H+ trailer: a post-McLuhanist reading

Paul Raven @ 25-07-2011

So, this has been doing the rounds since its release at SDCC (which – given by what I’ve seen of it from blogs, Twitter and elsewhere – is less a convention and more some sort of fundamental rupture of reality that lets a million weird facets of pop culture manifest in the material world for a weekend); my first spot of it was at SF Signal, so they get the hat-tip. It’s the trailer for a forthcoming web-native series called H+

And here’s the blurb for those of you who can’t or won’t watch videos:

H+: The Digital Series takes viewers on a journey into an apocalyptic future where technology has begun to spiral out of control…a future where 33% of the world’s population has retired its cell phones and laptops in favor of a stunning new device – an implanted computer system called H+.

This tiny tool allows the user’s own mind and nervous system to be connected to the Internet 24 hours a day. But something else is coming… something dark and vicious… and within seconds, billions of people will be dead… opening the door to radical changes in the political and social landscape of the planet — prompting survivors to make sense of what went wrong.

Hmmm. So, what can we take from this? First off, “H+” or human augmentation as a cultural meme is strong enough on the geek fringes that someone thinks it’s a marketable theme for popular drama; this in itself is a very interesting development from the perspective of someone who chronicles and observes the transhumanist movement(s), because it’s a sign that traditionally science fictional or cyberpunkish ideas are being presented as both plausible and imminent*. Meme’s gonna go mainstream, yo.

Secondly, and less surprisingly, the underlying premise appears to be The Hubris Of Technology Will All But Annihilate Our Species, with a sideserving/undercurrent of Moral Panic. Handwringing over the potentially corrosive-to-civilisation properties of social media is common currency (as regular readers will be only too aware already), which means the soil is well-tilled for the seed of Singer’s series; it’s a contemporary twist on the age-old apocalypse riff, and that never gets old. Too early to tell whether the Hairshirt Back-To-The-Earth philosophy is going to be used as solution paradigm, but I’d be willing to put money on it making a significant showing. This is disappointing, but inevitable; as Kyle Munkittrick points out in his brief overview of the new Captain America movie, comics and Hollywood default to the portrayal of human augmentation as either an accident born of scientific hubris or the tainted product of a Frankensteinian corporation:

In what seems like every other superhero origin story, powers are acquired through scientific hubris. Be it the unintended consequences of splitting the atom, tinkering with genetics, or trying to access some heretofore unknown dimension, comic book heroes invariably arise by accident.

[…]

Normally, those who seek superpowers are unworthy because they believe they deserve to be better than others, thus, the experiments go wrong.

Yeah, that’s about right. And the choice of series title is very fortuitous; the avalanche of early responses drawing analogies to Google+ has probably already started on the basis of that trailer alone, which is going to annoy me just as much as Googlephobia does. I’ve been rereading Marshall McLuhan lately (in part so I could write a piece for his 100th birthday at Wired UK), and was struck by how calmly and persistently he insisted that making moral judgements of technologies was futile; indeed, he took the position that by spending less effort on judging our technologies, we might clear the moral fog that exists around our actual lives. In McLuhan’s thought, media are extensions of ourselves into time and space; it seems to me that the biggest problem they cause isn’t a moral degradation of humanity, but the provision of a convenient proxy to blame our human problems on: it woz the intertubes wot dun it.

There is an inevitability to the technological moral panic as popular narrative, though, and that’s underlined by its admirable persistence over time – as TechDirt‘s Mike Masnick reminds us, they’re at least as old as Gutenburg’s printing press (and we’re still here, as yet untoppled by our technological revolutions). Masnick also links to a WSJ blog piece that bounces off the research of one Genevieve Bell, director of Intel Corporation’s Interaction and Experience Research, who reiterates the persistence of the technological moral panic over time, and points out that it tends to locate itself in the bodies of women and children:

There was, she says, an initial pushback about electrifying homes in the U.S.: “If you electrify homes you will make women and children and vulnerable. Predators will be able to tell if they are home because the light will be on, and you will be able to see them. So electricity is going to make women vulnerable. Oh and children will be visible too and it will be predators, who seem to be lurking everywhere, who will attack.

“There was some wonderful stuff about [railway trains] too in the U.S., that women’s bodies were not designed to go at 50 miles an hour. Our uteruses would fly out of our bodies as they were accelerated to that speed.”

She has a sort of work-in-progress theory to work out which technologies will trigger panic, and which will not.

  • It has to change your relationship to time.
  • It has to change your relationship to space.
  • It has to change your relationship to other people.

And, says Ms. Bell, it has to hit all three, or at least have the potential to hit them.

Interesting stuff, including a riff on comedy as a feedback loop in culture that enables us to control and mitigate the boundaries of what is acceptable with a new technology or medium. But as Bell points out, the march of technological change won’t wait for us to catch up with it; this state of technological angst has persisted for centuries, and will likely persist for as long as we remain a technologised species. Which means the doomsayers (and doomsayer media like H+) ain’t going anywhere… but going on past form, I’m going to assume we’ll find a way to ride it out and roll with the punches.

And just in case you were expecting a more standard blogger response to a television series trailer: yeah, I’ll probably watch H+, at least for long enough to see if it’s a good story well told; it looks like it might well be, regardless of the source of the narrative hook.

What about you?

[ * Which isn’t to say that the plot device in H+ will necessarily be scientifically plausible as it gets presented. Indeed, I rather suspect there’ll be some Unified Quantum Handwave Theory and/or Unobtainium involved… but the portrayal of social media as an internalised technology in the human body within a contemporary fictional milieu? That’s something I’ve not seen anywhere other than text media (books, stories, comics) thus far. ]


The media myth of the hacker uptick

Paul Raven @ 22-07-2011

The Freakonomics people asked a bunch of folk whether they thought there had been a sudden explosion of hacking in recent times. One of the respondents was Bruce Schneier, who bursts the very myth that the question attempts to bolster:

None of this is new. None of this is unprecedented. To a security professional, most of it isn’t even interesting. And while national intelligence organizations and some criminal groups are organized, hacker groups like Anonymous and LulzSec are much more informal. Despite the impression we get from movies, there is no organization. There’s no membership, there are no dues, there is no initiation. It’s just a bunch of guys. You too can join Anonymous—just hack something, and claim you’re a member. That’s probably what the members of Anonymous arrested in Turkey were: 32 people who just decided to use that name.

It’s not that things are getting worse; it’s that things were always this bad. To a lot of security professionals, the value of some of these groups is to graphically illustrate what we’ve been saying for years: organizations need to beef up their security against a wide variety of threats. But the recent news epidemic also illustrates how safe the Internet is. Because news articles are the only contact most of us have had with any of these attacks.

Unmasking one of the many faces of the modern moral panic… I note that the other four respondents all conceded that there has been an increase in hacking, and that – unlike Schneier – they all hold high positions in computer security businesses.


OMG intarweb litricy FAIL

Paul Raven @ 23-11-2010

It’s been a while since we’ve had one of these, but they never entirely go out of fashion: the English Spelling Society commissions a report and finds that (gasp!) Facebook and chatrooms and forums and texting and stuff are encouraging children to spell words incorrectly!

Now, to be fair, I fully expect they’ve got a dataset tucked away that supports that statement, and I’m not going to try and claim that internet communication has no influence over the way young people use language. However, I find it unlikely that the English Spelling Society would have published a report that said the internet was making no difference to literacy at all, in the same way we’re unlikely to see a memo from the Discovery Institute saying “actually, nix all that earlier stuff, these fossils are pretty damned convincing after all!” Caesar hears what is pleasing to Caesar, after all.

And then there’s the research that claims exactly the opposite, and points out that while most people’s spelling and grammar may not be perfect, the rise of the internet and the infinite number of channels for text-based communication it provides mean that we’re writing far more than we ever did before. Granted, that writing may not conform to Victorian-era ideals of “correct” communication, but the world has changed a lot since those ideals were enshrined; surely communication should be assessed on how effective it is in each given circumstance? Maybe I’m being overly Darwinian about this, but it strikes me that communication methods which didn’t communicate effectively wouldn’t have much chance to get traction in a fast-moving culture like ours.

Or, to put it another way: the kids spell funny because that works for them, and I suspect the horror this produces in older generations of linguists is at least partly to do with feeling shut out by this new linguistic shift, much like the flashes of paranoia one experiences in restaurants and bars abroad where you momentarily think everyone is talking about you in a language you can’t follow clearly*. “Street slang” has always been touted as a symptom of imminent societal collapse (again, at least as far back as the Victorian era, as far as I know)… but here we still are, inflating the sphere of human knowledge despite the kids using weird words and improper spellings. Go figure, AMIRITEZ?

And lets not forget that spellings and pronunciations have never basked in some arcadian stasis, solid and immovable against culture’s fluxing tides; look back just a few hundred years, and you’ll see a language so different to today’s that it seems almost laughable due to its unfamiliarity. Language changes, and it changes through being used. That’s not something to fear; in fact, it’s probably something to celebrate.

[ * OK, that may just be me, then. ]