technology

Trigger Happy 2.0: The Art and Politics of Videogames

‘Wonderfully energising… focused literary joy’ — Eurogamer

Why can’t a wargame be anti-war? Why does “gamification” spit on the downtrodden? And why do so many videogames take the form of boring jobs? Investigating the aesthetics, politics, and psychology of modern videogames, the essays in this follow-up to 2000’s Trigger Happy are an edited and revised selection from my columns for Edge magazine. In it, you’ll find out why the Tomb Raider series is like the oeuvre of Mark Rothko, why Nietzsche might have enjoyed Donkey Kong, and what “self co-op”, “cognitive panic” and “unreliable agency” mean when you’re gripping a joypad or clawing at a mouse.

Available exclusively as an ebook through Amazon worldwide (can be read on any computer, smartphone or tablet using the free Kindle app) at £3.99 | €4.99 | $5.99 etc. Links: US, UK; search to find in European and other stores.

29 May 2013

On Big Data and its discontents

Data will save us. All we need to do is measure the world. When we have quantified everything, problems both technical and social will melt away. That, at least, is the promise of “Big Data” – the buzzphrase for the practice of collecting mountains of data about a subject and then crunching away on it with shiny supercomputers. The term has lately become so ubiquitous that people make wry jokes about “small data”. But Big Data is not only something geeks do in the science lab or the start-up company; it affects us all. So we had better understand what its plans are.

Miraculous things can already be accomplished. By analysing web-searches tied to geographical location, Google Flu Trends can track the spread of an influenza epidemic in near-real time, thus helping to direct medical resources to the right places. Another of the company’s services, Google Translate, is so effective not because it understands language to any degree, but because it holds huge corpuses of written examples in various tongues and knows statistically which phrase of the sample text is most often translated by which phrase in the target language. Meanwhile, aircraft and other complex engineering projects can be made more reliable once components are able wirelessly to phone home information about how they are functioning. This mammoth store of telemetry data can be analysed to predict part failures before they happen.

But Big Data is not just an approach that improves uncontroversially useful systems. It’s also a hype machine. IBM, for instance, offers to furnish companies with its own Big Data platform, the PR material for which is a savoury mix of space-age techspeak and corporate mumbo-jumbo. “Big data represents a new era of computing,” the company promises, “an inflection point of opportunity where data in any format may be explored and utilised for breakthrough insights – whether that data is in-place, in-motion, or at-rest.” It sounds rather cruel to disturb data that is “at-rest”, presumably power-napping, but inflection points of opportunity wait for no man or megabyte.

Another platform capable of changing the game, albeit in an unhappily permanent manner, might be the Big Data skiing goggles marketed by the tech-shades manufacturer Oakley. Rather as the computerised spectacles known as Google Glass promise to do for the whole world, these $600 goggles project into your eyes all kinds of fascinating information about your skiing, including changes in speed and altitude, and can even display incoming messages from your mobile.

Of course, it might happen that while reading a titillating sext from a co-worker you ski at high speed into a tree. And so the goggles are sold with a splendidly self-defeating warning on the box: “Do not operate product while skiing.” Clearly, all the information all of the time is not always desirable. Still less so when Big Data’s tendrils move out from cool gadgets or website tools into our personal lives, the workplace and government – notwithstanding the Panglossian boosters of global datagasm.

Read the rest at the New Statesman.

13 May 2013

In central London this spring, eight of the world’s greatest minds performed on a dimly lit stage in a wood-panelled theatre. An audience of hundreds watched in hushed reverence. This was the closing stretch of the 14-round Candidates’ Tournament, to decide who would take on the current chess world champion, Viswanathan Anand, later this year.

Each round took a day: one game could last seven or eight hours. Sometimes both players would be hunched over their board together, elbows on table, splayed fingers propping up heads as though to support their craniums against tremendous internal pressure. At times, one player would lean forward while his rival slumped back in an executive leather chair like a bored office worker, staring into space. Then the opponent would make his move, stop his clock, and stand up, wandering around to cast an expert glance over the positions in the other games before stalking upstage to pour himself more coffee. On a raised dais, inscrutable, sat the white-haired arbiter, the tournament’s presiding official. Behind him was a giant screen showing the four current chess positions. So proceeded the fantastically complex slow-motion violence of the games, and the silently intense emotional theatre of their players.

When Garry Kasparov lost his second match against the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue in 1997, people predicted that computers would eventually destroy chess, both as a contest and as a spectator sport. Chess might be very complicated but it is still mathematically finite. Computers that are fed the right rules can, in principle, calculate ideal chess variations perfectly, whereas humans make mistakes. Today, anyone with a laptop can run commercial chess software that will reliably defeat all but a few hundred humans on the planet. Isn’t the spectacle of puny humans playing error-strewn chess games just a nostalgic throwback?

Such a dismissive attitude would be in tune with the spirit of the times. Our age elevates the precision-tooled power of the algorithm over flawed human judgment. From web search to marketing and stock-trading, and even education and policing, the power of computers that crunch data according to complex sets of if-then rules is promised to make our lives better in every way. Automated retailers will tell you which book you want to read next; dating websites will compute your perfect life-partner; self-driving cars will reduce accidents; crime will be predicted and prevented algorithmically. If only we minimise the input of messy human minds, we can all have better decisions made for us. So runs the hard sell of our current algorithm fetish.

Read the rest at Aeon magazine.
Feeling at home with Facebook

The first mobile-phone call was made 40 years ago this week, by a Motorola engineer roaming the streets of New York. Phones have made amazing advances since then: I for one would be lost without Google Maps, literally and all the time. Having something called a “smartphone” makes me feel… well, smart. (Non-smartphones are known in the industry as “feature phones”.) And now the latest exciting evolution of the phone has just been announced: Facebook Home. Premiered on a new phone, the HTC First, it’s a forthcoming Android app that replaces your “home screen” with direct Facebook access. Wake up your phone and your Facebook news feed is right there. OMG, “Like”! Right?

Facebook promises that this will result in a “great, living, social phone”, which gives me alarming mental images of something alive wriggling around in my pocket, connected directly to Mark Zuckerberg’s brain. The instantly available news feed is apparently “for those in-between moments like waiting in line at the grocery store or between classes when you want to see what’s going on in your world”, which oddly implies that “your world” is not what is actually going on around you – which you could, after all, see by simply staring at it rather than fumbling for your phone. No, “your world” is Facebook’s world. Welcome to it!

Read the rest at the Guardian.

20 March 2013

To Save Everything, Click Here, by Evgeny Morozov
Big Data, by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier

Newsflash: the internet doesn’t exist. If you think there is just one thing called “the Internet” with a single logic and set of values — rather than a variety of different networked technologies, each with its own character and challenges – and that the rest of the world must be reshaped around it, then you are an “Internet-centrist”. If you think the messiness and inefficiency of political and cultural life are problems that should be fixed using technology, then you are a “solutionist”. And if you think that the age of Twitter and online videos of sneezing cats is so unlike anything that has gone before that we must tear up the rule-book of civilisation, then you are an “epochalist”. Such coinages are one of the drive-by amusements of reading Evgeny Morozov, who, since his first book, The Net Delusion, has become one of our most penetrating and brilliantly sardonic critics of techno-utopianism.

He certainly has some colourful adversaries. One is Jeff Jarvis, a new-media cyberhustler and consultant who is serially wrong about the near future, and seemingly cannot bear to hear any criticism of his adored Silicon Valley corporations. Appearing on the BBC earlier this year after Facebook had been hacked, he accused his interviewer of spreading “technopanic”, insisted the whole story was “crap”, and said: “This interview shouldn’t exist.” Afterwards, he tweeted: “The BBC can kiss my ass,” and “Fuck you, BBC.”

Among Morozov’s other targets are Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, with his “populist rage against institutions” (except his own); LinkedIn supremo Reid Hoffman, who has perpetrated a book-shaped product entitled The Start-Up of You; Google’s Eric Schmidt, who believes that an algorithm could one day tell you what is the “Best music from Lady Gaga”; Microsoft engineer Gordon Bell, lifelogger extraordinaire and exemplary lunatic of the mindset that holds that Truth, in the form of perfect data recall, is the absolute social value; and the games-will-save-the-world theorist Jane McGonigal, whose work Morozov likens to “a bad parody of Mitt Romney”.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

8 March 2013

Do you want to write like Ernest Hemingway or Bruce Chatwin? Then you need a Moleskine notebook. Purchase one of these marvels of stationery engineering – the strokable black cover with rounded corners, the bookmark, the expandable back pocket, the sewn pages – and it surely won’t be long before you are composing muscular sentences about exotic perambulations and recently deceased animals. The Moleskine has become such a writer’s fetish object, indeed, that the company is now planning to go public on the Milan stock exchange, potentially valuing it at €600m.

This despite the fact that Hemingway and Chatwin never actually used a Moleskine. The Italian publisher Modo&Modo created the brand in 1997, so its “heritage” – the website also mentions Picasso and Van Gogh – is more myth than fact. Even so, Moleskines (based on a description by Chatwin of a type of notebook he used to buy in France) are seriously good products. And writers must be allowed their little tool obsessions – some swear by £80 mechanical pencils, others by a certain obscure brand of Japanese gel pen.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

17 January 2013

Downtrodden employees of the world, take heart: a rebel hero walks among us. A man in his mid-40s, identified in reports only as “Bob”, was a star programmer earning a six-figure salary at an American infrastructure company. When the company commissioned a network-security audit, they belatedly discovered that “Bob” had outsourced his own job to a Chinese software company for a fifth of his pay. Relieved of his workload, Bob would spend his entire office day on the internet, flicking from eBay to Facebook to cat videos, before writing a progress-report email for his bosses and knocking off at 5pm. Sadly, upon finding out how resourcefully Bob had managed his own productivity, the firm sacked him rather than marvelling at his initiative and promoting him to senior management.

Described as a “family man” and “quiet and inoffensive”, Bob is a tech-wizard Bartleby for an age of “flexible” labour markets.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

7 December 2012

Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, by Chris Anderson

Chris Anderson thinks you might be a toy company. After telling the heartwarming anecdote of how he fabricated some doll’s house furniture for his daughters using a new 3D printer – which works like an inkjet printer but sprays down layers of liquefied plastic to make a solid object – the former Wired editor says he might never buy doll’s house furniture again. “If you’re a toy company,” Anderson threatens, “this story should give you chills.” I didn’t get chills, but then I’m not a toy company. This is the sort of book, however, that is mainly aimed at corporate persons, and at individuals only to the extent that they work for corporate persons, cherishing the dream of becoming an “entrepreneur”, that perfection of the human spirit to which all human history, at least as Anderson recounts it, has been leading.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

Like every other era, the internet age has its own class of booster gurus. They are the “cybertheorists”, embedded reporters of the social network, dreaming of a perfectible electronic future and handing down oracular commandments about how the world must be remade. As did many religious rebels before them, they come to bring not peace, but a sword. Change is inevitable; we must abandon the old ways. The cybertheorists, however, are a peculiarly corporatist species of the Leninist class: they agitate for constant revolution but the main beneficiaries will be the giant technology companies before whose virtual image they prostrate themselves.

Read the rest at the New Statesman.

8 November 2012

On the history and future of human enhancement

In The Matrix, one of the machines’ sharp-suited kung-fu enforcers, Agent Jones, is standing over Neo on a rooftop, about to kill him. Jones looks down and sneers: “Only human.” Arguably it is something like this contempt for the merely human — or a kind of embarrassment at it — that has driven humans themselves, over the millennia, to pursue self-enhancement. For a long time now, indeed, few of us have been “only human” in the sense of getting through life solely on what biology has given us. Spectacles, contact lenses, dental crowns and implants, pacemakers, running shoes — all these are technological improvements to the capacities of a human body, and thus enhancements. Even clothes, adopted according to the Bible after a moment of Edenic shame at what is “only human”, are enhancements, enabling us to live in hostile climates. Now, improvements in cognitive pharmaceuticals, genetic engineering and hi-tech prostheses enable some to dream of a future of accelerating species enhancement, reaching a point where we will have become — what? Übermenschen; cyborgs; post-humans? Or just better versions of ourselves?

Read the rest at Aeon magazine.

6 November 2012

Recent news suggests an internal war at Apple over its “skeuomorphic” interface designs: making software visually resemble real-world physical objects. I here republish my anti-skeuomorphist manifesto of February 2011, originally posted at 3 Quarks Daily.

Please tear your eyes away from this elegant and curiously seductive prose for a few seconds and look at what surrounds this webpage on your display. Unless you are browsing in full-screen “kiosk” mode or kicking it old-school with Lynx, chances are your browser program is designed to look like some sort of machine. It will have been crafted to resemble aluminium or translucent plastic of varying textures, with square or round or rhomboid buttons and widgets in delicate pseudo-3D gradients, so they look solid, and animate with a shadowed depth illusion when you click them. Me, I hate this stuff. I think it’s not only useless but pernicious and sometimes actively misleading. Won’t you please join me in declaring War on Chrome? Continued →

17 October 2012

Late one Friday evening, my phone played the codec-out sound from Metal Gear Solid, and an email arrived. My stolen laptop had been taken online, and now — like a resourceful kidnap victim — it was phoning home, unknown to its captor. The laptop was beaming back all the information needed to rescue it. And so began one of the strangest episodes so far of my life with technology. Continued →

3 July 2012

“The Week in Books”, Guardian, 30 June 2012.

The fatwa against Salman Rushdie has now gone virtual. A nasty-sounding new videogame announced this week by Iran’s Islamic Association of Students aims to show the writer’s “sin”, under the menacing title The Stressful Life of Salman Rushdie and Implementation of his Verdict.

Videogames’ use as political propaganda is not new, and neither is their engagement with the world of literature, but this news could spark a topical trend. Continued →

25 June 2012

‘The Week in Books’, Guardian, 23 June 2012

A small but fitting tribute to the late science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury has been suggested by the tech world: a new website error code. You’ve probably clicked a broken link and seen the error code “404 Not found”. Or you might see “403 Forbidden”, which means “Private: keep out”.

But the “403 Forbidden” code is now being abused by British internet-service providers. Continued →