Watch the K Foundation burn a million quid

Watching this video makes me giddy. The world seems to peel back and the ground folds away beneath you, and if you concentrate on it in just the right way, you can step through the portal, temporarily, into a zone or region completely unlike anyplace you’ve ever been or ever will.

Chapter 5 – conclusions.

David Graeber on Ethnography

Taken from the Preface to his 2009 book ‘Direct Action, An Ethnography’ all about the 2000/2001 protests and riots against the WTO, etc., pages vii-viii:

Call this book, then, a tribute to the continued relevance of ethnographic writing. By “ethnographic writing,” I mean the kind that aims to describe the contours of a social and conceptual universe in a way that is at once theoretically informed, but not, in itself, simply designed to advocate a single argument or theory. There was a time when the detailed description of a political or ceremonial or exchange system in Africa or Amazonia was considered a valuable contribution to human knowledge in itself. This is no longer really the case. An anthropologist actually from Africa or Amazonia, or even some parts of Europe, might still be able to get away with writing such a book. Presently, the academic convention in America (which a young scholar would be unwise to ignore) is that one must pretend one’s description is really meant to make some larger point. This seems unfortunate to me. For one thing, I think it limits a book’s potential to endure over time. Classic ethnographies, after all, can be reinterpreted. New ones-however fascinating-rarely present enough material to allow this; and what there is tends to be strictly organized around a specific argument or related series of them.


Anarchists and direct action campaigns do not exist to allow some academic to make a theoretical point or prove some rival’s theory wrong (any more than do Balinese trance rituals or Andean irrigation technologies), and it strikes me as obnoxious . to suggest otherwise.

Orwell on miners; the working-class; and unemployment in the 30s

I’m reading George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, as a re-tweet from my diligent twitter friend Sam_Crisp alerted me to the fact that the University of Adelaide is periodically releasing out-of-copyright e-books (and Orwell, having been dead 50 years  is now out of copyright in Australia. I think he’d be pleased with that, actually).

Wigan Pier, which was written in and around a number of mining towns and heavy industrial cities in Northern England, has got a number of fantastic passages and I thought I’d just highlight a few of them. The opening chapter describes his time lodging with a couple who ran a boarding house/store type establishment and it is a pure and unmitigated horror. Bugs, horrible food, cold and smelly, five men to a room coming and going at different times; it’s a kind of unimaginably Dickensian existence that you wouldn’t believe unless it were described to you by someone who actually lived it, as Orwell did. He was something of an investigative novelist, a slower counterpart of the investigative journalist and it allowed him to get a real sense of (what Latour would call) the whole State of Affairs. There something in his perfect descriptions that is very much an ancestor of Latour’s own methodological approach. There is no ‘expanation’ lacking after one has read an Orwellian description; everything is entirely laid bare.

In chapter 2 he outlines in captivating prose just how tough it is being a miner – how much your whole body is moulded into the task of mining, no doubt coming to define your very existence:

Before I had been down a mine I had vaguely imagined the miner stepping out of the cage and getting to work on a ledge of coal  a few yards away. I had not realized that before he even gets to work he may have had to creep along passages as long as from London Bridge to Oxford Circus. In the beginning, of course, a mine shaft is sunk somewhere near a seam of coal; But as the seam is worked out and fresh seams are followed up, the workings get further and further from the pit bottom. If it is a mile from the pit bottom to the coal face, that it probably an average distance; three miles is a fairly normal one; there are even said to be a few mines where it is as much as five miles. But these distances bear no relation to distance above ground. For in all that mile or three miles as it may be, there is hardly anywhere outside the main road, and not many places even there, where a man can stand upright… what I want to emphasize is this. Here is this frightful business of crawling to and fro, which to any normal person is a hard days work in itself; and it is not part of the miner’s work at all, it is merely an extra, like the City man’s daily ride in the Tube. The miner does that journey to and fro, and sandwiched in between there are seven and a half hours of savage work. I have never travelled much more than a mile to the coal face; but often it is three miles, in which case I and most people other than coal-miners would never get there at all. This is the kind of point that one is always liable to miss. When you think of the coal-mine you think of depth, heat, darkness, blackened figures hacking at walls of coal; you don’t think necessarily of those miles of creeping to and fro. There is the question of time, also. A miner’s working shift of seven and a half hours does not sound very long, but one has got to add on to it at least an hour a day for ‘travelling’, more often two hours and sometimes three. Of course, the ‘travelling’ is not technically work and the miner is not paid for it; but it is as like work as makes no difference. It is easy to say that miners don’t mind all this. Certainly, it is not the same for them as it would be for you or me. They have done it since childhood, they have the right muscles hardened, and they can move to and fro underground with a startling and rather horrible agility… But it is quite a mistake to think they enjoy it. I have talked about this to scores of miners and they all admit that the ‘travelling’ is hard work; in any case when you hear them discussing a pit among themselves the ‘travelling’ is always one of the things they discuss. It is said that a shift always returns faster than it goes; nevertheless the miners all say that it is the coming away after a hard day’s work, that is especially irksome. It is part of their work and they are equal to it, but certainly it is an effort. It is comparable, perhaps, to climbing a smallish mountain before and after your day’s work.

And yet such tiring work often leaves them barely above the poverty line, to say nothing of the precarity of the nature of miners work. They were quite often at the mercy of the ebbs and flows of work and supply/demand (in other words, at the mercy of capital) and what did they get for it? Mostly, poverty. More than that though, as members of the working-class they were kept perpetually down. If they were injured or out of work, to collect their allowance, they had to spend interminable hours waiting around at the mercy of the disburser. Orwell describes the effects of this treatment in the closing of Chapter 3:

This business of petty inconvenience and indignity, of being kept waiting about, of having to do everything at other people’s convenience, is inherent in working-class life. A thousand influences constantly press a working man don into a passive role. he does not act, he is acted upon. He feels himself the slave of the mysterious authority and has a firm conviction that ‘they’ will never allow him to do this, that, and the other.

The last passage I wanted to reporoduce here has to do with unemployment, as a great number of people in the 30’s (and today) were out of work or did not get enough work to support themselves fully. Having spent all of one year in a state of chronic underemployment, living off my parents essentially, I totally and completely empathise with the out-of-work and the underemployed. Here’s Orwell describing the effects of it, and countering the myth that unemployment is a time for productive self-directed work or leisure. Keep in mind this is pre-WWII:

But there is no doubt about the deadening, debilitating effect of unemployment upon everybody, married or single, and upon men more than upon women. The best intellects will not stand up against it. Once or twice it has happened to me to meet unemployed men of genuine literary ability; there are others whom I haven’t met but whose work I occasionally see in the magazines. Now and again, at long intervals, these men will produce an article or a short story which is quite obviously better than most of the stuff that gets whooped up by the blurb-reviewers. Why, then, do they make so little use of their talents? They have all the leisure in the world; why don’t they sit down and write books? Because to write books you need not only comfort and solitude — and solitude is never easy to attain in a working-class home — you also need peace of mind. You can’t settle to anything, you can’t command the spirit of hope in which anything has got to be created, with that dull evil cloud of unemployment hanging over you.

A magnificent summary.

Some thoughts on Pete Ashton’s

Alright so this is going to be some nit-picky bullshit because that’s what I’m training to do. A Doctor of Philosophy is a nitpicky asshole and eventually I’m going to have to prove to the world academy that I know what I’m talking about via a fuck off 80,000 word long thesis that’s going to be all about this kind of crap – social media, or rather, media that becomes the social.

So what’s going on here? Well, earlier today I read a post by the artist Pete Ashton (who also uses the totally super cool awesome subdomain ‘’, hey buddy! Great minds, &tc.) that I thought was super interesting, and a very encouraging sign that there are still some people out there willing to question the received wisdom about platforms/social media/whatever bullshit buzzword we’re using today/technology… because that’s what we’re talking about. Technology. At the end of the day, anything that has been made or designed by a human mind (even a semi-human mind! I discriminate not against venture capitalist startup types!) counts as technology. Or maybe it doesn’t because fuck, even a stick in the hands of a monkey hungry for some god damn ants in a rotten log counts as a piece of technology under the right circumstances (intentions? uh oh), so hey why not just say everything is technology, but we’re not going to go there tonight… that way madness lies.

So anyway, Pete Ashton. Top bloke, I reckon. Don’t know him from Adam, but he seems like my kind of thinker. Except… here’s the thing. There were some statements in the original post that were a bit… malformed, you could say (if you’re being a nitpicky jerk – which I am, do not forget that!). Or if we’re trying to be charitable to a relative stranger on the internet (and that’s always a nice thing to be), we’d say they were a bit imprecise perhaps.

To summarise the post, Ashton has decided some of the technology he uses (twitter; tumblr; facebook; websites) probably aren’t doing the job the way he wants them to and so he’s decided to go start his own website called (Fuck Yeah, Pete Ashton!). tl;dr – I have some comments about the his thoughts and the rationale he uses to get to his conclusions and so, rather than plop them down in his comments like some kind of well-meaning-but-rude-nitpicking-asshole here they are, ripped from their context.

Yes, I’m almost certainly reading them too specifically and not in the context he was likely to be writing them in (i.e. not academia), yes, he’s probably thought about all these issues but here’s the thing with the internet (and, to a lesser extent, writing more generally) – it’s really hard to know what you might mean, and a lot easier to try and figure out what you do mean.

That preamble out of the way, here’s my comments to Ashton’s words.  He says,

There’s no such thing as a “free” service – someone somewhere is paying for it and that makes them the customer, not you. And as anyone who’s worked in retail know, the customer is who the company listens to, not the suppliers. Users is not the same as customers and in Facebook and Google’s case the customer is the advertiser. You and your content is the product while the service is merely the conduit between the two.

True, yes! But it’s hardly a super new concept. Cf: “Television delivers people” from 1973. Still, it’s probably worth being reminded of every so often, so point well made. However, his analogy with retail industry breaks down when examined. Facebook users often protest changes to the Facebook service, and while they often just get the hell over it (remember “new” faceook boycots? ha!) they’ve sometimes been successful! Remember the hoo-ha over all the privacy settings last year (2010)? Users got mad, the press got mad (even the NY Times!) and people generally made quite a bit of noise, till eventually Zuckerberg and co. felt such pressure, presumably from their users (the suppliers, not the customers in this analogy!), that they added all sorts of privacy customisations.

Sure, I’m critiquing an analogy – way to fucking go Ben, you criticised something most people know is  imperfect anyway, well done. But the point I want to stress here is that we need new ways of talking about technology. Analogies don’t work! Assuming some sort of inevitable, inexorable McLuhan-esque media affect doesn’t work either, except when it does and that’s just as much of a problem! When is it inevitable? When is it not? How can we tell? Technology (everything?) is dynamic and unpredictable and past performance is no indication of future behaviour. We need better ways to talk about the specificities of technology, and precious few seem to recognise it as a problem. But before we lose too much hair, let’s move on.

Ever since it was discovered that you could only back up your most recent 3200 tweets, followed by the realisation that Twitter was never going to “fix” their search to go back more than a week, I’d been wondering why I was pumping all my valuable stuff into this black hole.

No! No no no! Twitter may not let you search back that far, but there are tools to do this! Snapbird lets you search far, far further back than a week (to years even, when it works). It is a myth that tweets go into a black hole. They actually never go away unless they are deleted. And that is almost an even more scary prospect.

Instead of disappearing, they just get nigh-impossible to find without a saved hyperlink or some way of forming the URL for that individual tweet. Want proof? Here’s a tweet from September 23rd, 2008. Don’t want to have to save links, and instead back up all your tweets on an ongoing basis?  Here: ThinkUp runs on your own webserver. Ashton seems pretty keen on keeping control, (as we’ll see) and it’s actually a worthwhile pursuit – nevermind that he probably don’t even own his own webserver, but rather rents it from a rack in some giant cloud warehouse somewhere. Again the specificities slip so casually away, eliding serious implications… the only person I know who has actual, physical control of his own webserver is David Carlton. If the Feds ever want to raid the rackspace of mine or Ashton’s website all they’ve gotta do is go to that giant warehouse with a warrant and there they are where I can’t stop them, collecting all my damning anti-capitalist statements to use against me at my inevitable trial for treason-against-the-dollar. At least David Carlton could smash the crap out of his harddrives if they came knocking (provided he was home, had time, etcetera, etcetera (OMG DETAILS FUUUUU–)). That’s the thing with talking about anything with any certainty. There’s always caveats and provisions. We need better ways of talking about this stuff.

Moving right along.

…being in around 2,500 Twitter streams certainly hasn’t done me any harm. There’s no denying that Twitter increases reach. But what concerns me in the manner in which it does so, something I’m going to call the flashbang effect.

I don’t post that frequently to ASH-10 so it’s maybe not the best example to use but it’s certainly the most dramatic. On the whole I don’t get much traffic there – 10 to 20 visitors a day. But when I write something and post a link to Twitter then, boom, 150+ hits to that post. That’s great, but within a day I’m back down to the trickle.

NEWSFLASH[bang]: No, that’s not just twitter, that’s BEING LINKED ANYWHERE that has a ‘stream’-like operation/audience. Blogs do it too (but the flash happens over days, not hours); Forums do it too and I have no way to describe the way that audience comes in (omg details). Point being: the duration of the flash is not some cumulative function or algorithm of the media that links to it and the way that audience uses that media – the duration of the flash is an abstraction of something real happening. X visitors clicking a hyperlink. Joe Goofey clicking it at 11:59:11 on 12/4/11, and Mary Magdalene clicking the same link another 17 seconds later, etc, etc. The former is proscriptive, the latter descriptive (details! always with the details!) and this is no co-incidence. There’s a reason I keep harping on about that Bruno Latour character – he’s on to something.

FYPA.NET is my response to all this and the process by which I’ll be dealing with it.

To begin with it will house any links to websites I might have posted to Twitter or pics / videos I might have sent to Tumblr. I am effectively reclaiming my short-form blogging and putting it into a space over which I have complete control.

Really? Complete control? Complete is pretty freaking complete. Do you have the rackspace or a local server in your house? And are you always going to “be there” to control it? When you leave the room and your site suddenly gets DDoS’d or hacked by LulzSec or whatever are you still in control?

Okay, okay, I’m being a dick I know. Ashton and his readers probably don’t care all that much about this kind of eventuality – Ashton has comparatively more control.

The weirdest thing about all this is going back to the slow burn. The only publicity I’ve done for the site has been a daily Twitter post linking to the home page. As such there’s been a bit of traffic going there but it’s not much, and if I don’t do the tweet then the traffic dries up completely – the flashbang effect.

Ha! Funny thing: I never heard of Pete Ashton till I heard about what he was doing with FYPA (via twitter retweets from both Mat Wall-Smith and Andrew Murphie). That’s the funny thing about the internet, it’s unpredictable. And yet, at the same time it’s like sometimes we feel like we get a handle on what works (cat pictures; tumblrs starting with Fuck Yeah; etc) but really… when we do, we’re in a sense deluding ourselves.

Blogging is something I do to get my ideas straight, to make tangible a narrative which I can revisit, extend and continue for my own benefit. If others choose to follow my narrative, or to twist it into their own where appropriate, then that is fine, but it’s not the primary goal.

Yup. Me too. Blogging is way cool.

This is not done “for the community” because that is not sustainable. It’s not done to promote or sell because that’s leads to craven begging and desperate number chasing. It’s done for personal reasons in a public way because that’s the only thing that makes sense to me.

Aww, seriously? Doing stuff for other people is “unsustainable”? Well, maybe it is, but it can be totally kick ass and amazing while it lasts. There is a very real benefit gained by the blogger by blogging (tweeting? tumblr-ing?), even if it’s an intangible thing like ‘reputation’ as an expert, a go-to-person, or just being known as a hilarious captioner of cat pictures or whathaveyou. Have you seen? People have been commenting on your stuff! How can you say you’re completely ignoring doing it for “the community” when people are commenting? And commercialisation of blogging is some kind of sell-out? Dude, living off blogging is like living the dream! It doesn’t have to kill of integrity, etc, etc. My favourite example is Rock Paper Shotgun, professional, independently started and owned blog now doing reasonably well for itself commercially. That took them hard work and I don’t begrudge them their wage at all.

To do what we did in the fanzine days and build my own publication that I, and only I, have control over. To be a part of the network that is autonomous and free, and stronger because of it.

Um, really? Autonomous is stronger, necessarily? You’re sounding a bit techno-utopian (and I guess really shouldn’t be surprised by this point) but could I politely suggest Evgeny Morozov’s excellent ‘The Net Delusion‘?

Aaaand on that half-finished note I think I’m done, just because I’ve exhausted myself and my ideas. I hope there’s something in there for everyone.

Tim Morton on climate, denial, and responsibility

The following extremely lengthy extract is from Timothy Morton’s ‘The Ecological Thought’ which is (appropriately enough) heavily influencing my current thinking, distilling a lot of background intuitions and assumptions into a more definite form. Here’s Morton, at the beginning of Chapter 3, talking about global warming. It was too compelling not to share. (Any mistakes are my own as I typed it out by hand):

Environmentalism is often apocalyptic. It warns of, and wards off, the end of the world. The title of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring says it all. But things aren’t like that: the end of the world has already happened.  We sprayed the DDT. We exploded the nuclear bombs. We changed the climate. This is what it looks like after the end of the world. Today is not the end of history. We’re living at the beginnign of history. The ecological thought thinks forward. it knows that we have only just begun, lke someone waking up from a dream.

We’re resonsible for global warming. Formally responsible, whether or not we caused it, whether or not we can prove that we caused it. We’re responsible for global warming simply because we’re sentient. No more elaborate reason is requiuired. If you believe a more elaborate reason is required, consider the following:

When you see a child about to be hit by a truck, do you protest, “I’m not directly responsible for her death, so I won’t help her”? When your house is burning down, do you say, “Well, I didn’t start the fire, so I’m, not responsible for putting it out”? The big difference is that unlike the girl and the house, you can’t see climate. Climate isn’t weather. You can see weather, but not climate, in the same way that you can’t see momentum but you can see velocity. Climate is derivative of weather. Very powerful computers using terabutes of RAM can barely model climate.

You can’t really point to climate, but it exists. It doesn’t matter if it snowed somewhere, just as it doesn’t matter if a truck that’s about to run you down is slowing down or speeding up. It if has enough momentum to kill you, it’s going to do so unless you get out of the way. If you’re watching a little girl in front of that moving truck, you’re obliged to rescue her, for the simple reason that you can see her. In other words, simply because we’re sentient – let’s set the bar low to ensure that even snails and the snailiest humans are also responsible – we’re obliged to address global warming. No proof is required that we caused it – looking for absolute proof inhibits our response.

This is tough: taking responsiblity for something you can’t see. But it’s  no tougher than taking responsibility for, say, not killing – you don’t have to come up with a reason; you just do it and figure out why later. That’s why it’s called an ethical decision. It doesn’t have to be proved or justified. You just do it. This doesn’t mean that your act is unconscious. By no means am I advising us just to do what we feel to be right. It  means that one can act spontaneously and cautiously…

Global warming denial depends upon and contributes to an idea of nature not that different from a certain attitude to the child in the street or the burning house: “It’s over there – in some fundamental way, it’s not my concern.” Part of assuming direct responsbility for golbal warming will be abandoning the idea of Nature, an ideological barrier to realizing how everything is interconnected. Gloval warming deniers are like a man with a gun to somone’s head, saying, “Give me a good reason not to shoot this guy.” Do you give a good reason (“It’s right, it feels good, there’s a symbiotic web in which we’re immersed and you’re damaging it, you’re upsetting a natural balance…”), or assuming you’re strong enough, do you just grab the gun?

All the reasons in the world aren’t reason enough, from a certain point of view.

Why do I write?

Why do I write?

I haven’t stopped to think about it lately, and I probably should. So I sat down for an afternoon and tried to come up with all the reasons why I write. Here, in no particular order, are presented the main reasons I write:


1. Because I’m reasonably good at it. I started blogging because I’d learnt I had the knack for turning words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs; paragraphs into chapters; chapters into theses. That’s the essence of what writing is. Turning words into something larger.

Words on their own mean something, but the relationship between words when they are placed in order is vastly more important. Much like binary code in which the significance of any individual ‘1’ or ‘0’ is simultaneously and paradoxically nil and ultimate (the significance coming from a relation to all the 1’s and 0’s that precede and follow) so too every word means simultaneously almost-nothing and almost-anything. Their individual significance is minor to the point of being generally interchangeable. Like any binary ‘1’ on a spinning magnetic disk, swap it for any other ‘1’ and the meaning remains the same. Just so, words together can cumulatively enlarge and grow and warp and twist and crackle across the page with such fire and power that it seems as though the very world was enveloped by words!

The world is not enveloped by words, but one can at least better understand the attraction to philosophy’s near-all-consuming ‘linguistic turn’.

2. Because the act and process of writing helps expose me to my own thinking, and develop my own ideas. When I’m writing a piece and connecting logical dots, when I come to one or more seemingly contradictory conclusions (or, more commonly, am overtaken by a growing realisation of contradiction or confusion) I have to re-examine my premises, or the terms that I am using, or some other aspect of my approach entirely. I have to wonder, what do I really mean here? I have to comprehend my own unarticulated intimations and somehow untangle the mess of connections as though a snarl of many twisted wires.

It’s kind of like The Socratic Method for solo cogito, where you have a lone dialogue with yourself by way of externalising thoughts through words.

3. Because I like the way a particular turn of phrase or a particular use of words can make me think in a completely new direction. Take, for example the following completely functional sentence:

Leaving food in my bedroom attracts rats and cockroaches.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that sentence whatsoever. It contains four nouns – ‘food’, ‘bedroom’, ‘rats’ and ‘cockroaches’ – as well as the transitive verb ‘leaving’ . It carries the meaning efficiently and effectively, warning readers not to leave food lying around in my bedroom unless they want to encourage rats and cockroaches. Now take the following modification of that sentence.

Leaving food in my bedroom attracts vermin.

All I have done is substituted ‘rats and cockroaches’ for the word ‘vermin’. The difference from the first sentence is both subtle and profound. For starters, it has at once simplified the sentence, reducing the number of words and nouns to three – ‘food’, ‘bedroom’ and ‘vermin’). It has also changed the scope of the statement, increasing the range of the implied admonishment to encompass the entire category of creatures that are considered pestilent. Even further, the word ‘vermin’ brings with it connotations of disease. Now, instead of our imaginary food attracting merely two species of pest, it attracts a whole lot more. On Wikipedia’s page for vermin it discusses the word’s scope:

Disease-carrying rodents and insects are the usual case, but the term is also applied to larger animals—especially small predators — on the basis that they exist out of balance with a human-defined (desired) environment…Pigeons, which have been widely introduced in urban environments, may be considered vermin

There is so much more possible meaning to be drawn from the second sentence than the first: now a reader’s mental image of the consequences of leaving food in my bedroom includes a virtual menagerie of all types of vermin; adding it’s presence along with the rat on the side-table and the cockroach on the plate is now the pigeon that flies in my window to nibble on leftover crumbs, the mouse nibbling on some mince, and any other ‘vermin’ the reader’s imagination might conjure up. All this from using one word instead of two (well, three if you count the conjunction ‘and’).

4. Because words are the things that grant me access to ‘things’. Using new words gives me access to new things; everything from thoughts and emotions to new words for composite activities and entire processes. As a process of discovery it’s exciting to be able to attach a word to something that was previously indescribable, held only in the mind as a vague miasma of thoughts, actions or emotions. Try and concieve something that has no word (or group of words) for it, or some that you don’t know the word for, and what results? A vague sense of wrongness, uneasiness, a sense of indeterminacy and a reliance on broad, childlike strokes at attempting to describe something in an inevitably not-quite-right way.

Take a word like ‘thanatosis’, a word which roughly means the act of feigning death in an animal, usually as a reflex action. Sure, you could always just describe that as “the act of feigning death in an animal, usually as a reflex action” but to have a word-tool available gives it the sense of coherence, or a unity. This is a phenomena, it exists, whereas before all we had was a compound series of words/sentences. It’s a relatively powerful aide to thought.

5. Because writing is non-literal (or doesn’t have to be literal). It can be allusive, as well as functional; persuasive as well as descriptive; figurative as well as useful. Computer code is functional in that it does things, and this results in the inseparability of understanding what a piece of code does from an understanding of what it is. The IF/THEN statement is exactly what it does, quite unlike languages and writing which hold a non-linear, indeterministic relationship between what a unit of writing is and does.


6. Because writing can be its own reward! Thus, if my words change the world, so be it. If they do not, so be it.

7. Because the end result of writing (having a piece of writing, contrasted with not having a piece of writing) is something that I can point to and say ‘That is something; something that I have made and that reflects something about me, be it my character, my prejudices, my perspective, my limitations and boundaries, my insights, my vocabulary, my speech-thought patterns, my philosophical predisposition, my proclivities and peccadilloes, or my command over my very own thoughts.

8. Because writing is communication and I am hungry to communicate – to reach out and touch other people.

To understand and to be understood is a deeply powerful, even sacred, relationship. Comprehension is both skill and choice; as a skill it’s one that many people seem to lack but it can be developed.

If writing is practice comprehending myself, then reading back over your own writing can be practice at comprehending yourself as comprehended by someone else.

9. Because writing is technical in that there is a right way and a wrong way to do it. Words have correct spellings (leaving aside differences between regions) and grammar is essentially a semi-rigid system of rules. Oftentimes there are good and better ways of writing (particularly when writing with a purpose or audience in mind), but there are also right and wrong ways. That is a comfort.

10. Because writing can do amazing things, as well as be amazing. It can do art as well as be art. Out of the same ‘stuff’ is fashioned the most withering critique of the vapid artist and the utmost fantastic exploration into the character of 1920’s Parisian expatriates.


Further reading: Lyndon Warren’s ‘Wittgenstein, Games, and Language‘, and Philosophy Bro’s excellent ‘Wittgenstein’s “On Certainty”: A Summary‘.

Describing Bad Company 2, part 1 of many

Latour’s maxim for where to begin an ANT-like description is ‘in media res’ – in the middle of things. Perhaps we could start in the pilot’s seat of a helicopter. Better yet – we could be even more descriptive than that in saying where we’re starting. Here goes:

My viewpoint is an approximation of the nose-camera pointed out the front of the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter. Green HUD elements across the middle of the screen give an indication of the pitch of the craft, as well as its roll, and it is currently pitched forward at a reasonably steep angle, carrying it forward at reasonably high speed. Another human player is firing the left mounted M134 Dillion Minigun at an island swarming with ant-like enemies that is slightly to the front and left of us.

If viewed from the outside, both mine and my gunner’s character models indicate that we are soldiers of the United States Army, as do some on-screen indicators. From the perspective of another member of our team viewing at a great distance (like from the ground to our altitude in the air) a small icon is overlaid in-world. Since we are in a helicopter it is a helicopter icon – if we were on foot it would be a small triangle – and if we were quite close, whether in a vehicle or out, our ‘soldier names’ written in blue would also be displayed. The colour of these icons and text, for teammates, is blue unless the viewer and the viewed are in the same squad, in which case members of the same squad will see their squadmates HUD icons as a luminous yellow-green.

To the enemy, we appear to have no on-screen icons at a distance, unless someone ‘spots’ us. Up close our names would appear fittingly in red, whether spotted or no. The action of ‘spotting’ is done by pressing the ‘social’ function button – the default of which is ‘q’, chosen as such because it rests under the fourth finger of the left hand when playing in the default ‘WASD’ position. This facilitates quick spotting while moving, as the middle/third finger is free to continue to press the ‘W’ or ‘S’ keys moving yourself forward or backwards, and the same goes for the second/index finger, meaning that while ‘spotting’ a player can also press the ‘d’ key, strafing to the right. As long as a player’s keyboard avoids ghosting, a player should be able to perform a ‘spot’ while moving forwards, backwards, strafing right or any combination of the two (barring forwards + backwards as they rest under the same finger).

Spotting (or more accurately described as executing a ‘social’ action since it doubles as ‘spot’ and other contextual actions) is a very quick, but frequently employed action as it identifies enemy combatants to your squadmates (and if done with a specific item with a Recon/Sniper class, to the entire team) resulting in visually striking red triangles appearing on screen for squadmates. To identify enemies requires them to be ‘aimed at’ by a player (this aiming process can be both generous and fickle). Aiming is accomplished with the mouse (BFBC2 may support gamepads but in the PC environment I presume their competitiveness is not comparable). Moving the mouse left/right/up/down on the 2D plane of the desk results in the viewpoint of the character being angled up/down/left/right an amount relative to the settings of the ‘mouse sensitivity’ game option.

The mapping of mouse movement is not quite the same as mapping a 2D plane onto a 3D sphere. Think about possible head angle positions: full 360 degree moment is entirely possible, yet any left/right movement of the mouse, rather than sliding the view-position around the current ‘axis’ of the imaginary 3D head-position sphere actually moves the head around the sphere longitudinally. Similarly, any up/down movement is mapped to moving the head angle relative to latitude, rather than the axis at a given point. To test this, aim straight down/up and move rapidly left/right and observe how fast the player rotates 360 relative to the world, then attempt the same speed of movement with the ‘head’ aimed at the horizon. The difference in the increased movement speed relative to the world lies in there being many more ‘points’ of longitude between a 360degree rotation at the ‘equator’ versus one at either of the north/south poles.

Is this a trivial diversion? Hardly! Unless we are taking for granted the fact that Battlefield Bad Company 2 is an ‘FPS’ game we cannot take for granted the presence or absence of any conventions of the genre, be they implicit or explicit. By identifying the strange translation of 2D hand movements into 3D head movements we’ve uncovered something. Had we just ‘assumed’ that BFBC2 is an FPS (and everything that goes with that) we hardly would have even thought to consider the way mouse movements are translated onto the screen – they would have disappeared into the invisible ‘conventions’ of the Modern PC based FPS. The relevance may be discovered later – it’s much too early to decide which other features, mechanics, and aspects of the game, etc are related to or dependent on this particular head movement (and by extension aiming movement), but the point is to be diligent.

Let’s indulge in a diversion to one brief example, however – the radio tag pistol weapon which fires a dart that adheres to the surface of enemy materiel. Once tagged, friendly engineers may then use their ranged explosive weapons that are compatible with radio tracking to lock onto these vehicles (or indeed, individual soldiers who may also be tagged) and guarantee a more accurate rocket strike. The difficulty of planting the initial RF dart on a flying helicopter, however, is already considerable, taking into account it’s speed and the size of the object on screen when it has some altitude. If one considers how few ‘latitudes’ and of movement are available at the poles, we realise that small mouse movements left and right are translated into large changes when either angled steeply up or down, making it hard to hit an already small target with such an un-fine grained aiming mechanism. The game compensates somewhat by allowing for aiming down the ‘ironsights’, which reduces the rate of movement relative to mouse movement…

But back to aiming. I mentioned earlier that the ‘q’ key performs ‘social’ actions, most often used for ‘spotting’ enemy troops and materiel. The other function arises when pointed at a fellow soldier of a particular class, or when in a vehicle. Point at an ‘assault’ class soldier and activate the social function and your solider will ask for ammo; Point at a medic and he (all soldiers are male in BFBC2) will say something like ‘Hey I need a medic’. Both actions will also make your in-world icon and on your minimap icons change to a flashing cross icon but only for the medics on your team. There is a distance limit outside of which you cannot make a social ‘request’ in this way.

From within a vehicle, if activated while not aiming at any enemies, and if the vehicle you are in is damaged, the social function will cause your character to call out to any nearby engineers over the radio or within earshot for repairs. To any engineers in your team, your icon on the HUD-minimap changes helpfully to one of a flashing spanner. Repairs are accomplished with the ‘repair tool’, an Engineer unique weapon that is selected from the 4th weapon slot (i.e. pressing ‘4’ above the WASD keys) – a slot that it shares with the other ‘social’ items for each class. Pressing the number 4 on the keyboard brings up the social item for each class which can then be used: the engineer’s repair tool looks like an electric screwdriver and has a short range of operation, requiring the operator of the tool to be standing next to the damaged vehicle. It is operated by ‘firing it’ with the left mouse button, at which point it appears to be applied to the surface of the vehicle and begins to emit sparks and a noise like an electric power tool.

The assault class has a grey box with a picture of ammunition on top that when ‘fired’ is thrown onto the ground a short distance in front of the player. It will then remain on the ground for a number of minutes and replenish nearby friendly and enemy soldier’s ammo, rockets, grenades, C4, etc before it disappears. The ammo box is affected by physics, so if an explosion goes off near it, it can be blown some distance away. It can also be shot and will move a small amount, and if the ground underneath it moves or collapses, as in the case of collapsing buildings, for instance, it will obey the physics rules of the game engine. The same applies for the medic’s social object, being an identically shaped box but of a different colour (an olive green) with a Red Cross type image on the top. It will similarly replenish friendly and enemy troops health at a slow rate over time and behaves physically much like the assault class’s ammo box.

The last social object, which belongs to the Recon class is the ‘motion mine’, which is brought up by similarly pressing 4 (maintaining consistency between all the social objects) and is then thrown like a grenade. The distance the motion mine travels, however, is (and I’m estimating here) probably close to twice that of a regular grenade, as the ball-like motion mine seems to bounce and roll for quite a distance. From the point at which it’s thrown the motion mine is ‘active’ and sends out something akin to radar, centred on the mine and emanating for a radius of approx 40-50 meters on either side, which then displays on the HUD-minimap the location of all moving enemy players and/or vehicles. This information is transmitted to the entire team – remember that ‘q’ button-activated ‘social’ spotting is only relayed to your squad-mates normally, making the motion mine a more valuable, localized version of the ‘spot’. Adding to its value is the fact that it doesn’t require the spotter to be able to ‘see’ the spotted).

If at this point, you are expecting to find some kind of ‘conclusion’ you’d best prepare yourself for disappointment. “But what does all this mean?” I can almost hear someone say from across those thousands of miles of under-sea internet cable. Well, it doesn’t mean anything more or less than has already been described. As Latour pointed out, and I cannot stress this point enough, “If a description remains in need of an explanation, it means that it is a bad description.

In our case, if I can be so bold as to beg your patience, what we have here is less ‘bad’ description as an incomplete one. Remember that what we are trying to do here is not write a ‘critical essay’, we are trying to describe how and why a very specific online game operates. The critical essay will not do this for you! We need new tools, and description is the best I can think of. I like to think that this first, very tentative, very meandering attempt at description has strengthened that argument. In future, I may organise my descriptions a bit more tightly, but again, that seems to miss Actor-Network Theory and Bruno Latour’s key insight – you cannot always define the limits of your description in advance, as the lines of connected relations will always stretch out to include dependencies otherwise outside of your scope. Perhaps that’s becoming clear as we wander through the strange landscape of Battlefield Bad Company 2; It’s certainly an emerging reality for me.

In place of a ‘conclusion’ we have a summary: where have we been so far, and what have we seen? We have been inside the cockpit of a Helicopter, and seen how it looks (with very little mention of how it actually flies yet, but we’re in no hurry – hopefully we’ll get there). We have traced the movements of a mouse onto the movements of an in-game viewpoint and found that it’s a more complicated proposition than initially considered. We’ve also seem some of the functioning of the social button, mapped typically onto ‘q’ and resting under the 4th finger of the left hand. We also cared to look at the social objects of each class and how each is deployed, via the number 4, close at hand to the WASD position.

If after all this you are still looking for an explanation, I might again suggest that perhaps the current description is incomplete. So be patient, prepare yourself to slow things down, and walk methodically, eschewing shortcuts like generalisation, shorthand and assumed knowledge, and we’ll come back later and try to pick up where we left off.