Not sure if this really counts as an essay as opposed to a simple train of thought, but I was inspired to write this whilst re-reading Interference, so here it is...
Lawrence Miles is a
science-fiction author most widely known for Doctor Who and
his own Faction Paradox series, with more recent notoriety as a
"cultural commentator" for want of a better term. In the tradition of
the best writers (never mind just those saddled with the science-fiction
tag) his works tend towards an analysis of our culture. His finest
novels (arguably Dead Romance and This Town Will Never Let
Us Go) present much more than the usual idle speculation of what
will happen once we reach the stars, instead serving to describe the
mechanisms of human society. This is perhaps a key to why Daphne Lawless
has expressed such admiration for This Town Will Never Let Us Go on
grounds amounting to an observation that it isn't actually a
work of fiction, and I believe she's right. Protesting that there are no
time machines in the real world (at least not in the sense of the craft
that is found at the conclusion of the novel) is entirely missing the
point, and of no more value than stating that neither Jane Eyre nor her
Rochester were genuine historical characters. In other words, I'm saying
that this guy knows his onions.
The Remote are one of Miles' lesser-known creations, although arguably one of the more fascinating. They are an allegory in the same sense of those fictional societies created by Thomas More, Jonathan Swift, William Morris and others. The precise details of their imagined history are probably of no more relevance than who would win in a fight between Spiderman and Darth Vader, but just for the sake of some background...
Miles' universe is at War, the Great Houses against pretty much everyone else with Faction Paradox somewhere on the sidelines. The precise details of these fictitious superpowers don't really matter here, so it's either just assume I know what I'm talking about or look it up on Google if you feel you're missing out. Anyway, the Remote were created by the aforementioned Faction from the ruins of a devastated Earth colony. The reasoning of this great act of philanthropy was the conception of something that might present a serious threat to the Great Houses, something entirely hostile which would act more or less at random and would thus prove utterly impossible to predict. The Remote have no government, no economic system, no formal organisation. Instead, each and every citizen is hardwired into the cacophony of their own media broadcasts, all of them, all of the time. They act according to whatever signal seems most appropriate, or loudest, or which just happens to be there, and the process amounts to a more chaotic version of decision-making left to the roll of a dice.
My favourite example of Remote "logic" is a scene from Interference wherein unmanned bombers fly across Anathema routinely destroying parts of the city. The bewildered onlooker raises the obvious question of why this should be happening: there are no real factions within Remote society so here they are essentially destroying their own people. The point is that the bombing goes on because of the media signals, bombing is what happens during a war, and the issue of motive is meaningless. The Remote do what they do because the Remote do what they do, just as Arnold Schwarzenegger stops the celluloid terrorists because that's what he does. There are no complex issues within Remote society, just actions driven by the signals.
Daphne Lawless expresses reservations regarding Miles' stance on the Remote, suggesting he regards his creation as a Utopian culture, possibly something to which one might aspire (if I understand her meaning correctly). Whilst she makes a good point, my own view of Miles' take upon his media-fixated creation is more akin to the awe with which one might (possibly) view the process of predation in the natural world: okay, so you don't actually want to see the lion killing the bunny, but evolution and natural election are nevertheless impressive. If this representative of Miles' view, then I find myself in uncomfortable agreement in so much as the Remote might be taken to depict our own culture stripped of all the bullshit by which it attempts to justify its cruelties and inequalities.
This somehow brings me onto the subject of internet fora. I've been a registered member of quite a few bulletin boards over the years, each of quite different dispositions, and yet all sharing a common pattern of growth, expansion, and schism.
Some boards are more pleasant places than others, which is puzzling considering that most tend to impose very similar codes of conduct upon their membership. Very few boards I have encountered allow pornography, violent imagery, or personal attacks upon their users. The staff of the majority of these boards (in my experience) tend to apply the rules with more or less equal diligence, and each board discussed here is themed to a subject which interests me, so I don't necessarily find the subject of any one board more obviously sympathetic than another; and yet despite this, some of these places seem (subjectively) friendly to me, whilst others verge upon toxic.
So what sets these communities apart given that each comprises a broad cross section of people which, one would assume, might prevent any one place from becoming dominated by the character of its more obviously vocal members?
The key, I believe, is the signals. I will make a comparison using two quite different bulletin boards which, for the sake of anonymity, I'll term Board X and Board Y, both are broadly themed towards discussions of atheism, religion (unfortunately for the most part from an atheist perspective), and science.
Board X has had its problems, not least of which was a major schism resulting in 99% of the membership founding Board Y. Since the schism, Board X has rebuilt its roster of users and become a quite different place. The majority of members now tend to be in their early 20s, American or Canadian, and with a sizeable minority who have also frequented the notoriously unmoderated 4Chan boards. For whatever reason, this means that serious discussion tends to focus upon atheist themes, and off-topic discussion is peppered with memes, internet speak, and the sort of conversations that made Beavis & Butthead such a hit. The downside of this is posting dominated by the endless quest for LULZ, which only really works if you're already in on the joke and don't mind hearing it over and over. The upside is that, from my own perspective, because Board X has a tendency to avoid taking anything too seriously, and is fairly good at taking the piss out of itself, no-one (or very few people) stay angry forever, and problems are usually resolved quite quickly with a minimum of fuss.
Board Y has a much broader cross-section of contributors in terms of nationality and age range, originally brought together by a mutual appreciation of Richard Dawkins (who is, interestingly enough, not a popular figure amongst the current membership of Board X). The positive side of this is that the range of topics covered tends to be greater, and that the general standard of posting displays an (arguably) sharper wit and level of eloquence. Perhaps for this reason, the members of Board Y have, for the most part, often expressed an unusually strong sense of loyalty to their community. On paper, Board Y is the place for me, and yet in practice, despite fondness for a number of the members, I personally find the place toxic. There may be several reasons for this.
Firstly, when a community exhibits such strong emphasis upon its own self-worth, the stakes tend to be high, so drama when it occurs is all the more dramatic. Something which might burn out in a single page slanging match on Board X, invariably drags out to 40 pages or more at Board Y, the issue being dissected as though it were some mathematical problem, then the nature of the dissection being discussed in equally analytical terms, until eventually one ends up in an argument about the mechanism of debate. Everyone means well, most tend towards good manners and impeccable logic, but somehow the problem never seems to reach resolution, and usually flares up a month later with a different set of names attached. Were I to be uncharitable (which admittedly is not entirely beyond me) my observation would be that the staff of Board Y assume that any problem can be resolved if you're suitably middle-class about it.
This however is not the crux of my problem with the place.
The more demonstrative elements of the atheist community tend towards a certain evangelism wherein everything is either a cause or a crusade. Freedom of speech is upheld as a noble abstract towards which one should aspire which, although commendable in itself, may sometimes resemble a championing of medium over message: the action does not matter so much as the reportage of the action or, as the Remote would have it, the signal is everything.
The subtext of Board Y has come to seem distinctively sexual, and there is a good reason for this. Board Y has, over the years, spilled over into real life with many members meeting for shags, blow jobs, threesomes and the like. This would not be a problem in itself but for the complicated wider ramifications of some of these liaisons coupled with the arguably inappropriate volume of celebration with which they are either reported or at least hinted at upon the forum. Whilst said liaisons occur between consenting adults, some have been conducted without the knowledge of real life partners, or even with the knowledge of real life partners whose alleged consent appears poorly quantified and often doubtful. Anyway, what I believe may be neither here nor there in this instance, but the fact remains that there is a sexual undercurrent to Board Y which has driven a number of members away (one of whom memorably observed that she hadn't intended to sign up for hornyhousewives.com). This undercurrent is repeatedly defended in a series of ongoing 40 page threads, all very eloquently stated, and mostly reiterating the maxim that Board Y does not hold with undue censorship or repressive attitudes towards human sexuality. Unfortunately this amounts to if it feels good, do it and sometimes comes across as though a point is being made, an atheist strike against the oppressive moral codes of religion. In other words, just more signals.
Then again, why am I surprised? An internet forum is by its nature populated by avatars, idealised cross-sections of its members reduced to mathematical code transmitting messages which take the form of opinions but not always the substance.
I posted at Board Y for a while, but ultimately found the place oddly oppressive. It didn't matter that there were people I liked present because the signals remained a little too strong. The extreme of this might be the those threads I purposefully avoided on the grounds that I don't really want to see some stranger's genitals or read anyone's domination fantasies; or just the odd outbreak of vibrator jokes in an otherwise innocuous topic coupled with a little more background knowledge of those cracking the jokes than I really needed; but equally unsettling was the apparent absence of anyone prepared to acknowledge there being a big sexual elephant in the room. Anything veering in that direction was usually defused with mantras regarding freedom of sexual expression. These people were not strictly biological, they were ideals.
One other mantra was "we don't impose permanent bans on members here at Board Y," this often offered in support of claimed moral superiority over Board X. Well, now they have permanently banned a member. I'm still not entirely sure of the reason, although the implication is that this was due to sexual harassment conducted via private message which may even have spilled over into real life. Whilst the innocence or guilt of the individual remains uncertain from my point of view (given that I don't know the details) it seems to me mystifying that anyone should have been banned upon such grounds given the predominant signals of the place. When in Rome, regardless of intention, you're going to get on better if you do as the Romans do. I would not presume to dispute the banning of said member (and I suspect it may have been justified) but nevertheless, the individual's presumed actions would seem to contain little that contradicts the overarching signals of the place: anything goes providing you just keep reminding yourself that we're all middle-class here.
So, many clearly enjoy Board Y (and by their own terms are doubtless right to do so), but I dislike the signals and give the forum a wide berth. The signals at Board X are quite different, not necessarily better, but closer in form to ordinary human interaction. The membership of Board X have not yet forgotten that they are essentially just information on a screen.
I have no great conclusion to offer, and certainly nothing more profound than (as it would be stated in Board X terms) some boards rule, others FAIL. It is the nature of the internet that it is an environment of signals, and whilst this may not be a problem in itself, it can be if we remain unaware of it. We may not yet be the Remote, but we're getting there, and if you don't like the signals, just walk away.
For what it's worth, I haven't bothered posting this any place Board Y folks are likely to see as I don't think I could stand to read the 40 page response it would provoke...