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a man slumped on his desk, from 'The Sleep of Reason Produces



the register

It’s about two in the morning on Thursday, I’m scrabbling around for things to put into NTK, and I get an e-mail from the Register’s Andrew Orlowski. He sounds deliriously happy. He’s uncovered an apparently hidden link to a wiki set up for some s00p3r s33krit confab that Tim O’Reilly’s organising. The descriptions and notes fit completely into Orlowski’s view of particular segment of the West Coast tech scene. Mainly, that it looks like some weird Californian cult. Here’s what he wrote six months ago:

So it’s odd, when you peruse the Emerging Technology Conference agenda, to get the sense that you’re staring at a scene that resembles the Scientology cult. It achieves this spooky effect by pandering extensively to a tiny part of the idea spectrum and excluding not just important historical figures with rich contributions to make, but emerging entrepreneurs and researchers, too. Cults begin by excluding behavior that doesn’t fit the norm: that’s the very definition of a “cult”.

If you’re following that rich line of satire, Foo Camp looks like a gift from God. Two hundred invited “Friends Of O‘Reilly”, camping out in little tents in the Californian countryside. A exhortation to “come up with some cool ideas about how to change the world”. And all the usual suspects gathered in one place: bloggers, Whole Earthers, Wi-Fi nutters, venture capitalists, and a smattering of people paid to write about them.

“Wiki-fiddlers meet in the woods!” mails Andrew to me, delighted to find so many fish in one barrel. He cc:’s a bunch of other Brits who’ll no doubt share in this mass pilloring of the fruit ‘n’ nut end of West Coast techtopianism.

Ah, I think. This is about to get interesting.

Ten minutes later, he finds my name on the attendance list.

We have a quick spat (I think, to be honest, I started it. That last piece I quoted of his was centered around a party in my back garden. I don’t get out much, and I was getting a bit peeved about getting a Register kicking every time I leave my house.).

Anyway, Andrew accused me of selling out, of bum-licking the hippies, a disturbing visual that like many of Orlowski’s best I … … can’t … get out of my head.

I’d say it wasn’t like that. That it wasn’t some weirdo West Coast love-in. But then I would, wouldn’t I, Mr Invited-To-Sit-At-The-Feet-of-The-Illuminati? Mr Expat-Gone-Native-To-The-Californian-Lifestyle?

If I was to be perfectly honest, if you were to hover about fifty yards away from the festivities, squinting with your eyebrow arched, it was like that. Were Andrew to hide in the bushes of Sebastopol, he would have had very little of his convictions shaken. People said “ohhhhh cool!”. A lot. There was a Segway and an Aibo. There was one particular “acoustic jam” that had me choking on pie and making a polite exit to the bathroom.

But you know what? I can do the same thing to your parties. It’s easy. And with a few hours training and a dictionary of convenient stereotypes, you could hang out in the shadows of a J-Lo-hosted all-nude sex-party and feel superior too.

The great secret of satire is that it can be applied to anyone, good or bad. The British have bad teeth, Americans have giant chins. Rednecks drawl, toffs stutter, New Yorker’s shout. Sub-cultural foibles are a universal weapons.

Much can be made of all of this, but without more substantive points, it’s just “Hahahahaha! Aren’t the Different People funny?”. Yes, it was Californian. This is because we are in California.. .

It’s not enough. You have to have a good reason to attack who you do with those tricks. You have to justify it, otherwise you’re just playing to the crowd’s prejudices without giving them a bone of a new idea.

I think, following through what criticisms there were of Foo Camp, the more substantive attack was this: “Who are these people, to anoint themselves visionaries and geniuses? What self-congratulatory bullshit is this confab? What elitist trash is this to invite only this select few, and exclude everyone else. What. A. Bunch. Of. Lamers.”

But, the problem here is that no-one was advertising themselves as visionaries and geniuses. There was no advertising at all. The Wiki Andrew found was private: it wasn’t written as publicity for the camp. Sure, the invite talked about “changing the world” and “smart people” – but these words have different meanings when you are trying to flatter and cajole your friends to come to your house for free. And when people say to one another “oh, you’re all so smart”, it’s not a festival of mutual self-congratulation. It’s what you say to people you’ve met who seem quite smart. Well, you do if you’re not sitting fifty yards from them, arching your eyebrow significantly.

Somehow, though, that only makes things worse. Oh sure, they weren’t telling the world that they were geniuses, the critics roar. They were meeting, secretly, to say it to each other. Without telling anyone.

Far creepier.

The problem here is one (ironically) of register. In the real world, we have conversations in public, in private, and in secret. All three are quite separate. The public is what we say to a crowd; the private is what we chatter amongst ourselves, when free from the demands of the crowd; and the secret is what we keep from everyone but our confidant. Secrecy implies intrigue, implies you have something to hide. Being private doesn’t. You can have a private gathering, but it isn’t necessarily a secret. All these conversations have different implications, different tones.

Most people have, in the back of their mind, the belief that what they say to their friends, they would be happy to say in public, in the same words. It isn’t true, and if you don’t believe me, tape-record yourself talking to your friends one day, and then upload it to your website for the world to hear.

This is the trap that makes fly-on-the-wall documentaries and reality TV so entertaining. It’s why politicians are so weirdly mannered, and why everyone gets a bit freaked out when the videocamera looms at the wedding. It’s what makes a particular kind of gossip – the “I can’t believe he said that!” – so virulent. No matter how constant a person you are, no matter how unwavering your beliefs, something you say in the private register will sound horrific, dismissive, egotistical or trite when blazoned on the front page of the Daily Mirror. This is the context that we are quoted out of.

But in the real world, private conversations stay private. Not because everyone is sworn to secrecy, but because their expression is ephemeral and contained to an audience. There are few secrets in private conversations; but in transmitting the information contained in the conversation, the register is subtly changed. I say to a journalist, “Look, Dave, err, frankly the guy is a bit, you know. Sheesh. He’s just not the sort of person that we’d ever approve of hiring.”. The journalist, filtering, prints, “Sources are said to disapprove of the appointment.”.

Secrets have another register. They are serious (even when they are funny secrets). We are both implicated when we share a secret. We hide it from the world. Secrets don’t change register – when they are out, they preserve their damaging style.

On the net, you have public, or you have secrets. The private intermediate sphere, with its careful buffering. is shattered. E-mails are forwarded verbatim. IRC transcripts, with throwaway comments, are preserved forever. You talk to your friends online, you talk to the world.

This is why, incidentally, why people hate blogs so much. My God, people say, how can Livejournallers be so self-obsessed? Oh, Christ, is Xeni talking about LA art again? Why won’t they all shut up?

The answer why they won’t shut up is – they’re not talking to you. They’re talking in the private register of blogs, that confidential style between secret-and-public. And you found them via Google. They’re having a bad day. They’re writing for friends who are interested in their hobbies and their life. Meanwhile, you’re standing fifty yards away with a sneer, a telephoto lens and a directional microphone. Who’s obsessed now?

But they have an alternative. They can just keep it to themselves. Write it in their diary. They must secretly want me to read it, if they put in online, right? You say they’re saying these things to a small group, but why don’t they just keep it to that small group.

The answer is: most of them do, but you don’t hear about them. And if you did, you’d be even more furious. Because now we enter the world of the secret register. There’s only one thing wore than reading a public mailing list where people are talking crap. And that’s seeing a private mailing list that you can’t even join to find out what crap they’re talking. Haddock, silent-tristero, that Bcc: list you were on and now are not. They’re up to something there.

There are only two registers on the Net; public and secret. In the public sphere, everything you say is for everyone. Talk in the secret register, and you have something to hide.

And this is what the end of privacy means. It means the end of the private register. Not everything that is private is meant to be secret, meant to be hidden. It’s just not intended to be public. That grey area is fading, and soon it will be gone.

Foo Camp was private, but not secret. Read its Web pages as though they were public, squint, and you can see it as a bunch of back-patters and self-congratulation. Read its Web pages as secret, and it looks like a conspiracy to exclude those who don’t fit an arbitrary and foolish criteria.

But think about if you wanted a party where you wanted to get all your smartest friends to talk about the stuff that you knew your other friends would like. And think how that would look out in public, or revealed as a carefully hidden secret.

That’s all Foo Camp was. There was some fun techy stuff and some standard format gossip, which I’ll write up for next week’s NTK. No outrageous buffoonery and no sinister plots.

And the end of the private register? A much more interesting topic. Back when I did TV stuff, I spent a day interviewing British folk with some people from a less media-soaked European country. You had to tutor the Europeans – don’t look in the camera, can I ask that question again, no just imagine our sound guy isn’t there waving a fluffy sausage at you. The Brits? Bang. The moment the cameras were on, they were in the Public Register: “Well, Danny, it’s funny you should ask me that, because I do have an amusing anecdote about Bruges.”

I don’t think that’s what will happen. I think the private register will regain a foothold – as I believe it has with blogs. We’ll learn a kind of tolerance for the private conversation that is not aimed at us, and that overreacting to that tone will be a sign of social naivete.

And we’ll realise that the real conspiracies, aren’t the ones that appear on publically readable Websites, with full names of attendees, detailed documentation of discussions, and endless braindumps of semi-private, clumsy, gushing conversations that nonetheless deserve a wider audience. That people who come across as eager to do good, willing to feed a couple of hundred people on the offchance that some benefit may accrue, who like hearing their friends sing in an off-key, don’t mind others knowing that, and who are lucky enough to have smart friends and generous enough to share them, aren’t the threat.

It’s the real secrets; the real hide-aways; the people who are always either in public mode or in an ultra-ultra-secret combination we can barely guess at who are the dangerous ones. And they’re a lot harder to spot from fifty yards, and a damn sight more immune to gentle satire.

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petit disclaimer:
My employer has enough opinions of its own, without having to have mine too.