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DBC Pierre: 'You can be shut down from life because of one mistake'

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BC Pierre is the author of seven books, including Release the Bats, a guide to writing fiction, and Vernon God Little, which won the Booker prize in 2003. At the ceremony, Pierre (born Peter Finlay in Australia in 1961) pledged his prize money to friends he had duped during an itinerant past life as a self-confessed conman and addict; his initials stand for Dirty But Clean. He spoke to me from his current home in Cambridgeshire, where he wrote his latest novel, Meanwhile in Dopamine City, a satirical dystopia about a widowed sewage worker struggling to raise two children in an age of digital innovation run riot.

What led you to send up big tech and the internet, or “the grid”, as it’s called in the book?

I’d love to write a book about butterflies or something, but I [got] so incensed about what’s happening. About five years ago it became clear that for many reasons the notion of us all having a voice [online] was going to take a different route than we had expected, because of brain chemistry and mob culture and what suited the profit motive... I’m not in any way a technophobe: this is about the extremely alarming agenda behind [online] technologies. We’re running around saying we suddenly have a voice [but] the internet infantilises you – you’re automatically a teenager when you use any of these [social media] tools. They are geared that way: we’re creatures who love an idea much more than a fact, and so we can ignore a whole lot of facts. As a novelist I’m daunted because it’s impossible... well, it was impossible to write satire 20 years ago, to be fair.

You’re finding your creative resources more stretched than when you wrote Vernon God Little?

Oh yeah, for sure. I made the mistake, for about a year of writing this, of thinking, I’m just gonna look five, 10 years ahead. So I invented some cool stuff; by the end of that year, all of those [made-up] technologies were old news.

Early on in the book, the protagonist finds himself branded an abuser after he smacks his daughter.

Lonnie was brought up in a liberal world of second chances. My life is built from second chances; I wouldn’t be speaking to you but for having been forgiven and helped off the floor and back on my feet. I believe that’s the correct way, [but] that’s being thrown out very quickly. You can be shut down from life on the basis of one mistake.


Lonnie is worried that his daughter is growing up too fast...He’s like a Commodore 64, and his code suddenly doesn’t run on the modern system, whereas the kids are born with Windows 10, and he’s got to work out that code. He’s been symbolically down in a tunnel during the years of change, working in the sewers – I had to put him in a physical tunnel to make that [symbolism] stick – and now he’s above ground forcibly [he loses his job] and discovering that the world has shifted. He’s justifiably concerned. It’s bound to be the feeling of a person from my generation, but my feeling is that [Lonnie’s] coding was more benign and noble than we give it credit for, and endowed with more freedom.

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TheDimPause
14 days ago
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Aberdare, UK
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Poem of the week: Welcome to Donetsk by Anastasia Taylor-Lind

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A poet and photojournalist reflects on her experiences working in Ukraine, both in 2014 and now

Welcome to Donetsk

You teach me this wartime trick –
to look for living pot plants
in the windows on Kievska Avenue.
Most are crisped and brown.

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TheDimPause
26 days ago
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Aberdare, UK
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IPES food report: The Politics of Protein

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TheDimPause
29 days ago
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Aberdare, UK
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TS Eliot’s The Waste Land issues weather warning for our times

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A century on, modernist poem’s visions of a desiccated landscape still resonate today

Weather plays a key role in TS Eliot’s modernist classic The Waste Land. Its centenary is being celebrated now, even though it was published in October 1922, because of the poem’s famous opening line: “April is the cruellest month ...”

April is notoriously changeable and can bring anything from warm sunshine to plant-killing frost. Eliot finds it cruel, though, because it forces the world, which has slept peacefully through winter, back to life, “stirring dull roots with spring rain”.

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TheDimPause
35 days ago
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Aberdare, UK
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Plague poems, defiant wit and penis puns: why John Donne is a poet for our times

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Master of the Revels at a time of persecution, Donne broke new ground with poems that burst with sexual desire and intellectual curiosity

It was 1593 and John Donne was 21: tall, dark and exquisitely moustached. He was studying law at the Inns of Court in central London, and was living high. He excelled at the business of frivolity and was elected Master of the Revels, in charge of putting on pageantry and wild parties for his fellow scholars, with raucous singing and drunken dancing of the galliard. (The dance, which involved great leaps and kicks and spins, was Queen Elizabeth’s favourite: she was said, even in her 50s, to dance “six or seven galliards in a morning”.) He was writing, for a group of male friends, rakish poetry that was beginning to make him known.

But as the year went on, the plague was spreading: the theatres were ordered to close, the bear-baiting to cease. In the streets officials wielded 3ft-long marshal wands, to swat at people who weren’t social distancing. Donne wrote to a friend a lament for the city’s swagger:

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TheDimPause
35 days ago
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Aberdare, UK
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Cloudalists: Our New Cloud-based Ruling Class - Project Syndicate op-ed

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At the beginning of this change was free-to-air commercial television. The programming itself could not be commodified, so it was used to attract viewers’ attention before selling it to advertisers. Programs’ sponsors used their access to people’s attention to do something audacious: harness emotions (which had escaped commodification) to the task of deepening… commodification.

The essence of the advertiser’s job was captured in a line spoken by Don Draper, the fictional protagonist in the television serial Mad Men, set in the advertising industry of the 1960s. Coaching his protégé, Peggy, on how to think about the Hershey chocolate bar their firm was peddling, Draper caught the spirit of the times:

“You don’t buy a Hershey bar for a couple of ounces of chocolate. You buy it to recapture the feeling of being loved that you knew when your dad bought you one for mowing the lawn.”

The mass commercialization of nostalgia to which Draper alludes marked a turning point for capitalism. Draper put his finger on a fundamental mutation in its DNA. Efficiently manufacturing things that people wanted was no longer enough. People’s desires were themselves a product requiring skillful manufacture.

No sooner was the fledgling internet taken over by conglomerates determined to commodify it than the principles of advertising morphed into algorithmic systems permitting person-specific targeting, something television could not support. At first, algorithms (such as those used by Google, Amazon, and Netflix) identified clusters of users with similar search patterns and preferences, grouping them together to complete their searches, suggest books, or recommend films. The breakthrough came when the algorithms ceased to be passive.

Once algorithms could evaluate their own performance in real time, they began to behave like agents, monitoring and reacting to the outcomes of their own actions. They were affected by the way they affected people. Before we knew it, the task of instilling desires in our soul was taken from Don and Peggy and given to Alexa and Siri. Those who question how real the threat of artificial intelligence (AI) is to white collar jobs should ask themselves: What exactly does Alexa do?

Ostensibly, Alexa is a home-based mechanical servant that we can command to switch off the lights, order milk, remind us to call our mothers, and so on. Of course, Alexa is just the front end of a gigantic AI cloud-based network that millions of users train several billion times every minute. As we chat on the phone, or move and do things about the house, it learns our preferences and habits. As it gets to know us, it develops an uncanny ability to surprise us with good recommendations and ideas that intrigue us. Before we realize it, the system has acquired substantial powers to guide our choices – effectively to command us.

With cloud-based Alexa-like devices or apps in the role once occupied by Don Draper, we find ourselves in the most dialectical of infinite regresses: We train the algorithm to train us to serve the interests of its owners. The more we do this, the faster the algorithm learns how to help us train it to command us. As a result, the owners of this algorithmic cloud-based command capital deserve a term to distinguish them from traditional capitalists.

These “cloudalists” are very different from the owners of a traditional advertising firm whose ads could also convince us to buy what we neither needed nor wanted. However glamorous or inspired their employees may have been, advertising firms like the fictional Sterling Cooper in Mad Men sold services to the corporations trying to sell us stuff. In contrast, the cloudalists have two new powers that set them apart from the traditional service sector.

First, cloudalists can extract huge rents from manufacturers whose stuff they persuade us to buy, because the same command capital that makes us want that stuff is the foundation of platforms (Amazon.com, for example) where those purchases take place. It is as if Sterling Cooper were to take over the markets where the wares it advertises are sold. The cloudalists are turning conventional capitalists into a new vassal class that must pay tribute to them for the chance to sell to us.

Second, the same algorithms that guide our purchases also have the capacity surreptitiously to command us directly to produce new command capital for the cloudalists. We do this every time we post photos on Instagram, write tweets, offer reviews on Amazon books, or simply move around town so that our phones contribute congestion data to Google Maps.

Little wonder, then, that a new ruling class is rising, comprising the owners of a new form of cloud-based capital that commands us to reproduce it within its own algorithmic realm of purpose-built digital platforms and outside of conventional product or labor markets. Capital is everywhere, yet capitalism is on the wane. In an era when the owners of command capital have gained exorbitant power over everyone, including traditional capitalists, this is no contradiction.

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TheDimPause
39 days ago
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Aberdare, UK
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