Art without Affirmation

Artistic, literary, creative production can be cathartic without the need for a teleology of success or the constant seeking of approval and self-affirmation from other people. The monolithic culture-machines which celebrate and sanctify this aspiration to success and mass recognition (i.e. fame) also seem to subliminally cultivate a deep insecurity and dependence on acknowledgement which unconsciously binds people to this whole psychological economy and process. Seeking success and self-affirmation because everyone else does is ironically the anathema of the individuality and uniqueness which creative or other celebrities allegedly aspire to. If your art is any good, it will probably be recognised one day – if not, at least you lived your life on your own terms and with authenticity.

Context: Bukowski on creativity contra age.

Letting Go

I wonder sometimes if the emptiness so many of us feel is only difficult to cope with because we live in a world which sells us another self altogether. We participate through consumption, craving experience and accessories through which to define ourselves, in which to seek validation through others and those internalised perceptions, assumptions and expectations we constantly absorb from the culture in which we are embedded. We keep pouring more fuel into the tank but find ourselves perennially running on empty. We seek a completeness and concrete logic of psychological, existential continuity but this completeness and certainty does not actually exist. The discomfort caused by the dissonance between what (we think) we need to be and what we actually are – this creates manifold individual and shared narcissistic neuroses and a deep and unremitting feeling of unease. While consumer culture (and its associated economies of culturally-mediated experience and artefact-aggregation) benefits quite well from this foundational discomfort, our personal lives suffer endlessly. Letting go of this shared illusion and aspiration to participatory self-validation is the hardest thing to do, but it also remains the simplest and most important step anyone could take towards their own happiness.

Reflections: Don’t Feed The Troll

In a response to an exceptionally brief essay (i.e. blog post) I wrote here on the topic of shaming in social media, I received an interesting bifurcated question from Ted Engels:

What’s interesting is trying to disentangle two causative factors when looking at social arenas like 4chan and tumblr that use anonymous and pseudoanonymous avatars.

1) How much of this behavior is “innate” in the will, and can find expression only because its virtuality prevents any backlash in the real?

2) How much of this behavior is shaped by virtuality, in other words, desires that are created ex nihilo by the social space of the virtual world.

If you know any interesting leads on this question, I’d be eager to find out.

Unpacking this may take a little creativity, and more than a few words…

Points 1 and 2 above are both perspectives on the same object: virtuality.  This expands in an investigative sense in any number of directions but to attempt to keep it a little more on-topic, this expands here to: the nature of virtuality in cyberspace and (by implication) the ways in which behaviour in the virtual world is necessarily shaped or patterned by the parameters, boundaries (or freedoms) of abstraction manifested in the psychological and social identities encapsulated or generated by this notionally virtual space.

Shaming behaviours are intrinsically culturally-generated in the sense that the shaming which is conducted is always already relative to a specific moral or normative cultural frame of reference.  I am not certain that it is possible to separate the virtual and cyber from a more traditional cultural milieu (of texts, artefacts, shared narratives and pre-digital sensibilities).  There exists something of a continuum across the spectrum of traditional narratives (and their associated expressions of, or as, subjectivity or culture) and the digital domain.  The medium of expression may be different but that which is being expressed is not in essence fundamentally different, it is perhaps merely more fluid and dynamic in a contemporary frame of reference.

In the context of an analysis of shaming and moral frameworks we are clearly interested in what are essentially shared value systems.  Such shared value systems are themselves expressions of particular interpretations of object-relations, of identities and contexts – i.e. of reality.  This extrapolation of a simple logical relationship to a broader and more complex, emergent interpretation and translation of reality is no less true of political and ideological systems than of the emergent cliques and sub-cultural contexts of online communities.  We generate our realities and value systems from the same basic assumptions and implicit axioms upon which we fabricate or create ourselves (psychologically, socially) and questions of shared reality are for this reason questions of self and of subjectivity.

How much of this behaviour is “innate” in the will and can find expression only because its virtuality prevents any backlash in the real?
“Virtuality” as a concept can be misleading.  The only virtual, nebulous or insubstantial feature of this shared digital culture is in that when switching off the power on any specific device (or other network node), the local instance of that information is, for the most part and beyond any forensic wizardry applied to the RAM of the local system, lost.  A commitment to longer-term physical memory systems can record the state of such a system at any particular time but the “virtual” in this is the sense of electrical suspension, of near-instantaneous communication or digital non-locality and the extent through this to which connection and network are foregrounded.

It may be true that there exists a certain distance or notional abstraction from our corporeal and neuroanatomical selves and experiences as distinct from the assertions and identities we fabricate online but this is a difference of instance, not of identity.  The projected identity is no less an identity, regardless of the extent to which it is filtered through the text, video, image or other technical medium through which it is expressed.

Beyond the most singularly unreflective or witless amongst us, the notion that the digital expression and projection of identity can be truly inconsequential should have to be isolated to those who seek to wilfully cause harm or to otherwise benefit themselves in some delinquent way.  Seeking to cause harm through trolling or some other form of bullying is indeed quite similar to the selfish intent of any digitally enabled criminal – this primarily concerns the acquisition of some object, be it emotional, financial or of other symbolic value.  There exist very real consequences to virtual malfeasance and it remains a fact that the interpersonal reaction to an online conversation or insult can be just as powerful as that experienced face-to-face and perhaps for the same reason that incautiously composed emails can create communicative dissonance: purely textual communication (which most online narrative consists of) lacks the subtle queues of inflection and gesture that direct interpersonal dialogue benefits from.

Trolls and bullies probably gain sadistic pleasure from the degree to which consequences are for the most part divorced from the realities engendered by their actions and assertions.  Anyone other than an unrepentant sociopath can probably be convinced of the wrongness of their actions, possibly through some diplomatic counter-shaming process.  I suspect that the majority of online trolls and bullies are just jumping on the bandwagon when they participate in these acts and the consequences, virtual or otherwise, are far from their minds at the time.

There is no sense in which the normative value of a consensus morality is the central concern for a bully or online troll.  Piranha feeding at a corpse do not much care for, or even require a need to acknowledge, the reason the corpse lies before them in the water – theirs is a collectively participatory feeding instinct.  This does not indemnify a bully by metaphor or comparison but it does perhaps indicate the emergent quality of their behaviour and that not all human actions may be entirely autonomous at base.

The question above is to what extent this behaviour is innate in the will.  This is a matter of ideological as much as of philosophical assertion – my understanding of the situation is that the vast majority of human beings suffer from a deep and unacknowledged (perhaps – undiagnosed) insecurity and that the various strategies and methods by which individuals attempt to shore up their psychological defences include a suite of behaviours which often enough find themselves expressed in aggressively competitive behaviours.  Does this mean that the behaviours which privilege an explicitly aggressive or denigrating assault on another person’s reputation or behaviour are inevitable consequences of the directedness and volition that we understand to be will?  Probably – it is likely that in the online context these insecurities, perceptions, projections and assertions are channelled into patterns and symmetries which are most easily facilitated through textual (or relatively simple visual) memes.

Trolling and shaming is probably facilitated to some extent by the anonymity or pseudo-anonymity and mask of the avatar, of the fake profile or of geographical remoteness of location but this anonymity may fractures and take on multiple dimensions in an online context.  School bullies, torch and pitchfork-festooned mobs or revolutionary insurgencies all benefit from a certain anonymity of identity granted by their shared and uniformly unscrupulous conduct, by that volitional-blending experienced in the collective context.  From a victim’s point of view, it may appear (or reveal itself as culturally axiomatic) that the kind of behaviour featured in online trolling is perfectly well accepted, normative social conduct.  The trolls of course know this, not necessarily at a conscious level, but it remains an unfortunate fact of our shared reality that collective victimisation and organised aggression (for reasons perhaps ultimately stemming from insecurity and its associated fundamental uncertainties) is endemic to human cultural systems.

Relative digital anonymity perhaps provides the mask (or white hood) and camouflage of notionally untraceable isolation, of remoteness and geographical separation from consequences and while this may provide courage to the troll or the mob.   The tools and technologies to lift this veil of aspirationally anonymous indemnity, to track and identify these trolls – these tools must have to exist at the level of major law enforcement and government agencies.  The severity of the crime of online victimisation may have been classified as delinquent in comparison to the big-ticket evil towards which law enforcement and government agencies must have to direct their technical assets and resources.  This presumptive technical capacity to uncover the identity of the perpetrator of conspicuously wicked acts may to some extent reign-in the behaviour and extent of much online trolling.

Online trolls and bullies possess a certain pack mentality and while this is expressed in prefabricated ways through the available channels of a shared virtual culture, it may be a deeper tendency apparent as the inevitable self-interest of animals in any environment undergoing competitive selection pressures.  Trolling may be a digital display of herd instinct, itself an emergent pattern of behaviour, arguably most readily apparent in those of most innate or adoptive insecurity – those undergoing the hormonal perturbations of adolescence, suffering dysfunctional or dissonant symptoms of mental health or experiencing the sweeping thrall of political or (other) ideological identification.

How much of this behaviour is shaped by (…) desires that are created ex nihilo by the social space of the virtual world?
Some of this has been addressed above but there still exists a little room for extrapolation upon the second part of this part of the larger question, that is, how is trolling and online shaming (a.k.a. bullying) shaped by the desires or motivations that are created by the social space of the virtual world?  The virtual world provides the channels and literal circuits for behaviour, the medium for communication and assertions of belief and opinion.  The emotional content and culturally normative function of shaming remotely is not fundamentally different from emotional or physical intimidation, threat or violence enacted in physical proximity.  Again, and as mentioned earlier, this is (as with remote digital expressions and projections of subjectivity) a difference of instance, not of identity.

All desires, as with all those who desire, are contingent and culturally, historically located constructions.  The expression of intentional harm or the belittling emotional harm of shaming probably does take different specific forms but as a general concept remains identifiable regardless of context.  A Roman soldier verbally or physically intimidating or injuring a member of a Christian sect is as identifiable sans context as is the life-altering burden of thousands of abusive messages received online and shaming or vilifying some unfortunate individual or another – historical and cultural context vary but the intentionality (and effect) remains what it is.  I do not believe that there is anything specifically unique about online trolling, it is perhaps just that the technical medium of mass communication creates the potential for vaster clouds of swarming individuals and that this sheer immensity of scale manifests as a peculiarly effective emotional and psychological weapon in any specific instance.  As a lived experience, crucifixion (in any medium or at any scale of effect) is not something any sane person would willingly choose to undergo.

A desire for completeness, narrative continuity and psychological or corporeal security tends to manifest itself in ways that probably privilege tendencies towards what are, if not aggressive, certainly competitive shared social spaces.  Personally, I think that the myriad expressions of tribalism and insecurity apparent in shaming behaviours are innate to cultural systems.  There exists a certain immaturity of collective identity which may not at the scale of billions of individuals be able to resolve itself without friction in the way it may do so at a village or small town level.  At a smaller scale, interpersonal frictions, social niche identification and competitive behaviours are still likely to be an issue but without quite the far-reaching extent that tweeting something silly can cause millions of anonymous, remote individuals to set upon a person’s identity and reputation like multitudinous swarming piranha upon a dead animal.

Physical remoteness from a victim of shaming or bullying probably allows for a certain amount of dehumanisation of that victim and perhaps also a subsequent participatory desensitisation experienced through the shared group experience of the bully.  The act of shaming or belittling another human being, and even more so en masse, probably says far more about the bullies and trolls than it does about the shamed victims.  Our collective immaturity as expressed in this manner indicates that we have not very well dealt with our individual discontinuities and their associated insecurities, that these large-scale digital lynchings can be expected to continue, indefinitely and ad nauseum.


Social Media: The Shame Game ?

The ways in which the new public (information) spaces of social media are shaping the expectations and assumptions placed, in many cases enforced, on individual behaviour – contain significant revelations for this shared digital world of ours.


This particular online shaming story had a happy ending.

The power of internalised self-perceptions garnered from the assertions and judgements of others – this has always been an energising aspect of human social and psychological identity. The hyper-sensitivities of online social spaces have created this new moral matrix, one in which the baselines for participation and the parameters for acceptable behaviour are so rapidly evolving that just keeping up with the requirements to maintain social relevance, perhaps always an effort, has now become exhausting.


Old school public shaming.

We can expect to observe a reflexive social media effect of “tuning out”, where some people desensitise to the needs and expectations of their adopted online communities. Responding to these new moral pressures with a degree of burnout and fatigue, they will perhaps either: switch off altogether and drop out of the online competition; retreat into more rigidly defined cliques set in opposition to the accelerating moral metamorphoses they perceive everywhere around them; or, in a general panic and anxiety of self-identity which may exist already but have been intensified by the contextual fluidity of this world (and its reflexively dynamic self) – they may turn to aggressively competitive attempts to define their own boundaries and identities through public displays of online trolling and harassment at varying degrees of sophistication.


Context: The Shame Culture
Related: How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life

No-one knows how AI works

No-one knows how AI works, however, not being able to explain how it works may not necessarily be a bad thing: isn’t this an indication that the algorithms may merely be working correctly and that the emergent properties and self-organising complexity of the AI are doing what we hoped they would ?  We hardly know how minds work – at base, and beyond the many diverse, partial theories and schools of thought on the topic, it seems that irreducible uncertainty and doubt about how minds actually function is endemic to the study of the emergent properties of any brain at all.

That human beings are endlessly surprised by their own limitations in knowing how the world or themselves works is fascinating. If the world should reveal itself to be fundamentally other than what it appears to be, we would of course all (collectively as well as individually) be blind-sided – insulted that out magnificent minds did not pre-emptively see this revelation in the pipeline. What is more fascinating than that we are endlessly surprised by the facts of our own limitations is that we are surprised at all when we discover these parameters and possibly essential conditions of our sentient existence. Science and philosophy are iterative processes and while this developmental growth may remain in some manner asymptotic and never ever quite attain its object of knowledge, this need not necessarily be seen as any kind of failure. Incompleteness is in some sense written into the world (and our experience of it) in a fundamental way.

Beyond this, it may be that we are surrounded by (or embedded in) brain-like entities or self-organising systems which possess just such a directedness, storage capacity, emergent complexity and massively networked self-organising agility to learn and reflexively adapt to their environments – and that we do not fully understand. Cultural systems might themselves function in ways not dissimilar to brains, or for that matter – minds; when considered at a global, systemic scale – there would appear to exist some kind of identity or character, possibly intelligence, but certainly reflexive and emergent adaptive, self-organising complexity in cultural systems.


A neural network generated this image.

Boltzmann Brains, a product of a particular line of thinking about the evidence concerning entropy states and complexity in the Cosmos, are hypothetical and randomly occurring emergent intelligences which “will be lonely, disembodied brains, who fluctuate gradually out of the surrounding chaos and then gradually dissolve back into it.

I am not suggesting that the property of complex, self-organising artificially intelligent systems being mystifying is indicative of success in the fabrication of elementary sentience, but it is clear that there remains (to date) an irreducible blind spot in the analysis of consciousness and emergent intelligence which suggests that not knowing how these algorithmic, axiomatic systems function is not necessarily an entirely bad thing.

Context: The Dark Secret at the Heart of AI
“No one really knows how the most advanced algorithms do what they do. That could be a problem.”

Facebook’s “Safety Check”


On the topic of identity farming: Is Facebook’s “Safety Check” an authentic attempt to assist communities reeling from disaster ? Or is this merely another way of corporations to intrude into every aspect of contemporary social existence and to continue to turn a monumentally accelerating profit margin ? The core motivation of Safety Check (at least superficially) appears to be honest and of good character but the inevitability of the privileged and “enlightened self-interests” of corporate reality can never be fully extracted from a mega-company’s behaviour.

Is our identity and social or cultural extension and existence always already and purely a marketable quantity ? Or, are the interdependent shared spaces of social media the inevitable and healthy projections of a personal story into the shared narrative in which mutual assistance and disaster recovery are of intrinsic high-value ? Perhaps it is both for our benefit and for the benefit of the shared social and cultural (or entrepeneurially opportunistic corporate) world simultaneously, perhaps not. There may be a false dichotomy here between what is notionally for ourselves, for our own social and participatory benefit and what is for the collective and shared cultural identity embodied in the motivations and profits directed towards the corporations. The corporate world had managed to capitalise on these digitally-mediated participatory subjectivities so very, very well. The contemporary situation remains in any case fluid and as such – concrete axioms of identity, motivation or purpose are not plausibly simple to define.

I suspect that, as may perhaps always be the case, it is just as likely that whatever patterns, symmetries or system dynamics are actually at play here may only become (at least partially) transparent to some future historical survey and that whatever we believe Facebook’s ultimate motivations to be, much like our own assertions and self-justifications for personal behaviour, these may actually be something other than what we believe them to be. Realities often reveal themselves in hindsight to be radically other than that which they were initially believed to be. Social realities have always been culturally-mediated spaces but when these spaces are themselves aligned to corporate financial gain, where the parameters and boundaries of admissible, intelligible reality are written by the axioms of a corporate self-interest – even genuinely or potentially useful post-disaster communications and humanitarian tools seem hollow and superficial.

Context: Checking the Safety Check
Related: Facebook apologizes for mistaken Safety Check messages after Pakistan blast

The “Mediation” in Social Media

Personal psychological or social identity are things always already, quite literally, “mediated”. In the modern sense of the word “media” we tend to mean that which mediates, which binds or connects the individual to the world of information and shared cultural expression or identity, through which the world and our place in it is made tangible, intelligible. In the older meanings of the word, it can be traced back to meanings of tunic, middle layer or sheath – quite literally “that which is worn”.

While we should never perhaps place too much emphasis on the etymology (i.e. derivation) of a word to understand its contemporary uses, it is nevertheless often instructive to filter our modern semantics in precisely this way. In the context of a brief analysis of social media and its broader cultural impact, the notion that the things which bind us together in these remote and diverse digital communities, these “social media”, have evolved semantically in some sense from apparel and clothing – this can be revealing.

In some perhaps indistinct or ineffable sense we very much don the various clothes and garments of the cultural connections and bonds we build. Psychologically, we accumulate and aggregate fragments and motifs of the cultural forms and expression to which we each feel in some way drawn. We absorb these layers and through progressive sedimentation, accumulation and creative interdependence – we construct and define ourselves. This is how cultures and individual psychological subjectivities cross-fertilise and interact. The grander scales of historical and cultural change are energised by the creative individual choices and collective interactions of participatory self-definition as mediated through culture and technology.

Social media is neither good nor bad but as evidenced through that which is made from it, no less than any form of communication, be it interpersonal or macroscopic; and this – even globally-connected on a planetary scale. Social media is merely another channel or vector through which we aggregate and propagate self-identity from, and into, the world. The commercialisation and identity-farming of the large internet corporations is perhaps inevitable as a phenomenon arising from this globally interdependent and intricately interconnected digital social space.  I wonder what longer-term consequences will evolve from the economy of a psychological self, perpetually mediated and penetrated 24/7 across the broad social media spectrum as we are currently witnessing and experiencing it.