Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘computers’

henry cordier

It’s happened to me before, this thing with computers and writing. The manuscript I’ve been working on, maybe for years, gets lost, the file corrupted, the computer hard drive eats its self, the pen-drive fails to connect in the slot at the critical moment, or I yank it out too soon, there’s a power cut,…

It happened with The Singing Loch, The Road from Langholm Avenue, The Last Guests of La Maison Du Lac, and now The Sea View Cafe. Okay, I was able to recover stuff from earlier back-ups, rewrite the gaps from scratch and generally piece things back together one way or the other, but it’s still a blow when it happens. We think to ourselves: all that work? GONE. It’s a very existential moment.

Computers have many advantages, but the most important of them is simply the ability to backspace and delete. Storage is another plus, so I’m not suggesting they’re a bane – they’re not.  I’ve got everything I’ve ever written on a Micro SD card. A novel as a paper manuscript is about a kilogram and a lot of shelf of space. As a computer file, it’s about a megabyte of RTF, which is basically a flyspec. I don’t need a library or a study to keep my tomes or my reference works, which is just as well because my house isn’t big enough.

Some might say it’s a disadvantage, that I might now lose my entire life’s work down a gap in the floorboards, but my house could get burned down, or flooded, and all that paper destroyed anyway. Nowadays, wherever I am, it’s there, and it’s backed up in so many places I’d have to be very unfortunate to lose them all. Computers are a boon to the writer, but like anything else we need to understand the weaknesses of the system, adapt our approach accordingly and never forget it’s the word that’s king, not the tech.

DH Lawrence famously left his final draft of “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” in the Cafe at Reading Station, never to be seen again. The version that survives is one he cobbled together afterwards from earlier drafts. Jilly Cooper left her only copy of the manuscript of “Riders” on a London bus. It was never found. She rewrote it from scratch, but it took her nearly fifteen years. Robert Ludlum’s first novel “A Literary Effort” was lost “somewhere” in San Francisco during a heavy drinking session. That was never found either, and he didn’t re-write it. Dylan Thomas lost the manuscript of Under Milk Wood three times, the last one being eventually found in a Pub. The manuscript of Carlyle’s “French Revolution” was mistaken for waste paper and burnt,…

It happens. We get over it, we move on.

My advice is never to save your working copy to a computer hard drive, ever, to use removable media instead, say a pen drive or a memory card, make regular backups, guard your primary source with your life, and have it backed up all over the place – say on other pen drives, on your computer, or in the cloud. But regarding the cloud, remember we should never rely on anything someone else has the potential to switch off or screw up. For my works-in-progress, Dropbox provides occasional peace of mind, but that’s all, and of course anything of a potentially embarrassing or explosive nature should never go into the cloud at all – your personal journal say, or your juvenile ventures in writing pornography, even if, or even especially if, it’s encrypted.

It’s not a foolproof system, and no matter how paranoid you are, you’re bound to lose something sooner or later. The first time it happens it’s like the end of the world. You’ve worked for years on this manuscript, and it’s the best of you, and it was going to change the world, have people fall down and worship at your feet, and suddenly it’s GONE, or it’s shredded into fragments interspersed with vast blocks of ASCII. But what you learn from the depth of your despair, and the time it takes you to get over it is perhaps more important than if the novel had been finished and published to resounding applause.

I mean, it’s not like you lost a loved one, is it? It’s not like your soul-mate took off with your best friend, or your house got flattened by a hurricane. These are also challenges in life, and the things they teach us about life and about ourselves are arguably more important. The most we can learn from the loss of a manuscript is to laugh at our literary pretensions. We see our ego, and if we’re lucky we see also how naked and stupid he looks.

My last backup of the Sea View Cafe was in June (I know, shameful!). Fortunately, since I’m struggling to make headway with it at the moment, this amounts to just four chapters, or about ten thousand words. And since I was struggling with it, I’m looking upon it as an opportunity to find a new direction rather than trying to rewrite the chapters from memory. Call it fatalism if you like, or a drastic editorial intervention by the muse, but maybe those lost scenes just weren’t meant to be, and who cares anyway?

Philosophically speaking, writing for the online world, the fact a thing is written in the first place is the most important thing for the writer, no matter if it’s then instantly deleted, and no one else sees it because it’s already served it purpose, to you , the person who wrote it. And if you can’t remember what it was you said, sufficient to rewrite it, or you can’t be bothered, how can it have been that important someone else gets to read it anyway?

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

great wave croppedI lost an evening writing because my laptop, which runs on Windows 10, decided to update itself. I’ve tried various ways of stopping it from doing this, but it’s smarter than me and it will have its updates when it wants them, whether I like it or not, even at the cost of periodically throttling my machine and rendering it useless. Then I have to spend another evening undoing the update.

I don’t suppose it matters – not in the great scheme of things, anyway. I mean it’s not like I’m up against any publisher’s deadlines or anything. I feel it more as an intrusion by an alien intelligence, adding another non-productive task to the list of other non-productive tasks of which my life largely consists these days.

No, in the great scheme of things it doesn’t matter if I write, or what I write, or how I write, because there’s this aphorism that says something to the effect that in spite of how we feel, virtually all the time, things can never be more perfect than they are right now, that attaining this glorious state of being is simply matter of removing the scales from our eyes, of seeing and feeling the world differently. From that perspective, blogging’s just a big box I dump my spleen into now and then and my novels, what I once thought of as my reason for being – struggles for plausibility, for meaning, authentically channelling the muse, desperately seeking the right ending and all that – I mean,… really, who cares? It’s just some stuff I made up.

As you can tell, I’m feeling very Zen at the moment. Either that or depressed. The difference between Zen and depression? Depression is to be oppressed by emptiness. Zen is to embrace it. It’s to do with the same existential conundrum, I think, just opposite ends of the scale.

The writing life is one of negotiating distraction. You hold the intention to write at the back of your mind while being diverted by all these other activities – making a meal, washing it up, You-tube, Instagram, mowing the grass, cleaning your shoes, scraping the squished remains of that chocolate bar from your car seat,…

Such tasks are not unavoidable. You could simply ignore them, flagellate yourself, force yourself to sit down and write, but sometimes if you’re too disciplined, you find the words won’t come anyway because the muse is slighted, or out to lunch or something. So you fiddle about, you meander your way around your distractions, all the while building pressure to get something out, to sit down when you find a bit of space and peace, usually late in the day when you’ve already promised yourself an early night, and you’re too tired to do anything about it anyway. And then you find Windows 10 is in the process of updating itself.

Damn!

So what is it with this technology anyway? Does a writer really need it to such an extent? I mean, computers seem to be assuming a sense of self importance way beyond their utility. I suppose I could go back to longhand, like when I was a schoolboy, pre-computer days, or for £20 I could go back to Bygone Times and pick up that old Silver Reed clatter bucket and eat trees with it again – do they still sell Tippex? Neither of these options appeal though, being far too retrograde. No, sadly, a writer needs a computer now, especially a writer like me who relies upon it as a portal to the online market – “market” being perhaps not the best choice of the word, implying as it does a place to sell goods when I don’t actually sell anything. What do you call a market where you give your stuff away? Answers on an e-postcard please. But really, it doesn’t matter, because remember: nothing could ever be more perfect than it is right now.

Except,… everything is weird. Have you noticed? America’s gone mad, and we Brits, finally wetting our pants with xenophobia, have sawn off the branch we’ve been sitting on for forty years, gone crashing down into the unknown. And if this is the best we can come up with after all our theorising and thinking, and our damned Windows 10 with its constant updates, it’s time we wiped the slate clean and started afresh with our ABC’s, and a better heart and a clearer head.

I don’t know,… if I actually I knew anything about Zen, it would be a good time to retreat into monkish seclusion, compose impenetrable Haiku, scratch the lines on pebbles with a rusty nail and toss them into the sea. We’ve had ten thousand years of the wisdom of sages and the world’s getting dumber by the day. How does that happen?

Not to be discouraged, I bought a copy of Windows XP for a fiver off Ebay. It’s as obsolete as you can get these days while remaining useful. Indeed, it’s still probably controlling all the world’s nuclear power stations – except for those still relying on DOS – so I should manage okay with it. I have it on an old laptop, permanently isolated from the Internet, so the bad guys can’t hack it, and it can’t update itself. It responds like greased lightning. Okay, I know I still need Windows 10 to actually publish stuff, but at least I have a machine I can rely on for the basics of just writing now.

But did I ever tell you I don’t like writing about writing? Well, here I am doing it again aren’t I? But have you noticed, if you search WordPress for “writers”, or “writing”, that’s what tends to pop up, all of us writers writing about writing, when what I really want to read is their actual stuff, what they think about – you know, things, what the world looks like from their part of, well, the world, and through their eyes and their idiosyncrasies, and all that, which is what I thought writers were supposed to do. Or maybe that’s it these days and, like Windows 10 we’ve been updated beyond the point to which we make sense any more, become instead a massive circular reference in the spreadsheet of life, destined soon to disappear up our own posteriors.

Okay, we’ve tripped the thousand word warning now, when five hundred is considered a long piece these days – just enough to sound quirky and cool, while saying nothing at all.

Brevity, Michael! No one likes a smart-arse,… especially a long winded one.

Graeme out.

Read Full Post »

mariaI’ve just noticed my novel “Between The Tides” popping up for sale on various strange websites, adult sites, the sites you hesitate to click on, so I refrained from further investigation. It used to happen a lot with Amazon too, my stuff getting stolen and sold by pirates. The first couple of times this misappropriation and misrepresentation bothered me deeply. It used to feel like a violation.

It’s my business if I decide to give away a novel I’ve spent years writing, quite another if some n’er-do-well cuts and pastes it and charges $5 for the download, but for all of that it concerns me less nowadays, and there’s nothing I can do about it anyway. I hasten to add “Between the Tides” is not an “Adult” novel. It’s a contemporary literary romance, so anyone paying their $5 and expecting pornographic rumpy pumpy are going to be disappointed.

Technology opens up all manner of possibilities, not all of them for the better. The Internet enables many, like me, a means of self expression, changing the definition of what publishing actually is, and I count this on the plus side. But on the other there’s a million new ways of exploiting the innocent, of scamming them, hurting them, even enabling new forms of global warfare with whole nations trying to shut down each other’s essential infrastructures, like electricity or air-traffic control. And its effect on global politics is only just becoming apparent, sophisticated algorithms undermining the democratic process and swaying election results in favour of the plutocratic moneyed minority.

I’ve always been a progressive when it comes to technology, but some of the visionaries driving it now are clearly nuts, also unfortunately incredibly rich and powerful. Technology changes lives, brings about revolutions in the way we live and work. These revolutions used to take centuries to come about, then it was decades, now it’s down to a few years. The pace of change is accelerating, and some visionaries, real live CEOs of Silicon Valley companies, extrapolate a future where the time for change is compressed to zero. They call it the Singularity, and it’s at this point everything happens at once.

Really, forget religion, the techno-visionaries are quite evangelical about it. The Singularity is analogous to the Second Coming, or the End Times, or the Rapture. It’s at this point, they tell us, machines will become conscious beings in their own right, and we will have achieved immortality by virtue of the ability to “upload” our minds into vast computational matrixes, like in some hyper-realistic massive multi-player online role playing game.

But given the darker side of technology, is this something we really want? I’ve only to watch my kids playing GTA to know it’s the last place I’d want to be trapped for eternity. Or perhaps, given the inevitable commercialisation of the meta-verse, our immortality could only be guaranteed provided we obtained and maintained sufficient in-game credit, and when we ran out, we could be deleted. Thought you’d be safe from market forces when you died? No way, the visionaries are working on ways of it chasing you into the afterlife.

Certainly our machines are changing how we live at an ever accelerating pace. Meanwhile we remain essentially the same beings that walked the planet two thousand years ago. Whether or not you believe it’s possible to preserve your essential thinking being by uploading it to a computer depends on how you imagine consciousness coming about in the first place. There’s the mechanistic view, that the brain is a computer made of meat, so as soon as we can make a computer as complex as that, Bob’s your uncle. But I’ve never been of that view, so I’m able to rest a little easier that my afterlife will not be spent avoiding evil bastards in a GTA heaven or keeping up the payments on my immortality.

In the matrix, there’s nothing I can do to stop the bad guy from stealing the book I’ve written, but he cannot steal the one I’m writing nor, more crucially, my reasons for writing it. Such a thing transcends the mechanistic world view, a world view that’s a century out of date, yet still cleaved to by the technocracy with all the zealotry of an Evangelical Preacher. The technocracy long ago deconstructed heaven and transcended God with their own omnipotence, but what they’re offering in its place now makes less sense for being all the more transparently absurd, and for the simple fact that machines do not come for free, that those who own them are paid by those who do not. Bear this in mind and our relationship with machines will remain balanced, and correct. Forget it, and the machine will eat your brain long before you get the chance to upload it.

 

Read Full Post »

because you writeNumber two son comes to me with his brand new laptop already strangled by malware. It’s the type of malware that tells you your computer is infected with malware, to click-here for the solution and to have your payment details handy. The malware has passed through the machine’s defences as a result of being invited to do so due to a lack of caution on the part of the user, and a desire to get sparkly free stuff from a download website. It takes a couple of hours to get rid of the problem.

Then a relative is excited at having received an email telling her she’s won £200,000,000 on the Mega Euro Lottery. All she has to do is “click here” and be ready with her personal details. I’m tasked with convincing her it’s a scam, and not to “click”.

“Did you enter such a lottery?”

“Not that I recall, but I might have been entered automatically, and what if it really is £200,000,000?”

Then number one son comes to me with his old and cranky laptop, infected – yes – with malware. This is of the type that tells you you have a “security” problem and to “click here” – again the result of a lack of understanding of the dangers of download websites, and the lure of free stuff. This was a tenacious little worm and took the whole afternoon to sort out.

Then my wife’s complaining her email is no longer working, and could I sort that one out as well? Said email account had been hacked and suspended by the service provider. Hacked how? Poor password security, easy to remember, easy for a robot to crack. The service provider’s systems responded promptly, extent of damage unknown. Crap cleared out, passwords reset, but I’m not allowed to make the password wholly secure because a secure password is impossible to remember (not true), and writing them down is bad security (very true). We compromise.

Monday evening and my aforementioned relative is contacted by telephone, and an officious, “foreign sounding” voice advises her of criminal activity on her “computer”. She does not have a computer as such – just an iPad. Is that what they’re refering to? Em yes. By now she’s suspicious and hangs up.

All of this breeds an atmosphere of siege, a paranoia there’s a determined army of bad people out there scaling the walls and trying to get at you, that computers are dangerous things best handled with rubber gloves. And without being too alarmist, I’m afraid it’s true.

I’ve worked with computers since 1977 and the legendary Sinclair ZX81. You couldn’t do a lot with that machine, but it was the start of a revolution, of computers moving into our homes. At first they did no harm, just annoyed you when they didn’t work. Then they all got networked and became the gateway to passing the contents of your bank account to a criminal.

I can deal with most of the things that ail domestic computers. Most people, however, can’t, and this makes them vulnerable. Most people in fact aren’t even aware of the risks, yet we are all pushed to getting ourselves online, every single one of us, using the leaky computer as our window on the whole of life – paying bills, applying for state benefits, managing life savings. But where there’s money involved, criminals will circle like flies around poop.

And therein lies the problem.

Probably less than ten percent of the population, the IT crowd, understand this fully networked world. Half of them are good guys, tending corporate and government systems, the rest are criminals out to steal your money. We have either trust blindly in this thing we don’t understand, or reject it, cut up our debit cards, do all our bank dealings in branch, face to face with a cashier we know because we went to school with them, and go back to using cheque books. But the branches are closing, those friendly cashiers are stacking shelves in supermarkets and cheques are no longer accepted. Even the basics in life now have to be applied for “online,” and advice is an anonymous voice at the end of a crackly line that could be coming from the other side of the universe.

There is no going back.

Our computer systems are insecure and always will be, and the majority of us citizens aren’t experts, nor can we ever be, nor should we need to be, because our lives, our real lives, are mostly lived outside that box. But there are things we can all do to minimise the risk of falling victim to Hackers and Cyber- Scammers, and unfortunately the first thing is to learn how not to trust the email or the telephone call from anyone you do not personally know – and especially not the communications claiming to be from your bank or your internet service provider.

Scams are so sophisticated we cannot trust anything that enters our home via the telephone wire. But even adopting this level of defensive caution, it’s not going to stop us from occasionally having to spend the whole weekend repairing damage, and advising others of the dangers of “clicking here”.

I’ll write some more on this later, but for now if your computer’s been strangled, visit the bleepingcomputer for a solution. I can’t recommend these guys enough.

Read Full Post »

mariaWe spend on average around eight hours a day staring at a screen. We are also moving our lives online. Much of the paperwork essential to identity and legal responsibility – certificates, documents and such – are no longer printed and posted out to us, but digitised, stored in “the cloud” and accessed through our computers.The same goes for entertainment: photographs, music, video, books, games,.. they are all losing their physical nature, becoming digital and accessed through a device.

On the one hand this is very convenient, but I wonder if I am alone in finding it also slightly disturbing. Is the “place” I actually I live becoming irrelevant. I can be removed to the other side of the world tomorrow, yet pick up the online elements of my life without missing a beat. But what kind of life is that, exactly? And what if I were to lose access to this information? Clearly I would still be alive, but it would be as if I had not existed before – no records, documents, pictures, words, music,… nothing to show for my life.

What is it then in life that defines us?

In the haste to digitise, it feels like we’re shovelling the earth out from under our feet, feeding the machine with everything we deem necessary to our being, indeed to civilisation itself – our memories, our laws, our art, our possessions. We do this because it is efficient, but at the same time it minimises our concept of home to the point where it risks disappearing altogether. Is this what we really want?

The elimination of the home would suit the machine-based global corporate intelligence. After all, businesses no longer deem it necessary to advertise their actual physical location. Corporate location is a flexible concept – here today, there tomorrow, depending on the market, on whatever is most efficient. This is made all the easier since these corporations no longer make anything. Employees too must therefore step onto this conveyor of placeless, facelessness. We interview for a job in Manchester UK, end up working out of an office in New York, but much of the time we are in the air between any city you care to mention, anywhere in the world. And the higher we climb within this corporate intelligence, the more placeless, faceless, and the more homeless we must become.

In the globalised world of work, it doesn’t matter your home for most of your life is an aeroplane seat and a plastic hotel room. It doesn’t matter your world is contained behind a single anonymous window in a glass and concrete edifice that is both anywhere and nowhere at the same time, because your true window on your world, the only world that’s beginning to matter is your laptop, your handheld, your ubiquitous touchscreen interface. We are increasingly viewing our world from within the machine, not because the machine serves us, but because we have fallen inside of it.

Yet when I look through all those Instagram and Flickr streams, the imagery speaks of a love of place, a love of the world beyond the screen. I see sunsets, lakes, trees, mountains, cities too – even the grungy bits – also a love of home, of private places, private spaces, places with a physical location that’s familiar and means something. I see coffee cups on tables, fruit in a basket, pets, loved ones, and all the things we own and take pleasure in – our cars, bikes, clothes, our fancy wristwatches, an old valve radio that sits in defiance of the times, a guitar, a battered but exquisitely comfy armchair. How much of this, I wonder, is a lament for what we are in danger of losing?

Religious teachings tell us material things do not matter, that in fact it’s spiritually limiting to identify one’s sense of self with stuff. So the machine might argue it is doing us good, rendering such symbols of identity obsolete, stripping them from us, leaving us nothing tangible of ourselves but our skins. But it’s also through stuff we exercise our sensual enjoyment of the world.

The coffee tastes good, the leather of the watch strap smells exquisite, as does the jasmine and the autumn leaves. The sunset over the ocean stills us with its palpable silence. The sound of the leaves on the trees in the breeze, the feel of the wind in our faces,… we cannot digitise these things. Is what I see online a nostalgic lament for a world that is slowly slipping through our fingers?

The machine is unashamedly and woodenly Victorian in outlook and function. As such it is like all the machines that have gone before it – amoral and unconscious. Get too close to such a thing and it will tear your arm off, because it’s not smart enough to know you’re there at all. Its function is profit through the algorithms of increased sales and internal efficiency. And to the machine the most efficient solution for the human beings who serve it is for us to exist in a form of semi-suspended animation, in rented, minimalistic, cell-like rooms that cater for the basic bodily functions, while allowing us to perform those few tasks remaining to biological entities via whatever interface the machine comes up with. And when we fall on the wrong side of the efficiency equation, we find ourselves erased, our access denied.

We think our memories, our increasingly digitised lives are becoming safer, more secure, that the online world, the machine, even provides us with a kind of immortality, that those precious old family photographs are safer scanned and held online than kept in a dusty old shoebox, vulnerable to fire and flood. My blog, my Instagram feed will outlive me, yes, but now I’m wondering if their function will only be to serve as a last cry, the lament of an inmate locked inside a machine. For a long time I have seen my future bound up with this thing. Now I am wondering if I should find ways of escaping. Were it not for the voice it grants my creative urges, I would run screaming. Or is it that we find more the secret to what it means to be alive by reflecting on the machine which is essentially dead.

We must remember we are only permitted this storage for our online personal belongings in exchange for permission for the corporate computers to scan and plunder it in order to profile, locate, and target us for advertising. It’s a crude exchange and, like anything else in business and technology, liable to a step change when something new comes along. When the clever, faceless, homeless corporate brains work out a way for product adverts to be subliminally and legally transmitted directly into our heads, then all the computers holding all our lives, so meticulously recorded by ourselves, will be deemed inefficient – at which point, unless we pay for their upkeep, they will be deleted. And when we die, and the direct debit bounces back,… yes,… deleted.

So when you are posting pictures of the things and of the places you love, when you are writing about your life to your imaginary reader, do not mistake the picture or the writing for the life you lead. It’s obvious really, the online life lacks the sensuality that makes us human. So beware this digitisation of the world. Question it. And in the mean time make your homes with impunity, fill them with your idiosyncratic nick-nackery, smell the coffee, stroke your pets, make love, go out and watch the sun setting,… be what your are. Be sensual.

And remember,…

We are not the machine.

Read Full Post »

MYST online 1

Imagine you wake on a mountain peak, a small hut for shelter, and no way down. Other distant peaks pierce a level plane of mist like lone islands in a milky sea. There’s a curious pillar outside your hut – half totem, half chimenea, patterned with strange glyphs. Touching it reveals an inner chamber in which there lies a book. In the book there is a picture of a desert landscape, mostly flat but with a volcanic caldera in the middle. Touch the picture, you fade out, rematerialise in the desert. The desert is vast. You wander, eventually coming upon a lone guy lounging outside his trailer,…

So begins your adventure.

Back in the day when computers were young there was a game called MYST. It was unusual among computer games; there were no guns, no racing cars, and no zombies; it did not depict war, nor indeed any sort of violence. Instead, this was a two dimensional point and click adventure – dull you might think by comparison, except it shone. It was imaginative, immersive – fiendish puzzles at every turn, and though it was basically an animated slide show, it developed a cult following that has continued through various incarnations to the present day.

I didn’t play it in the beginning, I found it too hard, discovered Tomb Raider and Lara Croft instead. I felt MYST would have been more engaging as a 3D walk-through, like the Tomb Raider series, but the machines of the time weren’t up to the scale and the ambition of it. Now is a different story. Now the machines have caught up, and are capaple of handling the sheer polygonal density of it, of rendering it beautiful.

So, you’re in this desert and there’s a guy telling you he knows why you’re there, which is more than you do. He tells you to check out the Cleft.

The Cleft is gash in the earth, accessible by creaky rope ladder and dotted with caves. They look like they’ve been home to ancient natives at some point, but there’s evidence of recent habitation too. There are more glyphs here, and strange machines, some old world, some of an unfamiliar technology. Bewildered, you go back to the trailer guy, he gives you some clues, talks about an imager. You go back down the hole, eventually work out how to fire this imager up, thinking it might explain something. It does. A hologram appears; it’s a girl, telling you a strange tale. You have to find seven glyphs. Do this and the hole at the end the of cleft can be opened. It takes a while, but you find the glyphs. The trailer guy helps some more. You open the hole in the root of a tree and down you go in the world of MYST.

It’s bewildering, ingenious, beautiful, immersive, and, like dreams sometimes are, also a little unsettling, but unlike the world of Tomb Raider, there are no death traps. Pull a lever and there’s no monster behind the door, no trapdoor over a spike filled pit, only a puzzle, another door to somewhere else, and another layer of mystery to add to the layers you already have.

MYST online is a massive download, 1.2Gbytes, but to play also requires a permanent hookup to the internet. I’ve a feeling much of the coming winter will be spent down this rabbit hole.

MYST is so different from any other game. Go wrong, fall off a ledge and into the lava for example, we simply wake back to our mountain hut, unhurt and more thoughtful. No one is torn limb from limb. No one is cut in two or has their head blown off. Get stuck and you can return to the hut any time. And the hut changes, things appear as you make progress through the levels, books appear on the shelf to help you, a more lush vegetation begins to grow. It’s puzzling, enigmatic, seductive.

And the purpose? Well, I’m several hours in and I really don’t know without reading the cheats and walkthroughs, which I don’t want to do at this stage. I’m determined to let the game inform me of its own purpose as I go along. It’s a quest of sorts, to find the glyphs, like the girl said, scattered thorughout the various levels of the world, but the world is vast and it comes at you all at once. This is not a linear adventure – doors open on vast levels, each with doors that open onto others, and somehow link back to one another through books and memory. It is a story, but one you don’t read. You have to live it. There is an intellectual challenge here unlike anything I’ve encountered in a computer game before.

And you are not alone. This is all online, a so called Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game which means there are others in here, though thinly spread throughout the vast dreaminess of the place. You can work with them, or you can go it alone. It’s up to you.

All of this sounds like I’m trying to sell it to you, and I suppose I am – but only because, like any enthusiastic traveller, I want you to see the things I’ve seen. And, remarkably, the journey costs nothing. unlike a regular game, say for a Playstation which costs anything up to £40 these days. But the developers of MYST are giving it away, just asking for donations on the startup screen to help keep the servers running. My machine’s a regular quad-core laptop and manages it smoothly. If your computer was built in the last two or three years, it’ll probably do the same. All you need is your email for an account, a couple of hours for the download, and you’re in.

Lost in MYST

Read Full Post »

mariaMy father taught me how to play chess. It was one of those rites of passage things – the master teaches the pupil, and then the pupil tries to beat the master. I think I managed it once or twice by fluke, but my father was always a better player than me in the long run. Likewise, I taught my own boys to play, but chess has a lot of competition these days, all of it computer based; games of great complexity, games that require quick thinking, fast reflexes, and which are often, sadly, very violent simulations of the game-master’s vision of the “real world”.

Occasionally, my boys will try to beat me at chess, but it’s no longer a burning priority, not as much as Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, and of course the ever pressing demands of social media. And does it really matter anyway, that we develop our game as human players, when computers are obviously so much better at games than us?

The code used in computer chess programs is actually quite simple, rule-based, and often vanishingly small, at least by the standards of other computer games. The strength of the computer lies in its speed and its ability to evaluate combinations of moves far in advance of the human player. If we followed the same rules as the machine, the moves we’d make would be equally good ones – it’s just that it would take us years to work them out. It took a while for computers to routinely beat the best human players, but that they do so now throws up some interesting questions, not only about chess, but games in general and, on a deeper level, the existential meaning of machines themselves, and our relationships with them.

A game between human beings is a meeting of minds. You get to know a person better and more quickly if you play with them. Since computers do not “think”, or “play”, or take pleasure in anything, there is something ultimately sterile in a person playing against a computer. As for two computers playing one another that’s only of interest to a human being comparing the effectiveness of their respective artificial intelligence programs.

Artificial intelligence is the thing, and of course much in the news these days, with both Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates cautioning us against the rise of “super intelligent machines”. This is not about whether machines will ever be capable of achieving consciousness and becoming rogue monsters, like in those scary sci-fi movies, but more the extent to which the world we are building is starting to resemble a huge interconnected machine, one that does not really serve us any more, and to which the vast majority of us risk becoming subservient to a monolithic and amoral rule-based system, a computer system that controls everything, one that no one person can ever fully understand and therefore challenge.

An illustration of how close we are to sleepwalking into this dystopian vision comes from news of a company now injecting computer-chips into the hands of its employees. Known as RFID tags, about the size of a grain of rice, these things are already used to ID our pets. Chipping humans was an inevitable next step, and only a matter of time. Chipped humans can gain access through computer controlled doors, they can use secure photocopiers and log onto their PC’s, all by merely offering up their hand. It’s a voluntary system at the moment, and one I would personally decline, robustly and with expletives, but in the near future, as machines dictate ever more efficient systems, it may become a condition of employment that we subject ourselves to it, that indeed anyone aspiring to a proper living wage in a hi-tech, super-efficient, super-intelligent economy, will need to forsake first their name in exchange for a subcutaneous number known only to the machine itself. And who can argue with the convenience of such a scheme being extended to the public transport, the banking and the retail systems? No more coppering up to pay the parking meter; you simply wave your hand over it.

So why resist? Well, the objection is of course a philosophical one, that when we begin embedding bits of the machine into our bodies, it is the first step in the invasion of human physiology by the mechanisms we have invented – invented with the purpose of serving us, and on the pretext of enabling them to serve us better. But the stage after that is to implant processors and sensors, first to monitor the body’s functions, and later, to modify them. Human beings will not dictate this step; the machines will merely point out the logical necessity, and we will offer ourselves willingly. At this stage we will have become more properly biological proxies of the machines themselves; robots with an ever more alienated psyche dragged along for the ride.

Machines, not being capable of sentience, will always operate from a rule based, mechanistic set of algorithms – complex yes, but literally inhuman. To a machine there will only ever be a two way gate: yes or no. There is never, as so often in human affairs, a “definite maybe”. To the scientistic, the materialistic, and the terminally simplistic, there is nothing more annoying than a system that cannot be modelled through the logic gates of a computer program yet much of the real world defies algorithmic analysis, and computer models of it are by necessity always simplifications. While our most powerful computers do nowadays deliver more accurate forecasts of the weather, they cannot tell us how even an ant is created from nothing. We are not therefore achieving a greater understanding of life by our mimicking of it, rather we are creating autonomous entities of great power, but which serve no existential purpose, and by plugging ourselves into them, we risk negating the existential purpose of our selves.

To a machine there is no point to anything, no point to an ant or a human being, for the point of a thing is a very human thing; it is ambiguous, and highly subjective – terms which do not compute. So you turn up for work one day and you can’t even get into the building, because the machine has calculated there is no further benefit to having you on the payrole. Thus you are deleted with an amoral efficiency, and without redress, and all you have to show for twenty five years of service is that defunct chip under your skin, and which you can still feel lurking there every time you clench your fist.

I do not play chess very well, but I do enjoy playing it. I play against machines too but only for the practice, being careful not to lose sight of the fact that victory over a machine, while an indication of my own skill and mental focus is, in other terms, meaningless. People used to play chess long distance, by letter. We might nowadays do the same by email, but the temptation to cheat by responding with a computer generated move erases trust and has eliminated the pleasure of it, so we don’t do it. Do the machines then bring us closer together, or alienate us from one another? Do they enhance our abilities, or do they merely highlight our shortcomings?

What are all our great machines for? Do they serve us, or are they already well along the road to becoming a separate, entirely self-serving and eternally unconscious species, one in which the simulation has become the reality, and in which the creators find themselves trapped, unable to escape back into the real world? Think of that next time you feed your card into an ATM, and ask the question: who is serving whom?

Can computers really play chess? No; we just allow ourselves to think they do.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »