All posts by zsunter

The Prisoner

The hive mind of individuals scuttle through the streets as they progress through each moment of their lives illuminated by bright, fluorescent streetlights. A businesswoman waits patiently for the light to turn green while vehicles drive past her towards their destinations, her eyes fixated on the phone clasped in her right hand directly in front of her, listening for the signal to cross. She disinterestedly reads the news, scanning across the titles of the main stories promoting products and portraying optimism. Surrounding her, the quiet hum of engines overlaid with subdued voices and the constant tramp of boots on the pavement form a cacophony of a bustling but lifeless city.

The normal goings-on of city life are punctuated by a brief flicker followed by sudden and unforeseen darkness. The sound of footsteps, transportation and chatter is replaced by sudden silence then cries of panic and confusion as the lights blink out and fail to turn back on. For several seconds, people stop in incomprehension.

The silence is punctured by a woman’s scream.

“Why aren’t they turning back on?”

This unanswerable question is met with speculation. “The back-up generators have probably failed,” postulates one man. “The machines running the power station have failed,” suggests another. A group of children begin crying, their din adding to the dissonance. One child tosses his handheld computer
onto the ground, its dim screen a shining beacon in blackness.

The businesswoman gasps in disbelief as the energy is sapped out of her body, a grip of concern twisting around her heart. Where before she was alive and well, she is now filled with panic that reverberates throughout her body, urging her to join in with the others, to try to come to some sort of understanding of what has happened.

Yet their desperate pleas remain unanswered as the situation unfolds in the city’s power station several kilometres away.

***

Tony Scott is a deeply troubled, dissatisfied man, his bloodshot, blinking eyes reflecting the light of a world he has seen slowly degenerate around him. Throughout his life Tony was a man who loved the outdoors, spending most of his early years as a farmer. However, he was renowned throughout his neighbourhood for his delicate arrangements and meticulous caring for his camellias, tulips and acacias in his private garden that the locals nicknamed ‘The Garden of Eden’. Tony led a cheerful and simple life, free from the worries of people consumed by the desire to rise above in the corporate sphere or participate in convoluted city life.

However, after Tony lost his job to a machine, his flowers began to wilt mysteriously and reports of unsustainable air pollution circulated. The bright sun that had warmed his skin and allowed his garden to grow gradually became hidden behind a fog of pollution. Tony’s love for the environment and natural beauty transformed into an animadversion against the apathetic people and the ‘goddamned machines’ he saw at the heart of the problem. Whereas his friends or family willingly became prisoners of technology, Tony resisted, his faith in the natural world impervious to mechanisation and industrialisation. He continued watering his garden until the last shrub shrivelled up, refusing to be chipped, refusing to let himself become one of them, another cog in a machine run by heartless mechanical slave masters.

Tony vented his anger and frustration not only towards the robots contaminating society but the uncaring populace who let his life’s work be destroyed. Tony, however, knew the futility of sharing his views with the brainwashed population, and began searching for likeminded people, forming a covert organisation with the aim of ‘preserving humanity in the face of inhuman machines.’

Despite initial difficulties, Tony’s side project proved to be a great success, his years of discontent and planning finally paying off as he achieved recognition among others who wanted to alter the course of society’s progress.

From humble beginnings, Tony became akin to a radical, a leader of those rebelling against the system. Today, resting his arthritic joints in an armchair in his apartment, a grin of pure pleasure spreads across his face. When the lights flicker off and the panic sets in, Tony’s smile only widens.

His years of planning have finally come to fruition.

***

Groups of rebels storm the power station, equipped with guns and a powerful sense of justice. Khan Swayne, leader of the squad, gruffly issues the men their orders: “Shoot only if necessarily – the control room is this way.”
The men progress down the hallway, guns levelled in case of discovery. However, their surroundings are eerily silent, the only audible sounds being far-off motors running and buzzing of electrical wires.

Khan feels alive, the electricity flowing through the wires around him mirroring the buzzing of energy through his veins. Although still young at the age of 24, he is beyond his years in wisdom, seeing through the guise of modern life as normal, safe and fulfilling. Growing up in this world Khan has known nothing of a life before computers as people rely on technology for their jobs and interactions, becoming less interested in the real world and the people that inhabit it.

Khan still vividly remembers his first day at school, being called in front of the class and told that learning facts was a waste of time when one always has access to a computer’s more accurate and reliable opinion. His father had been an important and wealthy scientist and had taught Khan how to read, write and reason before beginning school, but the educational system gradually ground down his interest in academia, interested only with preparing him for his future job.

Although on several occasions Khan was offered the opportunity to develop more advanced and sophisticated forms of artificial intelligence in recognition of his natural ability, he repeatedly refused. He, like Tony, did not want to see a world populated by humans that could not think independently and relied entirely on computers to form their knowledge of the world.

Khan thinks that there must surely be something more to existence, something he finds himself drawing closer to as he ventures further into the power station.

“Good thing they replaced these people with robots, eh? Means we don’t have to cause as much trouble,” remarks Khan with a slight smirk.

Consulting a digitally stored map, Khan navigates the bifurcating paths until they reach the heart of the facility. The squad splits into separate groups, one heading towards the backup generator and the other towards the main control room.

Without conceiving of the possibility of a break-in, security in the power station is weak and sparsely spread. The greatest barrier to entry is the electrified fence, which the rebels earlier hacked and disabled. From there, security cameras had tracked their location but they had yet to meet with any opposition.

Reaching the terminal room, Khan wrenched the door open, exposing the various controls within. There is no-one there – humans are not required, then sets to work achieving his revenge. With his aptitude for computers, hacking into the central authority takes mere seconds.

In a matter of minutes, power to most of the city is cut off, leaving people without the power that they so desperately needed.

As the city plunges into darkness, in Khan’s head there exists only light – the possibility of a new future where people are individuals free from the omnipresent, controlling influence of technology.

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Writing Prompt: Parody – Satire at Its Best/Worst

The Internet has allowed the rise of a large numbers of parodies of popular ‘memes’ including songs, videos and other images that have spread through social media and become ‘viral’ simply by slightly changing an original idea and riding on its coattails. Parodies are often seen positively for being humorous and breathing new life into something that is already well-known and widespread, yet at their core they lack artistic integrity and change little, shadowing the achievements of others for recognition and attention.
In the world of writing, the concept of a parody is generally regarded unfavourably, yet elements of satire are common as authors challenge societal views and values by drawing upon pre-established conventions to create contrast. Satire itself is often imbued with humour as writers poke fun at what we often accept without question, provoking thought by masquerading as something that seems familiar.
A good example of this I recently came across were a collection of Japanese satirical ‘corporate slave fairy tales’ that effectively use parody to draw attention to Japanese society’s often unhealthy obsession with work (to the extent that the word karoshi meaning death from overwork is officially recognised in many English dictionaries). Familiar childhood fairytales become poignant criticisms, comparing idealisations with harsh realities.
American author Kurt Vonnegut is also well-known for his use of satire and black humour to support his views while simultaneously making his novels enjoyable and entertaining to read. Slaughterhouse-Five is one of his best known novels for going against the conventions of war novels, exploring the horrors of war from the perspective of Billy Pilgrim, a soldier who experienced the firebombing of Dresden, becoming ‘unstuck in time’ and reliving his past and present experiences as a comically bad soldier who seems to have survived by chance alone. Vonnegut favours humour – often of the bleak and depressing kind – over gritty realism to focus on how war has become perverted into a display of glorified nationalism and heroics instead of reflecting its true nature.
So if you find yourself stuck for ideas of what to write, as I have recently, using satire and writing a parody can be a way to ease yourself into creativity, or expressing your views more tangibly.

Writing Prompt: Global Literature

Although English is the most-spoken language in the world and has significant dominance in the world of literature, it is merely one of many languages used by people of different cultures across the world. With the rise of globalisation and the prevalence of the internet, it is becoming more common to see books that reflect cultural values different from English-speaking nations, broadening from British and Eurocentric values to tell a broad range of stories about people’s lives irrespective of their country of origin.
Reading across a variety of cultures allows one a wider view of the world and recognition of different cultural views and values. I myself am an admirer of the works of Russian novelists, especially Dostoyevsky and Nabokov, for their unique approach to writing fiction. Many have described Russia’s geographical location as responsible for its different perspective that comes through in its fiction, embracing neither the values of Western Europe nor that of Asia.

It is also becoming increasingly common to see works by Asian authors written in English. Mao’s Last Dancer is one of the best-known instances of this, a work of fiction with strong ties to the historical context of Chairman Mao’s Communist regime in China and the social consequences of the Cultural Revolution. However, what makes any novel truly good is how it connects with and attempts to explain human lives, which Li Cunxin manages effectively. Haruki Murakami is another one of my favourite authors, who has become popular and successful worldwide despite his books being initially written in Japanese and often exploring bizarre themes or ideas.

A work that has been translated from one language into another recognises its quality as a piece of literature. Many of the greatest works of the Western canon were not originally written in English. The works of French authors such as Proust, Voltaire, Hugo and Camus have profoundly influenced the history of literature because of the revolutionary ideas that they proposed at the time. Then there are German authors such as Herman Hesse and Günter Grass whose philosophical writings questioned the European school of thought, and the Russian novelists that I mentioned earlier that expanded the creative boundaries of the novel.

Language is a powerful tool; it has shaped our discourse for millennia into the society that we are today. Literature is in many ways becoming much more globally interconnected, with contributions from people all over the world expanding the creative boundaries of the medium. Your writing is able to contribute to a truly global discussion, with anyone who has a computer and internet access being able to comment on this blog and share their thoughts, feelings and opinions with others.

This week, I invite you to consider how expanding global interconnectedness is affecting communication between different people across the world. Are culturally dissimilar nations becoming more similar as the result of globalisation? If so, is this a bad thing? This raises potential questions about whether it is better to develop an isolated, potentially unique perspective or engage in a broader range of ideas from others. Consider writing about certain cultural philosophies or events in your writing, or applying your own understanding to that of another country’s way of life.

Writing has been expanding its borders for centuries, and is now spreading across the world faster than ever. Right now your writing can contribute to this vast, rich world of global literature and be read by people all over the world.

Writing Prompt: Technology

Technology plays an important role in all of our lives today, whether in the form of mobile phones, PCs, iPads or laptops, for our entertainment and work. Over the next couple of weeks, I encourage you to give some thought to the importance of significance of technology to you or our society as a whole. You could also think about technology through the lens of a science-fiction writer, in terms of how it will affect our lives into the future or even the role it could play in our suppression as in Brave New World or 1984. The following are some prompts related to technology.

Note that writing in response to the fortnightly prompts is not compulsory.

Technology’s potential for creative production – My overview of the potential for technology to replace human jobs

The sounds of the future – My analysis of Radiohead’s OK Computer, a critically acclaimed album that discusses the potential role of technology in our future lives

Zac.

Technology’s potential for creative destruction

Undoubtedly, when you have recently gone to a supermarket, you have seen one of the new self-checkout machines that allow you to scan and bag your own groceries, instead of relying on costly and error-prone humans. The incentive for supermarkets to use self-checkout machines is obvious – they are cheaper to maintain than employees for doing the same work. The economics behind what Austrian economist Joseph Schumpter coined creative destruction is rather simple: Businesses that utilise more efficient means of production make greater profits and require fewer jobs, so upgrading to something like a self-checkout makes supermarkets richer while at the same time destroying pre-existing jobs.

Source: http://www.news.com.au/technology/self-serve-checkouts-a-new-moral-dilemma/story-e6frfro0-1111117422025
Source: http://www.news.com.au/technology/self-serve-checkouts-a-new-moral-dilemma/story-e6frfro0-1111117422025

This kind of thing has been happening for centuries, since the first factories, and has almost always been shown to be economically advantageous in the long-term. One of the most famous examples of this is the Luddites, textile artisans who protested against inventions like the stocking frames, spinning frames and power loom that threatened their livelihood. These machines enabled cheaper production with less-skilled, lower-wage workers, and from our modern perspective were hugely influential in developing the consumption-based society we have today. However, many people are opposed to the loss of jobs that self-checkouts can cause, or disconcerted by the obvious presence of a computer where a human job previously existed. For these people, their smartphone, laptop or computer are distinctly different from the self-checkout. However, they are all technologies that have replaced less efficient means of production as technology itself has increasingly great effects on our personal and working lives.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luddite
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luddite

Most computer scientists would agree that self-checkouts are merely a stepping stone in the process of automation, and that perhaps in the future most of the jobs that people will do today will be replaced by robot counterparts. Google’s driverless car is another example of a new technology, but with a greater potential impact on society as a whole in reducing road fatalities, traffic congestion, parking spaces and greenhouse gas emissions simply by removing humans from the equation. Our relationship with machines is only going to become closer and closer in the future, yet perhaps the idea of leaving the steering to an independent entity is disconcerting. The potential for robots to entirely replace the taxi and truck-driving sectors is terrifying for taxi drivers and truck drivers everywhere, but a pleasant notion for owners and CEOs of these businesses.

Source: http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-28851996
Source: http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-28851996

Not even creative professions are safe from the influence of mechanisation, as C.G.P. Grey points out in his 15-minute YouTube documentary, Humans Need Not Apply. The creative potential of the human mind is one of the most foundational aspects of the human condition, yet even now there exists a robot that can create and compose music, as can be heard in the background of the video. Modern computer science is still far from being able to write articles on an internet blog, but perhaps even one day machines will be able to write a basic draft that people will then edit. Recently on Freakonomics Radio, John Komlos, a retired professor from the University of Munich and author of “Has Creative Destruction Become More Destructive?” answers his own question with a confident ‘yes’ – creative destruction has the potential to destroy millions of jobs. Grey claims that up to 45% of the workforce could be replaced by robots, an almost overwhelming figure. He comes to the conclusion that we, as a society, will simply have to adjust to higher levels of unemployment, and that there is very little that we can do to prevent robots from replacing humans in the global economy.

However, if we take a step back and look at the broader picture of technology’s role in human affairs, we see that while technology has the potential to destroy jobs, is also has the potential to create them. It is often said to high school students that they will probably have a job that did not exist 50 years ago. It is not unlikely that we will adjust in response to the threat of computers and find brand new jobs with technology that never existed before. Our increasing use of smartphones and social networking is merely a symptom of the way in which technology is changing how we work and think as a society. Whether or not that is a good thing is a different topic entirely – there are both pros and cons to the spread of computers into different aspects of our life. Hopefully, our future is not one where humans have been almost fully replaced by robots, as seen in the xkcd comic below. However, we cannot be certain of how and in what ways we will change to accommodate new technologies, or what new directions computer science and other fields of innovation will take us.

Source: http://xkcd.com/1263/
Source: http://xkcd.com/1263/

As Albert Einstein said, “When the number of factors coming into play in a phenomenological complex is too large scientific method in most cases fails. One need only think of the weather, in which case the prediction even for a few days ahead is impossible.” If predicting natural phenomena a few weeks in advance is still so challenging for modern science, understanding what our future will hold in terms of technological developments is even further outside our realm of understanding. We can only dream big and hope that if our future turns out like a science fiction novel, it is a utopia, and not a dystopia.

The sounds of the future

Ok Computer

You are reading this on a computer. I typed this on a computer. We use computers every day of our lives, because they allow us to be more productive and to enjoy our entertainment more efficiently. Yet, decades after hippies being concerned over personal computers, the rise of the world wide web, Y2K and integration to the point where nearly all of us carry a computer with us everywhere, there is something empty, impersonal and antisocial in constantly having a screen in front of you.

Radiohead was one of the first bands to warn against the direction in which humanity was heading in their critically acclaimed 1997 album OK Computer. Music has changed hugely not only in terms of how it actually sounds but how it is distributed and consumed as the result of computers. Removed from its fantastical predictions of the future, human music brings us closer to our integration with machines and losing our contact with reality by allowing us to truly imagine the sounds of the future.

Almost 18 years before today, Radiohead’s iconic album OK Computer was released. OK Computer was one of the most influential albums of the 90s and is at the top of many lists of the best albums of all time, demonstrating Radiohead’s shift in tone from its connections with grunge and rock to ambient and melancholic alternative. Throughout OK Computer, Radiohead front man Thom Yorke criticises societal shallowness in the face of the then rising new technologies of computers.

Yorke’s lyrics were heavily influenced by Orwell’s classic 1984 and other dystopian novels, a message of societal apathy resounding clearly throughout the album more so than traditional visions of totalitarian and destruction of individual freedoms. The album’s second single, ‘Karma Police’ could be interpreted as a conversation between a man and the Thought Police from 1984 and a social commentary on our tendency to judge others based on appearance and sense of righteousness.

Yorke’s detached falsetto is one of his most distinguishing features as a vocalist, lending itself to this criticism of society’s apathy while simultaneously sounding non-argumentative and subdued. It is one of the album’s greatest criticisms, however, that Yorke sounds like he is moaning, and is occasionally not fully in tune.

Single ‘Karma Police’ is one of the most well-known tracks off the album. Beneath the calm piano and acoustic guitar chords, Yorke defames society’s development of its morality and criticism of others. The opening line, suggests that we find those who we are unable to comprehend due to their higher level of understanding annoying. We have our own internal ‘karma’ that we use to judge others, even for matters that are seemingly trivial.

Yorke later asks for the karma police to ‘arrest this girl / her Hitler hairdo / is making me feel ill.’ The phrase ‘Hitler hairdo’ is evocative of symbols that are historically offensive, possibly through being defiled by others. In many places in the world today, the swastika is considered offensive, and people remain unaware of its connotations as a Hindu peace symbol. Yorke suggests that many of the things modern society finds offensive are not intrinsically so.

Throughout ‘Karma Police’, Yorke’s vocals seem detached from the underlying harshness of his message, namely the repeated line ‘This is what you’ll get when you mess with us.’ The trademark airiness of Thom’s voice is suggestive of a state of detachment and withdrawal, reinforced by the final line of the song ‘For a minute there, I lose myself.’ Yorke is warns against becoming too judgemental, and allowing external appearance of others in shaping our opinions of others.

My personal favourite track, ‘No Surprises’, is a song that many consider to be concerned with suicide. Its introductory high-pitched guitar is somewhat unsettling at first, but the song develops into a calmed, moderate tempo overlaid with acoustic guitar chords and peaceful xylophone. The song is a scathing criticism of apathy prevalent within our modern society, which has only been exacerbated by the increasing usage of computers and new technology.

Yorke’s voice is similarly detached when talking about ‘a handshake of carbon monoxide’, as long as there are ‘no alarms and no surprises’. Although we as a global society have grown more interconnected and interdependent through globalisation, we have also become apathetic and desensitised. ‘No Surprises’ also has one of Radiohead’s greatest ever music videos, showing Thom Yorke singing the first verse and chorus in a helmet slowly filling with water before becoming submerged, and remaining underwater for a minute before bursting out and singing the remainder of the song. It is chilling to see Thom’s calmness despite remaining underwater for such an extended period of time.

Although many regard music as a medium primarily associated with happy themes, countless artists use sound in different ways to evoke human emotions and discuss themes in ways that differ significantly from the written word. It is a world that I have only recently discovered, with Radiohead as its starting point, but it is a world dense with meaning and understanding on an almost unimaginable scale.

Since its release in 1997, OK Computer has prompted significant questions about our attachment to computers that are more relevant than ever. Although our relationship with computers is different from how it is often envisioned in science fiction films, there is no denying that technology has hugely influenced the way that we work and interact with each other over the past decade. Yet at the heart of our changing lifestyles, there is the reality that we are spending more time alone with devices that do not have real thoughts or feelings, preferring entertainment through videos and movies to novels.

Radiohead suggested that we were becoming more self-centred, impatient, even less human due to computers, and this has only become more evident over time. However, it is important to remember that it is our individual choices about how we use computers change who we are as humans, not them computers themselves.

Welcome to 2015!

Welcome to 2015, previous and current members of MHS Competition Writing! This year, we aim to continue to uphold the spirit of Competition Writing as a club for people who want to share their writing with others, whether competitively or just for personal enjoyment.

Unicorn Express
The blog will remain a central part of the club, as a place to share your writing with other members of the group so that others can enjoy and discuss the writing shared. For new members wanting to join the blog, the process for signing up is simple:
1. Go to http://www.wordpress.com/ and create a WordPress account.
2. Email your username to Ms. Sheko, who will add permission for you to post on the blog.
3. To post writing, select UnicornExpress from the WordPress dashboard and click add new post. Add relevant tags and choose the category that your type of writing falls under.

Discussions
Discussion is a huge part of what makes writing fun for so many people, and hopefully why you will decide to post your writing on the blog for others to see. This year we want to encourage discussion of others writing, both in the comments and in the fortnightly meetings where at least one person will be required to read a piece of writing that they have posted. We also highly encourage discussion of the writing prompts, which will be posted regularly as inspiration, as well as other topics related to literature and writing that inspires yourself or others to write.

Hypertext Fiction
Hypertext fiction is a new idea that we are trying out this year that entails writing a blog post in response to another post that someone has already written. So far, there have been three hypertext fiction posts (1) Will, (2) me and (3) Victor. We are looking to nominate someone to continue this story every week – although it does not have to be chronological – so that at the end of the year we have a piece of writing that everyone in the group has contributed to.

Competitions
Although the name of the group is Competition Writing, the focus is not at all on being competitive, entering heaps of competitions and receiving prize money. What Competition Writing is really about is about sharing your writing with a like-minded community of writers to improve and have fun. However, competitions are a great opportunity to test your writing ability against other entrants, and you can even win money. For the main list of competitions, go to https://unicornexpressmhs.wordpress.com/competitions/.

Write-a-Book-in-a-Day (April 1 – Aug 31)
We are looking for people to sign up for a team to spend the whole day writing a book, with pizza provided by the library.

Writing Workshops
Last year, there were some lecture-style writing workshops run by students to provide suggestions for improving one’s writing. This year, we want to keep writing workshops, but make them focused more on our personal experiences of what makes good writing and a good writer.

Guest Speakers
We are hoping to be able to get some guest speakers, whether authors, journalists or others in the world of writing to speak at the school. If you have any suggestions for writers living in Melbourne that could be guest speakers, please tell the captains.

Facebook Group
The Facebook group is the way we encourage sharing of blog posts that you enjoy with others, as well as keeping up to date with meetings and finding new writing resources.


I look forward to working with all of you as part of Competition Writing 2015, and hope to make it a good year!



Zac.