Like asking a giraffe to shorten its neck

Shoshana Zuboff’s back in town, and not a moment too soon:

By now [surveillance capitalism] no longer restricted to individual companies or even to the internet sector. It has spread across a wide range of products, services, and economic sectors, including insurance, retail, healthcare, finance, entertainment, education, transportation, and more, birthing whole new ecosystems of suppliers, producers, customers, market-makers, and market players. Nearly every product or service that begins with the word “smart” or “personalised”, every internet-enabled device, every “digital assistant”, is simply a supply-chain interface for the unobstructed flow of behavioural data on its way to predicting our futures in a surveillance economy…

“But does it scale?” Of course — indeed, scaling is all it does. “Smart Cities”, anyone?

Surveillance capitalism moves from a focus on individual users to a focus on populations, like cities, and eventually on society as a whole. Think of the capital that can be attracted to futures markets in which population predictions evolve to approximate certainty.

This has been a learning curve for surveillance capitalists, driven by competition over prediction products. First they learned that the more surplus the better the prediction, which led to economies of scale in supply efforts. Then they learned that the more varied the surplus the higher its predictive value. This new drive toward economies of scope sent them from the desktop to mobile, out into the world: your drive, run, shopping, search for a parking space, your blood and face, and always… location, location, location.

The evolution did not stop there. Ultimately they understood that the most predictive behavioural data comes from what I call “economies of action”, as systems are designed to intervene in the state of play and actually modify behaviour, shaping it toward desired commercial outcomes.

A commodified, nostalgic aesthetic

” …the visual remnants of vaporwave have long outlasted its radical ideological underpinnings. Almost immediately, its pastel, geometric, softcore aesthetics were gobbled up by media platforms, in particular the image-driven platforms Tumblr and Instagram. The pastiche compositions of Arizona Iced Tea cans and old Windows desktops were very quickly made available on all these commercial interfaces, which were not only feeding on a countercultural art movement—they were likewise consuming the ghosts of an internet they had long since murdered. The critique offered by vaporwave—its defiant sense of utopia—was immediately and effectively erased, leaving only a commodified, nostalgic aesthetic. And this aesthetic detritus, its millennial pink, Memphis-esque shapes and squiggles made entirely for Instagram, became cold, devoid of joy and playfulness, something the Consumer Aesthetic Research Institute, an ad hoc, Discord-based volunteer group which runs a popular series of blogs and Facebook pages cataloging various aesthetic tendencies across the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, simply calls the “bougie design aesthetic.”

Jameson, as I’ve mentioned, saw this coming, and he teaches us a fairly succinct lesson about the demise of vaporwave:

This omnipresence of pastiche is not incompatible with a certain humor, however, nor is it innocent of all passion: it is at the least compatible with addiction—with a whole historically original consumers’ appetite for a world transformed into sheer images of itself. . . . It is for such objects that we may reserve Plato’s conception of the “simulacrum”. . . Appropriately enough, the culture of the simulacrum comes to life in a society where exchange value has been generalized to the point at which the very memory of use value is effaced, a society of which Guy Debord has observed, in an extraordinary phrase, that in it “the image has become the final form of commodity reification.”

If Guy Debord, in other words, had lived to see Instagram, he would have absolutely lost his gourd. I barely need to mention the dark side of the platform, the side that leaves people lining up for hours just to get a selfie, that has changed how we design products, furniture, even buildings and neighborhoods—all of this is well-documented. What is not so obvious is the way Instagram recycles the original aesthetics, indeed the political ethos, that arose from vaporwave and even the early internet itself, into a decontextualized set of images: the internet has become nostalgia in search of a platform.”

Kate “McMansionHell” Wagner at The Baffler.

The Favourite

I enjoyed this movie a lot: visually sumptuous, as you’d expect of a period drama, but completely lacking in the prevailing fascination with (and fawning over) royalty and aristocracy, choosing instead to portray the English upper classes as fruitcakes, fops, ruthless opportunists, or some combination of all three. So we get plenty of big dresses, frock-coats and wigs in ornate stately architectural spaces, but without any sense that any of them deserve any of it; nobility is a fungible asset, the only true currencies are hustle and influence. All the male characters are in supporting roles, for the most part quite literally so: this is a storyworld where women are in charge, and the boys are mostly foils for their cunning and energy. But it’s no sisterly feminist fable, to be sure: Abigail and Lady Marlborough come close to killing one another in their battle for the favouritism of the tragically unhinged (but occasionally muleish and furious) Queen Anne, and the scullery into which Abigail arrives is neatly sketched out as being just as nasty a playground for the sort of power games that could result in injury or disfigurement. There are no good characters at all, nor any really evil ones – though perhaps Abigail comes closest to being the villain of the piece, even as she’s kind of also its hero-protagonist.

I don’t know much about cinema, but even a near-illiterate like myself can notice not only the much-discussed use of wide-angle and fisheye lenses (which provide a queasy-trippy warping of scale and distance that works particularly well with the contrast between the large, high-ceilinged rooms of state and power and the smaller, darker cupboards of function and functionaries), but also the use of character movement through light (both natural and unnatural) and darkness to accentuate mood and emotion. Likewise I know little about the history of the period beyond what reading other reviews has provided, but I know enough to be aware that there’s lots of flagrant and deliberate anachronism going on at the cultural level: points in case would be the moments of very contemporary demotic language in among the courtly cliches (I’m fairly sure that “va-joo-joo” was not a common slang term for vagina in the 16th Century), and the dance scenes, which mash up the formalisms of the time with modern moves from the last sixty years to surreal and amusing effect. The whole thing seems very modern, in fact, distinguishing it from the majority of period drama, which makes a great show of laying claim to a fidelity and authenticity that it has no chance of ever earning. Plus very little of the period drama I’ve seen (which isn’t a great deal, to be fair) manages to pack in so many laughs, most of which are in sympathy with the characters rather than at their expense. Nonetheless, it’s quite tragic, too, with Olivia Coleman’s Anne as the pitiful monster warped by misfortune around whom the others must dance – or not – for the sake of their advancement and security.

What more can I say, but that I felt Rachel Weisz stole the show, got a lot of the best lines, and definitely got all the best outfits? (Some of her get-ups are coded male, and she totally owns them, as she does the role.) Thoroughly recommended – though it’s clearly no universal crowd-pleaser, as the screening I attended lost a handful of presumably disgruntled royalists about a third of the way through. Whether it was the swearing and (explicit, but not graphic) lesbianism that put them off, or the unavoidable implication that monarchy and aristocracy are shabby scams built on deceit and manipulation, I am none the wiser. But put it this way: it’s no Downton Abbey, and thank fuck for that.

The (exchange) value of education

This is not special pleading for philosophy. The same argument holds for innumerable other subjects which don’t have any direct economic benefit. I always cringe when people quote Socrates’s line “the unexamined life is not worth living” as though it were an argument uniquely for philosophy. All the humanities, arts and social sciences have a role in helping us to live examined lives. If we cannot find spaces for them in our universities, education becomes nothing more than professional training, churning out people who can help run society efficiently but none who routinely and thoroughly ask what all that efficiency is in the service of.

Julian Baggini on Hull Uni’s decision to axe its philosophy undergrad offer.

Science fiction, science fact, and all that's in between …