Monday, March 4, 2013

Keep Calm & Put It On

These cool T-shirts are cool. 

A little background, for those who don't just care about looking cool, but also about the background to their looking cool.

This season's must-have scandalcore permutationwear recalls the phrase "Keep Calm & Carry On," which originated with some WWII propaganda posters, posters which, from the sounds of it, somebody really meant to get round to putting up. The phrase returned during the naughties as a mildly disappointing piece of post-Cool Britannia retro-smug knick-knack in framed prints, on the sides of mugs, etc., and eventually mutated into a phrasal template-type meme.

It's been all over the news the last few days because someone spotted on Amazon that a T-shirt company called Solid Gold Bomb listed items emblazoned with some totally mindbogglingly violent misogynist permutations. The company pretty quickly issued a forlorn and shambolic apology, explaining (as Pete Ashton and others had already guessed) that the listings were the result of an automatic script which generated thousands of possible designs.

It looks like the script drew on a long list of verbs and permutated them with a short list of words with a decent chance of grammatical agreement - intensifiers, prepositions, and pronouns. Including the verb "rape" and the pronoun "her."

Behind the product was a script; behind the script a company; behind the company a human. But the trail needn't have been so simple. What if behind the algorithm, there was an algorithm-writing algorithm, something which didn't require supervision, which might go on long after its maker was dead? What if our tangible world of commodities were to start to behave a little bit more like online viral ecologies, like worms, spam and malware?


Compare Bruce Sterling's "Kiosk," text or podcast.

Algorithmic print-on-demand books with deceptive listings have been around a while (NYT). See also Lara Buckerton on recombinant literature (and copyright and other things).

Do such books not exist till you order them? Or do they exist, but with a print run of zero?

Compare also the clothes of Many of these are probably machine translations of typical shirt discourse, but the more interesting ones seem to be bits of text selected at random, or for purely visual aesthetic qualities.

A sort of inverse is Hanzi Smatter, who takes understandable pleasure telling people what their Chinese character tattoos actually mean. (A lot of folks seem to get inked with "free" in the sense of "gratis.")


Has Solid Gold Bomb broken the law?

In the UK, quite possibly. Negligence isn't enough for Part 4A of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994; there has to be an intention to cause distress or harm. I wonder if listing an item on Amazon counts as "sending a message"? The extraordinarily spongy, zanily designed and haphazardly applied offences of the Malicious Communications Act 1998 and the Communications Act 2003 could potentially suck up Solid Gold Bomb's mistake. Should it be a crime? I'm not sure. I have a kneejerk reaction against any criminalisation! One thing is clear: the laws which cover these matters have their origin in things like sending poison pen letters or waving placards in the street, and are still oriented to such activities - activities with deep structural differences to the kinds of things that happen online.

More generally. The things we buy and sell tell us, indirectly, about what is and isn't okay to do. The law in modern complex societies is vast, complex and opaque, known by most people mostly through inferences, heuristics and non-propositional savoir faire. Lots of little hints overlap to reinforce a norm. There are all kinds of institutions and practices which nudge us down lawful paths (and in fact, often without teaching us why they're nudging us). Markets are an important part of this. Markets don't just transmit information about demand and supply: they disseminate all kinds of information about all kinds of things.

How would pervasive 3D-print-on-demand production chains, fronted by script-generated vendors, alter the ways in which such signals are disseminated?


I like Calum Rodger's suggestion - in the context of computer-generated poetry - that The Function of Criticism at the Present Time is perhaps to investigate the algorithmic objects that give rise to texts encountered by readers, rather than the texts, readers or encounters. (This was in a paper for the Forms of Innovation conference in Durham last year. He may well touch on the topic again in two weeks in Edinburgh).

Pete Ashton usefully adopts the rubric of digital literacy. "Nobody made, or approved, the design," he points out, and, "there’s no cost involved. The shirts don’t exist. All that exists is a graphics file on a computer ready to be printed onto a shirt if an order comes through." I guess his implication is: the appropriate response isn't to go ballistic on Twitter versus strawfolk, it's to Keep Calm And Email Amazon And Solid Gold Bomb That There's A Glitch With The Algorithm. Don't waste your energy and don't try to score political points off it. Those are points which are prone to vaporise, taking some of your more valid manna with them. Compare some of the folks on this thread, who just don't believe there could be any such accidentally sexist algorithm. Ashton also shouts out Rushkoff's Program or be Programmed.

But I'm not entirely convinced. It feels to me like it lets Solid Gold Bomb get off too lightly. There is culpability here. I have to say I didn't notice any "him" statements, but a lot of "her" statements. Did Solid Gold Bomb perhaps intend to unleash some jocular, low-key, "Battle of the Sexes," market-acceptable sexism? And did Solid Gold Bomb carefully excise cuss-words from the source list, but not think of words like "smack" and "rape"? Does Solid Gold Bomb now appreciate that stochastic language, far from being free, is the most easily colonised by existing power structures and the brutal means by which they are enforced? Or to put that another way, is Solid Gold Bomb now aware of just how much nasty is stuff is out there, waiting to be said? Would a feminist have made Solid Gold Bomb's mistake? Is Solid Gold Bomb a feminist?

Anyway, my hunch is that we unlettered digi-bungaloids are slow to change, and instead the new production chains will to adapt to digital illiteracy. New Quality Assurance processes are going to be developed which are oriented to precisely this kind of permutated commodity. Or perhaps operations like Solid Gold Bomb will have some detectable signature and get all their listings slapped with warning signs. "This Item May Not Exist (Unless You Want It To). Click Here If This Listing Is Inappropriate."

UPDATE: It looks like Amazon have now yanked all Solid Gold Bomb products, is that right? Though they're still paying for their GoogleAd click-throughs.


Individual and institutional agency may be mixed into what appears on your screen in pretty complicated and counter-intuitive ways. Traditional ways of reading traces of responsibility may be becoming unreliable.

Except, of course, that they were never reliable in the first place! Nor can you sanely suppose that (see above) the things we are taught by what we buy and sell are things we ought to be learning.

As seems to be the case pretty often with net culture, the theory we devise for it turns out to be applicable to things that pre-dated it. Buried deep in the obscure recesses of the eleventh volume of Marx's Kapital. "A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. [...] it was the analysis of the prices of commodities that alone led to the determination of the magnitude of value, and it was the common expression of all commodities in money that alone led to the establishment of their characters as values. It is, however, just this ultimate money form of the world of commodities that actually conceals, instead of disclosing, the social character of private labour, and the social relations between the individual producers." Compare the excellent discussion in Keston Sutherland's "Marx in Jargon" (PDF) of how human labour is gathered in commodities. "Marx’s German readers will not only have bought Gallerte, they will have eaten it; and in using the name of this particular commodity to describe not 'homogeneous' but, on the contrary, 'unterschiedslose,' that is, 'undifferentiated' human labor, Marx’s intention is not simply to educate his readers but also to disgust them."

Maybe one good translation would be Spam.

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