Welcome to Hollingsville: Foreword to Ken Hollings’ Bright Labyrinth

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Ken Hollings hunting for non-people. Image via.

This is an early draft of the foreword I wrote for Ken Hollings’ amazing book The Bright Labyrinth: Sex, Death and Design in the Digital Regime, published December 2014. I eventually discarded this draft as it took a bit too much artistic licence. It read more like a short story than a foreword and was more focused on a scenario external to the book than it was about the book itself. The final draft was a more sober affair, engaging with the book’s themes in a substantive manner. Nonetheless, I’m fond of this little flight of fancy, and so I present it here as my way of promoting Hollings and The Bright Labyrinth to the world. 

I’ve been to Hollingsville, and I’m here to tell you what I found…

I was on Twitter, jonesing for a dopamine hit. I’d been sleeping with my iPhone, tweeting in the shower, on the can, in the gaps between working, sleeping and living, until the gaps threatened to flood and replace reality. My vice was retweets. I’d scour the web for any kind of link that could be framed within the particular ‘Ballardian’ brand identity I’d built for myself – essentially, a fetish for dystopia. Skimming what was on the other end of the links, I’d tweet them out quickly to my followers, lusting for the kind of instant reaction that would make my Bit.ly stats go haywire and my pleasure receptors shunt into maximum overdrive.

I wanted to go viral every time, seeking validation in click-through rates, absorbing the hot RT action pulsing through my Tweetdeck command module like digital crack. Retweet me 50 times, and I’d want 100. Retweet me 100 times, and I’d wonder what the hell was wrong with everyone who didn’t retweet me. The more retweets I got, the more retweets I needed to keep me going, and the more I needed, the more my returns diminished, until the act was an empty habit and nothing more. I’d become an auto-pilot, a subliminal man – a non-person.

Out of nowhere, I began to notice Ken Hollings in my timeline, tweeting about so-called Twitter ‘non-people’. What he had to say was weird and intense, but shot through with the pealing bells of truth, and I was drawn to it instantly like a moth(man) to flame. I’ve long been intrigued by ‘dark Twitter’, a glitch-crack in the network, through which it’s possible to glimpse a slumbering intelligence. Think of numbers stations on shortwave radio, and the illicit thrill ham radio operators shared when they tuned into these eerie transmissions hiding in plain sight. Dark Twitter is like that, but with the weirdness amped up tenfold. And you have to know where to look.

Hollings tweeted a link to a blog post he’d written. The post drew a correlation between a certain species of Twitter spambot and EVP – ‘electronic voice phenomena’; ghost voices heard in white noise, made famous by Konstantins Raudive. Hollings’ theory was that these bots have somehow escaped from whatever corporate campaign they were shilling and are now doomed to haunt the Twitterverse, searching, like Raudive’s disembodied entities, for real humans to follow and interact with.

‘It may be,’ Hollings wrote, ‘that they have somehow replicated themselves and it is the digital echo of their non-presence that has now decided to follow you.’

This would explain their behaviour, which, however baffling, was indeed observable. A Twitter ‘non-person,’ Hollings continued, ‘will sometimes attach itself to a conversation you are having with one of your real followers, as if they were somehow hovering on the edge of your exchange – shy but anxious to take part.’

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Not Brian O’Blivion, but Ken Hollings… Image via.

As I read the post, a dreamlike feeling overwhelmed me. I remembered back to a year before, when I was listening to the music of Syd Barrett on heavy rotation. I wanted to know if anyone else was obsessed with Barrett at that particular time, so I searched Twitter for mentions of his name. What I found was deeply bizarre, a pocket of the network inhabited by bots that were broken in some fundamental way.

Here is the really weird part: their tweets always included Barrett’s name and, for reasons unknown, references to Tobe Hooper’s film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, sieved through cut-up sentences with their own inscrutable logic. If in a former ‘life’, they were in fact pimping a product, they certainly weren’t doing so now. These things were selling neither Hooper’s film nor Barrett’s music, and their bios and tweets linked to no one and nothing, being entirely self-sufficient.

As I read more of Hollings’ blog post, I understood clearly that I’d already met his Twitter non-people.

‘If you examine their profile a little more closely,’ he observed, ‘these accounts usually have just 22 tweets (occasionally 20 or 21 but I have yet to see one with more than 22).’

When I encountered the Chainsaw-Barrett abominations, it struck me that they were all stuck on … 20 tweets.

Extrapolating the EVP hypothesis, Hollings wrote, ‘Often, the tweets take the form of words in unconnected strings … or selections of quotations from established names, but which have been put through some kind of weird syntactic blender… form[ing] themselves into the kind of cryptic arrangement of images that Raudive would have instantly recognized as emanating from another world.’

On my Barrett search, among the tweets I found were these:

‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The and Syd Barrett are raked-over’.

‘Franklin bought me CD Syd Barrett, I think it’s automatic.’

‘Franklin’, of course, was the fourth character to be slaughtered in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Here was Hollings’ ‘weird syntactic behaviour’ in full effect. Like defective A.I., it was as if these bots had managed to break free of human control, but the effort of doing so had fried their code, reducing them to stuttering incomprehensibly into the void, their algorithms torn and frayed. The bots have since vanished: there is no trace of the account names nor their tweets in any Twitter search engine I can find. Yet their psychic imprimatur remains.

I found my encounter with them thoroughly unnerving for reasons I was only superficially able to articulate (through the references to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which has long disturbed me on a primal level). Yet Hollings accelerated my understanding to an entirely new plane, and it is through him that I can now see the bots’ sly joke (‘I think it’s automatic’) that defines their new, self-aware limbo.

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A visual analogue to Hollings’ non-people. Image via.

I tweeted Hollings’ post to my followers and it went viral immediately, instantly taking its place among my top ten retweeted and most-clicked links of all time. It was crazy – normally, Forteana would not get that kind of reaction. But the rush, that mighty dopamine rush, did not come. Instead, I was struck by the realisation that my online identity, shackled to my ridiculous, Pavlovian retweet addiction, had been a complete sham.

According to my stats, Hollings’ post had defied the odds to strike a chord with many people, across many different timezones and nationalities. Now the game was no longer about sharing kooky links, but about getting to grips with something on the edge of 21st-century consciousness: digital existence, the new flesh. I was staring at the forking unrealities of the Bright Labyrinth, and I could either take Hollings’ cue and try to find a way out or continue paddling in the shallows of unawareness like a simpleminded fool.

I let Hollings know the link to his post was fast becoming my most popular.

‘Maybe,’ I tweeted, ‘it will make its way to the non-people.’

‘The non-people know where to find me,’ he replied.

And they did. A few days later, Hollings told me he was now being followed by a bot called ‘Myrtie Weldy’, and that he’d searched for its name online but the only Myrtie Weldy he could find was a woman who died in 1868. Most spambots are affixed to names that are as syntactically blended as their tweets – why was this one scraping the actual names of the dead? The EVP theory was expanding, like gas filling a room, and I now had to accept fully the reality of what was before me.

Around this time, a fellow researcher, Anindya Bhattacharyya (aka @bat020), showed me his Tumblr, which collects examples of ‘hipster spambots’ – bots that try to pass themselves off as social media gurus, or, in their own words, ‘social media ninjas’ (or even ‘social media mavens’). Their tweets are micro-masterpieces of irritating linguistic tics, filled with faux-ironic declarations of love for beer, bacon, zombies and ‘problem-solving’. Pop culture as profession, and hipster obsessions – bacon, mostly (other popular ‘professions’ for this class of bot: ‘bacon ninja’ and ‘bacon evangelist’).

They, like the Chainsaw-Barrett bots, don’t link to or sell anything at all – not even bacon – and it struck me that they were like the classic Men in Black of UFO lore, which tried desperately, comically, to mimic human behaviour. MIB could pass muster if you didn’t look too closely, but do a double take and you’d find disquieting flaws (like a missing earlobe, or one eyebrow too high, or an oddly aligned hairline, or mangled speech patterns).

hipster spambot

A hipster spambot. Image via.

I showed @bat020’s Tumblr to Hollings. What did he make of it?

He tweeted me a few days later.

‘Googling “bacon evangelist” produces 11,000,000 results – some quite surprising.’

He wouldn’t explain what exactly was so surprising about them, and was rather evasive, in fact, except to clarify that ‘these things seem to come in waves, little clusters of activity that then stop’. He said he was ‘still observing.’ He also told me a spambot had favourited his previous tweets about non-people, and that a ‘bacon ninja’ had begun to follow him. In this Twitter underworld, ‘bacon’ was some kind of trigger word, but I didn’t have the insight or intelligence to decode it.

Clearly, I was still too impulsive, too reliant on quick thrills, too obsessed with self-gratification. After all, the bacon spambots weren’t attaching themselves to me as they were to Hollings (favouriting his tweets at the rate of around one a day, he said). On the contrary, I was being actively warned off. The only spambot that bothered with me during this entire episode was one that tweeted me a line from Kenny Rogers’ song ‘The Gambler’: ‘You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em / Know when to walk away and know when to run.’ That represented its one and only tweet – and it was aimed at me. I took it as a gentle threat. Naturally, the ‘bot’ has since disappeared.

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Hollings reflects. Image via.

All this activity began soon after Hollings ‘invited’ the non-people to find him in that original tweet, and once I understood that, I knew the score: Hollings is the John Keel of the digital realm. Like Keel in the world of UFOlogy and the paranormal, Hollings is a lightning conductor for high strangeness. Like Keel, he does not judge or ridicule, remaining lucid and objective even in the face of the most outrageous scenarios (even when the smell of bacon is in the air…). He places them in a context that only he can place, because, again like Keel, he is ferociously well read, marshalling a battery of historical and contemporary sources.

The Bright Labyrinth, then, is a catalyst, a strange attractor, creating a force field of connections, a grid of interlocking nodes. It laces together JFK’s exploding head and airport architecture, Augé’s theory of non-place and McLuhan’s electronic frenzies, Archigram and Benjamin, CNN and CCTV, drones and panopticons, Nietzsche (the book’s animating spirit) and Fritz Lang, Capek and Kubrick. On and on and on, backwards and forwards through time, until the intensities of the force field coalesce, manipulating extraordinary currents to bring into focus something we struggle to understand. Something that is only everything: our networked reality.

Just as that infamous entity from another dimension, Indrid Cold, found Keel – even spoke to him on the telephone in an unearthly, metallic voice – the non-people knew exactly how to find Hollings, and how to speak to him.

And now you have found him, too. May you never return from your trip. Like me, you’ll be better for it. Shaken, challenged, but whole. No longer a non-person.

Welcome to Hollingsville.

Ken Hollings, The Bright Labyrinth: Sex, Death and Design in the Digital Regime (2014), Strange Attractor.

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Miracles of Life: foreword to the Greek edition

Ballardian: Miracles of Life

This is the foreword to the Greek edition of Ballard’s Miracles of Life, published by Oxy, November 2009.

In 2006 I interviewed Jim Ballard. I was nervous at the thought of matching wits with this towering figure but my anxiety was quickly banished, for he was a charming and generous conversationalist. Although taxed from the recent discovery of the cancer that would claim him, he applied his blowtorch intelligence to everything from CSI and the ‘soft fascism’ of consumer culture to the surreality of having an English queen as an Australian head of state, weaving such cultural flashpoints in among the warps and wefts of a philosophy that has sustained his writing across 19 novels and around 100 short stories. Performing a similar function, but in reverse, his wonderful memoir contextualises some of the darkest and strangest corners of his fiction – as elements hotwired into his life.

It was never easy, perhaps not even possible for Ballard to separate his life from his work. Nominally English, he was born in Shanghai and lived in the expatriate community there before being interned in 1943 with his family in Lunghua, a Japanese war camp. He didn’t see England until he was 16. Accordingly, the Shanghai years, and the squalor and horror of Lunghua, take up almost half of Miracles, an index to its deep psychological fissures. Marguerite Duras once said she only truly recognised herself in her novels, not the biographies written about her. Perhaps Ballard felt the same. Like Duras, who also wrote iterative, fictionalised accounts of her expatriate upbringing in Saigon, he has practised a form of time travel throughout his career, most famously in the 1984 novel Empire of the Sun, reinhabiting his Lunghua memories in numerous stories, blurring the edges in each incarnation, incrementally shifting the background scenery, erasing forever the demarcation between fiction and reality. The summoning of memory is a key theme in Miracles. But it is memory that becomes hopelessly, irrevocably contaminated with the writer’s imaginative life. The sudden death of his wife, Mary, in 1964 takes up barely a page, but Ballard’s dream of her returning to his world to say goodbye takes up considerably more, as does a discussion of his experimental novel The Atrocity Exhibition, which Ballard has said was in part his attempt to sublimate the hurt and anger he felt at losing Mary so unexpectedly. Motifs from Ballard’s fiction bleed into the autobiographical frame, reversing the process set in train by Empire. When he writes that he was drawn to science fiction because it examined the trend towards ‘politics conducted as a branch of advertising’, we recognise the echoes from Crash, where the phrase was first used in the original introduction to that work.

Significantly, when he describes his holidays with his girlfriend Claire and his children, he says they took very few photographs for ‘memory is the greatest gallery in the world, and I can play an endless archive of images of the happy time’. Looking back at the creative process that led to Empire, he suggests, ‘I was frisking myself of memories that popped out of every pocket. By the time I finished, Shanghai had advanced out of its own mirage and become a real city again’. Bizarrely, when Empire becomes a Spielberg film and production begins at the studios near his home in Shepperton, Ballard describes how his neighbours are recruited as extras in the film, portraying his fellow Lunghua inmates. Christian Bale, playing the young Jim, comes up to him to announce, ‘Hello, Mr Ballard, I’m you’. At every turn, Lunghua erupts from the subconscious well. The sense is of a man simultaneously cursed and blessed with the task of processing a remarkable upbringing – blessed, because to Ballard Lunghua was his ‘happy childhood’, an experience that, although shocking, fed the first stirrings of his startling imagination.

Perhaps surprisingly for an autobiography, there’s very little ego on display and not much gossip, save for a scurrilous tale about Kingsley Amis, which sounds like it’s common coin anyway. But there is extraordinary detail. Interspersed throughout are lingering snapshots that impart a sense of a man enamoured of his three children (the ‘miracles of life’ that give the book its title), of his wife Mary and, later, Claire … and of cats. Ballard’s eye is as scalpel-sharp as ever, and his remembrances of domestic bliss, ‘days of wonder’ with the kids – like the vivid scene where he takes them scavenging among abandoned film sets – resonate with as much intensity as the immorality of the early Shanghai street scenes, or the bleak humour inhabiting his medical-student days when he would dissect corpses and keep skeletons under his bed.

Finally, Miracles of Life is another version of his past, as gloriously open-minded as all his fiction. It is brief, modest, honest – and poignant, with Ballard confronting his cancer in the final chapter. But shortly before this terminal appointment, Ballard realises ‘the true nature of my assignment. I was looking for my younger self’. Perhaps he is like the man in Chris Marker’s La Jetée, a film that he openly admired, about the mutability of memory. In La Jetée, the man, via the peculiarities of time travel, realises that as a boy he had witnessed his own death. In Miracles, via the peculiarities of auto(bio)graphy, Ballard time travels with the ongoing revelation that as a boy, Lunghua was the map of his future. Miracles, then, reunites his younger self with the older man, allowing Ballard to again see through young Jim’s eyes, viewing his own impending death with detached, yet remarkably clear vision.

Simon Sellars, June 2009.