Friday, July 02, 2021

a gentle rain of overgrown hedges, friendly cats and pot plants left by garden gates

Each missive starts with the awkward statement: I am still alive. Didn't disappear into the pandemic or my medical disaster or whatever other crises I navigated when my head was in a difficult place. And here I am and I am back and I am just coming off a day of online discussions, a popular videoconferencing software solution re-envisioning us as Brady Bunch heads alongside social chatter on a variety of different channels and devices, time-sliced through my past and present, a world of buzzes and chimes and lines left hanging. This is the future now, and the conversations never stop, that channel just pauses or you drift off, midsenten

Like a lot of people, I did a variety of things during the pandemic lockdown of 2020-21 to reduce social isolation, with variable levels of success:

  • Joined local community messaging boards. This has lead to knowing some of the names of the friendlier local cats, along with more unexpected results like making banana bread for the first time; 
  • Chatted with contacts and colleagues via various work-based closed messaging services;
  • Folded friends, acquaintances and family into various discrete technologically-enabled closed chat groups, with rich multimedia content; and
  • Experimented with leaving a video chat channel open during work hours. That didn't last!
I might have done more, but I got very ill. The illness had a hard impact on my visual cortex, so my eyes are impacted. This left me struggling with some things. Minecraft motion sickness, visual distortion migraines. It also left me dragging through low energy levels, and nervous about communication.

Through all that the various channels have continued to offer a slow steady rain of news and notices. A gentle dusk-dawn chorus of : here is the news. It turns up in the timeline, like a soft keep-in-touch from your surrounding environment.  .

It's shoddy telepathy, but you never really wanted good telepathy. The mental channels are busy enough with your own thoughts. This is more like tide-washed debris caught in a filter; the detritus and flotsam of the noosphere, the dataspace, the information nation.

Monday, July 13, 2020

if in doubt, do an online course on it

My response, when I'm struggling with anything pretty much, is to read a book on it or do a course on it. So when lockdown started to bite, I got stuck into a course on FutureLearn on Covid-19.  It was thrown together fast, of course. Everything is right now. But I figured a quickly thrown-up course would still give me space to think, and maybe also some core concepts to help navigate unknown space.

I've been e-learning for a few years now. Delivered some, written some, done plenty. I was expecting this one to be interesting, but hard work. Most people don't participate in e-learning, they just work through the materials. As someone who learns through dialogue, discussion, I'm always being the annoying chatty one in the comments, often answering myself in a void. I'm aware that lots of learners aren't being silent - they're finding ways to discuss things with a person instead of a computer. I remember the slightly humiliating experience of discovering that other people on my distance learning course had been regularly calling the tutors to discuss things by phone; something I had not even considered, even though we'd been given phone numbers.

That was before lockdown, and before the entire world turned attention starved. The comments under this course were so numerous and fascinating I had to confine myself just a limited number of pages, or risk losing days in them. They were full of personal stories, ideas, reflections, insights. They were thoughtful and constructive. They were from all over the world and from many different experiences and backgrounds. Some were confused, some showed signs of grieving. The responses to these were compassionate, kind and careful. Don't read the comments is a nostrum of the internet now, but this was the opposite of that. It was read the comments, the action is in the comments.

For this reason alone, it was a real privilege to do the course. the content was good, it was very work relevant, lots of good ideas, some clear steers, overview of existing research into effects of quarantine, effects on the micro and macro scale, all that. But it was also an opportunity to be online in a group large enough (or attention starved enough) to comment without fear of social anxiety or overexposure, yet closed enough (or shocked into seriousness enough, or inexperienced with the dominant discourse modes online enough) that the comments weren't a mess of bangs and bashes and actually-you'll-find and oh-my-opinion and shut-up-you-shouldn't-be-talking-noob and oh-I-didn't-realise-honest-push-button-rants, and cruelty-because-I-can-and-to-prove-that-I-can and all of that other dull, tiresome, boring stuff that clogs up the signal, endlessly, depressingly.

Sharing without fear. I'd say it reminds me of the old days on the web, but the old days were only sometimes open and kind. People like to say that it's only since we opened the web up to everyone that so many jerks turned up. Not true, that's just rose-tinted screens. They were here all along. Kind and constructive voices were too, of course. But check the old usenet logs before you categorise the early web as a place of polite conduct. You'll find plenty of people racing to see how low they can go.

The course described the group of people who normally socially support an individual, who protect, help and nurture them, as a "supportive container". This container allowed the individual a space to make mistakes, experiment and explore ideas without being attacked, undermined, or socially (or indeed physically) damaged. It wasn't an uncritically accepting area, it was socially negotiated, and that includes discussion and appropriate challenge. But that challenge started from a position of social support and respect for the individual.

The course described the pandemic as a serious disruption to this "supportive container", particularly those parts of it that were not online, and not in the household. My experience has certainly supported this view.

Friday, June 12, 2020

getting human voices into my working day

One of the things I have noticed about lockdown is the lack of human voices. Of course, I don't live alone, and there are kids and dogs and neighbours shrieking/barking/having fun in the back gardens (I live in a terrace) and workmen and dog-walkers and daily health walkers doing their job and business out front, but it's not the same as someone in your workplace gently discussing a problem five desks away, far enough to be screenable if you need to concentrate, close enough to tune in if you lack interest. Work had a music to it; the undernoise of the city centre (buses, weather, crowds) the intrusive squawks of buskers and vehicle alarms, the soft clatter of blinds, ventilation, machines and the sound of people talking to themselves, concentration humming, foraging for tea and biscuits, chatting, discussing, swearing gently at recalcitrant technology, hmming, aha-ing, tapping, typing and generally making the sound of working.

In its absence, I've struggled to concentrate. At work, when things get too noisy, or the tinnitus shrieks, I use that Youtube Classic, Ten Hours of Pink Noise. At home, that just makes me feel more isolated. So I've taken to listening to work-related seminars and short videos. But everyone overperforms and is too exciting, too groundbreaking, too sincere. I don't belong to the Youtube generation. This pitch and intensity is so needy, I can't do other work while it's going on.

In my quest to find someone calm enough, I turned to the motherlode of mindful narration, Sir David Attenborough. I can't listen to him during the working day, as the subject matter is always too thrilling, but the calming, measured tones approximate the professional sounds I am familiar with. My species' morning chorus, if you like. So I let him talk briefly through an observation or two (Life Stories is good) while I check my morning emails and meeting schedule, pick up yesterday's lists and reminders and sketch out the work of the day.

It has to be audio only, of course. Try to listen to David Attenborough on Youtube and he'll mention something you just have to look at. Don't take my word for this. Try playing this video in a hidden tab. You'll look, I promise.

Friday, May 08, 2020

the joy of random newsletter subscriptions

I've spoken before about my love of municipal building supplies newsletters (fruit of a period of time I shared a name and city with someone in the business who got me onto lots of mailing lists), but for sheer excellent read-this-during-the apocalypse, which-apocalypse?, doesn't-matter-just-pick-one value, nothing beats my newsletter subscription to the the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER).

I don't know how I got subscribed to them. Maybe I knew someone working there for a while (it's in one of the home town constellation cities) or maybe I saw a news story; maybe I took part in a survey or some online research. I am, after all, apocalypse-interested. In case you're unclear about what they, do, they are an interdisciplinary research centre dedicated to the study and mitigation of existential risks, and in case that is not clear enough for you, they are in the business of the study and mitigation of risks that could lead to human extinction or civilisational collapse.

They're often quite focussed on AI, but this month the CSER newsletter has linked through to a big list of 313 potential non-medical methods for reducing transmission of Covid. Some of these are very bleak:

  • Discourage unnecessary speaking when people are in close contact.
  • Constrain ‘long’ connections between people in different social groups who seldom or rarely interact.
  • Split and separate teams doing key work in case one team gets infected.
  • Design system so doors automatically shut once numbers exceed a given threshold as detected by phone signals.
  • Individuals queue online and are told when their turn is to leave house, office or desk for e.g. doctor’s appointment or lunch.
  • Encourage or enforce walking clockwise around shared spaces.
  • Eat at own desk where possible.
But others are intriguing and imaginative, narrowing in on the CSER's central premise; that the fear of impending apocalypse is a great motivator for creative problem solving.
  • Create convention that different people touch different areas of objects, for example design refuse bins so collectors touch different areas from householders (e.g. centre element of handle red and marked “do not touch” or designed with separate handle)
  • Store items that could be contaminated (e.g. shopping bags) so the one stored longest is taken first.
There are also a few in the can't-believe-this-isn't in-place-already area such as:
  • Encourage or require people to stop spitting in public places.
But lock-down traffic silence means that the sound of people spitting is carrying quite a way, and I can confirm that I have regularly heard people spitting in public places during the pandemic, and I really wish that they wouldn't. We have no "No spitting" signs in the UK as local social convention prohibits spitting in any case, but maybe we need to come up with some wording?

"We appreciate that you would never under normal circumstances consider spitting in public, but should you find yourself in a position where this is impossible and you absolutely have to spit (for example while jogging, or as a result of hayfever) make sure you carry a suitable receptacle and dispose of it in safely, your household rubbish."
Reassuringly, the rest of the CSER newsletter is the same tone as usual; how to make AI "trustworthy", biosecurity issues, alternative food production (algae!) to reduce carbon footprint, antibiotic resistance, and generalist doomsday pathogens.

Sounds intriguing? Sign up here.

Monday, April 06, 2020

she's doesn't mind the lagging it's the sarcasm she don't need

For a bit I was holding on for this message, just for the sheer novelty. But then I got sick of it and started hanging up early. It's the way it seems to be questioning your life choices. How did you end up being the only one on this web call, in an overcrowded room not set up for work, that really needs a thorough clean, especially the bits with black mould on, hmm?

You'll notice I have terrible eye drift there. My vidwindow (a little Max Headroom for you there p-p-p-p pop pickers) is a long way from my cam. What's the solution? Skype eyes:

Every time I catch my eyes flipping to little postage-stamp me I draw them back to the skype eyes. Eye contact when I'm making a point. Stare down the blank cyclops of the cam. Would they work better if they were less cartoony? Would it work better if they were Tilda Swinton's eyes?

It's weird how contemporary Max Headroom still sounds, even though it's just that dude from Orphan Black in a load of prosthetics with an MTV spot playing in the background:

While you're watching your colleagues and family and friends going full block-and-stutter, imagine that you're r-r-r-r-running some semi-wet-ops investigative journalist/sleb/social worker into a handy plot-configuration that will starkly expose the bleak dystopianism of m-m-m-m-modern life. Which, honestly, you probably are.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

in a world where everybody's famous, does that make everyone a legitimate target?

I'm thinking a lot about suicide at the moment. Professionally, not personally, although, as for any emotive issue (and my work is, mostly, emotive issues) there is personal spillover. Very few (if any) people have lives entirely untouched by suicidal thoughts, feelings, impact, loss or report, and I'm certainly not on that list. So we're starting with:

Trigger alert - activate your coping mechanisms 

Like most people touched by suicide, I've created a practical accommodation which embraces the unthinkable and reframes it as something we can work with, help, treat. This idea is very important to me, even though it is entirely challengable, may not reflect other peoples' experiences and may not be entirely backed up by evidence. Technically, the term for this is a "cherished idea", and it's important to understand that cherished ideas attached to emotive issues are a point of vulnerability for the individual. Loss of cherished idea is a dislocating bereavement; challenges to them feel like intense personal attack. Even writing them down is risky. But nevertheless, here is my thought about suicide:
Suicide is a health crisis akin to a stroke or heart attack, where an interruption of normal function (in this case, of emotional self-regulation) creates a brutal deficit that is over corrected and/or corrected in the wrong direction which leads to a further abrupt adjustment, which also fails, and so on, and so forth, until the person's usual capacity for emotional self-regulation is radically incapacitated and becomes completely incapable of sustaining life. If the crisis can be managed, stopped, interrupted, paused or stabilised, this can create a pathway back to good-enough emotional function, and then the underlying factors can be addressed.  
This helps me personally think about suicide analytically, and in a way that won't cause me constant pain. It is a coping mechanism. You may have a different accommodation, or think about suicide differently. Whatever your accommodation is, I am going to be talking about suicide, so use it. you need to make sure that reading about suicide doesn't raise your own suicidality. Use mine, if yours isn't working too well.

Everybody's unhappy nowadays

Let's start by stating the problem. Children are anxious. Children are unhappy. This unhappiness includes suicidality. Some people say social media is to blame, and while the picture is certainly, as the saying goes a bit more complicated than that, mitigating the negative effects of social media seems a sensible enough use of time. I'm on it, lots of people are, and yes, there are other issues, and they are important. But lets concentrate on this one for a moment.

Everyone's a celebrity nowadays

This Guardian article, by well-known anti-social-media polemicist Richard Seymore, caught my eye, but you don't need to read it all, let me skip you to the good bit:
Less well known is that the rate of suicide for celebrities is anything between seven and several thousand times higher than that for the wider population. And now their breakdowns have become riveting social media spectacles, with celebrities often driven over the edge by supposedly outraged followers.
Yet if all of us are now celebrities – or at least all of us on social media – then that cruelty is also masochism. The thrill of the chase is accompanied by the thrill of realising that we are all at risk, all potential targets. Today’s bloodhound is tomorrow’s fox. So the more we extol the virtues we find wanting in others as we take them down on spurious grounds, from Natalie Wynn to Jameela Jamil, the more we are gleefully setting ourselves up for the same fall.
This idea, of everyone being a celebrity nowadays, is a fresh spin on Warhol's famous proclamation; "In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes." I remember, steeped in the DIY culture of the mid-90s, with its widespread (and quickly shed, should any actual fame come along) rejection of fame-culture and mainstream success, thinking: what rubbish, no: in the future everyone will be famous for fifty people.

The expanded social group

Being famous for fifty people is kind of cosy and nice. You can throw out the difficult ones. You can remember everyone's names. They are close enough to friend that they make you smile, and you can smooth difficulties. But fast forward five years and I was already wrangling 200+ contacts on one of the proto-social-networks, the ones that turn up in the histories of the early web. They weren't the easy list of fifty fans, either; there were friends who didn't like my work; fans who weren't my friends; interesting strangers, people I admired, people who admired me; friends of friends who might become friends; people I'd shared projects, crises, workplaces, interests with... and of course now even that many people seems like not really enough. With the advent of social media, now it's more like everyone is famous for 500 people, and our cosy house party has suddenly become a party large enough to require professional planning and staff.

We all need an entourage 

Which brings me to the obvious next point. If everyone really is marginally famous nowadays - Z-1 list, if you like - then what actual celebrities do in order to avoid falling into the various traps of of the over-scrutinised life (substance misuse, nervous breakdown, crippling anxiety, eating disorders, suicide, etc. and oh what a familiar list that is) could perhaps be applied on an individual level. For example:
  • Bouncers, bodyguards, muscle, security  - These individuals (or attitudes) step between you and the slings and arrows of your over-enthused public. They deflect the eggs, mop up the milkshakes, report the stalkers and have firm discussions about what isn't OK, which is pretty much everything that makes you uncomfortable. Move along now.
  • PAs, private secretaries, relations managers, schedulers - These are the ones who guard your time. They make sure that your you time is in place and the things that help you gets their due. Those things that won't help you develop or make you happy? They schedule them away and set up auto-replies and shortcuts that mean they won't keep eating time.
  • Personal trainers, masseurs, therapists, nutritionists, private doctors -  This lot keep you on the good drugs and off the bad ones. They help you optimise your fitness, health and looks. They advocate for the needs of your body and mind. They insist on good food, adequate rest and absolutely forbid you to do anything that might unreasonably hurt, harm or disturb.
  • Drivers make sure you get to where you need to go, they help you make it to the things you want to do and escape from the situations you don't want to be in. They listen to you decompress and play you soothing music in a safe space. They lose the paparazzi in Chinatown, pick up some friends for a jolly and find you a Waterloo sunset to watch.
  • Butlers, minders, buddies and Persons Friday - These ones save you from you; they scrape you up off the floor. They suggest that some of your ideas may not be the best choice, for you, right now. They check that when you're on your way to bed, you get there. When you're up or down or stressed they keep an eye or give you space or intervene as needed.
These five types mesh to create a protective cocoon around the public person nowadays. They help you dodge some problems and sort out others. Chances are, if you have a good friend or a partner, or a kid, or whatever, you've probably played some of these roles for them, and felt the virtuous thrill of enabling someone else's social and emotional safety. But a moment of reflection; have other people played these roles for you? Have you played them for yourself?

Entourage issues and how to solve them

Celebrities attract problems entourage members, too, of course. Predatory therapists, black hole charity cases, quack doctors, knife-smile tabloid journalists, I'm-your-friend-honest dealers, high maintenance partners, poison arm candy, and spiky, fragile fame moths who detonate like social grenades. Aspects of celebrity life compress people who may have been reasonable in other contexts into these difficult, risky roles. Your own behaviour probably has a lot of impact on who becomes an invaluable Person Friday and who ends up selling you black thoughts, dodgy investments and heroin. Sometimes these problem entourage members can prove fatal.

So, another moment of reflection. Have you been part of the dark entourage for someone else? Can you recognise those thoughts in yourself?

The limits of learning from celebrities

There are lots of other things that famous people do to cope, of course; they give problematic interviews, become Scientologists, develop dramatic substance misuse issues, get plastic surgery, book themselves into weird clinics, write books etc., but a lot of these solutions are dysfunctional and/or actively risky unless you have a big fat money cushion to fall back onto. The celebrity industry also is a risky space to learn from, littered as it is by dramatic failures and cautionary stories.

But I would argue that in the world where everyone is experiencing some level of fame, then we need to look to the people who have managed that, badly or well, for lessons. Because whether you're famous for seventy year-group "friends" on Instagram, two hundred twitchy tweeters on twitter or five hundred geographically and temporally scattered social contacts on Facebook, you are famous.

So activate your entourage, wrap yourself round in support, fire the bad voices and work that fame.

Monday, February 03, 2020

signs of the times

I'm being softly wrapped around in a digital prompt-space, like overdecorated wrapping paper, or a bunch of gentle hooshers and herders. I don't feel nagged, oddly. I've herded animals myself. I know it's necessary sometimes. Some examples:

  • The Trainline app wants me to earn badges through travelling. Will I collect them all? It seems unlikely!
  • The Puregym app has given me a benchmark badge. They're super-impressed by my commitment to fitness. Good for them!
  • Gardening Express want to give me flowers. If I buy some, I'll get some free. They're pretty tailored to my taste to be honest; rooted 9cm pots of perennial beauty, fancy shrubs, a few exotics. Such a lovely thought.
  • Bandcamp have some fancy vinyl and a new release from a band that doesn't even use the same alphabet as I do. Are interested???? Of course I am.
  • Spotify really, really want me to join their service. It's been getting freer every two weeks as far I can see. And I do probably want to? I do need a social music arranger, after all; Youtube's a bit weird nowadays after all. Nyeh.
  • Petplan are suggesting I train my cat. Brilliant idea, I love training my cat. It's so cute and yet simultaneously pointless. Plus, we get to compete over who loses interest fastest!
  • My health econsult services aren't quite linking. But you can sense them trying! They'll get there I think, and in the meantime I can use a few different health portals as I travel on through my current health grumbles.
I know that some people do feel hassled and hedged by this sort of thing. Am I unusual in my level of sign-up and subscribe? Not to worry though. Butler & Wilson want to show me something shiny, and that sound absolutely worth a magpie glance.