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The Body Politic on Douyin

by Lim Sheau Yun

A particular video genre has emerged on Douyin (for the uninitiated, the Chinese precursor of TikTok): groups, whether human or animal, orchestrated in synchronised movement for the twin purposes of awe and entertainment. Imagine the Olympian discipline of a synchronised swimming team, but in banal settings and always against a backdrop of generic, garish Chinese electronic music. A group of ten dogs – all with curly coats, in black or white and with Chinese New Year attire – jump rope in time. A row of old farmers, hoes in hand, march and lip-sync to a song on a dirt road. A personal favourite: a line of male waiters in flashing-neon roller skates turn a corner, ducking down in succession while holding trays of food. Little Chinese flags line the hallway, swaying with the air-conditioning. With the waiter’s buzzcuts, sequined songkoks and floral waistcoats, the effect is not unlike a disco parody of the Chinese state.

The image of the mass of Chinese bodies is, of course, not new. The mass emerged as an aesthetic category in large part because leftist 20th-century political movements were born from numbers. Marxism and its Maoist iteration emphasised politics not on the scale of individuals but that of class: mass mobilisation and mass participation in political affairs were required to move forward in this linear historical process. By the Cultural Revolution in 1966, the crowd had become the visual encapsulation of Maoist China, plastered over posters, film, plays and other representations of the nation.

The body politic was first articulated to impose the metaphor of the body onto the state, most notably with the cover of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, where the King’s head is shown surmounted upon a body created from his subjects. The body as a mediator of space and a metaphor through which we understand space: Geoffrey Scott sees humanism as merely a two-way metaphor “we have transcribed ourselves into terms of architecture… and architecture into terms of ourselves.” However, the mass represents a different understanding of spatiality – when bodies multiply, they create and occupy space.

The masses thus became a kind of modern architecture. If we understand space not as built objects, but as an emergent condition that arises from the relationship between objects, then the mass can be understood in singular and plural. They are space generators in the body politic and body-as-politics. The individual body becomes secondary to the horizontal sprawl, an atomic particle in a charged sea. While I would argue that there are many typologies to this architecture, including the rally or the mob, one stands forth in our cultural imagination: the Parade.

The Parade is the masses made monolith. With its carefully considered geometry, it is a highly homogenous and orchestrated configuration of mass space. Order characterises the Parade. Often, mass space is fragmented according to predetermined configurations in an exhibition of discipline. It is notable that in this scene, the camera never pans to any individual: the mass in its totality is occupied space, as if they were blocks that can be continually rearranged. A militaristic aesthetic is central to the Parade’s configuration. The atmosphere of the masses is one of vital sterility: in all cases, those in the parade are dressed in uniform and act as a single entity. Expressions are neutral: the Parade is the most malleable form of the mass, constituted from without and based on the projections of the elites who have made the Parade possible.

Peng Zhen, a leading member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the 1950s, commented that “Parades are a grand demonstration against imperialism. They display our strength and can have an influence on capitalist countries.” For the revolution to be felt globally, the Parade needed to be staged in “the most overwhelming way.” But the Parade was also a political text that spoke within the nation. Mao claimed that the historical process proceeds in a “wave-like advance” rather than “a continuously rising line” – given insufficient motivation, the nation could slip back into capitalism. The Parade embodied his spatial metaphor: marching, wave-like, advancing.


A parade to commemorate the first national day in Tiananmen Square shows a clear, ideal hierarchical relationship between leader and mass. Technology acts as a multiplier: a one-point perspective is used to suggest the extension to infinity of the masses. This is juxtaposed against Mao’s singular image, hung on the Gate of Heavenly Peace – it is the one versus the many. The very act of observing a horizontal mass privileges the viewpoint of those raised in vertical space. For the elite, the masses are mere landscape: the eye of the camera and the eye of the leader are one and the same.

The Parade has endured in part because it is a mainstay in Chinese cultural exports, from Shen Yun, the exiled religious group Falun Gong’s anti-Communist acrobatics performances in the US, to Encore Melaka, a grandiose production complete with a rotating stage emphasising Chinese entanglements in the history of Melaka in Malaysia. But nowhere was the contemporary Parade more refined than the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics opening ceremony, the culmination of years of experiments with the masses by the film director Zhang Yimou. Gone was Mao: instead, it was the imperial tradition that was emphasised as Confucian disciples chanted passages from the Analects, dancers painted with ink on a scroll, and villages marched across the stage to mimic the desert. In one segment on movable type printing, gargantuan grey printing blocks were arranged in a grid in the centre of the stage, rising and lowering with such perfect synchronisation that one imagined they were mechanised. The catch? At the end of the segment, the caps with Chinese characters were pushed off their hinges to reveal that it was, in fact, people, not machines, underneath. They waved, elated. The crowd went wild.

Image Credits, clockwise: Goh Chai Hin, Reuters, Christophe Simon, Joe Chan. Images from Alan Taylor, “The Chinese Art of the Crowd” in The Atlantic, 2015. https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2015/05/the-chinese-art-of-the-crowd/392531/

The art of the masses has now made its way onto short-form video: it has become meme. Douyin is merely the latest iteration in these orchestrations, but – to me – perhaps the most fascinating. The numbers are at far smaller scales, but the spectacles march on. In mundane settings, away from the overt hand of the state, the mass seems apolitical: restaurants, gyms, apartment lobbies are all fair game as for staging a parade.

Unlike other social media apps which draw content from what your network of contacts – your friend’s wedding pictures on Instagram, or an event from an organisation you follow on Facebook – Douyin and TikTok don’t primarily rely on a pre-existing social connection to formulate its suggestions. Its algorithm is based on pure behaviour, its content based on what you have watched. There is no past or future in short-form video; there is pure entertainment. Jia Tolentino has likened TikTok to “the last sunny corner of the internet,” and Douyin is no different: the content that does best is impressive enough to hold your attention, funny or cute enough to warm the fuzzies in your quarantine-deadened soul, and benign enough that it will leave you wanting more.

The trope of the Parade is peculiarly suited to this algorithmic behaviour. The eye of the state is now invisible, embedded in the code. If the Maoist Parade was designed to show state power, then the Douyin Parade is its cooler younger sibling who just does things for the lols. After liking many such videos, the algorithm began to learn. Who knew if I was still interested in watching this? The line between what you like to watch and what the algorithm wants you to like to watch is dangerously thin. State machinery has made way for the machine in the code. We are made mass.

The Dancing Politicians

by Aahan Prakash

The people whom Trump had brought over. He was still in the stratosphere when I met with him in the Oval on April 25. He had just made the announcement, saying it was the most unusual announcement he had ever seen. Trump was still in the mood, but the truth was out there.

I said we needed to talk about the Iran nuclear deal because we had too many Russian and Chinese allies in Europe, which was a total nonstarter. Pompeo said Russia had long been more aggressive than Iran, but they had been a mere second-tier power, and they were not as dangerous as Russia was. I said we should talk about this at some point, but the bigger point was that we needed to talk about this deal. Trump said he thought Russia had great leverage, but it was all an effort to protect Hillary Clinton, and he wanted to talk about it in early October. I said I would talk to Pompeo, who was at the G7 in Canada, watching the Buenos Aires G20. He said he would tell Trump that Russia was doing what it had done in Syria, which was a total nonstarter. We needed to get off Russia talking, not Iran. I said we should talk about this at some point.

Trump said again that he thought Putin wanted the deal, which was impressive, but that if we talked about it, Putin would be very unhappy. We needed to talk about it, but Pompeo said that, after all the talking, Putin was now ready to take our word for it. Trump said, “I don’t know how much longer we can keep this going,” before I realized it was on record raising the issue of Syria with Putin as a reason for not discussing the Iran nuclear deal.

I left for Israel on Friday, October 10, the day after the G7 was relegated. Israel had been in the mess hall for almost six hours before I was there, traveling with Trump in his motorcade. I had spoken to him before he arrived, and he was visibly unhappy with the Iran deal, which was not right but important enough that he was willing to make it a priority. I conveyed this to my Israeli counterparts, who said they wanted to talk at some point, but they had to talk about it, which was not exactly reassuring. Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said, “This is not about the Iran nuclear deal.” I was worried about the possibility of Obama-era sanctions relief, which I thought was a good idea. Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman (centre) in front of the Israel Foreign Ministry on Friday, October 10, 2017.

[(Evan Vucci/AP) US President Donald Trump speaks during a tour of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem on October 10, 2017.]

At about one thirty p.m., I thought we had the Iran nuclear deal (which is always a problem for the US), and I called Pompeo, who was in Israel, to congratulate him on his successful trip. After the call, I called Netanyahu, who had just come to visit, and told him we needed to get Iran out of the G7, which was going very badly, not just in terms of terrorism but also nuclear proliferation. Netanyahu was surprised we hadn’t already given Iran more nuclear attention, which was good news, since Iran was already one of the world’s biggest oil importers, and he wanted to get Iran off our plate of gold.

At nine thirty a.m., I called Pompeo, who was in Israel, to tell him we needed to get Iran out of the G7 and keep the nuclear deal. I didn’t like that Pompeo and I were talking about Iran, but he said, “We’re getting all the Western Hemisphere attention,” so I said we should get it out of the G7.

The next day, I called Trump to tell him what had happened, and he said, “I don’t like it,” which I thought was a big concession. I left the White House around three p.m., and was never more than a little nervous. I left the White House at six fifteen to go home, and then went back in the morning to get breakfast ready for my return trip to Israel.

On Monday morning, I met with Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, who was still in Israel to attend the G7, to see if there were any more issues.

Amongst the other things, Trump decided to send the letter home after a long day of negotiations, to Pompeo and Mnuchin on Saturday, June 18, after we all feared the letter would be too much for Pompeo and his team to handle. Pompeo and Mnuchin were in the Oval alone, seeing how the negotiations were going, and they were already discussing what to do next. Trump asked if we were going to the Hill, to which I said I was probably going to the Hill, which he agreed with. He also said, “You’re a ’hole,” meaning no one could get to the Hill, which I had no problem getting around.

The next day, however, Trump went to the Oval, and I saw him again briefly, but was not in the mood to discuss it. Instead, he said to me, “I have to get out of Washington.” I had left the Oval earlier, but I assured him I would be back at the Hill briefing on Monday, June 19, at eleven a.m. Washington time, so I had time to get to the Hill. I went to the Oval, and there, in the streets, I heard Trump say, “I’m going to the Hill.” I turned to look at the press pool, and saw Pompeo and Mnuchin both waiting nearby, so I could tell them the situation was serious. I tried calling the White House press office, but they said, “We’ll be calling the National Security Council.” I hoped we would soon find out what had happened.

I called the press line at about 5:30 a.m. by hearing a Trump commentator say, “The press is out of line,” which was inaccurate, because I said I would be at the White House briefing. I called again about 5:55 to report the same conversation, but it was still not working. I called back at about 6:20 to tell the press line was still open, but it didn’t work. I called again to report that Pompeo and his team had come to the White House on Friday to meet with Trump and the press pool, and there it was again. It was not working, and Pompeo and all his people were flying back to the White House.

I came to the White House at 6:40 a.m. to see Trump, and he said, “I’m out of line.” I said, “What are you talking about?” and asked what was wrong with the line, which was standard news reporting, but Pompeo said, “I’m out of line.” I called back at 6:59 to report Pompeo had come to the White House on Friday, and Trump had come back to the Oval to meet with the press pool, and there it was again. It didn’t work. I called back at 6:59 to report that Pompeo and his departments had come to the White House to meet with Trump, and there was no reason to believe they were there. I called again to report that Pompeo’s press line was not working. I called again at 6:59 to report that Pompeo’s press office was not working, and Trump had come back to the Oval to meet with the press pool. I pulled together a line of paper from the Oval Office, and the line was running down, about to break. I called back at 6:59 again to report Pompeo’s line was not working, and Trump had come back to the Oval, but there was no break. Finally, at 6:59, Pompeo said, “I’m out of line,” and we agreed we should hold off onto the press pool.

I spoke to Dunford, who was still calling the White House press line, and he said the press was out of line, and the White House press line was not in place.

This Digital Life

Three stories of physical existence and digital self

INFERSTUDIO by Bethany Edgoose

What does it mean for something to be digital?

Half a century or so before Jesus was born, the Roman senator and philosopher Cicero wrote to a friend, complaining that he was being charged too much interest on a loan. The going rate of interest at the time was apparently 12 per cent. Cicero was being charged 48 per cent, and in his letter, Cicero exclaims that he understands the discrepancy between the two amounts because he can count them out with his digitos, his fingers. This is the earliest record of the latin word for ‘finger’.  Through the evolutions of language, the word ‘digital’ came to mean a number that could be counted out on the ten fingers of two average human hands.[1] Digital numbers are whole numbers. They are familiar numbers. The counting machines that became modern-day computers were referred to as digital because they worked on the simplest principles. They use just two numbers, zero and one; two absolute conditions of an electric current, on and off; and two default positions of the gates of a circuit board, open and closed, through which electricity passes. There is a simple, tactile reality to the digital processing that computers perform, grounded in principles that our own bodies, and our fingers, can help us understand.

And yet–  

As I sit at my kitchen bench typing into a word doc with one of the strangest, most challenging, and computer-mediated years of collective human existence at my back, the word ‘digital’ fits into natural antithesis with words like ‘physical’, ‘tangible’ or ‘real’. By ‘natural antithesis’ I mean sentences that come up in FaceTime  conversations with my Mum – “I want a real dog – not a digital one” or “I’ll send you digital flowers for your birthday – you don’t need to water them and they won’t die”. When I’m talking to my mum, or a stranger at the supermarket, or some lawyer at a party who wants to buy me a drink, I listen as ‘digital’ slips into the semantic place of ‘virtual’ or ‘computer-generated’. We all seem to agree on what we’re talking about – roses that disappear when you turn off the computer screen, animals that don’t need oxygen or fresh air, faces that can’t be touched or poked or stroked. It is a blurring of conceptual boundaries and yet it makes sense; virtual cards and worlds and meetings, brought before our eyes and ears by digital processing done by a machine that thinks with two numbers. Digital things can still be fingered, with the  tip of your pointer on the screen of your phone. But they’re not graspable, in either sense of the word; the operative maths exceeds the understanding of almost everybody on the planet, no matter their number of fingers, and as anyone who has sent a hug over Zoom can attest, the digitally-rendered form of a lover is no substitute for the tangible, physical reality of clutching their arm and holding their hand. No – digital realities and digital identities cannot take the place of physical form. Our human senses are too demanding for that. If virtual and augmented perception is developed for multi-sensorial experience, then we might conceive of a day where our eyes, fingers, and tongues quiet their whispering with every pinch and swipe; “you’re not really there”, “it’s not really him”. But until that point, digital realities and identities must be developed as a way of being adjacent to the technique as old as the universe itself of just showing up as an arrangement of atoms in physical space. Digital realities have their own power and their own limitations. To that end, through three stories of digital identities, I seek to draw out something of what this term can mean.

Digital Disappearance

There is a man who disappeared from the Internet. His name is Philip Agre and until 2009 he was an academic who was teaching at the University of California, in Los Angeles. Philip Agre trained as an engineer and he was a pioneer of internet technologies and Artificial intelligence, working on a collection of ideas about the nature of reality and how computers should perceive it, dubbed New AI. In 2009, he disappeared.

The first I learned of this was when I was racing through the introductory chapter of a book Agre wrote about computers and human experience. It was relevant to a project proposal I was working on at the time and I was in the thrall of stomach-clenching excitement; I had found someone whose ideas provided my vague swirling thoughts with an academic platform, a way into the legitimating corridors of a real institution, maybe a PhD! I Googled him – maybe I could apply to study at whatever institution Agre was teaching at, if he wasn’t too old that is, or dead!

As far as I know Philip Agre is not dead. But since 2009, that is all anyone on the Internet knows at all. At some point that year, Agre’s sister filed a missing person’s report with the Los Angeles County Sherriff’s department.[2] A search was conducted.  A report was made. According to the report, duly covered by the news station NPR, Philip Agre was, in 2010, “In good health and self-sufficient”. [3]  End of story. The only additional information I could find across 10+ pages of Google results, was on the website of writer, sound and performance artist Inge Hoonte. Hoonte has created her own written work inspired by Agre’s ideas, and she mentions when describing her project that a group of Agre’s colleagues teamed up to track Agre down in the flesh. Reportedly, they found him - only to be asked to please leave him alone again because he wished to remain “offline”.[4]  Nowadays, a Google search for Philip Agre returns the same brief details of his academic career and publications across news sites, blogs, and Wikipedia, plus some forum posts and tributes from former colleagues and students, reflecting on his legacy and archiving his work so that others may learn from his research and insights.[5]

Why do I find Agre’s story compelling? It starts from the fact that he is the first identity I have encountered who has, with deliberation, quarantined his physical existence from computer-mediated society. There are many others whose physical lives go unrecorded, or recorded in such a way that nothing specific to their own collection of atoms is easily pulled to the surface of the information ocean. But Agre’s body and mind left digital marks. Their activities were encoded into digital artefacts; online articles, a book available as a PDF, university profile pages, a renowned mailing list with essays and articles that Agre sent round to subscribers in the 1990s. I am intrigued by what distress or enlightenment prompted him to decide that the remainder of his biological life would pass without any such digital trace. I am also intrigued by the implication of strangers like me likely never knowing when the man named Philip Agre dies. I propose that this means his life is extendable – up until a point, presumably, where people on the internet will have to draw a line and conclude that Phillip Agre must be dead because otherwise he’d be 123 and that’s older than any human person has ever lived.[6] I tried to work out when that time might be – but I couldn’t find out his date of birth.

Agre’s unusual case makes visible the intertwining of physical existence and digital identity. The digital is dominant, as it is all most will ever know. But it is also an incomplete and time-frozen depiction of a person Agre was and ideas he had at some point along the course of his natural life. Now – all digital identities are, in my opinion, sources of identity and not its sum. The same goes for a living body and mind. They are rich generators of person and selfhood, but you can’t place a body and mind in a box and say “there – I’ve captured it, the whole identity, the whole person – it’s here in this box!” You’d be missing important parts. With a digital identity, and this is something that I think Agre’s case makes apparent, it is the associated physical person who is primarily responsible for the evolution and maintenance of their digital self - until they die. After that, the great distribution begins. Tributes, summaries, remembrances, retrospective exhibitions, the exhaustion of copyrights, and tales of daring and intrigue that can only be published on the event of death[7] – the significance of the physical end gives such energy to the proliferation and transformation of digital self.

At the moment, the internet seems to be waiting for Agre’s return to the helm of his own digital identity. Amongst the modest, semi-obscure collections of Agre’s work, I sense a potential reluctance from the authors to publish pre-emptive eulogies. I speculate that Agre’s former colleagues and students may reach for the mantle of evolving his digital self, only for their hand to be checked by a vision of Agre’s body appearing in living flesh with a mouth that says “What are you doing? Did you think I was dead? No – I was merely on a decade of sabbatical learning how to speak whale and explaining the concept of the ocean to them. It’s much more relevant to AI studies than you might think”. [8]

If Philip Agre should ever read this article, then let me thank you for your work on Computation and Human Experience. The idea about whale language is rhetorical – although the topic has fascinating potential for grappling with ways to understand and challenge perception. Let me know if you’d like to go for a walk in a park somewhere and discuss.

In the event that Agre’s own physical eyes never alight on these words – let this article be part of his identity lifeline, keeping his concept that little bit more known and his name more afloat in the internet’s indexable, searchable, crawlable depths.

Digital Patriots

On the inauguration day of Joe Biden, 46th President of the United States, confused posts appeared on a message board website called The Great Awakening. “Umm…guys?” one headline began, “I feel sick”, “Could the mods explain why Joe Biden hasn’t been arrested yet?” “Why doesn’t the military step in?” These posts were written by people with physical fingers and physical heads in which they store their carbon-based brains – brains that seem to believe, as fervently as any religious evangelist, that former presidents, senior Democrats, The Dalai Lama, the Pope, Ellen De Generes and basically all other rich, famous, and powerful persons are collectively engaged in a Satantic paedophilia ‘cabal’ that includes farming children in basements and drinking their blood. Donald Trump is the fated saviour of the imperilled children and the rest of the non-satanic, non-children-farming world, as indicated by his much-tweeted campaign to oppose the Deep State. The persona who revealed the plot and posts erratic, cryptic hints to followers is ‘Q’ and these visceral fictions are the core tenants of their followers – the QAnon conspiracy group.

Q is a constructed digital identity of murky origins. It dates back to November 2017, when a series of cryptic political-themed posts on 4chan were picked up by moderators and sent for comment and analysis to American right-wing Youtubers. Q, the author of the posts, claimed to be a high-ranking intelligence officer, with privileged information about the workings of government.[9] This identity claim was foundational to the constructed authority of the posts themselves, and from the early days of the growing Q trend, promoters did their best to maintain the notion that the digital identity of Q corresponded to a singular, physical person. There are two major problems with this – a security problem and a reality problem. The security problem was that Q used a tripcode, or digital signature, to authenticate their identity online, and the password for this tripcode proved quite easy to crack. Multiple Qs started appearing online with copy-cat messages of comparable garble.  Each time the password was cracked, Q had to make a new account – and it was only the administrators of the message boards who could confirm whether the new accounts were real by comparing the IP address of the computers making the requests. Luckily, Q never changed computers. This system leads to the reality problem. Far from being a single human person with top ranking security clearance, the digital identity of Q was likely co-created by multiple human persons, none of whom have ever worked for the US government. The most likely candidates for members of the Q Construction Committee are indeed the administrators for the various message boards on which Q posts have appeared. There is evidence that each of these people (men – they are all men) have authored posts from Q. And yet Q’s followers cling to the fiction of Q as a singular, physical, high-ranking official. Some quick examples: Coleman Rogers, 4chan administrator and founder of a Youtube channel dedicated to ‘interpreting’ messages from Q, was livestreaming one such session, when he seemed to log into the message board with Q’s credentials. How did he happen to have these details? Well – he must be one of the Q charlatans, misappropriating Q’s identity for himself! Could Rogers, a prophet of Q, be Q himself? Blasphamy![10] A little later, Jerry and Ron Watkins, the father and son who own 8chan, claimed that Q had made a new account on a message board that only they controlled. This was a very convenient arrangement for the Watkins, as it kept Q’s followers hooked to their site. Yet the QAnon community, as a whole, refused to be side-tracked by allegations of corporate agendas.[11]  Q was out there! They were real! Indeed, as I’ve browsed through posts on Q forums and Reddit, I’ve noticed that while it seems important to followers that the digital identity of Q maps neatly to a singular person, the specific identity of this person does not seem to matter at all. I’ve found speculations and “gut-feelings”from Q followers that the physical person behind Q is Michael Flynn, Donald Trump, Eric Trump (but not Ivanka Trump), a high-ranking political adviser, Mike Pompeo, Edward Snowden, Melania Trump, or 14 year old Baron Trump time-travelling to today’s present from somewhen in the future. It is commonly accepted that Donald Trump has access to a time machine.

The relevance of Q to this article on digital self is that Q has become more than a singular persona. It is an identity that hundreds of thousands of people have adopted. There is an online community, ready-made with tempting offers of exclusive access to world-changing information, secret missions and purpose to each child-saving day. Those who believe become heroes, selves posted and commented into existence, trading in upvotes, and accumulating message board scores. The appeal of such a self can be great enough for alternative identities, as parents, spouses, children, and employees, to be set aside. There is evidence of this in the testimonies of a Reddit support group for people who have lost loved ones to the cult of Q. The Reddit group has 28,000 members.[12] A note-worthy aspect of the QAnon community is that many are reportedly older Americans – people of the ‘Boomer’ generation, foreigners to digital landscapes who flew in on a mistaken Google search or a video sent on Messenger.[13] They may not have the eye for unverified information or doctored images; they may not know the cultural history of message boards. Q is a creature of the digital age but I speculate that some of Q’s missionaries heed the call precisely because they themselves are not.

So what does this tell us, about digital identity? That those who grip tightest to digital selves may not be ‘digital natives’ but self-described ‘patriots’, people whose life experiences are hostile to border blurring and nation-dissolving – those so-called liberal ideals which were once a noticeable flavour of identities birthed online. QAnon also casts into stark relief the possible physical end-points of digital selfhood. Many of the armed and violent protestors who stormed the US Capitol on January 6th are QAnon adherents. [14] In another instance, a Q follower shot and killed reputed mob boss Francesco Cali on account of his being part of the Deep State.[15] Yet another adherent launched an armed, one-man invasion of a D.C. Pizza Restaurant to investigate its (non-existent) basement and the children he believed were being abused there.[16] The self-belief that QAnon breeds is online extremism, of sufficient potency to be a cause of death.

Finally – in devouring Reddit forums and Q sites and following reporting about the rise of the movement,I’ve found evidence that the resilience of this specific digital identity can meet its limits through the force of reality. Not for everyone. As the inauguration went on, posts appeared on the public Q site urging continued faith in Q’s ‘plan’. A theory of growing popularity to explain why the inauguration took place at all is that Trump has stolen Biden’s face and is masquerading as the 46th president in his stead.[17] But for others, the irrefutable fact that democrats and celebrities remain free, that Trump left Washington and the nuclear football is now chained to the arm of someone in Biden’s team, has proved enough to break belief. It is enough to break their sense of self. One person on whom reality is pressing hard is Ron Watkins, 4chan administrator and suspected component of the Q persona. On inauguration day, he wrote to his followers on Telegam: “We gave it our all. Now we need to keep our chins up and go back to our lives as best we are able…as we enter into the new administration, please remember all the friends and happy memories we made together over the past few years”.[18]

This was one man’s farewell to a form of digital self that has driven families apart, inspired violence, and leeched into hundreds of thousands of minds images of horrific abuse and satanic evil. Happy memories may be stretching it a bit.

Digital Death

My father died a few years ago. Before he died, we used to talk on Facebook and when his death certificate had been printed and sent, I uploaded a copy to Facebook’s in memoriam request form and turned his profile into a memory site. I use it now to send him messages on his birthday, or when something happens in my life that I think he’d like to know about. It is a portal of communication to the soul of one I have lost, carried on the eyes of those who remain here, on earth, physically bound.

Digital Death is a practical concern. Facebook wouldn’t memorialise the page without government-certified evidence that my father had in fact died. To log into his other accounts, I leafed through a blue planner and guessed the current password from pages of crossed-out scribbles. When I managed to gain access to his Google Drive, I shared with myself all his folders of photos and the contents of his desktop, which I uploaded to the cloud. The majority of his accounts: his emails, Twitter, Myspace (I know), government gateways, banking, and so many others that I expect are tied to his name but which I never asked about (who asks their parents if they’ve ever signed up to Reddit?) for the majority of these accounts I did nothing at all. It didn’t occur to me at the time.  Two years on it seems like too much work for too little gain. Instead, I gain comfort from the thought that he has inboxes still pinging and red notifications flashing, that there is a physical, manipulable reality in some server farm somewhere storing messages from my dad, fragments of thought, fragments of self. The comfort lies in the concept of his own digital mark, a statement that he’s still out there, “I am (digitally) here”.

Preparing for digital death is becoming a numbered to-do point when writing your will. There are at least two social enterprises with social legacy kits and platforms you can use to record messages for when you die. If you have yet to encounter such services, my non-scientific assessment is that demand across the industry seems a little moribund.[19] Willing houses and funds is a process that people with such assets are (I’m guessing) motivated to think about, for the good of their families. But willing social accounts cuts close to the bone. Social accounts are intimate. They are quotidian, constant. They capture thought, emotion, and moment; they are records of our lives. It is hard to think about the future of such vivacious records. What good could they do, what could such artefacts possibly become?

What about a chat-bot? It’s a tested idea. The first application known to type with the syntax of the dead was Replika, trained on emails and messages from software developers and start-up founder Roman Mazurenko. Initial reviews from Roman’s close ones suggested that the machine-learnt network sent messages near-indistinguishable from the living man.[20] Replika isn’t a proxy for Roman, but the chat-bot wouldn’t exist without him and is now generating new content in a similar way that his living brain would. Roman and Replika overlap somewhat in identity space. In 2016, academic and data scientist Hossein Rahama trademarked Augmented Eternity. Over the course of their lifetimes, each person on the internet today could generate a trillion gigabytes of data. Could this be the material for a digital self? In one theoretical use-case, Rahama speculates that you could rent the digital avatar of an IP lawyer and avoid paying their $500 per-hour in-person consultation fee. In another, the digital selves of all the people you know became a suit of boutique Siris – ask one avatar for advice on pizza, another for advice on talking to men.[21]

I wonder what digital avatars will be. Will they be property – owned in parts by the software company that generates and hosts them and the living body who provides the training data? Will managing my Digital Death become a matter of willing on my augmented self? Could digital avatars gain the legal status of persons? Companies are persons. Some rivers too.[22] Practical immortality seems a bit closer with the thought of an avatar ordering flowers for your birthday and then messaging your sister, potentially even using your voice, as such replication is now technically feasible.

I do admit that when I imagine exactly this, there is a churning in my gut – a fear-based reaction to the uncanny valley of the digital self. And yet, the awareness that such technical possibilities may unfold many decades (in all luck) before my own death, has motivated me to exist online with more of myself. I am a weird person. I expect most people are. I talk to my vacuum cleaner and pretend to be a houseplant while sitting under tables. Sometimes, the urge to share such weirdness comes upon me and I reach for my phone – only to be stopped by an internal rubber band of constraint, “don’t be weird on the internet”. Why ever not? Any machine-learnt digital avatar of me will be all the poorer for not knowing my pet vacuum’s name (it’s Biscuit). I want my mimicry of houseplants and inanimate objects to be engraved on silicon disks in a deep-sea server farm, as permanent a contribution to the past and machine-learnt future of human society. This is the vision I have of a possible digital self – and if it’s ever going to exist with some semblance of the presence that physical reality naturally commands, I’m going to have to post better, record more truthfully, and use some kind of pastel-colored service to bequeath my account logins to someone when I die.

[1] See https://www.spudart.org/comic/digital-meaning/ for the whole story, and if a source called ‘Spud Art’ seems of questionable veracity, you can confirm the tale of etymology through this blog from the Oxford English Dictionary: https://public.oed.com/blog/word-stories-digital/

[2] A local news story, from 2009, about Agre’s disappearance: https://www.chronicle.com/article/friends-and-colleagues-mount-a-search-for-a-missing-scholar-philip-agre/

[3] The NPR story is here: https://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2010/01/missing_internet_pioneer_phil.html

[4] Here is the description of Inge Hoonte’s project, titled ‘Dear Philip. E. Agre’, https://ihoonte.hotglue.me/dear_philip_e_agre

[5] See this compilation of Agre’s works and reflections on his legacy: https://wtf.tw/ref/agre.html and this discussion on the Hacker News forum: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21809610

[6] Here is a list of the oldest living people current and ever. The record for oldest human is a French woman named Jeanne Louise Calment, who died when she was 122 years and 164 days old. https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/news/2020/10/the-worlds-oldest-people-and-their-secrets-to-a-long-life-632895

[7] Neil Sheehan, the American reporter who obtained The Pentagon Papers (US government reports about the failures and futility of the Vietnam war) finally gave up the tale of how he acquired the documents – but instructed that the information not be published until after his death. He died in January 2021 and the story of his journalistic daring and determination was published: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2021/jan/10/after-50-years-the-pentagon-papers-give-up-their-final-secrets

[8] Agre once wrote that explaining the inherited discursive form of AI to AI engineers was like trying to explain the ocean to a fish - see https://wtf.tw/ref/agre.html. Also, see https://www.earthspecies.org/ for a project from a group of AI engineers who are actually trying to speak whale.

[9] For extra reading: https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/tech-news/how-three-conspiracy-theorists-took-q-sparked-qanon-n900531, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20210117-swiss-text-sleuths-unpick-mystery-of-qanon-origins and for listening: https://gimletmedia.com/shows/reply-all/llhe5nm

[10] See https://tech.slashdot.org/story/20/11/29/0122244/conspiracy-theorists-whod-first-popularized-qanon-now-accused-of-financial-motives

[11] https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/09/14/qanon-families-support-group/

[12] https://www.reddit.com/r/QAnonCasualties/

[13] See 11 – that story covers this well

[14] https://abcnews.go.com/US/qanon-emerges-recurring-theme-criminal-cases-tied-us/story?id=75347445 and https://www.cnbc.com/2021/01/15/trump-rioters-planned-to-kill-congress-members-fed-probe.html

[15] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/06/nyregion/gambino-shooting-anthony-comello-qanon.html

[16] https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/06/22/533941689/pizzagate-gunman-sentenced-to-4-years-in-prison

[17] Posts detailing these ideas can be found on The Great Awakening site (which I’m not going to link to – it gets enough hyperlinked significance as it is) or you can see screenshots and testimonials on the QAnonCausalities subreddit, from footnote 12.

[18] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/20/technology/qanon-inauguration.html?smid=tw-nytimes&smtyp=cur or just Google the quote if you can’t access the article from behind the paywall.

[19] http://deadsocial.org/about and https://www.digitaldeath.com/

[20] https://www.wired.com/story/replika-open-source/

[21] Hossein Rahama did not suggest exactly that digital persons of your friends could be developed to help you talk to men. He just spoke of personalized Siris in general – see here https://www.media.mit.edu/projects/augmented-eternity/overview/

[22] If this sentence intrigues you, check out https://www.npr.org/2019/08/03/740604142/should-rivers-have-same-legal-rights-as-humans-a-growing-number-of-voices-say-ye

A Change of the Culture

by Mikhail Hilmi

This is our temptation to change the story. But I'll tell you the truth, it took longer to change the story than you realize. The more you try to change the story, the more it becomes a matter of self-destruction.

That's right. God damn it,

, I've had my eyes on the city, every man I see is a piece of shit. And they just keep showing up. How do I know? You know?

Well, in my time it seemed like no one got out of their way, not a lot. But I'm not one to make any effort. It's the reason I started this blog. What would happen there. What would happen in ten years? I've been looking for a place where I could meet and talk about a bunch of what would happen then? Like in 10 years? I'll tell you what I'll do now. Then I'll go get some money. I'm not going to do it. It's an abstract idea or something, but if I wanted to be nice, I'll still do it. (Laughs.) I'm going to get some money, if I want to be nice!

The story of the last three decades is this:

The city changed its identity. Everybody made it a matter of self-destruction. And then the city started to talk about being a decent place. Now it's all about change. It's about going back to change the story of the last three decades. It was all about change. But when the change happened – with the economic collapse of the city changed its identity. Everybody made it a matter of the story of the last three decades is this: everyday people say, 'We're changing. Everybody it's all about change,' and in the end the city went back to the way it was. The city and the culture. And then the financial collapse. It was like, you got to be smart as a rat to change the thing. All everybody was, the world changed. We were the rats. We were the culture. The cultural centre went. Everybody was dead. it was the rat that came back. I had to do something about it. I didn't. It was a matter of self-destruction. So I went in and I thought now, it's all about change, because you can't change the story.

The last three decades. The only difference was that there's this the last three decades! I've learned something today. If you talk, what's my goal? A big part of the story of the last four decades is that nobody was interested in the story. Everybody thought it was about change. The only thing people were interested in talking about was about change:
the city changed its identity. Everybody started talking about change: that was it! Everybody was dead, so nobody was about change? The city changed all that. It was just another time after about change. No one is interested in the story. Why about change? Well, because, at the very least, everybody wants to talk about change. So everybody is interested in that. You have to do better. So what do we do? What do we do now?

We've had this conversation about change since the 1980s. And it's like, it's no anything. It's only when you have a massive shift in population and everything is OK and suddenly everybody is dead. Then in the last two centuries there's so much shit going on in that's it? Well, it's a hard thing to do. We've had this conversation for so long but nothing can ever get out of the way of the rat. No one cares. People don't care when it happens. It's like, now about change? No, everybody always cares. Now everybody wants to talk about change? It's not really about change. Nobody does. We've always been about shiftlessness, and about change is about a shift – a change of the culture.

A culture change can alter what people make of things that come to them as free will. So if you're not aware that someone has asked you for proof of that, you should not accept it. If something as seemingly non-volitional as self-control exercises is in fact being caused by something other than innate abilities, this is no proof of free will. Even if free will was something it is not. The problem is that the person who has a free will has the ability to choose but that his choice will be influenced by the outside world rather than by his own preferences and desires. If, however, an ordinary, healthy and peaceful adult could have a choice at will, he will naturally feel bound to choose the one thing which is most pleasurable and most likely to make him happy. But if he does not feel obliged to get tired or happy, he will instead try to get himself ready to be happy: exercising and enjoying the pleasure of his body. The solution to this problem is to change the way you think about the problem of free will. Letting yourself go is the only answer.

Your ability to control yourself cannot be judged by whether you exercise or not. The answer to that will appear as soon as you come to think of it. It will be an almost irresistible urge to let go. But the only answer to this need is to get yourself to feel as if you want to let go.

There are many people who want to make a conscious choice of not eating or not smoking. They don't do this unless they have a very strong will. If that will do, they are very close to being able to let go. But you are not close to it. That's why you need the will of an adolescent person who has just come of age. He feels so strongly about not eating or drinking which prevents him from letting go and makes him feel extremely anxious. You need to let him feel the same way even while you feel that you want him to choose between two very difficult choices. You need to put the choice into his hands.

We might be able to give an example of the way we're making choices for free. One night I was sitting at a table with one of my friends. He is an old man, and he's got a really bad cold. He doesn't mean to die but to be at his most comfortable as I have ever seen him. His head is heavy and his eyes are red. At the very time I put my arm round him, it comes across as if I'm carrying a curse into his face. At first I'm worried about him and feel that this is some horrible thing which has happened to him that he feels he has to kill or something. Then I notice that he hasn't let go for a long while. He's just not letting go. But when he does let go, he hasn't just made up his mind that he hates me and I deserve death or that I'm a demon. He has let go of everything except his physical body. He has surrendered without even trying to think about it – he's just gone. What he has done is a total act of surrender. He just hated that I was there. It's a pity, because it's not the most humane thing to do.

People are often very reluctant to let go of something which is so important to them. It's like in a battle between a man, whose legs he is about to throw off, and a woman, whose legs you are about to touch. If either of them gives up without a fight, it's a pretty good sign of surrender. You are either going to sacrifice both of them, or you are going to kill one of you. There's one thing you have to find out for yourself, and that's whether you're going to die or whether you are going to go up into the heaven and get to meet your Maker. If you go up into the heaven and meet him, you're not going to die. But if you don't come home, then you're not going to die. When you come home you don't even see yourself that way. You just see someone else who is about to fall back down. You don't realise that you're another person. You have just gone up for that fall. You're falling down. It's a totally miserable feeling. But you don't say a word. In fact, you don't even dare to look. And this is just the way it goes. Nobody says a word.

Angels Alone

by Sebastian Tiew

Angels Alone describes a prison set in the year 2035, where prisoners are rehabilitated through simulated realities. It proposes the creation of a third space to facilitate a rehabilitation program inspired by models of open-world role play games, simulation training and virtual therapies,

Second Life is a virtual world that started in 2003; intended to physicalize a space of the internet. At its height, it attracted millions of people from all over the world that voluntarily immersed themselves in this second reality. Today it has altered, contrary to its founding utopian ideals, into an imprisoning mirror of society.

Over time, Second Life began to lose sight of its early ambitions of freedom and expression, rather, it became a landscape crafted by capitalist mechanisms, political ideals and class hierarchies. It comes as no surprise that today; Second Life is a digital wasteland, held together by its loyal community of early adopters, pioneers and trolls.

Standing since 2018, about 30,000 users inhabit Second Life today. However they are isolated each in their individual territories, or segregated in their virtual chat rooms and members clubs. It becomes clear that the future of virtual worlds is in jeopardy. A possible way in which it might be saved is through the careful repurposing of some of its very fundamental values.

What is the role of virtual worlds today? My premise is that virtual worlds can become much more ‘serious’, especially in regard to rehabilitation and treatment in real prisons; could virtual worlds play an increasingly significant role in the future of imprisonment, in the form of digitised prisons? Before we address this, we must examine the reality of imprisonment at present.

Imprisonment in the most literal sense is a 6 x 9 prison cell. This space largely defines the life of a prisoner and is perhaps the single most important component of prisons. Within it, inmates are provided outdated television screens and old books to pass the time; perhaps an odd occurrence of a video console finding its way into the cell once every now and then... and so the prisoner awaits the long sentence ahead, physically imprisoned within a cell, but also continually distanced and isolated from an increasing digitized future, that one day, he or she might emerge from prison and rejoin.

  • Two of three offenders who leave prison return within three years and, three out of four, within five years – It is clear that somehow, rehabilitation programs and the prison system at large today are failing, crippled by a lack of funding and the necessary support to function at their full potential; this predicament is then coupled with an increasing prison population that is progressively difficult to deal with. Furthermore, the failure of rehabilitation may be due, fundamentally, to the treatment of prisoners that barely regards them as individuals; firstly the generalizations in perceiving offenders and secondly, the disregard for their personal characters, histories, skills and desires.

At a time where reinvention of the prison is sorely needed, can rehabilitation become a process sustained between simulations, in the form of emerging multi-sensory technologies; and the physical concrete walls of the prison? The simulations could perhaps be fragments of open-world video games, deployed as new platforms, in which a third space is designed to accommodate prisoners of the future. This reinvention would turn the very infrastructure of the current prison model inside out; through examining and then later subverting the model’s existing mechanisms and frameworks, in order to accommodate the simulated rehabilitation of a criminal, 20 years from now.

The prison can be considered as the purest manifestation of architecture and control. At its very essence, the prison cell is a room stripped and removed of any sign of comfort and familiarity.

The reinvention of the prison provides an alternative model of incarceration to this, by incorporating rehabilitation through the application of simulated realities and its associated technologies within the confines of the prison cell. Consequently, the cell is no longer the embodiment of control, a fortress; instead it transforms into an interface, or a portal that transports the prisoner to other places beyond.

Filled with multi-sensory haptic technologies, the cell silently observes its users while sustaining the virtual spaces that they occupy. Omni-directional treadmills are installed to enable movement, facilitating the prison cell’s expansion beyond the boundaries of its four walls. Its climate system manipulates temperature, weather and atmosphere. All the technologies integrated within a prison cell work in tandem as a whole multi-sensorial ‘machine’, that is programmed to sustain a multitude of environments.

Virtual reality therapeutics is a recognized niche in medical psychology that utilises fully immersive and engaging simulations; the efficacy of which can be objectively measured through empirical data that the technology simultaneously obtains while operating simulations. This data can be analysed, and used to identify cognitive behavioral patterns, which in turn could be used to determine a prisoner’s psychological state. Numerous studies have found this approach to be effective in treating a range of psychological disorders including phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The potential that underlies such an innovation enables the tailoring of much more precise and personalised programs to cater to the personalities of each prisoner, that compensates for the lack of physical resources within the prison. These same technologies are already being employed in classrooms all over the world to facilitate education and learning; signalling that society is fast approaching the time when these technologies could be employed in prisons as well, as a tool to educate inmates. Indeed, some prisons are currently in the primitive phases of such possibilities, testing out virtual reality as a tool for the education and reintegration of ex-inmates back into society. For now, prisoners are just beginning to feel the effects of such technologies, experiencing content that ranges from the mundane; that of visiting home or connecting with a loved one, to forms of content that are meant to affect a more profound psychological healing. This is accomplished through the ‘release’ of a prisoner into environments designed through the language of therapy and psychology, which activates the introspection of the body and mind.

Psychologists have advocated that while most people engage in their capacity for empathy by default, most criminals by contrast do not have the natural tendency to do so and were instead instructed and taught to. In a similar manner of instruction, virtual environments can be used to place criminals within situations that had previously triggered the desire to offend. For example, virtual reality can be used to simulate an environment filled with criminal opportunities or traumatic experiences, which could be used to determine the environment’s ability to elicit subjective craving and certain reactions that can be analysed in data such as emotional response, heart response and skin conductance.

Conversely, the inmate can practice and train their responses to the situational triggers of their cravings in a safe environment, the simulation of which can be paused at any given moment to allow for immediate reinforcement or feedback to the inmate’s responses. Have they come to terms with it? Have they understood the impact of their actions? Do they regret what they did?

Virtual worlds originally offered us a dimension beyond reality; the ability to escape and leave the boundaries of our rooms. Paradoxically, its application to the context of prisons might well offer inmates the opportunity for normality, allowing them access to an experience close to ‘reality’ that would have previously eluded them. This begs the question, what role can we play as architects in this process of transformation through the design of space, environments– real or digital– through the design of user experience and interaction?

Despite the fact that virtual worlds like Second Life are slowly disappearing, its components possess the potential that has already been partially harnessed, and should continue to be explored to improve the harsh realities of current prison models; shifting the focus of imprisonment over time from the disciplining of the body to the rehabilitation of

the soul.