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In the US, employers are paying increasingly close attention to candidates' Facebook accounts; demanding that they hand over their Facebook passwords, allowing them to investigate their profiles, their past activities and the company they keep to determine whether they are of sufficient moral fibre:
In Maryland, job seekers applying to the state's Department of Corrections have been asked during interviews to log into their accounts and let an interviewer watch while the potential employee clicks through wall posts, friends, photos and anything else that might be found behind the privacy wall. Previously, applicants were asked to surrender their user name and password, but a complaint from the ACLU stopped that practice last year. While submitting to a Facebook review is voluntary, virtually all applicants agree to it out of a desire to score well in the interview, according Maryland ACLU legislative director Melissa Coretz Goemann.And some universities are requiring students to friend official accounts and monitoring their social network activity:
Student-athletes in colleges around the country also are finding out they can no longer maintain privacy in Facebook communications because schools are requiring them to "friend" a coach or compliance officer, giving that person access to their “friends-only” posts. Schools are also turning to social media monitoring companies with names like UDilligence and Varsity Monitor for software packages that automate the task. The programs offer a "reputation scoreboard" to coaches and send "threat level" warnings about individual athletes to compliance officers.(I imagine that the assumption here is that those on athletic scholarships are not bright enough to set up friend lists and segregate their posts. After all, Facebook doesn't tell you whether you see all of a user's posts, a small portion, or in fact, whether they put you on their “Restricted” list (i.e., the “pretend-to-be-this-schmuck's-friend-but-don't-show-them-anything” list).
Demanding Facebook passwords is of dubious legality, however, if a court rules in favour of this practice, companies answerable to shareholders and concerned about legal liability may start adopting it as policy. One option is to not have a Facebook account, or deny having one; however, this could be a liability, marking one out as some kind of antisocial loner (studies have found that evidence of a social life can boost one's employability rankings, and if everyone's on Facebook, the one guy whose name draws a blank could look too much like potential spree-killer material to be worth the risk.)
If employer (or school, or governmental) Facebook surveillance becomes widespread I can see a new version of the clean-urine-for-drug-tests business model emerging, in the form of clean-but-plausibly-active-looking Facebook profiles for presentation to officials. Fill in a form giving details (what political/religious views it should espouse, where it should be between gregariously easy-going and Stepfordesquely clean (in most cases, inserting a few minor flaws for versimilitude is recommended, though the optimum degree of flaws will vary case by case; your case advisor can offer you guidance), what sorts of people, institutions and social situations your perfect doppelgänger should be seen to associate with, &c.), put in your credit card number and, presto, an army of third-world data-centre workers will assemble a profile you can show to any authority figure without fear. For a monthly fee, they'll even run your parallel life in the background for you, keeping the illusion up, posting anodyne comments about TV shows and sports matches, attending church mixers, liking big, uncontroversial brands and even giving you your desired level of a simulated social life with a network of convincing yet utterly unimpeachable sockpuppets.
A team in Germany has developed software which can edit objects out of live video in real time. Termed, catchily, "Diminished Reality", the software works a bit like Photoshop's content-aware fill, but is able to track, and eliminate, objects in moving video. The team from the Technische Universität Ilmenau are planning to release an Android port, so you too can be Stalin.
Perhaps even more interesting is software from the Max Planck Institute which can alter the body shapes of actors in video. The software contains data obtained from 3D scans of 120 naked people of different body types, apparently using a machine-learning algorithm, to form a 3D body model with a number of controllable attributes, such as height, muscularity and waist girth. The system can pick out human figures in video (in some conditions, anyway), map them to the model, adjust it, and then rerender the video with the adjusted model. The team have demonstrated this with a clip from the old TV series Baywatch, in which the male lead is given Conan The Barbarian-style musculature.
The article gives a number of potential applications for such technologies:
The technology has obvious applications in films like Raging Bull, for which Robert de Niro put on 27 kilograms in two months to portray his character. "The actor wouldn't need to go to all that trouble," says Theobalt. It could also be a cost-saver for advertising companies. Because standards of beauty vary across cultures, it is the norm to shoot several adverts for a single product. With the new software, firms could make one film and tweak the model's dimensions to suit different countries.The possibilities don't, of course, stop there. In the market-driven entertainment ecosystem, film and TV companies are competing for the attention (and money and/or eyeballs to sell to advertisers) of a public, a large segment of which is captivated by spectacle. With improved special-effects technology comes "awesomeness inflation", where yesterday's blockbusters look boring compared to the latest; so anything that can capture the eyeballs of the sensation-hungry, compulsively channel-surfing consumer (whom William Gibson memorably described as "something the size of a baby hippo, the color of a week-old boiled potato, that lives by itself, in the dark, in a double-wide on the outskirts of Topeka. It's covered with eyes and it sweats constantly. The sweat runs into those eyes and makes them sting. It has no mouth... no genitals, and can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote") could give a film studio or TV network the edge; that extra average five seconds before the viewer changes the channel which, aggregated over an audience of hundreds of millions, means a lot of ad revenue.
It's perhaps obvious that film studios will use the software as another computer effect, making their actors more cartoonishly exaggerated, more punchily extreme, with taller, more ruggedly muscular action heroes, more exaggerated comic short/fat/skinny guys, leading ladies/love interests whose waists could not physically support their breasts, and so on. Eventually the public will get used to this, and the old films with realistically physiqued (by Hollywood standards) actors will look as shabbily unattractive as those films from the 70s they're always remaking because the pace's too slow, the scenes look crappy (didn't the ancients even know about orange and teal colour grading?) and there aren't enough awesome explosions and sex scenes. If the software's cheap enough (as it will eventually be), though, they won't even need to remake things: imagine, for example, a channel that shows reruns of popular old series, "digitally remastered for extra awesomeness". And so, every year, the stars in yesteryear's classic serials become that bit more like animated action figures and/or anime schoolgirls, culminating in a 8-foot, musclebound Jack Bauer who can shoot laser beams from his eyes. (The remastering process would also quicken the pace, by speeding up scenes and cutting out pauses, which would both hold the audience's attention for longer and leave more time for ad breaks.) Meanwhile, Criterion sell box sets of the original, unretouched versions in tasteful packaging; these become a highbrow affectation, a signifier of refined taste, and end up featured on Stuff White People Like.
Of course, in this universe, there'd be an epidemic of body-image disorders, with large numbers of deaths from anorexia, steroid overdoses and black-market plastic surgery. At least until physique augmentation ends up as a universal feature of compact cameras and/or Facebook uploading software, and gradually the survivors come to accept that it's OK to look imperfect, as long as you don't do so on film or video.
Douglas Coupland has written a guide to the next 10 years, which starts off with in-your-face grimness ("1) It's going to get worse") and goes on from there, weaving, in typical Coupland fashion, between echoing the ambient zeitgeist (in this case, the sadofuturistic anomie of the world of the economic crisis, the Long Siege and the Tea Party), random factoids and speculative segues, almost like a depressive Jerry Seinfeld:
2) The future isn't going to feel futuristic
It's simply going to feel weird and out-of-control-ish, the way it does now, because too many things are changing too quickly. The reason the future feels odd is because of its unpredictability. If the future didn't feel weirdly unexpected, then something would be wrong.
5) You'll spend a lot of your time feeling like a dog leashed to a pole outside the grocery store – separation anxiety will become your permanent stateHasn't that been the human condition at least since the Industrial Revolution, if not the dawn of agriculture and the first large-scale societies?
6) The middle class is over. It's not coming backWell, there are still people (in the UK, at least) who identify as "working class", despite having university degrees, professional jobs and disposable income, because their grandparents worked in coal mines or car factories. The current notion of "middle class" is just as fixed in a point in time. Though wouldn't a "new monoclass" be by definition a middle class with no upper or lower classes? Or would the end of the middle class (at least in America, and possibly other Anglo-Saxon cultures), mean extreme polarisation of society into an affluent overclass and a wretched underclass?
Remember travel agents? Remember how they just kind of vanished one day? That's where all the other jobs that once made us middle-class are going – to that same, magical, class-killing, job-sucking wormhole into which travel-agency jobs vanished, never to return. However, this won't stop people from self-identifying as middle-class, and as the years pass we'll be entering a replay of the antebellum South, when people defined themselves by the social status of their ancestors three generations back. Enjoy the new monoclass!
11) Old people won't be quite so clueless
No more “the Google,” because they'll be just that little bit younger.
12) Expect lessMeanwhile, in the age of radically lowered expectations, the Generation X advice of "use jets while you still can" has become a far more modest "enjoy lettuce while you still can".
Not zero, just less.
23) Everyone will be feeling the same way as youCoupland also sees the death of the suburbs, the deserted, impoverished tracts of suburbia being taken over by gangs and cultists, and North America possibly fragmenting (with Quebec leaving Canada, California splitting into "fiscal" and "non-fiscal", and the "Hate States" forming a coalition); happy times.
25) Dreams will get better
26) Being alone will become easier
33) People who shun new technologies will be viewed as passive-aggressive control freaks trying to rope people into their world, much like vegetarian teenage girls in the early 1980s
42) You'll spend a lot of time shopping online from your jail cell
Over-criminalization of the populace, paired with the triumph of shopping as a dominant cultural activity, will create a world where the two poles of society are shopping and jail.
Meanwhile, Boing Boing has a riposte, "A Happy Mutant's Guide to the Near Future", in which the near future is all lolcats, sparkleponies and weird, but locally-sourced, ice cream.
A new book ("Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization", by strategic consultant John Robb) claims that the credit crunch and ongoing financial crisis will make Iraq/Mexico-style insurgency and terror a fact of life across the Western world:
The establishment of a predatory and deeply unstable global economic system - beyond the control of any group of nations - is in the process of gutting developed democracies. Think in terms of the 2008 crisis, over and over again. Most of what we consider normal in the developed world, from the middle class lifestyle to government social safety nets, will be nearly gone in less than a decade. Most developed governments will be in and out of financial insolvency. Democracy, as we knew it, will wither and the nation-state bureaucracy will increasingly become an enforcer for the global bond market and kleptocratic transnational corporations. Think Argentina, Greece, Spain, Iceland, etc. As a result, the legitimacy of the developed democracies will fade and the sense of betrayal will be pervasive (think in terms of the collapse of the Soviet Union). People will begin to shift their loyalties to any local group that can provide for their daily needs. Many of these groups will be crime fueled local insurgencies and militias. In short, the developed democracies will hollow out.The part about the bond market is probably true; for example, in Britain, no matter who came to power, they would have to make deep cuts to please bondholders, or otherwise the credit (and the electricity and the flow of beans from Africa and iPods from China) would stop. Whether this means merely Thatcherism 2.0, the end of the post-WW2 welfare state, or a collapse of state institutions to a dystopian kleptocracy as Robb suggests, remains to be seen.
[T]he problem is that Mexico is a hollow state. Unlike a failed state like Somalia (utter chaos), a hollow state still retains the facade of a nation (borders, bureaucracy, etc.). However, a hollow state doesn't exert any meaningful control over the countryside. It's not only that the state can't do it militarily, they don't have anything they can offer people. So, instead, control is ceded to local groups that can provide basic levels of opt-in security, minimal services, and jobs via new connections to the global economy - think in terms of La Familia in Michoacana...The real danger to the US is that not only will these groups expand into the US (they already have), it is that these groups will accelerate the development of similar homegrown groups in the US as our middle class evaporates.The commenters chime in, trying to pick holes in the guy's argument, but then again, it's the sort of argument you would really want to be wrong. If he is right, we can expect the collapse of the entire Maslow hierarchy of needs; people are going to be far too busy worrying about staying alive to even consider the idea of self-actualisation.
(via Boing Boing)
On the question of whether video games can be art: The post-apocalyptic first-person shooter Fallout 3 sounds like an interesting aesthetic experience:
It's an incredibly bleak game. Critics have lauded it for its complex-but-intuitive gameplay, its intriguing story and a go-anywhere world that outdoes even the sprawling burbia of Grand Theft Auto IV. But for my money, Fallout 3's accomplishment is more subtle: It's depressing.
Its mood is so quietly and painfully demoralizing that I regularly had to turn off my PlayStation 3 to take an emotional break. After playing videogames for 25 years, I'm accustomed to wandering around environments that are gory and dangerous, or creepy and scary, or puzzling and baffling. Many such games thrill me, but very few make me sad. That's precisely what Fallout 3 achieved.
The game is also filled with scraps of surviving culture that suggest how people lived before the holocaust, dimly aware of the impending horrors. "There won't really be a nuclear war, will there?" is the title of a government flier aimed at a clearly nervous public. Most post-apocalyptic games do not seek to make you sympathize with the lost civilization. On the contrary, they usually mock the dead culture, as with the out-of-control kitsch consumerism and genetic tampering of Rapture in Bioshock. Fallout 3 possesses this mocking edge, too, but just as often, the game's designers seem to have genuine respect for the culture that died.
Probably the saddest part is the children.Which is another sign that video games are maturing as a medium. Up until now, the typical game would be analogous thematically to fairly light entertainment; pulp paperbacks, superhero comics, or perhaps Victorian parlour puzzles (in the case of the likes of Myst or ICO). That a game can move one to this extent, rather than merely providing gratification, is somewhat novel.
Read: Another Day At The Office, a fine and topical short piece of dystopian sadofuturism by Nile Heffernan:
Work enough weekends under constant threat of downsizing, maybe any of us would look like that. Maybe.
Get downsized enough times, then one last time in a world where white-collar work is over, and maybe you'll look like the woman in the next cubicle across. Which is to say: crying silently and either not knowing or caring and just carrying on. And the next cubicle, and the next: scuffed and fading grey partitions repeating like an exercise in perspective, straight lines along and across the concrete floor of a factory that hasn't had machinery for thirty years: closed and cleared in the last recession, or maybe the one before that.
Look closer and there's no lamps or work lights in the cubes. None. Four of them - the corner offices - are lit by the blue flicker of a monitor. The rest are not: these people are 'working' in front of dead screens, tapping away on keyboards that may or may not be plugged into the silent metal boxes underneath the desk.
Some of the 'monitors' are cardboard boxes, sideways-on.
People have been shot for coffee: it's the currency of choice for criminals, and we don't touch it. Our trade is bread-and-butter materials recovery, digging through the garbage and extracting lead for roofing, paper and cardboard for compression into pellets; these bulk commodities, like the gas and water, are the currency for a regular supply of food and nowadays some biodiesel. Higher-value items - tools and wheel-bearings and plastic sheeting - are tradeable for spares and welding gas but it's slow: we have a network and a market, but bartering depends on luck - without a formal currency, you have to have the thing they want, and they have to have the thing we want, both in the same place at the same time. It's frustrating and it isn't getting any better.
I have absolutely no idea who's supplying food to the 'Office Workers', or why; Médecins Sans Frontières provides a monthly clinic on the local round but there's no way they can be supplying all those people with antidepressants or tranquillisers... Is there? We supply the gas and water because the doctor's round will stop if we can't keep up a 'population centre'.
Having seen their previous bets turned into a spectacular wipeout, some hedge-fund managers are now betting on the total collapse of civilisation:
In his book Wealth, War, published last year, former Morgan Stanley chief global strategist Barton Biggs advised people to prepare for the possibility of a total breakdown of civil society. A senior analyst whose reports are read at hedge funds all over the city wrote just before Christmas that some of his clients are “so bearish they’ve purchased firearms and safes and are stocking their pantries with soups and canned foods.” This fear is very much reflected in the market—prices of corporate bonds have been so beaten down at various points that they suggest a higher default rate than during the Great Depression. Meanwhile, while the overall gold market has fluctuated, the premium for quarter-ounce gold coins—meaning the difference between the price for gold you can hold in your hand and that for “paper gold,” such as exchange-traded funds—rose to an all-time high of 20 percent. “Gold is transportable, it’s 100 percent liquid, and it’s perfectly divisible in the context of ounces, bars, or coins,” says the head of a California research firm who keeps a supply of it, along with food, water, and guns, on hand. “And most important, there’s no counterparty”—i.e., it’s an investment beholden to no one, and perhaps one of the few assets that will retain value if the financial system collapses.
While it may look like these Wall Streeters are betting on such a collapse, their embrace of survivalism is an outgrowth of their professional habits of mind: Having observed the economy’s shaky high-wire act from their ringside seats, they are trying to manage their risk and “hedge” against a potential fall. “It’s like insurance,” says an investor who has stockpiled MREs and a hand-cranked radio. “And by the time you need it, it’s way too late.” Leave it for others to weep for the collapse of the social order. These guys would prefer to be in a high-speed boat or ex-military vehicle, heading off toward their fully provisioned compounds in pursuit of the ultimate goal: to win the chaos.I wonder how many of these Wall Street supersharks would be able to translate their killer instincts to being effective post-apocalyptic warlords, or whether most of them would end up as mincemeat when the first killer caravan rolls through their survivalist homestead. I also wonder how long until "Post-Apocalyptic Warlordship for Dummies" replaces "Flipping Houses for Dummies" in the Business sections of bookshops.
(via Boing Boing)
This looks fascinating; a series of TV programmes made by the BBC and exploring various plausible worst-case scenarios for the near future, from mass electricity shortages to the polarisation of society into the super-rich and the underclass to inter-generational unrest as the baby boomers retire, the marginalisation of men, and explosive obesity. The programmes take existing trends, extrapolate them pessimistically, and use that as a basis of a hypothetical future scenario. I wonder if they'll ever come out on DVD.
Bad vibes/paranoia/rant: I've been reading K. W. Jeter's Noir recently. It's engrossing; sort of like early William Gibson meets Neal Stephenson, only much darker and more nihilistic. It's quite a good read, though by no means a comfortable one, as the corporate-ruled, monetised dystopia of the book is a little too close to the world we are moving towards, as wealth and power are increasingly concentrated with every multinational corporate merger, bought legislators sign away chunks of sovereignty to multinational treaties, aided by the fact that most people care more about the latest reality TV show than the more boring things happening around them. (Also, the rationales for making copyright violation a capital crime, presented in the book, are a small leap from the arguments of Microsoft and the RIAA. As for reanimating condemned convicts into eternally-suffering trophies: if George W. Bush's America had the technology, how else would they use it?) Sometimes it seems as if the age of liberal democracy (as flawed as it was) is slowly but inexorably coming to an end, to be replaced by a new global feudalism. And while a lot of the technology in the book may be far-fetched, the trends behind it are a bit too ominously familiar.
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