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ABV #42: Record-keeping, kings + knowing

“Luke Harding and the spy as editor” by Giovanni Tiso.

“I was writing a chapter on the NSA’s close, and largely hidden, relationship with Silicon Valley. I wrote that Snowden’s revelations had damaged US tech companies and their bottom line. Something odd happened. The paragraph I had just written began to self-delete. The cursor moved rapidly from the left, gobbling text. I watched my words vanish.

- Luke Harding

It’s a wonderful image, that of a paragraph deleting itself in the act of being written. That it belonged to a book about spies and surveillance only adds to the frisson, like when Amazon deleted copies of a book from thousands of its customers’ Kindles without so much as a warning or an explanation, and the book in question turned out to be George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I believe that’s where the phrase ‘you couldn’t make this shit up’ originally comes from.

It’s ironic. Of course it is. The problem is what to do with all this irony. Luke Harding did his best to appear unfazed by it, and started leaving messages in the text which made him sound like a passive-aggressive flatmate whose food keeps disappearing.

Good morning. I don’t mind you reading my manuscript – you’re doing so already – but I’d be grateful if you don’t delete it. Thank you.

What is so disarming about this story and others like it is the absurdly quotidian nature of these encounters. The spy nowadays sits at a desk, petulantly deleting paragraphs in which you talk about them directly (such was the case with Harding’s book). The spied-upon in turn has nowhere to run – there is nowhere to run – and starts leaving his own bitter little messages, like post-it notes on a fridge. Yet I confess that conversation interests me more than the urgent and topical content of Harding’s book. The spy who deletes. The writer who writes back.

What is also tritely, exhaustingly ironic, in the context of the NSA revelations and every political thriller since Enemy of the State, is that users of social media effectively write their own surveillance reports. ‘Subject got up and consumed hearty organic breakfast.’ ‘Subject expressed unsavoury political views after reading article in the morning’s paper.’ Tweet-length entries in a drab chronicle of life beyond the cyber-curtain. And on top of that, we secret-police one another. ‘I remember that thing you said two years ago, in fact, I have kept a record of it.’ It’s all filed in a myriad archives, and yours and mine can be just as sinister as those that belong to the NSA, Google or Facebook.”

“The Gone-Away World” by Nick Harkaway.

“In the distant past, in what might be described as the Golden Days of War, the business of wreaking havoc on your neighbours (these being the only people you could logistically expect to wreak havoc upon) was uncomplicated . You – the King – pointed at the next-door country and said, ‘I want me one of those!’ Your vassals – stalwart fellows selected for heft and musculature rather than brain – said, ‘Yes, my liege,’ or sometimes, ‘What’s in it for me?’ but broadly speaking they rode off and burned, pillaged, slaughtered and hacked until either you were richer by a few hundred square miles of forest and farmland, or you were rudely arrested by heathens from the other side who wanted a word in your shell-like ear about cross-border aggression. It was a personal thing, and there was little doubt about who was responsible for kicking it off, because that person was to be found in the nicest room of a big stone house wearing a very expensive hat.

Modern war is distinguished by the fact that all the participants are ostensibly unwilling. We are swept towards one another like colonies of heavily armed penguins on an ice floe. Every speech on the subject given by any involved party begins by deploring even the idea of war. A war here would not be legal or useful. It is not necessary or appropriate. It must be avoided. Immediately following this proud declamation comes a series of circumlocutions, circumventions and rhetorico-circumambulations which make it clear that we will go to war, but not really, because we don’t want to and aren’t allowed to, so what we’re doing is in fact some kind of hyper-violent peace in which people will die. We are going to un-war.”

“Home” by Holly Herndon (/K回IRO) and Metahaven.

Weeknotes, 19/10/14

This week has been mostly uneventful. I finally signed my student loan agreement with an unavoidable sense of impending dooooom. I’ve started so I’m finishing but it’s expensive. I’ve been working through the materials, and there are three weeks until my first assignment deadline. The course = 4 assignments for 50%, a final exam for 50%.

Started transcribing my Improving Reality notes (and realised the videos are up). Slogged out a bundle of writing work, stacked pomodoros sat at a dining table with my dad & my brother. Website housekeeping. Hyper-alert nostalgia walks. Flowers that’ve been planted since I stood there last.

Site Spotlight: Kate Belgrave

“This site is mainly a collection of interviews with people who rely on public services and who have fought as their services have been privatised and eroded.

Since 2010, the site has focused on the public service cuts made by the coalition government, and on privatisation. Have published articles on these topics at the Guardian, newleftproject, Open Democracy, False Economy, and the New Statesman. Recent joint film made with the Daily Mirror on the fight to save the Independent Living Fund is here.

I also work part time for the False Economy site.

Contact me

You can use the contact form below or contact me on:

kate AT katebelgrave DOT com

To those in positions of *power*: please note that I’m an NUJ member and retain a lawyer. Both have proved helpful.”

- Kate Belgrave

ABV #41: Rhetoric, rights + retinas

“Vice: We’ve Been Had, and We Let It Happen” by Alexandra Molotkow.

“As a teenager, I took a generous view of McInnes’s language, figuring it was all in jest and that his rhetoric worked like a power drill that sometimes got away from him. I’d assumed that McInnes was basically right-thinking—we tend to remake our idols in ways that reinforce our values—which was, of course, incredibly silly and naive. At some point I realized, as many of us did, that you can’t take someone’s convictions for granted; also, that the distinction between irreverence and bile is meaningless when the intention is to piss people off. In revisiting some of the allowances I made for him, I came to realize how messed up some of my own habits of thought had been.

Part of the reason McInnes kicked around so long is that, in 2003, implying that trans women weren’t “really” women was still tolerated as a matter of opinion; the word “faggot” was still a discouraged, but acknowledged part of schoolyard parlance; and using racial slurs with the caveat that you weren’t “really” racist was thought of, at least by some, as something other than racism. What Vice got away with 10 years ago, under the banner of “irreverence,” is now, thankfully, completely unacceptable. In a way, Vice at its worst did exactly what it was supposed to: demonstrate the ugliness inherent in counterculture, making it obvious that as much ignorance and prejudice was coiled at its centre—and more insidiously, since liberals tend to think of themselves as liberal. Vice helped to raise a generation, and then gave it an attitude to reject.”

∞ “On Liberty” by Shami Chakrabarti.

“Rules in the form of human rights and the rule of law prevent majority rule descending into that of the mob and today’s democracy from becoming tomorrow’s dictatorship.

One question that people put to me up and down the country time and again is: ‘Isn’t there too much talk about rights and not enough about responsibilities?’ As I have chosen social responsibility as a way of life, this can be an emotionally tough question. However, if I stop to think about it for a minute, it is far less tricky intellectually. The modern world is highly regulated by a multitude of obligations. Criminal law and civil and administrative duties govern every aspect of our lives. So it hardly seems excessive that our elected representatives who govern us owe us a small bag of duties as well. This means respecting our freedoms and accepting a few obligations to create a society and infrastructure in which we are protected from each other. This is a positive responsibility on the state to protect the rights and freedoms of the people and not merely a negative restraint. It requires effective criminal law and its enforcement, effective access to justice and the protection of the individual from overweening bureaucracy and the vulnerable from the physically and materially powerful in society.

What are these fundamental rights, rules and values that some find so difficult to stomach? What are the freedoms too often described as alien, unworkable or old-fashioned? This so-called ‘criminals’ charter’ protects all of us. It provides our right to life and not to be tortured, enslaved or thrown into arbitrary detention. It guarantees the right to a fair trial and respect for our private and family lives. Freedoms of conscience, speech and association are enshrined and, most importantly of all, equal treatment under the law for everyone, no matter how rich or poor, privileged or disenfranchised. These concepts reflect the idea that as human beings we are precious individuals and inherently social creatures rubbing along together in democratic society – a term referred to often in the Convention. These ideas are neither selfish individualism nor the ‘political correctness’ that some label them, seeking to diminish their worth. Rather they provide safeguards for every civil and political sphere of our lives, from the intimate area of private thoughts and family life through to speech, expression and association with others. This includes friendly, faith-based, family, trade union, neighbourhood and political relationships and all the bonds that make our society.

The late great Lord Tom Bingham, perhaps the finest judge of recent times, asked:
“Which of these rights, I ask, would we wish to discard? Are any of them trivial, superfluous, unnecessary? Are any of them un-British? There may be those who would like to live in a country where these rights are not protected, but I am not of their number.””

“Eyes of Hitchcock” by kogonada, via V Renée at NoFilmSchool.

Weeknotes, 05/10/14

I had another theatre workshop yesterday. The schedule of up to 2 sessions per month works really well; the time spent is intense but there’s enough space in between to tackle the work solo. Other than attendance, there’s free reign to do as much or little as either desired or is practical. We’re all starting to warm up & feel comfortable so I’m looking forward to learning more about everyone’s ideas.

This week was boringly useful for admin and bureaucracy. Now that I’m back at work, my bed time has gone up like whoa (over 21 hours more this week versus a fortnight ago!) so I’m starting to schedule things.

This includes actively planning to be a ~good student~. I’m defining this as: learning as much as I can by not locking it in a bubble, producing work that is useful (to me + hopefully wider), and passing everything without being an obsessive perfectionist or sabotaging myself. A reason I chose to study part-time was so I’m not in an academic sanctuary & can apply things to “real life” straight away; it’s counterproductive to zero in on school at the exclusion of all else.

I have a tutor allocated for my course & three in-person dates. Unfortunately these are in London. Extra unfortunately, the first one is this weekend and there’s train line maintenance on my route. Cue days of public transport logistics hassle. It’s these kind of times that not driving or having car access seem less viable long-term, even though they usually have minimal impact and I have no real intention of change.

Pragmatism! Fundamentally it’s not feasible and not going has more benefits (although not sociability or ~excitement). The important things are: learning, creating work and passing the course. (Passing is explicitly needed as much as that’s counter to my approach; I need to focus on admin deadlines this time rather than just learning, as that’s how I’ve missed course credits before. Cognitive dissonance. See also: having to finish by 2017.)

If I spent the tutorial hours at home studying, I’d be better placed. If I spent the tutorial + commute hours studying, I’d be much better off. And if I spent tutorial + commute + recovery time studying, I’d have gained at least a week which is ridiculous. There are three tutorials through my nine month course. It would be nice (but not crucial) to make at least one.

I was hoping to go to the Paines Plough installation (theatre! place! hometowns! history! multiple writers! audio recordings!) at the Southbank Centre afterwards (across the river from my tutorial at an LSE building), so I hope there’ll be another way to access that in the future. Theatre from a distance sounds paradoxical but maybe not; transmitted is better than missed. The description says they’ll be launching an app. Fingers crossed there’ll also be a browser-friendly version for people who don’t have access to a smartphone or tablet.

The solution to subsequent disappointment is to just stop expecting to go to things in person. Now: unless it’s my day job, limited local arts or an annual adventure, I’m expecting attendance to be the exception rather than the rule. Focusing my energy closer to home. Winter hibernation = reading, learning, writing, thinking.