Thursday, June 30, 2016

On Brexit and Freedoms

In this hyperstrange post-Brexit world I suddenly have many questions, and few answers. The landscape seems to change every day. One thing, however, is clear and that is that a lot more people are talking about politics in the UK than I've ever seen. It is my belief that, if good is to come of the referendum outcome, we must use the political consciousness that has been raised in its aftermath as an opportunity to enquire deeper and renew our understanding of what living in society is about. We must encourage conversations, not just with those that agree with us, but also with those we didn't know feel different from ourselves.

Rhetoric aside, what prompted me to write this post was actually a chance rereading (or listening, in this case) today of the first chapter of John Stuart Mill's classic text On Liberty. Halfway into the first chapter I realised that the social and political context he was writing in sounds eerily familiar. Here is one quote:
"In England, from the peculiar circumstances of our political history, though the yoke of opinion is perhaps heavier, that of law is lighter, than in most other countries of Europe; and there is considerable jealousy of direct interference, by the legislative or the executive power, with private conduct ... The majority have not yet learnt to feel the power of the government their power, or its opinions their opinions." (p. 16)
Unhappy with government interference, the British?? Who would have thought! And bear in mind Mill wrote this in 1859, over 150 years ago.

Ten pages later, it sounds almost exactly like a version of Big Brother and the increasing surveillance of the internet (by the government!):
"there is also in the world at large an increasing inclination to stretch unduly the powers of society over the individual, both by the force of opinion and even by that of legislation: and as the tendency of all the changes taking place in the world is to strengthen society, and diminish the power of the individual, this encroachment is not one of the evils which tend spontaneously to disappear, but, on the contrary, to grow more and more formidable." (p. 26)
Wow! So if individual liberties are not a given, then surely we should have been a bit more ... But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Those who genuinely care about freedom have in recent years become complacent. Society at large has become bored because British politics is notoriously boring, and elections generally seem to be a choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

No more! This referendum has put the cat among the pigeons.

Post-Brexit some feel they have gained "sovereignty" and others feel they have lost certain "freedoms".

Because of the stark differences in the two choices, some may go so far as to say that the referendum's outcome is nothing but a "tyranny of the majority", a will of one section of society imposed on the other.

Mill says the following:
"... the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant—society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it—its means of tyrannising are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself."  (p. 8)
What Mill is talking about is social tyranny, not the outcomes of political democracy. Civilised democracy, surely, is not mere populism. The referendum is advisory, and it is up to the representatives of society to follow up on the outcome in a way that is in the interests of society at large. That is their duty. And yet when many bemoan the fact that the referendum took place at all, that it was all just an internal party squabble, the argument could be made that those representatives were not making reponsible decisions from the outset. The farcical fallout has eroded the line between popular sentiment and responsible politics in a way that has taken almost everyone by surprise.

Yet this situation came about at least in part because of a laxness to campaign with conviction in favour of Remain. The Remain campaign - the side who now feels that freedoms are in clear and present danger of being lost - ran a decidedly lacklustre campaign.

What would Mill have thought about Brexit? The simple answer might be that he would be livid; but it's not quite so simple.
"In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign." (p. 18)
Adjust that sentence a little, to refer to a nation and its borders, rather than an individual and his body, and you have the argument that the Leave campaign has been making: sovereignty, independence from Europe, control over borders. In a word: freedom!

Of course, Mill was speaking about individual freedom, but many in the Leave campaign felt themselves united as if they were more than just an individual stating a preference. The individual on a national scale.

On the other hand, take this quote:
"The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest." (p. 23)
It could be argued that the Leave camp voted to deprive the Remain camp of freedoms that the Remain camp held to be essential to their interests, and by extension individual health. But Leave would perhaps rightly respond by saying, well, we've been neglected for decades and various actions taken by selfish leaders in London has hurt our spiritual health, for decades.

At the heart of the conversation are two overlapping states of inclusion. There is the EU, a kind of "virtual state", and the UK, a national state.

What about those UK citizens and residents for whom the "body" of their chosen state is not simply the nation state, but also the "virtual state" - the EU? And what of those from other nation states within the EU, who live within the borders of the British nation state because they want to be there, who had the freedom of movement, but not the freedom to vote? It is all a bit confusing, but clearly they will feel their freedoms associated with movement and association are in serious danger of being truncated. They will feel sad, stressed, angry, unhappy. Something they had has been taken away.

How can this knot be untied?

What's clear to me is that a simple solution is not available, and the after effects of this referendum will be felt for a long, long time. We've become complacent, but now is the opportunity to go back to understand and grapple with the concepts that underpin this society, and start conversations with each other to start making this world a better place again - for all.

Mill's On Liberty is a wonderfully articulate defense of freedom, and even a single chapter provides plenty of food for thought.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Unconscious: Lacan vs Freud

Since approaching Freud's Unconscious via Lacan in recent times, I have come to appreciate the power and flexibility of an Unconscious that is "structured like a language", and in which the "exteriority of the symbolic" makes the Unconscious also transindividual.

Although a direct comparison from any one point in time in either's men's careers is always provisional, due to their ever-evolving theories of the Unconscious, it was nevertheless grounding to read again an early lecture by Freud on psycho-analysis today (from "Five Lectures on Psycho-analysis", 1909). He reviews the early development of his theories, starting with Joseph Breuer's hypnosis experiments.

It is here that we encounter a more sensuous, energetic version of the Unconscious with an obvious intuitive appeal:

... in one and the same individual there can be several mental groupings, which can remain more or less independent of one another, which can 'know nothing' of one another, and which can alternate with one another in their hold upon the consciousness [..] If, where a splitting of the personality such as this has occurred, consciousness remains attached regularly to one of the two states, we call it the conscious mental state and the other, which is detached from it, the unconscious one. (p. 43)

It is as if there are two rivers, both active, but at any one point the one is subterranean and the other in plain sight. Yet both influence each other, due to their connected volumes and velocity.

If we try to find a metaphor that is closer to Lacan's concept of signifying chains we must perhaps compromise on something like electricity, the movement of electrons, and the logic gates of electronics.

Yet another interesting, but as yet unexplored metaphor, might be that of linked quantum states.

I'll leave that one for another day.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Can Interactive Fiction be Improved?

Like many readers old enough to remember the 80s, I have fond memories of the "Choose Your Own Adventure" series of books, as well as their more sophisticated cousins, adventure gamebooks like "The Way of the Tiger" and "Lone Wolf". So when I recently looked into interactive fiction again I had high hopes that the genre had really been brought into the 21st century.

I wasn't entirely disappointed. Once upon a time an author would have had to make do with simplistic platform engines, or even write one herself. These days the developer has a much slicker experience thanks to the likes of Inform and Spatterlight. The author can focus on writing a good story with rich options, rather than working around the system.

On the down side, however, as a would-be-reader-slash-player I found the interfaces to be rather clunky. As a power user of *nix style terminals, typing in commands such as "look" and "go" and "<object>" will drive me insane very quickly. I expect tab completion, shortcuts, custom hacks, and quite frankly having the option of moving forward by doing nothing at all. Programmers are lazy.

Clearly, this is in part due to the genre's roots, a throwback to the ink-and-paper world of physical books. So I've been wondering, what if the interactive text interface doesn't try to be an interactive book? Because, given the choice of reading through reams of text, or navigating a little character across colourful, scenic screens and interacting with other characters visually, most people choose the latter. It's a stark choice. Hence the popularity of gaming as we know it, while interactive fiction is comparatively languishing.

What if there was a middle ground? Imagine a game where the interface can be discovered via tab completions, as well as clever command combos, where those behaviours actually prove to be more efficient than walking through various screens. Could that not attract some gamers back into the world of text adventures, while opening new possibilities for non-gamers?

If this sounds farfetched, consider the choice a *nix user makes every time he or she fires up a terminal to execute a complex set of commands, versus the same outcome achieved in a Windows world. The terminal experience has a number of advantages: command-discovery, accuracy, programmability, repeatability. That's not to say window interfaces don't have strengths, they certainly do! But most power users I know have learned to love the terminal, even on Windows.

My question is simply this: can the strengths of terminal command line interfaces be leveraged to create compelling interactive fiction?

Perhaps if we did, we wouldn't actually call it interactive fiction anymore, instead it would have the look of fiction, the intuition of programming, and the responsiveness of gaming.

And that's a triple win.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

What Shakespeare has in Common with Software Development

Shakespeare is widely regarded as the world's leading playwright in English, and perhaps any language. Such is his influence that phrases and ideas coined by him at the turn of the 17th century still live on in our colloquial speech today. Romeo and Juliet is shorthand for passionate, ill-fated love, and quotable lines from his works permeate our treasure trove of idioms and phrases.

What is perhaps less well known is that many of Shakespeare's plays have no definitive version. Take "Hamlet", for instance. There is the famous First Folio version, compiled and published seven years after his death, and there is the First Quarto version, a.k.a. the Bad Quarto, and then also the Second Quarto version. None of these versions are considered 100% definitive. Edited versions usually combine parts of each to present the modern reader with the most feasible "Hamlet", and even these are subject to change.

How did this happen? So many details about that time have been lost to history that it is difficult for us to reconstruct a real sequence of events from the remaining evidence. There are entire books written to argue one case or another, but consider that some people even dispute William Shakespeare's authorship, then it is clear that we are on shaky ground from the get-go.

Personally, I've come to a different view while mulling over an under appreciated ingredient of Shakespeare's genius, an aspect that has something in common with software engineering - especially agile development.

Shakespeare wasn't just a writer, he was also an actor and part-owner of the theatre company the Lord Chamberlain's Men (later the King's Men). I find it useful to think of his plays as a function not only of Shakespeare's maturing talents as a writer, but also of the needs of the company. Those needs were financial, like any company's, and were directly informed by the success or failure of a particular play in the eyes of the audience of the day, as well as the tastes of their influential patrons.

It is thus hard to imagine that Shakespeare would just write a single, finished version of Hamlet, tell the actors their lines once-and-for-all and be done with it. As part-owner he had a responsiblity and exposure that went well beyond writing. He would have wanted to make sure the play is as good as it can be, on a continual basis. The company would receive financial feedback, and the company's patron would have his say, and so the day-to-day operations would hone the way the play was performed - if it was performed at all.

As an actor of second-tier roles he would also have been in a unique position to experience feedback from the audience. I imagine him night after night, observing the audience's reactions, hearing them laugh at the funny parts (or not), seeing them moved or engaged during tragic or passionate moments, and smiling or bored as the case may be during the play or afterwards. He would be thinking of the various stakeholders, of the dramatic value of a particular phrase or scene, of the audience's reactions, and so he might choose to change the lines - add a bit more zing, create more drama, more references to current affairs - who knows?

Shakespeare's mind would have been working constantly to improve the play and I have no doubt that this is precisely what happened. His plays have a uniquely organic feel to them, as if the action is happening right there, and the actors could step off the stage and mingle with the audience at any moment. By assimilating his audience's emotions and interests he was bringing art closer to the audiences' reality.

It is this approach of continual improvement, of being tested night after night against a real live audience, that strikes me as being very much in the spirit of agile development. It's a bit like running continuous integration while already in production.

I would go a step further and suggest that Shakespeare was so canny and pragmatic that, even if he had a successful version of a play, should the political climate change he would be willing to adapt the play again, to cater to his audience and so prolong the play's financial success. If this is so, he may well have found a dramatic architecture that admitted of continual adaptation, just like good software architecture is flexible, and written with ease of maintenance in mind. That would certainly go some way towards explaining his plays' capacity to be continually repurposed for modern audiences.

To put that achievement into perspective, imagine writing software that is still in demand 400 years later!

If we take this view it is a bit of a shame that not more of our worthy literary works are "production tested" with a feedback loop that permits continuous improvement. There was a time when serial publication afforded authors some engagement with their readers, and thus to inform the next installment. Nowadays, authors are required to write once, for all time. But in software development we know that this is usually premature, costly, and occasionally disastrous.

This is the reason that many writers form reading groups with other writers, to permit them a trusted soundboard and source of feedback. But the General Reader is a different beast, whose tastes are not to be tamed so easily. Shakespeare wrote "not for an age, but for all time", and perhaps it's because he wrote not once, but all the time. He understood the value of his users.