Do Digital Worlds Fill up with Digital Kipple?

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When I am bored, I sometimes take a walk around the ‘Destination Highlights’ on Second Life. I suppose it was one of those things I continued playing even as everyone else I knew in real life left the game, probably because I still enjoyed it as a space for scripting and playing in sandboxes. As usual, one can always find a number of things to see, and installations and artworks in Second Life, such as the spots above at LEA (Linden Endowment for the Arts), but last week I clicked on a random advert (maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Hathian/137/124/2605) for a destination in Hathian that was highlighted that week in SL. I was teleported to the “Hathian Crack Den” which also had this one particular shopfront…

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An advertisement for Trash and Rubbish.

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And… Dirty Laundry.

Yes, it was a virtual storefront for a virtual box of trash and rubbish. And dirty laundry. Nothing new you might say, since there are many “grungy” places in Second Life. So people who are building such places must be buying up this virtual trash. Made for the people who are too lazy to sculpt up some prims to make their own dirty laundry, or perhaps, should I say, those who might not actually have loads of trash lying about and dirty laundry in real life? Because I recently watched Louis Theroux’s preposterous docu entitled THE CITY ADDICTED TO METH (a completely different world from Singapore, I might add), and let’s just say I don’t think many of those people addicted to crystal meth are on the internet playing Second Life. And even if they were, I don’t think they would create a Second Life in order to play the role of a virtual crack addict all over again. And to sell Virtual Trash (of which its contents are indistinct except for the understanding that this looks like a pile of trash on the ground?)? Who is building this? And who is buying this? OH GOD AM I BECOMING COMPLICIT IN ITS CREATION BY BEING HERE…?

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Alright, but objectively now, in any case, it seems so wrong that it completely crosses the boundary of wrong and comes back around on the other end. And joins the list of WRONG THINGS THAT ARE UNEXPECTEDLY AWESOME BECAUSE THEY ARE COMPLETELY WRONG AND SHOULDN’T EXIST.

Physical items are able to become waste material or trash, but virtual items cannot turn into physical waste material. As Flusser writes, “Information is synonymous with value. However, if apparatus can create information in the place of humankind, what about human commitment? What about values?”

I suppose for me, the virtual trash is the ultimate black hole of meaning. Objects mostly get their meaning from what they are used for, or from their shape. To transfer the image of trash to a virtual/digital state that doesn’t exist in the physical realm, and to also erase the meaning and create it without an original physical shape in mind (being just a pile of trash), and YET to create a product that sells itself on the very feature that separates real things from virtual things (the potential ability of real and useful things to eventually become physical useless waste), is a kind of entropy itself. And the potential transaction of purchasing this virtual trash, would be the ultimate simulacra. Like partially gibberish spam advert emails, this is the virtual, 3d embodiment of pointless commercialism and empty meaningless packaging present in almost every facet of modern life today.

Why do people turn to digital formats anyway? Was it not to avoid this very entropy in the first place? To avoid the disintegration and decay of paper, of flesh, of physical things, and to create eternal digital memories for information that would potentially outlive the physical records?

From Philip K Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”:

“Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday’s homeopape. When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you to go bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up there is twice as much of it. It always gets more and more.”

SECOND LIFE IS ACTUALLY ONE BIG DIGITAL KIPPLE MACHINE…

“The entire universe is moving toward a state of total, absolute kippleization…”

The Format of Music – From Gothic Metal to Glitch and Beyond

Its the Obligatory Music Post!

While growing up as a child, some of the first few albums I got in my life were that of Traditional Irish music. This fluke occurred because the first CD that I “randomly” picked out at CD-Rama was an Enya CD called “The Celts”. From there it was a slippery slope down into buttons, bows, irish reels, Riverdance, Michael Flatley, and even wanting to learn to play the tin whistle and the violin and the bodhran. I drew celtic knots into everything in my free-time. I learnt the words to many irish songs and could sing “A Song For Ireland“! If you had asked me, I think I would even have said that I wished that I was Irish at that point (although at that point I had never lived in any place other than Singapore before).

Enya – The Celts

Clannad – Siúil A Rún

Riverdance – Countess Cathleen

The music seemed to match my childhood interest in fantasy novels. My early reading habit was spurred on by science fiction and fantasy novels – historical fantasy or epic volumes of “high fantasy”. When we were around 12, me and some friends around me had a small book club called “SFantasy” (SF and Fantasy, apparently). We read authors such as Raymond E Feist, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, Mercedes Lackey, Anne McCaffery, A. A. Attanasio, Melanie Rawn, Robert Silverberg, etc etc – and joined the hordes of bookish kids who were trapped in the cycle of acquiring and reading tediously long series of books, such as The Riftwar Saga, Death Gate Cycle, Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, etc…

David Arkenstone – The Messenger
(I even had the maps from Arkenstone’s “Quest from the Dream Warrior”
and “Return of the Guardians” pasted on my wall…)

Eventually, as I grew into my teens, this interest in Irish Music and Fantasy novels began to coalesce in an interest in gothic metal and literature. Firstly, perhaps because that’s how a moody teenager’s musical taste changes over time, and secondly because I was actually still reading the lyrics to songs, and it seemed to me that you didn’t find this sort of articulate, fantastic, and ridiculously convoluted storyline in other music.

Some of my old favourites:

On Thorns I lay – Crystal Tears

Tristania – Heretique

Theatre of Tragedy – Venus

Within Temptations – The Other Half of Me

Arcturus – Chaos Path
(watch out for the techno breakdown at the end)

They really take the performance of music to whole new level – music is performance and should be treated as such! Dressing up! Painting your face in pallid colours, inventing personas and creating lives for these characters! Inventing rituals to enact on stage! And as anachronistic as it might be (to speak like you were a English character from the 19th century), I find that it is still essentially an attempt to write new stories inbetween the gaps!

Soundwise – I love it too. I think they also understand that sound is also about contrasts. Although it is more or less a normal “format” today, at that point when I first encountered this music, I felt that this particular kind of music where they contrast female soprano with male growling was the perfect marriage of contrasts, as well as the great effect of contrasting classical music with modern rock or metal instrumentation.

Similarly, I enjoy some noise music but I feel strongly that without the contrast with silence (ie: the intentional absence of sound), noise is boring. So a really brutal or punishing track does not make it for me. It is not the extremities that interest me so much as the amount of distance between the “softest” parts and “hardest/loudest” parts.

alva noto + ryuichi sakamoto – Berlin

I would say that any approach which plays with contrasts and introduces unexpected sounds to any original given “format” in an intelligent fashion is more interesting to me than a consistent sound throughout a track. The same can be said of albums. I am more excited when an artist produces an album that sounds like a completely different artist on every single track – or even like a completely different band within the same track.

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(singing in their made-up language)

Smelling your way through a city: Lush

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Today, I went to Kinokuniya to find some old maps of Singapore; blithely, and without having checked the Internet if such materials actually publicly existed. Naturally, when I got there, i discovered there were no antique, vintage, or even slightly older maps. All the maps at Kinokuniya were maps of the present moment in time – 2011/2012 – and nothing else. If Singapore’s largest and most vast bookstore doesn’t have any old maps of Singapore, then where else would one access such things? I found this rather disappointing; why hasn’t anyone thought to produce something like a series of Ordnance Survey maps through the ages, but for Singapore? I just wanted to find out the route of the old canals from an old map of Singapore… Doesn’t every country treasure its old maps? Do we not have any old maps in Singapore that are celebrated or iconic?

After this abortive excursion, I was returning to Orchard MRT through the route I have always taken underground for all of my life. I was about to get to the MRT when I thought I smelled something sweet and oddly familiar while passing through Wisma Atria. I could not quite place my finger on it at first, I couldn’t recall why it was so intensely familiar and why it was attracting me. The overpowering scent seemed to come from a shop I have always avoided on principle but am nonetheless visually attracted to. This offending store was called “Typo” which sold “nerd glasses” without lenses and “campus notebooks” with old generic western map symbols all over it. It was even more ridiculous to see so many “old maps” masquerading as wrapping papers there because one could probably safely say that the entire Orchard Road shopping strip would not have a single store that sold historically meaningful maps. And there were no real places that these maps were showing us; these “old maps” were simply the accessories and wallpapers for a “designer lifestyle”.

Anyway, thankfully, the bewitching smell had not originated from this abomination of a store. Walking right through this shop, I emerged on the other side of the corridor and there it was: a… LUSH outlet. Yes, LUSH, of pungently fragrant soaps piled up like haystacks, gleefully puddling in tubs like chunky half-melting ice cream. Of intense jasmine sweetness, creamy honey swirls, and crinkly yellow paper bag goodness. I am a true sap for the sweeties and LUSH is a store that hasn’t been in Singapore for virtually a decade, having quietly slinked away from its units at Suntec after what appeared to be some tougher economic times. I was too young and too poor to afford the soaps back then, so my main encounter with LUSH was at Liverpool Street Station in London, where the soaps were not so overpriced when one was earning pounds. But the soaps still overpowered the nose and seeped into everything around it. More recently while travelling from Cornwall to London last year, I had picked up a bar of Godiva at Paddington Station (or was it Victoria?). So at Wisma Atria, I found myself gaping at a mountain of Godiva bars on the counter. The girl tending to the store seemed well familiar with this type of response, cooing: “Yes, its been a long time, hasn’t it?” Suddenly, I realised that this smell of soap has already coloured my memory of places. Like when a track happens to be playing in the background when something serious happens, and subconciously it begins to take on more significance than it expects to.

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And now! Remixing these smells and memories! Taking the MRT, jostling with pimply singaporean teenagers, imagining the light filtering through the trees on the train right, the cold rush of wind through the Tube station, the emergency crisps! Help! And all this, because I found the exact same soap in another country with a consistency that is all too predictable.

I have to admit that I do enjoy the consistent comforts of modernity; for example, it can also be said that most of my wardrobe has consisted on generic plain tailored dresses from Muji or Uniqlo, both of which I have visited in multiple countries. The consistency of the plain “no-brand” generic is something that I find comforting despite the knowledge that it too exists and operates within that same (and slightly sinister) postmodern economy; where traces of memory and culture often appear to have been utterly erased and replaced by the same modern effects all around the world. Shopping malls look the same all around the world, void of interesting architectures and real communities – replaced instead with distorted representations of people and manipulated desires.

Similarly, I am aware that even the little “organic handmade soap” that I have been so fond of over the years could quite very well be not very much different from a mass produced, global commodity, with this bar of soap travelling vast distances to get to me no matter where I might be residing. You might imagine that a sensible response might be to seek out that which is different or unique within a sea of endless repetition. Yet perhaps by dint of having grown up here, I also feel at home at shopping malls overseas because they remind me of Singapore in particular. I wonder why it is that I feel so nostalgic for things. If I keep on buying soaps or things because I am trying to “recapture” a moment in the past, then life would be really boring or artificial I kept it up for too long. I would be stopping myself from exploring new things if I got comfortable with old, sentimental favourites. So I guess this time around I’ll allow myself to roll around in a nostalgic soap – but next time we’re going out to find new smells that we’ve never smelled before!

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There are other reasons why the very word “lush” warms the cockles of my silly little heart but we’ll leave that for another story time.

Where were you in ’95? – Finite capacities and data retrieval in physical media formats.

Recently I rewatched two films which I had fond memories of watching as a teenager, by dint of them both having been aired on one of the late night television slots – Johnny Mnemonic (based off a story by William Gibson), and Strange Days (screenplay written by James Cameron). Both were made in 1995 and somehow bore some similarities to each other in terms of topic matter and their representation of what they perceived to be the future of cyberspace. Here are some of my thoughts on them both:

Johnny Mnemonic (A Summary):

In 2021, the world is completely connected to the internet. Many are suffering from Nerve Attenuation Syndrome, which people develop from overexposure to electromagnetic radiation from electronic devices. Human “software” can be modified or enhanced; brains can be modified to become data storage, at the expense of deleting some of your organic memories. A data courier, Johnny Mnemonic, who has wiped out part of his childhood memory in order to store more data gets trapped in a deal gone wrong, and is forced to download some mysterious data, which turns out to be the medical cure for NAS that has been hidden from the world by PharmaKom, the big pharma company, in order to profit from selling people expensive drugs for NAS that do not cure it but prolong its symptoms. Johnny Mnemonic is forced to go on the run as he is being pursued by the Yakuza and other hitmen (including a crazed pseudo street preacher “without a single natural bone in his body”), who want to destroy the information forever. He finally finds himself in Lotek HQ, the anti-technology and anti-establishment guerilla resistance (which regularly jams media channels to send out its pirate broadcasts), where they use the help of a dolphin to hack the data encryption in Johnny’s brain so they can transmit the cure to NAS and make it public data…

Johnny Mnemonic’s (In)finite Capacity Hard Drive

For long time I wondered why Johnny Mnemonic’s brain was able to take more data than specified on its label. In the film, the entire drama starts because Johnny’s brain is overloaded with more data it can take and this data is said to have been uploaded at the cost of wiping out more and more memories from his childhood. But, why was the electronic side of his brain able to affect all of his organic memories in the first place? How much data is “too much data”? Why was there even this so-called threshold anyway of brain disk space anyway? Convienient plot device to draw comparisons between Johnny’s humanity (his natural memories), and his business as a data courier (the world’s data and memories)?

After thinking about it for some time, the only reason I can come up with to explain this, is the fact that the mind technically never actually runs out of space, unlike hard drives which are built with finite capacities. We continue thinking thoughts all the time and all these thoughts would, conceivably take up more and more “space” in our brains, but yet we never ever run out of space, because this is not any normal kind of “space” that we can describe or define with any kind of boundaries or normal sense of physicality. So the supposed finite capacity of Johnny Mnemonic’s cyberbrain should be false because this is merely the assumption we tend to have of normal harddrives. Ignoring those preconceptions, I suppose it could be possible to “overload” Johnny Mnemonic’s brain infinitely.

Strange Days (A Summary):

In 1999, the city of LA is in complete anarchy and chaos; there are racial tensions and clashes against the police state. Some years ago, the police developed a method of recording people’s memories and experiences straight from the cerebal cortex, allowing them to be played back over your reality with “wet-wiring” hardware, also known as “Squid” (Super-conducting Quantum Interference Device). The equipment was no longer being used by the cops but now had a thriving blackmarket. An ex-cop, Lenny Nero, who has fallen on hard times has become a dealer in these “experiences” or “memories”, especially illegal or slightly immoral activities which one would feel morally obligated to not participate in, despite having the desire to do so. However, someone seems to be targeting Lenny and sending him “blackjack” or “snuff movie” tapes, which horrifies Lenny. Not only does it involve rape and murder but the perpetrator also forces the victim to wear the wet-wire and see and feel what their attacker is experiencing at the same time. One of the tapes also involves the murder of a high-profile african american rights activist and rapper. Unable to trust the police, he decides to send the tape to the one good police commissioner he still knows, and he confronts the people whom he thinks have been sending him the tapes.

Physical Formats and Libraries of Memories

This film is simplier and in some ways, pitched slightly more “low-tech” than Johnny Mnemonic, but it keeps it true to how things are even today. The issue I have with this concept of a big black market for “recordings of lived experiences” is that in the film it was conceived of being a trade of physical media copies (a rather limiting world view), rather than something conducted via a network. The image of a man sitting in his bedroom with a shoebox full of memories that he plays back for nostalgia’s sake is a classic one, and I imagine that physical data formats will continue to be the main way in which we choose to store our most important memories even as more and more things exist only in a virtual or digital form – I upload everything to the cloud but I still continue to keep special data in physical formats in a shoebox as well.

I don’t see it possible that it would be a trade involving scattered peddlars, but something of this level would have been the domain of organised crime (if made illegal). And also, the possibilities of such a technology could be extended to dreaming. Why didn’t anyone try to put it on to a sleeping person to record their experience? Why couldn’t you put it on someone else to playback other experiences over their dreams to see what would happen to the dream? But speculation aside, the issue of physical media is that it is prone to deterioriation over time. So a world in which memories are consigned to physical formats is still finite in its survival. You would not be able to retrieve the memory after the physical format of this media is destroyed or disintegrates; this is similar to how memories will be lost if the person is dead, and this is also similar to how we are not the same as a network (although we do things that try to approximate it (see things like “Quantified Self”) – our “abstracted” data – how do we make sense of this? Can we analyse it and make it meaningful information?

One thing I didn’t see in the movie was a library of memories. I would imagine that if such technology exists, then people would start amassing warehouses and catalogues of memories to accompany this black market trade of memories. To be able to record, also means being able to document. To inventorise, and to However, this also brings me back to the idea that it should be depicted in the context of a distribution and storage network. Digital formats are great because things like CDs and MDs and external harddrives can take up very little space in the real world so our compulsive hoarding of data does not actually crowd us out of our homes. Can it be true that a saleman of memories only has his small “special shoebox” of memories, rather than a massive library of it? The point is that anything with a physical format is still taking up physical space so the reality is that some storage is still involved, unlike the “purity” of it being all somehow “online”, which would also mean that if its storage was “digitised” then it could also be conceivably be sorted and searched by computers. The whole point of digitising information is also that we can sort it, and use the computer to help us analyse it and find meaningful connections within the data itself.

From Philip K Dick’s VALIS: “We appear to be memory coils (DNA carriers capable of experience) in a computer-like thinking system which, although we have correctly recorded and stored thousands of years of experiential information, and each of us possesses somewhat different deposits from all the other life forms, there is a malfunction – a failure – of memory retrieval.”