Tuesday, May 28, 2013


The packing slip read like this:

Shipment from Milan/Italy to Wellington/New Zealand

Mr. Giovanni Jacopo Tiso
[followed by the address]


1. Part of table
2. Part of table
3. Part of table
4. Chair
5. Chair
6. Chair
7. Small table
8. Part of small table
9. Decoration wrought iron
10 Dishes
11. Glasses
12. Vases
13. Dishes
14. Books
15. Books
16. Books
17. Books
18. Glasses
19. Books
20. Kitchen tools
21. Part of table
22. Trunk
23. Chest of drawers
24. Armchair

A psychologically more accurate list might read: family life (x1). Or: childhood. But we must account for things separately and objectively. Tick them off the list.

These are things. They are not who I am.

The mind always goes back to Georges Perec’s wonderful inventories. He would have abhorred my packing slip. Books? What do you mean, books? Or vases or tools? This is far too vague. A Perecian inventory would be far more systematic and precise, but not mechanically so. A list to reveal and at the same time to obscure. A list to make you curious.

Umberto Eco recently wrote a book entitled The Infinity of Lists. I was shocked to discover there is nothing in it by Perec. Entire pages of Life: A User’s Manual begged to be included. Maybe he forgot.

If you forget a list you need to check it against your list of lists.

The shipment arrived this morning. Justine and I ticked all of the items off the packing slip. Then we opened the boxes and we unwrapped the furniture.

My surprise at seeing things I packed only four months ago. Her surprise at seeing things she had never seen, or had nearly forgotten. We both marvelled at how little the dining room table looked in its new surroundings. Tiny. Such a familiar object, in every sense of the word, and yet we had no objective sense of its dimensions.

I lived with that table from the age of zero to the age of 21. Take away 40 days or so a year spent away from the house altogether. 200 school lunches from the age of 4 to the age of 18. Deduct another 50 or so sundry meals. That makes – very roughly – 400 meals a year, which times 21 makes 8,400 meals. Plus four or five hundred at least since I left home. What about time spent at the table? Shall we say 5,000 hours? At least. And it still wasn’t enough to give me an accurate sense of its size.

I will say these are just things, that they are not who I am, but I know it’s not true. There is a groove on that table where I used to sit, then my mother. Things take the shape of us, and us theirs.

When the table was made, Europeans had no knowledge of New Zealand. It’s a proper old thing. Yet that it found its way here is no stranger than the fact that I did.

The oldest thing in our possession – or rather the one that we have possessed the longest, as a family – is a small dowry chest, a matrilinear taonga passed down along with the practice of measuring a woman’s worth in sets of sheets. It’s a complicated object, full of pain and toil and hope. It’s also quite beautiful. But the things I treasure the most are the ones that are grooved. Shaped like us. The rolling pin that my nonna used to make pasta, carved from a single piece of cherry wood, almost as long as she was tall once age bent her figure. I used to sit in her kitchen, when I was eight or nine, and watch her as she used it to roll out the dough in perfect circles, the pasta so thin as to be almost transparent. Then if she happened to be making fogliate (the broad tagliatelle typical of the area) she rolled up the pasta and took out a special knife called la curtlina. For the cuts to be made with the necessary precision and speed – both of which were astonishing – it needed to be very sharp and thin. But la curtlina wasn’t just an excellent knife. It existed within a broader economy of scarcity and reuse, of which it was the concrete product. First came the scythe, whose blade didn’t wear down uniformly across its entire surface as the grain was reaped. So when a scythe could no longer be sharpened and had to be disposed of, the part of the blade close to the handle could be recycled into a specialist kitchen knife for making pasta, accounting for its peculiar shape.

La curtlina was instrumental to so many of the meals I consumed as a child that you could say I am made of it. Of that form, of those gestures, of the labour that went into producing it. To the extent that the modern kitchen doesn’t typically accommodate such storied objects, we may not wish to lament it, reflecting that it’s a function of poverty to make things last so long, and that few people, given the choice, would actually trade an interesting story for comfort and convenience; or that the fashion for nostalgic re-enactments of peasant traditions divorced from their lived social context is an anachronistic perversion. I won’t dispute any of that. But I am not drawing a larger lesson here, just following a personal history. And for that I need these objects to remember with, these things.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The social dead

Simon Sellars has a new tumblr.

Yahoo! now has Tumblr.

Simon’s tumblr is about social media death. His previous (and continuing) project was an exploration of the works of JG Ballard. Ballard wrote often about characters unmoored from society dying a slow, inner death.

Yahoo! killed Geocities, the Web’s first social media platform.

The social dead zone isn’t a liminal zone. It permeates the social space, feeding back into it the negative energies – of capital, of profit – that participants naively thought they could shut out. That platforms like Tumblr and Twitter and Facebook and Blogger are free to use creates a persistent illusion that the social infrastructure of the Web is free of commercial imperatives and constraints, in spite of the constant reminders that the opposite is the case. This year we have already lost Google Reader and Posterous. Now people fear for Tumblr. But surely not Twitter. Surely not Blogger or Facebook. Not after how much people have invested into them. It couldn’t happen. Right?

It won’t, so long as the social content of those networks continues to have a sufficient commercial value – real or perceived – for their actual owners. The usual rejoinder that with all of these free services you’re not the customer, you’re the product, whilst superficially true, doesn’t account for the price one pays for not being on the networks. There is social death of another sort, outside, in real life, awaiting those who don’t conform.

A couple of weeks ago I was planning to write about the plight of the unrequited follower of the Twitter mega-star, but Simon beat me to it (rather beautifully, I might add). The case of the fans who plead to be acknowledged by their idol in some respect already existed in the days of regular mail. A friend once showed me a sample of the letters that a young American heartthrob actor her firm represented was getting from his Italian fans. It was predictably pathetic, the sort of clumsy devotion that you know you shouldn’t laugh at, but can’t help yourself to. Those fans wanted to be loved back – which was impossible – but at least they got signed photographs by return mail. That was the price the celebrity had to pay, quantified in man-hours of their publicity staff.

Advances in social media have largely dispensed with the need to send memorabilia through the post, but have also intensified these exchanges, which now occur mostly in public. It’s a theatre of obsession. The fan asks not to be loved, but to be followed back. They demand a reciprocity which is, again, mathematically impossible. Justin Bieber, as Simon notes, has over 300 times as many followers as people he follows, but there is every reason to doubt that he actually ‘follows’ 122,828 people in any meaningful sense. If he did – and by the way, this applies also to the 51,581 people followed by Stephen Fry, in case you thought that this arithmetic applied only to the teenage pop star – and each of them wrote a mere ten words a day, it would be the equivalent of reading eight or nine novels per day (in Bieber’s case) or four or five (in Fry’s), just to keep up. Except ‘novel’ is a bad analogy. The text would be far more disjointed than that. More like a phone book, perhaps. And if Bieber were to follow back all of his followers – that’s nearly 40 million people as this goes to print – the number would be astronomically larger. It would be like having to read, say, every phone book of every town in Britain, each and every day. But still the fan hopes. They require a sign. In order to be validated. In order to feel that they fully exist.

Justine Bieber and Stephen Fry are limit cases. Forget them. Every day most regular people are involved in another kind of traffic: a smaller, distributed version of the celebrity social media theatre. In this play we are but numbers on a ledger. People whose main quality is to be better at pretending to be human than most software routines. And so we get these followers. You know the kind, if you’re on Twitter. Here is a typical sample of their bios.

All-round management- and organization adviser, international trainer and (team)coach. Optimistic, decisive, empathetic, passionate and inspirational.

For more than a decade Malcolm Crowley & Engineering Unlimited have provided a comprehensive engineering service to an ever expanding list of satisfied Clients

I love to help people get a perfect car for their holiday. There are many mistakes people can make hiring a car. I help them get the best car for their needs.

M. Gary Neuman is a renowned psychotherapist who's [sic] work has been featured on the Oprah Show, Today Show etc. Check out our new program: The Neuman Method

These people – who invariably appear to have thousands of followers – don’t follow you because they are interested in you. They don’t even pretend to. They just hope you will follow them back, like the Bieber fan. But they don’t beg. They don’t need to. They count on a social reflex: some Twitter users just follow back. You might, or you might not. If you don’t, expect to be unfollowed within a week. It is very important for these people – and I use the word people quite loosely – to achieve a follower count that is close to – and preferably greater than – the number of people they follow. This is partly because of how Twitter detects spammer activity but mainly because their goal is to create the perception that they are popular, in the hope that this will be mistaken for actual credibility or influence.

Just today for instance I was followed by realtor Wayne Maguire (‘When selling or buying New Zealand property our experience & expertise can benefit you. Please call Ray White | Mission Bay to discuss’.) A quick glance at his timeline enabled me to make the following prediction.

The reply came within the hour:

Even the humble realtor is a ghost, a software routine. This is common in the small business sector. Some time ago, while in the process of goading another spammer – for research, you understand – I caught the delightful spectacle of two spambots being polite to each other.

And it’s not just businesses proper, large or small. The pressure exerted on social subjects by a labour market in which casualisation is the norm has made the category of ‘internet entrepreneur’ psychologically universal. And where else could you cultivate your personal brand at virtually no cost but on social media? Hence the abundance of frank and unsentimental advice on how to fool other people into thinking that you are interested in them; advice that purports to help you to drive traffic to your blog, or increase your reputation as an influencer.

Take Ana Hofman, of the Traffic Generation Cafè. Her advice on how to build your small Twitter empire is unsentimental as they come. It involves using keyword searches to locate your potential targets and automated software to establish a rigid routine of followings and unfollowing so as to maintain a balance that won’t give you away to Twitter's spam-detecting routines. Writes Hofman:

Let me show you my exact map for getting thousands of targeted followers in no time.

FYI, the first number is what I call “peaceful” takeover, the second number is “hostile” takeover, meaning you’ll be pushing the envelope with that one, but I never got in trouble doing it before.

Just so you know.

So here it is:

My Follow / Un-Follow Pattern

Week 1 & Week 2

Mon ADD 315-385
Tue ADD 315-385
Wed ADD 315-385
Thurs ADD 315-385
Fri ADD 315-385
Sat Remove those who don’t follow you back
Sun ADD 405-495
(people are more likely to follow you back on Sun than any other day of the week – don’t ask me why)

Week 3 & Beyond

(you still follow the same number of people)


Once again, the first way is peaceful (less aggressive); the second way is more aggressive.

I always followed the hostile way, but that’s just me. You have to decide for yourself what you are comfortable with.

Got this? Good. Now what you need to do is get yourselves multiple accounts, each focused on a specific niche interest, all working in concert to achieve your stated goal. The requisite thousands of followers will need to be secured for each account by following the procedure above. And then, to get noticed, each account should take send out its tweet in blocks. Hofman explains again:

Instead of tweeting once and immediately getting lost in the sea of other tweets, tweet in a group of 4 tweets.

The first 3 should be other people’s posts, quotes, etc, but the last one is always yours – leading to your blog. That way it will be on top of your tweet block and will be likely to get clicked on first.

Of course, to make your life easier, I would schedule all your blocks in advance, spaced 3-4 hours apart – you can do that with both TweetAdder and MarketMeSuite.

This is the new you: organised, ruthless, inflexible, willing to speak in short pre-packaged bursts in order to achieve maximum social efficiency. You’re dead now, but it doesn’t matter. There is another you somewhere else on the networks, a truer you, alive, who speaks with honesty and integrity – like the real Ana Hofman – to her vast, primed audience.

But there’s a problem, isn’t there? It’s reciprocity. Like with Bieber. How do you know that those people you carefully selected via algorithms and keywords aren’t playing the same game as you? How do you know that that you are not a number to them? That they didn’t follow you back in the morning lest you unfollowed them in the afternoon? How can you be sure? How could you even hope?

Wouldn’t it be simpler and more realistic to assume that everyone is dead?