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Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

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cybergone Friday 14th

The People Vs Tech by Jamie Bartlett

In this excellent book Jamie Bartlett looks at the corrosive and malign effects of the internet on political democracy, and how online life affects the way people interact with government and authority generally. I bought the book having seen the author’s two part documentary on democracy and the online world, which made quite a few jaw-dropping assessments in its tale of political chicanery and corporate manipulation – not just Cambridge Analytica, not just Google, but much more. This book expands on what was conveyed in the tv programmes.

The book takes six crucial facets of democracy – including such things as independence of the political process, an informed electorate, civil society, a burgeoning middle class – and deals with the effects of social media and the internet generally upon them. There is little good news. Mostly the effects are malign and dangerous, causing democracy to buckle beneath the stress. In all cases the arguments are clear and well put; Jamie Bartlett is not only a good tv presenter, he can write very well. The whole book is concise, well argued and clear. And this is a worried author. After a fascinating chapter on crypto-anarchy, he states twenty things which could aid the great bargain made between people living in a democratic state and the state itself. Yet most of these statements seemed to me unlikely to come about. This book is in some ways a portent of danger, or perhaps even of dystopia. We are creating tools which will make us slaves, and because that is happening in an unregulated corporate environment nothing can be done to stop such tools appearing.

A highly recommended read.

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To blame

For me, the most jaw-dropping news story of this week was the EVAW survey which showed how many people believe forced sex within marriage or a long-term relationship doesn’t count as rape. It amazes me that this myth still exists – and yet, I shouldn’t be surprised, because we still live in a world dominated by male ideas.

In 2003 I was a juror on a case of multiple rape. The experience was gruelling, and when I made my departure from the court building at the end of the trial I was in floods of tears. Later, as the experience sank in, I realised that I’d had a valuable experience, albeit one gained at quite a cost.

My feeling now is this. Because we still live in a world of male ideas, the physical side of rape is considered far more important and relevant than the emotional side. This is why discussions focus on the violence, the force, and all the other physical factors. Legalistic conversations are held about the various situations rape can happen in, and how they relate to the law.

Most people assume that rape is an act perpetrated by strangers. It is not. A woman is much more likely to be raped by a family member or by her partner than by a stranger, yet people persistently believe the opposite; and if a woman is raped by somebody known to her, it is often after a period of manipulation and coercion. Such coercion is itself a full assault, but how many men grasp that? Even if they are decent, nonviolent men?

Meanwhile, this year in Spain, five men who raped a teenager during the Pamplona bull festival were found guilty of the lesser offence of sexual abuse. The attack prompted a national outcry, as did the trial, which was widely criticised as a cross-examination of the teenager rather than of the men who attacked her. In other words, once again, the men got away with it because a distinction is made between physical violence and emotional violence, with the latter viewed as far less important.

But this is a specifically male idea, and one that is incredibly damaging. Men focus on the physical side of rape because emotionally they are boys, with little if any understanding of the psychological effects of rape. They see rape in terms of the events of the deed. They don’t grasp the emotional consequences and they struggle to empathise with the victim. Instead, following 5,000 years of form, they blame women, then indulge in all kinds of ludicrous reality-twisting in order to find excuses for their deeds.

Rape is a crime perpetrated by a rapist. Responsibility lies wholly there.

In the trial where I was a juror, we had a pretty cut-and dried case. There was evidence which could not be misinterpreted, and there was the heart-breaking testimony of the victim herself, which none of us twelve disbelieved. How brave that young woman was, standing up to her attacker, so that, less than one hour after the trial, we found her rapist guilty. He got a number of concurrent ten-year sentences.

The emotional devastation wreaked by this man will still affect his victim. Most men wouldn’t realise that – it was fifteen years ago, they might point out, and she’ll be alright now. But men lack insight. They are reared to lack insight. They remain boys. They don’t understand consequences, least of all emotional consequences.

No wonder women find it so difficult to come forward and report rape. The act of reporting is itself an emotional trial – another fact most men don’t understand. And because so many misogynist myths persist about men being men, the low prosecution rate will continue for a long time yet.

Hopefully not forever, though.

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Mind Change by Susan Greenfield

Mind change is to human psychology as climate change is to the planet. Susan Greenfield’s thesis in this excellent book is that the digital world, especially the online world, is causing the brains and therefore the minds of billions of people around the world to change.

In some regards, this book is similar to Mary Aiken’s The Cyber Effect, but here the emphasis is more on a nuts-and-bolts approach. Dr Aiken is a cyber-psychologist. Susan Greenfield is one of Britain’s best known scientists – as a neuroscientist she has much to say on her subject.

The book makes similar warnings to The Cyber Effect, and it is clear that Greenfield is as concerned as Aiken. Both authors come to similar conclusions: online life is changing the default setting of the human brain, from local-scale, word-based and empathic to meaningless, visually overloaded, cold and shallow. The often repeated concern that far too many young people have the attention span of a gnat is here given a proper scientific basis. Her approach is commendable – often giving alternative interpretations, sometimes admitting that the truth is difficult to ascertain, sometimes demolishing her opponents. It’s also a very good read – she can write.

Enjoyable and interesting, then, but also a warning about a future humanity is sleepwalking into.

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Sequelitis

A few of my author friends have recently been discussing the wisdom of Margaret Attwood writing a sequel to her wonderful, famous and very important novel The Handmaid’s Tale. I suppose even for an author as successful as Attwood there is always sequel temptation, particularly given the popularity and critical success of the televised version. Attwood says she wrote the book because of what her fans were saying in response to the tv series, but I can’t help thinking that a sequel is unwise. I’m on record as saying: ‘write for your readers, but never for your fans.’

George RR Martin has a similar problem with his never-appearing final volume of A Game Of Thrones. Basically, he has imprisoned himself. Not a great place for an author to be. I have written a trilogy, but I’d never write a series. Book series are the literary equivalent of prison cells. I’m not keen on series any way, nor books that endlessly explore the same world. For all the brilliance, wit and humanity of Terry Pratchett, I bailed out of Discworld around the eighth novel. I like my authors to explore a wide variety of characters and worlds.

Would I write a sequel to any of my works? Well, I have been tempted, but…

Memory Seed/Glass/Flowercrash: No. This was never set up as a trilogy, but it is a trilogy of theme, with characters that go from book to book. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’ve long felt the temptation to return to the Memory Seed world, but since being asked by Ian Whates to do the Tales From The Spired Inn collection I think that temptation has departed.

Muezzinland: No. For a while I wondered what might happen to Princess Mnada after her stroke, but there’s no pull back to her or her world.

Hallucinating: No. It was a fun one-off.

The Rat & The Serpent: No. For a while I had ideas for a kind of alternate vampire/Romania novel, but the inspiration for it passed pretty quickly.

Urbis Morpheos: No. It’s done.

Hairy London: No. I did write a sequel in fact, following Sheremy and Juinefere in an alternate WW2 setting, but it was a poor novel. Hairy London won’t be repeated or followed up, not least because it was written off the top of my head, with only the barest essentials of plot – a risky thing to do. It was enormous fun to write, but I’ve kind of been-there-done-that…

Beautiful Intelligence/No Grave For A Fox: Highly unlikely. It is an interesting world, with relevance to where our real (digital/AI) world is going, but it’s probably best not to write any more, particularly as I tied Muezzinland in to the end of No Grave For A Fox.

The Girl With Two Souls/The Girl With One Friend/The Girl With No Soul: Yes. Once I’d written the trilogy, I realised there was more to discover about Erasmus, so I have written an additional novel, The Conscientious Objector, set in 1914 and following Erasmus’ experiences in WW1. It remains unpublished however because, although the Factory Girl trilogy did very well critically and artistically, sales were average at best.

Tommy Catkins: No. No need.

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Would You Rather Be Dominated By America Or China?

If You Had To Choose, Would You Rather Be Dominated By America Or China?

 

First of all, why am I asking this question?

Well, there are two main reasons. One is the environmental disaster we are facing, the greater part of the blame for which lies at the feet of international capitalist corporations. The other reason is the future of AI. We could have that future unregulated, as happens in America, or we could have it regulated, as happens in China. To most, if not all Westerners reading this, the answer seems obvious. Who would want to be dominated by the hard-line, dogmatic, secretive Chinese Communist Party? Wouldn’t it be better to accept the downside of American style political freedom, even though that ethic is presently laying the foundation for the destruction of the natural environment? If we had to make a choice between the world’s two major powers, surely it would be better to be dominated by America.

Or would it?

The inescapable downside of market-style economics – built on the exploitation of workers and of the environment, on advertising methods which use brutal psychological methods, and on an economic model that explicitly ignores the fact that all growth must have a natural limit – is that there is no political or social force, organisation or procedure which can bring human beings together in order to make the decisions that need to be made. For all the fantastic work of the NGO environmental organisations, of people such as the exceptional David Attenborough and Chris Packham, and of individuals doing their best to recycle plastic etc, there is no substitute for planned, deliberate, insightful, large-scale action. In other words, corporations that in effect are unregulated and destroying the planet can continue their despoliation in freedom. There is no way for Westerners to come together to stop them – or even to diminish them. Modern politics is useless. Even the Labour Party, as was shown by Blair when he stepped up to the mark, cannot change the fundamentals of capitalist economics. Labour under Blair was Tory-lite. They could not change the system. They did not want to. They didn’t see that the system was unfit for purpose.

If Jeremy Corbyn gets into power he will face exactly this problem. Our culture, both economic, social and media, works on a number of assumptions, all of which promote unregulated corporate activity. The moment Corbyn tries to do anything against that culture he will face a barrage of opposition, from his own party, from the media, and from people – including most of his supporters – generally. His hands will be tied. He is not conscience-lite, as Blair was; he will face conflict, and fail. People will say he is a PM out of touch, when in fact that comment should be applied to the entire political system.

And yet, America has it far worse. America is the main source of this modern corporate, capitalist ethic. The Western world is dominated by American values, to its considerable detriment. Am I then suggesting that the Chinese Politburo is better?

Well, the Chinese Communist Party has one notable advantage over Western democracies. Should they want to, they can act on behalf of the Chinese nation to ameliorate the damage presently being wreaked on the environment by the ‘Chinese economic miracle.’ Realisation has dawned in China that the consequences of massive economic growth are bad. Very bad. And the Chinese, lacking the absurd Christian notion that human beings are permitted to exploit the environment, and are even told to by their ‘god,’ have a different attitude to nature. Most Chinese are Taoists or Buddhists. Taoism and Buddhism have a profoundly different attitude to nature than Christianity. Although one of the innumerable mistakes made by Mao, and indeed by all Communists, was to believe the Leninist idea that atheism would take over from religion, in fact the human species is nowhere near mature enough to relinquish its reliance on religion and spirituality. Therefore, most Chinese practice their beliefs as a kind of ‘folk religion’ or similar spirituality, and the CCP does not mind that. Part of Xi Jinping’s ‘Chinese Dream’ in fact is to promote the ideas of Confucius and Han Fei. Chinese attitudes to nature live on, and are epitomised by aspects of their many cultures.

People in the West have assumed the ethical superiority of democracy because they are individualistic and because they are arrogant, i.e. narcissistic. In the East, society is envisaged as a whole, where that whole is more important than individuals. They lack our emphasis on individualism. Eastern societies are founded on profound narcissism – totalitarian or dictatorial, misogynistic, hierarchical – so in that respect East and West are equally bad. The West is careless and ignorant. The East is authoritarian and ignorant. But the Chinese could do something about the environmental crisis faced by the world, and that is my point. The Chinese do not see democracy as a natural end point in human social and political development. Perhaps we should not also. We presume the existence of the invisible hand of Adam Smith. The Chinese hand is visible.

Many commentators – including the outstanding Guardian columnist George Monbiot – link the fight for democracy with the urgency of the environmental crisis we are facing. In a recent piece he wrote: ‘Decades of institutional failure ensures that only “unrealistic” proposals – the repurposing of economic life, with immediate effect – now have a realistic chance of stopping the planetary death spiral. And only those who stand outside the failed institutions can lead this effort… Because we cannot save ourselves without contesting oligarchic control, the fight for democracy and justice and the fight against environmental breakdown are one and the same. Do not allow those who have caused this crisis to define the limits of political action. Do not allow those whose magical thinking got us into this mess to tell us what can and cannot be done.’ But if oligarchic control is contested, then removed, what institutions will organise people to the extent that is required? This is a fundamental problem of the West, which I think Monbiot avoids in his piece. I agree with him that change from inside political systems is either far too slow or a complete waste of time (the subject of my as yet unpublished work Woodland Revolution) but the question of what replaces them then appears. Could an Eastern kind of politics be the answer, however much that repulses Western democrats?

So, to return to my original question. We face global environmental disaster. In the West there is no process or organisation which can act quickly enough to combat it, because we live in a world of what are in effect unregulated corporations whose only interest is to exploit. Politics here is a complete waste of effort – decades behind the times. In the East, a method exists for determined, deliberate action, albeit at a cost to that individualism assumed by the West.

Therefore, when I ask myself, given the choice would I rather be dominated by America or by China, my answer is China.

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The Penguin History Of Modern China by Jonathan Fenby

Although I was given this because a family member bought it twice by mistake, it has come in really useful for research on AI novels set in China…

The book begins around 1850 and tackles the history of the nation in six parts. Although it was tricky for this Western reader to get his head around the names, once you make the effort to remember them using phonetics (I tried to do it mostly on the surnames, which by Chinese tradition are written first) it does get easier. The book is really well written, engaging and thorough. It’s also fascinating, and gives great insight into how and why the Chinese are attempting to make the twenty-first century their own.

Highly recommended to all readers of history.

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The Cyber Effect by Mary Aiken

This is a very important book.

I’ve been reading and thinking a lot recently about issues of the internet, social media and mental health – not just for this week’s blog series, but also for a novel I’m preparing. The Cyber Effect explains what the main issues are, how important they are, and, above all, how young people and children are being affected and how little time we have to halt the damage.

Dr Mary Aiken is a highly experienced lecturer, consultant and researcher in the new field of cyberpsychology, which in a nutshell is the study of how the internet and digital media affects human behaviour. If anybody is going to sound the alarm, it should be her. And she does. This book is something of a personal crusade, but that makes it a better read.

Aiken states a few central conclusions in this worrying, occasionally jaw-dropping read. These are: the internet is changing behaviour in the real world by a process of cyber-migration, where online extremes begin to appear offline; children are at extraordinary risk of psychological damage because of the actions of unregulated international tech corporations; a huge social experiment is in effect being performed on the human race, an experiment entirely unmoderated, the effects of which on children in particular should be a matter for immediate concern; very little research has been done on even the basic psychological effects of the online world.

One of the effects of the internet for instance is to amplify behaviour already prevalent in real-world society. We still live in a world designed by boys for boys. That, alas, is even more the case online.

This book is an urgent warning to us all. The final chapter is a summary of all the actions Aiken thinks could and should be taken to halt this unfolding situation before it’s too late, but I doubt many of her thoughts will be taken up. As she observes, there are small pockets of hope at the moment, but the overall design of the internet militates against any serious work being done to improve it, a situation outlined recently by its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee. It’s basically a new Wild West out there, designed by people who don’t care about the consequences of their actions. Nothing will happen because those who control and exploit via the digital world stand to lose so much. Of course, they will only lose it for themselves – theirs is an entirely selfish outlook. But they don’t care anyway.

It would be great to see this book in every school, college and university library. It should be an essential read for all, especially for those who have or who work with children. Through unregulated use of the internet, humanity is currently failing an entire generation.

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Raising Kora

As an addendum to the series I’ve posted this week about mental health and online living, I thought I’d write about some modern technological aspects that led me to create Kora Blackmore.

Readers of the Factory Girl trilogy will know that Kora and Roka are two identities within one body. I had the title of the first volume, The Girl With Two Souls, long before I put the scenario together, but one of the later inspirations was a brief mention of an extraordinary psychological effect. In India, there is a variety of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) where two personalities alternate on a day by day basis. I was so struck by this peculiarity that I made it the heart of Kora’s disorder.

But what was the origin of Kora’s illness? The Edwardians of her time, being Christians in a highly ordered, buttoned-down and judgemental society, considered her to have two souls, with Roka deemed the extra soul. But that was a false belief. Kora has DID. As more is learned about her childhood, and especially following the meeting with her mother in Africa, the reader becomes aware of the dreadful circumstances of her upbringing. Sir Tantalus Blackmore, desperate to find some way out of the dilemma he faces inside the Factory, attempted to alter Kora’s entire character by having her raised by automata. This shocking revelation, mediated earlier by the notes deciphered from Nurse Law’s automaton, shows that Kora lacked basic human contact from an early age. She lacked eye contact, touch, some aspects of speech, and more.

Could Kora’s upbringing have any relevance to some of our modern practices? Surely not. But what about the practice of giving infants screens to watch? What about toddlers? Children of school age, online?

There is in fact a strong correlation between the extraordinary inhumanity of what Sir Tantalus did to his child and what is presently happening to internet-age children.

A basic point, elaborated by Dr Mary Aiken in her startling book The Cyber Effect, will illustrate this. It is commonplace these days to see parents with their young children in situations where the parent concentrates only on their smartphone. Aiken relates an incident where a mother and infant sat on a train seat opposite her, and for half an hour the mother stared at her smartphone, never once making eye contact with the infant. Aiken was moved to ponder the consequences of that deed. In her opinion, the consequences will be catastrophic.

Infants need constant eye contact, face-to-face contact and skin-to-skin contact in order to survive, to grow, to develop. The modern practice of allowing children – under the guise of ‘interactive’ apps or ‘educational’ games – to spend hours each day attending to their screens is more damaging than has yet been realised. Aiken herself, an expert in this field, is aware of the paucity of research in this area, but she is clear on the dangers. Interactivity comes from other human beings, not from the vacuous, over-stimulating, quick-changing stuff online. To grow up with reduced intimate human parenting is to lack the absolute basics. To grow up in such a world is to face depression, anxiety and relentless stress later on. (This is seen a lot in Japan, and even more in Korea, as described in the third part of my blog series, but the epidemic is spreading across the globe.) We are turning potential human beings into something akin to AGIs.

Kora developed a deep-seated mental illness, DID, because of what she lacked in childhood. She separated parts of herself that she could not bear to feel, to experience, into an entire separate character, that she then lost contact with. To the outside observer it seemed as though she was two children. And she was. But she could have been one.

The cold, callous, empty hands of the internet will not raise the kind of children we would recognise. It will raise something else.

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The Girl With Two Souls

Five Upcoming Mental Health Crises 5/5

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.

In the previous four posts I’ve mentioned how social media and the internet is rewiring the brains of young people, and therefore changing their, and our minds too. Some might think that is too bold a claim.

Yet something similar has happened before – five thousand years ago. The inventions of reading and writing could only happen because of our forebears’ ability to make a myriad of new connections amongst already existing brain structures. Because we are conscious individuals, lacking animal instincts except those few required for us to survive as infants, our brains make a model of the world. That model does not exist when we are born. We have to learn. This is the great advantage of our extended childhood, those many years of vulnerability and weakness during which we learn so much about the world. Brain plasticity is at the heart of the brilliance and success of human beings.

This plasticity can be illustrated by studying how different cultures learn their own languages. For instance, at the level of brain neurons, those in China learning to speak, read and write Chinese use a different set of neuronal connections than those in Britain learning English. So, when a Chinese person learns English, they at first use Chinese-based neuronal pathways. They struggle. The process of learning to read Chinese characters has actually shaped their brains, so they are forced to use different processes when they encounter English. Similarly, if two people in 2018 live one with social media and the internet and one without, their fundamental brain connections will significantly differ.

Yet the brain’s plasticity is also a fundamental disadvantage in certain circumstances. A child who grows up in a cult knows nothing about the world except that which is promulgated by the cult. A child who grows up in a totalitarian state knows nothing of the world except that which their Great Leader tells them. Vulnerable and empty when we are born, we can so easily be shaped – by inhumane individuals, by cultures, by nationalist dogma. Similarly, if we allow ourselves to succumb to the addictive embrace of the internet, we fail to grasp reality. A failure to grasp reality is in my opinion tantamount to insanity.

So, when we read a book – especially fiction – we immerse ourselves in another world. This has parallels with how we can also immerse ourselves in the digital world, but there is a crucial difference. The act of reading allows us to grasp the viewpoints of others. Marcel Proust described this as a ‘sanctuary,’ in which readers gain access to many other realities – many other viewpoints. Via such differing viewpoints comes emotional and ethical growth. While reading we are enriched. We grow, we expand, we mentally sophisticate. We grasp something of the commonality and union of humanity.

If through our use of the virtual world, which is skewed towards visual, disconnected tropes, and which is fast-moving and anonymous, we lose our ability to put ourselves into the positions of other human beings, then we lose empathy; we effectively lose the very thing that allows us to become conscious. Consciousness depends for its effect on the ability of human beings to place themselves into the worlds of others – to see through their eyes. If through the agency of online life we find that we cannot do that, we effectively strip humanity from our own brains. We become the cold, isolated AGIs which at the moment we are so keen to build.

In summary…

• Exposure to social media and the internet in general is rewiring human brains at the neuronal level, as, from infancy, they grow.

• This rewiring has profound negative implications for how the minds of young people are developing.

• The change in mental development of the young leads to mental health crises when they are older, including anxiety, depression, dependency and narcissism. These eventually become epidemics.

• Social change also comes about because of these mental effects, including the phenomenon of cyber-migration, in which extreme behaviour manifesting online transfers to the real world.

• All these effects lead to the polarisation of the world, the increase in narcissism and all the behaviours associated with it, the reduction in empathy, and, in the long term, damage to the fundamentals of consciousness itself, which relies for its effect on our ability to place ourselves into the positions of others.