The Ghost in the Machine

There has never been any doubt in my mind that ghosts do not exist. The paradox is that the only plausible explanation I have to offer you if you are one of those people that believe in them, is that it is all in your mind. All in your Mind was a song by the seventies rock band Stray (they were never going to be Earth shattering even then, and I see no reason to think that they will sound any better in retrospect, and I won’t be checking) and Ghost in the Machine is a studio album by The Police. The police represent the law, although on occasion they behave as if they themselves are above the law.

The latter half of the previous paragraph is an example of the random conscious stream of thought that the mind can compose, the conscious effort that it takes to keep it on track and on subject, and the prevalence that it has to wander unpredictably when unchecked. That I have allowed this to happen, suggests that I was well aware that it was happening to begin with. It’s complicated, and despite being fascinated by the experimental nature of writing like this, I will reluctantly have to drag things back on track.

The mind is very suggestable, responds to its surroundings, and always seeks explanations to try to make sense of what it perceives.

There is a hierarchy to these justifications: that the chosen rationalisation is sometimes neither rational nor sensible matters not if it is the one that best fits the available data. For many people this is enough; for others it is necessary to clarify the position by collecting and collating further data, and by reserving judgement until a better answer is presented.

That the latter option is obviously the better does not stop the majority opting for the former. The biggest indicator of this tendency is Facebook, known elsewhere in my more fictional ramblings as ArseFace, a substitute nomenclature of which I am much prouder than I should be, and, in the grand tradition of Facebook, have no intention of justifying.

Because this is the underlying problem with social media: an opinion that is popular is perceived to be true without the necessity of justification. Truth is quite often measured by likes and not by facts. If facts are presented, and the majority don’t wish to hear them, then the minority are shouted down, often with a torrent of abuse.

Abuse on social media can take many forms, ranging from the extreme to the apparently mild name-calling. It goes unremarked that referring to people who disagree with you as ‘woke’, ‘gammon’, ‘snowflake’, ‘boomer’, or any other meaningless name created on the medium, is nothing more than bullying. The names describe a type of person that does not exist and they are meant to be offensive and to alienate those who hold an alternative opinion to the bully. The contradictory opinion is not necessarily correct either, and it is common for neither extreme to be a reliable source of truth. Right or wrong does not really come into it, unsubstantiated opinion is all, which is why social media is such a fertile breeding place for extremists and conspiracy theorists. If you wish to be a bully, and to be largely unaccountable, then social media is the place for you.

And popular opinions, regardless of their accuracy, can be self-perpetuating. The opinions with the larger accumulation of likes are more likely to get re-posted, thereby drowning out any opposing views and negating any debate. The BBC provides an interesting example of this.

Every day they open up a ‘debate’ for certain news articles on their site (items which they themselves choose, thus biasing content even before anyone posts) called ‘Have Your Say’, abbreviated often to HYS. To begin with, the posts are presented in chronological order - first come, first served. All posts are mediated, removing any that are clearly offensive or off-topic, and any that contravene the BBC’s code of conduct (sometimes because they are controversial, and not always necessarily because they are offensive or wrong: there is bias in mediation). The upshot of this is that it is never long before the usual name calling – gammon, snowflake, and all the other drivel – begins to proliferate. Apparently, this is okay, but calling somebody a twat or worse, or speaking derisively about their ethnicity, isn’t. I fail to see that there is a difference.

After somewhere in the region of a hundred posts have accumulated, they begin to be presented in the order of the most popular, the ones with the most likes, now appearing first. Although this can be changed, it is the default setting and hereon in, this is how things will be presented when first you visit the site. Clearly, it pays to get in early so as to pass this hurdle and get your comment near the top in the new hierarchy. Regardless of factual content, the most popular post will be read first and will be the most likely to be commented on (this is another criterium that can be chosen to set the order of presentation) or to receive ‘likes’. Debate has again been negated.

HYS by this time should often be considered shorthand for hysteria, and when mixed with a liberal dose of paranoia, accounts for much of the content.

It is a bit of a stretch to say that the government are aware of our laziness in questioning the reliability of their proclamations if they are repeated often enough, but undoubtedly the people who advise them on how to present their waffling to the public are. Whatever stance you may have regarding any governmental decisions, if you take them at face value then you only have yourself to blame when you find that they have not been very forthcoming with the truth in its entirety. Always remember that any decision that is made, despite claims that it follows scientific or medical evidence, is always a political decision. Politicians always have a political agenda. This is as true for the opposition as it is for the government.

This is not to say that everything that is said by them is wrong, but it does mean that it is coloured by their own stance, which results in decisions that are most likely to benefit them personally and politically, and the people they offer up as experts are those that most closely fit their own agenda. If an expert contradicts this agenda, then he is not asked to comment and is ignored.

If I make a claim of any sort, then you would be right to ask, ‘But why should I believe you?’ And my answer is that you shouldn’t. You should take note of what I, and others, say, and then do your own research, without preconceptions or bias, and then formulate your own decision. Of course, if you spout off without doing your own homework first, then you are either on ArseFace, HYS, or you are a politician.

You should note that my referring to Facebook as ArseFace, is in itself divisive name-calling of the type prevalent on social media. So we are none of us immune.

My reading habit – the equivalent of my music habit, both of which are only eclipsed by my beer habit - has been well documented. On my kindle, I habitually download older literature both because it is mostly free, and because I think that if I want to give an air of being well-read (we are all vain, or so Carly Simon told me, although that song isn’t about me) then I am going to need enough of a working knowledge to bluff my way through it.

I have a large pendulum clock that sits in the corner of the lounge where I am sitting writing this essay, and it chimes the quarters and the hour. When it is supposed to chime twelve, it only ever gets as far as three before it gives up the ghost and ticks its way on towards the first quarter. It has always done this. Orwell describes the clocks at the start of Nineteen Eighty-four (my current free read: I have read it before but it bears more than one visit) as striking Thirteen. The impression given is that this is a mistake, but it turns out that this is what they do in Orwell’s alternative reality where all clocks are based upon a twenty-four-hour cycle.

The thing that struck me when reading the book were the parallels between the book and our own present. Nineteen Eighty-Four is often held up as a simile for oppressive measures by a government and its enforcers to spy on and control a population. CCTV is a giant step in this direction, along with apps that record your presence in certain establishments at certain times, and it would seem that Orwell’s prediction is coming ever closer.

This will not be news to most of us and I will not linger on the obvious, but what I am more interested in, regarding the thread of this essay, are other similarities to our own reality. I will not be enhancing my reputation as being well read very much at all when I state that Orwell was a visionary genius (we all knew that anyway), although some of the things that have parallels in his writing can only be coincidence, and even he could not have predicted them, unless government policy is based upon a working knowledge of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm.

In fairness to the current government (God knows why, they hardly deserve it), I should point out that I have no doubt that any other government, left or right, red, blue, or any other colour, would not have performed any better (and none world-wide have, although some would claim that they have. But that’s a different story).

The lead character in the book is called Winston, and the current leader of the UK government has a fixation on Churchill and a wish to be considered as great a leader as his idol. Churchill also had many faults to his character, but the only real similarity between the two of them is their willingness to abandon any situation or ally to further their political ambitions. Let’s be honest: Singing Happy Birthday hardly compares with ‘We will fight them on the beaches, etc.’

Orwell coined the term ‘Doublethink’ which is defined as ‘the acceptance of, or the mental capacity to accept contrary opinions or beliefs at the same time, especially as a result of political indoctrination.’

Not only is this a disturbingly accurate description of those that unquestioningly accept pretty much anything that the government tells them, but it bears a remarkable similarity to the way the government itself functions. Popularity is all important in their quest to be re-elected in the future and contradiction holds no fear for them. A popular recent example, oft repeated, was the advice to stay home and avoid unnecessary travel, countered with the guidance to ‘eat out to help out’.

The truth is not an impediment to them. If the most recent advice is at odds with previous advice, then it is perfectly acceptable to claim that they originally meant something else completely different. Donald Trump was a master of this thinking, referring to his personal take on events as ‘alternative truths’, meaning the opposite, lies. Orwell also had his own take on re-writing the past or the present when he wrote, ‘who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past’.

The party in the book use three-word slogans that are sometimes contradictory, and sometimes mean the opposite to what they say, the book is barely a dozen pages old before we learn that: -

War is Peace
Freedom is Slavery
Ignorance is Strength

Standing at a lectern in front of a cheap looking board bearing their own three-word slogans on a daily basis cost the government what little credibility they had. The messages were condescending, and the methods that were employed to put them before the public swamped any truth that was contained somewhere within them.

I was not far into the book before I began to consciously search for parallels, and once you start this, there are endless examples. Central to the plot is that everyone is potentially spying on everyone else and is prepared to sell them out to the controlling party. If nothing else in the past year worries you about the behaviour of the government, then their active encouragement of neighbour to spy on neighbour and report any activities that they disagree with to the authorities should leave you in no doubt about how far they would go to force their personal narrative upon others.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, exercise regimes are conducted for all via their television screens, and Winston is castigated for his poor efforts in an echo of the advertising for the app-based exercise regimes for Peloton and others. In truth we have been allowing people into our homes for a while now with the cameras on our laptops and other devices. It had not been that surprising to find some time ago that hackers were capable of switching those cameras on, and we are all aware that our activities on the internet are used to collect data to personalise advertisements. It may not quite be big brother is watching you, but it is well on the way.

Orwell understands that language evolves and that new words are created and others are lost over time, and when he writes of the evolution of ‘Oldspeak’ into ‘Newspeak’, he is predicting the many new words that have been coined on the internet since its inception.

When phone texting was in its infancy, there was a language being formed called textspeak, which involved removing vowels from words to make them shorter, and the use of acronyms. Although predictive text and improved technology has made most of this redundant and the words have mostly reverted to their original spelling, some vestiges are still with us, LOL being the prime example. By now you will not be surprised to find that Orwell got there first, and the written form of Newspeak contained many of the components and simplifications of textspeak.

It should be clear by now that I was finding these parallels because I was looking for them and subconsciously making them fit my agenda. The data may have been there, and it undoubtedly bears comparison, but I was seeing what I wanted to see. This is what the mind does: it tailors the data to fit your preconceptions.

The Ghost in the Machine is a phrase often attributed to Arthur Koestler, but he purloined it himself from the Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle, and it has been much used by others. It refers to the consciousness, or mind, carried inside a physical entity, the body. Both Koestler and Ryle shared the view that the two were not independent of each other, a contrary view to that of Descartes and others (and if Ryle and Koestler are right, it sounds like a bit of a blow to many religious communities’ belief in an afterlife).

It would seem that other creatures on this planet have consciousness, but none to the extent that we have, and none are able to use it to reason with in the manner that we are able to. It is a tool, and we should endeavour to use it as competently as we can. It is not enough to blindly accept others’ opinions, nor is enough to blindly formulate our own without considering others.

But the mind is tricksy and it can still make you see and hear things that aren’t there.

Roxie, our beautiful dog, went to sleep the other week. She won’t be coming back. But when I am cooking in the kitchen, I know that she is behind me with Shelby and Mika, waiting, in the hope that I may drop something (sometimes deliberately). And when I go out, I know that they are watching through the window whilst my back is turned, and I am always just too late to see Roxie’s ears peering over the window sill on my return, and the little dance she does when she realises that it is my car pulling up. When I am upstairs, I can hear all their claws clattering on the laminate flooring downstairs. And they are always waiting, just around the corner in the next room, but by the time that I get there, they have moved again.

We sold the house the other week. But I won’t be telling the people who are buying it. It is our secret.

This house is haunted. It is full of dogs. They are everywhere. I can’t stay here.