November 27

Public Speaking and the Monoform

Maggie Mae Fish’s analysis of the fascism in Fight Club contains multitudes and is well worth your time if you’re interesting in how what seemed like a slightly heavy-handed piece of dark satire in the 90s has become a bible for some young men in the 2010s, effecting a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, but there was a bit 26 minutes in that really caught my attention because it put a name on something that’s been bugging me for a few years now regarding the plethora of educational and inspirational talks that get given at conferences and elsewhere, and of which I have given many.

It’s Peter Watkins’ idea of the Monoform, “a linear pre-determined format meant to drive the audience towards a specific conclusion”, which Maggie says Fincher is consciously using to create a fatalistic, inevitability to the whole thing.

I do a fair bit of public speaking, and because I’ve done a lot I’m fairly good at it. I know how to carve 30 minutes into a narrative that drives the audience towards a specific conclusion. A conference talk can usually be broken down like so:

  • I’m going to tell you about Z
  • But first let me tell you about W
  • W often leads to X, especially when you consider A
  • A leads to B, which in turn often brings about C
  • C is analagous to Y
  • And Y, as you’ve probably realised by now, takes us to Z
  • Thank you and applause now please.

It’s all very linear and clean, like building something with lego. Everything fits beautifully into place. This is OK when the speaker is trying to communicate a complex idea, or at least lay the groundwork for a complex idea. I use it a lot when I want someone to understand something like photographic exposure, breaking it down into simple concepts and then putting them together in a linear and clean way. It’s a very valuable tool.

When it gets mildly troubling is when the speaker is telling a more personal story. I’ve seen it a lot at culture conferences where some artist or creative is using a platform to raise their profile, because you’d be a fool not to at those sorts of events, by showing their work. It’s often monoformed to the max, turning the doubtless messy and confused practice of creativity into a hero’s journey.

You also see it where speakers are often required to be motivational, to leave the audience inspired. You don’t do that by being vague and uncertain. You do that by finishing with a neatly tied bow.

I discovered this when I gave a talk a couple of years back where I deliberately didn’t have a conclusion, because the subject I was talking about felt too complex. I wanted to bring some questions to the conference without answering them and while I made a passable attempt, how do you end a thing like that? You can’t just stop. You need to conclude. So I concluded by going all meta about how this is where I’m supposed to conclude, which gave me the seed of a mini-monoform letting me finish. But it was a tough one and certainly not one of my best. You can watch it here, scraped from the livestream. The last five minutes are the most germane here.

I enjoy public speaking, because I enjoy the monoform. We’re hurtling towards a very specific destination and it’s my job to get us there in an entertaining and illuminating way. Yes, I could tell the story differently. In order to gain clarity I had to edit tricky facts and smooth awkward events. When it works, a good talk is like an abstract sculpture. But it’s not real. It’s not truth. It’s a story in service of something.

Always be aware of what that something is, and judge accordingly.

November 10

Debating Fascism and Understanding Mogg

Two articles that could be considered related that I wanted to write about at slightly longer length than the usual Sunday Reads.

Aleksandar Hemon : Fascism is Not an Idea to Be Debated, It’s a Set of Actions to Fight

I remember in the early 90s the self published comics of Aleksandar Zograf, a Serbian cartoonist whose autobiographical accounts of the war that divided his country rang out with a warning to those in the rest of Europe. This is not some alien place, he said. This was a modern, European country with a relatively cosmopolitan culture. And within a few short years we are killing each other. This could easily happen to you.

I thought of Zograf’s 25 year old warnings while reading this powerful piece by another Aleksandar, a Serbian writer who moved to American in 1992. Aleksandar Hemon frames the current rise of the far-right in the USA with what happened to his friend Zoka who slowly became a Serbian nationalist, supporting the likes of Radovan Karadzic and eventually joining the military efforts to eradicate Muslims. By the time he realised what was happening, it was too late. His friend was lost to fascism.

I’d not heard the Serbian regime of that time described as “fascist” before, because we like to save that term for Hitler, even though the Nazi’s weren’t the only fascists. But by any definition Slobodan Milosevic’s regime was fascist.

And so it’s in our interests, as the ingredients of fascism appear around us at an unnerving frequency, to listen to those who have suffered the outcomes and try to benefit from their hindsight.

Hemon’s big regret is that he attempted to debate fascism as if it were an idea that could be defeated through reasoned argument. But it is better seen as a collection of actions that will destroy people who are different. The ideology is relatively unimportant. If the ideological discussions we’re used to having under the post-war consensus are a game of chess, fascism is the upending of the board. The game is won by eradicating the game.

You cannot argue with fascism.

The next time you see some charismatic figure espousing nationalist rhetoric about “us” and “them”, be it Farage, Robinson or Bannon, being invited on to some media platform to “debate”, think of Serbia and how that turned out.

How to explain Jacob Rees-Mogg? Start with his father’s books

Jacob Rees-Mogg is many things but he’s probably not a fascist. What is he then? This insightful piece looks at the writing of his father, William, that predicted a chaotic future, accelerated by technology.

For 380 breathless pages, Lord Rees-Mogg and a co-author, James Dale Davidson, an American investment guru and conservative propagandist, predicted that digital technology would make the world hugely more competitive, unequal and unstable. Societies would splinter. Taxes would be evaded. Government would gradually wither away. “By 2010 or thereabouts,” they wrote, welfare states “will simply become unfinanceable”. In such a harsh world, only the most talented, self-reliant, technologically adept person – “the sovereign individual” – would thrive.

While dismissed in the UK as a bit of a crank, his book became one of the texts of libertarian Silicon Valley disruptors and we’re now seeing that “Mystic Mogg” might not have been quite so wrong. We’re also seeing his son pushing the borderless “disaster capitalism” ideology along.

Which might seem weird for a passionate Brexit supporter who appears as a paragon of English pride, and I’m still not sure exactly what Jacob is, other than massively objectionable bundle of seeming contradictions. But one thing’s for certain - his personal investments will only benefit from the hardest, most disruptive of Brexits, because that’s what his daddy taught him.

November 3

Sunday Reads

Greenhouses in Southern Spain

Exploring the Future Beyond Cyberpunk’s Neon and Noir

by Jay Owens, my go-to for explaining cultural stuff that makes me feel old, and she does it in such a wonderful way. This is a run-down of nine sci-fi genres that feel like cyberpunk did in the 80s, because these days cyberpunk is nostalgia for a future imagined in the past. As we reach one of those “end of history” moment when it seems impossible to see a future beyond iterating the present, new methods of speculation become more urgent.

Climate Change and Technology Define the Rural Future

This is a good example of why a new sci-fi is needed. We’re changing the countryside in ways that make our concepts of “countryside” woefully outdated. The otherwise retro-porn Blade Runner 2049 is mentioned as having a rare-for-sci-fi scene in the countryside, acknowledging that the city of the future cannot be an autarky (great word for a self-sufficient system, that). This article looks the weirdness of the countryside right now, from solar farms and greenhouse fields to structural attempts to fix climate changed landscapes. A fascinating overview with some amazing images.

The Automation Charade

This is turning into quite the speculative fiction newsletter, it seems, as this leftist look at automation is really about the stories about automation which denigrate those who do the actual work making their labour appear worthless because it can be automated away. What’s of note is these stories are becoming less and less effective at covering up the truth that automation, by whatever term it goes by (AI being the current label) is pretty woeful. Maybe capital needs some of those new sci-fi genres?

100 Websites That Shaped the Internet as We Know It

OK, something a bit more light-hearted for those of us enraptured by the early web in the years around the turn of the century. Get ready for some Proustian rushes from these screenshots.

‘Oumuamua, Thin Films and Lightsails

And we’re back with the science speculation. I swear I just dump these links in a document over the week. Any patterns are accidental. This contains the news that ʻOumuamua, that weird asteroid shaped like a baguette that flew by Earth last year, behaved like a Lightsail, designed to capture solar radiation, and could therefore be a remnant of a structure powered by solar radiation, and all that entails. Far fetched, of course, but fascinating none the less.

Sunday Listens

Divide And Dissolve
Do you like doom? I like doom. This is some Australian neoclassical ambient doom from a duo called Divide and Dissolve. I came across them on Jay Springett’s blog-roundup which often has nice things.

Marika Hackman
If that’s a bit much for a Sunday morning, I’m quite liking Marika Hackman who cropped up on my Spotify Discover algo. The song Time’s Been Reckless reminds me of lots of things.

October 25

Bunny Butt Master

So I continue to go to the Fat Fluffs rabbit sanctuary on a Wednesday morning when I can, which is about 3-4 times a month. Officially Fi and I take it in turns so I don’t have to go every week, but I like to. This is quite something as it involves voluntarily getting up at 8:30 on what is now one of my days off from work. I try to avoid rising during single-digit hours, but I’ll do it for those buns.

Our motivation for going in the first place, beyond wanting to help, was to learn how to look after our own rabbits more effectively, so we specifically go when the health checks happen. Each rabbit there gets a thorough look over at least once a week, starting with the eyes, nose, teeth, ears, feet and bottom. A few of the permanent residents have front-end issues but mostly it bright eyes and clean noses. The back-ends are another issue.

Problems mostly arise in rabbits that, for some reason, can’t clean themselves. Some are old and arthritic, some are stupid and don’t realise they shouldn’t sit in their wee, some are overweight and can’t reach the nether regions (these are mostly new arrivals who’ve been loved a bit too much). And when this happens they need some help.

I’ve found that not only am I very good at cleaning a rabbit’s bottom, I really enjoy it. Which is not something I thought I’d ever type.

Here I am with Walt, a white rabbit who should not be that yellow underneath. He will be joining the permanent residents soon but for now is on his own. He had quite the mucky bum.

My hands are in this position because the fur on Walt’s back legs has matted hard. This is effectively the palms of his feet and the fur is needed to protect his skin as he walks around, so we can’t just cut off the matted bits as you might elsewhere. They gunk needs to be worked free by rubbing it between my fingers before combing it out.

It’s quite slow work and I need both hands so the rabbit needs to be fixed in place. Unfortunately the best way to do this is to “trance” the rabbit by putting it on its back. This puts them into panic mode where they “play dead”, so while Walt looks all snuggled up here, he’s actually terrified. Ideally I should have him sitting upright in my lap, but he’d kick and wriggle too much and this job is more important. With the rabbits that need extra care it’s a bit of a trade-off and trancing is usually the only way to go.

They do get their revenge sometimes though. You’ll notice this hoodie has lots of holes. These were mostly made this morning by blind Sweep who had a particularly pooey bottom which needed extra work from which he kept wriggling free from and biting the shite out of my clothes. Later on Rupert, a very grumpy 11 year old rabbit, bit my bicep through three layers leaving a little red welt. And, of course, I still have the awesome face scratch from Bert last month.

But it’s worth it. Last week there was a shortage of volunteers and I found myself health checking about 30 rabbits, and what’s great is my diagnoses are getting better and better. I check everything with the staff, obviously, but more and more my assumptions are correct. And that’s really reassuring.

Back home, Bunminster has been getting a bit arthritic. It’s nothing major and he’s still running around the garden but we’ve noticed he sits funny, or doesn’t lift himself fully when he doesn’t really need to. As with the older rabbits at Fat Fluffs, he’s been getting a mucky bum. Sometimes it a wet tail, sometimes it’s mud from the garden that he can’t clean, rarely it’s a full-on poo fest. So after work I’ve been heading down to the shed, wedging him on my lap and gently teasing his fur clean with my fingers and an increasing collection of specialist brushes.

He hates it, of course, but I find it oddly relaxing.

October 21

Sunday Reads

Usually every fortnight, but this one’s a week late because, yes, new job but also my mum came to visit and, hey, priorities people.

Ron Regé’s Spider-Man story from Coober Skeber

Rege’s style is a bit of an acquired taste (I vividly remember suddenly “getting” him on an overnight train through Wales circa 1999 after years of being bemused) but this is one of his more accessible pieces, where Peter Parker is a furious and bitter 90’s high school nerd. It still stands up.

Software disenchantment

If, like me, you’ve noticed that despite your computers and phones getting more and more powerful they seem to be running at the same speed, or slower, you’re not alone. The programming industry has some serious bloat issues and is totally doing nothing about them, really. This evisceration from a programmer is like the kid pointing out the emperor has no clothes.

If the Point of Capitalism is to Escape Capitalism, Then What’s the Point of Capitalism?

The title says it all and it’s an amusing read, but for once the real interest in the comments. For this is on Medium, home of the Silicon Valley thinkpiece, not known for attracting the Marxist audience, and to question one of the great myths of modern America is just not on.

On Theresa May, Danny DeVito and ‘other people’s money’.

Apparently most people don’t understand how money actually works, which sounds reasonable because I barely have a grasp on it beyond my personal accounts, which bear no relation to how national banks manage a country’s currency. Basically, they make it up and it becomes borrowing, then they tax the profits made by the people who borrow it to pay for making it up in the first place. Or something. Christ, I dunno. But the main message from this explainer is taxes do not fund government expenditure. Which doesn’t make sense. But there you go. Money is weird.

This Is The Real Reason We Haven’t Directly Detected Dark Matter

The story of Dark Matter, the stuff that makes up most of the universe that we can’t see but we know must be there, is fascinating. This is a fun explainer (punctuated with graphs I can’t begin to understand, but that’s cool, the writing makes sense).

Digital Art and the Alt Right. Can you fight fire with fire?

There’s a lot going on here, but my hot take would be that abstractions lend themselves to being filled with easy answers, which is what a lot of populist stuff purports to offer, so we shouldn’t be surprised when methods of strengthening ideas through simplification get co-opted by ideologies that attract lazy thinkers. Or something.

Some of the most remarkable lost artefacts from the ancient world were the titanic wrecks of the Nemi ships.

The Nemi ships were absurdly large pleasure-boats built by mad emperor Caligula on a tiny land-locked lake, because he was mad. In 1929 the fascist dictator Mussolini insisted the lake be drained and boats raised to restore the glory of ancient Rome. It didn’t end well. A fascinating bit of lost history.

Sandscript: A Beachwalker’s Guide to Ripples, Trails, Dimples, and Other Curious Markings

“A beach is a text written by wind, wave, current, and creature. To read it we need to learn its hybrid language.” This breakdown of how shapes in the sand are formed is amazing and needs to be a proper article, or even a book. But we’ll have to make do with this Twitter thread for now.

October 20

Mental Labour Scars

During a presentation by Michael Lightborne I tonight I was struck by a couple of things he mentioned to illustrate a broader point he was making about his work, but which made me think of something else. He was talking about The Projection Project, run by Warwick University to capture the last days of the commercial 35mm film cinema projector. Michael mentioned two things.

The first, during an off-hand digression, was that the projectionists often had calloused fingers and thumbs from handling rough celluloid during the splicing process. He also alluded to sound editors whose fingers would be locked in a hook shape after decades of operating mixing desk sliders. This notion of human bodies being physically changed by industry is nothing new - it arguably started with the invention of farming circa 6,000 BCE and continues today with my neck ache after too much typing. But these physical changes are often seen as a negative thing, a bending of the natural form by unnatural activity.

The second thing was that professional projectionists could diagnose a technical fault with their equipment by the sounds it made which would be imperceptible to anyone else. Again, this is nothing new. Car mechanics often listen to an engine before looking in it, and so on.

But I wonder why this bending of the brain to work more efficiently is always seen as a good thing, while the physical stuff isn’t. Or maybe it’s that the physical stuff is demonstrably limiting - once your fingers are locked into that position you might be an awesome sound mixer but you’re never going to play the piano. A mental optimisation to hear one thing really well, meanwhile, doesn’t mean you can’t use that resource for other things. Or does it?

Does repeated mental activity cause us to think in specific ways? Can you mentally programme a population through the work you give them to do? Or am I mixing apples and oranges.

Still, I like think a shift towards thinking of the mind and body as equally malleable by outside forces is necessary as we move from the notion of free-will to something more programmable.

Pic from Richard Nicholson’s related photographic project, The Projectionists.

October 20

The Revolution will be Laminated

The other day I was making signs at Loaf and Nancy asked if I wanted to laminate them. God, no, I said. Of course not. These are “proper” signs, and you don’t laminate proper signs.

The laminated sign is a curious thing. The fact that it is laminated indicates it is designed to be permanent, to protect it from wear and tear and prevent alteration. It encases a statement for now and the future in wipe-clean plastic.

But the laminated sign is also a transgression. In the hierarchy of the sorts of organisations where persons have access to a laminator, they are produced by those at the bottom, not the top. Those at the top can influence the professional sign making strategy and implement their wishes without having to use the laminator.

Those at the bottom, who have to work within a corporate system which cannot scale down to appreciate the nuance of their day to day existence, will use whatever they can to make their job easier, to get things done. The laminator, along with the desktop printer, is a vital tool in this guerrilla war against a system which prioritises design visions above practicality.

The laminated sign is a correction employed by the powerless in defiance of the powerful. It is never on brand, its vernacular design an offence to the values of head office. For this reason it is regularly hunted down and destroyed whenever higher-ups deign to visit their domains up close. The laminated sign tells the king he is wrong, and no-one can tell the king he is wrong because the king is god.

The laminated sign epitomises the utopian / dystopian dichotomy. The more one seeks efficiency and order, the more one attempts to smooth the rough edges, the more laminated signs will be produced by those who have to deal with the reality of inefficient chaos.

The laminated sign shows your ideology has failed. Your authoritarian dictatorship cannot suppress the anarchy of people’s desire and your under-paid, under-appreciated, under-consulted underlings have admitted defeat. They are re-writing your policy, one laminated sign at a time.

The revolution will be laminated, and the revolution will succeed only when the laminators have gathered dust.

September 29

Sunday Reads

I think there’s a thread to be found in this fortnight’s selection of medium-long-form articles and essays for you to engage with on a lazy Sunday. They’re all about how we arrange, label and perceive the world around us, and how that in turn changes the world. And that’s why I found them all of interest.

Shoreline Maps of the World

One of my favourite maps was at a heritage site on the west coast of Ireland showing Celtic trading routes from Spain to Scotland. It was rotated 90 degrees, revealing how a sea-faring culture would perceive distance quite differently to us. Getting from Galway to, say, London would take forever, but a ship was always travelling to Brittany. It completely changed my perception of how Europe worked back then.

These shoreline maps (see above) take a resolutely ocean-first approach to flattering the globe, and the results are very disorienting. I love them.

Yuval Noah Harari on The Myth of Freedom

Harari is probably the pop-philosopher of the moment, which means one should be wary when his explanations of the world make perfect sense because clarity usually comes at the cost of nuance. All that said, I continue to love his way of piecing observations about the world together in novel ways.

This demolition of the notion of “free will” is quite something and fits with a lot of my thinking without falling into handwringing absolute determinism (“how can we punish evil is there is no free will!”). He simply puts forward that humans are programmable, which is why advertising works, and so in order to respect the will of the people you need to know who or what is programming them. It’s an interesting challenge for democratic systems that emerged when the people themselves were mostly in control of their own programming because experiences were mostly localised. Now we’re in a globally interconnected era it’s often hard to tell who’s nudging our brains.

How does liberal democracy function in an era when governments and corporations can hack humans? What’s left of the beliefs that “the voter knows best” and “the customer is always right”? How do you live when you realise that you are a hackable animal, that your heart might be a government agent, that your amygdala might be working for Putin, and that the next thought that emerges in your mind might well be the result of some algorithm that knows you better than you know yourself? These are the most interesting questions humanity now faces.

2018’s Cattiest Academic Fight Is Over the ‘Meghalayan’

Someone at The Atlantic is obsessed with furious geologists and keeps commissioning articles about them. I for one am happy about this.

How interesting!, you may think. I love science! And perhaps in an earlier era, that’s all you would have had to think. The dawn of the Meghalayan would have earned some wide-eyed headlines, made life slightly easier for a few researchers, and promptly been relegated to a second-round Jeopardy question.

Instead, the Meghalayan kicked off one of the cattiest, most intransigent fights among earth scientists that I can remember—a battle that now concerns some of the most profound questions up for scholarly debate today, including the importance of climate change, the likelihood of societal collapse, and the ultimate place of humanity in the universe.

Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound

As someone who has skim-read all his life, way before everything was read off screens, I found this fascinating. I’ve never really been able to read texts in depth. One of the reasons I didn’t actually get my philosophy degree back in the day was because I couldn’t do most of the heavy reading. But, as you’ll know from posts like this, I am a voracious reader and consumer of ideas and knowledge. The web was made for people like me, the knowledge dilettantes, and I honestly believe there’s a place for my approach to learning. But if everyone processes texts my way? That’s something else. The author, Maryanne Wolf, is from the intriguingly named Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners and Social Justice. Diverse learners for social justice is my new gang name.

Unlearning the Origins of Photography

Ask any photographer when photography started and they’ll say the 19th century, when the chemistry was developed to save images in a camera obscura. But it’s an illuminating exercise to go beyond the technical and explore when and where the idea of photography came about, especially as photography and cameras were employed to define the 20th century and all that it meant. Where did this mechanistic, systemic point of view originate?

Suggesting that the origins of photography go back to 1492 is an attempt to undermine the imperial temporality that was imposed at that time, enabling people to believe, experience, and describe interconnected things as if they were separate, each defined by newness. To put it another way, for photography to emerge as a new technology in the late 1830s, the centrality of the imperial rights on which photography was predicated had to be ignored, denied, or sublimated, or in any case pushed into the background and not perceived as constitutive of its operation as a technology.

How often, especially in the internet era, do wankers like me fetishise the new in ignorance of what the new is built upon? How often do we get away with it?

Sunday Video

A Short Tour of the Manufacturing Might of China

A mediative look at the front-line of hyper-duper consumer capitalism.

On the Deck

These may be featured next time, they may not. But they caught my eye, so they might catch yours.

September 16

Sunday Reads

Feels like a light bunch of reads this fortnight. Maybe because of the new job I haven’t been deep-diving so much, but maybe this is a good thing. Enjoy some word-snacks.

How Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson will become President

A few years ago, possibly when Trump was running for, but hadn’t yet become, president, I read an article following Mr Rock around his daily life which posited he might be president one day. I looked for it today but there are now hundreds of the things, which either means he will be, or he definitely won’t be. This is not that article - this is short story in the form of an emailed proposal by Robert Sloan that declares President Rock to be an inevitability that needs to be programmed by a book that will become a film staring The Rock who, when he becomes president, will use his memory of the film as a template for policy, just as Reagan did with his movies, so it needs to be a good book.

Continuing to Dangle

I am endlessly impressed at how Andrew Rilstone writes so eloquently, making serious and lucid points about the human condition, while exploring the minutiae of 1960s Spider-man comics, of all things. This sort of nerd-heavy writing should not transcend its nerdery, but it does.

Will Terrence Malick Ever Really Finish The Tree of Life?

I’m a sucker for artists who never finish their work, always coming back to fix it. Eddie Campbell’s endless edits of his Alec comics has begotten a complete reworking of From Hell and all those Directors Cuts can’t just be for financial reasons. (Let’s not mention George Lucas though…) So news that Terrence Malick is reworking his magnum opus is entertaining if nothing else. I wasn’t that fussed with the original but maybe I’ll revisit it now it’s 50 minutes longer.

The New Science of Seeing Around Corners

This is a nice short overview of the state of what we might call “extreme imaging”, using faint echoes and shadows to build a pretty coherent record of the world beyond our senses.

In their first paper , Freeman and Torralba showed that the changing light on the wall of a room, filmed with nothing fancier than an iPhone, can be processed to reveal the scene outside the window. Last fall, they and their collaborators reported that they can spot someone moving on the other side of a corner by filming the ground near the corner. This summer, they demonstrated that they can film a houseplant and then reconstruct a three-dimensional image of the rest of the room from the disparate shadows cast by the plant’s leaves. Or they can turn the leaves into a “visual microphone,” magnifying their vibrations to listen to what’s being said.

That visual microphone stuff is amazing, recording a crisp packet with a high-speed camera and then playing the vibrations back like the grooves on a record vibrating the stylus. Your food packaging is always listening.

The Beautiful, Ugly, & Possessive Hearts of Star Wars

If you only read one article about how Star Wars fandom has become a cess-pool of awfulness, then this one will do. Seriously, it’s 12,000 words long and I read it one sitting.

Why the Future of Data Storage is (Still) Magnetic Tape

I have a theory that most developments in computers over the last few decades will, in the long term, be shown to be dead ends and by the middle of the century we’ll be using fundamentally the same technology as powered the moon landings, only way more powerful. It’s amazing that the same technology used to load Hungry Horace onto my ZX Spectrum is now storing terabytes of data on tracks 50 nanometres wide, and there’s still ways to go.

Is NASA’s Opportunity Mars Rover Doomed?

I hope not, though it’s had a good ride.

September 12

Lindsay Ellis on YouTube, on Manufacturing Authenticity on YouTube

I discovered Lindsay Ellis a few months ago as this person who does deep-dive video essays on nerdy subjects in a way that isn’t shite and have been hooked ever since. Despite never really being a big follower of deep-dive video essays I now only ever watch cleverly edited straight-to-camera rapid-fire talkings about some minutiae or other by people much younger than me.

Because Lindsay’s style of work is new to me I’ve of course got like 2,000 words in the drafts folder about it, which I will eventually edit down to something succinct like “I like her work because she uses her brain to think about stuff while crafting these wonderfully entertaining packages that remind me of zines in the 1990s”. But that’s for another day.

This video in particular is a bit of a departure because it’s about YouTube itself, the platform on which she and many others present and distribute their work. It’s mostly about the desire for and value given to “authenticity”, which has been around long before YouTube and will be with us long after but which remains fascinating for how impossible it is to define (given our inner selves are often a mystery to us, can we ever truly be authentic?) and for how we feel we know it when we can’t see it.

More pertinently, the combination of YouTube’s culture of authenticity-expectation and it’s aggressively tuned algorithms, does not appear to be providing video producers with a safe working environment, mentally speaking.

In June Polygon published YouTube’s top creators are burning out and breaking down en mass and this week The Guardian released The YouTube stars heading for burnout: ‘The most fun job imaginable became deeply bleak’.

James Bridle calls this algorithmic employment:

[Algorithmic employment] has two main qualities: optimisation and opacity. “Optimisation” - from the employer’s point of view of course - really means the extraction of every possible effort, with no regard to the cost (there are always others to exploit).

But the process is always opaque - and thus confusing, anxiety-inducing, to the employee… selective opacity is a form of power, a deeply oppressive one…

That’s combined, too, with the illusion of choice, whether it’s YouTubers or Uber drivers, or the supposed flexibility of zero-hours contracts. The outsourcing of responsibility. Google, YouTube, and others continue to engineer and implement dystopia for our benefit, if we choose to see it.

What makes the YouTube algoployees different to, say, Deliveroo biker could be the emotional labour required to manufacture the correct levels of authenticity, and to deal with the fallout of that when it lands in places you weren’t expecting.

I discovered this evening that comments on YouTube count as an engagement metric, so videos that have lots of comments get pushed up the sidebar by the algorithm. Added to this, users of YouTube expect to be able to leave comments and if they don’t, they get mad.

I feel like I’ve discovered a new seam of really interesting activity on the internet and it’s all great and awesome, but I’m simultaneously worried about the mental health of these people, and that’s not nice. I don’t know what the answer is, but I suspect it might involve moving off YouTube, if that’s even possible.

Pete’s favourite YouTube accounts of the moment:

Is it wrong that even after all this I’m finding myself thinking seriously about starting a YouTube channel thingy? Something like Pete in the shed with the rabbits. I dunno.