I Got Algorithm

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Issue 290
May/June 2015
Becoming Barbarian

Ethical Living

I Got Algorithm
by

issue cover 290

Cover: Arctic Moss (5,500 years old), Elephant Island, Antarctic by Rachel Sussman

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Matt Harvey finds modern means of funding strangely unsettling.

Photo © Will Dolphin Photography

Photo © Will Dolphin Photography

The internet has changed the nature of solitude. The smartphone has popped the internet into our pocket. Where once I’d walk on the beach with my dog, Tess and enjoy the splendid isolation: no more. Now I enjoy splendid iSolation™ – my iPhone funnels iTunes into each ear as my iPup and I enjoy an iPaddle in the effervescent ocean. Until we’re interrupted by a beeeep!

A welcome beep, I should add, updating me on the progress of our Kickstarter campaign – another interweb phenomenon. Chloe (Producer), Thomas (Composer) and I are using the Kickstarter.com site to crowd-fund our eco-musical-theatre project. It’s not easy.

Perhaps because the first performance will be in the first Transition Town, Totnes, where I live, its working title – Transition Town: The Musical – meets with confusion: “A musical about Totnes?” “No, it’s about Transition. The first shows will be in Totnes.” “Ah, so it’s set in Totnes.” “No, it’s set in an imaginary town.” “Ah.” And with scepticism: “Transition Town: The Musical?” “Yep.” “Really?” “Yes, really.” “Who’s going to produce that?” “Um, people…” “People?” “…in our community…” “Really?” “…and, um, in other communities.” “Really?!?”

I understand the scepticism. How can we communicate the breadth and ambition of the Transition Town movement, the urgency of the imperatives behind it, in a musical? How can we not misrepresent it? In our pitch we confess we don’t know. Meanwhile, to make our lives simpler, we decide to use the alternative title – SWIMBY: Something Wonderful In My Back Yard. That’s clearer, isn’t it…?

I have a Venn diagram in my mind. There’s a massive group of people out there concerned about climate change and oil dependency and interested in practical steps ordinary, harassed people can take in response – hence the term ‘Transition Town’. There’s also a massive group of people out there with an unconditional love for musical theatre – hence the term ‘Andrew Lloyd Webber’. Will our project find the overlap between these two groups, or is there none? Does membership of one group preclude membership of the other, and will membership of either lure people to a not-massive-but-big-enough third group: people who back SWIMBY?

People are unpredictable, aren’t they? What I find strange is the site has a predictive function. As the first pledges click in, it beeps and whirrs and suggests a figure we are likely to achieve. Stranger still is that the closer we approach the end date, the more accurate this early prediction appears.

That’s crowds for you. As individuals we feel ourselves to be autonomous, self-determining particles. En masse, as a wave, we are bizarrely predictable. Unsettlingly so. I was sufficiently Unsettled to write some iDoggerel that, who knows, may even feature in the musical:

Crowd Control to Major Tom
be careful when you join a throng
when particles become a wave
they can predict how we’ll behave

for people are people wherever we go
from Alaska to East Lothian
from Mecca down to Westward Ho!
we’re all of us pretty Pavlovian

we’re controllable and biddable
though we seem so individual
though we act with wild abandon
doing what we never planned on

as soon as we’re part of a flock, pack or swarm
we conform
to a theme with variations
predictable by complex algorithmical equations

and we can be influenced, pincered, persuaded
ushered, steered, commandeered,
subdued, subdivided – tucked up and tidied
and we can be kettled like cattle

nevertheless I am pleased to report
whether our cause be admired or abhorred
some herds won’t be ignored
and some hordes will stampede till they’re heard

And now I’m swimming with endorphins. Our herd has become a horde. They didn’t stampede, but ambled amiably over our target just as the algorithmic soothsayer predicted. Of course it doesn’t predict if the songs will be any good, but this is where determination outranks predetermination: you can’t dance to an algorithm, and we’re determined to make them wonderful.

Matt Harvey will be performing at the Resurgence summer camp, 30 July – 2 August 2015. www.resurgence.org/take-part/resurgence-events/summer-camp-2015.html

Matt Harvey is a poet and the author of The Element in the Room.

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