Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: Opinion

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.



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.


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.


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.



Five Upcoming Mental Health Crises 4/5

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.

The online world may not be a physical place – an environment – but it is perceived and experienced as a place by human beings. This is a crucial fact to take account of. For all the internet’s dazzling virtual tricks, we humans, who evolved in social environments on a rock hard planet, can only imagine and perceive it as something similar. Thus, though it is not, we interact with it as though it is a real place. We are fooled, and that leads to some dangerous mental consequences.

In particular, we are fooled into believing that the internet is a safer place than it actually is. This illusion, called disinhibition, is rather like the disinhibition created by smoking pot or getting drunk. But because so much of human emotional communication is stripped away by online interaction, all the cues we normally use to make sense of others – gesture, facial expression, body language and tone of voice – are missing. This means we lack much of the information that we need to make fully informed decisions. We fall back on simpler things: instinct, irrationality, guesswork. This effect is then amplified by the internet, in the same way it amplifies everything else.

This juxtaposition of feeling connected yet actually being disconnected is what has led to some mental health issues spreading across the world. For millennia, men have lived in, promoted and exaggerated their hierarchical, reduced-emotion, duty and honour founded societies, but that has been at great cost to themselves. People rightly dissect the immense damage done to women by patriarchy, but men are damaged just as much. The difference is, they don’t talk about it. The modern epidemic of loneliness, of increasing suicide rates and of mental health issues amongst the young can in my opinion be traced back to the pernicious effects of the internet and social media in particular. I don’t think this is the whole story – urbanisation has much to be blamed for – but it is a modern curse.

Online behaviour does not remain online however. Cyber-migration is a term given to instances of behaviour generated by the internet – extreme behaviour, mostly – seeping out of the online environment to affect real people. An example of behaviour that has cyber-migrated might be the recent case of individuals burning a replica of Grenfell Tower on November 5. While it can’t be proved that this act was facilitated by social media norms, when I first heard about it I was immediately struck by the grotesque extremity of the deed. Yes, young people do idiotic things and will continue to. But the burning of the tower effigy seemed to me reminiscent of the extremes of trolling, a behaviour – stalking offline – which has been hypertrophied via the internet into one of the great social distortions of our time. This is one of Dr Mary Aiken’s main points in her excellent book The Cyber Effect. Once extreme behaviour is normalised online, it then migrates back into the real world. This is a very worrying trend, especially for young people.

The brain development of children and young adults is being altered. Therefore their minds are being altered. It is no accident that the leading quote on the front cover of Mary Aiken’s book is the one from The Times: ‘If you have children, stop what you are doing and pick up a copy.’ As for the author, her opening quote is from JFK: ‘Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future.’ But Aiken shows in her book how much damage is being wreaked upon the young by the world they are born into. This is why we will face a generation of deep mental illness – anxiety, depression, inability to interact with the real world owing to narcissism and retarded emotional growth – in years to come.

There is still a chance to stop this (please see my book review of The Cyber Effect on Sunday) but I don’t think that will happen. Too many vested interests operating as if loosed into a playground have humanity caught and enslaved.




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.



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.



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.



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.



Council tax rises

What the hell is wrong with British people?

Talk today is all of council tax rises, which could be 3% for most councils, or 5.99% for the largest councils. I make that an extra £6.78 on my (average band) council tax for the larger rise. Yet all we’re hearing about today is how terrible it is that “so much” is being taken away in the form of council tax, and how councils should be making ever more stringent cuts in order to balance the books. Recycling collections every month, maybe?

Let’s look at this the other way round. The worst case scenario on my tax – an increase of 5.99% – is an increase of £6.78 per month. That is a ridiculously small amount of money to be making a fuss about. It equates to the loss of two Costa hot chocolate with cream and marshmallow drinks per month. Two. Just two. Even though I earn far below the nation average salary, I’m pretty sure I could manage that.

The reason this is an issue at all is that for cultural and political reasons this is an exceptionally selfish country full of people who have been taught to think that every penny possible should come to them for their own selfish use. Well, the truth is we live in communities, and communities need money.

In fact, communities need lots of money. Maybe the solution to the “problem” is that British people could stop being so selfish and think about the societies they live in.

Because Thatcher was wrong: there is such a thing as society. And we have to pay for it.