You hear a few words a lot these days. Well, shit–we hear a lot of words a lot these days. But here are four:
And while they mean whatever it is they mean, I’m drawing attention to their rhetorical use. That is to say, when people use them as fulcrum nodes, to pivot a point or to convince you to listen. Substitute them for X in the sentence below:
“…and that this technology is so X, has enormous implications for….”
Yes, rhetorical words, often implemented to make technological points. There are a lot of other words that are used a lot to talk about technology, but I think these four share some characteristics.
So, I’ve got this theory, right? As much as I am a materialist in the Marxist vein, and as much as I am a psychoanalytical theorist constantly diagramming behavior in terms of unconscious processes, and as much as I am an anarchist seeking to throw off the bonds of the state and the capitalist system, I have this other theory. The consumer tech environment is a giant piece of performance art.
Sure, consumer tech is fully embodied in productive relations, and it is merely a trigger for many of our more sociable neuroses, and it is another tool of state power and the oligarchical superstructure. But there is this lingering, stoned fadedness to my analysis, that makes me just want to sit back and say, “whoa… that Marina Abramovic/APPL is pretty intense.” Art is all of those things, too. If you think that the labor relations for the art assistants who do the majority of the artist’s actual work is all hunky dory, then you probably fetishize being poor. Either that, or you have already given in to the commodifying superstructure, and you are in bed with the Man. But there is something about art that makes us more tolerant of all of these obvious criticisms. Not that excuses it, but just lets us take a step back from the problem. Clearly, there are bigger problems out there in the world, and maybe better battles to fight than picketing the art galleries (that we secretly wish would maybe show our work).
And similarly, with technology. Sure, gadgets and the Internet have been around. But in the last ten years, we’ve had a string of “bigger problems” to deal with. So much so, that a multi-touch hand held device really takes the edge of, you know? Celebrity magazines weren’t going to sustain our post-9/11 society for ever. Needed something more glossy. “Post-9/11″ could actually be called the “era of “bigger” problems”. “For god’s sake, forget about that–look at this!” Calm by way of bigger panic. And then… Farmville. It’s a brave new foreign convoluted art film, all right.
But, human as we are, we don’t like to give up our problems. We need problems. Because what will we bitch about when the actual BIG problems just become an overwhelming mindfuck? Don’t know what to do with Ahmadinejad, but hey, everyone’s got a final solution for Steve Jobs. I’m not the only one with a nice handheld theory device in my pocket. Everyone’s got an opinion. And one day, you’ll make in onto that online Leaderboard, too. Just keep clicking that cow.
Open – buzzword of the authoritarian regime. Not true totalitarianism of course, because that takes a special confluence of circumstances. This is your generic, convenient Nationalism, spouted by some asshole who just happens to be riding the violent wave of brute force that seized control of whatever few power structures already existed, in the time honored seduction of the coup and with all the subtlety of general repression of the press. Probably wear some shade of green or brown. Probably, because it could be either. They didn’t give it much thought, really. Too busy looting the treasury.
“Our system/platform/software is so open!” Sure it is. That’s why you have to say so. A true dictator would say, “you are not free–and this is why you love me.” But these leaders have better things to do than stand in front of the UN and argue the case for repression. That takes a lot of time. Did I mention looting the treasury? Look how many countries claim to be a democracy. What does this even mean anymore? It means you have a constitution, and something like a vote for something. You have your source code available on a website. Hooray! Too bad no one can use it for anything, because to actually make that constitution worth anything, it would require voting for an illegal candidate, or burning down the city you live it, or having your TV station seized… I mean, cracking open your warranty-encrusted hardware, destroying any functionality that was there, and building the whole thing back up from scratch only to get sued for distributing it.
Closed – Tailor made for posterboard slogans, liberal body painting, and radical cheerleader cheers. If there was a Venn diagram for Free/Oppressed People, each zone respectively labeled by the authoritarians and the liberals, it would be a perfect circle. War is peace, and open is closed. Just so cliche. File under caricatures of leaders with skulls for faces. File under “Destroy the Hun!” File under propaganda posters that have to write what each thing represents on its surface. Just in case, you know, you didn’t get it.
“Their software/business model/lame, uptight, bourgeois values are so closed!” Yep. Not to belittle the criticism, but closed is hardly the problem. The problem is “free”, oddly enough–exactly what the rhetoric dichotomy corresponds to in my metaphor. Wanting software to be open isn’t enough–we want it to be free. Just like wanting “constitutional freedom” isn’t enough–you have to be empowered in that freedom. Otherwise you are just free to suffer. The good things about open software is not the source code. It isn’t the constitution. It’s the ability to do whatever you want with it, which invariably leans towards free–anarchy. And suddenly, not everyone is on board any more. Every person who complains about a “closed” system would hardly argue that it should be absolutely GPL. But that is the cure for their ills. That is what they mean when they say “open”, because open hardly means anything anymore. Free is actually the fix, whether it is a good thing or not. And suddenly, you have a lot of supposed OS liberals justifying the control of the state.
Innovative – Libertarianism. Ayn Rand idiocy. The free market. Wait–there’s that “free” word again! Yes, the freedom to be savages. Natural order. The tyranny of anyone telling anyone what to do. Progress is regression. Somewhere deep in the ugly bowels of the human brain, is the half-formed idea that unconstrained will is somehow the most perfect ideal of humanity. And it makes up the entirely of the “philosophy” called Objectivism. That, given the ability of each person to carry out every fucked up, perverted, torturous act that humans have ever invented, all at once, would somehow reinstate some sort of natural peace in the world. Because there is a ton of evidence that that is how humans work.
What does innovation have to do with libertarianism? Innovation has no goal other than progress. But what does that mean without a definition of progress? Progress towards what? Freedom for whom, and to what end? Doesn’t matter, as long as its “innovative”. Innovation–the pleasant, primal, natural state of technology. Until it becomes mustard gas, or a malfunctioning air bag. Because innovation is what technology does, right? If it isn’t innovative, its obsolete. If it doesn’t function exactly the way you want it to, it isn’t innovative. But what is, “exactly the way you want it to?” Maybe that is a simple set of proscriptions–like a cell phone that does not administer a horrible shock to the user. All well and good. But if it is a device you have never seen before, how do you know what you want? Most likely, someone is telling you want you want. i.e. What they want. They are selling you a crappy novel, claiming it is philosophy. The freedom of unrestrained tyranny. Sure–gadget tyranny doesn’t sound like a BIG problem. Until you rely on that gadget to save your life. Or not destroy your planet. Then again, life is just sorting problems into a hierarchy, isn’t it? One of these days, we’ll figure out what really matters.
Relevance – X uber alles! No war but the class war. Not struggle but the People’s struggle. No god but ____, and the (enter name of device here) is his/her/its prophet. Looking out for number 1. Looking forward to the true singularity. If this is a world of problems, certain problems matter more than others. How do we decide? Don’t worry, we have already decided for you. Each and every person has decided what is relevant, and what is not. And it’s okay to kill/rape/maim/destroy/burn/sell/eat/break those irrelevancies. Why? Because they don’t matter. According to what? What we already know. Total information awareness is about filtering. Panopticons are not about watching everything, but watching certain things at certain times, when it matters. May we direct your attention to X? Look at X. Don’t look away.
Relevance is important, but so is control. Without control, power would be unrestrained tyranny. With control, power is the cultural relevance of society. Without the police, the social contract, polite morality, it would be a war of all against all, and those people down the block would play their music at all hours of the night! Because everything is so much better when everything is relevant, and where nothing I didn’t know before didn’t sneak in. The good citizen walks through life with 3 channels, with a real job, with current ideas. The right books. The right looks. “I’m feeling lucky” is a lifestyle. THIS is what matters. Extraneous information is pollution. Because Tumblr-forbid we waste our time with this sort of dalliance. To do so would be anti-social, anti-state, and anti-system. “Say what you want about national socialism. At least it’s an ethos!”
The point of drawing attention to these four terms is to show how the political dualisms enter into everything we talk about, whether it is the new touchscreen device, or the new touchscreen OS. Err–sorry. What I mean, is that rhetoric is rhetorical, surprise of surprises. Whether we are talking about political systems or what the hot gift for Christmas will be, we end up largely using the same language. We have talking points, which we apply to most anything. There is a theory to gadget blogging just as much as social revolution. Why? Because this is 2010! Or, just because we are human, and this is how we work.
So, in a certain sense, I’m content to sit back and watch the performance. Totalitarianism is an art movement–and has been all the way back. Ideas, especially dangerous ones, are graphic design, all the way down. There is an aesthetic element to our regard (or lack of it) for the human species. We watch car crashes with the same fascination as labor riots–read product press releases as closely as theses nailed to church doors. Everyone wants to know: is it beautiful? Is it worth looking at? What does this say about all the previous art? And what does this say about all the art that is to come? Sometimes all we can do is sit and stare.
And on the other hand, all art is political. Someone made that art, and most likely they weren’t paid enough. More likely than not, someone is picking your pocket while you stand there gawking. If you’re just looking at art, buying art, or agreeing with what other people say about art, then you are a stooge. You are a capitalist. You are a sucker. You should be making art, breaking art. Lighting it on fire. Putting it on a flag. Charging into battle while others sit and watch, slack-jawed.
Political take-away: you are simultaneously getting too worked up, and you are not doing enough. You are the oppressor, and you are the oppressed. You are the brainwashed militant, and you are the drugged, working-stiff sheep. You are far too cerebral, and you are a ham-fisted brute. Think about what you are saying for goodness sake, and stop thinking and do something.
Aesthetic take-away: you call this art?
[Without providing a really good context for linking to them, these each got me onto these terms. So here's a small bibliography.
Not sure how this design relates to the subject matter of the book. I do like the island silhouette motif–its a repeatable icon that could be used in branding or as chapter headers in the text. But are the different takes on the outline meant to stand for certain utopias discussed in Maly’s authoritative treatment of utopia’s afterlife? Or are they simply meant to be variations on a theme–signifying the epistemological category of utopia in general, or the critical approach Maly employs in bringing them all together in context? Those who have already read the book, or are seeking it out by name, will be aware of the prose on its own merits. So is it really necessary to overload the cover with line drawings of “network” imagery? Perhaps a simple dust jacket with the title and a bit of color would have been more appropriate. But, the goal of the cover is to sell the book–so clearly that is what the publisher intends with this approach.
The interesting part of that article, is the proposition that using such technology will be a “dominant strategy equilibrium.” The term comes from game theory, and denotes the condition when all players choose the outcome that will dominate regardless of other’s choices. In the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma, the result of both players consistently defecting is this sort of equilibrium–they both choose to screw over the other player, in order to save themselves being screwed in an unmitigated fashion. (There is a phrase to quote!) There are other sorts of dominant strategy equilibriums, depending on the game–it is whatever works out best for everyone so that they don’t need to worry about everyone else. Hedging your bets, in a way.
Which makes sense. When everyone has Google Maps in their pocket, you will be at a disadvantage if you don’t. Not only in the simple competition of finding the way to the nearest coffee shop the fastest, but also the generalized act of “finding your way”. Try this experiment: ask someone with an iPhone how to get somewhere a fair distance away. Watch their face squint up, as they attempt not to suggest, “can’t you just look at your iPhone?” Indeed, once you see someone with a smart phone, it’s pretty difficult not to want one yourself. It appeals to all kinds–those who tweet or text constantly, those who rely on business email or other network connection, those whose appetite for trivia necessitates a Wikipedia implant, those who like the interface for games, or those who simply like music and video wherever they go. And yes, those who want to find coffee shops.
But we are only in the first “mini-game” of the smart phone world. In game theory application, any theorized game is only part of the bigger picture. You solve the small games, and then those equilibriums become the rules for a larger game. For the game, “who wants a smart phone?” we get “Everyone wants a smart phone”. Equilibrium created. Now, on to the next game.
Another game could be “what smart phone do I buy?” From the choices of features, phones in existence, and your desired usage, you could find yourself another equilibrium. An “when do I update my phone with the next version?” could be another, with factors such as feature change, plan cost, and local availability. Either of these could be analyzed according to game theory, or some other method of diagramming rational choice.
But here’s one that is a little more complicated, of which we are only seeing the beginnings. What happens when the original dominant strategy equilibrium is an equilibrium, but is not a balanced equilibrium? What happens when access to game choices are not distributed equally? This is called an asymmetric game. Equilibrium does not necessarily mean fairness, or balance between players.
Picture this: two players have established the dominant strategy equilibrium, and decided they both need smart phones. To make it simple, we’ll just say they are both business people, that need smart phones for business. Player A’s company is doing well, so they play the “What smart phone game?” and spring for an iPhone 4–top of the line. Equilibrium established, smart phone in hand. Player B owns his/her own company, and is barely making it through the recession. His/her equilibrium lands a [insert smart phone you feel is less capable than the iPhone 4 so I don't have to go there.] Both are fulfilling their dominant strategy, but Player A ends up better than Player B. His/her phone is faster, so s/he arrives to appointments on time. It has more value as a status symbol. S/he has access to numerous productivity apps, and so on and so forth.
Maybe the difference isn’t really pronounced between Player A and B. There are plenty of other variables. Maybe B’s business acumen totally makes up for less than cutting edge technology. But because we are talking about game theory, let’s extend the pattern to infinity. Let’s look at two entire classes of people, divided by whether they have the best phone, or the second best. Let’s imagine that this differentiation also falls across an app compatibility divide, so class A has access to different apps than B. The new social network develops their apps for class A first–better press that way, and that class has a bit more disposable income for premium apps. Now their phones are, for the moment of that app divide, even more different than before. Take a look at the difference in app availability between Sybian OS and iOS. That is probably the furtherest extreme of this app divide–for now. Both are very popular, and yet iOS has many, many more apps than Sybian.
And this leads us to the example of a more historical technological divide, between first and third world. Sybian is widely used because it is the OS for many Nokia phones, the most popular mobile handset manufacturer in the world. But Apple is the most popular handset manufacturer in the FIRST world. This is, in a sense, no different than any other technological divide between first and third world. I hear Internet is faster in the first world too (just not in the US). But this is divide that is going to appear in the first world, as the slope of asymmetric equilibriums in personal technology increase.
I’m finding this out now, as my iPhone 3G slowly expires. I bought it in 2008 when it first came out. I coughed up the dough because not only did I have an extra $200 bucks, but because it was “the future”. I even named my phone “The Future”. Now, as I am short on cash after being unemployed for a while last year (thanks, recession! Debt is the gift that keeps on giving!) my choice in name is providing me with a delightful bit of retro-future irony as compensation for low battery life, crashing apps, and intermittent antenna problems. Not only is my phone less than status quo compared to the new iPhone 4, it is decidedly less useful that it was originally, as evidenced by comparison to my partner’s iPhone 3G, purchased in 2009. She did not upgrade to iOS 4, and uses her phone (and battery) far less than I do. It’s like a breath of fresh air when I use her phone for a moment, as opposed to the sluggishness of “The Future”.
Although it is certainly what they call a “first world problem” that my mobile phone’s web browser crashes, it is also by this distinction that the problem becomes apparent. If the first and the third world is divided by the rational choice equilibriums represented in Nokia vs Apple, then the division between the iPhone 4 and the 3G is class difference. The astute sociological observer would note that this class boundary, if it amounts to anything much, would be the difference between middle class and and lower-upper-middle class, if that is such a thing. And it might also be explained by other divisions such as geeky tech hobbies, and what I choose to spent my money on. The strategies of this game are complicated, and many. But compare this division, which I am sure I am not the only one to feel, to when the iPhone 3G was first released. As the first widely adopted full-powered smart phone (an odd differentiation of categories in itself), everyone who bought one was instantly a member of the “iPhone club”. But it was a single level club. In a way, smart phones were the beginning of a new utopia–in which we will all be wirelessly integrated into the network, constantly on, and all equal members of the social network and the meritocracy of the commons. But in only two years, and in two yearly iPhone model iterations, new strategic games have been introduced. A rift is opening. How far can I let myself fall from the cutting edge? How far can you? Where is the equilibrium for anyone, in a constantly accelerating terrain of technology? How far can you drift to the back of the pack before you can never make up the ground that is lost?
The identifiable rules of a game are in themselves, a certain equilibrium of the folded strata of choices. They are a pattern, denoting a landscape–a plane of existence defined by certain variables. Option points, and choice vectors that move between them. Smart phone technology is only a recent surface for this landscape. Class differences have been around longer. Class is nothing more than a “family structure”: a strategic alignment whose constituent interests are best served by an allegiance to this abstract concept. It behooves a certain portion of the population to identify as middle class, and defend those “values”, because in the end as self-ascribed members, they will benefit as part of the whole. The family was once the primary structure to defend, from a evolutionary perspective. It was the basic pattern of human productive relations. As society and its productions get more complicated, we get other structures, that will either defend themselves, or fade away. They will create strategies of existence–the choice to adhere to said equilibrium and promote its strategy becomes an identifying factor for group membership.
Take fan-based, or “hobby” industries. The Commodore 64 was the best-selling computer from 1982-86. It introduced the home computer to thousands of homes (the “family” computer, as it were) before being discontinued in 1994. But, it still is around today. For archive purposes perhaps, for nostalgia–not necessarily out of a sense of computer conservatism. But regardless of the reason, it has achieved a certain equilibrium among its fanbase. There are people who make the choice to write and collect software for this system, rather than any number of other systems. As a structure within the history of technological development, it is no longer an avant-garde player. But it exists as a class unto itself, and perpetuates on that basis.
If we are to believe that dominant strategy equilibrium will eventually put computers into our bodies and interfaced to our brain, isn’t it overwhelmingly likely that we will see classes of technological generation develop in those venues as well? Tim Maly, in an piece published while I’ve been writing this, perhaps stimulated in part by the same original article, envisions a world in which early adopters of implant technology are left to suffer on their own, without upgrades:
We can envision drone pilots getting these implants as part of the march of progress. Once the tech is friendly enough, it gets sold out to consumers. Meanwhile, you have all these down and out veterans, their brains stuck wired up with old half-working interfaces, begging on the streets for change to pay for a firmware upgrade or a tune-up for their barely-functioning bluetooth legs.
It is easy to envision these uncanny lapses between classes occurring when we start fusing bodies with machines, because to imply that our bodies can easily be obsolete machines threatens a certain humanist concept of our bodies as a unifying quality to our species. But we don’t have to start invading the body to find differences that affect our ability to stratify ourselves into classes. If the equilibriums of the relations of production can develop a rift between first and third world without personal technology, between upper class and lower class both before, and as we start to use computers to identify ourselves as class member, why would one not also occur between “cutting-edge” and “deprecated” classes as technology becomes more “personal”–magnetizing that one kernel social structure not yet susceptible to fracture and evolution? At what point will our devices themselves reinforce the equilibriums of choice they themselves provide, by being the motive force for separating individuals into groups? If not by lasting only as long as their minimal service contracts in a planned obsolesce that intensifies the slope of device turnover, then by active means? An app only for the iPhone 8, that can detect models of the iPhone 5 and below–letting you know that you’ve wandered into an area with a “less than savory technological element?” When will emergency services only guarantee that they can respond to data transponder calls, and not voice requests? The local watchman has been phased out, in favor of centrally dispatched patrols that require phones to access. Isn’t it only a matter of time before central dispatch is phased out for distributed drone network policing? The ability to use a computer is a requirement for many jobs. When will the ability to data uplink hands-free be a requirement?
We don’t want anyone to fall behind. But we have to think rationally. Why should the state pay exorbitant amounts to service old deprecated implants under the national health care plan? People born in this country receive Bluetooth 14.0 transmitters at birth. But to provide one to every migrant worker would be an extraordinary burden on the taxpayer. If you live in this country, upgrade yourself to a compatible firmware. It’s not that I’m prejudiced against people with your OS, it’s just that we both will never be as compatible together as among our own systems. That isn’t systemicism–it’s just the way plug n play protocols work. Look–I’d love for you to join in network allocated processing with my daughter. But she is quad-core x86, and you are single chip ARM. I’m sure you’re great for certain applications, but you would just slow my daughter down. If you love her, wouldn’t you want her to have all the giga-flops she’s entitled to?
Society governs itself by rational choice. Rational choice dictates that a strategy must be chosen, and an equilibrium based on the best strategy established. But despite the improvements to our technology, the patterns of human structural organization and the anti-distributional, magnetic plateaus inherent in our equilibriums will continue to repeat themselves. The more things change, the more we try and keep the terrain the same–divided abstractly in aid of maintained abstraction. All the better for us to navigate by. Google Maps, it seems, comes pre-loaded with a certain human quality for class consciousness.
Customer: If I understand you correctly, you produce after subtracting all costs about 10 to 12 marks for him per day and of this you receive 3 to 3.50 marks. And if times become permanently bad for the business he’ll sack you, in which case the reserve fund is of no use to you. So what in fact does he use this money for?
Assistant: Well, for example the boss has to acquire modern machines. At present we’re replacing the hand clippers by electric ones.
Customer: What does that mean?
Assistant (surprised): What, you don’t understand that? It’s quite simple. Now I can deal with 10 customers a day, afterwards I’ll be able to deal with 20 because the cutting will be much faster.
Customer: And each one of these 20 will be paying 1 mark as before. And you, how much will you get then?
Assistant (even more surprised): Naturally, I’ll continue to get my 100 marks.
Customer: Excuse my being so inquisitive, I’m getting a bit lost and am rather amazed. With the new improved machines you’ll be earning 20 marks for, him but you yourself will continue to receive only 3.50. That means the surplus has grown from 8 to about 13? Where does the money go?
Reich’s goal, is to show how Marxist theory can be explained without relying on dense prose and theoretical texts. Which, as this illustration of surplus value shows, it easily can be done. I’ve found that most economic concepts are best illustrated with little parables, along these lines of Customer A, Salesperson B, or even Currency A, Debt Note B. Theory, in that it attempt to define self-descriptive terms of debate, often cascades into complicated language pretty quickly, whereas anyone who has ever borrowed money can understand compound interest if explained in terms of $10 paid back over the course of 5 days.
One of the reasons I lost my fascination with academic pursuits (at least within the academy) is because of the complicated cascade of theory. Now, I am all for having a wide vocabulary, and I love technical terms. There are certain oblique concepts that must be grasped with long words. Each word is a tool, and you wouldn’t try to discuss existentialism in single syllables any more than you would try to build a house with only an ax. But, the complication of theory isn’t an end in itself. I got frustrated that the goal was not to bring these supposedly great theories into a wider focus. I didn’t want things to be simplified. I wanted every day to strive to be more complex, and for philosophy to meet it on its way, coaxing it and helping it along. But few people seemed to be interested in this, or at least effectively.
So now I write online, and publish little SF stories about Marxian cyborgs! I think Reich is correct. Maybe I didn’t have too many people on the edge of their seats with my little parable, and Reich’s story is not exactly a page turner either. But it’s a start. Most of the fiction that does have me gripping the paperback pages in concentrated enthusiasm does introduce a philosophical or otherwise theoretical concept. If you try to introduce semiotics to someone who has read Philip K. Dick, you will have a much easier time doing it than otherwise.
I’d love to push it even further, but short of a burst of writing ingenuity that produces a gripping narrative of Deleuzian bodies-without-organs, I’m not sure what it would look like. In the meantime, I think continuing to push entertaining writing in a certain theoretical direction, to slip in the theory when one can, is the best way. Little tidbits, rather than big academic walls.
Update:I think my comment below in the thread explaining how the original cartoon was a false syllogism does a much better logical job of making my original argument than the rhetorical strategy I originally implied. Consider my first try “deprecated technology”. :)
This XKCD from yesterday was a bit frustrating for several reasons.
And rather than just say to myself, “well, it’s just a cartoon” and forget it, I made my own chart.
Firstly, it’s not that I think that new age stuff “works”. Or that I think the original table wasn’t meant to be reductive. I think any reasonably intelligent person will agree that there is more than “the economic argument” involved for describing human behavior, even if it is marginalized by calling it “the personal”, or “the spiritual”, or something equivalent.
What bothers me about the XKCD cartoon is the reductive attitude towards “works”. As if anything could really be said to “work” in any comparative sense. For example, if you ask a dowsing expert if homeopathy “works”, they might agree that homeopathy is a crock of shit. Just because they believe in new agey stuff doesn’t mean they think it all “works” equally. Or that it “works” similarly. Drinking certain herbal teas might purportedly cause a general amount of bodily good, and “work” on that basis. But that isn’t to say that anyone can pick up a dowsing rod and find water. It would seem that such a thing would work differently for different people, in that not everyone could make it “work”, and that it might only “work” in certain circumstances. Even if it was a hoax. In other words, sawing a woman in half “works” perfectly well on a magician’s stage, but not so well in the operating room. Not because one is fake and the other is real, but because the qualitative definition of success on the stage is the different than the hospital. On stage, “working” is a convincing illusion. If the audience sees that the woman is not really sawed in half, then the sawing fails, even though the woman is no more or less actually cut in half than she would have been had it worked.
This is to say that “working” is relative; but also, it is not relative. If it were completely relative, it would always be up for interpretation, and mitigation, or excuses. “If only I had tried dowsing where the water table is higher, then it might have worked.” Or, “I didn’t find the water I was looking for, but I found some awesome bedrock!” Those don’t cut it. The positive existence of cause and effect are not up for negotiation. What is negotiable is that the cause and effect might not be what you originally thought. The goal is not to actually saw a woman in half. The “Working” is about praxis–it is about attempting to achieve a specific desired effect, but in a way that is uniquely essentialized to the action’s material being. You know it is a trick, and yet you paid money to see the trick. If you really wanted to see a woman sawed in half, you’d be one sick piece of work. An action’s recognizable existence, as an action, is defined by an expectation of cause and effect that will exist, regardless of success. It is the relationship between cause and effect that is already assumed. If a device doesn’t work the way it is expected, it is broken. If the way the device was expected to work was not expected, then it wouldn’t be a device. Only a thing.
Therefore–a dowsing rod “works” by sometimes not working. If it found water exactly every time, then it would be called “water radar”, or something with an air of certainty. The mystery about whether it will work or not is the dowsing–that’s how it works. You might test a dowsing rod in a series of objective studies, completed to the nth iteration, replicated all around the world with all variables controlled, and find no significant ability to find water using the rod. And yet, it is still a dowsing rod. It is a dowsing rod in that people will use it to try and find water, and not use their shoe, or their toaster, or ground penetrating radar. The dowsing rod “works”. Otherwise it would just be a stick.
Hence, my list. Other things that do not “work” according to a certain qualitative assessment of their intended action, and yet are clearly still things that work. The first two, electric cars and video phones, are easy. They are technology that has been around for a while, function as advertised, and yet are not used for their intended function. Why not? Because the rationality of the market has decided so. Maybe. Or maybe the function too well, doing things that certain interests would prefer they did not do. They function as they are expected to function, and yet we are perfectly happy with their non-functioning. And in this way, they continue to function, as expected.
The next two are similar, but the other direction on the atemporal spectrum. They still function amazingly well, but are now specialty items only for particular tasks, and not used by the general population. The New York Times is still the same paper it always was (more or less) but the task it used to accomplish is now diminished. We could call these things obsolete, and say that other objects work better than these, but that is not true either. Other things work different. The surrounding environment of other working objects channels need in new directions. Reel to reel no longer provides high quality audio recording; it provides a warm crackle to sound, and a feeling of nostalgia, even though it is the exact same device. We don’t need an entertaining media magic show anymore, and so the NYT isn’t worth the paper its printed on. Now we need information surgery, and so we saw the gray lady in half with Google News. Their non-function is a function of other functions.
The next two: world peace and evolution, are a bit different. They are conceptual, and not purely objects in and of themselves. And yet, we know specifically what they are. There is a large portion of the population that defines both of these in the negative–they acknowledge them in that they claim they do not function as advertised. That they are myths. And yet they are no less precise concepts to the warmonger and the creationist, because they still represent the presence of a cause and effect, though the cause may be bleeding heart liberalism and atheism, respectively. And what is our evidence for either of these in the positive, other than that we find specific instances that are consistent with their theories? We find fossils of animals, not fossil copies of The Origin of the Species. Is the theory of evolution a conceptual, taxonomic, dowsing rod? Is there anything wrong with it if it is?
The next two entries are a mix of the physical and the conceptual. There are physical objects that correspond to a conceptual matrix of theoretical function. SETI assumes that electromagnetic radiation might be emitted from other intelligent life forms in the universe, and seeks to look for it. We don’t know that there are other forms of intelligent life, though it is logical to assume so. And we don’t know that they would emit electromagnetic radiation, though that is also a logical assumption. For every quasar and neutron star found, intelligent life is not found. And yet, SETI is still functioning just as advertised, with no results to show for it. Ubuntu does have results. So many successful installs, a long versioning history, many satisfied users. But to what end? To continuously produce these results? Until when? When will Ubuntu successfully “have worked”? At what point could we say that it has stopped “working”, despite any number of people still using it, despite it’s history of successful function? Do we define historical “working” as a certain period of function at or above certain qualifications? How did we know that Linus Torvald wasn’t wasting his time when he first sat down and started writing code? Every thing that is something starts out not looking like anything. And will most likely end up that way, too. What is our functional, “working” theory for measuring diminishing returns on something that has only theoretical, potential, or archival value? And why hasn’t someone explained this all the people still emulating Commodore 64s?
Praxis is a complicated thing. Comics are relatively simple things, and snarky to boot. But that’s why we love XKCD, isn’t it? Not to say that New Age pseudo-science is a complicated thing by comparison. Homeopathy doesn’t exactly treat mainstream medicine with, err… objective scientific respect. But with every legitimate criticism ought to come, at least in my opinion, a multi-axis perspective. For criticism to “work”, not only must you identify failures in reason and observed patterns of cause and effect, but you must understand how the failures themselves “work”. Broken is a function, just not the one you wished for.
[Totally would have posted without an intro, except that I post purported "non-fiction" so often, I thought you probably deserved an acknowledgement in the case of my posting strictly "fiction". And so: a short story. Cheers.]
It was a yellow house, with lots of bushes. It hadn’t been painted for thirty years, and then the woman ran out barefoot down the steps and across the crooked and overgrown paving stones to the curb, lifting up her feet quickly, as if the stones were hot. They never mowed their lawn, maybe they rented or maybe it was just that there was no reason, and the screen door banged as she came over all hot-footed, waving at me with one hand and lifting it up high in the air over her head, covered in thick black hair, all gnarled like mine. And I thought she was kind of cute, and maybe this was what she wanted me to think, waving her hands in the air in small-girl elbows-up motions. She looked like she had just been sitting on a couch. When she saw I had turned around and noticed her waving and saying—oh, oh, oh—to get my attention, she asked me if I had a cigarette. I didn’t have one and I wished I did, and I remembered how when I smoked I liked bumming cigarettes to people even though nobody likes doing it, because all the same it was like you were in a secret society, and sometimes good-looking women ran out of houses to talk to you. All the same I smiled nicely and she smiled and then hot-footed it back inside the screen door.
It was only one house away that a man with gray hair and skin as black as I’d ever seen came out of a little blue cottage and stood on the stoop tapping his boot, a big black work boot with stains all up and down from the toe to the top. This house was bright blue, like really sky blue, not light blue. Blue of the sky in the middle of the summer when you look straight up at the deepest part of it and space is right on the other side of all that clear air. He tapped that boot and smiled at me and put both hands on his hips before he spoke. I was wondering about wearing boots on a concrete porch and how that felt. He said—hey man, do you play a musical instrument? I didn’t play anything, I never could handle the practicing without being good, and so I wrote instead, but I didn’t tell him that. Just—oh no—He shook his head in big wide shakes back and forth, smiling as if people did every day and I could have imagined he did—aww man but I was sure you did, I thought you played the keyboards—But I didn’t and I wondered if he had gotten me confused with some other guy who looks like. But I didn’t ask and just apologized in that way I do and walked on.
And it was the next block, that then a woman came out of her garage carrying a wicker basket, a big old wicker basket with nothing in it, but so big you could put in almost anything. Her driveway was unpaved, just lots of gravel, put down a long time ago. Now there was hardly any gravel left, just dirt, and the little rocks scattered into the grass. This lawn was mowed, but it was weeds. I like weeds. They cost nothing and there are so many different kinds. House was red like a barn, and it was a house supposed to be like a barn, from the shutters and the doors and the boxes overgrown with plants on the windows, I could tell. She opened up on me about all kinds of things in one sentence without stopping for breath or missing a beat—did you ever think you’d never get to sleep, only to wake up from a dream and notice you were asleep the whole time, and that’s the sort of awake that couldn’t be a dream, because we only ever think we’re awake in our sleep and never think we’re asleep in the wake—That was exactly how she said it—in the wake—and I had that feeling before and I was about to say so but she just kept going—and another thing, time doesn’t work right in dreams, it keeps slinging back and forth like a rope hanging off the back of a car, like some kind of alive thing, and not like it ought to be—I thought it was strange she said—ought to be—because I don’t know a lot about physics and time but normally it just is how it is, and who can say what it should be. And I could have replied but then she told me—you go on with your walk because no one ought to listen to a rambling old woman anyway—and went back in her garage with the basket, so I did, I just kept walking.
Next was around the block onto the short gravel road between the two avenues, like kind of an alley, even though its got a street sign with a name. It was wide enough to drive on and some people had even parked their cars along it. I think they lived there. And then all of a sudden I met one of them, or at least I assumed he lived there, because he came around the tall hedge and stood looking at me holding a rake in both hands. Like it was a musical instrument. And he was ready to play. The hedge was so tall I could only see the roof of the house. He said, as he started raking the gravel in front of his paved driveway—what did they do with all the roads? Where did they take them all, all that asphalt they make in the plant by the river, trucking it all over town in those smelly trucks, smelling like shoes and like shingles left out in the sun and rubber cookware too close to the burner? Spent all that time paving, and now where is it?—He continued to play the rake as he spoke. I didn’t know if he was talking to me or the gravel or the rake or the hedge, but I assume it was me because he didn’t seem the sort of man who talked to his things. Or maybe he was talking to himself, so I just said—don’t know, it’s a good question—and walked to join the sidewalk at the other end of the alley.
The old lady cried—and what the hell did you do to your hair!—Looking up at me with the garden gloves on and turned outward to either side of her like flippers, covered in dirt from the flower bed, with a brand new trowel poking out one set of fingers. I smiled awkwardly, just like I always do when people ask, because they don’t really want an answer, they just want to hear themselves speak. I don’t like smiling and I would like to tell these people to go fuck themselves but I don’t. They go on making noise they like to hear, but I don’t worry about it too much because I’m sure they would anyway no matter what I told them. No matter what sort of hair or what I did to it. From the look of her brown house I hated it and it was ugly, and her hair was dyed blond, so very blond like a whore in a movie who is not actually a whore but an actress, whose job it is to look like what people think a whore looks like. But she was old and maybe a little crazy, digging in a flower bed filled with little flowers in a straight line in the center of a lawn, so I felt a little bad. She said again—what your mother must think!—Still not asking but saying, still holding the trowel, and I just said—I haven’t been to a barber in twelve years—and kept walking, and tried to forget it.
Then a young guy standing on his step holding a book and he came off the white clapboard porch with both brown boots landing in the dirt at the same time, jumping off the dirty peach colored stucco-walled house like it was a boat. He waved the book at me—hey man, you ever heard of the Lagrangian points?—Actually I knew about them and so he continued—isn’t that just so crazy, man, there’s these points in space where nothing moves, way out there away from the earth?—He opened the book and showed me the diagram—they move, but not relative to the earth and the moon, because the gravity reaches a point of equilibrium and it floats out there like the goddamn Sargasso Sea of the solar system—And it was pretty crazy when I thought about it, and he just kept going on, getting excited, and now smacking his thigh with the book, smack, against his black name-brand jeans, his voice got louder and then softer again, the words floated out toward me and past me in space, over my head some of it, but I think I got the general idea of where he was trying to get, and eventually he said—well alright man—and it was alright, and so I walked off down the block.
This house was white and covered in gray flecks where the paint was peeling from the shingles and falling into the evergreen bushes underneath the windows of what must have been the living room, because this is the sort of house it was. The windows were wide open, wider than windows normally are, storm windows pushed up past where they normally go and where it becomes difficult to get them down again. The woman inside stuck her head out at me and shouted louder than needed—what was the weather like yesterday?—I looked up at the sky, now covered in dark clouds, as if it would help me remember anything about yesterday. I said—it rained—She nodded her head in a way that both confirmed and thanked me without having to say anything and so I kept walking, glad that I could help, and as she disappeared from the space in the window I saw a white grand piano appear in the living room.
A little girl ran across the grass, which was not very long, but still she lifted up her short little legs like she was running through shallow water, and even tripped once when the sole of her small sneaker caught on a tuft of crab grass. I was afraid she would fall flat on her face but she pulled it out and kept moving forward. She looked up at me as she got closer, and breathing hard gasped—have you seen a brown bike?—I had not seen a brown bike and I told her so, and she looked quite disappointed and I tried to think what I was supposed to do to help. So I looked up and down the street, but didn’t see any bike at all and shrugged my shoulders and kept thinking about what I should do. Luckily her brother, or a boy about as tall as I guess her brother ought to be, came running up and yelled at her—come on Katy!—and she took off running after him as if there had never been a bike. And just then he was the one to fall, right down on his knees and his face in the green grass, and he made a sound that sounded every bit like—oof—not just a sound, but sounded like he said the word. She helped him up and they kept running around the corner of the purple house standing back behind the yard they were running through.
The old man was in a lawn chair at the end of the driveway, freshly sealed, not long ago paved, and he wore shorts of the kind that old men wear, showing off old relics of knees. His house was brick and it could have been new except that it was in a style nobody built anymore, only one story and spreading around the lot giving him almost no yard whatsoever. He looked at me and nodded his head—hey boy, you want to know what really happened on 9/11? They say it was terrorists but I know better, because I read that book they made about it and it just didn’t make sense; my son-in-law showed me the pictures on the Internet and I read about it: didn’t happen like they said—It’s true: everybody knows it didn’t happen like they said. They know for sure because it’s just too crazy, and they may not know exactly what happened but it sure wasn’t like they wrote about it and show on TV. And I told him and he nodded at me and said to me—the TV is a piece of shit—and I nodded and said—yeah—He said—all the young kids aren’t so dumb, good for you kid—and picked up the local newspaper off the driveway and I said—thanks—I kind of liked this kind of old man. I walked back the way I came wondering if he liked that style of house, or if was just past the time when he could change it out for something else.
I kept on walking the whole route of my walk, the blocks I walked down and all the streets. I don’t always go the same way, but if you walk for long enough you end up walking down some of the same roads. After all, I was just trying to leave the house for a little while and get a little exercise. After exactly the right amount of distance and time I always end up back at the house again.
I came back up the block, and as I stood in the middle of the street for a moment, just looking at all the houses, suddenly all the people on the whole street ran out of their houses and met me in the road shouting and hollering. They were asking me about all kinds of things, but mostly asking for cigarettes—yeah, cigarettes!—They all wanted ‘em and they wanted ‘em bad, and they were yelling and jumping and waving their arms about cigarettes, that cool burning smoke going into the lungs and entering the blood, and you know it’s bad for you but you don’t care because after you finished whatever it was you were doing, it felt so good to have that nicotine in your brain, doing whatever the hell it did. And they danced, and they sang, and they made fake cigarettes out of sticks and grass and trash and pretended to smoke them just so they would all know they were serious and so I would know too. I didn’t have any cigarettes but if I did I would have given them all away, so everyone could have cigarettes, so the whole street could have a smoke all at once together and feel good and bad at the same time, and I would save the last one for myself and stand there just smoking it, watching everyone else smoke. And as they finished they would stand around and talk, some crushing the butt beneath their different styles of shoes and others carefully twisting the burning ember off and saving the filter for the trash, because this was where they lived and they cared after it. But I didn’t have any cigarettes so they all went back inside their houses and shut their doors, smiling politely and wishing me to have a good day and a nice walk, or whatever else I might be doing. All their doors closed at exactly the same time, and it made a sound like a smack against skin, not really like a door at all, so many doors at the same time.
And when I was almost home, done walking out and around and back up the street again, the woman who looked real cute came back out of her house really quickly with a panicked look on her face like maybe her house was on fire and I thought for a second it was, but there was no fire. She was looking even better this time, and hot-footed it on over to me, and bounced from foot to foot. She waved her arms and grabbed my shoulders and shook me too, and shook all that beautiful hair. I noticed for the first time she wasn’t wearing a bra underneath her shirt, and I noticed this even though she was wearing a shirt because of that beautiful bounce she was doing, I don’t know why, but only for me it seemed. And she said—that’s all well and good you know, but we’re running out of buildings, because once their burned down, they’re gone forever—And I said—of all the things you might’ve said, I totally think you’re right this time.
This children’s product was originally recalled in January 2009. Since that time, there have been additional injuries caused by the Spa Factory™ Spa Fantasy Aromatherapy Fountain & Bath Benefits Kits. Pressure from the buildup of carbon dioxide in the jars of Bath Bombs/Balls or Bath Fizzies that come with the kits can cause the unvented lids to blow off, posing explosion and projectile hazards. The flying pieces also can cause property damage. Additionally, the mixture of water with the Bath Bombs/Balls or Bath Fizzies can create citric acid. This acid can get into consumers’ eyes when the jars explode, posing a risk of eye irritation.
As of January 2009, CPSC had received 88 reports of exploding jars, including 13 injuries to children. Since that time, CPSC has received 12 additional reports of exploding unvented jars of JAKKS’ Bath Bombs/Balls or Bath Fizzies, including 13 additional reported injuries. The new injuries include irritated eyes, irritated skin and one eye injury from projectile jar lids.
CPSC Microfiction 10/15/2010
With only a preamble blip of picture, the feed was gone. And we continued to watch. As chairs were pulled from underneath heavily sedated patients, dropping us to the floor in fully subservient embrace of the rule of gravity. Drafted youth organization members of Purely Physical Cause and Effect Party, impassive faces blank as static field of electromagnetic distortion replaced newscast. Eyes automatically releasing anxious iris grip on focus, soft human lenses flexing back slowly, trained ease of first position. Black and white reduced to grey. They say static is residual time-traveling energy noise, in a Theory of Relativity sense anyway, visiting always, from the moment of the beginning until what is whatever is now.
Bath bomb. Took out the whole news room, the engineering room, the server room. The bathroom too, but that wouldn’t have affected the feed. An exothermic reaction in a teacup, or at least in a gift basket set with bath products, imported tea, service set to match, poured in custom carbon porcelain with metal wire reinforcement, jagged little children becoming-shrapnel with dreams of growing up to be grape shot one day. Sent by a dissident start-up, vengeance weapon made of salts and soaps, and something chemically reduced from a skin tightening lotion. A public response to an unfavorable column. Interview over.
We didn’t know that, until another newscast from another channel brought us all up to date. And so we sat, facing the screen. Reconnected with the world. Wondering where the remote was.
After a month of latency, I checked back into the CPSC announcement RSS, and was overwhelmed by the results. Firstly, there was the subject of today’s microfiction, which was perhaps the most quintessential ever, at least in relation to the reasons I started this. It was a second recall, because the first had not stopped the injury reports. It was a children’s toy that turned deadly. It was a product, unfortunately named the “bath bomb” that chemically became an actual bomb. Not only were there explosion and laceration hazards, there were also chemical irritation hazards. TO CHILDREN. With a product as ridiculous as a “child’s spa”, whatever the hell that is. The only thing that could have piled on additionally, would be if the product also violated lead paint standards.
But then I scanned down the rest of the list–an entire month of product recalls. Which, to give the true effect, I will re-create here for you now:
- Briggs & Stratton recall Riding Mowers due to injury Hazard from Projectiles
- The Hive announces recall to repair Revl Carbon Road Bicycle Brakes due to Fall Hazard
- Ryobi recalls Cordless Drills due to Fire Hazard
- Iron Lover’s Bench sold exclusively at Ross Stores recalled due to Fall Hazard
- Green Mountain Vista Inc. recalls Roman Shades due to Risk of Strangulation
- Bravo Sports recalls trampolines due to Fall Hazard
- Alexander Designs brand Drop-Side Cribs sold exclusively at JCPenny recalled for repair due to Entrapment, Suffocation
- Castalon Frying Pans recalled by Tabletops Unlimited due to Burn Hazard
- Valco Baby recalls Jogging Strollers due to Strangulation Hazard
- Tike Tech recalls Jogging Strollers due to Strangulation
- PBteen recalls to repair Sleep and Study Loft Beds due to Fall and Injury Hazard
- Fire Alarm Control Panels recalled by Fire-Lite Alarms due to Alert Failure
- Trisonic Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs recalled due to Fire Hazard
- Home Improvement Books recalled by Oxmoor House due to Faulty Wiring Instructions
- Fisher-Price recalls Infant Toys with Inflatable Balls due to Choking Hazard
- Fisher-Price recalls Healthy Care, Easy Clean and Close to Me High Chairs due to Laceration Hazard
- Fisher-Price recalls Little People Wheelies Stand ‘n Play Rampway due to Choking Hazard
- Fisher-Price recalls Children’s Trikes Due to risk of Serious Injury
- Deaths prompt CPSC, FDA warning on Infant Sleep Positioners
- “S T U F F” and Paw Wall Hooks recalled by Midwest-CBK due to violation of lead paint standards
- Black & Decker recalls Cordless Electric Lawnmower due to Laceration Hazard
- Sunrise Medical recalls Quickie(r) Shark Bikes due to Footrest Failure
- Rugs recalled by Brumlow Mills due to Fire Hazard
- Molenaar LLC recalls Night Lights due to Fire and Shock Hazard
- Children’s Mood Rings and Necklaces recalled by D&D Distributing Wholesale due to risk of Lead Exposure
- Tea Sets recalled by The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf(r) due to Fire Hazard
- Children’s Hooded Jackets and Sweatshirts with Drawstrings recalled by Burlington Coat Factory due to Strangulation Hazard
My morbid interest, piqued by the first announcement, quickly diminished. I’m still oddly fascinated by these tales of anonymous suffering at the hands of our supposedly subservient consumer objects. But somehow, the thrill is gone. It is like watching a thriller film, and the killer just goes on killing and killing, nothing ever changing or being revealed.
These are companies you’ve heard of, companies you’ve never heard of, making objects you use, or maybe you would never touch in your life. All of them hurt people, or could, in a manner other than intentionally designed. With a fiendish, creativity intensity. And this will never stop. As long as we make things, these things will end up somehow releasing their stored energy against us. They cannot all be recalled, because we will continue to make more.
Strangulation by venetian blinds, and drawstring sweatshirts. Poisioning by paint, on beads and toys and clothing. Cribs that function as guillotines. Bicycles that work as human catapults. Wiring that melts, burns, and explodes. We used to worry about the plague. Witchcraft. Murderous barbarians building walls from our skulls. We don’t worry about these things anymore (mostly) but we worry about the places we make where we just might catch our necks. First world problems. Death by small parts.
In honor of celebrating this strange facet of the death drive we’ve created, I’m hereby closing the CPSC Microfiction series. This was always the way it was meant to be, and now that it is, I feel that it has fulfilled its function. I’ve reported, I’ve speculated, I’ve imagined, and I’ve fantasized. I might do it again if the moment and the product grabs me with that mortal consumer lust once again. But for now I think we’re complete.
Well, I thought long and hard about whether or not I should post this one. But here we are.
For starters, Cyborg Month is officially over. But more pressing than that, was the issue of whether or not I really wanted to admit that I’m that much of a geek that I not only conceptualized a poster to commemorate Cyborg Month, but then spent more than several hours bringing it into existence. This is probably bordering on the fan art territory, to be quite honest. And that is a slippery fucking slope.
But then I was looking at these awesome Czechoslovakian Book Covers, and I was thinking how it is a shape that book covers, especially for academic titles, are so serious with their design, and don’t venture into art quite so much anymore. I was also thinking of the ubiquitous conference poster, that anyone who has spent time in academia will have seen slathering the walls and bulletin boards of their department hallways. What an excellent opportunity for art! Here are posters that are going to be printed, regardless of whether they have anything on them. Why not use that as a space for artists?
So here is my contribution of a poster for the 50 cyborgs not-really-a-conference-not-a-book-either. Advertising something that is already over, without really advertising it, and mostly just contributing to general Internet over-exuberance. The scheme was actually something I came up with for a customer, that I can tell they will not like, but I liked it, so I wanted to actually use it. Looks like a vintage set of Uno cards, kind of. The draw 4 card especially, which I can’t find an image of on the Internet (only the current version). Oh, and the circuit diagram is actually a working circuit for a voltage amplifier. Yikes. Went there.
So here we are. I’m a geek; cyborgs are awesome; and I spend a lot of time rotating and re-sizing vector art on the computer to amuse myself. If you are a cyborg geek as well, you are welcome to a full-sized PDF of the poster, available here. Everything on POSZU is Creative Commons Non-com, Attribute, Share-alike, by the way.
I jailbroke my iPhone last week. This act of willful consumer disobedience, to force a heavily-designed piece of electronics and device fetishism to do certain things that it was specifically designed not to do, was an attractive gesture of rebellion that I have always considered, ever since first letting my hand and fingers learn the ways of the magic relationship with a smart phone, now over two years ago. For others, executing unapproved code on their telephone might not be such a transgression. A thing to try, and like, or maybe not, and then reset. Just another ringtone to try for a day. But it was always a bit more to me–it was something dangerous, a refutation of the protective super-ego; a violation of the warranty that protected this palmed cyborg implant against the possibility of loss; my guardian against the threat of an inconsistent hardware lifetime. The liminal relationship between me and my information was guaranteed against faulty screens and battery degradation, and for a long time, the danger of losing this safety measure made the flirtation far too dangerous for anything other than fantasy. This was my iPhone we were talking about… not just an old computer.
But my warranty, and my Apple Care plan, are now both expired. Apple has thrown me to the fates, and so I’ve leaped out into that abyss.
On Saturday night, two days after downloading and executing the “redsn0w” hack, sending myself across that barrier into a modern day tinkerer’s version of forbidden ecstasy, we went to see Lucinda Childs’ Dance.
This dance piece, a collaboration between choreographer Lucinda Childs, artist Sol LeWitt, and composer Philip Glass, is nothing short of beautiful. The work has no story. The gimmick, as it were, is that the dancers on stage perform behind a translucent screen, onto which film is projected, that mirrors the live dance. But the effect is no gimmick; the work creates a masterful symmetry and mimesis between representation and performance. In conjunction with the well-known minimalism of the Philip Glass Ensemble’s music, an experience of motion and repetition utterly ensnares the viewer, transporting the audience into a hypnotic dimension of art. The film, the original of which was used in the performance we saw, was recorded for the original performance in 1979, a time when dance as performance, as well as technique, was being explored by many artists. The medium of film, a material for capturing and augmenting performance, found its place in the dance company. The immaculately timed and edited film cuts sometimes lead the live choreography, sometimes trail it, sometimes mimic it as if meant to be precisely accurate, and other times deviate with a similar accuracy. The Cartesian lines on the floor of the dance studio in which the film was shot accentuate the live dancers’ motion across a static stage, extending the dance and giving it extra vectors of dimension. It is more than dance, music, and film. The performance is a nebula of sound, light, and body. It is
image, tone, and motion.
To see it performed, I was amazed. Not only by the overall aesthetic of the piece, but by its apparent tenuousness. The work that went into producing those film cuts, and editing them exactly with live dancers and with music. The collaboration between three artists, all quite powerful on their own terms. The work of the dance company, re-learning choreography in order to match a film shot over thirty years ago with precision. To be there was not like watching a screen. It was as if a glass projection tube of a miraculous, angelic television extended outward and over the head, and I sat among the electrons as they whirled with exaggerated arm movements, hands locked into vectors of potential travel. It was as if the third dimension had been removed, the live dancers hidden behind the translucent screen reduced to points on a plane, and then this dimension had been reinstated, artificially colorized and splendidly animated back into reality by the re-introduction of depth in the black and white film on the screen. This depth was something personally existential, because where you sat in the theater watching this performance affected the entire perspective between dancers projected on a flat screen and dancers moving in space beyond. My space-time, the experience of the symmetry between live action and film action, would be totally different from that witnessed by any other pair of stereo eyes elsewhere in the room.
And yet, this performance, for all the infinite emotions and aesthestic implications, was entirely finite. No recording of this performance was allowed. No cell phone use permitted. A piece of art with serious implicit commentary on the role of live performance and recorded projective media, itself, in any meta perspective, could not be filmed. These revolutions would not be recorded. It would live only in this space and particular time, for these sets of eyes, and the only media parity permitted would the hacked bootlegging of a verbose text editor, some variation on ASCII art, as an essayist attempts to put art into transmitted text.
I didn’t want to record Lucinda Childs’ Dance, and upload it onto a file sharing network, or embed it on my website. It still would be a hackneyed plagiarism, life decontextualized, preservation with a pin in a vacuum glass box. A violation of the functional quality of the work, as I interpret it. But the explicit refusal, the license of refusal by artist, producers, and the venue, served as a boundary. In a time period of continual media change, when individuals are expected by many to be constantly transmitting and receiving, interacting and network, broadcasting from the pocket and invocating from the finger, this was more than an expectation of courtesy to fellow art lovers. This is a boundary line, beyond which the power of art to transmit, inspire and inhabit would not cross. A ghettoization of experience. The underlying authoritarian impulse of the mind to control in order to make itself heard.
Meanwhile, drunk on its new found freedom, my iPhone was greedily slurping through the remains of its two-year old battery in my pocket.
There was freedom to be found in jailbreaking my iPhone. Jailbreaking made it a computer again. After the relatively easy process of running redsn0w (no one said anything about having a spare copy of the firmware on your computer, and the little button combination you have to time perfectly to get it into the right mode, but I finally figured it out) it was a thrill to see an actual live terminal screen, showing that what I had spent all this money on was not just a shiny black Narcissus mirror, but an actual computer. And after opening Cydia, and figuring out exactly how to install packages from the surprisingly limited amount of support material out there on the Internet, changing my root password and SSHing to the file system over Wifi felt like the future all over again. Not just because I did it, but because anyone can do it too. In this age when all technology is locked down in an attempt to ease things for the poor, tortured, overwhelmed consumer, the iPhone Dev Team, Saurik and others are trying to open it back up with gentle, consumer-driven hacking like redsn0w and Cydia. You can hack your iphone, and it doesn’t have to be hard. That is the future, in my opinion.
But this everconstant lifehacking of the future–what does it get us? As @doingitwrong so aptly tweeted, “I jailbroke my iPhone and all I got was this lousy wallpaper.” I installed Winterboard first thing, and downloaded several themes to try. No app or program I’ve run on my jailbroken phone eats battery like the themes. It’s actually ridiculous. I do like the ability to place my lock screen wallpaper back over the springboard, and of course I get a huge kick out of seeing the POSZU logo replace the Apple logo during boot (neither of which require Winterboard, btw). But the majority of downloads through Cydia are hot-girl-wallpaper sets. There was one Hot Anime Girl set added per day, for at least a few months. Still in there, clogging the search results. Good times.
There are useful apps. SMSettings is masterful–allowing you to hide app icons, (like the useless native Weather app) and deploy a screen overlay no matter what you are doing (mine is set to deploy on a downward swipe from the status bar) that lets you disable any of the antennas, boot a custom list of apps, and kill processes. I was very interested to see that Safari and the iPod are often left running behind the scenes without your knowledge, sticking their own straws into my valuable battery. Now, easily terminated. I also like LockInfo, that let’s you read text of emails and SMS from the lock screen along with other notifications–and supposedly Twitter too, though I can’t get this to work yet. Video game emulators are plentiful, though very slow on my 3G. There is multitasking, and there is tethering. There is VNC, and there is data over Bluetooth. I set my battery indicator to show me a percentage rather than a meaningless battery icon, using the basic redsn0w settings. Sometimes the simplest tweaks are the best.
The problem is that there is no uniformity. Cydia is great, but it is not the App Store, in which every app is verified to work with all recent versions of iOS, and do, most of the time. In the world of Cydia, everything has not been checked for consistency. Information about troubleshooting is rare, and hard to find. Free apps are rare, because the jailbroken app market is slim. I can’t get the supposedly excellent video player apps to work. And the real reason I jailbroke my phone, to find a music player that will handle ogg files and sync with Linux, is still unfulfilled: PwnPlayer has disappeared, it didn’t work with iOS 4.x anyway, and nothing else has come to take its place. To a real programmer, the jailbroken iPhone is fertile ground. But to a user like myself, it only allows me to extend my fantasies about what awesome features might have been–had the app not crashed, had it been extended to 4.x, had anyone with the chops put in the incredible amount of volunteer work to make it a reality.
The sublime artistry of the iPhone doesn’t recede into a seedy red-light district of custom wallpaper for a lack of effort on the part of jailbreak developers. Despite Apple’s mammoth efforts to lock down the iPhone, these folks have continued to find the chinks in the armor, and make user-friendly ways of exploiting them. As Saurik put it when describing the merger of Cydia with the other large jailbroken app service, RockYourPhone, the primary goal is to put everyone back on track with cooperation rather competition. That is the general goal for most iPhone hackers. For openness, and cooperation towards that end. As opposed to the goals of Apple, which is (other than simply to make money) to provide the unique artistry of a seamless user experience. Two modern goals, alike in dignity, but yet overall at odds. And when you put these two at odds, you know the hackers will come up short. It’s a simple (okay, complex) matter of infrastructure, time, and resources. Now that I’ve looked at my iPhone’s filesystem, I see the problem. It’s a twisted mess. Apps store data in multiple places, compressed in bizarre formats. The fact that it’s been opened up at all to a casual tinkerer like myself is amazing, but the fact that this is not your Home folder, in any sense of the term, is sobering. The genius of the iPhone’s ease of use is it’s internal inaccessibility. This is not a causal relationship, but it is psychical. The exterior looks the way it looks because the interior has turned inward, to express such an exterior. The division between designer and art, performer and audience, is a loop that could not bend back towards its initial point if it first it did not move away. It is easy to suggest that Apple could have designed things to better help those who would like to peer inside. I’m sure they could have. But they didn’t, and they won’t. Not because they are assholes, but because this is an iPhone. If it was not built the way it’s built, it would not be an iPhone. And all that that entails.
I’m going to keep my iPhone jailbroken rather than reset. Even though we aren’t meant to delve into that dark network of the id, we invariably do. For one, it is the principle of the thing. I go to avant-gaarde dance performances with a smart phone in my pocket, set to silent mode. I, after much wrestling with a pseudo-sexual techno puritanism, did the leg work and rooted my smart phone. And there are good functions of doing so. I like SMSettings enough that it is reason alone to keep the jailbreak, just as tweeted about Lucinda Childs (after the performance, of course), even though I think it might have cost me a couple of followers. This place between curated event and distributed network creativity, between high-end consumer design and dirty third-party work around, is where I seem to fall, in this year of atemporal technology, 2010. I still want features I don’t, and seemingly can’t, have. I want to capture experience and intellectual rumination exactly in all its sublime instantaneousness, and project it back onto a screen for everyone to see, but I can’t. For Intellectual Property reasons, and also because even if I could, then experience would no longer be unique.
Our human devices are simply beautiful, and infinitely limited by the realities of collaboration and performance–nevertheless, we get our hands dirty in hacking them, every day. The good part is, that people keep staging such performances, and that people keep going. And also that people don’t go, but are willing to hear about it later, and perhaps catch it next time.
A man’s house burns down because he didn’t pay 75 dollars. In one sense, there’s nothing to unpack here. You don’t pay for a service, you don’t get a service. But in several other senses, this means a lot more to a lot of people, to the tune of over 15,000 comments and climbing on the Yahoo News article about it, and so the band wagons are filling up, and they’re calling for band trains, band barges, and there is some guy in the street with a broken bottle yelling about pulling the Spruce Goose out of retirement.
As my partner M pointed out, this seems to be a perfect opportunity, in a tense political commentary climate, for everyone who is anti- anything to blame these anti’s for what is generally agreed to be shitty situation. Anti-government, anti-Obama, anti-conservative, anti-Tennessee, anti-gay, anti-firefighter (seriously, that comment feed is like a State Fair One-Off World-Record Largest Ever Salted Nut Roll of American popular opinion). A house burned down, with all their stuff, and pets. SOMEBODY should be to blame.
My own personal anti-, of course, is anti- people who need to blame everyone else for their problems, or hijack an unfortunate situation to claim that no one should blame anyone for their own problems, thereby blaming everyone else for their own everyone else’s problems. I’m anti-15000+ comments on a Yahoo News site. If everyone who commented saved their spit and mailed it to Western Tennessee, there would be floods, not fires.
But what I really want to write about is taxes.
Because that is what this is really about. Everybody wants government services, nobody wants to pay. There’s disagreements over what the proper amount of each of these are, and about what happens between the time they pay and when they get the service. In the end, government is a unilateral business for something know generally as “Public Good”. This nebulous industry is also the company mission statement and managing strategy, and nebulously, it is always up for debate. Meanwhile, houses continue to burn down.
M works in government services. She is the union worker with an expensive government contract that you always hear about, living the high life on your tax dollars. For example, we ordered a pizza by phone last night… at 10pm! Ah, the sweet life. But you know what is sweeter than that? Telling anyone who complains that they could live like us. All they’d have to do is join a union. And live near a pizza place with free delivery.
The reason we felt we deserved pizza, is because not only does she work in government services, she works in emergency services. And not only does she work in emergency services, she works for the part of emergency services that takes phone calls from people about their emergencies, and therefore she is in a unique position to hear the customers’ points of view about their emergency services. Oh, and me? I just deserve pizza because I have the good sense to live with her.
In addition to pizza I don’t deserve, I also get a view into what goes on in this high-rolling, nebulous world of government emergency services. I get a peek at what it is like to allocate only twelve officers to a downtown district full of noise complaints and drunken fights on a Saturday night, when all of a sudden, there is also a shooting. I get to hear about the citizens who call in from the Washington side of the Columbia River to report people having campfires on the Oregon beach, necessitating calling out the police boat. I get to listen to the actual ire in human beings’ voices as they call over and over to complain that children are playing basketball in the park at 9pm. You know, rather than selling drugs or stealing beer or drag racing. Because basketball is a public problem. And I don’t even need to get into the racism, the neglect, the selfishness, the childishness, the violence, and the other horrible things this modern first-world society does to itself all day and night.
What I conclude is this: managing this lovely, peaceful society we have, or at least maintaining this facade for most people, costs money. It needs cars, and radios, and computer systems. Expensive trucks that can pump hundreds of gallons of water that run on diesel fuel. Many well-trained human beings to operate all this equipment, and the organizational structure to improve this training, and figure out what went wrong when they fuck up. Which they will do occasionally, when humanity throws them a curve ball, or someone decides to do something absolutely horrible without warning, or when the responders themselves are humans.
And these are just the emergency services themselves, not to mention the roads needed for the trucks to get where they are going, the electricity to power the computers, and the educational system to try and subdue the horrible violence lurking within humanity. I mean, to train people to put out fires. Actually, both please.
Therefore, “cutting spending” is about as sensible “cutting population”, or at least until the sea levels rise and then some maniacs actually start suggesting that. You can’t just pay less, and expect to get the same service. Or better service. Which is what people apparently claim–that the problem is that everyone else is lazy, and so if you fired all the lazy people with big salaries, then the people who work really hard for low wages will make everything awesome. Because there are lots of million-dollar bonus executives in government. Any of these people are welcome to come and see how we live, fat on a union salary. But they can’t have any of our pizza.
What is needed is to spend the right amount of money in the right places. Everyone seems to have ideas about this as well. That is, everyone except for the Republican Party, that did not suggest ONE, not ONE place they would cut spending in their Pledge to America plan to cut spending. With all the discussion about spending and deficits and taxes recently, it’s been mentioned that there is a gap between the actual distribution of government budgets, versus the public conception of what the state is spending priorities are. As it turns out, the state largely spends money the way people want it spent. People just think that it isn’t.
To fix this problem, there is the suggestion of an itemized receipt for tax payers, to help them understand exactly where their money is going. We could see that our expenditures on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan is more than triple the federal highway budget. Or almost five times the federal health research through NIH. Or that five percent of our taxes go towards paying interest on the national debt. This sort of information might cause problems, because it encourages taxpayers to apply their home budget micro-economic knowledge against macro issues. For example, the national debt is actually more of an investment in the US currency and the open-market ability of the Fed to control the economy. Not just a gigantic credit card. But more information is good, right? So first we’ll give people the data, and then start to hand out primers on macro-economics and the FOMC.
But this, combined with a Twitter comment I read suggesting not paying taxes to protest a war, got me thinking. What if after seeing this receipt, taxpayers were allowed to shift where their taxes went? Say, less Pell grants, and more to the war in Afghanistan, if that was their priority. Or less war, and more highways. Of course this would affect their service. The service only gets what the individual public thinks it deserves from their contribution to the tax coffers. It would be easier to go all Henry Thoreau on a war a hemisphere away then it would on, say, your local fire service, because there are fewer people contributing to your local fire bureau than paying national taxes, and you’d see the effect of the latter right away, the former only later. But hey, open it up. Let people pay their share of what they think it important. Let’s think about what would happen, if people could actually control where the money was going.
Other than finally letting individuals control their tax dollars, what this would eventually create is a massive, cybernetic feedback loop. Let’s say you opened up a website with UI controls, so you could adjust your proportional tax payment anytime you wanted, adjustable down to hourly segments of your fiscal year total. (I am assuming you must still pay your full total, you can just allocate the percentages. Otherwise, everyone would obviously opt to pay nothing at all.) And this site updates. So after it first launches, we see (and I am just guessing here) payment for education and arts decrease, and military spending increases. After a few hours of people allocating their own taxes, education and arts are almost at zero. But then what happens as people see these changes? Maybe someone who originally allocated 75% military/25% education, on seeing education spending slide nationally to nothing, decides to allocate 100% education to make up for the difference. How many people do this? Enough to counter the childless militants? What sort of equilibrium is reached? Is an equilibrium reached?
Now imagine, after they open up the API of this system (naturally), third-party algorithms are introduced. Want to help the budget reach 25% for education nationally? Install this add-on, and it will auto-adjust you and everyone else using the add-on in a unified front to make this goal a reality (while protecting your personal data, of course). Or maybe you set it to automatically devote up to 100% of your individual taxes to education, unless highways dip below 5%, and then it re-figures your totals according to your preference. Or, download the Democratic Party algorithm, which will automatically adjust your percentages to match the national tax distribution platform of the party. Download the Support our Troops algorithm, which helps the Veterans and Military budgets maintain a certain consistent ratio to the overall budget depending on how many troops are currently on active duty. Pledge to Support the Dollar, by downloading the FOMC algorithm that will adjust internal infrastructure spending and national debt spending in such a way as to drive the strength of the dollar world-wide. How about an algorithm that scans the news for stories of political scandal, reducing the money allocated to congressional salaries every time there is another ethics violation? Too many fires in your district last month? The Google Map Fire Layer-aware algorithm will automatically up your fire services percentage by an appropriate amount.
Now what would be REALLY REALLY interesting: what sort of equilibrium is achieved, and how far off is it the current balance as it now, without this sci-fi direct democracy scheme? After all the algorithms are factored in, and all the feedback to the results of the algorithms are calculated and re-factored… are we actually any different than where we are now? Is our national desired budget, summed from all the diverse opinion about where we ought to be spending money, really any different from reality? If we let one person tweak the budget, they’d do all sorts of different things. But if everyone’s opinion and rate of pay were weighted together, I’d say it’s a fair bet that we’d end up exactly where we are.
Which brings us back to Thoreau. If Thoreau decides not to pay any taxes towards an unjust war, and convinces 100,000 of his friends and Twitter followers to do likewise, who is to say that if they are allowed to adjust their tax distribution, William Randolph Hearst and all of his Twitter followers won’t decide to up their tax distribution in favor of war to make up the difference? Wouldn’t we then see that those who pay the most taxes control the distribution of the budget by their weight? How would this “voting with your tax” be any different than the world today, in which people with a lot of money, and hoards of people with a little bit of money, filtered through regimes of power and ideology and opinion, are the only influences to the political system?
Is it possible that as bankrupt and backwards as our democracy is, that it actually functions perfectly at doing what it is supposed to do? This function: to obfuscate and abstract our own lack of knowledge and ability, to direct our attention away from our responsibility for our own egos. And is it possible that the government, by echoing the non-sensical desires and demands of a populace that is as fickle as a television programming schedule, is already the representative compass of a society that is ready and willing to sprint directly towards oblivion? This society that would rather wage war across the globe than put out the fires in our neighbors homes, and fix the gas lines underneath our own feet.
I don’t actually know. But somebody should run a mock-up study to see. I’d really like to participate, and see the results.