Thursday, 18 August 2016

Lousy Marketing Strategy

"The devil makes work for idle hands" is a well known English saying. The idea behind it is that bored people will sometimes do dumb things just because they are bored. In my normal experience of life I have a lot of time to get bored and sometimes I do and then crazy ideas come into my head. Most, of course, simply fly away again to the nether world from which they sprung. But some get to work in my active mind and try and flesh themselves out into things I might actually do. Today's blog is about one of of these things that made it.

I often muse about my music and its reception. I imagine I am not unusual in this respect, one of the now probably several millions of people in the richer nations of the world who make music and put it online for others to hear. I also imagine that probably well over 90% of these people get virtually no listeners or downloads just like me. Last year I had 907 downloads of my albums and 2405 listens to my tracks (of which only 344 were listens to a whole track). Its not a lot. So an idea came into my head from whichever dark pits these things ascend: what if you put the exact same music up that virtually no one listens to but pretend that its by someone else? Maybe someone much more attractive than a middle-aged Englishman with a penchant for being philosophical and random? So I did.

Now I wonder what you are expecting me to tell you happened? It went like this. I created a fake Facebook page for someone who doesn't exist. The person was a 25 year old female electronic musician from Berlin. She had pictures of herself (which I borrowed from online and altered so they couldn't be found in a Google search) and her studio equipment (but not together) and very soon after the creation of the page she had music online to download for free. (I did not want to cheat anyone out of any money. No harm, no foul.) She joined some Facebook music groups and took part in discussions. She posted her music into the many music groups on Facebook. The response was, perhaps, as you might expect. This fictional artist got 2400 plays in 10 days, the same amount it took me one year to get. The 200 free downloads you get on Bandcamp were exhausted in the same time. The music I had used as "her's" wasn't even the music I considered my best. It was merely some secondary tracks all from this year which when they were on my account garnered next to no attention at all. These same tracks are now amongst my top listened to and downloaded tracks. But not because of them or because of me. Because the person they were thought to come from was a good looking young woman with a bubbly personality.

What should I make of this? The electronic music world is overwhelmingly full of the same kind of person: males. Many of these males just want to chat about their gear all day. To pose as a female is immediately to stand out and I admit I did this on purpose. I wanted to be a magnet that the unwary or unsuspecting would not be able to resist. In fact, I could be considerably richer now because several potential purchasers contacted the Facebook account I set up to offer my fake artist money. Some wanted to send me money direct, others wanted me to offer my album on "pay what you want" terms. Others wanted to do collaborations. A couple wanted me to make videos with them or go for photo shoots to help my profile. I refused all offers. The account attracted hundreds of friend requests most of which I turned down. I added some just to aid plausibility. The thought strikes me that I could have carried this on for months if not years and made money from it. But that wasn't my intention. I just wanted, in a curious and non-malicious way, to find out how popular my music would be if people didn't think it was me that was doing it. The answer, you might think, would be damaging to my self-esteem. When its by me its not very popular. When its by a young woman it is much more so. But its the same music!

Maybe you are shouting at the screen now. So far, so obvious. Young women are more popular than middle-aged guys. What's the drama? Well "the drama" is that I am a middle-aged guy and the only way that is going to change is that I will soon enough become an old guy. I have learnt that people do not appreciate my music based on what it is but they base it on all kinds of other stuff like who made it, what they look like and, as I discovered in the many discussions I had, what they use. This basically means that whatever music I make I start off with a huge handicap. Something I am and cannot change is holding back the potential of what I do: being me. How should I react to that?

This all ties in to ideas about status, and particularly my status, in life. I sometimes make music and I sometimes write blogs and that is really all I do. You're probably wondering how I stay alive but that's a secret I don't want to share. That's because its a sad tale and not a bad tale, by the way. People are allowed their secrets. Anyway. I make music and write blogs. I consider myself an electronic musician and if someone asks me what I do, and they virtually never do because I don't know anyone or go anywhere, then that is what I say I do. This doesn't mean I am a professional. A professional to me is someone who does a certain task for money or to support themselves. Additionally, it may mean they adhere to a set of standards that people who do that task to support themselves may hold in common. But I don't make a cent from my music because I choose to give it away. Partly, I think, this is a defense mechanism. If I charged money it would probably be very negatively received if no one wanted to pay. By making it free I save myself that heartache. Partly, though, its also ideological. I give my music away and therefore I owe no one anything. You haven't paid for it and so you have no call to demand anything from me in return. Commerce, wherever it takes place, sets up obligations and I want none involved in my music making.

Commerce, however, is often a guiding standard of our world. If I tell someone I'm a musician and they say "Where can I buy your music?" and I tell them they can't because I give it away for free they look at me funny. What kind of professional makes no money from his or her profession? The suggestion is then that I am a fraud. To be a professional is to make money from what you do. So I am not a professional because I earn no money from my music. I'm also not one, incidentally, because I go my own way regarding the standards I use to make it as well. I get very annoyed when people write things telling me where a professional would place their speakers or how they would go about recording something or what the "proper" way to achieve some musical task is. I think you can do things how the hell you like. In music you decide what the goals are and how to get there. But if only it was the music that were important. When people hear sound coming into their ears they may know nothing about its origins. All there is in that moment is sound. I wish it remained that way. This, for me, is a precious, sacred moment. But it doesn't stay that way. The innocence of Eden is shattered by the thirst for the Tree of Knowledge. Instead people might judge how professional I am and that might reflect on my music. Maybe they were hoping it came from someone more good looking or with a better set of synths. It wouldn't matter to these people that I am as serious about the music I have made as any artist (who makes money from music) they could name. It wouldn't in that moment be just about the music anymore. Superfluous stuff poisons the well.

Of course, there's no way to change any of this. People want to know stuff. Even if it would be better all round if they didn't. I could go back to pretending to be 25 year old women of course. These seem to be continuously popular. I've learnt that pretense and deception can work. I don't doubt I could charm money into my life through a succession of fictional characters. And its not as if I don't need this money. Others would tell you that I certainly do. And that's probably one reason why I never ask for it. I'm very contrarian. But it has to be said that in this case I have a very lousy marketing strategy for the main thing I do. This is because I don't think that I am actually worth paying if I'm honest. It was very easy to pretend to be the other person. In fact, it was freedom from being me. You could pay her because she is giving you your money's worth. But me? You must be joking. But its the same music!

The woman is gone now. The four accounts she was associated with are deleted. She no longer exists. But the music does. Its my music. And its on my Bandcamp. It will not garner any of the attention it did whilst there was a pretty face and a nice chest to stick on the front of it. Instead, I've very deliberately put my own face on it. Gargoyle-like, it stares out at anyone dumb enough to stray there, a warning that nothing here is very attractive. The music was made by someone who is seriously interested in music though and always wants to learn and progress in using sounds to express things and just to bring some interest to the world. Is this enough? Probably not. I'm just using music to knit the days together really until they run out.

That will probably have to be enough.

You can listen to Lousy Marketing Strategy, the music formerly made by a sexy young woman (but not really) HERE! 

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Some Thoughts About Electronic Oddities

Its now just over a month since the first season of my ELECTRONIC ODDITIES PODCAST finished. You may or may not be overly familiar with the series and if you want or need a refresher you can find all thirteen shows in the series right HERE! 

The Electronic Oddities Podcast served a number of different functions for me. It was primarily a show I did to showcase new and differing kinds of electronic music. It served this purpose very well and encompassed a number of "old faves" of mine, and others, as well as music I and probably very few others had ever heard before. I wanted it to be a mix in every possible sense, of unknown and known, of music you might like and music I hoped you wouldn't. This later point gives away its educational purpose too. I was, in the thirteen shows, also trying to get some points across. In my head I hope that some listeners heard something they might not have liked before but now find that their horizons have shifted slightly. Certainly before this year I never would have included any noise music in such a show. And yet, in this series, noise tracks pop up here and there and show eleven is only use of noise. I approached the series seriously, trying to do a good job of it. Of course, you could point to lots of tracks and electronic music styles I probably missed out. But I was trying to do a good job.

I'm not usually one for feedback. I'm not on Facebook spam posting my works looking for hundreds of "You are great" type comments in reply. I treasure privacy and, to some extent, anonymity. This sets up a conflict when I make something or want to publicize something because I have to do something that, in some respects, my better nature is rebelling against. I would really rather let things speak for themselves if I can. This is hard though today because most people take the packaging for the product and have the attention span of a gnat. On Bandcamp I can see in the stats how people have barely given a track 30 seconds of their time and decided its not for them. This is a pitifully small span of time in which to make your impression. In a similar way, I didn't really want to put track listings on my podcasts on Mixcloud where Electronic Oddities is based but a couple of people semi-complained that they wanted to know what the tracks were and so I deferred. That bothered me because if people think they know then they will base judgments on that. But I didn't want them to "know". I wanted them to experience. The latter, I think, is the much more valuable thing in the end. "Knowing" is a closed thing whereas "experiencing" implies opening yourself up.

I noticed some interesting things about the podcast as I went through the thirteen weeks. Besides the surge of interest that came with the first show of a new thing, the most popular show has been the fifth one which was a modular synth special. This was probably the best advertised show, since there are numerous Facebook groups dedicated to modular synthesis in which to post the show's existence. So this perhaps explains this show's popularity. I was a little surprised, and a bit upset, that show nine, which was dedicated mostly to classic 80s dance music by people like Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Man Parrish, was the least popular. So-called "EDM" seems so all-consuming nowadays but without such artists, and the technology they harnessed to make it, there would be no EDM. This show was a history lesson and a reminder to remember where this music came from but it seems to have gone largely unheeded. My final show was music specially commissioned for the podcast and I'm glad that got a decent hearing. There are numerous talented people out there who make electronic music and its good, from time to time, to spread the word about some of them so we can share the encouragement of appreciation around. I was happy to put the time in to do my bit for that. Overall, pretty much every podcast of the thirteen made a mark in the Mixcloud charts. A number hit top ten in their genres. Some made top five.

All this tells me I was doing something that at least a few people might want to listen to. There were a number of thankful comments left too which were, of course, unrequested but welcome nevertheless. The problem comes when I ask myself what to do now. I have a fixation about not repeating myself so instinctively I fight against the notion of "Electronic Oddities Season 2". I could probably do that and hopefully maintain the standard I reached in season 1 but I would be asking myself why I was doing it the whole time. So the best scenario would be if I could carry on doing a similar thing but not the same thing. My aims in my next season of podcasts would be to continue playing an almost random mixture of electronic music, new and old, that might strike the prospective listener as interesting and engaging. I want to provide a podcast that people want to listen to and come to trust as worth listening to. I don't know if I did that first time round because there are some questions you shouldn't ask in case you don't like the answer. But I know a few people who said they looked forward to it. So maybe I did. I would probably want to broaden the scope of the show slightly so I have creative freedom to have themed shows or one-off specials. So I'm thinking something like "The Doktor Existenz Radio Show" at the moment. But it will still be everything Electronic Oddities is. And hopefully a bit more. 

Such a show will, of course, stand and fall by the music played and by word of mouth. I set myself fairly low targets in terms of listenership. For reference, my least listened to show in season one of Electronic Oddities was over the threshold I set for it being worthwhile. Whilst I might argue I'm doing this for myself, and that's true to some extent, in the end you don't publish podcasts unless there are listeners. I wasn't sure when I initially set out, earlier in the summer, that I would even finish series one. But now here I am musing on series 2. And I have some ideas for this. There are songs I want to play, themes I want to explore and new music I want to find. I just want to make a varied and interesting electronic music product for people who can appreciate the same thing. Hopefully, some of you reading this will join me for the ride for 13 weeks from September 2nd.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Life, Existence And Being A Ghost

"Wir sind geboren um zu leben, nicht um zu funktionieren."

"Das Leben ist zu kurz um es mit Warten auf das Wochenende zu verbringen. Jeder Tag kann schön und der Letzte sein."

"I feel so non-existent.... I feel like I'm dead and a ghost."

What I've quoted above is three quotes from my Twitter timeline. They are all, in their own ways, related thoughts but, more importantly for this blog, related to thoughts and ideas I regularly have or think about. The first two, written in German, suggest that life is to be "lived" and not merely to be functional. The similar English thought is to differentiate existence from living. The first is simply being but the second is thought of as more. And as better. The second German quote above says that life is too short to wait for the weekend. Every day can be good and could also be your last. So its recommended that you enjoy and get the most out of every day by implication. And as for the third quote above... Well that interests me the most and it has since I first read it. For what exactly does it mean? Even the person who said it does not seem to know. But it seems negatively related to my first two quotes.

As far as the first two ideas go my instinct is to critique and reject them. "This day could be your last," its said, as if that were some kind of motivation to do something good, worthy or fulfilling. But if I knew that this day was my last I wouldn't do anything. And knowing it was would be the major motivator in that fact. The fact I'd have one day left would guarantee I did absolutely nothing on that day. Because being brutally honest with you I'd be damn happy that it was. You see I see life differently from very many other people and often I imagine that these people don't think very deeply. I may be right or wrong about that, of course. I think they just swallow ideas such as that "life is for living not existing" without really thinking about them or doing the hard work of asking what they mean and if it is experientially true. This, I take it, is the most important truth of all, the truth that you feel.

And so I ask myself why the fact this might be my last day should matter at all. It would matter to me merely, and with relief, because it would mean for me that the burden of this fleshly existence is finally being removed from me. Yes, that's genuinely how I feel overall about life and one can only be honest for there is no wrong answer here - just your answer. When people say to me that life is for living and not existing or, in German, um zu leben, nicht um zu funktionieren, I sort of think I know what they mean but I don't really. Perhaps I've only ever existed and never lived. And, if that were true, how could I be expected to know the difference anyway? The difference here is one of experience not book knowledge. Its not a matter of facts but of having lived. And, whatever you might say, its somewhat arrogant to imagine that everyone's experience about life, or thoughts upon it, are the same as yours. But, and this should function as a warning here, its also dangerous to think that you are the only person feeling like you do or that no one ever has before. We all walk individual paths. We must for we are individuals. But we are the same species and can share and have things in common and we need to remember that. "You are not alone" is both true and not true at the same time.

So you can take it that I'm not buying any feel good horse bollocks about "life is for living" without a heavy dose of experience-funded cynicism. Life, in many respects for me, is for getting through and I have earned the right to think that having struggled through forty seven and half years of bullshit to get to today. That individual struggle earns me the right to talk about life as I have lived it and experienced it. Some of this may be relevant to you and some may not. But, I repeat, there's no wrong answers here anyway. So be bold enough to think what you really want to think and say what you really feel. 

As I've said before, I have come around to the view that life is less about external circumstances, which is the obsession of the masses, and more about internal ones, which seems to me to be either ignored completely by people or brushed over with lip service. Without going into details its fair to say that as the world sees, a world all about possessions and status, that I'm pretty much as far down the pile as you could get. I am in many respects a hermit. I don't fit in and rather than struggling to do so I choose to accept my fate and not do so. I don't own very much. The money I have is inconsequential. I have no friends and the vast majority of people I speak to in a day are online. If I couldn't get online I might go for days without talking to anyone at all. And yet, in a way, none of this really bothers me very much because, as I say, life for me is not about externals. Its about internals and these internals are things I've struggled with too ever since I was really even an adult.

I have not known a lot of peace in my life and this is because I've had to deal with internal trauma for a lot of it. Perhaps now you understand why superficial, external things mean so little to me? Its because what good is stuff or status when you are fighting against your own mind and feelings? They are no use and of no help. Your own mind is literally something you cannot escape and to fight against yourself is probably the hardest battle of all. There is a history of mental health issues in my family. My mother and her twin sister suffered from various maladies and to a certain extent still do to this day. This has for them been a lifelong battle throughout adulthood. Every day for them can be full of surprises and not the nice kind. Imagine waking up and immediately you feel afraid. They don't have to because it has happened to them. Its happened to me many times too. Both of them suffer from a fear of traveling and my mother recently took a short break away with a friend. She was as white as a sheet waiting for her friend's car to arrive. For some people simple things are major hurdles.

But unless you know someone like this I imagine that it would never even occur to you. We all have a tendency to think that everyone else thinks like us and I've written about this before. The truth is that some people do and some people don't. We are all a strange mixture of shared thoughts, feelings and emotions. We each have our areas of experience and areas of lack of experience. I remember once having a panic attack in the street near where I was living. My first impulse was to speak to someone and I saw a neighbour from across the street who I had seen many times before. I still remember the look of complete fear on her face and I can only imagine that I must have looked like some crazed axe murderer walking towards her from that look on her face! I just wanted human contact as a means to get control over how I was feeling but for her it seemed to look like something terrible. 

We hear a lot today about people with mental health problems but it is not usually in a positive connection. Maybe its because someone has been killed or there was "a crazy person" on the bus or in the shop or in the street. Very few of these people are in any way dangerous and, of those that are, most are more likely to be dangerous to themselves much more than anyone else. But, for those who don't understand about the many forms of mental health issues that abound today, it can all just seem dangerous and threatening - as the unknown usually feels to most of us. It is striking that it is in the most developed nations of the earth that mental health is the biggest issue, as if modern society had created its own casualties. And I must be honest in saying that I think it does. I'm probably one of them for I find a so-called modern way of living to be utterly crazy and contrary to more natural means almost to the point of total frustration sometimes. This is not just as a matter of its physical circumstances but also in relation to its guiding philosophies. How can it be promoting of good mental health, for example, that we are all in theory competing with each other for wealth and prosperity? It seems to me that if you wanted to make some people sick that's the first thing you would do.

"Life is to be lived not just experienced" we are told though by the prophets of superficiality. I'm not sure they would say that if their "experience" was as dark as it is for some people. Life, for them, might be more something to be escaped. "Living", whatever positive spin that is being given, seems more like a fabled Never Never Land, a thing which some people say they have but which, for those with dark personal experiences, seems false and unreal. And, indeed, if "living" is merely about having stuff and earning money to buy the stuff and maybe having a status which gets you the money to buy the stuff then isn't it false and unreal? I would argue that the real riches such people have are never waking up soaked in sweat or never being worried about feeling deathly afraid as they board a train or carrying a feeling of dread just about the fact that you are you and being you is like an uncomfortable coat that you can never take off. For some people being who you are does not come easily.

And this is the sense I get from the quote "I feel so non-existent.... I feel like I'm dead and a ghost." For what must it mean to feel like you don't exist? It implies an absence of feeling, an inability to inhabit or enjoy things, as if everything is only observed but without being able to take part. It doesn't sound very pleasant to me but it does sound very genuine and I value that fact for I value those who speak truthfully and not in the words of conventions or cliches. But from my own experience I think it must also be somewhat contradictory for the more I have felt an outsider to my own species the more personally aware I've become just how much that makes me one of them. This entire blog started with a search to discover humanity and what "being human" is all about. Eighteen months later its still on-going but its only a sub-section of my so far forty seven and a half year investigation. I have been exploring it in words, thoughts and music. Sometimes I feel like I touch something meaningful and at others it feels like none of it matters anyway because "all things must pass". 

The recently deceased Italian genius, Umberto Eco, wrote in his book, Foucault's Pendulum, that life was a meaningless enigma made worse by us because we had a desperate craving to infuse it with meaning and have it all add up to something. The plot twist was that it does not. We are just left with the feeling and idea that it must. I very much go along with this thought and my life seems to be a sort of validation of this idea up to this point. This is one reason I've felt the need to cast off very many human conventions which, ultimately, buy into the idea that things MUST mean something, something overarching and over all. But the truth is they mustn't and that they can mean whatever we want them to mean. And that can include nothing at all. But, be warned, what you think and feel must have consequences for you if you do it genuinely and authentically. Life is not a game and you cannot fool yourself. That is to say you can fool yourself but it leads nowhere good.

For me, life is about being at peace with myself. I've said this before. If you are at peace with yourself I think this means you are stronger, more able to deal with things in general and more able to set things in context. I think its partly a spiritual thing, whatever that means, and partly philosophical. I have found that in life I've had to do a lot of reading and much thinking to achieve this peace. It is not won cheaply and it is not bound to happen. You have to work for it and earn it. But I genuinely believe its the greatest prize a human being can have. But then maybe that's because I have to fight for it every day. I do not know what it would be like to not struggle in my existence. I've hardly lived a day where I didn't. But, in a way, I'm not remotely sorry about that because when I look out and see people living what I regard as empty, pointless lives acquiring stuff I feel glad that my struggle grounds me. Existence itself is not a small topic but at least I'm connected to that in my existential struggles as maybe you are in yours. It is good to step back and situate yourself in some greater context. If life is for living and living is a daily argument over who has what then I find that nihilistic beyond imagining. Life may not be merely functioning but living isn't mere selfish acquisition either. It must be about sharing, understanding, situating yourself in something more than yourself. It must be about everything of which a human being is capable and can experience. 

If you would like a musical commentary on all of this it can be found on my Bandcamp where the best of my last 8 years of music is now available, a musical commentary and testimony on my thoughts about life. Its at 

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

The Shit Sandwich Conundrum

Perhaps a strange title to today's blog but all, I'm sure, will become clear soon. "The Shit Sandwich Conundrum" is the name I give to a scenario when you have two choices and both of them are unpalatably bad. Its like having the choice of a shit sandwich to eat or a shit sandwich to eat. Whichever you choose both are shit sandwiches. "Why is this relevant to anything?" I hear you cry. Well that's what I have to explain now.

My primary motivation for this blog is political and this is because it seems to me that there have been a number of scenarios recently where the shit sandwich conundrum applied. Our American friends have a choice between a moronic, self-aggrandizing fool and a corrupt, corporate liar which is all very "shit sandwich". Here in the UK recently we had the choice of the corrupt EU or the boorish "Little Englander" mentality. The latter won. But, of course, it doesn't matter who wins in the "shit sandwich" scenario because, either way, you're going to be chowing down on shit.

What are we to do in such a scenario? It seems that a lot of people think we should accept our fate and start munching. I notice that yesterday comedian Sarah Silverman, formerly a supporter of Bernie Sanders as the Democratic nominee for President of the USA, now thinks that those who cling to their beliefs that Bernie was the man for the job are, and I quote, "ridiculous" to argue that it should be "Bernie or bust". Their refusal, like her, to give up on Bernie and, instead, fall in behind Hillary Clinton, one of the afore-mentioned shit sandwiches, provokes ire and insults from Ms Silverman. It seems that she thinks that even though some Democrats may have been demonizing Mrs Clinton for a year and saying all the bad things they could think about her now, somehow, they should just forget about all that as if it had never happened. Ms Silverman prioritizes expediency over principle. No doubt, if asked, she would argue that the Clinton shit sandwich is slightly more palatable than the Donald shit sandwich. But its all shit Sarah!

Of course, for the shit sandwich conundrum to be a genuine and real problem, which I think it is, then the stakes have to be real. With my American example I think that's very much the case and I, an outsider to that spectacle and merely watching the depressing show, cannot see a single redeeming factor about either candidate. In a similar way, there wasn't much redeeming about either choice in the Brexit debate. Its not as if the EU is some repository of goodness or that British politicians are any better or worse than European ones. Either side, from my perspective, was equally as shit. And the idea of slightly less shitty shit is a thoroughly shit argument. If that's what you find yourself reduced to then you surely must realize that something greater is wrong. And that is that politics itself is shit from top to bottom. Even in the rather parochial confines of the debate surrounding the leadership of the British Labour Party, a party currently riven with splits and arguments, the choice is between a lifelong left wing oddball, Jeremy Corbyn, (who is the Bernie Sanders figure here) and a man who barely seems to be from the Labour Party at all, Owen Smith (the Hillary Clinton). The former has spent his life disobeying his party and espousing left wing causes whilst the latter has suddenly found lots of reasons why he supports Labour causes yet mysteriously never seemed to before. The first has popular support from the party's members but would probably never win a General Election, the latter is all spin and PR and enrages many party members because he is so obviously a fake. So that's a double dose of shit all round.

I find myself asking how things come to this and I think the answer is that politics has become disengaged from what it ideally is and from what it actually should be. "Politics" comes from Greek and is, in so many words, "the business of the city". The Polis was the Greek city and so politics is how you run such places. It is, ideally, something that each citizen, the people who live in cities, is involved with. Except in our modern societies it isn't. So many of us have abdicated responsibility for this to so-called professional politicians. These professionals, however, are widely open and exposed to corruption and so the people charged with the business of the city become people channelled into serving other interests. British members of parliament yearly claim all kinds of ridiculous expenses as a privilege of their supposed service which, in the past, has been channelled into providing comfortable horse stables for a member's horses, moats for expensive houses or payment for the employment of family members. Some British parliamentarians also feel the need to claim money for taxi journeys of 100 yards or a pair of socks. On the other hand, Government contracts are awarded by politicians to companies who then, mysteriously, become the employers of the same people when they leave office. I'm only scratching the surface here.

My fundamental point here, and it depresses me that it might come as a shock to some people, is that real politics is about me and you, adults with the right to vote. But its not just about voting. In fact, that's almost the least important thing here. Its mostly about taking an active role in society and recognizing that its actually your responsibility as a citizen that is important here. I always say to myself whenever any unpopular policy is passed that if 10 million people stood in front of the building concerned and refused to move until the policy was changed then it would change immediately. Because people DO count and they DO matter but when we get apathetic and just let it pass because we have life to live or things to do or its not worth the hassle well that just let's whoever is responsible off the hook. And that's mostly what happens in our societies. We let those responsible off the hook. We imagine that there are "other people" whose job it is to run the place. We let slide the notion that, as citizens, its our responsibility to hold every politician and political decision to account. Gandhi did not let this responsibility slide. His movement of peaceful protest, in effect just sitting in the street until the change came, freed India from the British Empire. 

Gandhi's example is quite startling. His example is that any change worth making will take an effort. Nothing comes easily. Gandhi's campaign did take years to achieve its end. But, of course, you can sit back and do nothing. Well I don't know about you but I'm finding it increasingly difficult to choose between this shit or that shit. I don't personally want to have to chow down on either. And in the current situation with the professionalized political class that we have this is all we will ever get offered for you can bet that the other interests in society will keep wanting to push their stooges forward. Of course, there are men and women of conviction and principle in politics. But they are few and far between. My point, however, is that real politics is not about people who call themselves politicians. Its about citizens and being an active one rather than a passive one. Because, it seems to me, if you're happy to zone out and let everyone else get on with it well then what motivation have those that do got to take any care or concern over your needs?

Now in the Star Trek universe there is a famous scenario called the Kobayashi Maru. It is a test designed to test all prospective Starfleet Academy cadets in that fictional world and the point of the test is that it is a no-win scenario. Whatever is done during the test destruction (for some) is sure to follow. I mention this scenario here because it seems to me to have some similarities with the shit sandwich conundrum. In my conundrum we all have to eat shit. In Star Trek someone is going to die. The Star Trek scenario tests character and I think that the shit sandwich conundrum does too. This is not necessarily because I think that in real world human politics everyone is going to die (or eat shit) anyway. To be honest, if we think that then why bother? No, to act politically at all is to believe that things can change, can be different and can be ordered better. That's what Gandhi thought, its what Nelson Mandela thought and its even what the original founders of the USA thought. The shit sandwich scenario tests character because it addresses each citizen individually and asks them if they are going to take responsibility for their habitat, their city, their world. If no, then oh well. You handed over your future. If yes, you still may fail but at least you have a stake and you make yourself heard and, thus, noticed.

My ultimate point here is that real politics bypasses politicians. Real politics isn't professional. Its people, just people. Its people coming together with a common mind about things beneficial to them all. Maybe its a bit hippy or sappy. Maybe you find it all just a bit emotional of me. But its true. Politics is just the expressed will of the people, of any people who deign to take part. There are many who will laugh and smile if you choose not too. It makes their agenda that much easier to bring into effect. So next time you blame a politician for something ask yourself what you did to effect change politically recently. Because it all really starts and stops with the person in the mirror.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Who Are You?

Last night I tweeted a blog of mine from a year ago that was built around a question uttered by the character Deckard in the film Blade Runner. Deckard inquires of his host, Eldon Tyrell, about his employee Rachael, "How can it not know what it is?" In the story Rachael is a replicant, a manufactured being, an artificial human. In the blog I turned this seemingly reasonable question into a matter of personal identity and tried to show that, actually, knowing who or what you are is, in fact, extremely rare amongst living creatures, if not impossible. So the more reasonable question is actually how could one know what one is?

Its this identity question that I want to keep in focus in today's blog. I want each of you reading to ask yourself the question who and what you are... and to answer with some measure of responsibility and honesty. Its very easy to lie to yourself about this question and I'm personally in no doubt that this is the thing we probably lie to ourselves the most about. I want to focus on this today because this week I had cause to have to describe myself to someone I'd never met before and it pulled me up short to actually stand back from all the narratives I'm daily inhabiting and take a look at myself. 

It occurred to me that who I am doesn't actually fit in very well with many prevailing narratives in the world at large. I would, for example, make a terrible employee and could not present the blank, robotic, corporate face to an employer that I assume many of them want. I openly despise corporations, their ethics and even their very existence. And I'm not overly conscientious in hiding the fact I feel this way. In a world in which we are told HR departments now routinely trawl social media for information on their prospective employees I would not survive very long. 

But there are other things besides this. I'm not a family man, something that some would find suspicious. In current society some would also look down on middle aged, single men with suspicion. Indeed, only this week former Conservative Party leadership candidate, Andrea Leadsom, our new Environment Minister in the UK, someone who is in favour of fox hunting and doesn't believe in man-made climate change, seemed to suggest that men seeking to work with children could be pedophiles. As a person who myself started a youth club for children aged 7-11 some years ago, a club which is still running now over 20 years later, this made me feel under suspicion. I was already well aware that some find it easy to be suspicious about so-called "loners" but when such thoughts can be uttered openly it makes you just want to hide yourself away. Which, of course, wouldn't help either. The loner, the person who doesn't join in, the antisocial person, is someone distrusted too. The free spirit can equally be typecast as the contrarian or troublemaker.

What this reveals is that "who you are" or "who people see you to be" is not something benign. It has consequences. This is not just true in regard to how you see yourself which, psychologically speaking, is a vital component of your own physical and psychological health. Socially speaking, this matters too. It could very well frame what people these days refer to as your "life chances". We do not live in a world where points of view don't matter. Everything is interconnected as I've repeated many times in many of my blogs. What people see when they look at you does matter because, dependent on how they view it, it will frame their response to you and which pigeon hole they stick you in. This is what concerned me this week when I was asked by someone to describe myself. It suddenly occurred to me that if I was nail-bitingly honest in terms of how I see myself then, I assumed, it might not come across so well to someone who doesn't have my context of myself to see it in.

Let me be clear that this is not because I see myself as some sort of bad or disreputable person. I have done my share of bad things but, by my age, I'd imagine most people have a list of things about them that they'd rather not share. No, it was more the case that who I see myself to be now has diverted from "mainstream" ideas and has gone down a more personal and individual path. Diverting in this way does not come without cost because the more individual you become the less you fit in elsewhere. My life has been one where I've either let myself be blown by the winds of circumstance in what I'm sure some might see as a careless way or in which I have made idiosyncratic choices for my own personal reasons. I haven't had other people to worry about in doing this as I've largely been single. So I don't fit the model of many people who have family and build lives tailored to communal needs. It follows that my goals and motives are often entirely different to those of many others or from what might be expected.

If you've read many of my blogs I would hope that this might have come through. I am often an anti-conventional person in a very conventional world. This week I was forced to look at myself in the mirror and ask myself what that means. I think the answer is in many respects negative. It seemed to suggest to me that only those who conform can get on in the world. But, of course, it all depends here what terms you want to use to describe "getting on" or "achievement" or "progress" in this life. I'm not motivated by having stuff or a particular job title or various social statuses at all. My aims in life, such as they are, are more personal and, dare I suggest it, more philosophical or even spiritual. The most important thing in life, I think, is peace of mind. In the old "quality versus quantity" debate about life, "Would you rather have a short life of quality or a long life of quantity?", I've always chosen the quality over the quantity. I've never seen value in life itself as just an amount of stuff. Not all lives are equal and not all lives are worth living. This is one reason why I'm not so hard on those who commit suicide or on those who end their life humanely when they pass a personal threshold for its enjoyment.

It all comes back to this question "Who am I?". I'm sure there are many people who look in the mirror and see someone they do not want to be. Maybe you reading this now are one of them. Its often a temptation to get lazy and fall back on some notion that things have just happened and you can do nothing about it now. But we all know that is not true. As someone influenced by existentialist thinking I would have to be the last person who said that we should not take responsibility for ourselves. That sensibility is largely about doing exactly this and I feel that urge and desire to do so. This is not the desire to fit in. Its the desire to be able to look in the mirror and say "Yes, I am taking responsibility for myself, for who I am, for how I act, for how I interact with others. I want to be someone who can stand and look at themselves without any shame." This is basically saying that I want to be the kind of person who can live life without any bad faith towards myself. This is what I call "peace of mind".

I have been in relationships in the past and this question of "peace of mind" was an active factor in the relationship. I have felt the need to change myself in order to fit into something else and this has caused me trouble and personal turmoil. But at the end of the day the only person you are always in the presence of is yourself and so doing what promoted this peace of mind has always won out. You simply cannot live life whilst you are fighting yourself or acting contrary to your own internal monologue. But this is not a question of always giving in. Showing good faith towards yourself and promoting your own peace of mind is often about having courage and disciplining yourself to do things you know you should do but, for some reason, don't want to. So I do not see what I'm speaking in favor of as "the easy way out". Far from it. It can often be the hard way. I am a person who has in the past suffered from severely disabling panic attacks and yet during the winter of 1997 I forced myself to take terrifying train journeys to university. That took courage and not a little amount of balls. I could easily have run away. But if I had I wouldn't have academic qualifications now. Both that struggle and the qualifications are now part of the narrative I tell myself about myself.

I see myself as standing within some narrative about human beings and how they should be. It is a deeply human narrative and about that mixture of things that I think make up being a human being. Much of my blog has been about these things in case you haven't read it or noticed as you read it. I invite you to read older blogs to read my thoughts on this. Now, of course, this, in itself, is quite a philosophical context. But, I wonder, how do you see yourself? What context do you set yourself in? What kind of person do you want to be? What would allow you to be at peace about yourself when you look in the mirror? What is the narrative you tell yourself about yourself?

I think its a question we all need to ask and we can only become better people by doing so. Just don't expect it to be easy.

Friday, 8 July 2016

The Age of Stupid

"What has happened to critical thinking," mused my Twitter friend. Another wondered if people just believe any old shit now. A third daily retweets articles about our "post-fact, post-rationality" world. These are all thoughts and fears that I recognize because for the past few weeks I have been musing on similar ideas myself. I wanted to write about them instinctively but I couldn't bring myself to do it. For these are ideas so depressing, so undermining of the point and purpose of our societies, that to think the thoughts is to have to suffer the consequences of it. But here I am, finally ready to take that step.

We have been in the midst of a number of election campaigns recently on both sides of the Atlantic. The campaigns for the US Presidency roll on. In the UK, the referendum on the UK's membership of the EU has taken place and narrowly been won by the "Leave" campaign. The referendum campaigns, which I am more familiar with, revealed a lot of ugliness about society. I have spoken before about it as a turning over of a stone with all the horrors that live underneath the rock allowed to crawl out. And they have. Racist incidents have reportedly increased since the Leave Campaign won the vote. People have had graffiti daubed on their buildings, notes pushed through their letterboxes.  On a bus a 16 year old and his 18 year old friend felt empowered to tell someone not from the UK to get off the bus. People have been interviewed who apparently thought they were voting to expel all foreigners from the country. They weren't doing this and even the leaders of the Leave Campaign weren't proposing something so extreme. But those who think such thoughts have felt emboldened by what they have chosen to take as a validation of their position.

The referendum campaign itself was most notable for being a fact-free zone. Blatant lies (which have since been deleted and denied by all concerned) were used to convince people that the EU is a body which takes all the money and, in return, sends back lots of unwelcome foreign people to take their jobs, homes and schools. The honest amongst us might call it simple xenophobia but the Leave campaigners insist this is a cheap jibe and that they all really love "our European friends" (a phrase they use a lot). Of course, there was also rhetoric of "taking our country back" and "taking control". What better way to scare people into the polling booth than to tell them that somebody not like them is in charge of things? This campaign, which became overtly political during the referendum period, had been going on in various media outlets and newspapers for years. One well-known media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, was open about why he wanted the UK to leave the EU: it never listens to him and so he cannot influence it. Murdoch is a regular guest at the parties of various UK Prime Ministers (regardless of party) so it seems he feels he has more pull in the UK domestically.

All that is as maybe. The heart of this blog is what has happened to public discourse. During the referendum, and seemingly during the US presidential election race too, there is a palpable sense that facts don't matter anymore. No one is using any reasoning. There are no commonly agreed items about which people discuss their various approaches. Instead what we have is a series of extremely ignorant, dull-witted, partisan, unexplained GUT FEELINGS which have now taken the place of reason and fact and assumed a position as the most important things of all. (Trump is the figurehead and cheerleader of this state of mind.) This bothers me on a number of levels. It bothers me that no one seems concerned to explain their working out about things anymore. We've gone post-reasoning. It bothers me that there aren't anymore facts just assertions. "I believe this so it must be true" has never been a more common belief. We've gone post-fact. It bothers me that people who think about things or who pose questions or expect some detail, such as the "why" and "for what reason" people think things, are regarded as effete nuisances. 

We have recently in the UK revisited the Iraq War which Tony Blair seemingly was convinced to fight because of a personal belief of his own and desire to support George W. Bush regardless of the outcome. There was a government employee called Dr David Kelly, a weapons expert and weapons inspector, who questioned some of the dubious claims the British government were making at the time. He was found dead in mysterious circumstances. At the time the government was fervently insisting that Iraq could launch weapons in 45 minutes. Kelly said they didn't even have such weapons. The press loyally trumpeted the government claims in the rush to war. Journalist Peter Oborne has since reported that at least one newspaper, a newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch, was in cohoots with the government as part of the government's own media strategy, to present a certain case which would lead to the outcomes the government sought.

Its long been doubted by a number of people that governments are trustworthy. Revelations brought to light by those such as Wikileaks and Edward Snowden have undermined trust and led to an erosion in the value of truth claims generally. In addition, as we have seen, media organisations have formed alliances with governments to stage manage the news and present a desired picture to the general public. In short, we are being played from numerous angles. Those in positions of power in government or media, and they are not as separate at it might first seem, set up elaborate campaigns to lead the mass of the people by the nose. They sloganize (Make America Great Again, Take Back Control) and concentrate on stirring up sentiment. Its all very "4 legs good, 2 legs bad" to quote George Orwell from his book Animal Farm. And we can see that it works. No one really expected the Leave campaign to win the UK referendum. When they did even its most vocal supporters were a little surprised. But that campaign inspired one person to kill an MP and lots of others to racially abuse foreigners, seemingly empowered and emboldened by a result they thought validated their backward points of view. No one really thinks that Trump has detailed plans for all the areas he may soon, in theory, get a chance to be in charge of. But in this society we now live in it doesn't matter. "The British don't like experts" was a recent claim of prominent Leave campaigner, Michael Gove. And he's right in a lot of ways. But its not just the British. Many American industrialists don't like climate scientists because they say things the industrialists don't want to hear. They don't refute the science. They can't. They just refuse to believe it and blow a raspberry in their direction. They don't want to believe it and that, for them, is good enough.

But this is the point at which things become most frustrating. Ignorant slogans take the place of knowledge that was earned on the back of reasoned thought and debate. "What I feel or think" becomes as valuable as something that may have taken much academic effort. And once that move has been made then thought doesn't matter anymore much less why I think something. Anything goes, quite literally. And people become dumb animals to be pushed this way and that on tides of sentiment. Who is the new bogey man? He is! Let's get him. Booo! We see a lot of this in certain reactions to various nominally muslim terrorist organisations. The slogan here is "Radical Islam". "Radical Islam" is something all right-thinking people should hate, we are told. But don't expect those obsessed with "Radical Islam" to tell you what it is. They wouldn't have a clue. The idea has no content. Its empty. Its just another bogey man to be used, abused and twisted out of all reasonable meaning as part of a PR campaign. "Radical Islam" is a hollow and rhetorical enemy.

All this, of course, has been noted and lambasted before. Mike Judge, creator of Beavis and Butthead, did a live action film a few years ago called "Idiocracy" which pretty much lays out a comic vision of the future compatible with my thoughts here. We are in the Age of Stupid where its in the interests of the powerful and the dispossessed alike to ignore facts, belittle knowledge and, most of all, sidetrack those who want us to provide thought and reasoning for things. Let's just corral people with a slogan and a campaign, something no right thinking person could disagree with. So what if a few people get a bit carried away and some get hurt? We live in a world where the most powerful nation on Earth willingly allows thousands of its residents to shoot each other every year and does nothing about it to stop it. We live in a world where you can watch refugees drowning on TV 24/7. We live in a very disjointed world which is not at all benign. For there are always consequences to actions, and inactions, and there are always winners and losers in any outcome of events. Its naive to believe stuff will always just work out or that some aren't working for their benefit alone to the detriment of others. We in the developed countries of the world are trapped in a media/political nexus of competing forces. Our assent is sought for things and the methods used to get it are often far from honest or even true. We want a soundbite or a slogan we can get behind and that's good enough. Its about surfaces and not depth.

All this has been theorized much better than I write it here, primarily by French theorist, Jean Baudrillard. Even in educated circles Baudrillard was often read with a little credulity with his theories of simulacra and simulation and notions such as that "The Gulf War Did Not Take Place". But now some are coming to see his point. Baudrillard highlights many things in his work but not least that life is much more than what you see with your own eyes on TV or what people tell you or want you to believe. Baudrillard's work is primarily an encouragement to look deeper and see beyond the surface level thinking which is all a postmodern age wants to present. Baudrillard says that understanding is about thinking and not merely having your feelings (prejudices) stimulated. Its not about enjoying the show and going along with it because "the show" is often there to fool you. Baudrillard writes a lot about history and meaning and, not least, the death of these things in modern society under the influence of just such things as I have already described. In his work mass communication, reality, meaning and history all become interconnected and interdependent. This is an important insight in itself in a world where people want to pretend that they can be independent of others. I see Baudrillard's work on a timeline that started with Nietzsche and his emphasis on how human beings falsify things for their own purposes. (For Nietzsche this started and ended with "reality" itself!) We, in this sense and according to Baudrillard, falsify the news to ends and purposes too. Nothing is naively done anymore. There's always a reason but its always unspoken. And something about which you should never speak.

I shall stop writing before this goes off on too many tangents. I'm sure you get the idea. Its fair to say that I see us as in something of a hole. We are all of us held in the grip of larger forces, political, media, industrial, and they will not let us go. Ignorance is promoted because ignorance is more easily controllable. Thinking is outlawed because it raises pesky questions and frustrates the hollow beliefs of others. The dumb and moronic are everywhere given latitude and encouraged because they are easily led and serve as a bulwark against those who would oppose with thought and reason. It is not that one side is right and one wrong here. Its more about power and how to wield it more easily. Control is what's wanted and its much harder to control a thinker.


Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Welcome To The Future

Welcome to the future. The future, as we know, will be televised. It will be about slogans, not facts. It will be about taking popular prejudices and using them as campaign platforms... until the campaign is over when they will all be destroyed as if they had never existed. It will be about standing for things you don't believe in because there are enough easily manipulated people who do. It will be about promising what you need to promise. And then denying you ever promised it at all. It will be about playing the game and winning the war. Of self interest. It will be about making it up as you go along. It will be about making extreme statements to divide people because better that than informed, moderate debate. The future is about numbers not being informed. Thinking is a failing in the future.

In the future we will take back control and have our country back. So we will inspire teenagers on buses to tell Pakistani ladies to get off the bus. We will embolden people to daub racist slogans on buildings and put racist messages through letter boxes and on car windshields. We will enable people to have the courage to tell their foreign doctor to "go home" even as their medical complaints are treated (and even though they were born in the same country as you anyway). The future is not about keeping everybody happy, safe and prosperous. Its about control. Its about ownership. Which side are you on in the future, suckah?

Welcome to the future.

This future is brought to you by corporate slush funds, institutionalized greed and venal self-serving hypocrites. 

PS Take Back Control. Make Our Country Great Again. Have A Nice Day.