I can’t tell if I was actually closer to quitting social media before lockdown or if I just had less time to waste on there. A lot of my writing is based around (supposedly) disliking the internet while still solely existing on there and I feel as if lockdown has exacerbated this trend – I haven’t awkwardly stood around a bleak-looking train station in ages and it’s clearly made me even more boring, no small feat considering the fact I run a music blog. The only real “interaction” I’ve had with the outside world (besides endless Zoom meetings where I fail to make coherent points) was small talk during a funeral two weeks ago, which presumably doesn’t count because I was talking to rabid culchies about the weather (and my failure of a beard). This disconnection has just generally messed with my sleep schedule – I get up in the afternoon and alternate between reading books I have an active interest in and staring at random internet controversies that I don’t and then end up writing cookie-cutter polemics about both of these things each Thursday at quarter to four in the morning.
I’ve always found social media odd as it often feels as if time is warped on there – the same five seconds can loop over and over, “just five minutes” quickly turns into an hour, and the three controversies that you made fun of for being extremely petty a month ago are somehow still continuing as you read this paragraph. Conversations have shifted from having a clear start and end (ie. bumping into someone in Centra then having to go do something else, turning your computer on when bored and then turning it off to go outside) to being this never-ending spectacle of dry, low-energy replies until someone gives up (or just forgets to type something back). Sites such as Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook have shifted away from showing us our mindless distractions in a chronological order, instead favouring shady algorithms programmed to keep us constantly refreshing – their aim isn’t actually to make us feel good (or even feel shite), just to make us not feel enough either way to warrant actually doing something productive with our lives. To make this point seem less conspiratorial I’m now going to quote Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google (zero clue as to what that means) who left in 2015 to found Time Well Spent (a nonprofit that basically just points out how shite technology is for us every three months and gets promptly ignored). “If it wasn’t random, if it was predictably bad or predictably good, then you would not get addicted. The predictability would take out the addictiveness”. German philosopher Byung-Chul Han has used the term “smart power” in the past to define the hold that these social media firms have over us. Instead of holding power through authority or violence (ie. saying no), these companies instead hold power through saying yes – we’re all given a personal carnival of reaction delicately engineered to make our lizard brain feel some minor hatred or enjoyment and even if you recognize as such you’ll probably still end up mindlessly scrolling the same three feeds instead of finishing this draft. In order to prove this point I am now going to write about the things that irked my lizard brain this week, please pretend that this is humbling, informative, and not a waste of my 1GB of Neocities hosting space.
One of the most depressing things about the brutal murder of George Floyd (besides, y’know, the actual murder) is all the never-ending vapid discourse surrounding it, particularly in relation to people here in Ireland trying to show some form of solidarity. Members of the Connolly Youth Movement (basically just a Marxist-Leninist youth wing for absolute madlads) in Belfast helped organize a vigil for the slain 46-year-old father, unleashing waves of artificial, largely meaningless Twitter conflict in the process. A lot of this endless shitstorm was in relation to the notion that there could be some sense of solidarity between the Nationalist and African-American communities – because god forbid that two groups who have historically been heavily gerrymandered, falsely-imprisoned, and shot at recognize as such. “To equate the legacy of systemic racism & slavery in the USA to our sectarian conflict is white privilege in action” as the Deputy Leader of the Northern Irish Green Party put it, totally not coming off as a condescending arse. The thing that set my lizard brain off around this debate was how totally straw manned it was, you supposedly either believed that Irish people are going through the exact same oppression as the African-American community at this exact moment in time (if not worse), or that those filthy Taigs actually deserved it. There was no actual notion of unity or mutual understanding in this “debate” (using that term loosely), just snark and willful ignorance condensed down to fit in our phone screens. “Irish republicans comparing the struggles of black people to the troubles… shut uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuup[.] No one cares! It’s over! You lost! Stop bringing it every fucking opportunity especially in comparison to centuries of global oppression, systemic racism and ACTUAL SLAVERY” as someone I won’t name put it, clearly fueling insightful conversation. This shitstorm (and basically every other shitstorm on social media ever) was about posturing more than converting or convincing – nothing was learned, nothing was gained, and nothing actually changed. We’ve all given up on actually trying to discuss topics and have instead focused on trying to come off as the one person with the correct opinion to other people with extremely similar opinions that press the heart button when we post, something I’m probably fueling with this blog post. Please press like on Twitter after reading this piece, I need the attention.
Back when I was first setting up this Neocities page I wrote a really shite blog post on the topic of piracy, mainly just so I never had to internally defend copyright infringement each time I was exposed to some entitled American again. However, since we’re stuck having the same four faux-conversations until the planet melts everyone’s favourite defenders of intellectual property are going after the Internet Archive for the crime of letting people download PDFs during a pandemic. Four major book publishers have filed a lawsuit against the non-profit, claiming that the archive’s National Emergency Library (a collection of scanned PDFs) is a “wholesale copyright violation scheme”, leading to some of the worst people online getting all hot and bothered. A collection of glorified YA authors with notions about themselves had labeled the Internet Archive public enemy number one for the past month or so, angrily tweeting themselves to death over the idea of someone not forking over twenty euro for a digital copy of their airport novels. Because irony is dead one of the main leaders in this crusade against supposed book piracy is Chuck Wendig, a noted melt who writes glorified Star Wars fanfiction for Disney – a corporation that definitely needs more money during this world pandemic. This whinging about a non-profit letting people borrow books online during an economic crisis is funny (read: infuriates my lizard brain) on two levels, both materialistically and ideologically – words that I should be punched for using this late in the blog post.
Let’s just get the materialistic stuff out of the way first so I can go back to being a holier-than-thou arsehole about random petit-bourgeois science fiction writers. If you actually wanted to go after piracy there are significantly better websites to sue into oblivion. The Internet Archive uses a system called “controlled digital lending” – they purchase a physical copy of a book, scan it, and lend out a DRM-protected copy, a system that Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle sees as being similar to the one used by traditional libraries. As to whether it counts as piracy is (literally) up to the jury to decide, but if you wanted to actually take a stand against piracy there are a fair few websites that don’t go through all the hoops and just upload EPUB files directly that are probably doing a fair bit more damage than a well-meaning non-profit. However, it seems as if these large corporations (and their lackeys by extension) never go after these blatant piracy websites – cén fáth? The answer is simple, going after piracy on the internet is like pissing in the wind. If you take down a torrent website another five will come up in response, and if you try sending one of the admins of said websites to jail a bunch of Europeans will make an annoying political party out of it. These websites are designed to be hard to take down or trace because those who operate them actively intend on breaking copyright law, everything is constantly backed up and hosted in an ex-Soviet state so obscure that the Victims of Communism website doesn’t even mention them and you’re wasting your time even thinking about taking one of these sites permanently online. An American non-profit that actually provides something of value to the wider world? That’s a different story altogether.
Anyways let’s get back to being a judgmental arsehole for absolutely no reason – the main thing you’re supposed to do on the internet. One of the funniest things about this shitstorm is how vapid a majority of the work that the most vocal critics of the Internet Archive put out is – these people are totally willing to sacrifice terabytes of data to make their glorified Star-Wars fanfiction slightly more profitable and that psychosis is oddly interesting to me. As artists in the West we all have this fundamental obsession with individual “originality” – intellectual property can’t be touched with a five-foot pole, piracy is the most unethical thing you can do, and creativity is solely individual. You can have your influences but you can’t admit as such or you’re suddenly viewed as a hack. Our platonic ideal seems to be Disney+ – we all want to shell out a weekly tithe for an endless stream of the same three intellectual properties being perpetually rebooted without any substance or experimentation. Just in the same way that social media fulfills our lizard brains on a shallow, libidinal basis these shows give us some minor emotion but nothing deeper or more profound. The main irony of this individualistic “originality” is that the content that comes out of it is anything but – sure some corporation owns the rights for a certain concept, but are they actually doing anything with it?
One of the books I got around to reading last week was ‘Shanzhai’ by Byung-Chul Han, an attempt to capture the trend of so-called “decreation” in Chinese thought. According to Han, “Shanzhai cell phones are forgeries of branded products such as Nokia or Samsung. They are sold under names such as Nokir, Samsing, or Anycat. But they are actually anything but crude forgeries. In terms of design and function they are hardly inferior to the original. Technological or aesthetic modifications give them their own identity. […] The ingenuity of shanzhai products is frequently superior to that of the original. For example, one shanzhai cell phone has the additional function of being able to identify counterfeit money. In this way it has established itself as an original. The new emerges from surprising variations and combinations”. Han believes that shanzhai devices illustrate a certain form of creativity – “Gradually [shanzhai] products depart from the original, until they mutate into originals themselves. Established labels are constantly modified. Adidas becomes Adidos, Adadas, Adadis, Adis, Dasida and so on.”. In order to create something new we first have to fail to perfectly copy something that came before – Autechre’s bleak landscapes came from attempts to recreate the group’s first exposure to techno and Burial’s urban melancholia came from attempts to copy the garage tracks his older brother showed him. Shanzhai products will never be perfect copies, and that’s where creativity comes from.
In ‘Symposium’ Plato basically claimed that art was how gay people cheated death – art was a form of immortality through procreation, you essentially just lived on through whatever you released. The influence that this idea had on the West arguably fuels our drive to archive everything – our ideas must live on in their original, unaltered forms with our full names attached and we will go to incomprehensible lengths to do so. This archival is a constant (arguably Sisyphean) race against time – VHS tapes rot, hard-drives fail, and webservers go down. It turns out that if we want to truly “cheat death” and have our ideas live on we have to forego these notions of individual originality – the copy is the only effective method of active archival. In ‘Shanzhai’ Han talks about the Ise Grand Shrine, a 1,300-year-old religious building that is effectively rebuilt from scratch every twenty years. “In the West, when monuments are restored, old traces are often particularly highlighted. Original elements are treated like relics. The Far East is not familiar with this cult of the original. It has developed a completely different technique of preservation that might be more effective than conservation or restoration. This takes place through continual reproduction. This technique completely abolishes the difference between original and replica. We might also say that originals preserve themselves through copies”. For our creative output to actually survive it needs to be constantly copied and pasted elsewhere – it clearly works for Slavoj Zizek after all.