Thou shalt not: The Ten Commandments of Social Media (2)


[Part 1]

In the last blog, I was pondering why there was such a reaction amongst social media experts when Wetherspoon’s chain of pubs shut down all it’s social media. I concluded that if a business takes to advertising itself on social media, then it should do so with a goal of being joyful, so that joy can be a reward in and of itself. Otherwise they might not be rewarded at all.

It seems to be that we all have this rule of life in business, in self-help, in spirituality, in dieting, in relationships, in health which is:

If you do the right thing you will be rewarded.

It is a fallacy. People with experience and wisdom can tell you what what worked for them, but they cannot guarantee that it will work for you. There is no fool proof way of getting the desired result.

Social media has only been around for about 10 years. I like the way people are describing it as the biggest social experiment in history but honestly, who knows if it is? In all the blogs and articles I read in which social media experts put forward their opinions on Wetherspoon, each had the same four points:

  1. It was a big mistake and there will be consequences.
  2. The reason they weren’t more successful was that they were doing it wrong.
  3. The CEO/owner’s decision seemed to be based more on personal opinion than on proper analysis, and thus, implied it had to be wrong.
  4. We’ll all have to wait and see what the impact, if there is any, will be.

These four points are so generic as to be useless and not worth the effort of the breath it took to utter them. I’ve heard them all before applied to many areas of life such as religion, self-help, business success, diets and fitness, health, etc.

People are unique so one size doesn’t fit all and people have almost killed themselves following rules which are not good for them.

We all love rules and theories to win, like game theory and how to write a bestseller and all the other how-to’s.  We have a hankering for order and for a reduction in uncertainty. This is because from birth we are conditioned to follow a lot of rules. We are also conditioned at school to compete as we believe that there is never enough to go around and there has to be a winner who takes all, losers and underdogs.

In the last blog I compared social media experts to the CofE because it struck me that social media experts are wandering around like the people in Deuteronomy trying to make order out of chaos by making up rules about what to eat with what and which cloth should be woven with another. The social media peeps are have rules about what to tweet and which facebook ads to buy. They are trying to make order out of the chaos of social media. They don’t know how it works really, no one does, in the same way we don’t know the reason for life, but we all want to make it manageable and have some control over what is happening.

For some followers their advice might be useful, for others it might be a complete soul sucking waste of time. To paraphrase, Iyanla Vanzant in a brilliant talk on the Hay House World Summit 2018, you can rub the Torah on your head for five years or read all the psalms (or tweet til the cows come home) it doesn’t mean you will gain enlightenment. And, by that I am using the Buddhist definition of knowing yourself and what is best for you and your business/health/spiritual practice. Just ‘cos an ‘expert’ said to do it, doesn’t mean it’s what you need.

I’ve already said that I think we take a lot of our patriarchal and bad behaviour online. I said it about women  viewed as objects and also about trolling and flaming. It seems that social media marketing has taken all it knows about what to do in the physical world and plonked that online too and called it the connection economy, just an empty fancy word for marketing. And, why do we believe that they know what they are talking about? Because we are so afraid of not getting our rewards. And we are afraid of missing out.

I can count on one hand people I know who have a genuine interest in other people and who listen and hear what other people say for no other purpose than to know all about them. It is powerful and captivating to be in the presence of these people. It is a special, dare I say sacred, experience.

And yet, in business active listening an ersatz version is taught so that people can pretend to listen and sneak in their (nearly always economic) agenda, which leave us feeling had, a lot like a  lot of social media marketing. All those ads in the space where people were just being social for no other reason than joy of connection. And, we’ve all see the articles: How to sell yourself without feeling grubby, and the one that gets me every time which is Be authentic, which doesn’t mean that at all, it is a sort of doublespeak about how to effectively spam people online with stuff they don’t want and get them to buy it.  There is nothing authentic about getting people to do stuff you want them to do regardless of what they want.

I love a bit of social media – the medium is the message – it extends my capacity as a human being in that I can talk to more people with the sole purpose of lighting up our days and feeling better about this shared experience called life.   But, when business people are literally spamming the whole of twitter with their ads ‘cos some expert told them to do it, it is time for that chaos to be ordered. It isn’t right, and mark my words, it won’t be rewarded.

Virtual Presence: Where do we go when we go online?

Steve Mann, Augmented Reality Man

I spent most of Sunday morning staring into the eyes of spiritual teacher Eckart Tolle. I was in my garden in London and he was at home in Vancouver giving a SoundsTrue webinar on The Power of Presence. Tolle was demonstrating to me and the other 100,000+ people on the webinar that it can be useful to connect with another human being who is free of mind, even on a screen.

Tolle’s demonstration of thought-less presence was a continuation of The Power of Now in which he discusses that we only have the now. Nothing happens in the past or future, our senses, perceptions, feelings and thoughts all make up the now. He extended this on Sunday by defining presence as being aware of ourselves as a perceiving consciousness deep in the essence of now.

And this, reminded me of a question I have been pondering for some time now: Where do we go when we go online?

As Tolle talked about the surface of now whilst I was staring into the screen at him, I was conscious of the external world outside of me and my focus on him on a screen, that is to say I was peripherally aware of the garden I was in, I could hear the birds tweet, the traffic go by and what he was saying all at once. Then, when he was telling me to feel my breath and my inner body aliveness I focused completely on my presence whilst Tolle said that I was entering the now, the external or surface now, and then the internal or deep now of my unseen thoughts and feelings.

And, this was all working until I began to wonder about presence, our physical presence like mine in the garden, and our virtual presence when we are connecting to the Internet at which point I missed what he was saying, I was off wondering:

Where do we go in the space? Is it a connection to our own thoughts and inner fire as I discussed in Lighting the Fire and The Space Between Us? Is it a connection to a collective consciousness as Jung believed and as Deepak Chopra believes? Or, is the Internet an external world of ideas as Plato postulated?

Tolle during his webinar mentioned that when he introduces language to describe presence as consciousness it creates a duality which reminded me of Decartes and his theory of Cartesian Dualism of the mind and body as separate. But, some scientists and artists don’t feel this way and think that our embodiment needs an upgrade as our bodies don’t keep up with our ever expanding technology which expands our minds.

The Internet is a medium which expands our capacity for thought, for ideas, for information and it demonstrates perfectly how the medium is the message. This medium – the Internet – expands us and influences how the message is perceived and so, creates a symbiotic relationship.

We talk about going online or being online. And when we talk about the Internet, which after all is just a network of computers, we talk about it as a space which we navigate, we surf, we go back or forward in. Is it a mental space for us? If so what happens to our physical? Where is our presence?

I have been online and had access to the Internet for over two decades now and I have often gotten lost online – not so much in hyperspace – but lost myself completely, lost all sense of time and space, or specifically an idea of where I was, during say a unix talk which would split the screen in two and you could see both sides of the conversation, or during chats on Facebook Messenger, or DM on Twitter, when both parties have treated this asynchronous feature as a chat in real time. According to Tolle this is because I have identified with, in this case, the chat, I’ve let them/it take me over and I am longer in the now. I have been drawn into unconsciousness to which I would add I have been drawn into the collective unconsciousness. But then most of us have had this experience when reading a book or in the cinema well before we all went online.

Research into literary realism – a 19th century art movement which we might call sociology nowadays – has established that human comprehension and language cannot encompass reality in its entirety. We may have a partial understanding which comes from our experiences and senses in the now, but most of what we understand is largely based in concepts, or mental representations.

So, since we are limited by our senses, perceptions and feelings which make up the now, it makes sense that we are easily led and go elsewhere, we fall into the collective unconsciousness. A while back I talked about flow, and the gap and falling into other people or into an online video, or argument in the Moments in modern technology blog as I couldn’t quite figure out if technology was causing us to miss moments or not – were we absent or present? Tolle says that being conscious of our presence in a moment is the way we feel super alive. Being taken over by thoughts and triggers is being absent.

In the field of literary theory, absence and presence has long been debated and understood that people can be made to believe that they are somewhere they are not, or in the presence of people and objects that do not actually exist. Our suspension of disbelief as Coleridge put it whilst reading text on a page, allows us to go online and enter virtual spaces.

Virtual architecture and design creates social norms in virtual spaces which affects how people use and communicate in a given space for they follow the cues offered. So, if an online group meet in a virtual lecture with a lecturer at the front they will behave quite differently to say if they meet in a virtual coffee shop, and it will impact how a student learns.

As I said in Games,Storytelling and Ludology, the more the environment demands of us, along with giving our senses all the information they need – sight, sound, touch (haptic feedback) the more complete it feels. And our minds, don’t really know, or care if it is real or not.

Sculpted virtual environments aside, even in text-only chats, we still lose ourselves online. I believe it is our desire to connect and experience and be experienced which really drives our minds, not the technology. It is our willingness to want to reach out. We are hardwired for connection and shared experiences are a quick way to connect. As Tolle says: When you are really present you are not looking past or future or comparing you are no longer a person… you and the now are one and the same… you can understand experientially or conceptually.

The yogis says that experience can be Nirguna (formless) and Saguna (with form), and I see now that this means, if we give it form, we break it down conceptually and then it is just a partial understanding. A formless experiential experience expands us and influences us.

I think that is what we do online, we experience experientially in the now, and when we come back from online, like on TV after an ad break, a presenter will say: Welcome back, as if we’d been somewhere, perhaps it is then when we interpret conceptually.

If we, as Tolle recommends, learn to cultivate a stillness inside us against which everything happens then it is will be easier to retain a sense of self online, a sense of presence, and our virtual and physical will be aligned.

However, if you are like me, I lose myself everywhere and anywhere and yet I am often told by people that I have great presence, just be reassured I’ve gotten lost a million times online, but I always find my way home.

Thou shalt not: The Ten Commandments of Social Media


Last week pub chain Wetherspoon announced that they would no longer be using social media which caused a furore amongst social media ‘experts’.

I like Wetherspoon’s pubs. There are three within walking distance of where I live. When I was vegetarian I liked that I could go get a quorn sausage butty for breakfast when no one else seemed to understand the need for veggie tastiness, and as a mother, I like the fact if I take my kids to Wetherspoon’s to eat, the menu is diverse enough to keep everyone happy. I also like the fact they have a wide range of interesting beers and lagers on tap and in the fridge. So say, I want a Kingfisher with my Chicken Tikka Masala, I can get a big bottle from the fridge.

I also like the fact that wherever I go, it is a similar set-up, and it’s not just the food and drink, it is the localness of it and a quick way of meeting community. You go in there and you see the regulars. And even if you go to a different town, you can meet regulars from there who like to have a chat. It doesn’t play music either which is nice, as sometimes I want to drink my beer without shouting like I am in a club, ‘cos if you are going to play loud music well you are going to have to let me dance. However, I have never followed Wetherspoon on social media ‘cos I can’t eat or drink Wetherspoon’s vittles on social media. I can only do that in a Wetherspoon’s pub.

It used to be that going to church would provide you with a community and a quiet space and food if you were needy. Nowadays, the Church of England is always talking about how to get more people through the doors and create a community of people. They could do a lot worse than take a look at the business model of Wetherspoon’s which is: Serving a (Maslow’s) fundamental need of reasonably priced food and drink all day, often in old and really interesting buildings.

The words community and need are bandied about a lot by social media experts too. What fundamental need does the CofE and social media experts give us? I don’t know. They seem to be following an arbitrary set of rules mainly made of Thou Shalt Nots in order to get people to do things, extra things, mainly for them to make money off.

It really irritated me last week that some of the US-based social media experts were giving their analysis (their words) having never set foot in a Wetherspoon’s, nor researched what Wetherspoon’s is about, and were hell-bent on telling everyone that social media is absolutely necessary to have as part of a business model and Wetherspoon’s will suffer. How do they know? They absolutely don’t as demonstrated by the BBC ‘commentary’ (using the term v loosely) in the link at the beginning of this blog. I have said it before: no one knows how social media works which is rather like religion.

I was in a restaurant in Sorrento, last month, and a guy with a super loud voice was ordering his dinner. He had loads of specific requests of which I couldn’t help but hear snippets: He couldn’t have cheese, I think it was with meat at the same time, but then he couldn’t have certain meats. He wanted wine, but he couldn’t just drink wine, he could only have it served with the meal, so he couldn’t have the wine on the table before the food, it had to be served at the same time. As the list of things he couldn’t do was very long and I didn’t listen to all of it, I concluded it was for religious purposes not allergies. Either way, his life (and his wife’s who sat silently near him) his business, but it did make me think: Do you really think that God will love you more because of all this effort? Love is patient and kind (1Corithinians 13). Love is unconditional. And we all know that no one who ever turned up with a load of rules and conditions for how you should be before they can love you has ever been good news.

It’s not just religion and social media marketing, it’s self-help too, and dieting, there are so many rules with what to eat and not eat, what to think, what not to think: your five a day, the green juice smoothie, the affirmations, the yoga classes, the meditation, a long list of things you have to do. I loved reading Danielle La Porte’s White Hot Truth which is a funny take on all the self-help, new age and therapy she felt she had to do to improve herself before she could become spiritual. I laughed out loud at a podcast when she said something along the lines of how she was a lot more balanced nowadays and then added: Just ask my astrologist.

When I had chemotherapy, I bought a cancer-fighting food book, which was all special food recipes for strengthening your body. There was a nice recipe for biscuits and I would say to my husband: I can’t believe you ate all the cancer biscuits. And he would say: Well they were tasty, which they were, but the idea that I had to fight cancer by eating cancer biscuits and think positively was less so, it didn’t make me feel better at all. I threw the book away, stopped thinking altogether, and ate fried egg sandwiches and chocolate cake, which my Oncologist said was hangover food, as that is basically what chemotherapy gives you, a big bad mother of a hangover.

Hangover food or comfort food or favourite like a curry and Kingfisher at Wetherspoon, a bit of a giggle on Twitter or Facebook, praying, dancing, or not thinking, makes me feel better and to feel like I am not alone in all of this. And to be fair, there are some Church communities who can do this for people too, but I have to say, never in my life have I looked at list of any rules of things I shouldn’t do and felt better. It makes me feel like I cannot breathe. The Thou shalt nots sap my soul.

However, as a society I know that rules are good for us, just take a look at the trolls on social media who seem to operate without them. But then it is not just them, it seems to me that it is the social media experts too who are just as dangerous making up rules as they go along about a thing they don’t understand, telling people what they should and shouldn’t do to be SUCCESSFUL! I know many business owners who say I hate social media and I don’t blame them, because they are trying to use a social tool as a marketing tool whilst being guided by people who don’t know how it works, especially if they don’t have a weightless product. The idea of marketing on social media is like a mailshot to randomers. It’s like putting things through peoples’ letterboxes in the neighbourhood, without knowing who lives there, and even then there’s a maximum 2% return, which is why Wetherspoon’s withdrawal is really refreshing.

Wetherspoon’s provides a warm place to go for food and drink and a chat. It’s already successful it doesn’t need social media to improve on that. It’s like preaching to the choir.

We can’t eat or drink on the Internet, though we can eat and drink with our phones or computers in front of us to chat in a space and call it a party. But it’s just not the same. The medium is the message but when your message is about something physical in a virtual space, well that just doesn’t always work.

As a business you need to get clear on what successful looks like and measure your returns on social media. Or, just do it for the joy, the love, the community you can create and throw away your measuring stick. Just please don’t do it and hate it. You are better off not doing it at all.

I don’t see Wetherspoon’s marketshare suffering. We don’t all need to be on social media. Don’t be taken in by the experts who tell you otherwise. They need you to be on it to buy their how to guides and Ten Commandments.

I have decided to compose my own Ten Thou shalts (instead of shalt nots) for social media, and following Wetherspoon’s example, I will begin with:

Thou shalt do what’s best for you to feel joy.

On second thought, I am thinking that’s the only rule we need. Don’t you?

[Part 2]

Connection online: Tracing the space between us

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
– The Rubâ’iyât of Omar Khayyám

[Part 1]

When I was a child, my dad used to quote the above regularly, he also talked a lot about the Recording Angel and the Akashic Records. It frightened me thinking that something or someone was there recording everything.

Nowadays, it is the Internet which records everything. The moving (typing) finger writes and even if you delete a social media account and all those dodgy DMs you sent someone, know this: There is a copy on a server somewhere.

And if you sent them to a computer scientist, know this too: They will have their own backup which they can reread at anytime. None of your piety nor wit will be deleting any of it, anytime soon. Oh no!

In lighting the fire, I explored how people can pick us up by their love and attention in our worst moments. The flip side of this is that some people can cause us so much pain when we are feeling vulnerable. I believe that they mostly do so unintentionally, because they are drowning in their own lives and they use us, selfishly, as a way to rescue themselves and feel better.

We all want more love to feel better and to feel that what we do and who we are, matters. We get that from our connection to others. In his book Social, neuroscientist Matthew Liebermann, says that being connected to others is a reward in itself it doesn’t need anything else. Not only is it a reward, it is as fundamental as food and water, which is why love is one of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Sometimes though, in that space of love and connection which can relight our fire, people behave really badly towards us, and because we have let them in and trusted them, we may feel that we deserve such treatment. Thankfully, when there is a record of every conversation, we are able to reread what actually happened, so that we can see and know in our very being that we didn’t do anything wrong and we absolutely don’t deserve other people using us and treating us so badly.

If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people who drive us crazy, can be our teacher. –Pema Chodron

Research using fMRI brain scans shows that even minor social rejection lights up the same areas of our brains as physical pain, and the brain doesn’t care if this is when you are physically present with someone or doing this via social media. It is one and the same, the damage is the same. And, coupled with the pain of social rejection, it is hard to believe that we can, even with age and experience, be so wrong about people especially when it is a relationship online which is having the same impact as one in real life.

In his classic text book, The Social Animal, Elliot Aronson asks: How do we pick our friends? We pick them for many reasons but, most simply, we pick people who like us. Nowhere is it easier to connect to someone and feel better than via social media. Easy and low commitment – exactly how we like it. A simple message, a like or a loveheart lights us our brain’s reward centre (our nucleus accumbens) and gives us that little hit of dopamine for which we are so primed. We are always ready to be a little bit in love, it fills a fundamental need.

Quite often we are just in love with love, I know I am. (And there is nothing wrong with that. We have so much energy and passion when we are in love. We can do anything.) We may think that we are quite smart at assessing people, but online, it is quite different from in real life. We get cues in real life that we don’t online. And at the very least, they are much easier to ignore online, which is why it is well worth going back and rereading correspondence, like we did in the ye olden days of letter writing. Remember that? I know I would carry around letters and let the words and my feelings permeate, until it was time to write back, at which point I knew them by heart like that e.e. cummings poem [i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]. It was also more visual. If you got a letter, everyone knew about it. Nowadays, if you get a text or a DM on your tiny screen, no one knows about it. It feels private, intimate, but as I have said before, privacy and intimacy are two different things.

There is a definite space of intimacy, a shared heart space we occupy either offline with letters (and books), and online too with our various ways of texting, DMs, messaging. Time slips away too: the past (when the message was written), the present (as we are reading it), and the future (when we respond) all become one. It is a magical resonating experience in a given moment which takes us away from humdrum lives.

And, this is where the problem may lie. We have immediate access to literally anyone on this planet but we have none of the usual ways of knowing if this person is worthy of our love or if they are there just to escape drowning in their own lives. In the same way we may love a favourite author but years later when we read their biographies we find out that they were not so nice after all. Due to the compression of time and space, and no cues, we have no idea if someone is giving us the full story or not, so how can we tell if they are not very nice, until they show us that they are not very nice. Offline, we can tell if someone is not telling the full story more easily. Online, we tend to fall into an immediate (dangerous) trust and share more readily because trusting and sharing is what builds intimacy. And, then if we are wrong, which we all hate, we may ignore the alarm bells, because cognitive dissonance makes us feel so bad, we will subconsciously square it with ourselves, especially if we have spent a lot of time and energy connecting to someone and extra especially if no one else knows about it. Remember how our mates used to save us from ourselves? They would let us know in no uncertain terms not to waste time on certain muppets we held dear and we would let that permeate until we realised they were right.

Well, if the price of admission is looking like a fool or getting your heart broken, then, well, I’d say Ms Lance is pretty well worth it.
– John Constantine, DC Legends

So what are we to do? This whole social media gig is not going away anytime soon. In fact, in this time squeezed reality in which we live, friendship and love are precious, precious things, both online and offline. We all need love as much as we need oxygen, and after writing here many words about social media, I do believe that we can form proper connections online, but it is a different sort of connection to when you meet someone in the flesh. There is a whole backstory that people have that we just don’t know about. There’s a lot of editing too. We may feel an intimacy with a stranger online but the reality is that it is just one part of a whole person’s life, it is not the whole, and like the letter writing and the book reading, a lot of the online experience we are having is really an experience and a connection with ourselves.

When we think someone online is wonderful often it is because we are imbuing them with the wonderful bits of ourselves. So! Should an online intimacy end and we feel sad and empty, we just need to know that all that love and admiration we had for that special someone on our little screen was really a reflection of the love and admiration we have for ourselves. And, in those moments of sadness and longing after we’ve been badly burnt online we can pull out and reread our conversations to see that we didn’t deserve any of their shoddy behaviour, nor did we do anything wrong by being our loving human wholehearted selves. So instead of feeling like we’ve been had (again), let’s just give thanks for the special muppet we loved online who came to remind us how lovely we truly are.

The ghosts of AI

I fell in love with Artificial Intelligence (AI) back in the 1990s when I went to Aberdeen University as a post-graduate Stalker, even though I only signed up because it had an exchange program which meant that I could study in Paris for six months.

And, even though they flung me and my pal out of French class for being dreadful students ( je parle le C++), and instead of Paris, I ended up living in Chambéry (which is so small it mentions the launderette in the guidebook), it was a brilliant experience, most surprisingly of all, because it left me with a great love of l’intelligence artificielle: Robotics, machine learning, knowledge based systems.

AI has many connotations nowadays, but back in 1956 when the term was coined, it was about thinking machines and how to get computers to perform tasks which humans, i.e., life with intelligence, normally do.

The Singularity is nigh

Lately, I have been seeing lots of news about robots and AI taking over the world and the idea that the singularity – that moment when AI becomes all powerful it self-evolves and changes human existence – is soon. The singularity is coming to get us. We are doomed.

Seriously, the singularity is welcome round my place to hold the door open for its pal and change my human existence any day of the week. I have said it before: Yes please dear robot, come round, manage my shopping, wait in for Virgin media because they like to mess me about, and whilst you are there do my laundry too, thank you.

And, this got me thinking. One article said the singularity is coming in 2029 which reminded me of all those times the world was going to end according to Nostradamus, Old Mother Shipton, the Mayan Calendar, and even the Y2K bug. As we used to say in Chambéry : Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. To be honest, we never, ever said that, but my point is that our fears don’t change, even when dressed up in a tight shiny metallic suit. Nom du pipe!

We poor, poor humans we are afraid of extinction, afraid of being overwhelmed, overtaken, and found wanting. True to form I will link to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and repeat that we need to feel safe and we need to feel that we are enough. Our technology may be improving – not fast enough as far as I am concerned – but our fears, our hopes, our dreams, our aspirations remain the same. As I say in the link above, we have barely changed since Iron Age times, and yet we think we have because we buy into the myth of progress.

We frighten ourselves with our ghosts. The ghosts which haunt us: In the machine, in the wall, and in our minds where those hungry ghosts live – the ones we can never satisfy.

The ghost in the machine

The ghost in the machine describes the Cartesian view of the mind–body relationship, that the mind is a ghost in the machine of the body. It is quoted in AI, because after all it is a philosophical question: What is the mind? What is intelligence? And, it remains a tantalising possibility, especially in fiction that somewhere in the code of a machine or a robot, there is a back door, or cellular automata – a thinking part, which like natural intelligence is able to create new thoughts, new ideas, as it develops. The reality is that the guy who first came up with the term talked about the human ability to destroy itself with its constant repeating patterns in the arena of political–historical dynamics but used the brain as the structure. The idea that there is a ghost in the machine is an exciting one which is why fiction has hung onto it like a willo the wisp and often uses it as a plot device, for example, in the Matrix (there’s lots of odd bits of software doing their own thing) and I, Robot (Sunny has dreams).

Arthur C Clarke talked about it when he said that technology is magic – something, I say all the time, not least of all, because it is true. When I look back to the first portable computer I used and today, the power of the phone in my hand, well, it is just magic.

That said, we want the ghost in the machine to do something, to haunt us, to surprise us, to create for us, because we love variety, discoverability, surprise, and the fact that we are so clever, we can create life. Actually we do create life, mysteriously, magically, sexily.

The ghost in the wall

The ghost in the wall is that feeling that things change around us with little understanding. HCI prof, Alan Dix uses the term here. If HCI experts don’t follow standards and guidelines, the user ends up confused in an app without consistency which gives the impression of a ghost in the wall moving things, ‘cos someone has to be moving the stuff, right?

We may love variety, discoverability and surprise, but it has to be logical to fit within certain constraints and within the consistency of an interface with which we are interacting, so that we say: I am smart, I was concentrating, but yeah, I didn’t know that that would happen at all, in the same we do after an excellent movie, and we leave thrilled at the cleverness of it all.

Fiction: The ghost of the mind

Fiction has a lot to answer for. Telling stories is how we make sense of the world, they shape society and culture, and they help us feel truth.

Since we started storytelling, the idea of artificial beings which were given intelligence, or just came alive, is a common trope. In Greek mythology, we had Pygmalion, who carved a woman from ivory and fell in love with her so Aphrodite gave her life and Pervy Pygmalion and his true love lived happily ever after. It is familar – Frankinstein’s bride, Adam’s spare rib, Mannequin (1987). Other variations less womeny-heterosexy focused include Pinocchio, Toy Story, Frankinstein, Frankenweenie, etc.

There are two ways to go: The new life and old life live happily ever after and true love conquers all (another age old trope), or there is the horror that humans have invented something they can’t control. They messed with nature, or the gods, they flew too close to the sun. They asked for more and got punished.

It is control we are after even though we feel we are unworthy, and if we do have control we fear that we will become power crazed. And then, there are recurring themes about technology such as humans destroying the world, living in a post-apocalyptic world or dystopia, robots taking over, mind control (or dumbing down), because ultimately we fear the hungry ghost.

The hungry ghost

In Buddhism, the hungry ghosts are when our desires overtake us and become unhealthy, and insatiable, we become addicted to what is not good for us and miss out on our lives right now.

There is also the Hungry Ghosts Festival which remembers the souls who were once on earth and couldn’t control their desires so they have gotten lost in the ether searching, constantly unsatisfied. They need to be fed so that they don’t bother the people still on earth who want to live and have good luck and happy lives. People won’t go swimming because the hungry ghosts will drown them, dragging them down with their insatiable cravings.

Chinese character gui meaning ghost (thanks @john_sorensen_AU)

In a lovely blog the Chinese character above which represents ghost but in English looks like gui, which is very satisfying given this is a techyish blog, is actually nothing to do with ghosts or disincarnate beings, it is more like a glitch in the matrix – a word to explain when there is no logical explanation. It also explains when someone behaves badly – you dead ghost. And, perhaps is linked to when someone ghosts you, they behave badly. No, I will never forgive you, you selfish ghost. Although when someone ghosts you they do the opposite to what you wish a ghost would do, which is hang around, haunt you, and never leave you. When someone ghosts you, you become the ghost.

And, for me the description of a ghost as a glitch in the matrix works just as well for our fears, especially about technology and our ghosts of AI – those moments when we fear and when we don’t know why we are afraid. Or perhaps we do really? We are afraid we aren’t good enough, or perhaps we are too good and have created a monster. It would be good if these fears ghosted us and left us well alone.

Personally, my fears go the other way. I don’t think the singularity will be round to help me any time soon. I am stuck in the Matrix doing the washing. What if I’m here forever? Please come help me through it, there’s no need to hold the door – just hold my hand and let me know there’s no need to be afraid, even if the singularity is not coming, change is, thankfully it always is, it’s just around the corner.