Whispering plays a big part in ASMR. Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
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Welcome to the world of autonomous sensory meridian response videos, the internet’s soft play area

For some people, videos of people performing intricate tasks or crinkling paper can produce a satisfying tingling feeling. If you can suspend your cyncism, it’s one of the nicest places on the internet to be.

“Prob not going to make it tonight, feeling rough,” I text. I’m taking a social sick day, and what I actually mean is, “Prob not going to make it tonight, can’t be bothered to stand in a hot room, sipping a drink that I had to queue for 40 minutes to get.” What I actually, actually mean is, “Prob not going to make it tonight, a woman off the internet is doing stuff to my ears, and I’m into it.”

Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) videos are, objectively speaking, the weirdest thing on the world wide web. They’re weirder than this, this and this. But they’re also an internet sensation. The one I’m watching, the one about ears, has over 400,000 views. A 20-minute video where a woman prods a disembodied silicone ear with various objects has been watched nearly half a million times. But why?

In case you haven’t read one of the many, many articles about what ASMR is, I’m going to attempt to explain. And boy, this is a real humdinger of complexity. I’m not sure I’m cut out for this. OK – it’s effectively a satisfying tingling feeling (or “braingasm”) that some people, myself included, get from watching and listening to other people performing, say, an intricate task. Or crinkling some paper. Or whispering in your ear. When I was at school, for example, I had a friend who used to draw on her hands in lessons. When I sat next to her, quadratic equations and conjugating “être” became background noise. I’d be too mesmerised by watching her tattoo herself in biro to even function.

A decade later I learnt that not only is there a name for what was going on in my head when I zenned the hell out in French and maths, but there are millions of other people who experience it. And, unwittingly, I suppose I’ve become a member of the nascent ASMR community. And I hate communities. And I hate hippy dippy, kale juice enemas, reiki hand jobs bollocks. And, for anyone who doesn’t experience ASMR, that’s exactly what most of the videos probably look like. A lot of it is women whispering about relaxation, in this babbling, nonsensical, stream of consciousness way. But, holy shit is it calming.  

In fact, I’m honestly not exaggerating when I say that ASMR videos have changed my life. They’re sometimes more effective than sleeping pills in getting me, an anxiety ridden insomniac depressive, to drop off. Really and truly. I mean sure, there’s going to come a point when you’re 15 minutes into a video of a woman blowing on a saucepan where you think, “What the fuck is my life?” But, if you’re truly relaxed for the first time in three years, does that really matter?

ASMR videos are the internet’s soft play area. Anyone who spends even a fifth of the amount of time that I do online will know that it’s at least 93 per cent shouty caps lock arguments. If you fancy a holiday from all that, I highly recommend you suspend your cynicism – I managed it – and get into ASMR. If you don’t believe me, just look at the comments on any given ASMR video. We all know that, a dreaded glance over the comments section of a video of a penguin falling over will usually direct you straight to someone being called “worse than Hitler”. The comments on ASMR videos are things like, “this really helped me get to sleep, thanks J” and “I want to hug whoever invented ASMR”.

Hugs. Actual hugs. 

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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“There will be an absolute meltdown in 2020” : what’s holding back the introduction of electronic voting?

The government's reluctance to implement electronic voting will affect our future, and in – the case of Brexit – may have already dramatically affected our past. 

Imagine, just for a second, that the situation was reversed. Imagine if, for a hundred years, we had scanned, swiped, and tapped our votes into a secure, fool-proof electronic system and someone waddled along and said, “Alright lads, how about we try pencil and paper?”. How about we desperately try to find a spare hour to shuffle to the village hall in the rain and scratch an “X” onto a scrap of paper with a stubby bit of lead, and then let a volunteer named Deidre count it at two am? What could possibly go wrong?

If you picture this scenario – posited by my colleague Anna – then it quickly becomes clear how ridiculous it is that the UK has not yet implemented electronic voting in any lasting way, shape, or form. Not only are we not on board with popping online to vote, we’re also reluctant to use technology when it comes to marking our ballots, authenticating voters’ identities, and counting votes. Despite the success of electronic voting in countries such as Brazil, Estonia, and India, the UK continues to reject reform. Why?

 “I think the problem is political at the moment,” says Mike Summers, the program manager at Smartmatic, an electronic voting company who have run three national elections in the Philippines, have a 15 year contract with Belgium, and have counted around 3.7 billion electronic votes in 12 years. “I think there is a fear that if you enfranchise groups of younger people, then you don’t necessarily know how they’re going to vote.”

We can, however, make a pretty good guess. Smartmatic’s own research shows that 57 per cent of 18-24 year olds would be more likely to vote if they could do so online and 55 per cent said they would have used online voting at the last general election. As Labour's vote share could have been boosted at the last election if only more young people had turned out to vote, this might make electronic voting an uninviting prospect for Theresa May.

“Prior to the last parliamentary election the Labour party were vehemently in favour of electronic voting,” says Summers. “Things are moving very slowly compared to other developing and developed nations so our reading of the situation is that it’s a largely political one.”

The consequences of this inaction are severe. Holding off on a voting system that provides greater accessibility to all compromises the very notion of democracy, but it also has potentially more immediate repercussions. “In 2020 everything is going to hit the proverbial fan we’re going to be a laughing stock,” says Summers.

The reason for this is because of the wide array of elections sheduled for 2020. Not only will there be a general election, there are also police and crime commissioner elections, the London Assembly and the London mayoral elections, and also local elections. “There is real concern that because of the complexity of this event there is going to be an absolute meltdown.”

Electronic voting would help prevent such a meltdown by ensuring, among other things, that voters couldn’t accidentally mark a first past the post ballot with a preferential voting system (or vice versa), that votes could be counted faster, and that overseas votes would not be lost in the post. The last is of particular importance as the government are now planning to scrap the 15-year rule that bans long-term expatriates from voting in UK elections.

“That’s a potential five million additional expats who will be eligible to vote,” says Summers, “How are you going to service them?” The answer to that is via the postal vote, and the limitations of this traditional method make the case for electronic voting even stronger.

“Postal voters authenticate themselves with a signature – mine is easily forgeable – and their date of birth,” says Summers. “The traditional methods are not secure. With online voting we can use facial biometrics to compare a person’s digital facial portrait – a selfie, if you like – with their ID, and we can verify there is a match.

“The next problem is security, and putting your ballot in an envelope is not secure. We have very, very strong application level cryptography. The moment a voter casts their ballot we encrypt it on the voting side and digitally sign it as a method of proving the integrity. Additionally, when postal voters put their vote in the post box they have no way of checking it was received or counted, so you have no verifiability. We have a number of tools that voters can use to verify their vote was received and was included in the final tally.”

Nowhere is the importance of the postal vote clearer than in the case of Brexit. “You could argue that the outcome would have been different,” says Summers. “Lots of expats voted by post and a lot of the votes didn’t come back before the close of the election count. We have an office in Amsterdam and one of the guys plays in a local rugby club in The Hague. There are ten Brits on that team and six of them received their postal vote after the close of the election. If you’re an expat living overseas then are you going to vote for or against Brexit? If those voters had voted then the outcome could have been completely different.”

Yet the benefits of accuracy, transparency, verifiability, and accessibility are easily side-lined by one bloodcurdling word. Hackers. If Hillary Clinton’s emails can become your bedtime reading, isn’t it possible – nay, probable – that elections will be hacked, falsified, and corrupted?

“The easiest election to hack is a paper election,” says Summers. “It is important to educate people on the difference between election information systems, which the DMC use, and voting systems. The protections of voting systems are above and beyond anything you will use in any other online application, including online banking and ecommerce solutions.”

As a representative of Smartmatic, Summers would say this, but they and other companies have created a wide variety of solutions which – even if imperfect – are vulnerable to fewer mistakes than Deidre in the village hall. Even if there are flaws, it seems important to iron these out now – before 2020 – to ensure the success of electronic voting in the future.

Although the House of Commons’ Commission on Digital Democracy recommended that the UK should adopt electronic voting by 2020, there is little evidence that steps are being taken towards this goal. “I’d love to turn around and say I think steps are being taken but there is a lack of willingness to acknowledge the shortcomings that we have in terms of UK elections,” says Summers. For now, then, the debate rages on. Should we stick to the tried-and-tested, or should we transform the electoral process forever? I know – let's vote on it. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.