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* researcher in infrastructure futures and theory (University of Sheffield, UK)
* science fiction author and literary critic
* writer, theorist, critical futurist
* dishevelled mountebank

velcro-city.co.uk

orcid.org/0000-0002-3555-843X

www.sheffield.ac.uk/usp/researchschool/students/paulraven

 

Diegetic prototyping: lavatorial mode

2 min read

From a piece about video game toilet design:

Toilets are valuable precisely because they have no real relevance to the game at hand,” says Fullbright’s Steve Gaynor. “They exist as interactive objects to flesh out the ‘realness’ of the game world as a functional place. It’s about supporting player expectation. If there’s a bathroom, there should be a toilet. And if there’s a toilet, it should flush. It’s these little pieces of seemingly pointless interactivity that maintain the illusion of being inside a functional other place, not just a place-shaped box.

[...]

"Many of the environments we go through in games are supposed to have been inhabited by humans. A game might be set in a laboratory, but it needs to make sense for people to be there. And if there are, or were, humans in your environment, you certainly need to fulfil two needs: eating and shitting. Food can be handled simply with, say, food containers littered around the place. But unless the situation is really dire, humans require a specialised place to do their business. So in a way, toilets are part of the justification for having that cool laboratory.

 

Logistics as a network function

4 min read

Logistics is the ultimate in network functions, if not the original network function. Jon Elledge at CityMetric makes a good case out of the enduring suckiness of home delivery firms:

In fact, there might be a structural reason why delivery firms are so often rubbish:  they’re accountable to the wrong people. When you order something online, you don’t pick who delivers it, the retailer does. As a result, you can’t boycott the delivery firm; neither are they the ones liable to compensate you if they screw up. There’s not enough payback for failure.

To make matters worse, many of these firms rely on self-employed drivers (this is particularly so at peak times such as Christmas, but seems to be true all year round). These guys are expected to do something like 100 drops a day, and are paid by the delivery. Leave aside the fact they’re even less accountable to you than their employer is, and consider how this’ll influence their behaviour. They have every incentive to prioritise easy deliveries, and no incentive whatever to care about you. If you’re slow to the door; if it’s difficult to park; if they forget to collect your parcel altogether, then that’s just too bad.

Would boycotting online retailers who use these firms change any of this? Eventually, perhaps. But even if the public were willing to give up its home shopping addiction, the lack of transparency regarding which delivery firms a retailer uses would rather blunt the attack.

The bottom line is that delivering parcels is an expensive game. You need a national network of depots and drivers and, ideally, a call centre (all of which might make one ask if we weren’t better off with a single national Post Office). The business is seasonal; the overheads are high. These are not obviously lucrative firms. It’s just possible that the service we get is the one we’re willing to pay for.

All logistical functions must be collectively owned and monopoly-managed. This is not (only) a political argument, but a network-theoretical argument.

In any network, the "last mile" is hideously resource-intensive, while only the trunk routes ever hit efficiencies of scale related to volume. In any process of privatisation, the trunk route franchises are bought up first, because those economies of scale make for easy profits... but those profits are only possible if you're not also losing money on keeping up the last mile, where economies of scale rarely (if ever) apply. Why should an operator pay for the last mile if they're not operating it, you might ask? Well, because without the last mile feeding traffic to and from the trunk routes, there would be less trunk route traffic to carry. The profits to be made on the trunk routes are actually rent extraction from the last mile; the separation of the two is a financial fiction which can only ever work against optimal function and efficiency. Because once the network is fragmented and the best routes have been bought up, the operator companies can then run the numbers on the last mile operations remaining, point out to councils that they're inherently unprofitable as constituted, and then demand subsidies in exchange for providing last mile connectivity, which the state has no option but to provide (because if people and stuff can't move around, your economy is fucked).

Which is how you end up with the delightful irony of Stagecoach raking in subsidy money from dozens of UK councils in exchange for sparse and sketchy local bus routes, while also running extremely profitable (because separately contracted) franchises on intercity coach routes and train lines. It'd be interesting to run the numbers and see whether the profits of trunk route operators and the subsidies paid out to last mile operators would be anywhere close to cancelling out if you looked at them nationally; my suspicion is that it'd be closer to that than not.

 

The refusal of transactional hope

1 min read

From the mighty Tressie MC:

My hopelessness is faith in things yet seen and works yet done. Hopelessness is necessary for the hard work of resisting tyranny and fascism. It is the precondition for sustained social movements because history isn’t a straight line. It is a spinning top that eventually moves forward but also always goes round and round as it does. Those erasers applied post-mortem confuse us to this, blind us to the defeats that will come and ill prepare us for the reality that most of what we believe in will not come to pass in our lifetimes. A transactional hope is anathema to social progress.

 

The difference between a writer and someone who dreams of being a writer is that the writer has finished.

2 min read

Kate Tempest on writing as a process:

... sometimes everything else disappears, and that happens very rarely. The rest of the time, it’s you writing when you don’t feel like writing, writing when you hate everything that’s coming out, forcing yourself to engage with the idea that it’s going to be shit no matter what you do, and trying to kind of break through that because of a deadline, or because you know that it’s very important to continue. This is what enables you to be a writer.

The difference between a writer and someone who dreams of being a writer is that the writer has finished. You’ve gone through the agony of taking an idea that is perfect – it’s soaring, it comes from this other place – then you’ve had to summon it down and process it through your shit brain. It’s coming out of your shit hands and you’ve ruined it completely. The finished thing is never going to be anywhere near as perfect as the idea, of course, because if it was, why would you ever do anything else? And then you have another idea. And then these finished things are like stepping stones towards being able to find your voice.

The thing is, everybody’s got an idea. Everybody wants to tell me about their ideas. Everybody is very quick to look down on your finished things, because of their great ideas. But until you finish something, I’ve got no time to have that discussion. Because living through that agony is what gives you the humility to understand what writing is about.

Exactly this.

 

Cryonics / immortalism

“When I asked if there was even a one in a million chance of my daughter being brought back to life, they could not say there was.”

 

On vagueness, or, when is a heap of sand not a heap of sand? | Aeon Ideas

Vagueness isn’t a problem about logic; it’s a problem about knowledge. A statement can be true without your knowing that it is true. There really is a stage when you have a heap, you remove one grain, and you no longer have a heap. The trouble is that you have no way of recognising that stage when it arrives, so you don’t know at which point this happens.

 

Ur-fascism

6 min read

From Umberto Eco's 1995 essay:

1. The first feature of Ur-Fascism is the cult of tradition. [...] Syncretism is not only, as the dictionary says, “the combination of different forms of belief or practice”; such a combination must tolerate contradictions. Each of the original messages contains a silver of wisdom, and whenever they seem to say different or incompatible things it is only because all are alluding, allegorically, to the same primeval truth.

As a consequence, there can be no advancement of learning. Truth has been already spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message.

2. Traditionalism implies the rejection of modernism. [...] The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.

3. Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action’s sake. Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes. [...]

4. No syncretistic faith can withstand analytical criticism. The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge. For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.

5. Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity. Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.

6. Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That is why one of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups. In our time, when the old “proletarians” are becoming petty bourgeois (and the lumpen are largely excluded from the political scene), the fascism of tomorrow will find its audience in this new majority.

7. To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. Besides, the only ones who can provide an identity to the nation are its enemies. Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia. But the plot must also come from the inside: Jews are usually the best target because they have the advantage of being at the same time inside and outside. In the US, a prominent instance of the plot obsession is to be found in Pat Robertson’s The New World Order, but, as we have recently seen, there are many others.

8. The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies. [...] However, the followers must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies. Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak. Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.

9. For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle. Thus pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. It is bad because life is permanent warfare. [Cf. Hayek; economics as the continuation of war by other means.]

10. Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology, insofar as it is fundamentally aristocratic, and aristocratic and militaristic elitism cruelly implies contempt for the weak. Ur-Fascism can only advocate a popular elitism. Every citizen belongs to the best people of the world, the members of the party are the best among the citizens, every citizen can (or ought to) become a member of the party. But there cannot be patricians without plebeians. In fact, the Leader, knowing that his power was not delegated to him democratically but was conquered by force, also knows that his force is based upon the weakness of the masses; they are so weak as to need and deserve a ruler. Since the group is hierarchically organized (according to a military model), every subordinate leader despises his own underlings, and each of them despises his inferiors. This reinforces the sense of mass elitism.

11. In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero. In every mythology the hero is an exceptional being, but in Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. [...]

12. Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters. This is the origin of machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality). Since even sex is a difficult game to play, the Ur-Fascist hero tends to play with weapons—doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.

13. Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say. In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view—one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction. To have a good instance of qualitative populism we no longer need the Piazza Venezia in Rome or the Nuremberg Stadium. There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.

Because of its qualitative populism Ur-Fascism must be against “rotten” parliamentary governments. [...] Wherever a politician casts doubt on the legitimacy of a parliament because it no longer represents the Voice of the People, we can smell Ur-Fascism.

14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak. [...] All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning. But we must be ready to identify other kinds of Newspeak, even if they take the apparently innocent form of a popular talk show.

 

UK peak/offpeak rail fares structure, Nov 2016

 

Rules for survival in an autocracy

1 min read

From the NYRB; eminently applicable to the UK as well as the US.

  • Rule 1: Believe the autocrat. He means what he says. Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization. [...]
  • 2: Do not be taken in by small signs of normality.
  • 3: Institutions will not save you.
  • 4: Be outraged.
  • 5: Don’t make compromises.
  • 6: Remember the future.

Go read the whole thing.

 

Narratology of fine art

1 min read

Later [portraits] were painted for posterity, offering the evidence of the once living to future generations. Whilst still being painted, they were imagined in the past tense, and the painter, painting, addressed his sitter in the third person -- either singular or plural. He, She, They, as I observed them. This is why so many of them look old, even when they are not.

-- John Berger, from Portraits, 2015

(Compare with advertising, which is a present- or future-tense narrative form; "this is why so many of them look new, even when they are not".)