Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Paying the Troll Toll

Corporate Puppets -  from Eurekastreet
I don't know if it's just because Saturn is transiting Scorpio but recently, I've been experiencing a growing sense of unease about the Internet.  I'm not talking about the simple suspicion that it isn't as benevolent as it paints itself to be, but an active concern that it may actually be damaging the mental health of people who are using it. Part of this can be put down to my own natural state of paranoia.  The internet is so benign, so effortless and ever-present that there has to be something wrong with it, right?  If it's too good to be true then it probably is, and so on.

Then, I stumbled upon some research indicating that Facebook can be physiologically addictive; and then I learned that its designers are seemingly aware of that addictive potential and use it to their advantage, regardless of the psychological problems they may be creating.  And then the NSA scandal broke.  More recently, there has been a deluge of threatening comments sent to female writers and politicians which has led to me to look deeper into the phenomenon of right-wing trolling on the net.    While the people recently charged with threatening to rape and murder female public figures were tweeting their own views, I suspect that they felt encouraged to do so in part because there is so much right-wing trolling on the internet.

Most of you will be familiar with the existence of trolls - yes, those horrid people who continuously spout abusive, right-wing views on forums and comment threads.  Until recently, I think I assumed that they were all backwoods yahoos with unformed, uninformed opinions.  Their comments tend to be riddled with spelling mistakes, bad grammar and profanity.  They tend to be vehement promoters of false 'facts', disproven research and phoney statistics.  Very little of the information posted by trolls on the net would stand up to the scrutiny of a drunken pub debate, let alone a court of law.  And yet they seem to have vast amounts of conviction, and time, to push their dumbed-down views on us from points all across the web, creating and discarding an endless number of fresh aliases on an endless number of forums and comment boards; waging war on moderators who seem to have their hands full deleting their streams of abuse.  It's almost like being a troll is a full-time job.  Or like they're getting paid by the post.  This may be closer to the truth than you realise.

In 2011, the Guardian's George Monbiot wrote that he'd been contacted by a whistleblower who said he was, "part of a commercial team employed to infest internet forums and comment threads on behalf of corporate clients, promoting their causes and arguing with anyone who opposed them."  Sound familiar?  It will do, if you've ever participated in an internet forum.  This particular whistleblower told Monbiot that he posed as up to 70 different individuals at a time... which probably helps to explain why different trolls' posts are often nearly identical in tone and content.  Bear in mind that this whistleblower was just one employee, from one company providing 'social media management' services to corporate clients. Doubtless there are many, many more out there.

The practice of paying people to post supportive comments for a specific interest group online is said to have originated in China in 2004, where such posters are known as the '50 cent party'.  As the name suggests, these posters are paid 50 Chinese cents for every pro-government or counter-dissident post that they write.  In 2009, wrote that: "China’s 50 Cent Army is everybody's business.  With 300,000 people, you can see how the CCP could easily determine what makes it onto the front page of Digg, and what gets shouted down. They could use Wikipedia, YouTube and Slashdot as their most powerful tools of global propaganda."

That's true if China is the only country that hires right-wing commentators, but it isn't.  Throw in the U.S.A., Russia, Canada and Israel - to name but a few of the countries whose governments have hired 'online supporters' in recent times - and the potential to skew public perceptions becomes overwhelming.  In 2011 it was revealed that the U.S. military's Central Command, or Centcom, had signed a contract with a company known as NTrepid to 'manage online personas' for its staff.  NTrepid's software would enable every serviceman and woman to create and use up to 10 fake online aliases worldwide.  The Guardian reported that:  'The Centcom contract stipulates that each fake online persona must have a convincing background, history and supporting details, and that up to 50 US-based controllers should be able to operate false identities from their workstations "without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries".'

Presumably, the phrase 'sophisticated adversaries' is used here to refer to anybody with an intelligent counter-argument, or an awareness of insidious propaganda machines!  Centcom, predictably, has stated that it cannot reveal what these fake online personas are being used for.  They say it's classified.  In these post-NSA times, that is not a word that inspires confidence.

NTrepid has also run surveillance to keep tabs on anarchist organizations in the past and, as the PrivacySos website points, out that, "The DoD is therefore paying a company that monitors the internet use of anarchists and radicals in the United States to actively interfere with and inject pro-military propaganda into online conversations about politics."  How that is any different from China's 50 cent party?  Although Centcom claims that its online tool will not be used in English-speaking countries, one is invited to view that claim through a skeptical lens too.

The practice of 'astroturfing' (creating fake grassroots groups to make a fringe cause appear more popular than it is) has also entered the online world, where it's become virtually untraceable.  In 2010, Canada's CBC News reported that the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade had hired a Toronto-based company called Social Media Group, "to help counter some information put forward by the anti-sealing movement."  There doesn't appear to be any record of what this hired help got up to online.  Were they clearly identified as government employees?  Were they abusive?  Did they cite misleading studies or facts?   Why do I get the feeling all that information's probably 'classified', too?

The biggest problem with these hired commentators is that they are in a prime position to skew public opinion in favour of groups which already wield a great deal of influence - people who have lots of money or some other form of control over the masses.  If these groups are also using 50 cent parties to 'influence' the public opinion, then they are crossing a line into mind control.  Governments do not exist to influence our opinions after all, but to represent them.  Just as corporations do not exist to tell us what we want, but to listen and provide for it.

If you regularly read any forum that discusses left-wing issues, you have probably witnessed how quickly a troll's reactionary tirade can shut down intelligent debate on any subject.  Regular internet users know how to recognise and avoid trolls but for the casual users - those who go online just to read an article or two - the mass of vitriol out there can be disturbing.  I wonder how many casual internet users come away from their computer feeling that intolerance is the new norm.  And yet it isn't - at least some of that online vitriol is being manufactured by the powers-that-be.  You have to wonder what their endgame is in doing so.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

195 Mare Street: Un-gentrifying Hackney

The days of Hackney being the 'most squatted borough in London' may be in the past now, but that doesn't mean that the odd occupation can't still be carried off when needed. In the case of 195 Mare Street, the 'need' they are responding to is that of offering a community meeting space, with services that locals whose presence predates the gentrification, can actually afford. Since the government is currently refusing to keep up its end of the "public taxes=public services" equation, centers like 195 Mare Street really need your support and probably your hands-on help too. Why not drop in and see what they can offer you & vice versa?

The centers blurb (from Indymedia):

"A new squatted social space has been created in Hackney - 195 Mare St. The space aims to be an active and inspiring hub for local individuals and community groups.

The current projects being are working on are a language school, bicycle workshop, library, free shop, screenings, hack lab and a vegan cafe. There will also be workshops and info nights. Everything will be either free or for donations.
However, there is scope for so much more. If you have any ideas or projects that would suit the space please get in touch.

There are many ways to get involved, and people are very welcome to contribute.

If you are able to donate materials, the following would be very useful:

building / decorating tools and equipment
kitchen equipment (especially cookers and large pots)
computer parts
bike parts
clothing for the free shop
books for library
art equipment

Please email us of feel free to drop by between the hours of 3-6pm on Sun - Tues and Thurs.

The 11th October will be our official opening night, with live music and other entertainment. Well worth a visit! 

Monday, 9 September 2013

An Alienated Generation?

The press has a lot to say about Generation Y's lack of workplace and social skills. But the real question is: do they have what it takes to deal with an alien invasion? Read on to find out...

Image courtesy of the Nuclear Hipster App page
Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  Helicopter parents.  Delusions of grandeur.  Hyper-materialism.  What do all these phrases have in common?  Apparently, they are all features of "Generation Y" - which is what the generation that was born between 1980 and 2000 A.D. is now being called.  Previously it was known as "Generation X" and "The Millenial Generation".  (No wonder these kids can't stay focused on anything for very long... the people that named them aren't exactly setting an example.)   

Anyways, the business world seems to be taking issue with this generation of well-bred, too-poised miscreants; specifically, with its unrealistically-high expectations.  Generation Y is said to take criticism badly and to expect great rewards (e.g. positive feedback and annual raises) for its average work performance.  It's hard to blame them - Generation Y, that is, not the managers that are lining up to run them down in surveys.  Generation Y has grown up in a society which shamelessly forks over 99% of its profits to the 1% that least deserves it.  So when Generation Y-ers don't get the same treatment as those wasters in upper management from Day 1, it's no wonder they tend to move on to a different job in a hurry. Again, how is this unlike an industrial magnate who walks away from the countries he's ruined and runs for government?

A few social commentators are wringing their hands and asking what Gen Y's fickle tendencies bode for the future of our society.  That may be a scarier prospect.  When you extrapolate this generation's high expectations, perfectionism and non-committal tendencies into purely social realms (e.g. those where there is no possibility of world domination and/or obscene wealth accumulation) then the desire to snicker sadistically at their managers fades a little.  Imagine what life might be like in the year 2040, when these "narcissistic  gadget-junkies" are running the show.  What would their reaction be to a calamitous emergency?  How would they react, say, if aliens invaded the Earth and started eating people alive? 

I can just imagine how the diary of a Gen Y prime minister facing such a crisis would read....

Day 1: Just got back from a meeting with the alien invaders.  They are saying they will only give us peace if we allow them to consume 1 million of our healthiest young citizens per year.  WTF.  If we lose that many teens and twenty-somethings per year we'll run out of pop musicians, reality TV stars and models in, what, five to ten years?  This invasion has got to stop!

Day 2: The aliens have ignored our parents' efforts to make them leave us alone (WTF).  So we have been forced to launch a Facebook campaign against them (Facebook/Causes/Stop Invading Us You Awful Aliens).  

One of those old-timer MPs protested our course of action, saying, 'What will we do if the aliens aren't on Facebook?'  He was so smug about it!  So we all blocked him and formed a Facebook group to make jokes about his hair.  That'll show him.  EVERYBODY is on Facebook!

Day 4: Alien invaders have responded to our Facebook campaign by blasting Facebook's headquarters with a laser and devouring Mark Zuckerberg's flambeed remains.  We have all gone home early today to mourn the loss of our friends... friend LISTS, I mean (same difference, I guess).  

I really hope my entire Cabinet doesn't resign in the face of this setback, like it did when we received that rude email last year...

Day 5:  Great news - half my Cabinet is still on board!  And we've struck back at the aliens!  We posted like, a DOZEN links to videos of the alien-Facebook attack on Twitter.  Now the people can see what is happening, they can rise against up the enemy!

Day 6: Good news: the Twitter videos went viral.  Not-so-good news: the people have risen up against each other! Not the aliens!  (Major WTF)  They're looting each others shops, stealing each other's necessities and beating and maiming each other to secure the remaining shelters.  Like, can't they just go and live with their parents if they need food and shelter?  And aren't they embarrassed to be caught on camera acting all... desperate?

Day 7:  After this stressful week, I think we were all in need of a retreat... but we soldiered through.  After an exhausting five-and-a-half-minute emergency session, we finally came up with a solution for the uprising.  We will send some celebs out in the streets to plead with the angry mobs.  If someone really fit and popular tells them they're ruining the city's image, the mob will back down.  I know it.  

By the time we'd hatched the plan it had already gone four p.m., though, so we all had to go home for the weekend. We'll be sending those celebs out first thing Monday morning, though.  Aliens, watch out!  

Day 10: The celebs went out this morning and only one made it back (so far).  I watched the carnage on the CCTV live feed and kept waiting for the credits to roll; it was so realistic, like something on TV.  

The celeb spokespeople tried every means of reconciliation they knew: offering the mob autographs, guest slots on Big Brother, even hugs!  Then things got a bit heated and a couple of celebs told the mob that they were a bunch of haters, and said that blood-spattered hair and torn clothes was not a good look (so last year, too).  Well, I guess they paid the ultimate price for losing their cool: they won't look much better than the mob when the air-limousine brings them back.  

 Day 17: After taking a week off from the civil unrest/alien invasion situation for mental trauma, we are back in session.  Our first order of business was putting a 24-hour curfew in place.  Next, we tried to contact the military so it could enforce the curfew.  We couldn't reach anybody at the military H.Q. at first but then I sent Mum round in her car to scout the place out.  She learned from the janitor that the Military personnel had all left - they decided to switch careers because keeping the peace is just way too stressful now.  I can't really blame them.  

Gotta go... I've got to email this group referral-letter out to our ex-military personnel before the end of the day.
Day 22: The alien invader's army has stepped in and is now keeping peace for us.  They say they don't want all their prey killing each other off.  I guess I can't blame them but it still kind of hurts my feelings (they were so rude about it).

Day 25: The aliens do seem to be much better at this keeping-the-peace stuff than we are.  I think we should leave them to it.  It's the sort of work that is best left to ugly people... or whatever they are. We don't have to see them under all the visors and armour.
Day 27: Some people are saying that the aliens are so good at keeping the peace, they should be put in charge of the planet.  WTF.  And who is leading them, but that cranky MP we blocked?!  (I can't remember his name anymore, without Facebook to remind me... SO annoying). We passed a bill denying the aliens a right to stand for election though, so, problem solved.  We also designed an ad campaign warning people not to vote for any aliens.  Take that!  Now we just have to wait for the eleccy to come back on so we can run it (I sent all the power station staff on a paid retreat this week to thank them for their hard work.)

Day 30: The aliens have shut down the Parliament and are converting it into an abattoir. I've really had enough of this job now - a whole 30 days and no word of promotion from anyone.  So first thing tomorrow, Mum's going to get us a spaceship to outer space and look for another planet to live on. I don't know who ever asked NASA to send out all those stupid satellite signals and tip off the aliens to our existence but it wasn't ME.  Why should I clean up the mess? 

Day 31: Bad news.  Turns out that the richest 1% people on the planet flew all the spaceships away about four weeks ago.  They've gone to find a new planet... without us!  SO not fair.  But I guess it's my fault for not aiming high enough in my career.  I should never have settled for being a lowly Prime Minister. 

Day 39: We have resumed negotiating with the aliens now. Our proposals are as follows: They can eat 1 million of us BUT ONLY IF they keep the streets clean, the eleccy running, the shops, pubs, bars, clubs and galleries and gourmet fast food joints open. Government and military would be nice too, but not essential. 

Day 40: The aliens totally rejected our terms so now we've gone underground to the sewage system. Gross, right?  But we discovered the aliens can't reach us here.  While we were watching videos of them on Youtube (and posting insults about their clothes, lol) we noticed that they seemed scared of manholes.  Actually it was that cranky MP who noticed it, but I'm still not friending him cause Facebook's gone (that's an upside).  After some trial and error, he and I discovered that the aliens don't like the sewers because they have super sensitive noses.  I have a sensitive nose too though, so that  needs to be taken into consideration, no matter what the cranky MP says about our 'odds of survival'.  I happen to think surviving in a sewer is very odd, thank you very much!

Day 73: The aliens are all starving. But there's some good news!  They have turned the eleccy back on so we have Internet now!  

Day 74: Better news!  The aliens sent us a Tweet today - they have agreed to ALL our proposals. They'll only take 1 million peeps a year and they'll keep all the shops and stuff open. We've won! 

Day 75: We are back above ground again.  Everything is almost back to normal except for the part where we are being eaten alive. But nothing good ever comes without a price - that's what my business management teacher used to say. He taught us skills for life, that man. 

Day 77: The shops haven't reopened though because the aliens are renovating them.  And the net's gone down again. I was a bit worried when I found out that the aliens had started filling in the sewer tunnels, too, but apparently they are just trying to save us some money on the maintenance budget.  How nice!   

It's easy enough to mock people 10 or 20 years younger than oneself as being inexperienced and naive.  Too easy.  When they reach the same age as the people dissing them, though, they will probably be a lot harder to make fun of because they won't be young and naive anymore.  Older people have just had more time to realize that the rules they learned as kids are not all "hard n' fast" rules.

Ironically, the rule that 'Generation Y' seems to have all learned best is that all rewards can be bought for the right price, and that image is everything - which probably explains the rise in materialistic, narcissistic tendencies among them.  They didn't learn that rule from Mum and Dad's confidence-instilling parenting strategies, though.  They learned it from the ad campaigns designed by the very same companies that are whining about their poor work ethic, today.

Poetic justice, I say.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Benefit cap Q&A in London, June 24

I just received this email vi
Haringey Solidarity Group's anti-benefit cap campaign:

"we are holding a street training session on monday 24th june between 7 and 9pm, at the Phoenix Millenium Centre,   about the benefit cap.

The training session is for hsg members in general who might be asked about the benefit cap while they are out being active on any issues. You will not be asked to get involved with the anti-benefit cap campaign itself.

Questions to be amswered: where does the cap fit in with welfare changes ?, is it the same as the bedroom tax ?, will i have my benefits capped ?, how can i stop it happening ?, haringey say i have to move/get a job but i don't want to move and can't find work what can i do ?, is it my fault ?, is it just another tax ? why aren't my friends in Brent aren't being capped ? what's it all about..... ?

Come and explore the answers to these and any other questions there may be...."

Although it is "for members" they are an open & helpful group that has been working with benefits claimants for years so, if you are on benefits and want to inform & empower yourself, you will surely be welcomed.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Please don't 'like' this post.

What is it about Facebook that turns seemingly-sane people into juvenile delinquents, sociopaths, cheese balls and pet-fetishists? People who you once thought were intellectual suddenly develop a thing for YouTube videos of cats talking. People who you once thought of as politically correct develop a penchant for 'liking' sexist crap dredged up from the bowels of the 'net. People who you once found deep and mysterious reveal a tragic affinity for games that were clearly designed for a three year old.

Watching the people that we know interacting on Facebook can be reminiscent of watching one's colleagues at an office Christmas party that's about to close its doors; the way that they all suddenly seem willing to chat up the bartender, tell stupid jokes to get the boss's attention and show naked photos of their lovers (or their dogs and cats) to the waiter... all in the hope of getting another round of free drinks and food. But it's not mince pies and beer that drive Facebook users - you and me included - to share and bare their most shocking, pathetic or downright annoying sides; it's the free dopamine and serotonin that the site offers.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that rewards seeking behaviour with a sense of exhileration. It's an inbuilt learning mechanism that precedes emotion and supersedes thought, ensuring that we learn what we need to do to survive no matter what. As one writer at The Cerebral Cortex blog puts it:

"[When] the person first realizes that a specific reward occurs after an event, his [dopamine] neurons fire based on their forecast of when the reward will be given. These neurons are crucial in learning new processes because they fire as they practice their prediction skills and as the learning is acquired."

In the same article, the author describes an experiment which helped establish the link between dopaminergic surges and unexpected 'rewards', carried out by Dr. Wolfram Schultz at the University of Cambridge, 1997:

"In the experiment a light was flashed, several moments passed, and then drips of apple juice were fed to the monkey. Schultz observed the monkey’s neuronal response during the period of time in between the flash of light and the apple juice treat. Schultz discovered the dopamine response [occurred] in the monkeys immediately after he flashed the light. In this case, the monkeys’ dopaminergic neurons were predicting when the treat would be received."
That seems pretty standard: ejoyable reward = happy feelings. But because dopamine is associated with learning, it quickly fades when the pattern stays the same. There's nothing new to learn, that's why. "Over time," writes the same author, "this dopamine response decreased. But when the monkeys found apple juice that was not preceded by a flash of light, their dopaminergic neurons were excited again."

How excited, you ask?

"The unpredictability and surprise of the reward accounted for a dopamine response that was three to four times greater than the response that occurred during the [initial] learning period. The monkeys thus experienced far more pleasure when the apple juice reward arrived at an unpredicted time than when it arrived on schedule right after the flash of light."

I don't know about the reader, but this pattern of uncertain rewards reminds me of a certain, small red box that I can see in the top left hand corner of my screen as I write this, and its ever-changing tally of 'notifications'. I'm not the only one that's made the connection...

"Facebook’s notification system may be synonymous to the randomly occurring apple juice reward," the author of The Cerebral Cortex writes. "As Facebook users, we log onto the site to check for notifications. Often times, our guesses are just as inaccurate as the monkey’s random predictions for the apple juice reward. It is an exciting feeling to check for Facebook notifications, but the gratification from actually receiving a notification is always greatest."

And this reaction kicks into overdrive when a greater array of learning possibilities are available. "It is possible for the dopamine system to keep saying 'more more more', seeking even when we have found the information," writes Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D, a contributor at Psychology Today. "Research also shows that the dopamine system doesn’t have satiety built in," she adds.

Dopamine has had all sorts of mud slung at it because experts blame addiction on that lack of satiety. But that isn't the dopamine's fault, is it? It's the fault of the people who exploit it. People like Facebook's design team.

When E.B Boyd of the Fast Company met with the Facebook design team last year, she summed up their current design strategy this way: "Facebook doesn't just want to catalyze interactions. It wants to catalyze emotions." Boyd went on to describe how, "A sticky note with the word ['serotonin'] scrawled on it is tacked on the wall of a design meeting". Design team manager, Julie Zhuo, explained why it was there, "[Serotonin is] our term for those little moments of delight you get on Facebook". The vice president of product at Facebook, Chris Cox, added, "It's the science of things you can't reason about, that you just feel." Anyone looking for evidence that emotional manipulation is the endgame of Facebook's interface design need look no farther than the designers themselves.

"It wants you to have the same feelings--the positive ones at least--that you have when you cuddle up to friends and family in person," summarizes Boyd. And if the fact that people are having those feelings for an automated interface, rather than for the people themselves, has led to addiction and alienation from real friends & family, then who really cares? All that matters is that it sells.

Serotonin may be responsible for the feeling of happiness when a person has found what they want but what motivates them to seek it out is dopamine. And dopamine, says Susan Weinschenk, is stimulated by three things: anticipation, unpredictability and incomplete satisfaction. Facebook has all three in spades.

The 'like' button and the 'adds friend' button are perfect examples of dopamine and serotonin manipulation. For a start, both limit the range of interactive options to a relentlessly-upbeat range. To the receiver, 'friend' and 'like' sound positive and to the sender they sound nice too, but also neutral enough to be bandied about pretty recklessly. Anyway, it's not like people have much choice... if they want to leave feedback or add a connection in a hurry, there sure as hell aren't many other buttons that they can click.

The word 'like' is usually not even an accurate reflection of what a person wants to convey when they click the 'like' button anyway. 'Like' might not look as strong as a word like 'love', but how often do you hear a phrase like, "I like you," "I like what you think" or "I like how you look"? Not every day, that's for sure. That is why, if I post a link to an interesting article on Facebook and one of my 'friends' clicks the 'like' button just to show me that they read it, I get a little kick of dopamine.  It's because of the inbuilt positive connotations that the word 'like' has. The same is true when I see a photo of a friend at a party that we went to together, and 'like' it to let her know that I saw it.

In the real world, telling someone that you read the same article or saw the same photo as them just doesn't arouse such strong feelings as it does when you 'like' them or 'friend' them on Facebook. Basically, Facebook has managed to turn the banal act of saying, "Hey, I read/recognized that too" into a little seal of approval, even when there isn't any approval going on. Who wouldn't like that? Well, honest people, for a start. The 'like' button is a lie, a misinterpretation by the middle man of the Facebook interface. And like any middleman, it wants us to like it so badly that it never stops fishing for opportunities to flatter our egos.

That may be why, when a Facebook user meets one of her Facebook 'friends' in person, the meeting sometimes feels anticlimactic and the rapport less positive than it did on Facebook... unless they happen to be good friends in real life, that is. Without the super-positive filter of Facebook people seem less nice, less supportive, and less ideal. The only way to interact with the ego-stroking version of them is to stay on Facebook... forever. Creepy, no?

Now for the 'add friend' button. In real life, people tend to consider who their friends are very carefully. They still like being called a 'friend' by somebody else, though, regardless of how close they feel to that person. Maybe that is why Facebook decided that everyone you connect to on the site has to become a 'friend'. Once you've added them as 'friends' you can divvy people up into acquaintances, colleagues, family members and close friends, etc, but from the moment that they send you a 'friend' request (or vice versa) they are first and foremost a 'friend'.

The word 'friend' is similar to the word 'like'. It doesn't sound very intense but it does have an in-built emotional charge, full of positive connotations. Whenever you log onto your Facebook account, the first thing you will see will always be "368 friends". You will never see "16 friends, 52 acquaintances and 300 people-that-you-met-just-once-and-will-almost-definitely-never-see-again". Facebook wants it that way so that, every time you see that figure (368 friends, wow) you'll feel the same emotional charge that you get from being called a 'friend' by another person, multiplied by 368. A dopamine and serotonin rush, multiplied by 368. You might only feel it for just a second, but that's long enough to elicit a neurochemical response and bond you to Facebook on a slightly deeper, subconscious level. Which is the real aim of the interface: Facebook is not designed to enable bonding with real people; it's designed to enable bonding with the unconditionally positive version of them that is only available via Facebook .

Some Facebook users reading this may be thinking, "Well, I already know all about that... in fact, I posted that same article on my Timeline three days ago and 21 friends liked it, so they know about it, too." They are all missing the point: knowing something is a conscious, secondary action while the dopaminergic response is subconscious and primary one. It's an involuntary reaction that reprograms one's brain at a neurological level... and it happens so fast that the brain has already been changed by the time its owner 'knows about' it. Maybe it's possible to undo the effect with greater mental control, but is that really desirable?

"With mental control over neuronal firing," writes the author of Cerebral Cortex blog, "Facebook would no longer be so addictive. This is the plus side. But what about other enjoyments? Would they still be as pleasurable if we could personally control how much pleasure we felt?" Never mind about pleasure - if we could control dopamine's action, would we even still be able to learn? To survive? In an experiment in which rats had their dopamine exhausted through chronic overstimulation, they simply died of starvation. They had food but no desire to eat, since it gave them no pleasure.

By triggering a dopaminergic and serotinergic response in nearly every interaction, Facebook is effectively drowning out negative feedback and instilling a false sense of acceptance. It is silencing the social alarms that tell people when an attitude adjustment is necessary to survive.  At the same time, it is also deadening them to less stimulating realities. Take a Facebook addict away from his / her computer and witness how apathetic they can be without the constant reinforcement of the 'like' button.

Until the invention of Facebook, the only way to get that same sense of stimulation and enjoyment artifically was to engage in obviously antisocial, self-destructive behaviour: compulsive shopping, drug abuse, joining cults, gambling, etc. The difference with Facebook is that it cleverly disguises its non-stop dopamine buzz as actual feedback from actual people on a 'live' social media site. None of the usual warning bells are set off by this set-up, despite the fact that the usual addictive mechanisms are totally involved. As anyone who's lost a friend to Facebook knows, spending hours on it per day can be every bit as self-destructive and isolating as any other bad habit out there.

By now, a few readers are probably thinking, "So what if Facebook makes people feel better about doing silly stuff online? That's hardly a crime, is it?" And it may not be a crime... as far as we know. There may be nothing at all wrong with 'liking' posts of someone's cat in a hat on their timeline, just to give them that random dopamine hit, like that monkey getting his apple-juice windfall. But what if this action is a crime that takes a long time to show its adverse effects? What if its damaging them / us, and we just haven't realized it yet? After all, dopamine is the very same neurochemical that rewards a person when they first learn how to speak, read, make food, have sex, listen to friends, fix a bike, graduate. It's the same chemical that programs a person with every necessary survival skill, embedding it deep within their physical brain. It may be that dopamine is just a tad too important for us to be tampering with it gratuitously. I would be especially reluctant to mess around with it on Facebook, where the only demonstrable benefit of my dopamine buzz is to get me hooked on the site so that Mr. Zuckerberg can brag about its potential advertising revenues to his shareholders.

If manipulating dopamine and serotonin somehow prevents our species dealing with its immediate survival concerns - anything from environmental and political problems to their own emotional well being - then messing with that now, when humanity's survival is poised on a cliff's edge IS a crime.

Plenty of financial commentators have been singing Facebook's praises for the sneaky ways in which Facebook taps the dopaminergic and 'serotonogenic' systems of Facebook users. Never mind that it's been done in much the same way that bile is tapped from a live tiger for the commercial Chinese medicine market; that it's led to much the same result e.g. a force of nature has been isolated and rendered useless by technology, for profit.

We're talking about the first computer interface that has ever been deployed to manipulate huge masses of people, and it's doing it in such an indiscriminate way that it supports every kind of behaviour, whether good, bad, malignant, insignificant or benign. Never mind if it furthers our survival as a race or not.  All in all, it's a social experiment way too huge, and too risky, to be carried out by an utterly mindless, self-promoting commercial interface.

I asked what the social consequences of manipulating dopamine gratuitously could be; the advance polls seem to be saying, 'not good, not good at all'. Take the example of smartphones and mobiles; everyone currently owns one, which I strongly suspect is more down to the combined dopaminergic allure of having text messages, Twitter, email, answer phone and Facebook all in one place. And yet, every single mobile phone manufacturer on the planet is, somewhere along the line, doing business with a genocidal, rapist warlord from the Congo simply because he is in control of the world's biggest/cheapest cooltan mines (cooltan being the crucial mineral in mobile phone production). So yeah, basically, all of those stories on the six o'clock news about child soldiers being jacked full of meth, trained to use AK-47s, encouraged to gang rape girls and women, using old people and POW's for target practice... essentially, they are stories about how smartphones and cell phones get made.

That isn't half as shocking as the fact that most smartphone users know where smartphones come from... and still continue to buy the damn things. Even left-wing, humanitarian types who have been resistant to consumerism for decades. What could possibly be so special about owning a smartphone, or a top of the line mobile, that it would cause a person to ignore their deeply-held morals? Perhaps this is yet another unstudied, adverse effect of activating that teacher-neurotransmitter at every new message, tweet or like we get. Perhaps people who have had their dopamine gratuitously tweaked, again and again, actually start to believe that keeping up to date with their notifications is as life-and-death as genocide in the Congo.

When clearly, it is not.

Without any hard evidence, many people will probably continue to believe that Facebook, which uses nature's strongest bio-reward to reinforce trivial behaviour on a mass scale, is not that big of a deal, in the grand scheme of things. Maybe those same people would change their tune, though, if they considered the effect that the site has had on reinforcing the attitudes of woman-haters, fag-haters, neo-Nazis and all the other right wing nut jobs that are also using the site.

The Rapebook scandal was another little insight into the possible consequences of Facebook mind-f*ckery: dozens of 'fan pages' were discovered where men (probably all abusers) were posting violent images and comments about women on Facebook. And with very few exceptions, every she-was-asking-for-it rant, beaten-wife joke and dead prostitute picture was flooded with 'likes'. because Facebook is first and foremost a private networking site, anybody wanting to challenge such rabid bigotry had to put their private account in the firing line to criticise the bullies directly. By comparison, clicking 'like' is virtually anonymous. The result is that 'likes' are guaranteed, by default, to outnumber the critical comments left on hate pages.

It seems to have never crossed Facebook's mind that handing out digital serotonin to whomever signs up for an account, unconditionally, is like a really bad idea. Especially when that person has a habit of setting up pages like, “Hitler was right”, “How to kill a batty boy” or “Get on your knees bitch...and beg!” The site's relentlessly positive interface guarantees that even the creators of such hateful pages will receive far more positive reactions, even if they are only coming from a demented minority that actually agrees with their bigotry. I wonder what this says to the creators of said pages? And to the casual visitors who accidentally, or out of curiosity, end up on their fan page? Perhaps it makes unconscionable attitudes seem supportable, and vice versa.

Facebook's interface is not only too positive, but it's too easy to use. It favours simplicity over complexity, agreement over debate and superficiality over depth. Just what we need.

Not only has Facebook unleashed a program that allows some severely f*cked up people to reward one another's f*cked up-ness with innocuous 'friend' and 'like' buttons, but it has also been painfully slow to act in blatant cases of hate speech and bullying. Maybe it's more than just a coincidence that people holding right-wing and extreme attitudes are becoming stupider, louder and brasher by the day. Or maybe it's Facebook's fault for offering hate groups the near-total illusion of support. Or maybe not... but, at any rate, somebody needs to be asking these questions. At present, the only people talking about it are big business and bodies wanting to boost their following, like the Church. Yes even they are falling all over themselves to copy the facebook formula.

Plying psychopaths, neo-Nazis, misogynists and bullie, or even just weak or uneducated people, with neurochemicals that make them feel loved and accepted by all is a dangerously irresponsible thing to do. And no, I don't think that Facebook activism will solve the problem because Facebook IS the problem. Rapebook exposed just a few of the ignorant attitudes that have found almost-unconditional support on Facebook, but thousands more will probably grow out of that almost-unconditional illusion.

Websites that make everybody feel great about being whatever they want to be, can only work in Utopias full of perfect people. But the irony is that Utopia will never exist so long as Facebook keeps 'liking' our every move.


I should add that I have tried to go offline from Facebook a few times but came back, because there were always a few friends who I never heard from if I was not using my account. Friends that I knew well and was able to keep in touch with for years before Facebook was invented. As I cancel my personal account this time around, I know the chances that I may never hear from them again but hey, everybody I know has email and phone, so that's their issue. There is no practical reason for them to be so attached to a single site, but clearly there are plenty of irrational reasons at play that need to be addressed.

And my case is hardly unique: nearly everyone I've asked has tried to avoid using the site at some point, and struggled for the same reasons above: addiction and alienation from people they care about. Facebook has a monopoly on certain people's affections that mere individual friendships cannot match. That is why the site can act as a dividing line, keeping real-life friends apart instead of bringing them together. That is because keeping you in touch with your friends is not Facebook's real goal: keeping you on their site is.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

We are all hipsters... unfortunately.

Overconsumption: not pretty sight unless you're hipster, right?
I've read that 21 Types of Hipster article that's gone viral in Berlin's English communities the past few days.  And I can't help noticing that the definitions in there embrace pretty much everyone I see in the streets - whether I'm in London, Barcelona or Berlin.  The faux-retro truckstop caps, teamed with designer plaid shirts, teamed with H & M shades that cost ten times what they look like they're worth, teamed with Diesel skinny jeans, teamed with pre-stretched American Apparel sweaters and sloppy, scruffed name brand trainers. You could say that the hipster trend is a 'diverse' style, embracing 80s glam, punk, metal, biker, disco, hippy and goth. 

Hipsters, generally speaking, are people who seem to have too many teetering piles of zany, mismatched accessories & clothing laying around their funky coversion flat, unworn.  They've gotta be blase about how they mix and match it all, in order to put all that crap together in new & original ensembes each day.    Being a hipster means having so much money, so much stuff, and so little time to wear it all, that even just putting clothes on each day is an exhausting chore.  Hence their world-weary faces and louche, resigned poise.  All those wardrobe doors and drawers to open - what a workout!  It's a style for people with lotsa clothes... but no time for putting outfits together in a meaningful way.

And yet Clive Martin of Vice Magazine (piss-taking handbook for/against all things hipster) recently wrote that hipsters are now so normalized that they can't be ridiculed anymore. I totally agree with that... but I don't agree with his inference that it's too difficult to "wage war on a subculture that defines itself through constant revision."  Subculture?  Ex-squeeze me?  'Hipsters' can't be a subculture because, by definition, they are doing, and being, exactly what all good Westerners aspire to be: voracious consumers.  They have basically spent so much time shopping that they've managed to cycle through every fashion trend ever created, in a bid to stay ahead of the trend curve.  This speaks to an identity that's entirely bound up in stuff, inseparable from it, and an unresolved identity crisis that is played out in shops strewn with clothing, so many cast-off shells of a self that will never find a perfect fit.

People seem to look down on 'hipsters' (and it's interesting that hardly anyone ever uses the word to describe themselves, only someone else) because they are clearly looking in the wrong place for their identity, i.e. fashion.  But how does that make hipsters any different from anybody else?  Hasn't everyone at some point been materialistic, and bought something with the vague idea that somehow, it's going to change their life?  That's the capitalist dream.  An existential craving to become 'better' or 'more' through buying stuff is business as usual whether you're in Paris, Melbourne or L.A.  Not every person wears the decadent hipster style but nearly everyone with a job is decadent in other ways: going to pubs and cafes daily, eating out in restaurants weekly, owning wide screen TVs or even smartphones, taking multiple holiday out of the country per year, etc. All these trends seem decadent to people like me, who started working in 1996, when consumer spending was nearly half of what it is today.  At that time, DIY clothing, free parties, pot lucks, protests and fanzines were the coolest things around.
I don't want to sound like an old person, suggesting that we are all consumption junkies simply because people have more stuff nowadays, but the facts and figures support my opinion: everyone is overspending as much as the average hipster on something. Since constant consumer spending growth is the Holy Grail of the Western economy right now, is closely tracked in charts like those below, salivated over by investors whose every waking minute is devoted to pushing the bottom line higher. Their campaign to keep the masses spending has worked a little bit too well though.

These graphs show the consumer spending growth from Germany, the U.S., the U.K. and Spain from 1995 till 2012/2013.  The dramatic rise in spending is reflected in every Western nation.  Source:
The universal trend of nonstop consumption growth is rarely noted in the mass media, except in glowing annual growth reports. I think many people would be as shocked as me if they looked back and see how high consumption, and production, have become thanks to the Western nations.  Society has noticed a down side to over consumption.... aside from causing credit crunches and recessions, it also has a soulless, very human downside.  I think that society has epitomized and demonized this in the so-called 'hipster subculture' because they are so darn obvious about their spending, but perhaps their energy would be better spent cutting back on our own spending.

Whenever I go into the store to buy anything - a pair of shades, say - they're invariably bright, silly hipster shades.  Same with trousers.  And shoes. To get something non-hipster, I'd probably have to go to a designer store and spend even more money I don't have.  It seems that being a hipster is less of a conscious choice, and more of an unavoidable by-product of shopping.  Maybe that is because hipsters are a physical symbol of a generation that believes that buying is the same thing as being. Maybe that's why, whenever I want to spend, I can't escape coming face to face with the hipster trend. But I also can't escape the sneaking suspicion that I'm reaching for those imitation, retro  80s shades, not just because they're everywhere and cheap but because, on some level, I wish I could afford to be as conspicuous about my consumption as those f%$ing hipsters.  I am pretty sure I don't wish that, but I wonder how long that will last, when the largest 'subculture' in the West around revolves entirely around buying shit.


The Ectasy and Agony of Doing Our First Party

The experience of putting on my first party in Berlin lived up to its name - it left my mind feeling pretty smeared.  Anyone who's thinking of 'making party' for the first time should do themselves a favour and read on, to find out and what I learned:

1) There are no norms or standards in Berlin's party venue market.

I received venue rental quotes ranging from 120 to 2000 Euros per party, and the venues ranged in size anything from a 20 sq. meter cellars with leaks, to sprawling, hypermodern spaces that rivalled the Tate Modern. Unless your bestie owns a cool space, expect to spend up to half of your organizing time finding one &  making it just right for the guests.

Also specific to Berlin: there seemed to be no universal method of getting in touch with these venues.  Some club managers are contactable by telephone, others by email, Facebook, SMS, YouTube video, telepathy, interpretive dance...??  A couple of clubs were so difficult to get in touch with that I seriously considered spray painting my name and phone number on their front door and hoping for the best.  

2) Be honest.  
It's a Berlin cliche: every second person in the city is a 'designer' an 'entrepreneur' a 'producer' or 'business manager'.  You rarely hear them admit that, 'I'm an underemployed tour guide and amateur, wannabe promoter'.  Many people working in the Berlin club scene are just as opaque about their qualifications as the hipster fantasists who describe themselves in the above flowery terms.  As I quickly learned, it's because some of them don't have real qualifications and the results of working with them can be disastrous.  In the course of organizing this party, I met 'graphic designers' who couldn't recognize layout errors, 'club managers' who hated techno, and 'promoters' who struggle to communicate with their own group of friends, let alone the city of Berlin.

Sticking myself with the less-glamourous, truthful label of 'amateur wannabe promoter' was much more useful in the end; whenever I met people who genuinely were qualified to help me, they were more willing to give me a hand.  (Thank-you Katja, Rachel, Dylan, James, Katie, Dave, Alenee, Zoe and the DJs!)

3) It's the end of the world as we know it (I feel fine)
When Northern Europe was abruptly plunged into a mini-ice age in the middle of March, this did not seem to bode well for our semi-outdoors, April party.  Ditto when I had to rush to hospital for an urgent operation, in the midst of the epic search for a party venue. Still, it was something of a relief to realize that, hey, at least climate change is something I am not personally responsible for sorting out by April 20th. Goddess grant me the strength to change what I can and the wisdom to accept what I cannot etc.  The post-operative strength codeine pills might have helped me to foster that sense of acceptance, too.

4) Printing the flyers is the last thing you should do. Period.
An oversight in the 'quality control'
of our first batch of 
5000 flyers resulted in them being misprinted.  After painstaking efforts were made to ensure that the second flyer batch was correct (this time, I consulted a professional designer with, like, a degree to prove it) I sent off our new, improved flyer to the printer.  The next day, I found out that we had to change the venue.  D'oh!  I was then duly informed by another promoter that flyers only need to be handed out in the final week or two before the party, so there was never any rush to get them done. That brings me to my final point:

5) Delegate the responsibility, delegate the stress.

As this was my first party, I made a fair few mistakes. I was prepared for this.  What I wasn't prepared for was the wall-punching frustration of being given 'helpful' advice by nearly everyone after the fact.  
Like those people, I also posess 20/20 vision in hindsight and, retrospectively, I can see now that it would have been a good idea to find someone with the foresight to avoid mistakes and hand off a few jobs to those people.  It's much less painful than punching walls, and cheaper than buying a time machine as well.

The one thing that this party organizing experience didn't teach me was that having a good party makes everything better again... I already knew that!   Finding time to dance for a whole hour to a set by one of my favourite DJs, and catching glimpses of friends having a great time all throughout the night, made all the stress evaporate faster than a sheen of dancefloor sweat on a cool April night. 

 Would I do it again?  YES.  If it's true that you learn how to avoid mistakes by making them, and how to avoid pitfalls by stumbling into them, then the next Mind Smear party should be utterly mistake & pitfall-free!

Join Mind Smear on Facebook or check back on the party website for the details of the next one!

*Thanks very much to Katie for taking the above photos of the party.