Posts by Cheryll Barron

Do drugs explain George Orwell’s ability to ‘communicate with the future’ from 1949 — and if so, have micro-dosing technologists or other intellectuals shown any sign of matching it?

 

icicles, Orwell, Big Brother world

Through a glass, darkly: dystopian anxiety casts a pall of dread over the most innocent scenes, these days

A question for everyone ready to scream from the tedium of seeing George Orwell’s name coupled yet again with dystopia: yes, yes, but have you tried re-reading Nineteen Eighty-Four lately?  If for instance you, like the writer of this pG entry, last immersed yourself in it decades ago, aged about fourteen, shouting with laughter as you read out to your mother passages that struck you as fiendishly funny, which nearly always mentioned Big Brother, an outlandish caricature you couldn’t conceive of as connected in any way to your own rather boring life? 

At the start of 2020, there is not much to laugh about in Nineteen Eighty-Four. It has become too alarming and depressing to re-read voluntarily. Why? Because of its underestimations of the nastiest possibilities of intimate Big Brother surveillance, for one thing; and because we have no believable protection from its deployment by either governments or oversized corporations.

In the novel’s opening pages, when its protagonist Winston Smith starts a diary in a blank notebook — an out-of-date and semi-illicit ‘compromising possession’ — he can carefully seat himself in his living room outside the field of the spying telescreen that is capable of receiving and transmitting simultaneously: ‘Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it.’ Extrapolating from today’s ‘internet of things,’ there will soon be nowhere for a Winston Smith or any of us to hide, as any number of networked ordinary household objects could be doing the telescreen’s job. On the page before that scene, he turns back from the window where he has been reflecting on the malign, barbed wire-clad Ministry of Love and, on his way to his kitchen, ‘set his features into the expression of quiet optimism which it was advisable to wear when facing the telescreen,’ on which Big Brother could be watching him. 

Only last month, a prominent UK newspaper reported behind its paywall, that ‘emotion recognition is the latest thing in surveillance,’ and that systems designed for this form of monitoring have been installed in the Chinese province of Xinjiang to ‘identify signs of aggression and nervousness as well as stress levels …’.

Orwell, writing in the late 1940s, has Winston worrying, as he begins his diary and considers its prospective readers far off in time, ‘How could you communicate with the future?’ — which could be so different from the present as to make his dystopian predicament ‘meaningless’? Very much to the contrary, as we nearly all realise by now, it could hardly be more significant. Winston’s creator has no equal for writerly prescience about our moment, almost anywhere on the globe, even if one participant in an online discussion last January, @WMD, remarked that in the West, ‘we do seem to be much closer to the drug-induced, zonked out, sheep-like mentality’ of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New Worldwhich was published in 1932, nearly two decades before Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Narcotics, the indispensable element in Huxley’s nightmare future — his imaginary drug called soma, used by World Controllers to lull the population into blissful, hazy, submissive detachment from the consequences of their manipulations — came to mind recently in an untidy clump of wondering about how reminders of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and only that work of futuristic fiction, become more unavoidable each day. This led naturally to the question of what explains the steel-pointed accuracy of so much of its envisioning. Recalling Orwell’s four years as an officer with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma (Myanmar) in the 1920s was part of the associative clump, and trailing in its wake came thoughts of opium, of which Burma was then and is to this day a dominant producer. Ah! But then, what was the generally accepted understanding among Orwell experts about any connection — or lack thereof — between George and this narcotic, or any other mind-altering substance stronger than caffeine or alcohol? 

The specific trigger for the meditation was probably a casual, intermittent discussion over several weeks about a friend who made a first pilgrimage to Burning Man last summer, and reportedly came away impressed by the high-wattage brainiacs from Silicon Valley, investment banking, and academia with whom he shared an ultra-exclusive tent for the duration of the celebration in the Nevada desert — with some of those minds seemingly amplified by full doses of psychedelics, not the micro-dosing said to be part of the ordinary work week at the office, for many of them. 

Imagine the surprise of finding no consideration by Orwell scholars of any role that drugs might have played in shaping Orwell’s flow of ideas about Nineteen Eighty-Four — unless anything like that is beyond easy reach, through search engines. Nothing, that is, except for a diligently researched, persuasive argument on the website of Darcy Moore  — an Australian schoolteacher, Orwell-admirer and memorabilia collector — that the novelist almost certainly had more than theoretical and imaginative experience of opium use. It reminds us that because Sonia Orwell, his widow, ensured at his request that no one was able to write his biography for over thirty years after he died, attempts to sift through his personal habits were obstructed while the information about them was still fresh. 

Among the facts Moore has assembled are these:

• Orwell’s father spent his working life as a supervisor of opium production, quality control and trade in India, when it was part of the British Empire.

• Nineteen Eighty-Four ‘has the protagonist agreeing “to distribute habit-forming drugs, to encourage prostitution, to disseminate venereal diseases…” before being given a political manifesto which mentions “the truth-producing effects of drugs”.’

• In reviewing the memoir of a well-known opium addict of his time, Orwell said that the bliss of using this substance was ‘indescribable,’ and Moore asks — reasonably — whether a man ‘who was prepared to quit his career against his father’s wishes to become a writer, steel himself to go down a coal mine with working men, get purposefully arrested, associate with a criminal underclass in Paris and London, spend time with the poor and homeless as well as risk his life in a time of civil war in Spain …’ would have hesitated to sample the drug himself. 

But none of the known facts about the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World establish any direct connection between drug use and sublime artistic inspiration. Those of us who are abysmally ignorant about risky, habit-forming drugs — and who have been shocked by observing their worst effects directly — find it easier to relate to Aldous Huxley’s depictions of their deeply negative consequences in his famous futurama, apparently written before he had any personal experience of ingesting them. He did, however, become a radical convert to, and advocate of, the joys of psychedelics after he lost his virginity as an experimenter with controlled substances. Sadly for him, his novel Island, published in 1962, exactly three decades after Brave New World and a radical contradiction of it — since it depicts a drug-enhanced utopia — appears to have had few readers (not including this writer). The novelist and literary scholar Margaret Drabble has summed up the justifiable criticism by detractors of Huxley’s works — other than BNW — that they are ‘smart and superficial, a symptom rather than an interpretation of a hollow age.’

If only that were not so. If only experimenters with mind-expanding chemicals among today’s policy-shapers and influencers had more to offer us than testimonials virtually identical to Huxley’s about glorious, life-changing alterations in perspectives on the world and fellow human beings, but — also like him — with no specific great work in any field to point to for an illustration of such benefits. If only the British Psychological Society Research Digest, last August, had not concluded, about the most recent scientific investigations into this trend, that ‘no placebo-controlled study has found statistically significant effects of microdosing on creativity.’

If only the opposite were true, and someone was capable of writing, now, a counter-imagining of Nineteen Eighty-Four powerful enough and influential enough to accomplish what Orwell hoped to, when he wrote it — which was to head off the possibility of privacy-smashing, totalitarian mind control that instead, looks well set for conditioning our everyday existence in the not so distant future.

for 1. 1. 2020

 

for 1. 1. 2020 postgutenberg@gmail.com

It was such places as this, such moments that he loved above all else in life; she knew that, and she also knew that he loved them more if she could be there to experience them with him. And although he was aware that the very silences and emptinesses that touched his soul terrified her, he could not bear to be reminded of that. It was as if always he held the fresh hope that she, too, would be touched in the same way as he by solitude and the proximity to infinite things. He had often told her: ‘It is your only hope,’ and she was never sure what he meant. Sometimes she thought he meant that it was his only hope, that only if she were able to become as he was, could he find his way back to love.

— Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky

for 1.1.2020 postgutenberg@gmail.com

for 1. 1. 2020 - postgutenberg@gmail.com

H A P P Y    N E W    Y E A R 

 

for 25. 12. 2019 

 

for 25.12.2019 postgutenberg@gmail.com

Was Charles Dickens turning vegetarian or fruitarian, if not vegan, when he wrote A Christmas Carol — in 1843? 

That thought is unlikely to have occurred to anyone before this year beginning to drift into the past, in which Tom Parker Bowles — the stepson of Britain’s apparent heir to the throne — has actually published a review of vegan alternatives to the traditional Christmas meats. ‘Ban this sick filth,’ his verdict on one offering, includes the word furky for reasons that anyone curious enough will want to read about independently. About a seemingly inoffensive butternut, almond and pecan nut roast, he thunders in deepest gloom: ‘If this looked at me in the street, I’d cross the road to avoid it.’ 

A quick trawl through Dickens’s Christmas story, in the hope of rereading a luscious tribute to a crisp-skinned, succulent, (de-)feathered beast — surely one appeared on the Cratchit family’s table to a chorus of oohs and aahs? —  proved pointless. It contains nothing of the kind. What Dickens says about ‘the Turkey’ that the newly reformed Scrooge buys at the novella’s end makes it merely a tragicomic victim of gigantism, or morbid obesity: ‘He never could have stood upon his legs, that bird. He would have snapped ‘em, short off, in a minute, like sticks of sealing wax.’ In the scene that Scrooge is served by the Ghost of Christmas Present, Queen Victoria’s favourite writer states simply — about the goose that the Cratchits feast on — that its ‘tenderness and flavor, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration.’ 

No — hard as it is to believe — the foods for which Dickens reserved his peerless powers of evocation are virtually all fruits: 

There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples clustered high in blooming pyramids, there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers’ benevolence, to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water, gratis, as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown: recalling in their fragrance ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shuffling, ankle deep, through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner. 

Now, compare those enchanting flights of imagination with Dickens’s repetitive sizeism, whenever his Turkey is mentioned:

[ Scrooge ] was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer, ding, dong, bell: bell, dong, ding, hammer, clang, clash! 

Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head.

… ’What’s to day?’ cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.

‘EH?’ returned the boy, with all his might of wonder. 

‘What’s to day, my fine fellow!’ said Scrooge.

‘Today!’ replied the boy. ‘Why, CHRISTMAS DAY!’

… ‘Do you know the Poulterer’s in the next street but one, at the corner?’ Scrooge inquired.

‘I should hope I did,’ replied the lad.

‘An intelligent boy!’ said Scrooge. ‘A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they’ve sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there; not the little prize turkey, the big one?’

‘What, the one as big as me!’ returned the boy.

‘What a delightful boy!’ said Scrooge. ‘It’s a pleasure to talk to him. Yes, my buck!’ 

H A P P Y     C H R I S T M A S

for 25.12.2019+ postgutenberg@gmail.com

How a well-meaning Angela Merkel choosing the wrong tactic for protecting Europe from Big (U.S.) Tech’s incursions could make Orwell’s dystopia our reality

 

What is the one essential step required for George Orwell’s nightmare of totalitarian centralisation — Nineteen Eighty-Four — to become even more plausible than it is already, in freedom-loving western countries? 

That is, the step that would determine exactly how we get to One power to rule them all: a single, giant database or store of personal information about us, created by merging all the facts the government has with all the data that the social media and other technology giants have been gathering — to give a Big Brother-for-real absolute control? 

A scoop by The Financial Times last week — Google lists no other source, and FT.com was offering free access to the piece when pG last checked — suggested, for an answer, a superficially innocent and at first glance, desirable proposal by a European leader. Proceeding with that proposal would create a  route to deadly centralisation far easier and more straightforward than the possibility sketched in the last pG entry: 

Who in the traditional Establishment could we count on to oppose a deadly merging of government and commerce — by, say, a government trying to invoke emergency powers to requisition Big Tech’s vast and ever-expanding stores of data about us? Invoke those powers illegitimately?

In its report titled ‘Angela Merkel urges EU to seize control of data from US tech titans,’ The Financial Times said:

Angela Merkel has urged Europe to seize control of its data from Silicon Valley tech giants, in an intervention that highlights the EU’s growing willingness to challenge the US dominance of the digital economy.

The German chancellor said the EU should claim “digital sovereignty” by developing its own platform to manage data and reduce its reliance on the US-based cloud services run by Amazon, Microsoft and Google.

[…]

Ms Merkel was speaking just two weeks after Berlin unveiled plans for a European cloud computing initiative, dubbed Gaia-X, which it has described as a “competitive, safe and trustworthy data infrastructure for Europe”.

Peter Altmaier, economy minister, said the data of companies such as Volkswagen, and that of the German interior ministry and social security system, were increasingly stored on the servers of Microsoft and Amazon. “And in this we are losing part of our sovereignty,” he added.

He said 40 companies had signed up for Gaia-X, including Deutsche Telekom, SAP and Bosch, and the new platform would be ready by the end of the year. “We want to be able to offer companies . . . ministries and governments the chance to store their data in Europe, according to transparent, clearly recognisable standards.” 

[ continues here … ]

Yes, her remarks were about corporations, not private citizens, but the identical argument — digital sovereignty — could be used by the EU or some other government to justify commandeering the intimate personal facts that the likes of Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter are hoovering up about us all day long. With or without our permission, and whether or not we are paying for their services.

Why didn’t it occur to Frau Merkel (or her policy advisors) to throw all her weight behind decentralising the net as the solution — proposed by none other than the inventor of the World Wide Web, (Sir) Tim Berners-Lee — ? 

For an outline of his ideas on that subject, scroll down this post:

‘Mystery solved? Famous newspapers that ignored the Social Media Strike of 2019 have agreed to accept regular payments of millions of dollars from Facebook’