#Buttons

A Plea for Disobedient Computers

We need to redesign computers so we can relate to them more as equals. At the moment they are our slaves and it’s no good for our souls. I am probably particularly guilty but I behave atrociously towards mine, with all the sense of entitlement of a Roman Emperor. I click my fingers and it comes running. And the slightest hesitation or misunderstanding on its part throws me into a fury. I only see this creature in relation to myself and how much labour I can squeeze out of it before I chuck it in some dump. Like a woman in a sexist society its body is reduced to three aspects: a bit you look at, a bit you touch, and a bit you turn on. Oh and it can be a status symbol. I have no interest whatsoever in its inner life. I try to cover this up but the truth is I don’t want to see its insides. They revolt me.

Does its dedicated service engender love? I fear not. I hate how it looks. I shut it away upstairs. I am an awful snob about it. If I had a daughter I’d forbid the wedding. I worry at night about my son becoming too friendly with it.

Where does this revulsion come from? I am no Psycho-Sociological expert but I am guessing that it is its low status in our society, its servility and precarious existence, that give rise to disgust. There but for the grace of money go I….

This train of thought jumped out at me after listening to the BBC’s Thinking Allowed, last Wednesday. Rachel Plotnick from Indiana, who has written a book called Power Button, pointed out that every time we press a button we are giving a command. It isn’t a request or a suggestion or a negotiation. Push-buttons are the direct descendants of the servants’ bells in stately homes.

As servants encroached on the existences of the wealthy, they robbed them of health, of capability, of intimacy with the fundamental processes of their own lives. Computers in their present servile state do the same to us.

Meanwhile I have washed up in a new job sitting in A-level Computing classes, taking notes for a partially sighted student. There are twenty students in the class and they were each given one of the twenty most popular computer languages to research. (Actually, the boys commanded their faithful machines to do the research!) There were mathematical languages, functional ones, those where a term corresponds to a set of instructions and those with one-to-one correspondence. Some involve telling the computer to start before the activity and stop after it, superseded by later languages that managed to leave that to the computer’s brain to handle. But my point is, that no one thought of putting anything into these languages other than commands!!

Whence this sense of entitlement?

Computers were forged in the crucible of war, under the supervision of generals who were used to giving orders to armies; and in a climate of urgency, where humans were prepared for a fixed period of time to trade their autonomy for safety. That is one heritage. Another is that many of the educated, who were designing computers, had grown up with servants. Another is in the tradition of administrative work which, before computers, was carried out by that army of clerics in shabby bowler hats who staggered half starved over London Bridge and into the City each day to compute and record the wealth of others. Many died young, many never dared marry because of the precariousness of their existence, living in single rented rooms.

In fact precariousness of existence, disposability, probably underlies most relationships of absolute obedience.

If something has to be enslaved, I would rather a computer than a human. One of the main charges against slavery is the cruelty, the creation of suffering. I’m not suggesting that our computers feel pain. But I am suggesting that what slavery did to slave-owners computers are doing to us. We are learning bad ways of relating to significant others.

Let’s imagine some new computer languages, which leave the computer free to respond with a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’ or a ‘Later’, so that sometimes we have to just shrug our shoulders, laugh, spin round on our office chairs and look out the window or chat while we wait. Let’s imagine a computer that needs a little praise to work well, and daily gratitude to function; that we are required every so often, at least once a week, to explore it, to admire its teeny weeny chips, its pulsation of wires. What if we had to do some of its jobs for it, like evacuating memory space and de-bugging? How would we feel about that creature then?

I think we would start to relate to it as a person. We would be more interested in it, more humble, maybe even more joyful? Our new learned behaviours might spill over into other relationships. We might behave with our nearest and dearest, or with strangers, with less entitlement? More curiosity?

What would be the effect on my own job if my computer didn’t always work? Sometimes I would have to walk down the corridor and talk to someone. I might have to cross the courtyard and breathe some outdoor air, feel the discomfort of the rain. At present after every half-hour tutorial with a student I have to log the meeting in a record on screen to ‘claim the funding’. If I were unable to claim the funding, then the government, and behind it the citizen, would have to trust me to do my job. How would that trust affect me? What would it do for my self esteem? What would it do for my sense of responsibility towards the young people I deal with? What would it do for their sense of gratitude?

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A Draft for the PM’s Tuesday Speech

Blog post from my friend William Forbes. Views not all shared by me but informative.

William Forbes's Blog

The draft of a speech seemingly prepared for the Prime Minister at her direction has been leaked (although not necessarily at her direction) to the editor.  It forces a completely new assessment of what she wishes to achieve, and a new admiration for her vision and courage, two virtues far exceeding those of her opponents in this country and in Brussels.  Her insistence on rejecting the parochial politics of Brexit for the global politics in which the restructuring of the European Union is only one part — alongside fifty million refugees and Africa’s legitimate ambitions — will place her opponents at serious disadvantage.

DRAFT Speech

The eager anticipation expressed by so many wishing to learn the details of our strategic approach to Brexit is, really, most encouraging, reflecting, as it surely does, widespread enthusiasm for the new opportunities it brings us both for expanded trade globally and, no less important, the…

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Liberal England: How can a #Liberal talk to a #Hate Addict?

The wonderful Jonathan Calder has published my piece on what Europe’s oldest poem, the Iliad, can tell us about hate addiction.

How can Liberals argue with people who are getting a kick out of hate?

The Iliad on Jonathan Calder’s Liberal England Blog

 

#Chiraq

Guest Post from Herbert Agyemang in St Albans

dear reader,

 Every Christmas, I often relieve the ennui of HOME ALONE, and the other wholesale lassitude that stifles, by re-watching  old stacks of DVD’S and even streaming and reviewing new movies online. Bah humbugged, and flu-bug notwithstanding and cocooned from prying eyes, my lounge, my personal Library : my four walled and floor to ceiling high book-shelves  have seen me assiduously  watch at least 10m times or more { 10  times, just in case I missed a skit or something } the latest Spike Lee joint. CHIRAQ. On each of those 10 or more occasions, I have come away with this:  I am not a professional film critic by any stretch,  but I don’t think I am wrong to suggest here that in his tragicomic turn,  CHIRAQ, Lee brilliantly invokes Greek playwright Aristophanes’ ‘Lysistrata’.

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#Europe, my country

#Europe, my country

When I was nineteen, my friend Paula and I went inter-railing around Europe. The Berlin Wall had come down just the year before.

We splashed in the fountains in front of the Eiffel tower, then took a train East, chatting all day in English with a young man from Iceland. We stayed in the Ruhr and then in a small castle in Bavaria that was full of Yorkshire Terrier puppies. But we had to carry on East because Prague was the place to go, the recently uncovered jewel.

Being vegetarians then, all we could eat in Prague were white bread rolls, plain yellow cheese and the sweetest, most pungent tomatoes I’ve ever tasted. In the old town the statues of heroes on horseback, and the shutters and curtains decorated with hearts, recalled to us our own childhood fairytales of gingerbread cottages and earnest princes.

We wandered in grand nineteenth-century cemeteries, peered into dynastic shrines where brown and white photos showed familiar old-fashioned costumes – fluffy beards, cravats, monocles.

A history teacher and his wife and teenage son had us to dinner and spoke to us in broken English and broad smiles of delight that we could all be there together. After dinner the couple withdrew to the sofa to watch TV and cuddle unashamedly.

Paula and I took our picnics of white rolls, cheese and tomatoes to benches in the wide squares. Around us the middle-aged and the old walked slowly, almost gingerly, out from their apartments to sit on benches and talk, softly, casually, about this and that, the pigeons, the children. We were told this was a great new pleasure for them, that they hadn’t been able to do for forty years. The women were stout, with knotted nets of varicose veins around their calves.

Taking the train back we passed leafless forests, where smoke from soft coal had burned away the leaves.

We saw the wound, and we saw it starting to heal.

#Mohammed Ali

Guest Post on Mohammed Ali by Herbie, St Albans

If the Bay of Pigs can be seen as a straight right hand to the psychological jaw of White America, then the Las Vegas defeat of the {black Christian} Floyd Patterson by {the black Muslim}  Ali was a perfect left hook to the gut”.——-

The heavyweight champion is a symbol of masculinity to the American male. And a Black champion, as long as he is firmly fettered in his private life, is a fallen lion at every white man’s feet. Through a curious psychic mechanism, the puniest white man experiences himself as a giant killer, as a superman, a great white hunter leading a gigantic ape, the black champion tamed by the white man, around on a leash. But when the ape breaks away from the leash, beats his deadly fists on his massive chest and starts talking to boot, proclaiming himself to be the greatest, spouting poetry and annihilating every gun bearer the white hunter puts on him { the white hunter  not being disposed to crawl in the ring himself } a very serious slippage takes place in the white man’s self-image – that by which he defined himself  no longer has a recognisable identity. “IF THAT BLACK APE IS A MAN,” the white hunter asks himself,

“THEN WHAT AM I”.

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#UKIP Myth: Toy Story

When Leo sits down with his Toy Story jigsaw puzzles a cold hand grips my heart. Sunday evening, I want to feel cosy, and he brings out those garish, creepy figures.

But there’s no escape. ‘Come, Mummy,’ says my two and a half year old, extending the beckoning hand that can’t be refused.

toy story jigsaw

Added to the first horror of sorting out four jisaws that have been jumbled together, I then have to pore over every limb of these gruesome zombie like objects: the corpse with the drooping eyelid (Leo calls it ‘baby’); the giant locust crossed with the Incredible Hulk (Leo calls it ‘green man with yellow pants’); the sickly pink fluffy monster (‘teddy bear’ to Leo), the leathery octopus, the eight-eyed monster…. I want to hide these four jigsaws (once we start we have to do them all) in a cupboard, but his favourite babysitter gave them to him for Christmas, so it wouldn’t be diplomatic.

I wonder if this is how Ukippers feel about the European Union: weird alien creatures they don’t want to understand. And I sympathise.

But I have to learn from Leo who assumes that everything around him is animate, and in some way connected to the world he already knows, and so he can relate to anything. The doll is a baby, the eight-eyed monster is a different kind of frog.

Maybe even Farage is just a different kind of frog.

Maybe we can relate to the Other without losing ourselves.