any attention to them, the reciprocity on which the idea of friendship is supposedly built – as much off the network as on it – ceases to have meaning.

Twitter doesn’t have a built-in hide capability but it allows third-party interfaces. Some of them have functions like ‘mute’, which enables you to either silence individual users or exclude certain topics from the feed (provided they are designated by a consistent hashtag). Thanks to muting you could follow an indefinite number of users without ever planning to listen to a word they say. This will help you to build a following, again because of the perceived value of reciprocity.

For bandwidth is no longer a problem, but attention is as valuable a commodity as you will find on the web. Pay no attention to me and I cease to exist. Hide me, mute me and I will be consigned to a social limbo, there to dwell amongst the givers of reputation.

Unlike Facebook and Twitter, Google Plus integrated these ideas from the outset and featured a 'contact circles' structure that functionally resembled an advanced kill file. Because this mechanism was built-in, people quickly worked out they could just cheat and build fake contact networks. This is why Google Plus, more than any other network, foreshadows the death of the social web: a place where everyone is everyone’s friend but nobody listens to anyone.


The days of the kill file have returned. They never really went away. But I must account for the provocative quote at the top of this post. Do I really think that a newsreader’s metaphoric kill file is comparable to Obama’s list of people whose life will actually be ended? Yes, insofar as they are both dabatases designed to eliminate certain people on the basis of certain criteria. They are both informational constructs, a product of the technopoly. You couldn’t conceive of the kill list in a world that wasn’t mapped by computer networks and governed by institutions for whom human problems are best represented in database form. The same Washington Post article from which I took that quote also included the following, from a senior Obama administration official:
We can’t possibly kill everyone who wants to harm us. It’s a necessary part of what we do… We’re not going to wind up in 10 years in a world of everybody holding hands and saying, ‘We love America.’
The CIA will never run out of high-level targets. The internet will never run out of trolls. This is simply because should either of those categories be emptied, the database would fill them again with the people previously defined as mid-level targets, or a nuisance. The danger of terrorism or insurgency will never disappear in the same way that online social interactions will never become perfectly smooth. This is why the kill list and the kill file are not to be understood as temporary solutions but rather as permanent features, a way not just of dealing with concrete problems but of imagining and seeing the world.