Tuesday, March 20, 2007

An Unapologetic Rant

Warning: the following rant was written down more out of self-indulgent narcissism (something my generation knows quite a lot about, apparently…) than for any more constructive purpose. If you experience passionate rage when faced with such things then I suggest you look away before reading the end of this paragraph, like, now!

Wow, thank goodness we got rid of that lot. Now on to the rant:

If asked to define the zeitgeist of the early C21, in the UK, in one word, I would probably reply: “nostalgia”. There are those cheap, bloated (but nevertheless compulsive) nostalgiathons of the “100 Best…” genre. The “new” music scene is dominated by derivative indie, soft-rock, brain-candy pop music, and a raft of remixes and re-releases. There doesn’t seem to be any “new” music. There is nothing heard on Radio 1 nowadays (with the possible exception of Chris Moyles) that would shock or alienate my parents or their peers, as their parents were by their choice of music, much of which remains popular with my peers.

Mainstream interest in movies has devolved to the one-shot blockbuster/DVD release in two months paradigm. There are films with genuine merit being produced, even for mainstream audiences, and doubtless there is also a vast sea of independent and alternative films being created, but this creativity does not filter into the wider market.

Maybe it is that the current generation of media bosses is dominated by tie-died hippies and dissolute baby-boomers, maybe it is that decades of “progress” seem to have resulted in unhappiness, alienation, social problems, and all the horrific absurdities of global politics. Maybe we are being cynically manipulated by millennialist, antihuman evildoers into thinking that the world is shortly to end and that we must all repent for our Sins of Profligacy, Gluttony, Lust, Envy, Sloth etc. Maybe the fact that there are more baby-boomers than there are of us (generations X-Y) and they have so much more wealth accounts for the obsession with the past.

Or it could be that as far as most of humanity is concerned it is Business as Usual, bearing in mind that a third of humanity has no access to electricity and as such Business as Usual is a nasty and brutish mode of existence.

That Something Needs to be Done to solve the problems of the world is well known. Exactly what is to be done is to continue as we are. By this I mean continue pressing the environment and ethical living as important issues, and actually acting on our own rhetoric. Losing jets is going to be hard. Also losing your own car is going to be hard. But these things will probably be necessary. I’m not sure if removing our ridiculous prohibition (in the West generally, and in the UK and the USA especially) on dangerous drugs will be painful, so much as unnecessarily difficult.

The Internet, the source of a great deal of “new” art (or a lot of derivative remixes created by American teenagers with a Mac and too much free time, or British teenagers with a mobile and too much free time, and then put on YouTube) remains important, and has lead to enormous change already.

Virtual-space design will become important. A story out today says that the value of the current crop of virtual worlds is already at around £511 million.

But the logical next step for the global network is to decentralise further, to the extent that it becomes impossible to censor or control the internetwork. This next step will certainly involve mesh networking technologies, and wireless ad-hoc networks. These offer the possibility of another paradigm (my sincerest apologies for using the word “paradigm” twice in the same article): an even freer and more controversial one than today’s Internet.

As an aside, I have been watching Adam Curtis’ wonderful programme The Trap – What Happened to our Dream of Freedom, which (ironically – considering the root of this post) makes excellent use of stock footage to create atmosphere and emphasis. It tackles an interesting and complex subject – a real-life gritty SF novel in which the mindless pursuit of targets is produced by a mathematical genius as the optimum way of creating spontaneous order in a society, only for everyone to find that it doesn’t work quite as well as they would like to think…

The kind of self-directing, decentralised mechanisms of the free market are powerful tools for resource allocation, but like all tools are not much good without a sentient and intelligent entity to wield them. As George W said in one of his more lucid moments, a dictatorship really would be a lot easier. Even evolution, often held up as an example of this sort of “invisible hand” effect in practice, is not that good at finding optimum scenarios (in my last post I commented on the eating-hole/breathing-hole combination, that is not to mention the reproductive-hole/waste-disposal-hole combination… […maybe having fewer holes is a survival trait…?]), and as Curtis comments in the programme, the selfish gene concept isn’t the whole story.

I think the lesson of game theory is that you should never underestimate the complexity of a system, use a scientific method, and always take into account that you might be dead wrong.

The key point is that we are not going to do anything useful by obsessing about the past. An awareness of genuine historical situations is always useful (in fact, essential), but the trivial and sentimental attitude towards the past that seems to pervade at the moment does little to prepare us for the future.

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