In the early hours of Saturday morning, ignoring the blare of children's television, I muzzily and reflexively poked at the Twitter icon on the battered screen of my knackered phone. Down I scrolled through the dozens and dozens of updates I'd missed during my five or so hours of child-interrupted sleep until I came upon one by comic artist Jamie Smart. It read
Oh my god. There was a fifth housemate in The Young Ones and she was terrifying.
Huh? I blinked, took a big swig of my bitter, luke-warm, instant coffee, and clicked the link Jamie had posted.
On Business Insider Australia I read the headline REVEALED: There really was a creepy fifth housemate lurking in cult British TV show The Young Ones. The article had been posted that very morning (18th June, 2016). What the...?
For those of you who don't already know, The Young Ones was a seminal, anarchic comedy series that ran on the BBC for two series between 1982 and 1984. Much like Monty Python, but in the era of VHS, The Young Ones became a show that many of us who were born in the 1970s ended up watching again and again and again. Business Insider news editor Peter Farquhar had, it turns out, quite recently watched a video on YouTube entitled The Young Ones ~ The 5th Roommate, which had been posted back in July 2012. This video had been inspired by a 1999 posting on The Easter Egg Archive website, which took its cue from a page last updated the previous year on a now defunct site called The British Comedy Library (still, thankfully, available via The Internet Archive's wonderful WayBack Machine). The strange person at the back of the house is the title of the page. It contains a few quotes from viewers who have emailed in to the site about something they've spotted re-watching the original 1982 series of the BBC comedy show The Young Ones. Things like
Has anyone else noticed the strange person who appears to share the flat with the guys. If you look carefully in the first five episodes you can see a mysterious person with long black hair who appears sitting against walls in the background of quite a few scenes.
And yes, the 2012 YouTube video shows it: a fifth housemate appearing at least once in every episode of the entire first series. She never moves, she never speaks, you never see her face, and her presence is never acknowledged by any of the other characters, but she's there.
This, apparently, blew Peter Farquhar's mind so much that he ended up contacting some of the people involved with the series including one of the writers, Ben Elton. Elton's prompt and short response was he had no idea what he was on about. A few days later however, Farquhar received a response from another member of the Young Ones team - Geoff Posner, who was one of the three directors on the series.
In his reply Posner said that he and fellow director Paul Jackson
thought it would be funny to have some ghostly figure in the background of some scenes that was never explained or talked about. Hair all over the face so you shouldn't be able to decipher the gender, either. The fact that we forgot to do it consistently shows what a bunch of amateurs we were in them days.
In his article Farquhar goes on to write
So maybe the fifth housemate idea wasn’t such a big deal to the cast and crew back then. Often what artists think of their own work is only half of the story. The other is what impact it has on the audience and its legacy and in this regard, “The Young Ones” still stands up incredibly well 34 years after it first aired. The appearance of the running “fifth housemate” gag is a great example.
Posner's short email explanation was, happily, enough to allay Farquhar's worries, and general sense of unease about the mysterious fifth housemate. Not mine though. No, not mine. Because you see, to me, Posner's explanation doesn't quite make sense. The fifth housemate - or the ghost as we should probably more accurately call her - isn't ... Read More »
Earth: a Prison Planet. A planetary panopticon where the convicts happily write their own police files and track their own movements, sharing them with the Stacks [Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft]. As will be explored in detail in this post, through understanding this, and planning a planetary jailbreak, a bright green future may await the escapees; and those that were built to hunt us down may lead the way.
Spoiler Warning: key aspects of the current season of Person of Interest are shown and discussed below.
Narratives involving cities or countries split into Exclusion Zones are a popular part of contemporary science fiction films and TV shows. From Monsters, and its plot of a North America divided following a panspermic alien invasion at the start of this decade, through to the new series Cleverman where "The Zone is all at once an exclusion area, a prison, a refugee camp, a refuge, a camp, and a ghetto." The TV shows Colony and Containment being two other obvious examples.
The idea of the Zone stretches back into the 20th Century of course, to the book Roadside Picnic via the film Stalker and made real by the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The Zone the Strugatsky brothers wrote of was a dream-like, magical place. The Zones audiences are watching today are the stuff of nightmares - and the building blocks of a Prison Planet.
This is the nature of the post-cyberpunk condition. What was previously a utopian dream - we're talking about the Internet in particular here - has become an ever-increasing dystopic nightmare. But to opt out is to lose your voice in the global conversation, and the chance to plant the seeds of change; even if those seeds grow into nothing more than dank memes - retweeted and forgotten. What is to be done?
As science fiction writer and futurist David Brin recently advised, in essence - get thee a narrative that can do both:
You don't have to choose! Between pessimism and optimism, that is. A sane person uses dollops of both - simultaneously - to help navigate a path ahead. Because making a better world requires two phases. First finding the errors, snake-pits, land mines and quicksand that lie in wait, as we charge into the future. Those dangers are best revealed by eager complainers shouting “look out, you fools!” It is the supreme value of reciprocal criticism -- and science fiction has played a role, by issuing very effective self-preventing prophecies.”
And that's the point of this post, to act as a "self-preventing prophecy" - to take a tour through the construction project that is the nascent Prison Planet we all occupy, that it might then never come to exist. This will start by examining the commonality between the real-life origins of the space age in 19th Century Russia and the fictional future the Scottish writer Iain M. Banks imagined in his Culture novels. We then move into the present, leaning on the TV series Person of Interest to explain our post-cyberpunk condition - and how it ties into the effects of climate chaos and war - and see how distressingly close the Terminator universe is to being realised. With that understanding established, we'll visit some previous times in history people have attempted to flee the Empire, and learn that this place has its own pseudo-nation - and make some extrapolations about its application today in the "never offline" world.
The film The Matrix was in part a depiction of Philip K. Dick's idea of the Black Iron Prison. The heroes journey the Wachowski sisters gave us started with Neo's seeking to understand the true nature of his life and free his mind. That goal is repeated in this post. See you on the other side.
A few years ago Benedict Singleton wrote an essay, Maximum Jailbreak, that significantly changed my perspective on humankind's multi-century project to spread beyond the planet we call home. In it he explains just who the Russian Cosmists of the late 19th Century to early 20th Century were, what their legacy is, and how that project maps onto the current area of thinking known as Accelerationism.
Singleton neatly summarises the Cosmist worldview with three phrases: "Storm the heavens", "Conquer Death" and "the Earth is a trap." It's that third phrase that we'll be focusing on here to help frame an elaboration of Earth's potential looming future as a Prison Planet.
...this is the characteristic gesture of cosmism, what we might call the “cosmist impulse”: to consider the earth a trap, and to understand the common project of philosophy, economics, and design as being the formulation of means to escape from it: to conceive a jailbreak at the maximum possible scale, a heist in which we steal ourselves from the vault. [Maximum Jailbreak]
As he continues to elaborate - looking at traps as a form of design thinking - there's a coevolution of intelligence at work between predator and prey; between the hunter and the hunted:
It’s a knowledge of traps and how they function that enables one most easily to undo a trap that one is in: a talent for escape is predicated on the same intelligence that goes into entrapment—indeed, in the example of the traps that people set for each other, it’s clear that—as Hyde puts it—“nothing counters cunning but more cunning.” To outfox is to think more broadly, to find the crack in the scheme, to stick a knife into it, and to lever it open for new use. Freighting the environment with a counter-plot is the best device for escaping the machinations in which one is embroiled: a conversion of constraints into new opportunities for free action, technological development as a kind of Hydean accelerationism. [Maximum Jailbreak]
Escaping the trap of Prison Planet will require cunning: most immediately by understanding that it's already well under construction, and crucially, that it may be the impetus for us to fulfill the Cosmists' vision.
That the Prison itself contains the pieces required to not just defeat it, but craft a much better future. Just as the cliche of the inmate using sheets to make a rope and a spoon to dig a tunnel, the things that would be used to contain us may become the instruments of our salvation.
As an event in this alternative history of design, cosmism arrives as a kind of absolutization of its basic principles into a project of generalized escapology... If design is a hustle, then cosmism is the long con—or perhaps more precisely, the most extravagant gesture of lengthening the hustle into a con: not simply an aggregation of hustles—a chain of coin-tricks, each self-sufficient, without bearing on the next—but a process of nesting them into a cultivated scheme or expanding plot, so that each gambit paves the way for the next. [Maximum Jailbreak]
This post will form a bridge between the ideas examined in the Plutocratic Exit Strategy series and those earlier outlined in as an Atemporal People's Republic. Between an Earth where the freedom of movement of 99.99% of humanity is increasingly restricted and every activity and thought monitored - just as the 0.01% are poised to storm the heavens - and a space-based republic where all of humanity is just a fraction of the population of its citizenry; where AIs and Uplifted animals are ... Read More »
In April 2016, the world was rocked by news of the death of Prince Rogers Nelson. One of music’s - or more correctly, modern culture’s - biggest ever stars, Prince was a man of small stature whose shadow of influence was mind-boggling large. Immediate musical tributes from fellow 80s icon Bruce Springsteen, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, country star Chris Stapleton, the cast of the hit musical Hamilton, and many others were testament to the respect the man and his music were held in.
For much of the public, Prince was a ‘star’; a hell of a performer who they might have seen playing guitar and piano in different music videos. What most musicians knew, however, was that Prince was - beyond his singing, his dancing, his band-leading skills, and his audio production talents - a skilled instrumentalist of the highest order, on not only the guitar and piano, but drums, bass guitar and more. Indeed, it is difficult for anybody who hasn’t played each particular instrument to truly appreciate how good he actually was.
It is silly to have debates about “was Prince a better guitarist than Clapton” or whoever - there are many ways to value a musician’s skill, whether it’s technical, historical knowledge, talent at improvising, or ability to play ‘for the song’ (among others). Let’s just say that Prince’s live band (on record, he often played all the instruments himself) was filled with musicians of the highest calibre - and if Prince ‘blind’-auditioned for each of the parts of his own band, he would probably have got all of the gigs based purely on his skill on guitar, bass, keyboard and drums.
The almost supernatural array of talents that Prince possessed are enough to have made many wonder as to how anyone could have assembled such a formidable skill-set - remembering that much of it was already fully formed at the time of his debut album, in his teens (go back and listen to his debut album For You, with tracks such as “Just as Long as We’re Together” sounding like an extremely tight band of talented musicians - but it’s all him).
Most accounts of Prince’s life put his skill set down to the twin factors of being a ‘functional orphan’ - he was largely abandoned by each of his parents in turn, and so is said to have spent much of his time playing music - who nevertheless inherited from those parents some serious musical acumen (his father was a jazz pianist, and his mother a singer). His unfortunate family situation - along with his extremely short stature (Prince only stood 5’2”) - are also claimed to have made him absolutely driven to prove himself to the world.
But could there have been an additional factor at work?
A Prodigious Musical Talent
Many people are musically talented. Many also become extremely proficient at their chosen instrument at a young age. However, Prince’s abilities, excelling on multiple instruments, verge on the spooky - the type of talent that gives rise to ‘down at the crossroads’ mythologies. He mastered a variety of instruments rapidly in his youth, to the point of being able to play all of the instruments on his debut album while still in his teens.
With his estate in confusion following his tragic passing, and his legendary control of material being posted online at least temporarily on hold, YouTube has been flooded with video examples of his wonderful talent (though how long they will remain is another question). Here are just a few isolated examples, among many: ... Read More »