Witch hunts and the weaponisation of moral panic

In his history of European Witch Hunts, historian Norman Cohn traces the history of demonic moral panics and delves “deep into the sociology and social psychology of persecution”. The story he tells is one of gullibility, ignorance and the abuse of power that seems particularly relevant to our outrage-prone hyperconnected age. It is also a lesson on the long term consequences of fuelling moral panics and how cottage industries grow to sustain them.

Infographics of Doom

While the world reels in horror at the latest atrocities committed by Islamic fundamentalists, we should not forget that in the United States brews an ideology that is in many ways far more disturbing. “Dispensational Premillennialism” — a form of evangelicalism thought to be practiced by between five and forty million Americans — teaches that an impending apocalyptic war will bring about the end of the world. After which, Christ will rule the world for a thousand years from his throne in Jerusalem.

Hashtag Mythology

John Waterhouse, Echo and Narcissus

John Waterhouse, Echo and Narcissus

While the world becomes increasingly complex and flooded with exabytes of often contradictory information, our minds are still lumbered with deep rooted “mythic” narrative-based methods of making sense of the it. But today the “myths” or narratives we collectively build are no longer directly connected to our immediate survival, as is the case with, say, the Dreamtime myths of Aborigines. So we are free to pluck information out of this digital abyss, label them “facts” and construct any new mythology we wish with them. Relation to empirical reality is useful, but far from necessary.

Agents of Apophis

The great serpent had no eyes, no ears, indeed no senses at all. All it had was a mouth with which it screamed unendingly into the eternal night of the netherworld. This is how ancient Egyptians imagined the demon Apophis; Lord of Chaos; a malevolent entropy-like force that forever threatened to wear down the mechanisms of the state and bring about the collapse of civilisation. To combat Apophis’ erosive force, the priesthood undertook elaborate daily rituals to ward off the demon, in Temples that were to them engine rooms of cosmic stability, operated by the user interface of word-magic and sacrament.

A story of information entropy

In the late 19th or early 20th century, billions of photons ricocheted off the face of this small boy and through the aperture of an early camera. There, the energy contained in the photons initiated a chemical reaction that burnt his image on a piece of photographic film.

Months or even decades later, this negative was laid down on a rough block of wood next to a series of others, images that presumably had some shared significance. Perhaps this was done by his parents, perhaps by himself in his old age, or even his children or grandchildren, but whoever did so photographed the negatives again, seemingly as some crude method of replication. But while the image itself was saved, its meaning was not.  An unknown span of time later the negative was detached from its original context, and the identity of the boy was lost.

I found this negative-of-negatives amongst hundreds of others in an antiques fair in Old Spitalfields market. A few days later, I placed it on my scanner, where a band of LEDs radiated photons across the image, after which they bounced back through a series of mirrors and lenses onto the scanner’s CMOS sensory array. From there, his face streamed through the microcircuitry of a computer to be rebuilt as a pattern of electricity rippling across a film of liquid crystals. The haunting visage stares now from your device for the first time in perhaps a century. An echo of a life long passed.

The image itself, stored now both on the vast server farms of Google, Facebook and Tumblr, will endure now for an unknown time into the future even if the “original” should perish.  Now part of the exponential abyss of the deep web it will in time be comprehended and scrutinised by future intelligences both human and otherwise. Through advanced facial recognition algorithms and other exotic means of inquiry yet to be devised it will be woven back into an intricate lattice of information that will ultimately span all of human knowledge.

Will it ever be possible for the identity of this boy to be retrieved? Or is his name to be forever lost; worn away by the corrosive forces of information entropy?

East London Folk History

East London Folk History

Chris, for that was his name, got talking about how the East End had been a popular haunt for assorted intelligence agencies since "forever". The most recent escapades of course involved the more notorious guests of the East London Mosque attracting the attention of MI5, Mossad and the CIA. He claims they are absolutely everywhere in Tower Hamlets. "You know how to spot a spook?" he said "...look at his shoes. The rest of him will be dressed normally, but his shoes are always smart."

The Fiction of You: The Self as Social Technology

When I was about five or six years old I plagued my parents with strange questions. One I remember in-particular was “who would I be if I wasn’t me”? Such riddles are not uncommon at this age because it is around this time that children begin to develop – or construct – a rudimentary form of identity. An embryonic Self that will grow into something resembling a final form during puberty and early adulthood. As we age, the foundations of identity sink into the subconscious, their origins lost, becoming so conflated with the notion of consciousness to the point where we can no longer tell them apart.

Q.E.D: The Glastonbury of Thinking

Q.E.D: The Glastonbury of Thinking

This weekend saw the third annual Q.E.D – the massive end-of-level-boss version of Skeptics in the Pub. A place where scientists, critical thinkers, atheists and other assorted eccentrics assemble in Manchester and sacrifice orphans to the reanimated husk of Darwin. Given this, protester turnout for was lacklustre, composed of a small choir and a couple of chaps with a giant metal cross that had to be trundled about on a tiny bicycle wheel. I’m not entirely sure what they intended to do with it….