An Eerie Stillness Settles

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“You should know the script by now. A previously overlooked inner-city area becomes newly fashionable, and its housing prices start to edge up. At first, the ensuing transformation creates some buzz—a new paint job here, a new luxury shop there—but soon the population who would previously have called the neighborhood home realizes it can no longer afford the area’s rising costs. They scatter to cheaper lodgings elsewhere and the area becomes the shell of its former self. That this process is happening in London right now is no surprise. What’s more unusual is the social group that is being displaced: the rich.

“According to a new conference paper presented last week by Dr. Luna Glucksberg of the International Inequalities Institute at the London School of Economics, London’s wealthiest families feel they are being pushed out of the city’s most exclusive neighborhoods. Families that raised their children in areas such as Mayfair or Knightsbridge (at least during the periods said children weren’t away at boarding school) are now finding prime London property so expensive that they are stooping as low as buying their offspring homes in farther flung neighborhoods, including Fulham, Battersea or the Georgian parts of Islington.

“This plutocrat displacement […] displays London’s top-end globalization. Areas such as Belgravia were once synonymous with the British ruling class—Oscar Wilde fans will remember that in The Importance of Being Earnest, Jack Worthing is castigated by Lady Bracknell for having a house on “the unfashionable side” of Belgrave Square. And the area is still the ruling classes’ home, it’s just that this class is now international.

“Today, 60% of properties for sale in this part of London go to international buyers. The general tenor of the place has changed nonetheless. In the evenings an eerie stillness settles on it. That’s because these new owners are so rich in both money and global property that their London addresses frequently sit empty, functioning more as dust-sheeted deposit boxes rather than actual homes.

Text: The Guardian, No One Feels Sorry for the Latest Victims of London ‘Gentrification’

Pic: Empty London, Nick Dolding.

Marxist Hipsters, Poundland, Job Centre

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“Carl Neville’s recent novel Resolution Way takes place in a slightly near-future London, recognisable as the capital as it is today but subtly worse. Set in the historic, working-class, rapidly gentrifying riverside districts of south-east London – Deptford, Greenwich, Woolwich – and in the Kent seaside towns that its residents are moved to by hook or crook – Margate, Broadstairs, Folkestone – it barely perceptibly mixes things that have and haven’t happened.

“Prefabricated, developer-built ‘pens’ house key workers such as cleaners, nurses and teachers in single-aspect microflats, as a ‘social enterprise’. A new Tube line, ‘SoftRail’, is invite-only, conveying financial services employees from their riverside housing complexes to their jobs in the City and Canary Wharf, safe from the inhabitants of a restive, riot-torn inner city. A widely used social media app allows you to explore all the contacts of complete strangers. Nightclubs purvey ‘twinning’ evenings – the ’90s as the ’60s, the 2000s as the ’70s – and retro cool hunters compete over the private mix tapes once made by now middle-aged ravers. A private security firm, a nightmarish combination of Capita and Blackwater, forcibly ‘decants’ the inhabitants of council tower blocks from their homes. Workfare programmes involve compulsory relocation from London to the coastal towns.

“Other than that, the novel’s protagonists worry as they do today – how to make ends meet, how to defend their neighbours against the police, how to pitch their next novel to their agent.

“But what makes this book so much fun for anyone – like myself – who has lived in the areas described for most of the last two decades, is spotting the things that are real and are put into the novel unchanged. The title refers to Resolution Way, a street along a railway viaduct in Deptford, which really boasts a gallery called Enclave, where Marxist hipsters wordily plot resistance to gentrification. Genuinely around the corner is a block of luxury flats with a Poundland as its piece of ground-floor active frontage. Off the High Street, a railway carriage with a café inside really did make the area safe for another expensive apartment block, designed in reality by Rogers Stirk Harbour. The old Job Centre really has become a bar called Job Centre. Science fiction as it may partly be, what would strike anyone reading Resolution Way is a certain shock and surprise that someone has managed to register the experience of, and the typologies created by, inner London in the 21st century. This is something which has usually been addressed in terms of problems which London hasn’t actually faced for some time – spatial segregation, ‘no go areas’, ‘sink estates’, ‘social exclusion’ and a dearth of ‘aspiration’, all of which may be problems elsewhere, but are less relevant for Londoners, who face a bizarre and unnerving lack of spatial stratification, where it increasingly seems as if entirely different lives and economies coexist on the same street, in the same estates, in the same block of flats.”

Text: Owen Hatherley, ‘In 20 years Inner London may really be like Paris, a wealthy centre surrounded by racialised poverty’, The Architectural Review

Whether Platonic or Romantic

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“Near the start of his relationship with a computer operating system in Spike Jonze’s Academy Award-winning film Her, Samantha the OS (Scarlett Johansson) helps Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) play a videogame. Called “Alien Child” by the filmmakers, the game seems familiar enough to be plausible to viewers, yet foreign enough to induce estrangement. The same could be said of the film’s high-waisted trouser fashions, improbable high rises and mass transit in future Los Angeles, and Theodore’s job as an outsourced personal correspondence writer. This is not our world, but it might be.

“The viewer sees the game’s uncanniness most clearly when Theodore controls the helmeted creature in its holographic world. In a burlesque of recent “natural” physical interfaces like Microsoft’s Kinect, Theodore moves the game character by walking the fingers of his own downturned hands to operate the character’s feet. The act is ridiculous; it looks like dog paddling, or rifling through paper files, or prancing like a show horse.

“The effect defamiliarizes the game even as it casts Theodore as a washout. His cumbersome inner life is expressed through his awkward interface with a computer game. At the same time, the film juxtaposes that ungainly interface with the natural, seductive draw of Samantha. Why would one dog-paddle a computer when instead one can flirt with Scarlett Johansson to operate one?

[…]

“The “Alien Child” video game scene serves a specific narrative purpose in Her: It demonstrates a halfway point between the impersonal, voice-operated interfaces that pervade its handheld devices and work terminals, and the empathetic artificial intelligences exemplified by cybernetic OS1 individuals like Samantha. The alien child not only possesses enough of a personality to ridicule Theodore, but also it can respond to the environment—insulting his prospective blind date, or calling the incorporeal Samantha “fat.”

“But despite this slow and steady ramp from familiar to unfamiliar forms of computer intelligence, Her never really challenges the viewer to imagine what it would be like to enter into a relationship with a computer operating system—whether a platonic or a romantic one. At the end of the day, Samantha is just a cipher for Scarlett Johansson—an actress whose voice is so characteristic that no reasonable viewer could possibly dissociate one her from the other. When Samantha starts worrying about incorporeality, it’s nearly impossible for the viewer to take her seriously. Samantha’s vocal reality is so strongly affixed to the rest of her famous body that the film ultimately fails to invite the viewer to ponder what it would be like to fall in love with an operating system. Instead, all we can do is ponder falling in love with a woman we’ve never seen.”

Text: You Are Mountain, Atlantic Monthly

What the hell is going on?

“For Sharp, the most interesting part of the Benjamin experiment has been learning about patterns in science fiction storytelling. Benjamin’s writing sounds original, even kooky, but it’s still based on patterns he’s discovered in what humans write. Sharp likes to call the results the “average version” of everything the AI looked at. Certain patterns kept coming up again and again. “There’s an interesting recurring pattern in Sunspring where characters say, ‘No I don’t know what that is. I’m not sure,'” said Goodwin. “They’re questioning the environment, questioning what’s in front of them. There’s a pattern in sci-fi movies of characters trying to understand the environment.” Sharp added that this process has changed his perspective on writing. He keeps catching himself having Benjamin-like moments while working: “I just finished a sci-fi screenplay, and it’s really interesting coming off this experience with Benjamin, thinking I have to have somebody say ‘What the hell is going on?’ Every time I use his tropes I think, oh of course. This is what sci-fi is about.” Sharp’s next project will be directing a movie called Randle Is Benign, about a computer scientist who creates the first superintelligent computer in 1981. “It’s uncanny how much parts of the screenplay echo the experience of working with Benjamin,” he said.

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“Of course, Benjamin is hardly an objective source of information about our sci-fi obsessions. His corpus was biased. “I built the corpus from movie scripts I could find on the Internet,” said Goodwin (the titles are listed in Sunspring‘s opening credits). But some stories got weighted more heavily than others, purely due to what was available. Explained Sharp, “There’s only one entry on the list for X-Files, but that was every script from the show, and that was proportionally a lot of the corpus. In fact, most of the corpus is TV shows, like Stargate: SG1 and every episode of Star Trek and Futurama.” For a while, Sharp said, Benjamin kept “spitting out conversations between Mulder and Scully, [and you’d notice that] Scully spends more time asking what’s going on and Mulder spends more time explaining.”

“For Sharp and Goodwin, making Sunspring also highlighted how much humans have been trained by all the scripts we’ve consumed. Sharp said this became especially obvious when the actors responded to Sunspring‘s script as a love triangle. There is nothing inherently love triangle-ish about the script, and yet that felt like the most natural interpretation. “Maybe what we’re learning here is that because of the average movie, the corpus of what we’ve watched, all of us have been following that pattern and tediously so,” mused Sharp. “We are trained to see it, and to see it when it has not yet been imposed. It’s profoundly bothersome.” At the same time, it’s a valuable lesson about how we are primed to expect certain tropes: “Ross [Goodwin] has created an amazing funhouse mirror to hold up to various bodies of cultural content and reflect what they are.”

Text:  Movie written by algorithm turns out to be hilarious and intense, Ars Technica

Pic: The Difference Engine.

At The Moment of Creation

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“On the monitor before us, cryptic fragments of source code flash by. While earthly physicists still struggle to find a unified mathematical framework for all phenomena—the No Man’s Sky equivalent already exists. Before us are the laws of nature for an entire cosmos in 600,000 lines.

“The universe begins with a single input, an arbitrary numerical seed—the phone number of one of the programmers. That number is mathematically mutated into more seeds by a cascading series of algorithms—a computerized pseudo-randomness generator. The seeds will determine the characteristics of each game element. Machines, of course, are incapable of true randomness, so the numbers produced appear random only because the processes that create them are too complex for the human mind to comprehend.

“Physicists still debate whether our own universe is deterministic or random. While some scientists believe that quantum mechanics almost certainly involves indeterminacy, Albert Einstein famously favored the opposing position, saying, “God does not play dice.” No Man’s Sky does not play dice either. Once the first seed number is entered into the void within the program, the universe is unalterably established—every star, planet, and organism. The past, present, and future are fixed indelibly, with change to the system only possible from a force outside the system itself—in this case, the player.

“In one sense, because of the game’s procedural design, the entire universe exists at the moment of its creation. In another sense, because the game only renders a player’s immediate surroundings, nothing exists unless there is a human there to witness it.”

Text: Inside the Artificial Universe That Creates Itself, Atlantic Monthly

The World Was Absorbing

“We were in a lounge on the second floor of the renovated studio; concept art hung beside a whiteboard covered with Post-its. The furniture was bright, simple, IKEA. Sitting in front of a flat-screen TV the size of a Hummer windshield, Murray loaded up a demo of the game that he had created for E3: a solar system of six planets. Hoping to preserve a sense of discovery in the game, he has been elusive about how it will play, but he has shared some details. Every player will begin on a randomly chosen planet at the outer perimeter of a galaxy. The goal is to head toward the center, to uncover a fundamental mystery, but how players do that, or even whether they choose to do so, is open to them. People can mine, trade, fight, or merely explore. As planets are discovered, information about them (including the names of their discoverers) is loaded onto a galactic map that is updated through the Internet. But, because of the game’s near-limitless proportions, players will rarely encounter one another by chance. As they move toward the center, the game will get harder, and the worlds—the terrain, the fauna and flora—will become more alien, more surreal…”

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“Each planet had a distinct biome. On one, we encountered a friendly-looking piscine-cetacean hybrid with a bulbous head. (Even aggressive creatures in the game do not look grotesque.) In another, granular soil the color of baked salt was embedded with red coral; a planet hung in the sky, and a hovering robot traversed the horizon. “Those are drones,” Murray said. “They will attack you if they find you killing animals or illegally mining resources.” On a grassy planet, doe-eyed antelope with zebra legs grazed around us. Mist rose off the grass as I headed down a ravine shaded by trees. “This is a place where no one has been before,” Murray said. The biome was Earth-like in light and in color, naturalistic. As I descended, the ravine deepened until rock façades took shape on either side. In spite of the work’s semi-finished state, the world was absorbing. “I’m sorry there’s no game-play element on this planet yet,” Murray said. His mind turned from the screen in front of us—the six planets, tidily assembled for the demo—to the full version of No Man’s Sky on the operating table on the studio’s first floor, below us. Until many improvements were fully realized, the whole of it would inevitably look worse than what we were seeing. “You can lose sight that it once looked like this,” he said.”

Text: World Without End, The New Yorker.

Image: Thomas Cole, An evening in Arcadia, 1843/ Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT, USA

Events Appear Random, Hard to Reconcile

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“The belief that an event, a situation, or a set of people is controlled by unknown or secret forces, which usually have unsavory intentions. The conspiracies are supposedly intended to seize or hold political power, keep shocking information from the public, protect parties guilty of a crime, or overthrow social institutions. Conspiracies may be controlled by unidentified figures or by known institutions such as the CIA, the FBI, or the U.S. government; they may refer to known religious groups, such as Jews or Catholics, or they may assume an unprecedented new cabal; they may be attributed to aliens, communists, racial or ethnic minorities, or to a stranger. What all conspiracy theories have in common is the idea that common people have gained secret knowledge that a powerful elite is trying to keep hidden and that uncovering the conspiracy will help explain things that were previously hard to understand.

“Conspiracy theories develop for several reasons. They are a way of making sense of information that is difficult to organize or comprehend. When logic and rationality do not provide a good story to explain something, conspiracy, attached to a series of seeming coincidences, can do the job. Events that appear random and hard to reconcile with known causes can be brought under control if a conspiracy is used to explain them. The effects of actions by large institutions, such as governments or corporations, are difficult to explain because of their complexity; conspiracy can account for their actions in a comprehensive way. Conspiracies are hard to disprove because any opposition to a conspiracy theory can be seen as another part of the conspiracy and as an element of a cover-up.

“Conspiracy theories are popular ways to talk about the unknowable. Big, disturbing events, such as the attacks of 9/11 or the John F. Kennedy assassination, spawn conspiracies because they seem too random or unexpected. The 9/11 conspiracy theorists were not satisfied with the explanation that Al Qaeda operatives were responsible and have developed a series of theories that blame the U.S. government. The Kennedy assassination has nurtured decades of conspiracy theories, in part because the government’s official explanation (in the Warren Commission Report) contained inconsistencies and inaccuracies. Theories such as the crashing of an alien spaceship in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947, and the subsequent transport of alien bodies to “Area 51” in the Nevada desert, have become acceptable ways of talking about encounters with the unknown. For more information, see Becker (1994) and Shermer (1997).”

Text: Conspiracy TheoryLarry E. Sullivan, The SAGE Glossary of the Social and Behavioral Sciences

Image: Ant Farm & TR Uthco, The Eternal Frame, 1975.“The Eternal Frame was a project by Ant Farm and T.R. Uthco, 1975, that resulted in a 24 minute video work about the JFK assassination. At the center of this work was a re-enactment of the tragedy produced and performed for the camera, but unexpectedly many bystanders showed up to watch and were interviewed.”