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Science fiction, nostalgia and dystopia

February 23, 2015 Leave a comment

This post is prompted by a question that was posed in a Linkin group I follow. The question was basically about the way ‘robots’ have developed in the last half-century or so and whether it’s been a good thing. The term ‘robots’ was meant in a pretty generic way to include all kinds of cybernetics, but the question was largely directed at industrial production and its effects on employment.

Now this was of interest to me for a couple of reasons. One was to do with SF magazines in the 1960s when I was growing up, along with films such as 2001: A Space Odyssy and the ultimately-flawed HAL computer that pretty much ran the spaceship. the other was a series of seminar discussions and informal stuff when I was taking my degree, which revolved around the idea ‘what are we all going to do when robots do all the work?’ Even though cybernetics was in its infancy at that point, it as pretty clear it was going to become a huge part of life.

You’ll have to forgive me for not remembering all the names and all the stuff we read, though it included people like Buckminster Fuller, Alvin Toffler, Ivan Illich, and a small blue book with white writing and a diagram on the cover, the title of which I can’t now remember and I can’t spot the book on my shelves.

Among the predictions were that:

1. Robots would mean the same goods could be produced by massively fewer people, so we’d all be on five-hour weeks (or something like that) for the same real wages we were on before the robots were used (that wasn’t an option I mentioned in my Linkedin reply and I don’t think many people thought that was a realistic scenario)

2. We would necessarily live in a socialist society because cybernetics would mean unemployment for 90% of more of people. Unemployed people would nonetheless receive state benefits as a reward for acquiescing to this mode of production, and nonetheless live productive lives through following creative pursuits largely for their own and others’ pleasure. Alternatively, given the way the demographics were going, the majority of human jobs would be in  care for the elderly.

3. There would be a two-tier society where a proportion of the population would cease to live in a robot-centric money economy. Instead we’d learn skills in informal Ivan Illich style free universities (he founded such an institution, CIDOC, in 1961 though it subsequently turned out to be quite a complex little place, as the Wikipedia article in the link makes clear). Or there would be free forms of education provided through labour unions (if anyone remembers what they were) or the workers’ education movement, or places like seminars run in pubs (which have happened at times) plus the Cafe Culturel and Cafe Scientifique setups (these tend to be regionally organised: examples include the UK North-east CC and the American CS main website). Some people might also use redundant, hand-me-down or military surplus equipment repurposed for their own needs to make specialist stuff to distribute in a barter-style economy. That just made me think of the kind of performance art created by people like Survival Research Laboratories, but a more mundane example would be the way some vintage car clubs have bought the original production machinery from the car factories when they were closed, so they can continue to produce original components for vintage cars. And I’ll just mention we’ve recently had a gear linkage component for our ageing campervan replaced by a semi-retired guy who works out of a small workshop and specialises in manufacturing gear linkage components for campervans – the kind of thing that’s a niche market no big business would want to touch, but literally keeps the wheels moving.

4. We’d all move to a Chinese-style economy circa 1980, in which large numbers of people would be allocated to work groups from which they’d draw a salary even though their job was a sinecure. There’s another book somewhere on my shelves about this but I can’t find it; it was written by a Western manager sent to China in the 1980s to run a Western/Chinese joint enterprise making cast-iron goods. Suggestions for what it might have been called are welcome and as another clus, my copy had a brownish cover.  The Chinese economy as a whole has, if I understand it correctly, moved away from this kind of model since that time.

5. There would be a new type of feudalism in which most of us would use robot-made goods while the rich would have the rest of us on retainers or as servants, producing handmade and bespoke craft goods and carrying out roles that robots could not fulfil or that some people preferred to have done by a person.

6. The rise of robots would reach some sort of plateau because we would discover a point at which it would be uneconomic or unfeasible to use robots for a range of tasks, and where for some purposes people actually prefer to be served by other humans.

Coupled with neoliberalism since the 1980s, and the increasing number of people living on low wages and supplemented by benefits of various types (in the UK, for example, tax credits) we seem to be moving towards a society that has characteristics of models 2 and 6 above – at the cost of producing, by this point, at least two and possibly three generations of people who are ‘surplus to labour requirements’ and for whom there isn’t an alternative workable social model that looks remotely like the other models I mentioned.

The discussions I had in the 1970s didn’t really take a global view because at that point the globalisation processes of the 1970s were only just beginning (though I guess we’d seen them before, during the era of colonial and empire trading in the 1800s!). So at that point we didn’t take account of the fact that robots could manufacture but not assemble electronic items (as in mobile phone components) and the assembly work would be done by an army of cheap labour in China. Nor did we take account of the argument that using robots would be economically viable with some goods but not others, which would be too cheap to warrant anything other than low-paid human labour (or high-priced enough to command handcrafted work such as setting diamonds in watch faces). But the idea that you’d have a dual economy in one country or city was part of the discussion, because again, we could all see even then that it was staring to happen with sweatshops using imported labour in the UK and so on.

I don’t have a real conclusion to this post, other than to say that the more I’ve seen Blade Runner the more it looks like it describes the way we’re headed: many people unemployed or on low pay or in casual work, all of the kind that it’s not economic to automate for one of two reasons – people are cheaper, or the goods and services are sold at a premium as handcrafted or individualised things. The more I look at our current economic ills the more it looks to me like the juggernaut of international capitalism is running on flat tyres and with a missing cylinder, and though it will go on in some form it may actually become less relevant to the way we lead our lives. And it doesn’t surprise me that the government has a lot of issues with legalising cannabis because (remembering I’m a criminologist and study these things) I’m aware of small subcultures in the UK and where for the last 20 or so years the basic unit of currency hasn’t been the pound but the teenth, ten-wrap, or ounce. I once met a career criminal who sold stuff he’d stolen in exchange for cannabis, in quantities that meant he either resold it for cash or traded it for many of the things he needed on a more everyday basis. That’s the more dystopian take on the multi-tier society I guess. But as to robots – in many respects we had opportunities to use them positively and in many respects we have used them positively; but we’ve done it in the context of an almost 19th-century attitude to industry and economics, a fixation on consumer society and without any long-term planning for their multiple social impacts. Which, I guess, is something we could have predicted back in the seventies. But we were a little more optimistic back then.

Novel-writing and thought-forms

January 7, 2015 2 comments

Happy Christmas, New Year, etc. etc. Yes, I know I haven’t posted for a couple of months and it’s well past that time now but I’ve been distracted by writing criminology teaching materials (and entertaining friends and celebrating the holidays myself and so on – real life sometimes takes me away from blogging).

In between times I’ve also been playing with a story that involves thought-forms. Wikipedia tells me these have been part of Tibetan Buddhist belief for a very long time, where they’re called ‘tulpa’, but came to the attention of Western mystics, occultists and so on in the 1920s. There is however an interesting book (well, I thought it was interesting) from the Theosophical Society: Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater, Thought-forms, published in 1901 by The Theosophical Publishing House Ltd. in London. If you’re sufficiently motivated to read it, it’s available via the Gutenberg Project or indeed as a free PDF from the Theosophical Society itself, which appears to continue to be quite active.

I won’t bore you with a detailed explanation of what thought-forms ‘are’, because any number of sources will give to imaginative and conflicting descriptions and explanations. I should also point out that I read an awful lot of stuff without actually believing it, and have a healthy scepticism about mystical topics. That said, thought-forms struck me as a useful plot device and I may or may not find a reasonable way to finish off the story. However, along the way, I was somewhat amused by the following description in Besant and Leadbeater, in the section of the book on ‘Three Class of Thought-forms’, of how novelists create and are affected by thought forms:

‘The novelist in the same way [i.e. the same way as painters or other artists] builds images of his character in mental matter, and by the exercise of his will moves these puppets from one position or grouping to another, so that the plot of his story is literally acted out before him. With our curiously inverted conceptions of reality it is hard for us to understand that these mental images actually exist, and are so entirely objective that they may readily be seen by the clairvoyant, and can even be rearranged by some one other than their creator. Some novelists have been dimly aware of such a process, and have testified that their characters when once created developed a will of their own, and insisted on carrying the plot of the story along lines quite different from those originally intended by the author. This has actually happened, sometimes because the thought-forms were ensouled by playful nature-spirits, or more often because some ‘dead’ novelist, watching on the astral plane the development of the plan of his fellow-author, thought that he could improve upon it, and chose this method of putting forward his suggestions.
Well, yes, I think most people who write stories do find their characters can be almost like ‘imaginary friends’ who have some sort of independent life, at least in the writer’s head. But should I be amused at the recursive nature of my story, thought-forms discussing thought-forms, or be more concerned that I could be subconsiously channelling some dead novelist?

Chainsaw conversation

November 18, 2014 3 comments

I was talking to someone today (while I was out walking the dog) who’d been using a chainsaw. He’d started off a week or so ago just taking a couple of branches off a tree, and then more and more of the tree disappeared day by day.

‘The thing is,’ he said ‘using a chainsaw is addictive. Once you make a start on sawing something, you get enthusiastic and then just get carried away with it. Once you’ve finished, you’re looking for something else that needs a chainsaw taking to it. Then, after a while, you’re wondering where the hell you can bury the bodies.’

I’ll bear that in mind…

 

 

Memorialising places

September 27, 2014 Leave a comment

It’s just an odd thought I had a while back, looking at the street names of places near my home – but it was also reinforced by watching part of a TV programme on the Welsh mediaeval story collection, the Mabinogion (for the next few days it’s on the BBC iPlayer system if you want to watch it and the content works in your country).

Some of the stories were ‘onomastic’ or ‘toponomastic’, meaning that they explained place names and geographic features. They provided a (perhaps fanciful) explanation for natural features the audience could go and see. This had an advantage for the storyteller that the story could be embedded into locations the audience probably already knew, while the audience having heard the story would always associate it with that place.

However, near where I live there are several estates of new houses. So you have, for example, Monarchs Close. The name is onomastic to an extent, not because of what’s there now but because (I’m told) it memorialises an event many people have forgotten – it apparently was a field in which monarch butterflies were found, and that’s significant because they’re native to North America and only ever appear in the UK as accidental migrants in years where they’re carried across the Atlantic by weather systems (1995, for example). However, since the place is now a housing estate the name simply memorialises the fact that the butterflies are unlikely to ever be seen there again.

So when you walk city streets (or indeed any built environment) it’s worth noting names because they might tell a history that would otherwise be hidden by the current built environment, and which may not be quite what you’d expect. But given the often random choices of housing estate developers – for example naming new streets after members of their family, famous cricket grounds, or whatever, it also seems we’re in the process of covering up and confusing any relationship we may have with the landscape and our own histories.

And the same is true of buildings like stadia, often now named for some corporate sponsor and changed every few years. These names are projections of (brand or corporate) identities that have no intrinsic association with the place beyond the money nexus, but in their own way they’re usually just another layer on a history of power and control, including the control over names, that might go back decades or centuries. And yet… in the future, they might become the seeds of new onomastic stories.

By the way – if you’re interested in names and into horror, there’s a flash fiction piece on creepypasta.com, ‘The Name of One‘, you might find amusing. I don’t know why I came across this yesterday, but it’s perhaps a little bit of synchronicity going on.

X-Factor – a short story

September 21, 2014 Leave a comment

I’m supposed to be writing about sociological studies of the police. In fact I am writing about this. However in odd moments of downtime I’ve been playing with a story I wrote a couple of months ago. It’s not exactly horror, not exactly science fiction, and neither is it really fantasy or urban or any other easy-to-pigeonhole genre. If anything it’s a gentle meditation on a very limited aspect of unknowns, conspiracy theories, life, the universe and everything, and I don’t really see a commercial market for it. But I’m still vain enough to think you might enjoy reading it.

Rather that just include it in the post (it’s about 4,600 words) I’ve messed around with it, included a couple of images, experimented with prettying it up and saved it as a PDF. Partly, I confess, as an experiment in making PDFs available this way. There’s a download link at the end of this post.

The ‘X-factor’ tag comes from the Global Risks Report 2013  from the World Economic Forum (the ‘world leaders’ meeting that happens in Davos each year). The report outlines what it sees as the major global risks – chronic fiscal imbalances, systemic financial failure, increasing global income disparities, water supply, food shortages, greenhouse gases and other ‘usual suspects’. However it also discusses what it calls ‘X-factors’ – ‘emerging concerns of possible future importance and with unknown consequences’, ‘serious issues, grounded in the latest scientific findings, but somewhat remote from what are generally seen as more immediate concerns such as failed states, extreme weather events, famine, macroeconomic instability or armed conflict’.

Here’s the opening of the story:

In crime novels, there’s often a point where the detective turns up at a murder scene and one of the uniforms says ‘A dog-walker found the body.’

That’s because it happens. Twenty-three per cent of dead bodies left in public spaces are found by dog-walkers. Not that I found that out until later.

My watch said 01:41. I’d left Miss Grosgrain at quarter to one, gone home, had a glass of wine, gone out with Daisy. I work unsocial hours. I often walk Daisy late at night.

The street lights around here have been switched to part-night operation as an economy measure. There are signs saying so on every lamp post. They turn off just before one. We’re used to walking in the dark.

On Botts Way there’s a grassed area, the kind of open space that developers put on their estates to add ‘amenity’ to the houses. Parents never let their kids play there.

In the middle of the grassed area there’s a body, face up in the dim starlight. A young guy, late teens or early twenties. Jeans, T-shirt. Much blood. Stabbed, I guess. Eyes open, brown. There’s a thin fuzz of hair on his chin. Close-cropped hair with a widow’s peak. Full lips, nose just a little too wide for the face. A small mole on the right hand side of his face, near his nostril.

I have my mobile phone. I take pics, just in case of… something. I don’t know what, exactly. I lean over the guy, make sure he’s not still breathing. I call the police. And wait.

If you want to read the whole thing, the image below is a link to the PDF of the X-factor story (should open in a new window):

 

Link to 'X-factor' story

Link to ‘X-factor’ story

 

And just for fun (sort of) here’s a snap of some notes I made literally on the back of an envelope while writing the thing:

 

Back-of-envelope notes

Back-of-envelope notes

So now it’s back to writing about studies of policing…

 

 

 

 

‘Critical’ academic work

September 11, 2014 2 comments

One of the things I seem to have been asked a lot recently is: when academics use the word ‘critical’, what do they mean?

There are certain uses of the term that have very specific meanings, such as ‘critical theory‘ (a term in the social sciences that is most closely associated with the ‘Frankfurt School‘ of the 1930s and later – Marcuse, Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin and others).

However in more general terms, students are likely to be expected, in module or course learning objectives, to be able to develop a ‘critical understanding’ of a topic, ‘critically assess’ or ‘critically evaluate’ an argument or a situation, and so on. Then they are expected to be able to demonstrate their ‘critical understanding’ in assessments.

My usual first response is to draw an analogy. Let’s say you hire a tradesperson to do a job – a plumber, electrician, carpenter or whoever. You expect this person to be able to assess the nature of the job, including any problems it might pose. You also expect them to understand the materials they are working with and their fitness for purpose, the tools they have available and whether they are sufficient for the job, the health and safety issues involved, and so on. If they look at the job and say a particular cable needs to be able to take 60 amps rather than 30, or  can’t be routed through a space that exposes it to damp, or a section of roof needs reinforcement, or the saw they have isn’t good enough to cut through metal, or whatever, they’re making a critical assessment.

And so it is with academic work. If a theory requires data that isn’t available, or the available data doesn’t support it, or the analytical tools (for example forms of analysis that are available) can’t drill far enough into the available data to enable its interpretation, or (more commonly in the social sciences) the theory relies on untested assumptions that may have some political subtext or agenda, then a ‘critical understanding’ of the theory is one that acknowledges these shortcomings and a ‘critical assessment’ is that the theory is limited by such factors.

So, for example:

  •  a critical understanding/assessment of a theory means you understand what it can explain and what it can’t. For example in the social sciences, labelling theory can explain how the process of ‘becoming’ an offender works, but not why someone commits the acts that leads to that labelling process happening. It also can’t explain why particular acts are considered deviant or criminal; for this, you need another type of theory about how and why particular social attitudes exist or laws are made. So labelling theory is part of an explanation for crime, but not the whole explanation. The situation recurs continually in the social sciences, where most theories explain only one element or part of a situation and not the whole of it, or explain it in ways that rely on values and assumptions that are themselves disputed.
  •  a critical understanding/assessment of, say, a set of statistics means understanding what they tell you, what they don’t, and how reliable they are. For example ‘crimes recorded by the police’ are exactly what they say they are. They don’t include crimes that have been reported but not recorded, perhaps because the police don’t think the ‘crime’ happened or don’t think it was important. In addition they are subject to ‘counting rules’. If someone, for example, goes to a block of flats and burgles two flats one immediately after the other, is that one burglary (a single episode, because it was all one connected act) or two (because there were two premises broke into)? If a drunk person on a street assaults three people, is that one assault or three? These rules have changed over the years and this affects how we can interpret the figures. In general politicians now see police-recorded crime as unreliable, which is why they now rely more heavily on the Crime Survey of England and Wales (the new name for the British Crime Survey).
  • a critical understanding/assessment of an argument, perhaps about criminal justice policy, means understanding the strengths and weakness of both sides of the argument, deciding which side is right (or maybe that neither of them are because they both rely on questionable moral or political views) and being able to explain your decision.

I also, incidentally, tend to point out to students that demonstrating a ‘critical assessment’ or ‘critical understanding’ in a piece of academic assessment usually means investigating an issue to a point where is possible to write something rather more detailed than a Wikipedia entry (despite the Wikipedia links above!). Wikipedia is intended as an overview of the issue for someone who wants a fast briefing on a topic, and doesn’t usually give an in-detail discussion of the relevant arguments. Being able to demonstrate a critical assessment or understanding tends to mean being able to cite and discuss the important publications, arguments, datasets and so on in the field.

Another point I try to make is that this kind of critical thinking tends to mean developing and working through a series of related questions.  For example, a historical question about origins of the ‘Captain Swing‘ riots in the 1830s in England might point to a short answer – working conditions and wages in the countryside had declined over a period of several decades, and the introduction of threshing machines accelerated that by reducing opportunities for casual work over what is traditionally the busiest and best-paid time of the agricultural year, harvesting.

This raises additional questions, though, the answers to which provide evidence that suggests this general answer isn’t the whole story:

  • What’s the evidence for the reduction in earnings? Can we quantify this in terms of earning power, such as how much a loaf of bread cost as a percentage of a worker’s wage (there was the ‘Spleenhamland System’ and some other ‘bread scales’ which tried to do this for the purpose such as setting rates of Poor Law relief; the system essentially failed in its overall aims but that’s another story).
  • Alternatively, was there evidence of poor harvests which would have increased the price of staple products, or of inflation, and thus added to rural hardship? [see note 1 below]
  • Given that the use of threshing machines reduced the demand for farm labour, can we put any numbers on this? [see note 2 below]
  • Agricultural workers had many non-monetary practical resources and traditional rights that added significantly to their living conditions. Had conditions other than paid work deteriorated? [see note 3 below]
  • If conditions had deteriorated, was it easy to find alternative sources of income by, for example, moving to the growing cities?

If the example interests you, areas you might have wanted to explore include:

[1] The early 1800s was indeed a period of high inflation, graphically indicated by a Bank of England resource (note this is a summary illustration meant more for schools!). But ironically there had been slight deflation in the 2-3 years immediately prior to the riots, as shown on another web resource at safalra.com.

[2] There had been an influx of workers in the countryside – but that was over a decade before, after 1815 and the end of the Napoleonic Wars as soldiers were demobilised and returned home. So it wasn’t an immediate cause of the rioting. Insofar as we can put any numbers on the reduction in demand for labour, it’s based on small-scale and illustrative situations in individual communities rather than any comprehensive national statistics (as far as I know, but no doubt someone will correct me!).

[3] Conditions had been deteriorating for some time as a result of the Enclosure Act 1773, which had enabled the progressive taking over of ‘common land’ and ‘waste land’ by landowners. This shut people off from traditional sources of free grazing if they had any of their own animals, the ability to gather wood for fires, etc.; and it meant many people were required to pay rent for land they had previously accessed for free. There’s no evidence of a particular ‘tipping point’ having been reached in the 1830s, though, and enclosure accelerated with a series of new acts between 1845 and 1882 – so after the riots.

In short, the fact of the Swing riots is itself evidence that some kind of tipping point had been reached, but it may have been more symbolic (that is, the threshing machines themselves were symbols of economic threat) than directly linked to economic conditions in any particular year.

If you’re really, really interested in the Swing riots there’s a recently reissued book: Captain Swing, by Eric Hobsbawm and George Rudé, which originally came out in 1969 but appears to have been republished this year by Verso.

But whether you’re interested in the example or not, I hope it illustrates the ‘critical thinking’ process of working from simple to complex ‘critical assessments’ of a situation by asking a chain of questions about what evidence can be marshalled for different potential scenarios.

 

Poetry, or something like it

August 31, 2014 Leave a comment

Poetry isn’t my thing, really. Flash fiction, stories and so on, yes. Poetry no. If you don’t like it as poetry just think of these two things as flash fic. Or blame Stevie Smith for inspiring the first one, if you remember her ‘Not Waving But Drowning‘. Though mine isn’t as good. Oh, and yes, they’re about real people. But you don’t know them.

 

1. Waving/drowning

He’s waving but drowning
Sinking in crashing and speedy surf.
He wants to be saved.

From the sea? From himself?
He waves like he’s giving the finger.

I swim against hard swell.
He fights as if his life depends on it.
As if it’s all he’s ever known.

On the beach exhausted, wet and cold
I watch him cough water, spit blood,
Recover strength.

Soon he’ll stand and walk
to the end of the jetty
Jump in again. And wave.

If this is a test, I’ve failed.
If he’s testing himself, it’s to destruction.
If I try to save him again
Both of us will drown.

 

2. Hydrocortisone

We all die sometime
But medication speeds the process.

She needs enough to cope with the stress
But enough is too much for her body.

The medicine helps her stay together
When tragedy unfolds around her.

And yet it makes her fall apart.
Her skin grows fragile, and bleeds.

What will happen when it’s as weak
As a dried-out leaf in autumn?

 

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