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The medium is the message: why I’m sick of Twitter

I’ve been thinking a fair bit about McLuhan’s famous aphorism lately, and I’ve decided it explains why I am, in a very literal sense, sick of Twitter.

The point of McLuhan’s riff as I understand it isn’t that the content delivered by any given medium is irrelevant, but that the way in which any given chunk of content impacts on your sensorium is inevitably shaped by the form in which it is constrained. The form of Twitter is hypercompressed, caught up in a 140 character limit that even the SMS message from which it was inherited has largely transcended at this point; it is also, by default, a one-to-many broadcast format, a bullhorn in the town square. To be clear, that compression is a huge part of Twitter’s appeal and effectiveness, as is the bullhorn thing. The problem is the way in which the individual elements of massive ecosystems are obliged to evolve behaviours optimised to survival in said ecosystem. In the context of Twitter, or at least Twitter’s default public one-to-many mode, the optimal behaviour is the grabbing of attention, but that’s arguably true of any peer-to-peer medium; it was certainly just as true of the blogging era I pine for, and of newspapers, broadsides, and the popular ballad.

But the medium shapes the message: the innate terseness of Twitter inevitably requires the stripping away of nuance, the boiling-down and concentration of a single sharp point; meanwhile, the ephemerality of Twitter means not only does one have to grab attention, but one has to grab it RIGHTFUCKINGNOW, before someone else comes along with something equally grabby. As such, I think the polarisation of Twitter — which is not necessarily a monolithic Left/Right thing that covers the entire userbase, so much as a polarisation specific to each and every topic or event — is an inevitable consequence of the medium’s form, per McLuhan.

That said, I think this has been exacerbated by slower mediums deciding to plug themselves into Twitter in order to garner more eyeballs for their “proper” content. In the majority of cases, most major media brands have an established political polarity already, and had become very adept at grabby compression long before Twitter; this is the art of the headline, of the sound-bite. What Twitter brought to that party was the ephemerality mentioned above; it’s not just about grabbing attention, it’s about grabbing attention RIGHTFUCKINGNOW. Having money and metrics to throw at the problem, this behaviour has been optimised very quickly indeed — and individual users have absorbed many of the techniques involved by osmosis, much as one learns a local vernacular in order to remain part of the discourse. Level up, or get drowned out.

(Ironically, the corporate brand has never found Twitter as congenial a medium as the personal brand which — or so I’d suggest — is exactly why corporate brands are trying so hard, and often so laughably or grotesquely, to act more like personal brands, even as personal brands ape the corporate. The medium is the message; a crowded niche supports a limited range of physiological and behavioural adaptations. Evolve or die.)

This probably sounds more than a little bit “things ain’t what they used to be”, but y’know what? Things *aren’t* what they used to be. That’s how temporality works — and if noticing that difference and expressing a preference for the previous state of affairs is nostalgia, then fuck you, I’m nostalgic. However, I recognise that time’s arrow only points one way, and there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. Twitter used to be a rhizome of watercooler conversations, and it still is — but the big numbers and fierce competition for attention, exacerbated by the monetisation of said attention, means that Metcalf’s Law has kicked in. Winner takes all; either you go big, or you go home.

There are backwaters and oxbow lakes, of course: Black Twitter, for instance, clearly provides a vital space for mobilisation for a demographic which desperately needs more such spaces, and the way in which messages from there can leak out into the global town square is clearly beneficial. But there is no avoiding the fact that those speech-acts are also polarised by definition, and hence attract speech-acts of the opposite polarity with all the inevitability of anions attracting cations. Compressed communications are highly reactive or volatile, to continue the chemistry metaphor, just as boiling down a solution will tend to polarise its pH toward acid or base. One of the great joys of Twitter — because make no mistake, it is a space that has brought me a lot of joy and good friends and interesting information over the years — is the way in which it gives everyone a voice. But as anyone with a marginal opinion will tell you, that is also its great horror; for every SJW, a G*merG*tor.

(And as repulsive as you might find either one of those two tribes, know that for sure that the tribe that revolts you feels an almost identical revulsion to your tribe. The medium is the message; you don’t have the bandwidth to be anything more than the affiliation ((or lack thereof)) in your biog-blurb, and they don’t have the bandwidth to look any further than it. Black hats versus White hats is the only game in town. You are Other, and that’s that.)

There are also attempts to ameliorate the problem: private and/or alt accounts, curated lists, so on and so forth. But this reminds me a lot of what it was like to live in a compound in a foreign city, as I did for a few years as a child; the compound is quite literally an oasis of comfort and familiarity, but that only serves to enhance the fear of what’s outside. This seems a particularly cruel irony in the case of Twitter, where in order to flee the echo-chamber of the town square, we simply try to build a smaller echo-chamber with a more exclusive guestlist… and the hypothetical end-game of that paradigm, if you think about it, is a return to a non-town square form. In order to “fix” Twitter, we’re trying to make it into not-Twitter. But even as the compound doesn’t feel like the city outside, the compound is still constrained by its being a polder; it is inherently defined by what it is trying to exclude. The compound is a contradiction, and living in a contradiction is exhausting; the walls of the dyke must always be maintained and strengthened, even as that which it holds back is studiously ignored.

But like I say, maybe it’s just me, or just people with whom I share some significant psychological overlap. Lots of folk I know seem to be able to manage that contradiction, or find the town square vibe thrilling and congenial, and I wish them luck — hell, I think I maybe even envy them, in a way. But I’m prone to anxiety and depression; large crowds have always made me nervous, and mob phenomena are terrifying — although it is a function of my white male Anglo privilege that I’m much more likely to be part of a mob rather than its victim, and I fully acknowledge that I have less to lose by giving up on any given medium than those who lack the luck of birth and circumstance I have.

Nonetheless, I’ve had enough. The literature on CNS stimulants such as amphetamines or MDMA talks about the “law of diminishing returns”, whereby as one becomes habituated to a stimulant, one needs ever larger doses to recapture the incredible high of the first few hits; at the same time, the lows of the comedown become ever deeper, and arrive more swiftly. I am sick of Twitter like an addict eventually becomes sick of speed or pills, and I do not have the psychological fortitude to carry on regardless of the increasingly obvious cost to my mental health.

I’m not saying “Twitter = bad” — though that’s exactly how this post will be tweeted if anyone decides to pick it up out there in the Twittersphere. Twitter’s just another extension of the human sensorium, another cybernetic part of us — and like us, it contains both good and bad, contains the potential to enact both good and bad. But I do not believe it to be determinist to suggest that the form of Twitter, per McLuhan, means that it is inevitably a polarised black-and-white space… and I crave the detail and nuance that only comes when there’s at least some bandwidth for a greyscale, if not even full colour.

Nor am I claiming that some mass renunciation of Twitter and a return to the slower, longer conversations of blogging would return us to some idyllic cultural golden age. The lid on Pandora’s box can never be closed; we can never go back, only forward. Perhaps Twitter will evolve into a slower, less brutally competitive ecosystem; perhaps a new ecosystemic niche will emerge; perhaps (and most likely, IMHO) social media will turn out to be yet another of the periodic new-medium fads our civilisation has been prone to, like the letter, the telephone, and so on. Only time will tell.

But I’ll be waiting the time out somewhere else, I think. As Michael Franti once reminded us, hypocrisy is the greatest luxury, and I’ll be keeping my Twitter account for announcing blog posts like this one — in the wider ecosystem of which Twitter is merely a subsystem, I literally cannot afford to disappear entirely, just as many do not have the luxury of even the partial renunciation which this essay announces. But privilege is at its worst when it is wasted, and the Skinner box that is Twitter is a demonstrable waste of whatever it is that I am.

So I’m done with it. Thanks for the memories, and I’ll be here if you need me.

Year’s End / Year’s Best

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Well, this has been a memorably weird and hectic year. I’m tapping out this post in an old apartment in the middle of Cambridge, Mass., US of A, having decided (for diverse reasons) that I’d rather be here with friends for the holiday season than back in Blighty, stuck out in the Sheffield badlands with the usual “let’s shut the country down for a fortnight” folderol. (A brief scan of UK news organs suggests my instincts were sound on that front; public transport chaos, quelle surprise.) Knowing a little about seasonal weather patterns on the East coast of the US, it’s strange to be sat here on the day after Boxing Day with clear blue skies outside, scrolling through Instagram images of Western Europe acquiring a thin but definite blanket of snow. (I am, however, not complaining; snow is charming for the first 48 hours, but for someone who lives a fair distance from Minimum Viable Food Retail and relies on public transport to get around, it utterly lacks any long-term appeal.)

It would have been a hectic year if I’d been up to nothing other than rattling through the first year of my PhD; the confirmation-of-candidacy process ended up being protracted and painful (due to my own foolish choices, to be clear, or at least as much as anything else), but I got through in the end, which means my research proper begins when I get back to my desk in January. After struggling hard to get over that hurdle, I’m looking forward to getting stuck into it; it feels like I’ve made the grade, somehow (though the real making of the grade is yet to come, of course).

But this year also saw me reach a point where I could tell myself that I’ve (somewhat unexpectedly) passed a benchmark in my decade-old “become a writer” project. Sure, I’ve been writing and publishing for a while, fiction and non-fiction — but selling “Los Piratas…” to Twelve Tomorrows felt like some sort of non-trivial level-up, especially on the fiction side of things. And it turns out that story will be appearing in Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best SF 32 [Amazon UK pre-order; publication date July 2015]; full TOC follows, via Gareth L Powell.

The Fifth Dragon, Ian McDonald (Reach for Infinity)
The Rider, Jérôme Cigut (F&SF)
The Days of the War, as Red as Blood, as Dark as Bile, Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean Online)
The Burial of Sir John Mawe at Cassini, Chaz Brenchley (Subterranean Online)
The Regular, Ken Liu (Upgraded)
The Woman from the Ocean, Karl Bunker (Asimov’s)
Shooting the Apocalypse, Paolo Bacigalupi (The End Is Nigh)
Weather, Susan Palwick (Clarkesworld)
The Hand Is Quicker, Elizabeth Bear (The Book of Robert Silverberg)
The Man Who Sold the Moon, Cory Doctorow (Hieroglyph)
Vladimir Chong Chooses To Die, Lavie Tidhar (Analog)
Beside the Damned River, D.J. Cockburn (Interzone)
The Colonel, Peter Watts (Tor.com)
Entanglement, Vandana Singh (Hieroglyph)
White Curtain, Pavel Amnuel (F&SF)
Slipping, Lauren Beukes (Twelve Tomorrows)
Passage of Earth, Michael Swanwick (Clarkesworld)
Amicae Aeternum, Ellen Klages (Reach for Infinity)
In Babelsberg, Alastair Reynolds (Reach for Infinity)
Sadness, Timons Esaias (Analog)
West to East, Jay Lake (Subterranean Online)
Grand Jeté (The Great Leap), Rachel Swirsky (Subterranean Online)
Covenant, Elizabeth Bear (Hieroglyph)
Jubilee, Karl Schroeder (Tor.com)
Los Piratas del Mar de Plastico (Pirates of the Plastic Ocean), Paul Graham Raven (Twelve Tomorrows)
Red Lights, and Rain, Gareth L. Powell (Solaris Rising 3)
Coma Kings, Jessica Barber (Lightspeed)
The Prodigal Son, Allen M. Steele (Asimov’s)
God Decay, Rich Larson (Upgraded)
Blood Wedding, Robert Reed (Asimov’s)
The Long Haul, from the Annals of Transportation, The Pacific Monthly, May 2009, Ken Liu (Clarkesworld)
Shadow Flock, Greg Egan (Coming Soon Enough)
Thing and Sick, Adam Roberts (Solaris Rising 3)
Communion, Mary Anne Mohanraj (Clarkesworld)
Someday, James Patrick Kelly (Asimov’s)
Yesterday’s Kin, Nancy Kress (Tachyon)

Feels very strange to see my name alongside not just writers I’ve watched rising through the ranks around me, but writers I’d read and idolised long before I even thought getting published was a possibility. Strange, but also inspiring and humbling at once — which is surely a fitting suite of emotions for the season, and for a newly-upgraded postgrad.

So on we go, then. Happy new year, folks.

The Naked Lunch: Christmas and capitalism

Here’s a great opening ‘graph for a seasonal cyberpunk satire:

“I heard my first Christmas music of the year in District 1. It was the 1st of August, 27ºC outside and All I Want For Christmas was drifting out of a market stall dedicated to selling Santa hats.”

Only it’s not from a piece of fiction at all; it’s from the first installment of @iamdanw’s account of his travels across China with the Unknown Fields expedition. Having talked to others who were on the same adventure, the megamarket of Yiwu is likely the least weird part of the story.

Bill Burroughs used the phrase “naked lunch” to describe “[the] frozen moment where everyone sees what’s on the end of every fork”. Dan’s essay above, then, is Naked Christmas — where everyone sees what’s on the end of every supply chain.

 

Dancing about architecture

So yesterday I was at the Birmingham School of Architecture, playing guest reviewer for Masters-student group and individual project-work for one of the four school “studios”. Reason I got the invite is that Mike Dring and Rob Annable are apparently both fans of my Infrastructure Fiction talk, which they’ve included in their studio syllabus; the current crop of projects includes the creation of infrastructure fictions as part of the process. This is really fascinating for me, given IF was (deliberately) a pretty formless manifesto; seeing people pick it up and do stuff with it is really cool, especially when they do things with it that I’d never have thought of.

(Lordy, but do they wring a lot of deliverables out of architecture students, though — I though my creative writing Masters came with a heavy list of outputs, but it looks like sheer dilettantism by comparison to what these kids are up to.)

On the subject of infrastructure and narrative, this Rebecca Solnit bit for the NYT [via @debcha] seems pertinent to both the above, and to the times in general. Some quotes:

“To grasp climate change, you have to think in terms of species and their future. To know how things have already changed, you have to remember how they used to be, and so you may not notice birds disappearing from the skies, or hotter weather or more extreme storms and forest fires. You need to look past the sparrow and see the whole system that allows — or allowed — the birds to flourish. The swallows, the chinook salmon, desert tortoises, manatees, moose and us. Addressing climate means fixing the way we produce energy. But maybe it also means addressing the problems with the way we produce stories.

[…]

And so we should seek out new kinds of stories — stories that make us more alarmed about our conventional energy sources than the alternatives, that provide context, that show us the future as well as the past, that make us see past the death of a sparrow or a swallow to the systems of survival for whole species and the nature of the planet we leave to the future.”

That’s a very infrastructure-fictional call-to-arms, there — I’ll bet the architecture students I saw yesterday would recognise it as one, at any rate.