Archive for October, 2013

Downloading Before the Downloaders: John Sladek’s The Muller-Fokker Effect

October 21, 2013

Since the 1980s Transhumanists such as Marvin Minsky, have looked forward to humans eventually leaving their bodies to download themselves into Artificial Intelligences, either robots or the digital universe of cyberspace. This prospect has been explored in Science Fiction in the Cyberpunk novels and short stories of writers such as William Gibson, Bruce Stirling and Pat Cadigan, while the Australian computer programmer and SF writer, Greg Egan, has similarly explored what it would mean to download one’s personality on to computer.

John Sladek

A decade before these writers and scientists began to explore the possibilities and consequences of entering cyberspace, the American writer John Sladek also discussed the experience of being encoded into a computer programme in his 1970 novel, the Muller-Fokker Effect. Sladek’s Science Fiction was deeply satirical, sending up and ridiculing the stupidity and absurdities of contemporary America. His first story, ‘Masterson and the Clerks’, from 1967, attacked consumerism and office culture. He also parodied the SF story and its themes, using logical puzzles while attempting to work out the real problems that would arise from them.

One of the SF themes in which he was particularly interested was Artificial Intelligence, which he explored most notably in three novels, the Muller-Fokker Effect, and the two ‘Roderick’ stories, Roderick, of The Education of Young Machine, 1980, and Roderick at Random, or, The Further Education of a Young Machine, 1983. The Muller-Fokker Effect describes what happens when its hero, Bob Shairp, is translated into computer data and recorded on tape through a newly discovered process. Brian Aldiss, in his history of Science Fiction, the Trillion Year Spree, describes it as ‘a deeply satirical book, homing in on the US Army, evangelism, newspapers and the like for its targets, with an overall sense of fun reminiscent of the work of Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick and Sheckley.’ In the Muller-Fokker Effect, Sladek shows the hero’s attempts to establish whether or not he exists and can move, as a computer flowchart in the figure of a man. It’s a neat attempt to describe visually the hero’s problematic nature as a piece of computer data.

John Clute in his Science Fiction: An Illustrated Encyclopedia states that ‘as with Vonnegut’s work, they show a man helplessly in love with a native land whose flaws – and whose disastrous pell-mell rush over the abyss into the horror of the next century – he compulsively records, both for our merriment, and for our betterment. The recurring figures – robots, insane executives, manic AIs – tell recurring jokes and teach a recurring lesson. They teach us that just being alive in these times is so hilarious that we could all die laughing’. Perhaps with the ever advancing developments in Virtual Reality and computer technology, it might be a good time to ponder Sladek’s warnings over the dangers of such technology and the uses to which they are put, rather than become too enthusiastic about using it in a grand evolutionary leap to transcend the human condition. It’s possible that no matter what the form or nature of its intelligence, whether organic or mechanical, human folly will remain constant.

Muller Fokker Diagram
Sources

Brian Aldiss with David Wingrove, Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd 1986) 306.

John Clute, Science Fiction: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (London: Dorling Kindersley 1995) 186.

Advertisements

Mechanical Limbs Before the Machine Age

October 19, 2013

A few days ago, I post up here a review of a collection of texts on Cyber culture and information technology published by Phaidon almost a decade ago. I’ve also got an interest in cybernetics, which was originally the attempt to reproduce in machines the functions of human organs, such as arms and legs. Since Norbert Wiener in the 1940s and ’50s much of the research into such devices has been based around electronic ‘command and control’ systems. The attempts to replace missing limbs with artificial devices long predates the terrible carnage and injuries inflicted during the Second World War. The classic example of the artificial limb in history, is Long John Silver’s wooden leg and Captain Hook’s eponymous replacement for his hand from Treasure Island and Peter Pan, respectively. In fact, such replacement limbs were made long before this, back into ancient Persia.

According to the Greek historian and anthropologist, Herodotus, the first artificial limb was a foot made by Hegistratus of Elis in the middle of the sixth century BC. Hegistratus was a Persian soldier and seer, who had been captured by the Spartans. Sentenced to death, he escaped from the stocks by cutting off part of his own foot. He then made a part to replace the section of foot he had cut off to help him walk 30 miles to Tregea. He was unsuccessful in this, and was captured by Zaccynthius and beheaded.

The ancient Egyptians were also replacing lost parts of their feet. One of the mummies from ancient Egypt possessed an artificial big toe, presumably to help the wearer to walk after he lost the real digit. The Roman naturalist and historian, Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century BC, also records how the Roman general Marcus Sergius had his hand replaced with an artificial one during the Second Punic War against Carthage, from 218 to 210 BC. During the battle, Sergius received 23 different wounds and his right arm had to be amputated. This was replaced with an iron hand so that he could his shield. He returned to the battle, and fought a further four more against the Carthaginians, during which he had two horses killed from under him.

The oldest known artificial limb was found in a Capuan tomb In 1858, and dated to about 300 BC. This was the period of the Samnite Wars, and the leg was presumably made for a Roman soldier, who had lost his own in battle. It was made from a mixture of copper and wood. It ended up in the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, where it was unfortunately destroyed in an air raid in 1941. It has since, however, been replaced by a copy.

Roman Leg

Copy of Roman Leg dating to 300 BC

During the Sixteenth century physicians and engineers across Europe attempted to construct artificial limbs to replace those of the soldiers, who had lost theirs in the numerous wars of the time. An iron hand was made in 1509 for the German knight, Goetz von Berlichingen, who was the later the hero of a play of the same name by the great German dramatist, Goethe. It was not entirely successful. Goetz remarked of it that ‘My right hand, though not useless in combat, is unresponsive to the grasp of affection. It is one with its mailed gauntlet – You see, it is iron. Later in the sixteenth century the great French military surgeon, Ambroise Pare, also designed and built a number of artificial limbs, including a leg, hand and arm. Some of the artificial hands were operated by an ingenious system of ratchets and levers so that they could extend and flex their fingers. These artificial limbs promoted the development of springs, ratchets and gear. In the opinion of Geoff Simons, a contemporary writer on robots and cybernetics, they also contain important clues for designing modern, robotic artificial hands. This is particularly impressive as it has proved very difficult to design artificial hands with the range of movement and dexterity of the original. R. Pawson in his 1985 book on robots even suggested it would be easier to build an artificial brain than a robotic hand.

Pare Hand Leg

An artificial hand and leg built by Ambroise Pare (1510-90)

Pare Arm

Another of Pare’s creations: an artificial arm

The design of artificial limbs has made truly incredible advances over the past few decades. Scientists and doctors have produced a number of artificial limbs that respond to impulses from the wearers nerves, and can even feel certain types of sensation. These awesome developments in medical engineering are built on the solid foundations of the ancients and their search for artificial replacement limbs.

The Australian performance artist has also explored the new dimensions and possibilities for augmenting and even redesigning the human body offered by modern cybernetics. AS I mentioned in previous posts, he has given himself an artificial third hand, and connected himself to the internet, so that his body could be operated remotely and automatically by a cybernet search engine through galvanic stimulators. I found this sequence of videos in which he talks about his work and disability in a conversation with the stand up comedian and disabled rights activist, Liz Carr, at a disabled arts conference at Warwick University. I object to Stelarc’s statement that the human body is now somehow obsolete, but his work is a fascinating exploration of the transhuman condition. In the interview with Carr he talks movingly of the hope some of the technology used in his performances have given the disabled. The wife of one of the scientists, with whom he has worked, tragically suffers from ‘locked-in syndrom’, and can only communicate with her right eye. Stelarc recalled how delighted she was when they fixed galvanic stimulators to her arm, and for a moment she briefly had the power to move her arm slightly again. Here’s the interview below.

Stelarc on Experimenting on His own Body

Stelarc: Would having a Prosthetic Arm be enough for You?

Stelarc: Is the Human Body Obsolete

Stelarc on How Do We Cope with Change to the Body We Can’t Control?

Liz Carr’s Conclusion and Surprise for Stelarc

For all that his work is frequently disturbing in its implications for the future of humanity, Stelarc himself comes across as surprisingly normal, with an engaging attitude and ready laugh. It’s fascinating seeing him and Carr find that they have a common ground in their exploration of what philosophers call ‘the human condition’.

Sources

Jack Challoner, (ed.), 1001 Inventions that Changed the World (London: Cassell 2009)

Michael Pollard, Felicity Trotman, Merilyn Holme, The Illustrated Dictionary of Inventors and Inventions (London: Claremont Books 1995)

Geoff Simons, Robots: The Quest for Living Machines (London: Cassell 1992).

Thinking the Unthinkable: Move Parliament out of London

October 19, 2013

From Hell, Hull and Halifax, good Lord deliver us

-16th Century beggars’ prayer.

Last week The Economist recommended that the government cease trying to revive declining northern towns and leave them to die. The main example of such a town, where further intervention was deemed to be useless, was Hull, but the magazine also mentioned a number of others, including Burnley. The Economist is the magazine of capitalist economic orthodoxy in this country. Its stance is consistently Neo-Liberal, and the policies it has always demanded are those of welfare cuts and the privatisation of everything that isn’t nailed down. It has loudly supported the IMF’s recommendations of these policies to the developing world. Some left-wing magazines and organisation like Lobster have pointed out that the IMF’s policies effectively constitute American economic imperialism, citing the IMF’s proposals to several South and Meso-American nations. These were not only told to privatise their countries’ state assets, but to sell them to American multinationals so that they could be more efficiently managed.

The Economist’s advice that economically hit northern towns should be ‘closed down’ also reflects the almost exclusive concentration of the metropolitan establishment class on London and south-east, and their complete disinterest and indeed active hostility to everything beyond Birmingham. This possibly excludes the Scots Highlands, where they can go grouse shooting. It was revealed a little while ago that back in the 1980s one of Thatcher’s cabinet – I forgotten which one – recommended a similar policy towards Liverpool. Recent economic analyses have shown that London and the south-east have become increasingly prosperous, and have a higher quality of life, while that of the North has significantly declined. The London Olympics saw several extensive and prestigious construction projects set up in the Docklands area of London, intended both to build the infrastructure needed for the Olympics and promote the capital to the rest of the world. It’s also been predicted that the high-speed rail link proposed by the Coalition would not benefit Britain’s other cities, but would lead to their further decline as jobs and capital went to London. A report today estimated that 50 cities and regions, including Bristol, Cardiff, Aberdeen and Cambridge would £200 million + through the rail link. The Economist’s article also demonstrates the political class’ comprehensive lack of interest in manufacturing. From Mrs Thatcher onwards, successive administrations have favoured the financial sector, centred on the City of London. Lobster has run several articles over the years showing how the financial sector’s prosperity was bought at the expense of manufacturing industry. Despite claims that banking and financial industry would take over from manufacturing as the largest employer, and boost the British economy, this has not occurred. The manufacturing has indeed contracted, but still employs far more than banking, insurance and the rest of the financial sector. The financial sector, however, as we’ve seen, has enjoyed massively exorbitant profits. The Economist claims to represent the interests and attitudes of the financial class, and so its attitude tellingly reveals the neglectful and contemptuous attitude of the metropolitan financial elite towards the troubled economic conditions of industrial towns outside the capital.

Coupled with this is a condescending attitude that sees London exclusively as the centre of English arts and culture, while the provinces, particularly the North, represent its complete lack. They’re either full of clod-hopping yokels, or unwashed plebs from the factories. Several prominent Right-wingers have also made sneering or dismissive comments about the North and its fate. The art critic and contrarian, Brian Sewell, commented a few years ago that ‘all those dreadful Northern mill towns ought to be demolished’. Transatlantic Conservatism has also felt the need to adopt a defensive attitude towards such comments. The American Conservative, Mark Steyn, on his website declared that criticism of London was simply anti-London bias, but didn’t tell you why people were so critical of the metropolis or its fortunes. This situation isn’t new. At several times British history, London’s rising prosperity was marked by decline and poverty in the rest of the country. In the 17th century there was a recession, with many English ports suffering a sharp economic decline as London expanded to take 75 per cent of the country’s trade. The regional ports managed to survive by concentrating on local, coastal trade rather than international commerce, until trade revived later in the century.

It’s also unfair on the North and its cultural achievements. The North rightfully has a reputation for the excellence of its museum collections. The region’s museums tended to be founded by philanthropic and civic-minded industrialists, keen to show their public spirit and their interest in promoting culture. I can remember hearing from the director of one of the museum’s here in Bristol two decades ago in the 1990s how he was shocked by the state of the City’s museum when he came down here from one of the northern towns. It wasn’t of the same standard he was used to back home. What made this all the more surprising was that Bristol had a reputation for having a very good museum. Now I like Bristol Museum, and have always been fascinated by its collections and displays, including, naturally, those on archaeology. My point here isn’t to denigrate Bristol, but simply show just how high a standard there was in those of the industrial north. Liverpool City Museum and art gallery in particular has a very high reputation. In fact, Liverpool is a case in point in showing the very high standard of provincial culture in the 19th century, and its importance to Britain’s economic, technological and imperial dominance. Liverpool was a major centre in scientific advance and experiment through its philosophical and literary society, and its magazine. This tends to be forgotten, overshadowed as it has been by the city’s terrible decline in the 20th century and its setting for shows dealing with working-class hardship like Boys from the Black Stuff and the comedy, Bread. Nevertheless, its cultural achievements are real, quite apart from modern pop sensations like the Beatles, Cilla Black, Macca and comedians like Jimmy Tarbuck. The town also launched thousands of young engineers and inventors with the Meccano construction sets, while Hornby railways delighted model railway enthusiasts up and down the length of Britain. These two toys have been celebrated in a series of programmes exploring local history, like Coast. Hornby, the inventor of both Meccano and the model railway that bore his name, was duly celebrated by the science broadcaster, Adam Hart-Davis, as one of his Local Heroes.

And Liverpool is certainly not the only city north of London with a proud history. Think of Manchester. This was one of Britain’s major industrial centres, and the original hometown of the Guardian, before it moved to London. It was a major centre of the political debates and controversies that raged during the 19th century, with the Guardian under Feargus O’Connor the major voice of working class radicalism. It was in industrial towns like Manchester that working class culture emerged. Books like The Civilisation of the Crowd show how mass popular culture arose and developed in the 19th century, as people from working-class communities attempted to educate themselves and enjoy music. They formed choirs and brass bands. Working men, who worked long hours used their few spare hours to copy sheet music to sing or play with their fellows. The various mechanics institutes up and down the country were institutions, in which the working class attempted to educate itself and where contemporary issues were discussed. It’s an aspect of industrial, working class culture that needs to be remembered and celebrated, and which does show how strong and vibrant local culture could be in industrial towns outside London.

Back in the 1990s the magazine, Anxiety Culture, suggested a way of breaking this exclusive concentration on London and the interests of the metropolitan elite to the neglect of those in the provinces. This magazine was a small press publication, with a minuscule circulation, which mixed social and political criticism with Forteana and the esoteric, by which I mean alternative spirituality, like Gnosticism, rather than anything Tory prudes think should be banned from the internet, but don’t know quite what. In one of their articles they noted that when a politician said that ‘we should think the unthinkable’, they meant doing more of what they were already doing: cutting down on welfare benefits and hitting the poor. They recommended instead the adoption of a truly radical policy:

Move parliament out of London.

They listed a number of reasons for such a genuinely radical move. Firstly, it’s only been since the 18th century that parliament has been permanently fixed in London. Before then it often sat where the king was at the time. At various points in history it was at Winchester near the Anglo-Saxon and Norman kings’ treasury. It was in York during Edward I’s campaign against the Scots. In short, while parliament has mostly been resident in London, it hasn’t always been there, and so there is no absolutely compelling reason why it should remain so.

Secondly, London’s expensive. The sheer expensive of living in the capital was always so great that civil servants’ pay including ‘London weighting’ to bring it up to the amount they’d really need to live on in the capital, which was always higher than in the rest of the country. The same was true for other workers and employees. As we’ve seen, these inequalities are growing even more massive under the Tories, and there is talk of a demographic cleansing as poorer families are forced to move out of some of the most expensive boroughs in the capital. MPs and the very rich may now afford to live in luxury accommodation in the metropolis, but I wonder how long it will be before the capital’s infrastructure breaks down because so many of its workers simply cannot afford to live there. The government has declared that it is keen on cutting expenses, and public sector employees’ salaries have been particularly hard hit. The government could therefore solve a lot of its problems – such as those of expense, and the cost in time and money of negotiating the heavy London traffic – by relocating elsewhere.

Birmingham would be an excellent place to start. This has most of what London has to offer, including excellent universities and entertainment centres, such as the NEC, but would be much cheaper. Or York. During the Middle Ages, this was England’s Second City. It’s an historic town, with a history going back to the Romans. The excavations at Coppergate made York one of the major British sites for the archaeology of the Vikings. It also has an excellent university. One could also recommend Durham. When I was growing up in the 1980s, Durham University was considered the third best in the country, following Oxbridge. Manchester too would be an outstanding site for parliament. Apart from its historic associations with working class politics, it has also been a major centre of British scientific research and innovation. Fred Hoyle, the astronomer and maverick cosmologist, came from that fair city. While he was persistently wrong in supporting the steady-state theory against the Big Bang, he was one of Britain’s major astronomers and physicists, and Manchester University does have a very strong tradition of scientific research and innovation. British politicians are also keen to show that they are now tolerant with an inclusive attitude towards gays. Manchester’s Canal Street is one of the main centres of gay nightlife. If parliament really wanted to show how tolerant it was of those in same-sex relationship, it would make sense for it to move to Manchester.

Furthermore, relocating parliament to the north should have the effect of reinvigorating some of these cities and the north generally. The influx of civil servants and highly paid officials and ministers would stimulate the local economy. It would also break the myopic assumption that there is nothing of any value outside London. If the government and its servants continued to feel the same way, then they would have the option of actually passing reforms to improve their new homes by providing better road and rail links, improving local education, building or better funding theatres, orchestras and opera companies, investing in local businesses to support both the governmental infrastructure, but also to provide suitable work for themselves and their children, when they retire from the Civil Service. In short, moving parliament out of London to the midlands or the North would massively regenerate those part of England.

It won’t happen, because the current financial, political and business elite are very much tied to the metropolis as the absolute centre of English life and culture. They won’t want to leave its theatres, art galleries and museums, or move away from nearby sporting venues, like Ascot. They would find the idea of moving out of London absolutely unthinkable. But perhaps, as Anxiety Culture suggested twenty years ago, it is time that these ideas were thought, rather than the banal and all-too often ruminated policies of cutting benefits and penalising the poor.

George Orwell on How the Upper Classes and Tories Hindered Britain in World War 2

October 17, 2013

One of Margaret Thatcher’s electoral strategies was to hark back to the Second World War, and present herself very much in the mould of her hero, Winston Churchill. Back in the 1990s the BBC did a documentary series showing how she had taken over Churchill’s own, heroic view of British history in his A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. She modelled both her own personal image and her style of politics on it, and on Churchill’s own image as the great statesman and warleader, who had kept Britain free during the Second World War. This was particularly clear – indeed, you were repeatedly hit over the head with it, metaphorically speaking, in the Conservative Party Political Broadcast for the 1987 election. This featured black and white film footage from the War of Spitfires zooming about the clouds, and ended with an enthusiastic actor’s voice declaring that ‘it’s great to be great again!’ Alan Coren on that week’s edition of the News Quiz described it as showing how Britain was saved by ‘the Royal Conservative Airforce’. He then reminded the nation that all the servicemen, whose courage and sacrifice Thatcher was using to promote her party, had then all come back and voted Labour in the 1946 election.

This constant presentation of herself as the incarnation of Churchillian statesmanship was not without problems. While the Second World War really was the great man’s finest hour, in many respects Churchill himself was an unpleasant figure. He started politics as a Liberal, but joined the Conservatives when they introduced old age pensions and sickness insurance for the workers, claiming that it was ‘socialism by the back door’. During the 1922 General Strike, Stanley Baldwin deliberately gave him in a job in the Telegraph Office to get him out of the way after he announced the army’s willingness to step in against the strikers. Amongst some on the Left, he is also remembered – falsely – as the man, who sent the army in against a demonstration by workers in Newport. It’s a myth, but such was his reputation for hostility towards organised labour that it’s still widely believed. Speaking on the above-mentioned BBC documentary, a former member of the Irish nationalist terrorist organisation, the INLA, stated that he found it easier to recruit members under Thatcher than under Ted Heath, because of Thatcher’s deliberate association with Churchill. Churchill might be a great hero in Britain, but to Irish nationalists he was hated for sending the brutal Black and Tans to suppress the Irish rebellion.

George Orwell was also unimpressed with Churchill and the Conservative party’s stance on Fascism. As a Socialist, he believed Churchill’s stance as the defender of democracy to be mere pretence. He also stated that the Stock Exchange had cheered Franco’s side when they rebelled against the Republican Government.

In his article, ‘England, Your England’ of 1941, Orwell attacked the political power and aims of the aristocracy, and the claim that everyone was equally making sacrifices for the war effort. He wrote

‘England is a family with the wrong members in control. Almost entirely we are governed by the rich, and by people who step into position of command by right of birth. Few if any of these people are consciously treacherous, some of them are not even fools, but as a class they are quite incapable of leading us to victory. They could not do it, even if their material interests did not constantly trip them up. As I pointed out earlier, they have been artificially stupefied. Quite apart from anything else, the rule of money sees to it that we shall be governed largely by the old – that is, by people utterly 8unable to grasp what age they are living in or what enemy they are fighting. Nothing was more desolating at the beginning of this war than the way in which the whole of the older generation conspired to pretend that it was the war of 1914-18 over again. All the old duds were back on the job, twenty years older, with the skull plainer in their faces. Ian Hay was cheering up the troops, Belloc was writing articles on strategy, Maurois doing broadcasts, Bairnsfather drawing cartoons. It was like a tea-party of ghosts. And that state of affairs has barely altered. The shock of disaster brought a few able men like Bevin to the front, but in general we are still commanded by people who managed to live through the years 1931-9 without even discovering that Hitler was dangerous. A generation of the unteachable is hanging upon us like necklace of corpses.

As soon as one considers any problem of this war – and it does not matter whether it is the widest aspect of strategy or the tiniest detail of home organization – one sees that the necessary moves cannot be made while the social structure of England remains what it is. Inevitably, because of their position and upbringing, the ruling class are fighting for their own privileges, which cannot possibly be reconciled with the public interest. It is a mistake to imagine that war aims, strategy, propaganda and industrial organisation exist in watertight compartments. All are interconnected. Every strategic plan, every tactical method, even every weapon will bear the stamp of the social system that produced it. The British ruling class are fighting against Hitler, whom they have always regarded and whom some of them still regard as their protector against Bolshevism. That does not mean that they will deliberately sell out; but it does mean that at every decisive moment they are likely to falter, pull their punches, do the wrong thing.

Until the Churchill Government called some sort of halt to the process, they have done the wrong thing with an unerring instinct ever since 1931. They helped Franco to overthrow the Spanish Government, although anyone not an imbecile could have told them that a Fascist Spain would be hostile to England. They fed Italy with war materials all through the winter of 1939-40, although it was obvious to the whole world that the Italians were going to attack us in the spring. For the sake of a few hundred thousand dividend drawers they are turning India from an ally into an enemy. Moreover, so long as the moneyed classes remain in control, we cannot develop any but a defensive strategy. Every victory means a change in the status quo. How can we drive the Italians out of Abyssinia without rousing echoes among the coloured peoples of our own Empire? How can we even smash Hitler without the risk of bring the German Socialists and Communists into power? The left-wingers who wail that ‘this is a capitalist war’ and that ‘British Imperialism’ is fighting for loot have got their heads screwed on backwards. The last thing the British moneyed class wishes for is to acquire fresh territory. It would simply be an embarrassment. Their war aim (both unattainable and unmentionable) is simply to hang on to what they have got.

Internally, England is still the rich man’s Paradise. All talk of ‘equality of sacrifice’ is nonsense. At the same time as factory workers are asked to put up with longer hours, advertisements for ‘Butler, One in family, eight in staff’ are appearing in the press. The bombed-out populations of the East End go hungry and homeless while wealthier victims simply step into their cars and flee to comfortable country houses. The Home Guard swells to a million men in a few weeks, and is deliberately organised from above in such a way that only people with private incomes can hold positions of command. Even the rationing system is arrange that it hits the poor all the time, while people with over £2,000 a year are practically unaffected by it. Everywhere privilege is squandering good will. In such circumstances even propaganda becomes almost impossible. As attempts to stir up patriotic feeling, the red posters issued by the Chamberlain Government at the beginning of the war broke all depth-records. Yet they could not have been much other than they were, for how could Chamberlain and his followers take the risk of rousing strong popular feeling against Fascism? Anyone who was genuinely hostile to Fascism must also be opposed to Chamberlain himself and to all the others who had helped Hitler into power. So also with external propaganda. In all Lord Halifax’s speeches there is not one concrete proposal for which a single inhabitant of Europe would risk the top joint of his little finger. For what war-aim can Halifax, or anyone like him, conceivably have, except to put the clock back to 1933?

It is only by revolution that the native genius of the English people can be set free. Revolution does not mean red flags and street fighting, it means a fundamental shift of power. Whether it happens with or without bloodshed is largely an accident of time and place. Nor does it mean the dictatorship of a single class. The people in England who grasp what changes are needed and are capable of carrying them through are not confined to any one class, though it is true that very few people with over £2,000 a year are among them. What is wanted is a conscious open revolt by ordinary people against inefficiency, class privilege and the rule of the old. It is not primarily a question of change of government. British governments do, broadly speaking, represent the will of the people, and if we alter our structure from below we shall get the government we need. Ambassadors, generals, officials and colonial administrators who are senile or pro-Fascist are more dangerous than Cabinet ministers whose follies are committed in public. Right through our national life we have got to fight against privilege, against the notion that a half-witted public-schoolboy is better fitted for command than an intelligent mechanic. Although there are gifted and honest individuals among them, we have got to break the grip of the moneyed class as a whole. England has got to assume its real shape. The England that is only just beneath the surface, in the factories and the newspaper offices, in the aeroplanes and the submarines, has got to take charge of the nation.’

Fortunately, the allies did win the War, and in a few instances the opposite was true. Instead of pulling our punches, we also committed war crimes. The bombing of Dresden is the classic example, though many others have also denounced the carpet bombing of civilians. One of these is the Conservative journalist, Peter Hitchens. I strongly disagree with Hitchens on most issues, but here I think he is fundamentally correct. In his opinion the bombing of Nazi Germany’s civilian population was a murderous act. It did not hinder the Nazi war machine, nor did it demoralise the German population any more than their bombing of ours reduce our determination for victory.

But Orwell, when he was writing, could not have known that we would win. Indeed, as subsequent historians have pointed out, at one point in 1942 the majority of the cabinet turned against him and demanded that we make piece with Germany. It’s to Churchill’s immense credit that he refused and managed to turn the cabinet completely around to his opinion. Orwell was right about the way many of the moneyed classes did favour Nazi Germany. Martin Pugh on his book on British Fascism between the two world wars, notes that much of the aristocracy was discreetly pro-Nazi. The upper classes also generally supported Franco during the Spanish Civil War. The one notable exception to this was the Duchess of Bute and Argyll. Known as the Red Duchess for her pamphleteering in support of the Spanish Republicans, she repeatedly attempted to point out that the Spanish government certainly wasn’t solely occupied with Anarchists and Communists, but that most of them were liberals and democrats. Pugh also points out that Churchill himself wasn’t anti-Fascist, and admired Franco. He was hostile to Nazi Germany because he feared that it would be a rival to British imperial power, ignoring the fact that a Fascist Spain could also block or impeded British imperial access to the Mediterranean. And Orwell was right that the Second World War did encourage the subject races of the British Empire to seek independence. India was the first, followed by Ghana and the others. It’s actually one of the reasons Hitchen’s believes we should not have entered the War. He appears to believe that if we had not fought Hitler, we would still possess an Empire. Well, the Empire was in decline anyway, and its loss was a fair price for keeping Europe free.

What is striking about Orwell’s piece is just how much is relevant today. We are still ruled by the moneyed class. Literally, in fact. Both Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and their associates have backgrounds in finance, rather than manufacturing. They are also public schoolboys, and if not half-witted, certainly believe absolutely that they have a better right to govern than the mechanic, no matter how intelligent. The Conservatives and their Liberal lickspittles are still claiming that everyone is suffering equally, while working conditions are made worse and people turned out of their homes. And the Tory party has repeatedly sold arms to nations that have then used them against us, like Iraq during the Gulf Wars.

Orwell was like just about every other writer and commentator in that his views weren’t always right. But they are still very much worth reading. The novelist, journalist and freedom fighter is still very relevant now, nearly sixty years after his death.

Readings for the Cyber Age

October 15, 2013

Neil Spiller, ed., Cyber_Reader: Critical Writings for the Digital Era (London: Phaidon 2002)

Cyber Reader

Information technology is one of the most powerful scientific development of the past century. It, and the related fields of cybernetics and robotics, have profound implications for the nature of the brain, consciousness, sex, gender, humanity, life and even reality itself through the ways scientists, engineers and games designers have managed to simulate, model or recreate these aspects of our existence in the virtual worlds of cyberspace. This book is a collection of texts by scientists, engineers, philosophers and Science Fiction novelists exploring the theoretical and scientific underpinnings of information technology and cybernetics, and exploring the technologies’ philosophical implications and their impact on our lives in the future. The texts include extracts from

Babbage Engine

A Model of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine of 1871

Charles Babbage, ‘Of the Analytical Engine, 1864’, discussing his manufacture of his famous ‘Difference Engine’;

E.M. Forster’s pioneering SF story, The Machine Stops, of 1909, in which a future society that has become absolutely reliant for every aspect of its citizen’s existence on a vast machine has to come to terms with its end when that machine finally breaks down.

Vannevar Bush’s ‘As We May Think’, from 1945. Bush was the originator of the concept of hypertext in his idea of the memex machine. This was to be library reading desk that would call up microfilms and project their contents onto a screen. The user could, however, create trails between texts using various levers on the device. In this article, published in the Atlantic Monthly, Bush predicted the kind of devices he felt were just around the corner.

Turning's Man Cover

J. David Bolter’s ‘Essays of Operation’ from 1989, which provides a short description of Alan Turing’s Turing Machine and Johnny Von Neumann’s Design for Computers.

Norbert Wiener’s Organisation of the Message of 1950. Wiener was the father of cybernetics through his book, Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine of 1948. In the extract from the Organisation of the Message included in this collection Wiener’s expresses his opinion that there is no difference between the transmission of information and the transmission of material, and looks forward to what we would now call teleportation.

JCR Licklider’s ‘Man-Computer Symbiosis’ of 1960, which analyses humans’ relationship to computers as analogous to the symbiotic relationship between bees and flowering plants.

Douglas Engelbart’s ‘Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework’ of 1962, which laid the basis for modern interactive hypermedia. It was Engelbart’s research, which created the foundations for the computer mouse, teleconferencing, e-mail and distributed client-server networks and the internet.

Marshall McLuhan’s ‘The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis’ of 1964. McLuhan was the Canadian media guru, who coined the phrases ‘the medium is the message’ and ‘the global village’. In his exploration of the myth of Narcissus, McLuhan considered that the artificial, mechanical extension of the human self through technology created a sense of numbness. He believed that the media had created a state where everybody was somehow nearby. This allowed people in a sense to leave their physical bodies. For some this could be liberating, as it left the physical realm, and gender and disability behind. On the negative side, it meant that people no longer had the terrible fear of war.

Gordon Pask’s ‘The Architectural Relevance of Cybernetics’ of 1969. Pask was an architect and the inventor of ‘Conversation Theory’. This explores ideas of the ‘observer’ and ‘users’ and their influence on the complex outcomes of cybernetic systems. The extract contained in the book is his account of Cedric Price’s and Joan Littlewood’s attempts to create the Fun Palace, constructed from huge steel columns and beams, which could be radical reconfigured.

Cedric Price’s ‘Generator Project’ of 1976. This was an attempt by Price to create an ‘intelligent’ building that ‘knew itself’ and ‘dreamt’ cybernetically. The various components of the building were fitted with a logic circuit linked to a central computer, in order to assist in the building’s reconfiguration. Price’s team were afraid that the human users would not fully utilise the building’s potential for radically altering its own structure. They therefore programmed the system so that it would register its own boredom, and make suggestions for possible alterations.

Paul Virilio, ‘The Aesthetics of Disappearance’ of 1980. Virilio is a French architect and one of the leading Postmodern critical theorists. In his Aesthetics of Disappearance, Virilio used the figure of the aircraft engineer and obsessive recluse, Howard Hughes, to express his own views on the disappearance of technology as it becomes faster, smaller and increasingly invisible. He stated that due to technology, the world was speeding up, and time was being ‘jump-cut’. He also believed that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity had destroyed static relationships, and that things now existed only in relationship to something else.

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaux: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 1980. Deleuze was professor of philosophy at Paris University at Vincennes, and Guattari was a psychoanalyst and political activist, who practiced at the experiment psychiatric clinic, La Borde. In A Thousand Plateaux, Deleuze and Guattari analysed the ‘spacescape’ created by computer technology. They saw reality in terms of the rhizome and Riemannian manifold, metaphors for the complex interrelationships between things that changed over time. These ideas strongly influenced the annual ‘Virtual Futures’ conferences held at Warwick University in the 1990 by scholars exploring the philosophical implications of cybernetic research.

Neuromancer Cover

It also includes a chapter from William Gibson’s pioneering 1984, SF novel, Neuromancer. Gibson is one of the founders of Cyberpunk. His outlaw heroes have been altered so that they can access the vast, virtual information world of Cyberspace. Spiller included the extract because it had been so massively influential, that it was now difficult to know whether it had predicted modern Virtual reality, or merely described what was already happening.

Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’, of 1985. Haraway is a socialist feminist, who sees cyberculture as a way of removing the old dualisms of male/female, white/black, animal/machine and heterosexual/homosexual. She believes the modern feminists, in championing the underdog, have actually reinforced these dualism and the existing system of exploitation. She believed that the cyborg was ‘committed to partiality, irony, intimacy and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence’, and with no conception of the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden with its gender divides and division of labour.

Drexler Cover

K. Eric Drexler’s ‘Engines of Abundance’, from his 1990 book, Engines of Creation. This laid the foundations of nanotechnology, and looked forward to the development of atomic and molecular machines that could build anything out of anything, so that rocket engines could be built in vats.

Carbon Nanotubes

Computer Visualisation of Carbon Nanotubes, developed under the direction of Deepak Srivastava at NASA’s advance Supercomputing Division

Greg Bear’s 1990 novel, Queen of Angels. A cyberpunk novel set in 2047, this follows Public Defender Mary Choy as she goes to a Caribbean island to bring back to Los Angeles an insane mass-murderer. On the island, she secretly uses nanotechnology to build a gun on her hotel dressing table.

Difference Engine Cover

William Gibson’s and Bruce Stirling’s ‘Steampunk’ SF novel, The Difference Engine, of 1991. this explores what the world would have been like, if Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine had been built, and Victorian Britain and France become steam-driven computer societies.

Wearable Computer 1

A Wearable Computer System developed by MIT

Howard Rheingold’s ‘The Origins of Drama and the Future of Fun’ in his Virtual Reality of 1991. Rheingold was the editor of the Whole Earth Review, the successor to the 1960’s counterculture Whole Earth Catalog. His book, Virtual Reality, was one of the first popular books on the new, Virtual worlds now possible through computers, head-mounted displays and data gloves. Rheingold optimistically believed that this technology would allow us to recreate any experience we wished, a view that was attacked by Benjamin Woolley a year later in Woolley’s own Virtual Worlds.

Manuel De Landa’s ‘Policing the Spectrum’, from his War in the Age of Intelligent Machines of 1991. This was a history of weaponry from the machines of the Renaissance to the computerised technology used in the first Gulf War. He analysed their development in the terms of nonlinear emergent dynamics, and the apparent spontaneous emergence of order out of chaos. This results in curiously life-like behaviour in inorganic matter. De Landa has therefore developed the notion of the machine phylum, in which matter and energy in states in vastly disorganised states result in the self-assembly of machines. He sees the process by which machines are built by humans as similar to industrious insects pollinating and independent species of machine flower that does not possess its own reproductive organs.

Marcos Novak’s ‘Liquid Architectures in Cyberspace’, from the 1991 book Cyberspace: First Steps, edited by Michael Benedikt. Cyberspace: First Steps was a collection of essays by a variety of scholars and writers, including cultural commentators, artists, anthropologists, systems engineers, architects and software designers. Novak at the time was an assistant professor at the University of Texas. Novak has been credited as one of the first architects to show how his discipline could use cyberspace and its technologies to create new forms of architectural space. In ‘Liquid Architectures’ Novak argued that architecture that could and was built is only a small part of what architects actually produce. Through history there has always been architectural designs that could not be, and were never intended to be built. The ‘liquid architecture in cyberspace’ was Novak’s idea of the deliberately impossible structures architects could now design and build in Virtual reality.

Daniel C. Dennett’s ‘An Empirical theory of the Mind: The Evolution of Consciousness’ from Consciousness Explained, 1992. Dennett considered that consciousness was an emergent property of the brain, a feature that spontaneously arose from the brain’s structure and operation, but which could not be predicted. he drew an analogy between it and the way geese fly in ‘V’ formation, another emergent property that cannot be predicted from an examination of individual geese. In the chapter ‘An Empirical Theory of Consciousness’, Dennett argued that the brain and its components are analogous to parallel computer networks, all of which were capable of pretending to be other machines. It was an attempt to explain the emergence of consciousness, and humans’ ability to move from one mode of thought to another.

Neal Stephen’s 1992 SF novel, Snow Crash. This is set in the Virtual world of the Metaverse, and the Street, the Virtual space at the heart of it. Attached to the Street are various spaces where gravity and linear time do not exist. The novel is about the attempts of the central character, the appropriately named Hiro Protagonist, to combat the Snow Crash virus infecting this Virtual world. Although the book is set in Cyberspace, the book also has overtones of Augmented Reality, in which it is possible, using goggles, to see both real and Virtual space simultaneously.

Stephen Levy, ‘The Strong Claim’ in Artificial Life: The Quest for a New Creation, 1992. Artificial Life was a book tracing the development of the concept and the personalities and minds behind it. It combined science writing with biography. The concept of artificial life is based on the idea that as biological life is the manipulation of information, it should similarly be possible to replicate this in computers, which also manipulate information. Levy began his account of the idea’s development with the ‘finite automata’ of John Von Neumann before going on to John Horton Conway’s Game of Life. This is a version of cellular automata, and has been used to create Virtual creatures, which interact with each other and develop. These Virtual creatures are the Strong Claim, which this extract from Levy’s book explores.

Roger Lewin, ‘Life in a Computer’ in Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos, 1993. Lewin’s book, Complexity, discussed the changing patterns and order that can emerge from complex systems, such as the weather or colonies of animals. Genetic algorithms, invented by the American computer scientist John Holland, are algorithms designed to achieve optimum criteria. These are constructed according to genetic principles to achieve optimum performance by negotiating ‘fitness landscapes’ in the same way living organisms have done in their evolutionary development. In the extract reproduced here, Lewin discussed the use of genetic algorithms to construct the automata, or Virtual creatures with the capacity to evolve by Tom Ray in a simulated ecology of artificial life.

Pixel Juice Cover

The chapter, ‘Stash Rider’s, from Jeff Noon’s Vurt, 1993. Noon is a former pop musician, painter, and playwright. During his career he was playwright-in-residence at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. Vurt was a cyberpunk novel set in a future Manchester, in which people use an all-purpose nanotechnological smart lubricant, Vaz, to mend their bodies, physiologies and machines. The Vurt of the book’s title is a psychedelic drug taken by using a feather to tickle the back of the throat. As well as ordinary humans, Mancester also has a population of half-human dogmen, shadowcops and robocrusties, second-class citizens who are the products of a previous fecundity affecting humans, animals and objects in a bio-technological disaster. The book is based on Norbert Wiener’s idea that the brain is similar to the computer. This was developed by some cognitive psychologists into the suggestion that the brain could similarly be programmed and dissected as a series of programmes.

PK Dick Religion

A Page from Robert Crumb’s The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick, depicting the strange Gnostic experiences that occurred to Dick in March 1974, and which formed the basis of his book, Valis.

Techgnosis Cover

Erik Davis, Techgnosis: magic, memory, and the Angels of Information, 1993. Davis here argued that underlying modern information and image-rich culture was the ancient, human urge to create mythologies placing events and objects within a cosmological hierarchy, imbuing them with order and meaning. The book is therefore an exploration of the connections and similarities between the new technologies of cyberspace and ancient, arcane and scientifically discredited concepts.

Metropolis

The evil robot from Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis, which mixed Science Fiction with religious imagery. The inverted pentagram behind the robot links her and her creator to world of black magic.

Scott Bukatman, ‘Terminal Resistance/ Cyborg Acceptance’, in Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction, 1993. Bukatman is Assistant Professor in the Media Arts Program at the University of New Mexico, and the consulting editor for the academic journal, Science Fiction Studies.In Terminal Identity he examines the way space and technology in SF. He considers that modern society is in crisis, as the established relationships between humanity, space, machines, and gender and sexuality and the way they are represented have been broken down. He argues that in the past there was a dichotomy between the external, rational world and the internal world of the mind, which was full of ghosts, fantasies and Virtual beings. Digital technology has reversed this relationship, so that it is now the external world that is full of the strange, fantastic and unreal. Modern information technology offers a kind of transcendence, at the cost of the violation of the purity of the flesh, as the body is invaded by the products of technology.

Anne Balsamo, ‘Feminism for the Incurably Informed’ in South Atlantic Quarterly’, 1993. Anne Balsamo is Professor of Literature, Communication and Culture at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, and the author of the 1996 book, Technologies of the Gendered Body. ‘Feminism for the Incurably Informed’ is a feminist reading of Pat Cadigan’s SF novel, Synners. The Synners of the title are people, who take images from the brains of performers and rearticulate them for mass consumption, in a shifting, Virtual world, that is also always being reconfigured, repackaged and resold. Balsamo identifies Cadigan’s recurring motif of ‘change for the machines’, as encapsulating the issues that surround digital technology and its effect on the gendered body. She believes that humans have now become used to using machines as part of their identity, and wonders what this actually means and whether we can avoid being excessively reliant on them.

Sherry Turkle, ‘Constructions and Reconstructions of the Self in Virtual Reality’, 1994. Turkle is a clinical psychologist and the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Sociology of Science in the Program in Science, Technology and Society at MIT. Turkle uses Allucquere Rosanne Stone’s concept of the ‘consensual locus’ to explore the formation of identities in Multi-User Dungeons in Role-Playing Games such as Dungeons and Dragons. The ‘consensual locus’ is a person’s online persona, and their real-world personal interactions. She considers the consensual locus and the different realities it creates constitute a means for therapeutic interactions in the Virtual worlds of online Role-Playing Games. In an argument that should delight many fans of the RPG, she contradicts the image of them as lonely, socially retarded, rather sad individuals. she instead shows that the Virtual scenarios encountered in the games allow them to negotiate similar social situations in reality.

Kevin Kelly, ‘An Open Universe’, from Out of Control, 1994. Kelly is the former editor and publisher of the Hippie Whole Earth Review, and is the executive editor of Wired magazine. In Out of Control Kelly speculated on the vast possibilities that would arise through the hybridization of the biological with digital technology to form what Kelly calls ‘the neo-biological’. Kelly feels that this would result in the appearance of biological machines that would use emergent behaviour to evolve in relation to each other, rather than according to the strict parameters laid down by their programmers. The chapter included in the book examined the similarities between genes and their potential to create a massive ‘gene space’ of infinite possibilities through their capacity for recombination, and parallel computing, in which programs also evolve rather than proceed linearly. Kelly discusses the definition of artificial life by one of its pioneers, Chris Langton, and the way the genetic model can therefore be used to create forms of it, which evolve according to a changing ‘fitness landscape’.

Johnny Mnemonic

Keanu Reeves enters Cyberspace in this scene from Johnny Mnemonic, scripted by William Gibson.

Greg Egan, Permutation City, 1994. Egan is a Science Fiction writer and computer programmer. In his novel, Permutation City, Egan examines the concept of Strong AI: the claim that computers may be able to develop true artificial intelligence similar to that of humans, and what it would be like to exist as a disembodied intelligence, downloaded onto a computer. One of the book’s main characters, Paul Derham, creates a computer copy of himself as part of his research into Strong AI. The book describes the differences between the relative speeds and virtual capabilities of Virtual and real space, as well as the possibility of creating copies of one’s personality to form ‘conscious’ avatars in Cyberspace, as Derham does in the book.

William Mitchell, ‘Soft Cities’, from City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn, 1995. Mitchell is another architect, who has investigated the potential impact of cyberspace on their discipline. He is Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT. In City of Bits Mitchell was one of the first researchers to consider the impact cyberspace and e-commerce would have on the structure and morphology of cities. The new cities formed by the impact of digital technology would be more than their visible, built environment. They would be connected to Virtual reality via the information superhighways.

Wearable Computer 2

Members of MIT’s Wearable Computing Project, modelling some of their inventions.

Karen A. Franck, ‘When I Enter Virtual Reality, What body Will I Leave Behind?, in Architectural Design, 1995. Franck is a professor in the School of Architecture and also the Department of Social Science and Policy Studies at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark. Franck is interested in the body and gender, and in the essay collected in this book examined the extent to which people left them when they entered cyberspace. She considered that rather than losing them when they entered cyberspace, people split their bodies, with parts of them coming with us and allowing us to experience the Virtual realm. She believes cyberspace offers the opportunity to construct an area free of the gender stereotypes and ideas of beauty of normal space. Virtual reality offers a new kind of protection for the body, when people enter cyberspace, that allows them to experience more of, and understand, the other.

John Frazer, ‘A Natural Model for Architecture/ The Nature of the Evolutionary Model’, from An Evolutionary Architecture, 1995. Frazer was a unit master at the Architectural Association in London, Director of Computer-Aided Design at the University of Ulster, at which he received a personal Chair in 1984, as well as lecturing at Cambridge University. He was one of the founders of Autographics Software Ltd in 1983, which pioneered microprocessor graphics. Impressed by information ecologies and the spaces between objects, Frazer and his colleagues have developed computer architectural experiments using genetic algorithms, cellular automata, emergent behaviour, complexity and feedback loops to create a dynamic architecture, whose forms are beyond the total control of architect that programmes them. He models his approach to the built environment to the multi-celled structures found in nature. His own evolutionary architecture uses a ‘genetic code script’, with rules for the code’s development, the code’s mapping to a Virtual model, the characteristics of the environment for the model’s development, and the selection criteria. Spiller in his introduction to Frazer’s chapter notes that ‘he goes beyond the usual notions of architectural beauty and aesthetics’, although his work is not without them. Frazer was also pioneering in recognising the potential computers have for allowing architects design buildings, and create varied spaces in both the real, and Virtual worlds.

Nicholas Negroponte, ‘Iconographics’, from Being Digital, 1995. Negroponte is director of the Media lab at MIT, and the founder of Wired magazine, for which he also writes. Being Digital was Negroponte’s account of the revolution in digital technology. He stated he wanted to write the book, as it was aimed at parents, politicians and executives, who at that time did not have access to the digital media in which it could otherwise be published. He also wanted to revisit some of the old ideas in his Wired column, and see whether they were still true due to the very rapid changes in the technology and its application that can occur in a short space of time. Surprisingly, and heartening for the defenders of hardcopy books now under attack from their digital competitors like Kindle, Negroponte was of the opinion that the printed page still had the greater capacity to stimulate the imagination than the computer screen.

Stelarc Arm

Performance Artist and Cyborg Stelarc with his artificial third arm.

Stelarc, ‘Towards the Post-Human: From Psycho-body to Cyber-system’, Architectural Design, 1995. Stelarc is an Australian performance artist, several of whose performances involved him being suspended in public spaces on meat hooks. He believes that the body has now been rendered obsolete by technology, and that it must be hollowed, hardened, dehydrated and often anaesthetised. He has also used medical, cybernetic and Virtual reality technology and procedures to explore and enhance the body’s own capabilities. He has amplified his brainwaves, heartbeat, blood flow and muscle signals during his performances, as well as filming the interior of his lungs, stomach and colon. He has a prosthetic ‘third arm’ attached to his stomach, which operates through the movements of the muscles there. In another performance, he attached galvanic stimulators to his body and wired himself up to the internet. A search programme looked through the net for images of body parts. When it found them, those parts were stimulated electronically. viewers of the performance about the globe in three different cities could also stimulate his body remotely. He has also had a third ear grafted, with a proximity sensor that makes it make a loud screech if any comes close. He was one of the researchers into the Transhuman condition, who was interviewed, along with that master of transgressive literature, J.G. Ballard, in BBC 3’s excellent and stimulating series, Grave New Worlds.

John Perry Barlow, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, 1996. Barlow is a former rancher, and lyricist for the LSD-influenced hippy band, the Grateful Dead. He has written for a number of publications, including Communications of the ACM, Mondo 2000, the New York Times, Time, and been on the editorial board of Wired. He was one of the co-founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1990. He wrote the ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’ in response to the passage of the Telecom Reform Act in America in 1996. This made it illegal to use any of the seven dirty words forbidden in broadcast media on-line, to discuss abortion or to talk about any bodily function except in the most clinical terms.

Lawnmower Man

The sex scene from the 1992 SF film, Lawnmower Man.

Mark Dery, ‘Robocopulation: Sex Times Technology Equals the Future’, from Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, 1996. Dery is a cultural critic, who has written on the numerous subcultures that have arisen through computer technology in a number of magazines, including Wired, Rolling Stone, Mondo 2000, The Village Voice and New York Times, and edited the book Flame Wars. Escape Velocity explored these new technological subcultures of cyberpunks, net hippies, techno-pagans and others. In the chapter ‘Robocopulation’, he explored the way artists in the past, as well as people in the present, have tried to use and explore the sensual and sexual possibilities of the machine. These have included the French painter, Francis Picabia, who tried to depict in his art a ‘mechanomorphic’ sensuality. Dery also described the new digital technology of ‘teledildonics’, where the participants are separate from and remote from each other, but experience the sensations of sex through special electronic suits fitted with sensors and stimulators. He also discussed the way the internet has been extensively used to broadcast pornographic images and the sexual conversations of Cybersex.

Terminator

Everyone’s favourite menacing cyborg: Arnie as the Terminator.

Hans Moravec, ‘The Senses Have No Future’, 1998. Moravec is the director of the Carnegie Mellon University Mobile Robot Laboratory. He is supposed to have built his first robot when he was ten years old. His work attempts to give robots three-dimensional spatial awareness through a variety of sensors. He was made famous, or infamous, for his 1988 book, Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence. In this book, Moravec predicted that by the middle of this century, if not sooner, it would be possible to download human consciousness, either into cyberspace or into a robotic body. Moravec himself believes this will be necessary if humans are to keep pace with the rapid evolution of machine intelligence. The book points out that Moravec views have been challenged at two points. First, Moravec believes that during the downloading process the brain would be destroyed as it is gradually scanned and copied, layer by layer, until the brain case is empty. If current technological trends continue, however, Greg Egan’s view of the copying process in Permutation City may be more accurate, and the process may not involve the destruction of the original human. Furthermore, Erik Davis in Techgnosis notes that psycho-neuro-immunologists argue that consciousness arises from the entire body. Meditators and mystics across the world also consider that there are many different states of consciousness that cannot be identified with the conceptual activity examined by cognitive science and which Moravec wishes to simulate.

Michael Heim, ‘The Virtual Reality of the Tea Ceremony’, The Virtual Dimension, 1998. Heim teaches internet and new media design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, where he also directs at Tai Chi group. Heim views the computer as introducing a new technologized space of thought that it contemplatively ordered, erotic and poetic. He has stated that cyberspace is a metaphysical laboratory for examining our sense of the real. He believes that as western science has progressed, it has become increasingly similar to eastern mysticism. He cites as examples of this the liquid metaphors used to describe the transmission of information, and fractal computer interfaces that are curiously similar to Zen gardens. He is afraid that the navigators and builders of cyberspaces are in danger of performing unsymbolic and thoughtless work work, to which a similar philosophy exists in the tea ceremony. He therefore argues that the tea ceremony may give cyberspace more of a sense of place and move it away from being blandly ubiquitous.

Anthony Dunne, ‘Hertzian Space’, Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience and Critical Design, 1999. Anthony is a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal College of Art in London. He and his design partner, Fiona Raby, create designs for products and architectural elements that respond to the electromagnetic spectrum. They deliberately reject the ‘form-porn’ aesthetic in which the skin of a product is designed to conceal a set of very ordinary components, and to become as obsolete as swiftly as possible. They are in favour of a design philosophy in which nothing is overwrought, accentuated or just there for its own sake. They note that many objects react to and respond to the electromagnetic impulses all around us, such as the ring of the telephone when it receives its signal, or a computer mouse that can quack like a duck, tweet, or laugh like a baby if so designed. In Hertzian Tales Dunne describes his aspirations, the people he admires and who have influenced him, and his concepts of the ‘post-optimal object’, ‘para-functionality’ and ‘infra-ordinary space’. The book’s introduction is by Gillian Crampton Smith, the former Professor of Computer Related Design at the RCA. She notes that objects are rarely purely functional, but also have ritual or symbolic meanings. This fact has largely been ignored in the design of computer technology. She views Dunne’s work as introducing an ‘aesthetics of use’ into electronic objects, through the interactivity made possible by computers. This in turn seeks to produce a more nuanced cooperation with the object, which may in turn enhance social contact and everyday experience. Dunne, Raby and Smith therefore hope that such computerised products will encourage the user to enter a new space of communal interaction, rather than the lonely and self-obsessed spaces they see as often produced by the technology.

Margaret Wertheim, The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, 1999. Wertheim is a science journalist specialising in the relationship between physics and religion. Wertheim considers that the internet and Virtual reality are portals into a new, religious space – a ‘soul space’. This is in contrast to the way the industrial revolution and the secular spaces of modernism collapsed the old, medieval dualist concept of space, divided between heaven and Earth. Wertheim goes on to show the parallels between the conceptions of space in Dante’s Divine Comedy, and the renaissance ‘theatres of memory’ mnemonic devices explored by Frances Yates in her book, the Art of Memory. Dante’s Cornices acted as mnemonic device for memorising the place of things and ideas in the cosmic hierarchy, while his trilogy is also full of less elevated references to contemporary politics and gossip. Contemporary cyberspace also possesses a ‘low code’ content, which, along with its elusive phenomenological character, makes it a ‘new soul space’. Cyberspace is only partly located in real, physical space, and so lies outside the multitude of dimensions and hyperspace posited by physicists and scientists. It is a realm beyond physical law. Her conception is the complete opposite of Stelarc’s, which far from viewing Cyberspace as the modern version of an ancient concept, sees it as a completely modern innovation that has rendered the old ideas about the body obsolete.

The last extract in the anthology is Spiller’s own article, ‘Vacillating Objects’, from Architectural Design, 1999. Spiller was the guest editor of the ‘Architects in Cyberspace’ edition of Architectural Design in 1995 through his interest in invigorating architecture through Cyberspace and the blurred boundary between the real and the Virtual. His own research has included the changing status of architectural drawings, smart materials, computer-aided manufacturing, emergent systems, responsive environments, the architectural design of Cyberspace, interactivity, cybernetics, evolving systems and algorithmic design, as well as cellular automata and complexity. Spiller was interested in using algorithms as a way creating responsive, non-prescriptive architectural designs. Algorithms offered a way to describe fluctuating conditions in responsive environments. That edition of Architectural Review was the architectural publication to describe the immense potential information technology offered architects since the 1960s. It included articles by philosophers, architects, performance artists, theorists of digital art and psychologists. It was followed by Digital Dreams and ‘Architects in Cyberspace 2’. He predicts that the architecture of the future ‘will be an architecture of ecological wefts, technological distortions and digital necromancy’. He believes it will mix objects not often connected with each other for aesthetic or practical reasons, or for exploration. Objects, some of which will be invisible, will simultaneously flit across a variety of terrain and so demolish the idea of the privileged site plan as the objects become ubiquitous and doppelgangered.

Cyberspace, Architecture and Post-Modernism

Phaidon are publishers of books on art, and so, as you’d expect from such a publisher, the book contains a profuse number of beautiful illustrations. Spiller’s job as an architect, and the various other contributors to the anthology, who are also members of the profession -Gordon Pask, Cedric Price, Paul Virilio, Marcos Novak, William Mitchell, Karen A. Franck John Frazer and Anthony Dunne – explains why Phaidon, rather than a science publisher, should publish it. Several of the contributors – Deleuze, Guattari, and Virilio, for example, are also key figures in Post-Modern philosophy. They and their ideas have recently come under attack. Spiller notes that Deleuze and Guattari are extremely difficult to understand. In fact the American mathematician, Alan Sokal, and his Belgian colleague Bricmont, have demonstrated in their book, Intellectual Impostures, that much Post-Modern philosophy is actually nonsensical. They took a number of leading Post-Modern philosophers and showed that they misunderstood the scientific concepts they included in their writings. These did not add anything to their arguments, but were simply there to make their confused, often incoherent prose seem far more intellectually profound than it really was. It has been widely known for some time that Post-Modernism originally arose in architecture, where it was defined by the inclusion, or quotation, of historic architectural features in modern buildings, before it moved into philosophy. What is new, which this book demonstrates, is how the founders of Post-Modernism were influenced by the new information technology, and, in Virilio’s case, cyberspace.

The selected texts include some of the classic works on information technology, cyberspace and its effect on humanity, such as those of Babbage, Forster, Bush, Bolter, Wiener, Licklider, Engelbart, McLuhan, Moravec, Stelarc and, most famously, Gibson’s Neuromancer. Before Reading University’s professor of Cybernetics, Kevin Warwick, experimented with being a cyborg, Stelarc was very nearly the real thing, wiring himself up to the Net, and giving himself another, prosthetic arm and ear. When he announced his intention to have this last added to his anatomy on Radio 3’s Grave New Worlds, it made the poor continuity announcer feel quite ill. She was heard after the programme saying something along the lines of, ‘And if that hasn’t made you feel too bad, you can recover by listening to one of the great pieces of classical music on next’. Others have talked the talk about cyborgs, but Stelarc really did walk the walk.

Stelarc Body

Graphic from Stelarc’s performance, ‘Involuntary Body/ Third Hand’.

Philosophical Objections to Downloading

Many, perhaps most, of the pieces, are highly controversial. The possibility of downloading one’s intelligence into a computer rests on the identification of mind with brain, and this is open to strong criticism on philosophical and neurological grounds. Many philosophers, such as the former neurologist Raymond Tallis, have pointed out that the brain is not a computer. This is just the latest metaphor used to describe the most complex organised structure in the universe. Previous centuries have described it in terms of a telephone exchange, or a series of fountains. Daniel C. Dennett’s attempts to explain consciousness in terms of brain function and evolutionary history has also been criticised. Despite the book’s title, it does not actually explain how consciousness arises, only how various parts of the brain perform particular cognitive or mental functions.

Genderless Societies Unpopular, Shown in Criticism of Star Trek Episode by Gay Fans

Some of the feminist ideas about Cyberspace and cyborgisation are also probably too radical to be acceptable for most people. Feminism is about raising the status of women and promoting greater equality between the sexes, particularly with the intention of giving women greater freedom to pursue careers and occupations previously only open to men. Although this naturally involves the redefinition of the gender roles, I doubt very many would want humanity to move beyond gender altogether. The controversy surrounding one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which acted as a metaphor for homosexuality and related gender issues is an illustration of this. In the episode, ‘The Outcast’ the crew of the Enterprise encounter the J’naii, a race that has evolved out of gender. Occasionally, however, a throwback occurs, which is either male or female. These individuals are persecuted by the state. If found, they are captured and forcibly given therapy and medical intervention to make them a normal member of their sexless race. One of the J’naii, who has been on the Enterprise assisting with its latest task on the planet, is just such a throwback. It is a female, and in love with Riker. She is arrested, and taken away. Riker attempts to free her in a raid, but it is too late. The person has already been treated and so can have no romantic interest in him as a member of a race with gender.

Jnali Trek

Riker pursues a forbidden romance with a genderless alien in the Star Trek:TNG episode ‘The Outcast’.

Star Trek: The Next Generation was lampooned when it first appeared for being ‘politically correct’. It was firmly anti-racist and anti-sexist. The phrase ‘Where no man has gone before’ in the opening dedication had been altered to ‘Where no-one has gone before’. The ship’s security officer, Tasha Yar, was a woman, and the Federation stood for inter-planetary multiculturalism, rather than simply the multi-racial tolerance, mixed with 1960s American values of the Classic Trek series. There was pressure at the time for the series to promote a pro-gay stance. The gay members of the SF milieu, such as the organisation of gay SF fans, the Gaylaxians, wanted the producers to introduce gay characters and stories. They hoped, for example, for an episode in which Picard would perform a ship’s marriage for a same-sex couple. David Gerrold, one of the script editors and writers on the original series, who went on to become the script editor for the 1980s Buck Rogers show, was supportive. This was, however, too radical a step for the producers and the TV networks. The episode with Riker and his paramour from a genderless society was therefore seen as a compromise, an attempt to present a pro-gay message, albeit metaphorically.This episode angered rather than satisfied the show’s gay fans. They were particularly upset by the suggestion that somehow gays were opposed to gender, and wished to create a genderless society.

Some of the ideas about the creation of alternative bodies and identities in Cyberspace is also morally dubious. One of the examples of this cited by Truckle is of an individual, who came on-line claiming to be severely disabled woman. This person could only communicate using the keyboard through a probe mounted on their head. This person became popular and attracted many friends. One of these tried to track her down and meet her in person. When they did so, this disabled woman turned about to be a fit and well man. ‘Her’ friends, especially the women, were understandably upset and felt betrayed. Even more seriously, there is the problem of paedophiles grooming their young victims on-line, by pretending to be other youngsters.

Virtual Personas Little Different from Conventional Strategies for Real-Life Anonymity

It’s also true that the creation of different, Virtual personas on-line isn’t radically different to the strategies people have adopted throughout history in real life. Conmen are once example of this, but far more benign examples have been the way authors have adopted pseudonyms to get their work published. The great German satirist, Kurt Tucholsky, wrote under a series of pseudonyms and personas, some of which argued with each other in the Weimar press. If you do it on-line, it called using sock-puppets. Many of those, who adopted pseudonyms and fake personas were women authors, who would otherwise not have been published if their true gender and identity had been known, such as George Eliot. Another example from Science Fiction literary history is James Tiptree junior. Tiptree was the author of a number of prize winning short stories between 1967 and 1977, and was lauded as the equal of Robert Silverberg and Ursula Le Guin. He was the author of such great stories as ‘Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death’. Outside of his writing career, he had a high-power job in Washington. He was finally unmasked in 1977 by a fan, Jeffrey D. Smith, as Alice Sheldon. Sheldon had travelled widely in Africa as a child, been a professional painter, and the first woman to go through the US Air Force Intelligence School. With her husband she helped form the CIA. She had used the techniques taught to her as a spy to construct the false persona of Tiptree.

In the world of the Role-Playing Game, whether real or on computer, it’s also the case that changes of identity and gender are taken as fun, rather than anything more profound or serious. I’ve known a number of RPGers, who’ve played on board and computer games as members of the opposite sex without any deeper interest in issues of gender and identity. They were just interested in playing a particular character, that happened to be of the opposite sex, in an adventure game.

Robocop 2

The Cybernetic hero of the film, Robocop.The story of a policeman, Murphy, who is transformed into a cyborg policeman after being brutally gunned down and his attempts to bring the criminals and the corrupt businessmen behind them and his transformation to justice. Murphy as the Robocop is initially very much a machine, until he rediscovers his own humanity during a dream. It represents the terrible dehumanisation that could result from such radical mechanisation of the human body.

Danger of Dehumanisation in Cyborg Enhancement

As for cyborgisation, while this does offer immense opportunities for personal enhancement and augmentation, it also presents serious ethical dangers. I doubt many people would object to the idea of immortality or longevity offered by the prospect of nanomachines repairing the damage to their cells caused by the aging process, such as has been suggested by that great Transhumanist, Ray Kurzweil. On the other hand, there is the terrible danger of complete depersonalisation as advanced technology replaces everything we most value and cherish about humanity. The end result of this process is the emotionless, depersonalised machine creatures of Science Fiction, the Daleks and Cybermen of Doctor Who, and the Borg with their collective hive mind in Star Trek. The Cybermen were the result of a conversation between their creator and his mother. They had been talking about spare part surgery, and the monsters’ creator found himself wondering if this would result in a creature that didn’t know whether it was a man or machine. He depicted them without emotion, because he believed that they would not need them through living in a completely technological environment. Few people would want to join them in their machine hell.

Much Modern Architecture Ugly

Modern architecture is also contentious. While the chapters on computer-aided design and Cyberspace and computer design philosophies are fascinating, it’s unfortunately true that much of modern architecture actually isn’t very attractive. One only has to read the ‘Nooks and Corners’ column in Private Eye to read what their writer, ‘Piloti’, thinks of many of the great contemporary architects, such as Richard Rogers, and their attempts to deconstruct architecture. The results of this have been some truly unattractive buildings of the type Prince Charles once memorably and notoriously described as ‘monstrous carbuncles’.

Despite these criticisms, the pieces presented here are thought-provoking, stimulating and present powerful insights into way computers and digital age have revolutionised modern culture and society, and their immense potential for radically changing not just society, but humanity and its conception of self and reality, as well as the alternative world that would have resulted had Babbage’s great machine actually been built.

Guardian and Snowden on Britain Spying on Americans for America: America Angry, but this Not News

October 13, 2013

The Guardian is at the centre of a diplomatic and legal storm over its publication of information leaked by Edward Snowden that Britain was regularly tapping and monitoring Americans’ phone calls and electronic messages on behalf of the American intelligence services. The American constitution forbids the American state from doing this, so the Americans got round this block by getting us to do it for them. This was then one of the revelations leaked by Snowden, which was picked up and printed by the Guardian. The scandal was briefly mentioned by Dan Snow on the Beeb’s satirical news quiz, Have I Got News For You. Snow was of the opinion that it had damaged relations between Britain and America by angering the Americans. This is probably true, but the information itself – that Britain was spying for America on American citizens – isn’t remotely new. It was already available to anyone with a library card, a good bookshop, or a subscription to Lobster, Steamshovel Press or any of the other parapolitical ‘conspiracy’ magazines. Simon Davies’ book, Big Brother: Britain’s Web of Surveillance and the New Technological Order, published by Pan in 1996 states that GCHQ was monitoring telephone lines and sharing this information with the Americans. GCHQ’s main listening station at Menwith Hill in 1994 had 40,000 active telephone lines connected to it, although the Home Secretary had only authorised 871 new wiretaps. As for computer listening systems like PRISM, which monitor telephone lines and record conversations containing a number of key words, those have been around for a very long time. Lobster carried several stories about ECHELON, a similar listening system in the ’80s and ’90s.

The technology even formed the basis for the plot of an episode of the short-lived BBC SF series, Star Cops, in 1986. In the episode ‘Intelligent Listening for Beginners’, Nathan Spring and his band of near-future rozzers are called in to investigate the claim by an Indian computer tycoon that he has developed a computer system that will spy on Anarchist terrorist groups and prevent the kind of cyberterrorist attacks that were responsible for a train crash in the Channel Tunnel. In fact, the Subcontinent’s answer to Steve Jobs has in fact done no such thing. His computer system is an abject failure, and he has himself sabotaged it in his residence on the Moon. The faked worm attack will kill him, and take Spring with him, but will appear to vindicate him by showing that his system has been successful. Spring, however, fortunately is able to shoot the tycoon and make his escape before the computers melt down and the house explodes. Star Cops was short lived and lasted only a single season. Looking back, it was in many respects wildly optimistic. It was set only a decade or so away, in 2026, when the new generation of spaceplanes developed by Martin Marietta had finally made the space age a reality. People were travelling into orbit to work on space stations, and further to laboratories, mines and industrial units on the Moon. There was also a small colony on Mars. Well, here we are nearly three decades hence and this is still very far away. If only! The series was scripted by Chris Boucher, the script editor and writer on the bleak, dystopian SF series, Blake’s 7. Star Cops was based very much on solid scientific fact, or what was believed to be possible at the time. Its predictions are, in many cases, wildly inaccurate. In the series’ future world, the Soviet Union and Communist bloc still existed, and Anarchists, rather than Radical Islam, were responsible for global terrorism. This is apart from the expected breakthrough in mass space travel and commercialisation. The series was entirely right about intelligent listening systems, though.

So, while the American state may be angered by Snowden’s revelations, they aren’t really providing much in the way of new information. What has made the difference is that they were picked up and published by a respected, national newspaper. They were thus made available to a mass public, rather than the few thousand or so, who read books on the intelligence services and the secret state, or the even smaller numbers reading very specialist, niche magazines like Lobster.

For vintage SF fans, here’s the Star Cops’ episode ‘Intelligent Listening for Beginners’.

Part 1

.

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Immigration, ID Cards and the Erosion of British Freedom: Part 2

October 13, 2013

In the first part of this post I discussed the way successive administrations since Mrs Thatcher – those of john Major, Tony Blair, and now, possibly, the coalition, had planned to introduce ID cards. Privacy campaigners such as Simon Davies have opposed them, because of the immense potential they represent for human rights abuses, the mass surveillance of the population, and discrimination against immigrants and minorities. I posted it as a response to Mike’s piece on Vox Political, which I reblogged, on Theresa May’s latest campaign against illegal immigration, and the fears landlords and immigrants’ rights groups have about the terrible effect this will have on them. The landlords in particular were concerned that this would lead to the introduction of 404 European document-style ID cards. In this part of the post I will discuss the dangers ID cards present, and their failure to do what is often claimed for them, such as to prevent crime and illegal immigration.

It looks like illegal immigration will be the platform by which ID cards will be introduced in this country. Mike and a number of other bloggers have commented on the way recent statements and policies by coalition ministers to combat illegal immigration suggest that they plan to introduce ID cards as part of their campaign. Illegal immigration has been the main issue driving their introduction in Europe, America and some developing nations. Davies book on the growth of the surveillance society in Britain notes that as the European Union dissolves borders in Europe, so the police were given greater power to check people’s ID. As for fears that ID cards will somehow stop illegal immigrants from claiming benefits, this has been disproved in Australia. The Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Australia Card found that of 57,000 people, who overstayed their visa in New South Wales, on 22 were illegally claiming Unemployment Benefit.

Anti-racism campaigners are right to worry that ID will increase discrimination. ID cards carrying information on the bearer’s ethnic groups or religious beliefs have been used to discriminate against minority groups in many countries. The Japanese were accused of racism when they passed legislation forcing all foreigners to carry ID cards. The French police were similarly accused of racism in demanding Blacks and Algerians carry and produce ID cards. This was one of the reasons behind the race riots in France in the 1990s. In Greece, the authorities were also accused of using the religious information on the card to discriminate against those, who were not Greek Orthodox. Down Under, Aboriginal and Jewish Australians joined the campaign against the Australia Card from fear that they would also suffer discrimination. A few thousand miles across the Pacific in New Zealand, Kiwi trade unions and civil liberties groups also feared ID cards would lead to discrimination against minorities and the poor.

Contrary to the frequent claims made by various Right-wing governments like Thatcher’s, Major’s and Blair’s, ID cards don’t actually stop welfare fraud. Says Davies ‘the key area of interest lies in creating a single numbering system which would be used as a basis for employment eligibility, and which would reduce the size of the black market economy’. In Oz, the Department of Social Security stated that much less than 1 per cent of overpaid benefits came from identity fraud. The true figure for such crime is probably 0.6 per cent. Most fraudulent or overpaid benefit claims – 61 per cent – came from the non-reporting of variations in the claimant’s income.

ID cards also don’t stop crime. This is again contrary to the statements made by governments wishing to introducing them. The problem is not the identification of criminals, but in collecting sufficient evidence and successfully prosecuting them. The Association of Chief Police Officers in Britain concluded in 1993 report that burglaries, street crime and crimes committed by people impersonating officials could be reduced through ID cards. They did not, however, present any evidence for this. The Association did fear that the introduction of ID cards would make relations between the police and the general public worse. Davies considered that only a DNA or biometric database could possibly link perpetrators with their crimes.

The introduction of ID cards do, however, increase police powers. Police routinely ask for ID cards in all the countries that have them, and detain those, who don’t possess them. In Britain the wartime ID cards were removed in 1953 after a High Court judge ruled that their routine demand by the police was contrary to the spirit of the National Registration Act, and adversely affected the good relations between police and the public.

In fact, instead of helping to combat crime, ID cards actually help it. ID cards provide a ‘one-stop’ proof of identity, and this can and is used by criminal gangs in their crimes. The technology used to manufacture the cards is now available and used by such organisations. As ordinary organisations, such as companies and the state civil service increasingly rely on ID cards as the unquestioned proof of an individual’s identity, so they abandon the other systems used to check it that they have been using for decades. As a result, crimes using fake identities are actually easier with ID cards.

ID cards are a real danger to the privacy of personal information. About one per cent of the staff of companies involved in collecting the personal information used to construct the relational databases used in such cards are corrupt and prepared to trade confidential information. Each year, one per cent of all bank staff in Europe are dismissed for corruption. This is a minuscule percentage, it is true, but nevertheless it still presents a danger to the privacy and safety of the public. In Britain, computer crime amongst the civil services own ID staff massively increased in the 1980s and 1990s. The National Accounting Office estimated in March 1995 that hacking, theft and infection by viruses were all increasing on the IT network in Whitehall. In one year, for example, hacking rose by 140 per cent and viruses by a massive 300 per cent. Of the 655 cases of hacking in the Whitehall network identified by the NAO, most involved staff exceeding their authority to obtain the personal information of members of the public, which was they then passed on to outside individuals.

ID card schemes also tend to be much more expensive than governments’ estimate and allow for. Once again, Australia provides a good example of this. When introducing the Australia Card scheme, the Ozzie government failed to take into account training costs, and the expenses coming from administrative supervision, staff turnover, holiday and sick leave, as well as compliance, the issue of the cards overseas and fraud. They also underestimated the costs of issuing and maintaining the cards and how expensive they would be to private industry. In the first part of this post I mentioned how leading Australian bankers and financiers, such as Sir Noel Foley, were openly hostile to the scheme. This is not surprising, as the Australian Bankers’ Association estimated that the ID card their would cost Ozzie banks A$100 million over ten years. The total cost of the cards to the private sector was estimated at A$1 billion per year. At the time Davies was writing, the cost of the card system in the UK had not taken into account of administration and compliance costs. These could be as high as £2 – £3 billion. When Tony Blair launched his scheme to develop biometric ID cards, there was further embarrassment to the government when it was revealed by the papers that the scheme had also gone massively over its budget due to problems in developing the technology.

Another factor against the cards is the distress and inconvenience caused to the individual by their accidental loss or destruction. About five per cent of ID cards are either lost, damaged or stolen every year, and it can be several weeks before a replacement is received.

Governments have frequently insisted that ID cards will be voluntary. This was the stance taken by Tony Blair’s government on them. It is misleading. There is a tendency for them to become compulsory. Even in nations where they are voluntary, there is considerable inconvenience if they are not carried, so that they are actually compulsory in practice if not in law.

ID cards also have a tendency to become internal passports as they acquire other uses through function creep. These will include all government and a significant number of important, private functions.

Finally, opponents of ID cards object to them because they feel that they damage national identity and personal integrity. The movements against ID cards in America, Australia, Canada and New Zealand called attention to the fears of ordinary people that the introduction of such cards would reduce them to mere numbers. They were a symbol of oppressive authority, and represented popular anxieties that their countries were ruled, not by elected officials, but by bureaucracies driven by technology.

Actually, reading through all the considerable negative aspects of ID cards and the list of the dangers and damage they represent to society and the safety and privacy of its members, I can see why the Coalition government would see no problem in introducing them. After all, such schemes are inefficient, corrupt and massively expensive. They expand the power of the state and the police at the expense of the individual, and are used to persecute and victimise minorities and the poor. Pretty much like all the Coalition’s policies, then. And ID cards are exactly like IDS welfare schemes and workfare in that, undercover of eliminating welfare fraud, which they actually don’t do anything about, they’re really about controlling the movement of labour.

So, corrupt, authoritarian and discriminatory: just right for Theresa May and the rest of the Coalition then!

Immigration, ID Cards and the Erosion of British Freedom: Part 1

October 12, 2013

‘The true danger is when liberty is nibbled away, for expedience, and by parts’.

– Edmund Burke.

Edmund Burke is regarded as the founder of modern Conservatism, the defender of tradition, freedom, and gradual change against revolutionary innovation based solely on abstract principle. He was also the 18th century MP, who successfully campaigned for the Canadian provinces to be given self-government on the grounds that, as they paid their taxes, so they had earned their right to government. His defence of tradition came from his observation of the horror of the French Revolution and his ideas regarding their political and social causes, as reflected in his great work, Reflections on the Revolution in France. While his Conservatism may justly be attacked by those on the Left, the statement on the gradual, incremental danger to liberty is still very much true, and should be taken seriously by citizens on both the Left and Right sides of the political spectrum. This should not be a party political issue.

In my last post, I reblogged Mike’s article commenting on recent legislation attempting to cut down on illegal immigration. This essentially devolved the responsibility for checking on the status of immigrants to private individuals and organisations, such as banks and landlords. As with much of what the government does, or claims to do, it essentially consists of the state putting its duties and responsibilities into the private sphere. Among the groups protesting at the proposed new legislation were the BMA, immgrants’ rights groups and the Residential Landlords’ Association. The last were particularly concerned about the possible introduction of identification documents, modelled on the 404 European papers, in order to combat illegal immigration. Such fears are neither new nor unfounded. I remember in the early 1980s Mrs Thatcher’s administration considered introduction ID cards. The plan was dropped as civil liberties groups were afraid that this would create a surveillance society similar to that of Nazi Germany or the Communist states. The schemes were mooted again in the 1990s first by John Major’s administration, and then by Blair’s Labour party, following pressure from the European Union, which apparently considers such documents a great idea. The Conservative papers then, rightly but hypocritically, ran articles attacking the scheme.

There are now a couple of books discussing and criticising the massive expansion of state surveillance in modern Britain and our gradual descent into just such a totalitarian surveillance state portrayed in Moore’s V for Vendetta. One of these is Big Brother: Britain’s Web of Surveillance and the New Technological Order, by Simon Davies, published by Pan in 1996. Davies was the founder of Privacy International, a body set up in 1990 to defend individual liberties from encroachment by the state and private corporations. He was the Visiting Law Fellow at the University of Essex and Chicago’s John Marshall Law School. Davies was suspicious of INSPASS – the Immigration and Naturalisation Service Passenger Accelerated Service System, an automatic system for checking and verifying immigration status using palm-prints and smart cards. It was part of the Blue Lane information exchange system in which information on passengers was transmitted to different countries ahead of the journey. The countries using the system were the US, Canada, Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Bermuda, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, San Marino, Spain, Sweden and the UK. Davies considered the scheme a danger to liberty through the state’s increasing use of technology to monitor and control the population.

At the time Davies was writing, 90 countries used ID cards including Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal. They also included such sterling examples of democracy as Thailand and Singapore. In the latter, the ID card was used as an internal passport and was necessary for every transaction. The Singaporean government under Lee Kwan Yew has regularly harassed and imprisoned political opponents. The longest serving prisoner of conscience isn’t in one of the Arab despotisms or absolute monarchies, nor in Putin’s Russia. They’re in Singapore. A few years ago the country opened its first free speech corner, modelled on Hyde Park’s own Speaker’s Corner. You were free to use it, provided you gave due notice about what you were planning to talk about to the police first for their approval. There weren’t many takers. As for Thailand, each citizen was issued a plastic identity card. The chip in each contained their thumbprint and photograph, as well as details of their ancestry, education, occupation, nationality, religion, and police records and tax details. It also contains their Population Number, which gives access to all their documents, whether public or private. It was the world’s second largest relational database, exceeded in size only by that of the Mormon Church at their headquarters in Salt Lake City. Thailand also has a ‘village information system’, which collates and monitors information at the village level. This is also linked to information on the person’s electoral preferences, public opinion data and information on candidates in local elections. The Bangkok post warned that the system would strengthen the interior ministry and the police. If you needed to be reminded, Thailand has regularly appeared in the pages of the ‘Letter from…’ column in Private Eye as it is a barely disguised military dictatorship.

In 1981 France’s President Mitterand declared that ‘the creation of computerised identity cards contains are real danger for the liberty of individuals’. This did not stop France and the Netherlands passing legislation requiring foreigners to carry identity cards. The European umbrella police organisation, Europol, also wanted all the nations in Europe to force their citizens to carry identity cards. At the global level, the International Monetary Fund routinely included the introduction of ID cards into the criteria of economic, social and political performance for nations in the developing world.

Davies’ own organisation, Privacy International, founded in 1990, reported than in their survey of 50 countries using ID cards, the police in virtually all of them abused the system. The abuses uncovered by the organisation included detention after failure to produce the card, and the beating of juveniles and members of minorities, as well as massive discrimination based on the information the card contained.

In Australia, the financial sector voiced similar concerns about the scheme to those expressed recently by the landlords and immigrants’ rights and welfare organisations. Under the Australian scheme, employees in the financial sector were required by law to report suspicious information or abuse of ID cards to the government. The penalty for neglecting or refusing to do so was gaol. The former chairman of the Pacific nation’s largest bank, Westpar, Sir Noel Foley, attacked the scheme. It was ‘a serious threat to the privacy, liberty and safety of every citizen’. The Australian Financial Review stated in an editorial on the cards that ‘It is simply obscene to use revenue arguments (‘We can make more money out of the Australia Card’) as support for authoritarian impositions rather than take the road of broadening national freedoms’. Dr Bruce Shepherd, the president of the Australian Medical Association stated of the scheme that ‘It’s going to turn Australian against Australian. But given the horrific impact the card will have on Australia, its defeat would almost be worth fighting a civil war for’. To show how bitterly the country that produced folk heroes like Ned Kelly thought of this scheme, cartoons appeared in the Ozzie papers showing the country’s president, Bob Hawke, in Nazi uniform.

For those without ID cards, the penalties were harsh. They could not be legally employed, or, if in work, paid. Farmers, who didn’t have them, could not collect payments from marketing boards. If you didn’t have a card, you also couldn’t access your bank account, cash in any investments, give or receive money from a solicitor, or receive money from unity, property or cash management trusts. You also couldn’t rent or buy a home, receive unemployment benefit, or the benefits for widows, supporting parents, or for old age, sickness and invalidity. There was a A$5,000 fine for deliberate destruction of the card, a A$500 fine if you lost the card but didn’t report it. The penalty for failing to attend a compulsory conference at the ID agency was A$1,000 or six months gaol. The penalty for refusing to produce it to the Inland Revenue when they demanded was A$20,000. About 5 per cent of the cards were estimated to be lost, stolen or deliberately destroyed each year.

The ID Card was too much for the great Australian public to stomach, and the scheme eventually had to be scrapped. It’s a pity that we Poms haven’t learned from our Ozzie cousins and that such ID schemes are still being seriously contemplated over here. It is definitely worth not only whingeing about, but protesting very loudly and strongly indeed.

In Part 2 of this article, I will describe precisely what the scheme does not and cannot do, despite all the inflated claims made by its proponents.

‘Papers, please!’ Harsher laws for immigrants could mean Nazi-style ID checks for British citizens

October 12, 2013

In this piece, Mike reports and comments on the Coalition’s further attempts to turn Britain into a surveillance society through attempts to force landlords and banks to check the immigration status of customers and tenants. Overseas students would also be responsible for NHS costs for treatment. There are also plans to streamline the deportation appeals process, which Mike believes will, if current practice is any guide, actually mean that the deportation process will become even more unfair. On the other hand, the government has absolutely no intention of increasing border controls, or combat the forced labour or lack of enforcement of the minimum wage under which illegal immigrants have literally been enslaved. The Migrants’ Rights Network has declared that the evidence refutes the government’s argument that immigrants are drawn here by Britain’s ‘generous’ benefits system. The BMA has also said that any system for recovering treatment costs from those not eligible for NHS care would be nightmarishly bureaucratic. The Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association has condemned May’s plan to fine landlords not performing the immigration checks up to £3,000 as unworkable, and ‘intrusive, bullying, ineffective and expensive and likely racist and unlawful to boot’. The Residential Landlords’ Association is also worried about the potential to introduce a 404 type European ID document as part of the scheme. They fear that some landlords would refuse to house immigrants because of fear of being penalised by the government for infringement of this legislation. This has been the fear of such schemes for a very long time, and I intend to blog about this in my next post. In the meantime, a spokesman from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants has also attacked the scheme for threatening to divide Britain into a two-tier society, and returning to the days of ‘No dogs, no blacks, no Irish’, and refusing health care to those in genuine need.

Vox Political

Theresa May has responded to criticism of her policies on immigrants by revealing her plans for the latest Immigration Bill – countering a threat that is perceived to be much worse than the reality.

Experts say this will require a system of identity checks for everyone, requiring British citizens or those with permanent residence to prove that their own presence in the UK is legal.

In a move that seems designed to appease the Daily Mail and its readers, she wants banks to check the immigration status of people applying to open accounts, and private landlords to make similar checks on their tenants.

You will notice that this means the government wants other people to carry out its responsibilities.

The Home Secretary also intends to “streamline” the appeals process in immigration cases. Under the current government, this word generally means “make less fair”, and this is borne out…

View original post 495 more words

Failings over race earn Theresa May a figurative rap on the knuckles – twice!

October 12, 2013

Mike here reports the very mild criticism of Theresa May and the vans encouraging illegal immigrant to ‘go home’ by the Advertising Standards Commission. The Commission concluded that the vans’ message was similar to that of racist abuse directed at immigrants, and did have racist baggage. They were also instructed not to use the vans again. However, despite the fact that the vans were sent into areas of believed to contain non-White illegal immigrants – but not areas occupied by foreign Caucasian nationalies, like Australians, the Commission did not consider that the vans were attempting to stir up racial tension. Mike’s view is that the vans were an attempt by the Coalition to appeal to the extreme Right-wing anti-non-white immigrant sentiments of groups like Daily Mail readers. He also shows that despite government propaganda, Britain actually has the lowest number of immigrants of any developed nation. I am not surprised that the vans were explicitly aimed at non-White immigrants. I can remember a Daily Mail opinion piece from the 1990s complaining about the racial equality legislation that meant that the government had to put the same restrictions on immigration to White migrants ‘of our own flesh and blood’ from majority Caucasian nations like Canada. Despite Cameron’s attempts to distance the Tory party from the racial nationalist Right, May’s vans show that the racists are still active within his party. As for the victims of this policy, Mike notes the humiliation felt by British-born Black and Asian people, who were stopped under suspicion of being illegal immigrants under May’s campaign. He also notes that Parliament’s own website noted that on the same day Chris Grayling was being questioned by two committees in the House of Lords over the government’s policy of opting out of EU police and criminal justice procedures. Parliament’s own website noted that there was concern that the government’s attitude in this area indicated to the EU that it did not take these issues seriously.

Vox Political

Anyone with an ounce of brain in their head knew the Home Office was going to be banned from using its advertising vans again – the ones telling illegal immigrants to “go home”, in the language of “knuckle-dragging racists”, as Owen Jones so memorably phrased it.

That is, anyone except everyone working at the Home Office, including the Secretary of State – Theresa May.

The Advertising Standards Authority ordered the Home Secretary not to put the vans on the streets again, saying the phrase “go home” was indeed a reminder of a racist slogan and “clearly carries baggage”.

The authority also said the posters on the vans referred to inaccurate arrest statistics, claiming there had been 106 arrests in the area in the past week. The ASA said this was misleading as it did not relate to accurate arrest statistics for the specific areas where people would have seen the…

View original post 903 more words