Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Five Upcoming Mental Health Crises 3/5

This week I’m going to post a series of five pieces about the connection between online life – and social media in particular – and poor mental health. In recent years the public perception of the damage social media is doing to our mental health, and to that of young people in particular, has become clear. My pieces explore some possible consequences of the way giant, unaccountable corporations are exploiting human foibles for their own gain. I’m far from being the only person to think that this sustained, relentless psychological attack is going to cause mental health crises in the not-too-distant future, but perhaps my thoughts on the issue come from a slightly different perspective.

One of the early effects of communications technology usage was the phenomenon of text-speak. This effect first came to prominence when text messaging on pre-smartphones became popular, but it was massively amplified by social media and the arrival of smartphones.

Most people with smartphones check them 200+ times a day. In the last couple of years this has been recognised as a major problem. But smartphones are deliberately designed and marketed by the international technology corporations to be addictive. Yet they are not just addictive – they are massively addictive. This intense psychological addiction has been designed into the system so that the technology companies can do whatever they like, unencumbered by such things as morals or ethics – previously moderated by religion – or by laws, moderated by governments. It’s literally insanity. As the clinical psychologist Nicholas Seto said: “We are currently experiencing the largest unregulated social experiment in the history of humanity.”

And we are. We are sleepwalking into a future where the pace of technological change outstrips our mental ability to adapt to it. This has never before happened. All previous changes – the Agricultural Revolution, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution – took place on time scales that human beings could psychologically deal with, even though, on the scale of a single lifetime, there was huge change. So, for example, although British industrialisation changed the working conditions of individuals in their own lifetimes, they were able to mentally cope with that, however much they loathed it. But this is not the case with change now. It is increasingly being said that the feature most noticeable about technological change today is its rate. That is why its prime quality is that of appearing to be out of control.

This relentless drive is fuelled by capitalist, male-dominated social values, originating mostly in 20th century America, though it was recently taken up by Pacific Rim nations, especially China, which has brazenly declared that it wishes to be the dominant force in AI research in the 21st century. But you only have to watch adverts for computer games which “bring the family together” to see the kind of illusion these corporations want to promote. There is no coming together. It’s all vacuous, illusory. What was obvious in the texting explosion is more obvious now.

Communication mediated by the internet is divorced from all the subtle, complex, emotional factors that we take for granted because we are so exceptional at social communication. The great majority of communication between individuals is gestural, takes place through facial expression, through body language, or is conveyed by tone of voice or other ‘musical’ qualities. All these factors are stripped away by social media and general internet use. Even in situations such as skyping, where facial expression and voice tone are added, there remains a considerable reduction in non-verbal communication.

What is the result of this stripping away of human communicative subtlety? The result is depression.

As Dorothy Rowe observed in her trailblazing books, the main metaphor of depression is isolation, however that might be experienced by the sufferer. “Isolation is the number one precursor for depression and suicide,” Wataru Nishida, psychologist at Tokyo’s Temple University, observed recently. Depression is a condition of so-called ‘developed’ nations – the West most obviously, but elsewhere too. No indigenous society knows depression. That is because all the human factors of life, most especially in social communication, are present in such societies. Added to that is a profound sense of belonging and of environment experienced by members of indigenous societies. But communication via social media or the internet militates against these two things. The sense of belonging is shattered by the profound sense of remoteness created by internet interaction. Even if ameliorated by special-interest groups brought together over long distances, the interaction has the same base: technological. It is not human interaction. As for a sense of environment, that never had a chance on the global frontier of the internet.

Deliberate addictive design has now migrated into the field of television. A recent tv phenomenon is the rise of multi-episode drama series, which we are encouraged by production companies and by friends and family to ‘binge-watch.’ These series (cosily named box-sets) have been designed in the same way computer games are designed, with what are known as compulsion loops. This a method of using psychological conditioning which optimises gratification – exactly as gambling does – by the use of positive reinforcement and intermittent rewards. Such dramas, utilising our love of stories and our basic psychological make up, are deliberately addicting watchers to television. (Soap operas use vaguely similar techniques, but are founded on emotional voyeurism.)

The conspicuous increase in reported levels of loneliness is related to isolation. The more we live life online, without our usual supports of non-verbal and emotional communication, the more lonely we feel. Loneliness is not cured by internet contact – that only deals with the symptom. The cause is dealt with by human interaction in all its full complexity, and that can only be done in the real world.

Japan is a textbook example. The Japanese phenomenon of hikikomori, a kind of acute social withdrawal, used to be limited to that country, but now it is spreading elsewhere, including to Europe and America. The victims are usually male, emotionally isolated, and more prone to suicide than any other age group. That is the most extreme form of what is now an extraordinary and profoundly dangerous lack of direct face-to-face socialising amongst the young, but there are other worrying symptoms. A survey of attitudes to sex amongst the Japanese found 20% of young men had little or no interest in having a sexual relationship. Lacking experience of real life, these young men are almost unable to express human emotions, except anger. They have forgotten reality: touch, warmth, empathy. And when such young people do find themselves isolated and depressed, they have few places to turn to – especially in Japan, where speaking about mental health is taboo.

Our planet looks as though it is doomed in many ways. As a species we may be too isolated and too depressed to do anything about its despoliation, and about the damage online life is causing to ourselves.

We will believe ourselves to be connected, but belief is not reality.

steve opinion2

Five Upcoming Mental Health Crises 2/5

This week I’m going to post a series of five pieces about the connection between online life – and social media in particular – and poor mental health. In recent years the public perception of the damage social media is doing to our mental health, and to that of young people in particular, has become clear. My pieces explore some possible consequences of the way giant, unaccountable corporations are exploiting human foibles for their own gain. I’m far from being the only person to think that this sustained, relentless psychological attack is going to cause mental health crises in the not-too-distant future, but perhaps my thoughts on the issue come from a slightly different perspective.

It’s commonly thought that AIs are value-less, or, at least, value-neutral. But this is not the case, as has been demonstrated recently by such commentators as Jamie Bartlett in a pair of television programmes, which were expanded into his book The People Vs Tech: How the internet is killing democracy. AIs do in fact have values, but they are old values, retrogressive values, because the technological systems which support them are inherently conservative.

After narcissism (yesterday’s topic), the greatest danger we face is idiocy.

Early computer scientists thought that they could design top-down AI systems, because they assumed that faculties such as intellectual ability and reason were susceptible to design. But it turned out that all the ‘simple,’ ‘easy’ and ‘obvious’ things which human beings do – like for instance reach out to choose a banana from a fruit bowl – are extremely complex. And so, more recently, a new method has been used, bottom-up AI design, which has latterly, with Orwellian bleakness, been named Big Data. This method uses heuristic design and so-called neural networks to facilitate deep learning. It is because such techniques are so powerful that the present AI revolution is happening.

However, all AIs so far created are expert systems, limited in function. There is no general intelligence AI – no AGI – yet. But despite the obvious implications for a thinking humanity, the tech corporations, unrestrained by legal or ethical control, and with no checks and balances whatsoever unless they happen to have a vaguely concerned CEO, are trying to develop AGIs. And even if they do have an aware CEO they are going ahead with AGI development regardless. This is the insanity of the unregulated West.

Future AIs will have values, but those values won’t be humane, caring or liberal. They will be conservative: capitalist, patriarchal, hierarchical, sequential, logical, analytical. The reason for this is that the individuals and systems creating AGIs have values themselves, values which tend to a greater (occasionally to a lesser) extent towards conservatism. Corporations are masculine places. Corporations are capitalist places. Corporations wish to expand regardless of the consequences for the environment or humanity. Corporations and the legal environment they exist in are inherently conservative. So are the AGIs they will create.

So, what social and psychological consequences might AGI’s have? With an expert medical AI, for instance, the benefits are obvious and have for a few years now been demonstrated. Diagnosis rates are better than those of experienced doctors – an incredible result. AIs can drive cars reasonably well, and in a few years will be driving cars very well. But an AGI is a different thing entirely. An AGI will act against thinking human beings by thinking for us.

We are already seeing the mental health implications of AGIs however in the way the internet and technology more generally is being used now. Implicit in the operation of so much present use is that thinking is done for us. Google searches bring up the results google wants you to see, or which its algorithms choose. Devices such as amazon echo or google home mini are advertised as helpers, but their function is to do the thinking for you: to remember, to choose, to prepare.

This use of technology, especially when AGIs appear, will have a profound effect on our minds. Human beings should be thinking for themselves – they must. We should be independent, autonomous, flexible, aware. We should not be relying on vast, anonymous, unrestricted, impersonal intelligences designed by bloated technology corporations. For that is what those corporations want. They want individuals to respond to artificially created desires; and only via their products. They want to do the thinking for you, because that will make you their servant, if not their slave. They want you to be an idiot.

Idiocy is our future if we don’t take care. In my as-yet-unpublished novel The Autist (which should be out in 2019 from Infinity Plus Books) I use some of the above ideas to paint a gloomy picture of humanity’s increasing dependency on callous, unregulated, automatic systems. It used to be the case that in dystopian SF our technological masters were imagined as robots, Terminator style. The truth is, those masters will be unregulated algorithms, designed to work their way into the human psyche using brutal psychological techniques. That is a dystopia already on the horizon. We could, in theory, stop it. My guess is we won’t.


steve opinion2

Five Upcoming Mental Health Crises 1/5

This week I’m going to post a series of five pieces about the connection between online life – and social media in particular – and poor mental health. In recent years the public perception of the damage social media is doing to our mental health, and to that of young people in particular, has become clear. My pieces explore some possible consequences of the way giant, unaccountable corporations are exploiting human foibles for their own gain. I’m far from being the only person to think that this sustained, relentless psychological attack is going to cause mental health crises in the not-too-distant future, but perhaps my thoughts on the issue come from a slightly different perspective.

It is obvious to most that the world in 2018 is politically polarised. This social change became even clearer following the election of Donald Trump, but it had been happening for at least a decade before that. It was not only present in the West; many Eastern countries, some far more technologically connected than Britain or America, also exhibited this polarisation. A few commentators have observed that the rise of the internet and social media in particular might be responsible for political polarisation, but it is only in recent years that a definite link has been made between social media and poor mental health. Such warnings have become numerous in the last couple of years. And yet, almost no research has been done in this area.

The mental health issues surrounding polarisation are a consequence of what some have called the internalisation of social media norms. Interaction on social media differs from face-to-face interaction in one crucial way. We communicate with family, friends, and even opponents face-to-face, as human individuals, but on the internet such interaction is far more immediate, swifter, and offers no opportunity for reflection and therefore for the use of reason. The consequence of this dynamic is known to all who use Facebook, where too many discussions degenerate into arguments, which lead to entrenched positions.

It is this psychological dynamic which has fuelled recent changes in human interaction. Over the last decade or so young people, active online from an incredibly early age, have become vulnerable to the psychological abuse meted out by tech corporations. Recent American research by Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University and Professor Keith Campbell of the University of Georgia explained: “… the damage might start in users as young as two… After just one hour of screen time, children and adolescents may have less curiosity, lower self-control and lower emotional stability, which can lead to an increased risk of anxiety and depression.” They point out that half of mental health problems develop by adolescence. So it is the young who are particularly at risk, and that is not just because they are vulnerable through the inexperience of youth. It is because until the age of twenty five the human brain is still growing, changing, its multitude of connections expanding.

In other words: social media and internet interaction in general is altering the wiring of the human brain, which, in turn, is changing us as a species.

This is the main danger then. International tech corporations, fostering online life and using brutal psychological techniques to grab our attention (the currency of social media), are preparing the way for a future of strife between extremes. Internalising the habits of online interaction makes us irrational, impulsive, and acts with shocking precision against the reason we usually follow in normal human communication, i.e face-to-face.

Two other cyber effects worsen this situation. One is the anonymity effect, where internet users falsely imagine themselves to be anonymous actors. But digital traces are almost impossible to erase, and the internet is by no means a safe place. Second is the disinhibition effect, which is a consequence of the particulars of the internet, including the perceived lack of authority and the sense of distance, or remoteness which it cultivates.

We need however to focus not only on the symptoms of the internet problem, we need to deal with their cause. We need to deal with their cause above all else. Clarion calls to fight against fascism are all very well, but the recent rise of the extreme right comes from a different underlying source than that of the early twentieth century. Comparisons between the far right in 2018 and the far right of the 1930s serve only to obscure the new cause of fascism’s recent rise and political success.

Polarisation also leads to a learned loss of empathy. Consciousness itself – the quality that allowed us to spread across the world, make beautiful art and see with extraordinary telescopes to the limits of the universe – is rooted in empathy. Consciousness relies for its effect on the fact that we use ourselves as exemplars when understanding the behaviour of others, whom we experience empathetically. If we lose empathy, we lose a fundamental part of ourselves; if not the most fundamental part.

Another way of looking at this is to say that social media style interactions increase narcissism. I use narcissism here in the sense I’ve used elsewhere – “human narcissism is the experience of consciousness by the inauthentic, undeveloped self, one not complete, one with a less than whole understanding of itself. Narcissism is therefore an inevitable and unavoidable precursor to psychological development.” Because narcissism acts through self-deception, the slow sophistication of ourselves via the viewpoints of all the people we meet throughout our lives does not happen via internet interaction. There is no time during such interactions for reason, for the viewpoints of others to manifest themselves. Commonly this is described as ‘internet bubbles’ or ‘echo chambers,’ but the effect is far more profound than merely pushing people away from one another. Narcissism is tough. Narcissism acts with brutal strength to protect itself. Human beings only overcome it because we are a profoundly social species. Social media therefore, with ultimate irony, is in fact the exact opposite. It is anti-social media. Slowly, it is fracturing and infantilising humanity. I say this because it seems to me that narcissism can act with far greater reach and depth through the internet. The internet may be the invention which kills us as a social, cultural entity.

Is that too pessimistic? I don’t think so; not in the long run, anyway. That empathetic part of us could be learned again, if ever it was lost, given lots of time. But facing an ecological catastrophe and polarised into two halves, perhaps such lessons would never be learned.


steve opinion2

The Autist news

I’m delighted to say my new AI novel The Autist has formally been accepted for publication by Infinity Plus Books. At a guess, it should be out some time in the first half of next year.

Tomorrow I’ll begin a series of five pieces looking at the relationship between internet use and mental health. A couple of further pieces will follow the week after.


Infinity Plus Books

Tales From The Spired Inn

To my great surprise, and delight, this half term I’ll be writing a couple of new short stories from the same world as my debut Memory Seed. The editor of a well regarded UK independent press asked me to write them for a slim collection (30,000 words) to be published next year; and although I did blog a couple of years ago about returning to the city of Kray, I never thought I’d properly do it.

It’s been a peculiar experience. I even had to read a few chapters of the novel to remind myself what it was like…

Some years after the publication of Memory Seed I did write and have published in magazines and in an anthology three ‘Tales From The Spired Inn.’ Those will be part of next year’s work, along with a specially written introduction. So… it’s back to rain and abundant greenery.

Memory Seed ebook cover

Memory Seed

The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong

I first came across Karen Armstrong when I read her inspirational A Short History Of Myth. Well known as an author of books on religion (she herself was a Christian, albeit with controversial views), she has addressed most of the main religions in a series of influential works.

In The Great Transformation she looks at the change from polytheistic, often nature-inspired religions in regions such as Mesopotamia, the Middle East and China to religions that we might recognise today: the Abrahamic religions, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism etc. She also looks at how Greece changed during this period (which for her runs from about 1600BC to around 300BC). Other scholars have named this the Axial Age, a convention she adopts.

The book is essentially a history of four regions – Greece, China, the Levant and India. Armstrong goes into a lot of detail here, naming historical figures and developing their lives in times of violence, change and social distress. It is these conditions, she contends, that made certain individuals think about the nature of life: suffering, collectivity and individualism, redemption. She focuses on Buddha, Confucius, Jeremiah and Socrates in this work, but also investigates Lao Tzu, Plato and Aristotle, and various other kings and misfits along the way.

I would have liked a little less history and a little more analysis. The fabulous and inspirational final chapter, for all its brilliance, seems tacked onto the end of dry history. I would have preferred much more of this and fewer ancient tales. But the book is still excellent, and well worth reading for those interested in the human condition. Of course, Armstrong, a believer, is essentially relating the history of imaginary stories told by people to themselves and one another, but it is vitally important that all atheists and humanists uncover the reasons for such stories. Therefore her work has merit.

In a way, this book is a history of the change from one method of explaining things people didn’t understand to another. In an ironic conclusion, she observes that after the sixteenth century our leaders changed from those mentioned above to Einstein, Freud and Newton. I do agree with her criticisms of the global change from mythos to logos (one of the subjects of my as yet unpublished Woodland Revolution), but Armstrong lacks the insight to take another step back from mere faith into understanding. Though she grasps the importance of understanding suffering and pain, she believes the experience of the transcendent is a real experience, not an imaginary one. In this regard, her book fails. Yet it is a success too. Humanity can always learn from reality, if it wants to. We could make the effort to learn from where we have gone wrong. One of the sad lessons of this book is that such education takes a lot of effort, and most people, religious or atheist, can’t be bothered with that.

axial k a

Donald Trump & the Media

There have been a lot of news reports and commentaries in that last couple of days referencing Donald Trump blaming the media for all his and America’s woes. Quite a few explanations have been offered, many of which have been wide of the mark.

As described in posts elsewhere on my blog (I, II, III), Trump’s obsession with what he believes is the media misreporting him, spreading “fake news” and harassing him derives from his intense, malignant narcissism. Like all such people, Trump feels the strongest possible urge to reach out and turn the real world into the best copy of his imaginary one. And this is the strategy behind the deeds of all tyrants, dictators and monomaniacs: Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Thatcher, Mao et al. They are not interested in the world we live in because it is independent, running according to its own laws. What they wish to experience out there in reality is a copy of their imaginary world.

It should therefore be no surprise that the media – who, however imperfectly, represent the truth of the real world – is his number one enemy. It is the media countering his imaginary world. The oppose it by describing the real world, using facts.

It is reality that narcissists such as Trump have no connection with, and indeed no real interest in, except in that they experience it then reach out to replace it with their own imaginary versions. For all dangerous narcissists such as Trump the real world therefore is a perpetual prime enemy. Associates describe Trump’s never-ending rages – a classic diagnostic symptom of intense narcissism. This rage comes from the inevitable abyss between the real world, which can only be controlled or changed to a limited extent, and Trump’s imagination. The real world will never lie down and do what Trump wants. It is forever independent. Luckily for us, the media represent and articulate that independence, through facts, reality, and the truth.

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Revolution In The Head by Ian Macdonald

This book is revered by many and often described as the best book on the Beatles’ music. Having read it and enjoyed it, I do think that is rather an exaggeration, for all its comprehensive excellence.

The book opens with short essays on the ‘sixties, most of which are interesting, before heading off into a song-by-song analysis of what the Beatles created in their extraordinary eight year restructuring of pop music. Make no mistake – this is the greatest band of all time. But this is not the greatest book on their music.

While Ian Macdonald is no slouch when it comes to scholarly research – all the great stories are here, along with a slew of less well known insights – he repeats many of the standard Beatles clichés: Lennon was the really brilliant one because he was ‘dark’; McCartney was the ‘lighter,’ sentimental one who couldn’t write lyrics; Harrison was saturnine and judgemental; Starr helped. To be fair, in places he redeems himself: Starr helped create rock drumming; Harrison wrote some good stuff later on; McCartney’s gift for melody is evident; Lennon was a bit of a bastard. But no amount of back-pedalling should allow this author to get away with his claim that everything McCartney wrote after 1970 was trite rubbish. That’s just stupid. As with Mozart, people like McCartney come along every few hundred years.

I think this book is best when considering the formative years and the jagged, disintegrating later years. Its author never got a handle on what a seismic shift the period 1965 – 1967 was, at least not in the way other cultural commentators have. He recognises the essential contributions of George Martin and Geoff Emerick, for instance, but, as many others have, considers that extraordinary period far too much in the light of LSD.

This is definitely a book for Beatles fans, and I’m glad I bought and read it, but I think it is revered too much. In many respects it is a coffee-table book, to be picked up after listening to the music. It’s a book to be enjoyed, not idolised.


Bedlam by Catharine Arnold

This is very good general history of the Bethlehem Mental Hospital, telling the tale of the place itself alongside a more general history of how Britain has treated mental illness.

The book covers centuries of history, is well researched and referenced, and reads well. Recommended, though rather horrible in places.

Bedlam Catherine Arnold

Proust And The Squid by Maryanne Wolf

This book is an overview of how the brain works when reading, but its author – a neuroscientist and expert in linguistics – also takes in child development and dyslexia.
The book is split into three sections, with the best and most interesting first; a history of the development of reading in ancient societies. The next section is also interesting, but (like some other reviewers) I found it a little too technical, and lacking the range and verve of the first section. The same comment applies to the third section, though more so.
This is a good book, but I did struggle in places. Though it presents itself as a work for the general reader, I think its structure and content sometimes acts against it. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, but I did find it rather tiresome in places. That first section though really is fantastic.