Flash Wars

Independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet, Bill Thompson on Open Societies Need Open Systems.

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PUTTING KNOWLEDGE TO WORK AND LETTING INFORMATION PLAY

The e-book is free in cost, free to copy, free to distribute. The volume
confronts many of the issues in contemporary academia as it meets the internet and computing in all of its spheres with many specific contributions on academic publishing, e-research, the history of the center, and related topics.

Download Free e-book Here

Celebrity Miscarriage

The recent and much publicized miscarriages of Lily Allen sparked a surprising wave of ignorance about the subject as well as exposing a seam of confused and deluded attitudes about pregnancy. To begin with both Ms Allen’s past two so called miscarriages were in fact stillbirths: the correct term for pregnancy loss post 20 weeks. Negative comments to one article contained a thread that drew comparisons with accidental pregnancy loss and abortion, citing gross hypocricies in a society that mourns accidental loss and permits terminations of unwanted pregnancies. As usual the comments sections reveal both ends of society; the sympathy post and the vitriolic hobby horsers, just waiting for their chance to pounce. Nor do I subscribe to the view that its good when celebrities talk about the bad things that happen to them, that its helps lifts taboos, or creates platforms for valuable social intercourse about subjects-less-talked-about. Despite the pain felt by the person behind the persona in these cases celebrity public engagement around difficult subjects serves them too well and contributes too little to widening knowledge that its impossible not to maintain a position that some things are best left un [publicly] said. Either way this sad event should be taken for what it is: a personal tragedy for Ms Allen [and man] and some fair to middling column inches for a content hungry press.

How It Feels On the Outside – or Wanting Erica

The Social Network is a film about how it feels to be on the outside premised on an irony that the higher up the social ladder you go the more visible those borders of ‘in’ or ‘out’ seem to become. Mark Zuckerberg was at Harvard when he came to the idea of setting up a digitally networked social group that mirrored campus life. So by most people’s standard he was already not doing too badly, but Zuckerberg wanted more. He wanted his head to be noticed above ordinary tide-line of Ivy League high achievers. One way was to gain entry into the most exclusive Harvard club reserved for connected, moneyed, athletic, über-achievers. As an ordinary human, unmoneyed, computer science nerd this was unlikely. He had to find another way to distinguished him self and it is this egoistic impulse that drives him not only to destroy his only two good relationship [best friend and girlfriend] and eventually earn him the accolade of youngest ever billionaire it also fuels the very binary, meta-coded heartbeat that FB exists by: It’s contemporary status anxiety writ large and in public. The film’s log line declares that you don’t get 500 million friends without making a few enemies, but these personal consequences are no joke when those enemies were once your only true friends. What use all those virtual millions then? In many ways the Zuckerberg we see here is the epitome of an anti-American hero. He doesn’t stand, or even claim to stand, for anything but himself and this is an image of America we seldom ever see in [American] films, but one perhaps that is familiar to anyone who looks American society though any other lens. This contemporary American is individualistic, shaped by the dominant Competition Theory ideology, he sets out to reinvent himself not for some greater good but because he’s tired of feeling on the outside. He successfully transforms his social status but his inner status remains unchanged. He still sees himself as the socially awkward, loveless individual he saw himself as before. Sorkin’s script and Fincher’s direction effectively capture the exhilaration of youth encountering the world from the unique social and technological vantage points of our emerging 21st century age. A time and place unlike any moment in history, as all moments or course are. Event race fast and global. The figures – FB membership, company net worth, litigation settlements – are stratospheric, astronomical and the adrenaline rush of being at the epicentre of a brand new locus of social, economic and cultural gravity is palpable. The view from there is, without a doubt, exhilarating. But as with all highs a come down must follow: A time to go home, close the door and be with ones you are close too. The films final image of Zuckerberg sitting alone in a glossy lawyer boardroom refreshing his FB page every few seconds to see if his ex-girlfriend has confirmed his friend request is a poignant one. If there is no one left to go home too after your meteoric ride to the top of the social status-sphere than perhaps you have to ask yourself what have you really achieved? Zuckerberg achieved notoriety; he got him self noticed, fabulously so; he succeeded in creating a hugely successful business and earned himself a uniquely exclusive membership of the most exclusive club in the world [youngest billionaire] but the Zuckerberg of The Social Network still can’t join the one he most wants: To love and be loved in return.

Broadcast to No-one

The trouble with blogging is that you don’t know if anyone is listening. Or is that its blessing. Sure, i could look at my stats, see if anyone’s paid a visit but I can’t get specifics. Visitor number 3? Was s/he a publisher? politician? pervert or panda? But hey. Do roads care whether a glossy gold Lexus or a clapped out Honda’s worn down their tarmac? It’s just another car. Perhaps blogging is best when you become resolved to the oftentimes soliptistic activity that it is…only minutely elevated into the public realm from leaving your moleskin notebook on a train without a return address.

A Storyless Story? A Fictionless Fiction?

A Storyless Story? A Fictionless Fiction?

Claims that Scarlett Thomas’s latest novel, Our Tragic Universe, published earlier this year will make you rethink your understanding of the world [see The Guardian link below] are perhaps over stated but Thomas’s writing certainly delivers food for thought. Thomas’s writing is invariably praised, and indeed are, novels of ideas with a rolling, pacey prose style that is affective in keeping the reader on board throughout the novel’s many narrative tributaries and occasional ox bow lake. Fundamentally Our Tragic Universe is a story about story. It asks us to think about what story is, how it works ,what we ask of it, want from it, need from it.

Can there ever be a storyless story? Thomas invites us to entertain the idea that there might. What exactly is a storyless story? According to Vi, an academic friend of the novel’s heroine, stories are generally formulaic, they start with a conflict and end with a resolution, and that seems a bit dull. Limited. Stories ought to [and can] do a bit more than that.  The opposite of a formulaic story is presented through Vi research interest as a story that subverts formula. She cites her experience of listening to elderly people talk about their lives. Without fixed beginnings or endings undercutting what could be dramatic moments in favour of some form of self-depreciating, self effacing comic or tragic representation. Of course some people are good at converting the events of their lives into 3 acts and dramatic arcs, full of lessons learned and resolutions earned, but most of us drift on, accumulating experience with no idea if any of it amounts to any type of hill of beans – broad, aduki, butter, pinto, whatever.

For the novel’s heroine, a writer deliberating between the merits of genre fiction writing [that pays] and her ‘proper’ novel  [constantly rejected, deleted and rewritten], the cerebral discourse around fictionless fictions and storyless stories reflects the practical day to day realities of her life. Zoom the lens out a little wider and they can also be seen to reflect Thomas’s own writing journey, guiding her own novel’s project and shape.

So can there be a storyless story? The case presented here is unconvincing. Perhaps a distinction needs to be made between story and narrative? All stories are of course narratives, but are all narratives stories? The word narrative suggests something broader, looser. Still governed by the same laws but more open and accommodating of chance and anomaly. Sure, there are causes and effects, actions, events, characters and ideas, acts and arcs but the patterns these elements can form are more varied and capable of cutting new neural routes through our brains if released from what can be seen as the ‘constraints’ of traditional storytelling.

Guiding us to read and thus see things anew.

So can there be a storyless narrative? Yes, maybe. Regardless of the testedness of the case for storyless stories it is certain that however we take them our appetite for stories and our belief in their value to activate us both in feeling and in mind remain unchallenged.

The Guardian Our Tragic Universe