in which the naked chimp is unmasked, his machines debugged, and his bugbears debunked

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Thingdom: the thing is king (and the king is a thing)

So you paid your money to get into a ‘nightclub’. Sexy boys, screaming bitches, sweaty bodies. Life, heat, movement. Right? But when you got there, it was something else…there were all these weedy, unfriendly guys hanging around, arms crossed and heads nodding, whispering in each other’s ears. Oh dear, you’ve found yourself at Club Sausage. How did that happen? How does this happen? And not just to nights, but to whole musical genres, whole scenes? Whodunnit? What made the sausage sizzle flag, then sag? The nerds did. The otaku. And their infernal equipment.

What’s an otaku? I think William Gibson’s description sums this up nicely (and I think he’d love that I swiped this off wikipedia in five seconds). An otaku is a Japanese word for nerd, that can be roughly translated as a 'pathological-techno-fetishist-with-social-deficit'. But who are these otaku? What do they want? And what do they get out of their obsession? How does it start? And what are the side-effects? It’s not the equipment they want – at first. At first they want to capture ‘it’, ‘the thing’. Or to become something. They think, ‘I want to be an (insert equipment-mediated hobby here) enthusiast’. A connoisseur. An expert. So in the first phase, there is the ideal, and then there is ‘the thing’ that can be had through it… but then there is ‘the equipment’ that helps you get the thing. Otaku start with some idea or ideal they want to capture (or maybe it’s just the idea of capturing, again and again) but somehow, they end up totally focussed on the means of capturing it. Obsessing over the equipment. And then relating to other otaku through the equipment. Then, after a while, ‘it’ is never even mentioned, it’s just presumed, a background. Eventually… maybe the thing is no longer necessary, or just so obvious it doesn’t even need mentioning. And then, further along, what happens is that the equipment itself becomes the thing. You end up using microscopes to analyse microphones. Maybe that’s when you’ve really got a sausage club on your hands, when you get a bunch of guys who no longer even remember the thing. They just want to exist in the land of the best possible equipment. Like those men who don’t even take photographs anymore. They just collect cameras.

There’s that old phrase that ‘the difference between the men and the boys is the price of their toys’, but I think this misses something fundamental, something that only becomes clear once you put it up next to that other shopworn phrase ‘money is no object’ and make it rub up against a third sentiment, which can be most clearly expressed with the following phrase: ‘I like nice equipment.’ But otaku don’t just like ‘nice equipment’, they identify with it. Truly. Madly. Deeply. IT nerds relate much better to (and through) computers than they can to people. Sad but true. To them, computers are somehow warmer, zanier, cuter and funnier than people. They hum you calm. That’s why electronic music is always threatening to ‘turn sausage’ on you, because, well, it is the sound of ‘nice equipment’, a way of comparing the sounds of equipment, through sound equipment, with sound equipment. But maybe all music (asides from a capella choirs) is susceptible to this, can all become another sausage club victim. Anything involving men and equipment is always threatening to turn sausage.

Of course there are female otaku, too, but for most women, relating to other people is about, well, just that. Relating to people is actually about relating to other people. But, in a way that most of the women I know find baffling, or maybe just a little bit sad, for the otaku, relating to people is just another way of relating to equipment. Or maybe it’s just that they’re unable to do anything else. In then end, there is only the hum of equipment. And this is actually something the otaku finds deeply comforting.

Monday, July 23, 2007

OffyourFacebook (it’s on for young and old)

My friend’s mother has become obsessed by Myspace – but not in order to get laid (I hope), or even to add Kevin Rudd as a fiend. No, not a bit of it. She’s not even a member. What she is (like the lion’s share of boomer/3LO listeners) is ‘deeply concerned’ by the ‘growth of social networking sites’ among youth. It’s something she finds both alarming and captivating: the idea of teens hooking up to gatecrash, bully, stab or fuck each other is something that exerts a morbid fascination for her, like many of her generation. This is something, after all, which is off limits to them. A whole generation who make do with key parties, stagflation, negative gearing and ‘sniff and stiff’ watch in horror and envy as their progeny accomplish acts of mindbending depravity and anonymity, achieving hard-ons with mouse-clicks in a way previously unimaginable. But I tried to explain to my friend’s ‘concerned’ mother that, contrary to what John Faine would have you believe, Myspace is utterly passé. Totally last season.

Straight away you say ‘Facebook’ – but you’d be living in the past too. And here you were thinking you were widdit. Down with the scene. When all the time you’re losing your edge (“to better-looking people, with better ideas and more talent… and they're actually really, really nice”).That’s right, Facebook is *like* so last minute, ‘n shit. What you want is its newer, better, evil cousin: OffyourFacebook. OffyourFacebook is a social networking site, just like Facebook, but with one essential difference: where Facebook is for people you remember from your past lives and selves, OffyourFacebook is for people you don’t remember. The people you don’t know you know. Because you were off your face. Hence the name.

The way it works is simple – all you need is the magic dongle. Members pay a small annual fee to join and are sent a small device in the post, not unlike a Tamagochi. You simply fit it to your keyring and wear it on you when you go out. Simple as. When you come within range of another member, the dongle (with its internal flash drive) stores the details of the other member. By pressing one of three buttons, members record how far the relationship went, but as a failsafe (this is for people off their face, after all), both the proximity of your partner’s dongle and the duration of the contact are measured and averaged. The next day, you just stick your dongle in the USB, login, and the website updates all your info for you.

Of course, a lot of people get off their face in order not to remember the things that being off their face enabled them to do to/with others – and Offyourfacebook is sensitive to this. Rather than bombard you with the full details of the other person, the site will only send you the person’s details upon request, and even then, it does it gently, reminding you of the other person based on eye colour, choice of perfume, colour of t-shirt, pubic hair and so forth. A further innovation is the use of avatars (called ‘off faces’) which enable two satisfied partners to ‘face off’ in complete anonymity. Either partner can indicate their availability with the ‘face off’ calendar, which indicates how randy the person is as well as their probable whereabouts on their ‘time off’. One member, who describes herself as being in a ‘loving, caring and otherwise monogamous’ relationship, explained her double-life like this:

“Look, I love my fiancé, but come on – you can’t show every side of your desire with one face. Ensceneoman (her partner’s face off partner) does things to me that my fiancé would be afraid to say. But at the same time, we both know that this is something that will never spill into our ‘face on’ life. We both have our limits, and we both respect that – we keep our 'on face' and our 'off face' separate, like business and pleasure. Besides, his boyfriend and his whole peer-group would be furious if they knew he was sleeping with a woman. The sex is amazing, but it’s more than just that: this is something that has helped us strengthen our on face relationships and get in touch with other parts of our desire that we wouldn’t be able to access. In five years, I reckon everyone will be on it. For me, this is the future of human relationships.”

© Peter Chambers 2007

Monday, July 16, 2007

Free choice? Jack Johnson?!

You know, a lot of you are living under an illusion. Ask people why they’re doing what they’re doing, the people they’re doing it with, and the place they’re doing it in, and they’ll tell you they ‘chose’ it. I suppose that’s fine up to a point, but it pimps a distorting image of the whole situation, once you get to thinking it’s a ‘free choice’. Let’s go through this and ask ourselves about those things in our life that make us who we are, and then wonder which of them we chose, freely or at all:Parents? Country of birth? School? Friends? First job? Pregnancy? Marriage? House? Dog? Children? Disease? Death?

Some of these fundamental life-events contain absolutely no element of choice, either free or restricted. You didn’t choose to be born, where to grow up, or even the school where you met the people who you grew up with. What did you ‘freely choose’, really? Maybe you chose to do physics instead of chemistry? Maybe you chose to sleep with Bob, instead of Jenny… but then again, maybe Bob was the only person who could overcome their repulsion to sleep with you. You ‘chose’ to do commerce, but then, maybe you were too gutless to do social work or creative writing, and you didn’t want to go against what all your friends were doing, or disappoint your father (like you seem to do, no matter what). Did you ‘choose’ to get pregnant? Again? And even if you did choose to have ‘a’ baby, you didn’t choose the actual baby you had… odds on they weren’t quite who you’d hoped for… Or even that mortgage – okay, so you chose that particular house, but could you choose to not have a home, to live in a tent, on a boat, by the side of the road? You’re not even allowed to do that. Probably the only thing you really ‘chose’ were your consumer choices. Bog roll – scented and embossed, unscented, unbleached…hmm… or the colour of your toothbrush. Or the brand of batteries for your vibrator. Or your dog. Maybe you chose your dog…and you chose a labradoodle?

DJing (the old-school kind, with records in a box) presents us with something far more like life than the flattering picture we like to paint of ourselves as ‘empowered choosers’. As any DJ who has experienced the following conversation can testify, people (drunk people) seem to think that the person behind the decks has the entire history of dance-music packed into her box. A box that, in fact, can fit no more than about one hundred records.

Deck pest: Do you have…Mylo?
DJ: No. (I pack my box carefully, and I think about what I’m playing. I thought this track was appropriate for right now, but obviously not, thank you – now fuck off)

Back at the crib…

House guest: ‘Do you have… Milo?’
Host: No, only tea. (I asked you if you wanted tea because I only have tea.)
House guest: Oh…
Host: Do you want tea?
House guest: No… that’s fine. (I’ll just sulk)

Back at the foot of the booth, think about the DJ for a change (please desk pests, think of the poor DJ who’s trying their guts out to play the best music for the moment). Let’s say I have 100 pieces of vinyl, with an average of two tracks per EP. That’s two hundred distinct moods, each of which opens up new possibilities and closes off others. But I can’t just play any of them in any order – at any given moment, there’s probably only really about ten mixes to move into from the track that’s playing, at best. In any given set, there’s probably only one ‘golden window’ for you to drop Hall and Oates from without clearing the floor. Maybe. At critical points in the set there’s only one or two ways to move – because as it all rolls on, the selections are depleted, the choices diminished. The stakes get higher, and you’re playing with less time, less music and less potential. Not only that, but you’re also dealing with any bad selections you’ve already made. It’s as much mess as chess. And sometimes, when you’re tired and people are pestering you to play Jack Johnson or Tupac, you really get to the point of wanting to a real choice... the choice to KILL – ‘cos it’s either you or them, when you’re talking singer/songwriters.

Fact is, DJing presents us with a far more appropriate metaphor for our very limited life selections than the bullshit we’re fed about ‘free choice’ – the difference being that, in life, we make selections with individual pieces that we often didn’t choose at all. A large part of our box was pre-filled by our parents, really. Imagine that – having to DJ under pressure to a crowd full of drunk Jack Johnson fans with a box of records chosen by circumstance… or by your mother. No wonder that, most of the time, most people are ‘just coping’. Or just coping. That’s what we do, mostly. We cope. We’re presented with a half-made mess, and we’re told we ‘chose’ it – then when we try to turn it into something good, somebody comes along and asks for Mylo, or Milo, or Tupac, something which is both a reminder of how appalling other people’s taste is, and how badly they’d be doing if they were the one trying to transform their very limited selection into art. Now there’s a comfort. Think of the mess they’d be making of your life. You’re doing alright, kid.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Tear a hole in your habit! (and other cunning stunts)

Last week we looked at the slow death of smoking. Are you still a part of it? How’s that working out for you? That bad, huh? Well then, maybe you need to ‘give it up’ and try something different. Maybe you need to experiment, do something new. As one fun nun once told me, if you want to pull a rabbit out of your hat, you need to tear a hole in your habit – have a crack at experimentation. Rutting is fine as far as it goes, but there comes a time to roll off your repetition and try, do or be something different, or differently at the very least.

Just like Warren is Rabbits forming, life is habit forming – you can’t live without habit, but at the same time, habit gets to living off you. You’ve got to re-balance the hard cheese of habit with a hot squirt of experimentation. Habit? You gotta have it. But without dehabituating yourself and your surroundings, you’ll suffocate, choke, croak. That’s the other reason smoking makes you cough. It’s a reminder. Take drugs (for example): drug taking starts as risk taking, which then becomes pleasure seeking, then habit forming, then death making. In a sense, drugs don’t work – they start by doing what you need, but they end by being needed. Two thirds of needle is need. Drugs are needy and unruly. They don’t do what they’re supposed to do, but you (as a user) have to. Who’s using who? You start off doing them to turn on, then you do them to turn off, then you do them because that’s just what you need to do to get back to zero. And so many things can be drugs: Warcraft, Jihad, porno, menthols – take your pick, prick or joystick, cancerstick, bomb belt or scissors and run with them, see where it gets you. You never know, but you can probably guess.

Why not do something different? Try your hand at someone new. Take a random walk. Achieve the kingdom of mandom through a bout of the randoms. There have to be cracks, openings, a parting... these are the channels through which creative thinking flows. If you want to make omelettes, you don’t have to break chickens or be chicken, but you do need to crack eggs. So use your egg. Sometimes you have to untie the knot, even if it's what's keeping you 'strapped in'. Or just loosen it. And mix metaphors.

Sometimes you can do this with a negative feedback loop, something that brings everything to heel, puts the structures back, make sense and simplifies, frames, names and borders. It’s amazing what doing the dishes does for you – rinse those thoughts clean. But on the flip, there have to be positive feedback loops that are all about disordering, introducing randomness, flux... These are what set off the chain reactions in the first place, the ones that created the knots that are now in your head and chaining you to the desk in your orifice, the needle in your harm, the phone in its cradle (and the formerly silver spoon). Don't be scared about what you’re not doing – it’s probably the things you’re most comfortable with that are actually going to kill you. Go on, run outside, make a call, make a mess, spring a leak. Do as the nun did, tear a hole in your habit.

© Peter Chambers 2007

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

A fairwell to harms? (In praise of fags)

Yes yes, it’s really great that smoking is banned in bars, clubs and restaurants, blah blah blah. Think how much nicer it’ll be not to die… hang on a ‘sec. Okay then, how nice it will be not to die of cancer… well, that’ll probably still happen, but it’ll be in another part of you, caused by your addiction to plastics of one kind or another. Alright, but think about how nice it will be not to be stinky, have pongy clothes, and nasty ashtray breath. But knowing you… anyway, the point is, smoking is rubbish – granted. Harmful to you and those around you. But given the ban, I thought I’d remind everybody about all the good things smoking did for us. Well, I know it did some great things for me, I’ll vouch for that.

In the first place, smoking gets you talking to people. Think about everyone that’s important in your life. Well, unless they’re your Siamese Twin, you ‘met’ them, in one way or another. Chain smoking is not just one fag after another, it also ties you to the pack, and all the other people who are in it. Blow smoke circles, chain cigarettes, wear wedding rings – the ties that bind, the dies that cast (and vice versa).

A lot of my best friendships were made through smoking. Would we have met otherwise? In some cases, the answer is (undoubtedly) yes, but in others… imagine if (s)he wasn’t packing props – striking up that first skittish conversation would have been that much more difficult. How to begin, without striking a light?

Smokers are also generally more interesting people. They’re the risk-takers, the obsessives, the hedonists, the creatures of ‘fuck it, who cares, let’s…’ Rather than feeling smugly superior all the time, smokers prefer the ‘little pleasure’ of the cigarette’s warmth, and by sharing cigarettes with others, we all take part in the greater dying, conceding our frailty, our folly, and our need of a minor comfort. The cigarette is a ten minute metaphor for life.

Forget about the pathos, what about health? What do we know? Well, we know for certain that smoking can kill you, but there’s no way of knowing whether smoking will kill you. It could be Alzheimers, it could be a truck. The crack in your pipe, in the road, in your head. Or your heart might stop in the middle of the night, as happened to a friend’s brother, a 27 year old triathlete who never even drank coffee. Without a doubt, smoking wouldn’t have helped matters – but would it have made the decisive difference? Smoking might kill you, but will ‘not smoking’ save your life? And how can this be measured against the interesting life possibilities enacted by all those great people you met over all those years, and all the pleasure you got from smoking while you did?

At least smoking can be pleasurable – what fun is it getting strung out on stress? Work-related stress is just as big a health-risk (and makes you a miserable, unhappy, shit), but do you see the government cracking down on overtime? Nope, they encourage it. It’s all about ‘being flexible’ (which is just another way of saying, ‘bend over’). AWAs, Sunday trading (without penalty rates), the yearly revulsion of Christmas shopping – these things are all heartily encouraged. As are junk food, binge drinking and gambling. Basically, the government couldn’t give a half-arsed fuck about people’s health. Fat? Horny? Strung out? Excellent! As long as you’re scared of losing your job, keep doing the overtime, and consume the pain away. Your ‘flexibility’ is appreciated, team player. For many people, smoking is their fixed fix, the one reliable pleasure in a grey scene of joyless, shifting chores – and the bastards would grudge you that, too, sticking their horror-show pictures all over the packets.

Smokers’ behaviour is considered selfish, anti-social, unjustifiable – but will our kids, who are the ones set to deal with the environmental devastation of our unsustainable petro-chemical based consumer-culture, really put smoking at the top of the deck of hates and horrors? A lot of Australians supported our participation in a war with no justification, no clear, achievable objective, and no exit plan. Between sixty-six and seventy-three thousand civilians have been killed as a result. Who’s supporting the death-dealing, really? Fact is, the governments don’t care how many people die, as long as they’re the ones doing the killing. That’s the nub. Die for them and you're a hero. Cause your own death and you’re scum. And as a form of suicide, smoking represents one of the few real choices you will make during your life, one that wasn’t just a matter of going along and getting along with your family and peer group, especially now that they’ve all stopped and have now made you a pariah. Probably you started smoking because of peer pressure, or because you wanted to talk to boys/girls at the bus-stop. Most likely, you kept smoking because of habit and inertia (the two things that are most likely to kill you, or turn you into one of the undead). Maybe you keep doing it even though you don’t like it. Well then, you’re a bloody idiot. But if you really enjoy it, and you’re really, really willing to accept the consequences (and don't bullshit yourself, you’re probably not really) then keep right on puffing, Billy. It’s probably the thing you’re best at, or at least what you’ll be remembered for. You might even get away with it… but don’t hold your breath.

© Peter Chambers 2007

The Author

[almost nothing] about me

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PC is an animal of the antipodes believed to be related to a gibbon.