The Null Device

2014/9/17

Last week was the annual ritual the year's iPhone launch. It followed the usual routine: new models (with larger screens and a new iOS version), new technologies (Apple Pay, a contactless payment system) and a preannouncement of an as-yet unready product (the Apple Watch, which, to all appearances, doesn't quite work yet, hence the carefully managed demo). And then, another surprise: Bono, that Tony Blair of adult-oriented rock took to the stage, looking particularly greasy and ratlike in his trademark rock'n'roll sunglasses, and, through a scripted “spontaneous” exchange with Apple CEO Tim Cook, announced that his band U2 have recorded a new album, and that Apple have bought each and every one of their users a copy; it would be showing up in their record collections whether they wanted it or not. And, soon enough, it did. Those whose phones were set to automatically synchronise with iTunes Match found the new U2 album waiting on their phones.

Of course, not everyone was happy with having a record shoved into their record collections; even without it being by a band with such a sketchy reputation (musically and otherwise) as U2. The similarity between Bono's rationale—that those finding the music on their computer may listen to it and may like it, and if they don't like it, they can delete it—and the rationalisations of old-fashioned email spammers, was pointed out. Though, actually, you couldn't even delete it; you could remove it from your computer, and meticulously scrub it from all your Apple devices, but it would always be waiting for you in your list of downloadable purchases on the iTunes Store, like an unflushable jobbie, taunting you with its noisome presence every time you lifted the lid. The most you could do with it was “hide” it, as you would a mildly embarrassing drunken binge-purchase; but you and Apple would know it was always there, mocking you.

This was not so much the “turd-in-a-can” business model of lowest-common-denominator consumer capitalism as the “unflushable turd” business model; or “now you have our album in your music collection; deal with it”. A bit like the Los Angeles band who blocked a freeway with a truck and treated the trapped motorists to a live gig from a stage on the back, only scaled up to the size of Bono's messianic ego and international-level schmoozing abilities. When you're Bono, it seems, you can push your music to millions of people. As for Apple, could this mean that their hubris about knowing their customers' needs better than they know themselves has extended from which controls a user needs in an app to what sort of music the user likes, or ought to like?

After considerable kvetching and sarcasm on social media and the web (and undoubtedly a number of complaints to iTunes Support), Apple relented, and created a world first: a dedicated web link for removing U2's Songs Of Innocence from one's iTunes collection; a privilege (if one can call it that) that no other musical act has merited, or is likely to merit any time soon, with the levels of hubris, influence and public antipathy required to pull off such a feat.

Apple surely have statistics about how many people have availed themselves of this link, and expunged the most recent U2 album from their record collections. It's unlikely that they will publish them. It would be nice if this whole episode had been a lesson in humility for Bono and his people, but, somehow, I suspect that's too much to hope for.

There is, however, some hope from this affair; it seems that, after all, enough people to be counted and listened to still consider their music collections—the recordings they have chosen and curated themselves—to be a personal artefact, rather than just another advertising billboard. Sure, Facebook may abridge our friends' party photos and emotional dramas and squeeze in ads pushing weight-loss plans and financial services in the spaces freed up, Twitter may season our (now similarly algorithmically winnowed down) feeds with “sponsored tweets”, Shazam may turn our phones into micro-billboards for the new Justin Bieber record when we hold them up to check what the bangin' track the DJ is playing is, and Spotify may bombard us with gratingly obnoxious ads until we relent and become paying customers, but both our record collections and our not-inexpensive, non-ad-subsidised, devices are off limits; and woe betide anyone who messes with them.

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2014/9/15

In just over three days, Scotland will vote on whether to leave the United Kingdom and go it alone.

The Scottish independence debate, in its present incarnation, has been going on for over a year, though through most of its course, it has had an air of phony war about it. While there was always a possibility of Scotland voting to secede, it was classified somewhere alongside the theoretical possibility of Scotland winning the World Cup, or perhaps one of the fantastic catastrophes in Hollywood action flicks, as something remote enough to be a mildly entertaining diversion worthy of a few minutes of hypothetical conversation. Were the debate a film, it would have borne a sticker reading “Rated 12A for mild peril”; as with a family movie, there was the assumption that, when the adventure was over, everyone would make it home (having learned a life lesson but being none the worse for it) and everything would be as it was before. So much so that the Treasury admitted to not having actually made any contingency plans for Scotland actually seceding.

The polls had been narrowing for a while, as the “Better Together” campaign against independence lumbered on uncharismatically, slowly being bled by Yes’s guerrilla tactics, though it did look as if No had time on their side; at the present rate of attrition, there was little hope of the Yes campaign making it over the line. But then came last weekend’s YouGov poll, showing the Yes campaign in the lead (albeit well within the margin of error), and subsequent polls showing similarly close results, sending the defenders of the status quo scrambling like headless chickens. The three parties made the undignified spectacle of climbing over themselves to promise Scotland the moon and stars if only it would stay, often getting the details of their actual promises mixed up. A second Royal Baby was hurriedly conceived. Banks and supermarkets were discreetly urged to warn their Scottish customers that prices would go up and jobs would move to London. A trainload of Labour party workers made its way from London to Scotland. People in England were urged to obtain Scottish saltire flags and fly them, in the hope of love-bombing the Scots into taking the sassenach back. There was even discussion over whether the Queen, serene and impartial unlike her son, should break her silence (and centuries of protocol) and urge her subjects to vote No. (Her Royal Highness demurred, instead gnomically imploring her Scottish subjects to think carefully about their future.) And, of course, the volume of the scare stories went up.

It seemed to have an effect, with polls showing No having regained the lead, and Labour grandees scenting victory and trying hard not to gloat prematurely. (Not all polls, though; some have shown the result being evenly split; a Sunday Telegraph poll showed Yes ahead by 8 points.) Of course, things are still close, and there are three days left to run. And while things could go either way, at this stage it looks like the more likely outcome is that No will win (by a narrow margin, unless the polling is off). The question of Scottish independence will be deemed to have been settled in the negative, once and for all, with the United Kingdom remaining one nation, united under the axioms of Hayek-Friedman Thought, administered in perpetuity from the City of London, and quite being dragged kicking and screaming out of the EU by PM Boris Johnson and deputy PM Nigel Farage in a few years’ time.

Of course, there are all those promises that the Scots have been offered in return for voting no: greater powers for setting tax rates, more financial and legislative autonomy, and everything up to a Hong Kong-style “one country, two systems” settlement. Of course, these promises were made in the heat of the campaign (often feverishly blurted out by politicians on the campaign trail), their very existence contingent on Scotland’s ability to make good on its threats to leave. Come 19 September, once that window is closed for the foreseeable future, showering the Scots with gifts will no longer be a priority; and, in fact, the English electorate may not be happy about rewarding what could be seen to be a tantrum. The boot will be on the other foot, and how gracious the victor would be to the vanquished remains to be seen. At one extreme, a Tory-UKIP coalition government would have in its power the ability to dissolve the Scottish parliament (which can be done by a vote in Westminster), and crush the rebellious Scots; perhaps using Scotland for punitively testing new austerity policies (as Thatcher did with the poll tax, which effectively annihilated the once influential Scottish Tories and propelling the idea of secession from the UK, once seen as bordering on lunatical, into the mainstream).

What if, however, Yes wins? Well, that would only be the start of a long process of negotiation, with both sides honing threats and promises into compromises. There’d be points of contention about everything from shared use of the pound to the basing of nuclear weapons and reconciling Scotland’s intention to increase immigration with its intention to maintain a common travel area with the UK. One way or another, these would all get resolved within a decade or so. Perhaps prices would go up, or go down, somewhat; businesses serving a largely UK market may relocate to south of the border (or may not, given how many companies trade with their British clients from Ireland or the Channel Islands). Though it’s unlikely that the Scots would be reduced to abject penury as some of the naysayers have been predicting. For the most part, things would remain the same, though a process of divergence would begin, as Scotland and the rest of the UK make their own ways. (Whether Scotland becomes a Scandinavian-style Jante-law market-socialist state while England remains wedded to neoliberalism (possibly shading into some kind of neoreactionary oligarchy) is by no means certain; it’s quite plausible that Scottish politics will grow its own right wing, one that is not beholden to London.)

The Scottish Herald has a piece by Fintan O’Toole, editor of the Irish Times, looking at the issue through the perspective of the history of Ireland (which got its independence from the UK some 90 years earlier). Of course, that is not the only possible precedent; another one is Norway, which gained independence from Sweden in 1905. Meanwhile, Charles Stross (who is firmly in the Yes camp) brings his usually deep perspective to bear on the issue; in his opinion, Scotland should be independent, because the post-Treaty of Westphalia idea of the sovereign nation-state is no longer fit for purpose (due to technological changes), and smaller states have less catastrophic failure modes than larger ones.

I, of course, don't get a vote, though if I lived in Scotland, I would vote Yes. For all the risks, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Scotland to redefine its destiny and what sort of nation it wishes to be. If Yes succeeds (and perhaps even if it fails), the results will be interesting to watch.

politics scotland uk 0

2014/9/1

The Village Voice has a profile piece on the Satanic Temple, the new group pranking the US Religious Right in the name of the Prince of Darkness, and the latest manifestation of the long and somewhat varied tradition of Satanism; this time, as détournement. This particular Satanic Temple seems to have been founded by a Brooklyn-based journalist named Doug Mesner (who goes by the name “Lucien Greaves”, his legal name being presumably insufficiently Satanic-sounding), possibly emerging out of a mockumentary project about “the world's nicest Satanic cult” praising right-wing Christian politicians in Florida, but since then has gone on to hold a “pink mass” on the grave of the mother of anti-gay religious preacher Fred Phelps, posthumously turning her lesbian, and commissioning a rather handsome-looking statue of Baphomet, to be placed outside the Oklahoma State Capitol alongside the Ten Commandments monument, testing the sincerity of state lawmakers' commitment to religious freedom. In fact, most of their work seems to centre around turning the US Constitution's neutrality on actual religions and the entrenched privilege of the Religious Right (as seen in recent court rulings, such as those allowing corporations to have religious values which override their employees' rights) against each other; they campaign (on constitutionally-protected grounds of religious exemption) against corporal punishment in schools and, most recently, have used this angle in a campaign against restrictions on abortion.

Unsurprisingly, the Satanic Temple gets a lot of hate mail from the usual good ol' boys. Perhaps also unsurprisingly, though, their most strident (or at least coherently so) critics are other self-identified Satanists; namely, the Church Of Satan, the Satanic sect founded by Anton LaVey in the Sixeventies, and since inherited by one Peter Gilmore, who has nothing nice to say about the new kids, and keeps saying it:

"When a fellow in horns — with an adopted moniker fit for a 1970s hairdresser — tea-bags a tombstone while some 'goth' rejects swap spit on the grave, it seems to us to be a parody of Satanism rather than a representation of some actual philosophical or religious organization." Those lines were written by Magus Peter H. Gilmore, leader of the Church of Satan, on the Church's official blog. It's one of several denunciations Gilmore has issued against the Satanic Temple in the past year.
One would expect the Church Of Satan to resent upstart groups on its turf, especially ones whose activity and media-savviness is making the older group look tired and past its prime. (And the Church Of Satan does not seem to have done much since Anton LaVey died; apparently the older Church, whilst shunning publicity, does have private events for those who have earned entry to them; they do not say what sorts of events these are, so they may just be exclusive hot-tub parties with septagenarians who have first-hand stories about the wild old days). The generational divide also shows a chasm of values; the Church of Satan, founded in the 1960s, was both a product of the explosive “youthquake” that upended the authoritarian, conformistic values of 1950s America, and also a reaction to its mushier peace-and-love aspects; its philosophies of hedonism, pride and vengeance against one's enemies borrowed from Nietzsche and Ayn Rand (who wrote a foreword to its The Satanic Scriptures). The Satanic Temple, meanwhile, is a product of the current age; more liberal, more media-savvy, and essentially humanistic, to the point of being conspicuously (and, some would argue, contemptibly) nice. If LaVey Satanism was a reaction against the suburban docility of Eisenhower-era America and namby-pamby hippie crap, then might Greaves' Satanism be a reaction against the equivalents in post-Reaganite America: the sort of Randian dog-eat-dog values embodied both by the political/economic mainstream and the old Satanic counterculture (who, to be fair, were into them first)? If so, the Church of Satan comes off rather badly, looking like an aging hipster whose countercultural stance has succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, infusing the mainstream with its values and leaving them with just some tatty old clothes which no longer fit and the claim of having done it first.

The Satanic Temple's website is here; they also have an online shop with T-shirts and mugs.

culture détournement performance art satanism usa 0

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