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A twitteration on 2011 - Neil Cantwell

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1 At the end of last year, via Twitter, I saw a call on the website of New Public Thinking for submissions reflecting on the year 2011.

2 The picture accompanying the invitation showed the word ‘Facebook’ held up, written in the midst of an Arabic protest placard.

3 Mention of Wikileaks and ‘events the rest of us only followed on Twitter’ also implied how important mediums of information were in 2011.

4 And so this caused me to think about how I could find a form for writing my reflections on the year that would mirror this context.

5 The result of which is this, an essay in 140 tweets, or a Twitteration (the best name I have thought of so far for this form of writing).

6 That is, an iteration of the 140 character limit repeated up a level to 140 messages, and hopefully less than the specified 3,000 words.

7 And so I hope that this medium will affect my thoughts and writing in a way that resonates with the events of the previous year.

8 Although I should confess already that the final piece will have seen much after the event editing and has not been one long flow.

9 The satisfaction of such an accomplishment may be the fullest possible reward of the creative limitations offered by this form of writing.

10 Interjecting from later in the writing process, I wouldn’t recommend anyone to try as the repeated restriction can become torturous.

11 But earlier, I already felt an effect limiting each message to one point, stopping a thought as the maximum number of characters nears.

12 This atomism and the use of numbers suggests Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, and his tightly structured hierarchy of rhizomatic propositions.

13 I am also caused to wonder about using the number 140 when 140bpm is the benchmark tempo of Dubstep. Is there a rhythm of Tweet thought?

14 On reflection though, the visual and experiential effect of repeated messages the same length is something straighter and 4 to the floor.

15 Similar to how some people find repetition hard to bear, please forgive if the tone of this writing becomes overly hard-edged to fit.

16 Writing in this isolated way though, using Twitter as a cookie cutter for sentences, obviously misses its most important social aspect.

17 I have come to think of this dimension of Twitter using the following metaphor, as if travelling in a communal landscape of information.

18 A friend of mine who studied scouting with a Native American teacher told me about learning the language of animals in the forest.

19 Every day he would go to the same place and try to decipher the relation between the calls of birds and what was happening around him.

20 Eventually he began to understand their vocabulary, and from that point on had a heightened awareness of his surroundings.

21 So while walking through the forest and tuned into listening in this special way, he would be able to know things that he couldn’t see.

22 And then he could subsequently ‘scout’ accordingly - ‘oh, there is a wild cat up there hunting on that ridge, I should be aware’.

23 When I first started using Twitter I thought that the creators must have chosen the name and symbolism of a bird from this kind of idea.

24 As there seemed to me a way to approach it that could be similar if one is travelling through networked information rather than a forest.

25 So there are tweets - the birdsong. Then there is the direction that you want to go in, i.e. the things that you want to know...

26 ...which equates to the songs or the people that you choose to follow - which is a really strikingly similar spatial metaphor...

27 And then there is an overall cacophony of sound requiring training and discernment to be able to listen to and navigate in the right way.

28 I couldn’t find any evidence to support my assumption about this, but there is the book ‘140 characters’ by one of Twitter’s co-creators.

29 Which is a better place to continue consideration about this written form, as I should get on with the actual content of this birdsong.

30 But perhaps 2011 is accurately reflected in over-analysis of the medium of information rather than the message of a news story.

31 With the Arab Spring the best example - as many column/pixel inches written about the role of social media as the geopolitics of ‘why’.

32 The role of Wikileaks was interesting though, where knowing things previously secret catalysed people to change what they already knew.

33 In the UK, government response to the summer riots seemed to involve more analysis of censoring the ‘how’ of BBM as much as asking ‘why?’

34 The News International phone hacking scandal was also inextricably linked to changes in the way we communicate in the form of voicemail.

35 The whole situation arising from the grey areas between morality and opportunity which always accompany the use of new technology.

36 The year’s larger background story of economic crisis and collapse is also inescapably embedded in issues about flows of information.

37 As described and to some extent prophesied by Nicholas Nassim Taleb in his book ‘The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable’.

38 I cannot summarise here how he demonstrates the degrees of arrogance and ignorance that have brought financial markets to this state.

39 But his insider account of how too many people don’t know that they don’t know what they are doing becomes more persuasive by the day.

40 His accompanying philosophy is contained in the only new book that I feel like I really engaged with this year - ‘The Bed of Procrustes’.

41 A more relaxed collection of aphorisms about Taleb’s central concern of ‘how we deal with, and should deal, with what we don’t know’.

42 In line with trends already mentioned here, he recognises the world ‘as if information had the desire to live and the power to multiply’.

43 Calling now ‘the exponential information age, like a verbally incontinent person, talking more and more as fewer and fewer people listen’

44 For this essay, his most important statements are ‘Knowledge is subtractive, not additive’ and ‘more information means more delusions’.

45 Dealing with delusions in an age of economic collapse was also something I encountered in 2011 by attending The Uncivilisation Festival.

46 An offshoot of the Dark Mountain project, I went expecting a cerebral experience of grand narratives about this ‘time of unravelling’.

47 I was profoundly and pleasantly surprised that I found the effect of these two days in the woods to be more emotional than intellectual.

48 From Eleanor Saitta recounting her hacker experience of Collapsonomics through sharing the painful story of a friend’s suicide...

49 To Rachel Horne’s wonderfully affirming spoken word tale of her mining community heritage, I often had a tear in my eye.

50 This emotional reaction may also have been part of a city-dweller escaping captivity - I accidentally fell asleep under a tree for hours.

51 Preparing for perhaps the most important experience of the festival - ‘Liminal’ - the most important thing being it was happening at all.

52 It felt like a rare experience to follow a flautist to a candlelit forest clearing, part of a large group of people forming into theatre.

53 And so I returned realising the importance of valuing feeling as much as fact, confirming what I had recently felt upon seeing PJ Harvey.

54 Let England Shake has already been much lauded but I must recount being overwhelmed by the astonishing power of the experience...

55 ...as my heart was suddenly grabbed from the other side of a cavernous hall at Alexandra Palace by an invisible figure with an autoharp.

56 ‘What is the glorious fruit of our land? Its fruit is deformed children... Its fruit is orphaned children.’

57 Delving further into my personal experience of the year, 2011 also saw the birth of my first child - an indescribably magical experience,

58 but also the best possible example of encountering conflicting authorities of knowledge, and ultimately having to follow bodily instinct.

59 Two nurses can say completely opposite things just 5 minutes apart - some NHS handbooks have contradictory advice on adjacent pages.

60 What to believe? Who to believe and why to believe them? How to have confidence in believing anything? came into focus like never before.

61 2011 also marked the culmination of personal projects interwoven with issues about floods of information & the politics of knowledge...

62 My initial engagement with ‘the Global Political Economy of Intellectual Property’ came via a group called Seedy Sunday in Brighton -

63 an annual community seed swap directly protesting loss of diversity and concentration of corporate power caused by government regulation.

64 With seed being just one area where similar monopolistic dynamics involving intellectual property create a form of information feudalism.

65 In April I represented Seedy Sunday at an event promoting Seed Sovereignty in Brussels, bringing together campaigns from across Europe.

66 Representatives from India were also present, reminding us that the effects of industrial agriculture there are starvation and suicide.

67 I wrote an MA dissertation about how the violence of seed regulation may be an emergent property of a certain rationalist worldview.

68 And these issues are part of a book I have been finishing in the last year called Dissolving Path: Indications on Not-Knowing Nothing.

69 The ‘Dissolving Path’ part is a diary written during 50 days walking the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage in Japan, which reveres Kukai.

70 And the ‘Indications on Not-Knowing Nothing’ are essays attempting to weave the lessons of the experience into a wider philosophy.

71 The 8th century figure of Kukai has an Esoteric Buddhist philosophy that bears remarkable comparison to 20thC philosophy of language.

72 Upon a metaphysics where the entirety of existence is the body of the universal Buddha, he views the world as a never to be bound text.

73 This conclusion of fundamental incompleteness provides interesting perspectives on Western philosophy and the issues of the world today.

74 Outstanding questions which I am still trying to resolve in the book’s final draft revolve around the science of Climate Change.

75 Is it ever possible to understand the entirety of existence in a way that can fully predict the future? If that is what is required...

76 Are we not always Russell’s blissfully ignorant doomed chicken, facing the problem of inducting events from the past to the future?

77 Or are all these philosophical considerations irrelevant, given current and past evidence of rising temperatures and Arctic methane?

78 Do people and their governments understand the implications of the reality of Climate Change, but just not care about the consequences?

79 Is the real problem a nihilism about the value of existence, both our own and that of all other life on the planet and the planet itself?

80 This last question particularly confronted me during last year when completing another project - a documentary film called KanZeOn.

81 At times it felt strange to be making an obscure, non-political film about Japanese religious music, given tumultuous events going on.

82 But finally receiving an audience’s reaction after 4 year’s work it became clear that we had been trying to create a spiritual experience

83 Not to be put into words or assigned to a particular religion, but that hopefully helps people experience awe and the value of existence.

84 With a day job working for the Japanese government, a major part of my last year was influenced by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

85 I was particularly struck by stories that emerged from communities where Shinto shrines had been built to mark previous tsunamis.

86 These were designed to serve as protective markers below which houses shouldn’t be built, but in many cases were tragically ignored.

87 No doubt at some point a decision was made that modern progress and science would triumph over the source of these religious warnings.

88 With the flaws of this mindset obviously writ large in the failure of prediction and preparation at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

89 But the reminder of the importance of these shrines should be highlighted as part of the way in which animism still persists in Japan.

90 Given that a pre-modern worldview existed there only 150 years ago, many lessons can still be taken from it just below the surface.

91 Particularly in terms of Climate Change, in acknowledging that there are forces we don’t understand, cannot control and should revere.

92 Perhaps this is a better starting point for inspiring people’s necessary action, rather than rational calculating into the future.

93 As we are now entering a year of Dragons - the ultimate intangible consensual creation, representing natural forces of wrathful revenge.

94 Of course 2012 is the most well-advertised year of doom since the last in 2000, though admittedly the conditions do feel riper this time.

95 The Olympic attention of the world will be a couple of miles from where I live and I am hoping that the weight won’t be too overbearing.

96 Personally speaking I take solace in the possibility of universal redemption that may come from the release of a new Leonard Cohen album.

97 Entitled ‘Old Ideas’ he has described it as his most spiritual collection of songs, and it seems he will be speaking to what people need.

98 A particularly striking line from a preview track already released implores ‘Show me the place, I’ve forgotten, I don’t know.’

99 Following this sentiment, I don’t know what my conclusion is, but since I began thinking about it I’ve noticed others similar thoughts.

100 Pico Iyer’s The Joy of Quiet, Clay Johnson’s Information Diet, David Weinberger’s Too Big to Know all ironically came to me via Twitter.

101 One important thing I felt that I realised in 2011 was the aesthetic importance of not trying to say something too precisely.

102 Which I have tried to put into practice here, hopefully allowing for more space for a reader’s interpretation than causing frustration.

103 These have been visits to landmarks in the landscape through which my thoughts have travelled, with some self-reflexive vortexes.

104 Although it’s strange again to use physical metaphors for the mental, but reasons emerge from my year’s most affecting filmic experience

105 After seeing Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, I sent a text saying it could be a landmark in the history of human consciousness

106 I think I meant this euphoric declaration on two levels, firstly the obvious unprecedented potentially universal access to Chauvet caves

107 And more deeply the effect of this connection to primal but clearly similar human existence for understanding our place in the world.

108 Watching the incredibly vivid animal drawings flicker in the 3D light, I felt an aliveness that was an electrifying bodily sensation.

109 - like being intravenously injected with the extraordinarily dynamic awareness of the world upon which the painter’s life depended.

110 In psychological terms, I felt I was experiencing a short-circuit of Jungian archetypes within myself, exploding fuses into illumination

111 But now I wonder whether the profound satisfaction of these moments was indeed purely physical, direct from the paintings and painter...

112 or only theoretical, rewarding myself for being able to make sense of the experience because I had read Joseph Campbell’s Masks of God?

113 But ultimately the power of the experience felt animal, and perhaps fundamentally software cannot run without its hardware.

114 So these forgotten dreams were reminders of exhilarating programmes lying dormant within me, waiting to run wild at a moment’s notice.

115 Which governs my conclusion about the balance between the tangible and intangible in 2011 that this Twitteration has been weighing up.

116 At times it seems things have been tipping into a perilous whirlpool of the virtual valorising the virtual from which we may not escape.

117 Of course, the ultimate problem is the very existence of the dualisms negotiated throughout, plaguing politics and all realms of action.

118 But now I must finish with being dictated to by that ultimate murkiness between the physical and mental - the world of numbers.

119 To this point, my average number of words per tweet has been 23. The specified maximum number of words for essay submissions is 3000.

120 Therefore, I would be due to exceed this limit in my 131st tweet, and so therefore some kind of remedial action is required.

121 It may seem like cheating, but I guess I’m just going to have to tailor the length of my final tweets to the number of words allowed...

122 Although hopefully in finishing this way I am still

123 truthfully

124 reflecting

125 the

126 nature

127 of

128 2011

129 because

130 every

131 year

132 always

133 tails

134 off

135 a

136 bit

137 towards

138 the

139 end

140 .