Big Brother takes an alarming step past watching us — and shows why Tim Berners-Lee’s plan for resurrecting his open web needs all our support

lone burnt tree postgutenberg@gmail.com

+++ the burnt and the saved postgutenberg@gmail.com copy

What if, instead of the too-familiar, twee rituals tied to Samhain, All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints’ Eve, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) or Halloween, among other traditions for marking the onset of wintry blackness, we each had to construct our own tributes to ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ — from the intersection of things seen in real life and well-grounded fears haunting our sleep? Pictures above and below: charred landscape, after a wildfire in August

Reader, the slogan of our day — Big Brother is Watching You — is already out of date. On Friday the 19th of October, we heard him speak — to chilling effect. Not every website can make such a claim and what is that, if not a world-beating scoop?

How did BB sound? Not at all as you’d expect. Likeable enough for us to be tempted to fill in an application form immediately, if he were put up for adoption. His voice was as  fresh as a newly-opened petal, and endearing — possibly because he was only a proxy for the real BB, acting as his special agent; or because he has drunk from the fountain of eternal youth.

The shock of listening to his voicemail message had been preceded by emails from A Certain Newspaper — its digital version, which we will call ACN.com here — that we are reluctant to name before its managers have had a chance to reconsider what they are doing and dial back their officiousness. The opening lines of its message on the first day of this month read, in part:

Hello,

Thank you for being a regular user of [ ACN.com ].

Our records suggest that your [ ACN.com ] account is being used to copy a substantial amount of text from [ ACN.com ]. You can make copies of [ ACN.com ] content for your own personal use, but please don’t copy and paste articles for the benefit of other people. If you are copying for your sole benefit, then we apologise for emailing you. … [ continued for several sentences with variations on this theme.

We paid close attention to BB’s choice of language — that tricky use of the word ‘copy’ in a way that reminded us of Steven Poole’s splendid evisceration of weaselly language with a hidden agenda in Unspeak: Words are Weapons. Anyone knows that downloading is the accepted word for saving articles to an electronic device to read later — just as you might programme your videorecorder to capture installments of TV dramas for binge-watching when you can. That is all we are doing in our daily cut-and-paste exercises on ACN’s site, but calling it ‘copying’ was intended to make us feel guilty, as if it were tantamount to proof of being on the low road to despicable copyright infringement.

The message was unsigned and, unlike the Microsoft Word popup that says, ‘You have placed a large amount of text on the clipboard,’ was not accompanied by any equivalent of a friendly query about how we would like that clip to be treated. We ignored it with an incredulous ‘Phew!’ and forgot all about it. Precisely a week later, what should come sailing into our inbox but ‘Reminder: Referencing and sharing [ ACN.com ] articles’. Again, with an inaudible derisive laugh, we tossed it into our mental circular file reserved for mail from lunatics and turned to our next task — so, were all but struck dumb by the follow-up voicemail, ten days later, demanding that we telephone ACN.com‘s head office immediately ‘about a problem with your account’.

When we reached BB, he did not accept that without a smidgen of evidence of our making a mint or, indeed, the tiniest unit of currency from replicating and redistributing his newspaper’s articles — because we were doing nothing of the kind — his question and ACN’s emails were downright intrusive. How could even ‘copying’ be automatically equivalent to copyright violation? we asked, and we said that our reasons for shifting text from his paper’s site onto our machines were none of his business. We were too angry to draw the parallel to videorecording made here, in the paragraph before last. He had begun to annoy us by repeating, as if he were stone deaf — even after we began to roar at him in thousands** of decibels — ’Yes, but I need to ask you about this because, at this point, you have copied close to half a million characters.’

So what! we said — ‘You don’t need to ask your readers that question and wouldn’t have any right to object if we were downloading ten times that number. Please stop saying need!’ When there were only print newspapers, we pointed out, no emissary from one ever leapt around a corner shouting, Stop, fiend! — as we were using that day’s edition to soak up kitchen grease we did not want clogging our drains/ make paper planes/ stuff under draughty doors/ soak for papier-mâché/ line the floor to house-train a puppy/ crumple for fire-starter, … or even clip bits of, to copy at a photocopying machine and slip into letters to our one hundred dearest friends and colleagues.

‘You see,’ BB continued imperturbably, in his dulcet tones, ‘we have special software tools, and we have evidence of your doing this.’

Ah, yes. Those tools. Consider the terms of trade in this age of Big Data gathering. It isn’t just the Big Tech bunch — Facebook, Google, Twitter, and co. — that can and do collect and minutely analyse information about everything we do, not just on their sites, but with tracking cookies set to shadow us everywhere on the net. Not just to serve us better, as they claim, but to manipulate us. Almost every sort of business is at it. Newspapers — including ACN — that routinely warn their readers about this loss of privacy, and about sites milking us like data cows, paying nothing for the privilege, deserve to have their feet held to the fire for hypocrisy.

Post-Gutenberg made this point nearly five years ago, at the height of the Snowden surveillance brouhaha — in an entry linked to freely available information mysteriously overlooked by big names in print media:  ‘When will the #TeamSnowden newspapers admit to using the same spying tools as the spooks at the NSA and GCHQ?’  One source we cited there, The Daily Banter, noted: ‘[T]hese publications, while taking on the pious, sanctimonious role of privacy purists, are using multiple third party resources to collect detailed information about nearly every visitor who reads one of the various posts about how the use of digital technology should be a completely private affair. … [ … continues …].’

What disturbs us about the telephone conversation forced on us by BB is far more than the particular argument we had with him. It’s that it is a foretaste of what lies ahead in the ever-expanding control of internet users; of the coercive possibilities that can follow from the wholesale misconstruing and misrepresentation of our most innocent habits and pastimes. BB has graduated from unremitting surveillance to:

  • demanding that we make personal contact with our monitors
  • insisting that we submit to interrogation by these monitors, and account for our actions
  • cross-questioning us about our answers, and about why we say that the obtuse interpretations by monitors — inadvertently or tactically — of what we are doing are mistaken

In 2014 we quoted an artist friend, Marzia Faggin, about her dystopic joke that does not seem all that funny now, about doing her grocery shopping defensively, to avert being ‘dropped by insurance for buying too much junk food.’ 

This year, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, has been quoted everywhere about doing what he can to resurrect the dream-come-true of the early decades of the internet, in whose creation he collaborated with other pioneers — the dream of the net as a liberator of people, an open space free of centralised control and gatekeepers. Recent headlines have read: ‘Tim Berners-Lee is devastated about misuse of the web;’  ‘“The web ha[s] failed instead of served humanity;”’Why the Web’s inventor wants to take back his invention;’  — most of these stories spinoffs from, or commentaries on, an interview with him by a Vanity Fair writer titled ‘I was devastated.’ 

A report from the San Francisco correspondent of Les Echos drew a fully-earned parallel to Docteur Frankenstein ‘surpris par sa création’ —  an inventor appalled by the creature’s transformation from an open highway that anyone was free to travel, into a collection of monopolistic platforms whose owner-operators twitch on the puppet strings of internet users with nowhere else to go, to meet the addictions and needs they satisfy on them.

In her very good detailed explanation and summary of TB-L’s plans and technical innovations intended to re-decentralise the net, Zoe Corbyn quotes net veterans under no illusions about how difficult this is likely to be. With careful understatement, Brewster Kahle, the founder of the not-for-profit Internet Archive, for one — told her that he expects that because ‘[t]here are going to be a lot of forces for the status quo,’ the success of any such initiative is far from ‘inevitable’.

In the meanwhile, we can each do our bit by reporting on what we learn from watching BB watch us, amassing all the data we can about his newest incursions into our freedom and intimate spaces, and demanding that he be a model of transparency about what he is up to.

Let’s do whatever it takes to help TB-L become his worst All Hallow’s Eve nightmare — Bigger Brother.

moonrise over scorched earth postgutenberg@gmail.com

** No, not their actual unit of measurement.

Why O hushed October morning mild … ?

autumn leaves (2) 2018 postgutenberg@gmail.com

shadows on the grass postgutenberg@gmail.com

October

O hushed October morning mild,

Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;

Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,

Should waste them all.

The crows above the forest call;

Tomorrow they may form and go.

O hushed October morning mild,

Begin the hours of this day slow.

Make the day seem to us less brief.

Hearts not averse to being beguiled,

Beguile us in the way you know.

Release one leaf at break of day;

At noon release another leaf;

One from our trees, one far away.

Retard the sun with gentle mist;

Enchant the land with amethyst.

Slow, slow!

For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,

Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,

Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—

For the grapes’ sake along the wall.

Robert Frost, A Boy’s Will, 1913

With apologies to Robert Frost, who probably has no equal as a 20th-century nature poet writing in English, we confess that we have always thought that his tribute to October misses Olympian perfection by a hair’s breadth. What we see as a flaw is a single word, its first word, one letter long. Strapping a frilly bonnet onto a Degas ballerina would have a similar effect. In our frankly inexpert view, the first line scans perfectly well without this archaism. Somehow, it fails to irritate in its repetition in line six, so why not just let it be there?

In some biographical tome or critical exegesis we have no time to look for, there must be an explanation for why Frost chose to begin with ‘O’. Could he have set himself a test, in which he had to try to knock John Keats’s ‘To Autumn’ off its pedestal? Was it both an hommage — Frost’s love of the early Romantic poets is well knownand friendly competition?

Certainly for ears in our time, Frost’s is the greater poem because it is so lean and quirky — deeply felt yet flintily austere; and as true in every detail it observes as the strong, beautiful muscles in Degas’s balletomane bronzes. Nature serves the Keats verses as a backdrop for a passionate reverie. For Frost, it is at front and centre.

But it would be unfair for history — when the 20th century also seems much further away than it does now — to judge Frost to be the better poet, not just because each man wrote for a different era of literary conventions and taste, roughly a hundred years apart. Keats, who would die at 25, only a year after ‘To Autumn’ was published, was 23 when its lines came to him.  It would take a heart of stone to escape an excruciating twinge of sadness, reading or recording these facts. What he managed to accomplish in his firefly’s span certainly warrants his pegging as a young poet of genius.

By contrast, Frost was slow to make his mark as a poet, having ‘allied himself with no literary school or movement.’ He was on the verge of his fifth decade when his October poem appeared in his first collection, A Boy’s Will — which he had to publish himself, after years of having his work rejected by magazines.

Almost no one learns poetry by heart after school, but there must be lots of other people, we suspect, who committed it to memory as adults and recite it this month, year after year, feeling a shiver up the spine at the end of it.

 

Can artists grow the heart the European Union has to have to hold and bind together?

 

Roy Eales by Sascha Juritz, postgutenberg@gmail.com

Portrait (above, from A poem decides) and cover art (below) are by Sascha Juritz,  a lover of Breton culture who ‘saw Brittany as a twin for Lausitz, his own Slav country locked into the Czech and Polish borders’ 

Roy Eales -- cd cover Just in Case, postgutenberg@gmail.com

Imagine the happiness of sitting on a sun-dappled terrace in the French countryside, where you have had to reassure, say, the oldest person at your café table — your dear, monolingual English father-in-law — that you suggesting that he try la tarte du village has nothing to do with the two ladies of the night before, loitering beside the picturesque stone bridge in décolletage more evident than clothes.

Forever after, this will be the most risqué story you will repeat and embellish at family gatherings, but — still in the original moment — everyone at your table goes on to order a second cup of coffee and sipping quantities of gullet-scorching marc. Why? To stretch out the pleasure of listening to the unannounced, spontaneous concert-with-poetry that has begun unobtrusively at the other end of the patio, a performance mostly in the language or dialect of this part of France that lets you crawl under the skin of the place, into the preoccupations of its people, as you could not hope to do on the usual sightseeing-and-feeding tourist rounds. Perhaps you strike up a conversation with the born-and-bred-here family at the next table, when they explain the history behind the lines of one of the songs you’ve been listening to, which reminds you of a novel by Stendhal or Colette you read and wept over as a teenager. Your satisfaction, your feeling of enrichment, becomes incalculable.

Unless and until most Europeans have sensory treasures like these to savour, personal experiences of being in other EU nations, the Unión Europea, Europäische Union, Unione Europea and so on … will never be more than a merely pragmatic head-over-heart construction. This autumn’s dismal Brexit negotiations resemble the arguments in a divorce battle at the end of a marriage notable not just for a lack of love or passion but simple affection. It is a union of countries joined in the equivalent of an arranged marriage that made unassailable good sense on paper — but in which the parties never made any effort to get to know each other at the level of scent or touch, let alone become mutually endearing; or develop shared habits; or accumulate a store of common memories.

And how can you tell what a true inter-cultural marriage — respecting and revelling in cultural differences — would be like?

There is a sort of — marvellous — answer in a set of performances captured on Just in Case, a CD first mentioned on this site six years ago that reappeared in a bookshelf-tidying exercise the other day. It sounds sung and spoken straight from the souls of Bretons about scenes and old legends of Brittany, although all its material is new, and it lets you hear Breton voices — including one that is especially gravelly and magnificent, belonging to Fañch Peru, to which you can listen on a clip uploaded here  — singing or reciting poetry, some of it protesting, conveying the depths of understandable anger about attempts by authorities in Paris to stamp out the Breton language as if it were a foul pest.

But no, not all the performers are actually natives of Brittany. Among them are Marianna Butenschön from Germany, Owen Martell and Tomos Williams from Wales, and several from other French regions.**  All the poetry and lyrics are by Roy Eales, a part-time inhabitant of Breton country whose forte is elegantly delectable whimsy with powerful undercurrents, and whose first language is English — even if, when reading English and French versions of his poems side-by-side, you might strongly suspect that several came to him first en français. The foreigners share Breton sentiments — cultural pride, outrage about subjugation — to a degree that would be implausible to anyone who had no idea of how many antifascist outsiders lost their lives fighting in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-9, including 500 from Britain and 900 Americans.***

Roy and his wife and perfect mate, the painter Susan Eales, have with a fine and cherishing ear translated into English dozens of poems by a munificently gifted Flemish friend of theirs, Willem Roggeman, published in A splendid view on words. He has reciprocated, introducing Flemish readers to Roy’s poems in his own English-to-Flemish renderings.

Like Just in Case, none of these collaborations and exchanges were subsidised by the EU or any government, as far as we know, or organised by official edict, or prompted by worthy kumbaya ambitions.**** They seem to have come about from natural attraction, or what is most essential in art.

If only they were more common, and were advertised and shared more energetically — not necessarily on the internet, where you can find uploads of the odd clip from Just in Case that, certainly at this stage of technological evolution, sound woefully anaemic and fail to do justice to its impeccable, professional production.

The collection’s tone is set by Julie Murphy, born English, but singing translations of Ealesian verse into Welsh — the language of her husband’s people — in a warm yet sublimely ethereal voice, as movingly as the young Joan Baez (and yes, that is saying a lot). It is a performance with an intimacy that cannot be faked, free of the annoyingly over-the-top emoting of too much Celtic fusion music, and of slick, big-studio tricks and manipulation. You, the audience, seem to be a privileged eavesdropper, as when listening to the riffs of jazz musicians who have been playing together for an eternity, or the improvisations of a classical Indian sitar-and-sarod ensemble — even if the pieces that make up Just in Case are not live recordings.

Saying more than this would approach literary or musical criticism. At post-Gutenberg, we prefer to let work speak for itself, on the whole — a preference that the objets d’art in this poem would certainly share:

Royal Academy of Arts

Nobody asks
how the paintings feel
when the exhibition is over.

Is it not then
that these tired oils
deserve a little rest?

They have seen enough
eyes and heard enough
words of artful observers.
Enlarged by a superior sense
who speak aloud, these masters …

… these accountants of
image, of culture,
these over-filled vessels of real meaning
(they speak of this work or
that to anyone
who listens till nobody hears).

These onlookers
must be taken down.
The paintings decide they can’t take any more.

Roy Eales, in A poem decides/ Ar barzhoneg an fini a ziviz/ C’est le poème qui decide/ Ein Gedicht entscheidet (2013)

** Reciting the names of the musicians and performers makes a feast for the ears — or aural overload. A by no means complete list would also include: Bernez Tangi, Marthe Vassallo, Emmanuelle Huteau, Nanda Troadeg, Kemo and Matilda Veillon, Jean-Michel Veillon, Yannick Jory, Jean-Luc Thomas, Pierrick Tardivel, Philippe Gloaguen, Philippe Ollivier … And then there are the translators from English: Fañch Peru (Breton); Nanda Troadeg, Marie-Noëlle Le Tallec, and André LeFèvre, in addition to Roy and Susan Eales (French); Maria Tritschler, Marianna and Wolf Buenschön (German); and Owen Martell (Welsh). For your own copy of the CD, telephone or write to Marie-Pierre Le Pennec, Le Bourg, 22140, Pluzunet, France. Tel: mobile -0033635911833. €16.50 (including p&p). Email: marie-bzh-22@orange.fr

*** In the first part of her autobiography, An Unfinished Woman (1969), the playwright Lillian Hellman — who travelled to Spain to report on this war — wrote: ‘Never before and never since in my lifetime were liberals, radicals, intellectuals and the educated middle class to come together in single, forceful alliance.’

**** A kind note from Roy on 23 September added valuable enlightenment, summarised as follows:

The artists worked together for four years without any external financial support. Once the collection of performances that became Just in Case was ready in final form, funding for production of the CD and for concerts to promote it arrived from: the cultural services section of the Conseil Générale of the Côtes-D’Armor and Itinéraires BIS des Côtes-d’Armor (the département where the Eales family and Breton and other artists have homes); Stiftung Brass, a cultural foundation in the German city of Aschaffenburg (which had in the past supported and helped to arrange exhibitions of the works of Sascha Juritz, see above); the Arts Council of Wales and Welsh Arts International; and Dao d’a r C’had and Ti ar Vro, two Breton cultural associations in Cavan and Pluzunet. After Just in Case was released, France 3 Television chose it as one of the three best CDs of 2011.