Update 2: Salon has agreed to change the headline and deck on the piece, reverting to the original title of the piece, and totally reversing the wording of the subheading to make it more accurate to the content of my essay: see the link above, versus original screenshot below. (Though it is unfortunate the permalink cannot be changed.) Many thanks to JS at Salon for being very professional and agreeable in helping the change take place. As far as I’m concerned, this closes the issue, and Salon has put things right. I never did find out what the thought process was in the original mis-titling, but I’m willing to chalk that up as one of life’s unfortunate mysteries. As long as what amounted to me being misquoted was corrected, and the CC license is followed, then things are okay. What’s done is done. Thanks to everyone who expressed their frustration about this in commiseration with me as well–although such a thing might be “standard media practice”, it was heartening to know that I wasn’t alone in seeing this as a complete misrepresentation.
Update: I’ve been informed that Salon has a reprint agreement with TNI, according to TNI’s CC license. Reprinting, of course, is in line with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License. Setting aside the fact that Salon automatically violates the Non-Commercial use aspect, the question is then whether or not it is a derivative work or not. It is standard practice to re-title pieces when re-publishing, without consulting with the author. However, I think in this case, it is clear that the title and sub-heading are so different from the piece itself, to make it more of ironic piece of performance art than a real article when published on Salon. Imagine if someone wrote a piece about the positives and negatives of a particular political group, or a company, or a person. If that article was republished with the title, “X on its Last Legs”, the import of that change to the piece would be obvious. Without a judge’s ruling, this is just my opinion. So for now, I hope that Salon can see the damage they’ve caused, and simply changed the title or marks it as a derivative piece with a disclaimer.
Yesterday, while doing a standard Google self-search to find an essay I had published in the past, I discovered an essay of mine that I did not publish. Salon took an article I wrote about Burning Man that ran on The New Inquiry, and republished it without permission. Not only that, but they gave it a horrible, hatchet-title, which completely changed the meaning of the piece.
Please read my actual article at The New Inquiry if you are interested in how I was arguing, in fact, the opposite. My piece was about how through my experience, I came to the understanding that despite any particular problem or challenge of Burning Man, what people are doing there is something that is innate to their own way of life. No matter what happens to Burning Man, no matter how it changes, the people who attend it will continue to do what they do, either at Burning Man, or elsewhere. And that includes me, because I have been the last two years, and I will be there next summer as well.
So you might be able to understand how distraught I was at seeing my piece slapped up on another site with a low, attention-grabbing headline that completely misrepresented my piece. I know a little bit about the internet–stuff gets stolen, re-purposed, and borrowed, with different and contradicting definitions of what fair use is (what Salon did was in no way fair use, see below). But knowing that reality didn’t make it any easier to read the comments on the Salon page, where long-time burners dismissed the piece, my writing, and my own experience as an attendee of Burning Man. I completely understand why they attacked this posting. Burning Man isn’t something that is understood by people who don’t go because it is very complicated, and there are many different cultures and ethics rolled up into a singular meme. Media tends to send a few correspondents, who tend to report back the briefest glimpses of what actually happens there, the reality of which can never fit into 500, or even 3000 words. The limited nature of reporting on Burning Man was one reason that I was so excited to publish this piece. I wanted to break through the common conceptions of what the event is, and present the experience of a person who understood some of the events faults, but still loved it. Instead, because of Salon’s theft, this piece became another instance of what I hated: sensationalist journalism that cares more about page views than the subject matter. I’m deeply sorry to Burners who read this piece with this title, and thought that my words were meant as evidence of their cultures downfall.
I am sending Salon a DMCA takedown notice, because what they did is clear copyright violation. The New Inquiry is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License, which means that it’s material can be re-used, but only with attribution, not for commercial purposes, and with no derivative works. While Salon did provide attribution, listing my name and The New Inquiry as the source, they are using it for commercial purposes (as can be seen ads for cars and other sponsored links in the screen grab). And with the title change, they have published a derivative copy. Per my author agreement with The New Inquiry, I retain all copyright to the work, and so if Salon wished to use the piece outside of this license, they would have had to seek my permission, which they did not seek, and I did not and do not give. Furthermore, their site lists the article as “copyrighted by Salon”, and does not reproduce the Creative Commons License, which in and of itself is a violation of that license.
The unique powerlessness I feel in this situation is bizarre. I have gotten into internet scuffles before, but only on the basis of intellectual disputes. In these cases, I can respond, and even if my argument doesn’t outweigh my interlocutor’s, I can feel like I met someone on even terrain, and we were both able to make our cases, for anyone to read and judge. In this case, all I can do is send a DMCA takedown, and hope that Salon listens. I don’t have money for a lawyer. I’m simply an independent journalist. My name and ideas are being smeared by a major media outlet, and there is nothing I can do other than write a post on my own tiny site, fill out a form, and then sit here and hate it. I have no venue to respond in my own words (except here), because it is my own words that have been turned against me.
I would really like to get in touch with the editor at Salon that made the decision to steal my work in this way. The best I can hope from the DMCA takedown is that the page with my stolen work disappears. But I want to know why they did this. Was it simply to get a few page views? Did they have a quota to meet, or an assignment to publish something about Burning Man that they couldn’t otherwise complete? I want to hear from the person who thought it was okay to put an author in this position, and pulled the trigger on it. Did they think I wouldn’t care, or wouldn’t find out? Or is this one of countless thefts they make every day without really considering the ramifications? Is this standard behavior for a major media site? These are things I want to know, so I can contextualize this, and understand what this means for me and other independent writers.
Our sense of vision is acutely human, because it is by our perception of the visible that we orient our world, and understand ourselves within it. We are creatures of light, who move within light, who build their lives out of light and its plethora of shadows, glimmers, reflections, and obscurities. And in this cast flame we judge each other, we attack each other, we watch each other, condemn each other, rule each other, and rape each other.
We not only speak of our inner selves as illuminated, but we use spotlights to chase down other bodies. Whether it be the eyesight of a group of men facing down a single woman moving down the same sidewalk at night, a telephoto lens attempting to peer through the shroud of a person’s clothing, a police officer’s flashlight, a drone’s camera, or simply the contemporary presence of CCD sensors in our pockets and on our architecture, vision connotes a certain power, that is used negatively just as often as it can be positive.
When we are critical of it in regards to the sexual relations of humans, we might call it the male or masculine gaze, as if men were looking with their sex or gender. This is a particular sort of vision, bound up with ideology, with history, and sexual class. It not only observes, but it sorts, it privileges, it values and it targets. Perhaps we call it masculine to make it clear who it is that it that can become the target of the others’ eyes, and whose fault it is not. Rape culture, and the forms of vision that propagate it, is only one form of visually-oriented aggression, and heteronormativism, transphobia, and any other designation of violent vision need not be labeled as particularly masculine. When we join the ocular aspects of rape culture with our definition of what is masculine and what is feminine, it is important that we call out this gaze for what it is made to be–that which is by and large in the heads of men, wielded by men, and constituting of men in their persecution of women. But in the attempt to weed out rape culture in one of its haunts, we do disservice to the gaze itself, by failing to understand what it is.
The gaze is not the agency of gender roles. The gaze is not rape culture. The culture of rape is found in patterns of thought and behavior, not in visual perception. The gaze is electromagnetic radiation, perceived by a sensor. It is the perception of color, of light intensity and wavelength. It is no different in mechanics than tuning a radio through a frequency band. Gaze is shape, and architecture, and space. Gaze is both the sensible presence and absence of light, of bodies, of skin, of fashion, in all the meaningful abundance of existence and lack. The shape of a woman’s body in tight clothes is like a color of the spectrum, just as the shape of her body in baggy clothes also is, as is the shape of a man, as is the look of someone displaying no recognizable gender whatsoever. Color and shape are indications, understood frequencies onto which we map any number of meanings. In the colors of things, their hues, borders, shapes, shadings, shadows, and sightlines, is where the gaze resides. The gaze has no gender. Gaze has no wants, beliefs, desires, or needs.
But sexuality exists in this colored space, across the surface of what we visually perceive. There are thoughts that surround the act of putting on a piece of clothing, or walking down the street and watching other people. We define our sexuality in a visual space, not outside of it. We must use the visual topography to define our emotional and physiological structures. These two types of patterns must be constructed in concert with each other. While we look, we must be sexual beings, and while we are sexual beings, we must continue to look.
The ocular architecture, the visual topology, the environment of light and darkness–however we choose to describe it, it is a changed space. The fact of our many sexual beings cascading through this space, crowned with sensors noticing the changes in visual light, makes this a terrain with endless implications for our sexualities and other internal frameworks. There is no place that is removed from the gaze. Even if we blind ourselves and remove our own capacities for sight, the gaze still exists in the world. Opting out of our sense of sight is no incorporeality. The terrain of the gaze and our existence within it is too close-knit, too simultaneously embodied to ever exist without it.
Like stepping out of our homes into a sky filled with satellites, an atmosphere seething with flying drones, a city with buildings dripping with closed-circuit cameras. We could elude the lenses, shine an impeding glare into the sensors, dazzle the algorithms. But for how long could we escape the constantly inscribed regime of sight-recording that exists in our contemporary surveillance state? A map of CCTV cameras cannot be the full surveilled territory. The cones of observation we avoid are limited to those we know of, and even our tools of observation and avoidance now observe us back. We live in an age of Drone Ethnography, in which any attempt at recording what is happening to us is overshadowed by another lens, watching a lens, watching a lens, watch us. The opportunity for opting out of a visual culture elapsed long ago, when our eyes were evolving in the membranes of a long lost taxonomic ancestor. We cannot ban drones anymore than we can dispel the gaze. If the technological gaze is banned by legal means, it will only occur extra-legally. If human sight is judged as immoral, it will only become a fetish. We are always already being recorded, and there is nothing we can do about this. What matters is whether someone will persecute, rape, or kill us on the basis of that recording.
The connection between technological surveillance space and the terrain of the gaze is apt, because our relationship to their singular status helps us understand how they function. Rape culture isn’t solely about looking, and drone culture isn’t solely about flying cameras.
We have come to rely upon an abstract notion of “drones”, as a way of signifying the presence of flying cameras. UAVs carry cameras, because the only way to observe space in a more omnipotent way than humans already do, is through such technologies as high power digital sensors, infrared cameras, visually-intelligent algorithms, and as dramatic climax, the robotic flying platforms for carrying these things. All of these technologies are unique, but we make the flying platform into a singular category, Drones, which represents the entire novel system of “technocular” omnipresence, because the flying robot is so evocative as an image. But there is a difference between drones that just represent the novelty of drones, and drones that are built for observation. There is a huge difference between flying a quadrocopter with an iPhone, and the Gorgon Stare. The Occucopter, The Pirate Bay’s drones, anything performing aerobatics for the purposes of a Youtube video–these represent our fascination, but they are not the meat of the surveillance system. The true task of these novelty drones is to represent what Drones mean to us. Observing police brutality and file sharing are better accomplished through other technologies. The key to UAVs’ proliferation is that the government can afford to fly so many, keep them flying all the time, process the data, and act on it, just as they can mount CCTV cameras, create facial recognition databases, create mandatory IDs, hack into their citizens computers, fund the development of all of the necessary technology, and so forth. With a technology useful to the consolidation of power, governments have sought to buy the most, the best, and to be first to do so. This is what governments do.
Similarly, we have come to equate rape culture to the existence of the terrain of the gaze. The visual environment is chock full of unrestrained desire, because there is no better place for the surplus of human desire to go. If we cannot safely pay for sex, we pay for the simulation or the recording of it. If we cannot fulfill our fantasies in a corporeal way, we satisfy ourselves with the visual fulfillment of them. If we cannot always perform our sexuality in the way we choose, we signify the simultaneous absence and presence of the performance through alternate indicators. And perhaps most of all, when we do perform our sexuality, we vent the excesses of internal, libidinal desire that will never be fully fulfilled, through the visual aids we employ, the long looks we take, the replay of memories, the dreaming of dreams. The vast majority of our sexuality that cannot be expressed in the simple act of sex must inscribe itself through our sensory perception–and as visually dominant creatures, it is obvious the means we will most often choose. Pornography, sex toys, sex performance, fetishes, fashion, dance, body language–the examples of ways that sexuality expresses itself in visually perceptible cultural forms are far too numerous to list. Despite the fact that there are plenty of elements of human culture that are not sexual and are still visibly sensible, literally anything that we visually perceive can be interpreted as sexual or exploited as such. And we have taken a basic human function, vision, and made it categorically synonymous with another basic human physical and mental function: sex. This is what human bodies do.
But the analysis must become ethical, as the unrestrained activities of governments and human bodies are clearly not good for those they take as their objective, nor for the governments or bodies themselves. We must identify what forms of sex are good and bad, and what forms of politics are good and bad. But in doing so, we unpack the reduction of surveillance to Drones, and of rape to the gaze.
Drones, in that they are abstracted into such an essential category of political strategy that we can refer to Drones and simultaneously mean everything from stealth fighter to a children’s toy, are more like a trend in pornography than a trend in weapons. Porn similarly abstracts a range of behaviors and contexts, creating essentialized categories from what were simply sex acts, personifications, performances, objects, or scenarios.
In bed, one can do any number of things, and the overall meaning of this is construed by the parties involved, based upon the context. This is the fetish behavior–a particular symbol put into play in the act of engaging one’s sexuality, that is observed and read as both that symbol itself, and much more than that symbol. For example, having sex with a partner dressed in a “school-girl” fetish outfit, is not really read as equivalent to a desire to fuck a girl who attends school. The partners’ choice of fetish outfit is a visual willingness of those consenting partners to sexually engage with certain symbols, acts, and language in a particular time and place, together. The fetish outfit may exist hanging in the closet as much as it does when deployed in sexual activity, but its true meaning when used is entirely dependent on the details who, how, where, and why.
The same fetish symbol in the larger discourse of pornography, on the other hand, must be considered differently because it is abstracted in the published visual medium, and not presented as related to any particular individuals’ sexuality. The vast quantities and ranges of school-girl fetish porn does not say anything about particular partners or bedrooms. Pornography is a commodified discourse, the production of which is described in terms of cultural-level “market forces” that describe the needs of culture in general. An individual may enjoy certain portrayals of the commodity more than others, but this is never a fetish produced for that individual. It is for the abstraction of many individuals in pursuit of profit. It is indicative of a sexual regime in society–the sexual archetype of the School-Girl, which can be said to “always” look, act, and inscribe sexual meaning in an archetypical way. The School-Girl is not a “who”, it is a “what”: it is a characterization recognized by symbolic indicators. Individuals may use the School-Girl archetype to enhance, inspire, or inscribe their own school-girl fetish, but any instance of roleplay activity will be a separate act, not reducible to the abstract archetype.
[Note: even if individuals mimic the archetype completely, and mimic the archetypical performance so exactly to the point of filming the sexual performance, shot for shot, like a particular piece of pornography, this is still on the individual level a fetish behavior, and not an attempt to produce mass media. The purpose is for the participants, and not for audience. This changes, of course, if that fetish film is sold. Without getting into a discussion about causality, let’s just table this (albeit, interesting) issue by saying that the distribution of a personal fetish film as pornography is itself an act of production, that changes the film itself. I don’t feel this is an evasion of the relationship between personal fetishes and commodity production, I just don’t want to go off on a tangent in this essay to make that argument.]
Similarly, drones are not simply a means of doing politics, they are the leading indicators of a particular discipline of politics, in the Foucauldian sense. The Panopticon, as described by Foucault in Discipline and Punish, is not merely a prison, but it is the archetypal diagram of particular trend in not only prisons, but in societal power itself.
“But the Panopticon must not be understood as a dream building; it is the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form; its functioning, abstracted from any obstacle, resistance or friction, must be represented as a pure architectural and optical system: it is in fact a figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use.” – Foucault, Discipline & Punish
The fetish of drones is performed anytime that one flies a camera through the air, but each individual flight of a drone remains separate from the discourse of Drones, which serves as an archetype of perpetual surveillance in an arena of technocular ubiquity. The Drones are separate from any individual flying machine, database of citizens, or ID-capturing device. But we must have a way of representing the singular mass of all of this signifying technology, and we do it through the evocative signifier of Drones. The military-industrial complex, the political regimes that make decisions about policy, the state bureaucrats that enact that policy, and the media which responds to all of these, use the archetype of Drones to abstract the individual realities of surveillance technology into a single signifer. When we talk about Drones as an archetype of the current times, we are talking about this cultural entity, not any model of drone or act of drone usage specifically.
[Note: similar to the previous note, the point at which a snapshot taken on an individual’s cell phone becomes a part of state surveillance apparatus is an interesting question, but to avoid that tangent, we will simply say that there is a defined line between the two and leave it at that, for now.]
We are in love with drones, just as we are captivated by each others’ bodies. From our species’ physiology is born a cultural reliance upon seeing, as a stand-in for doing. And from our technological abilities to collect information, grows the prime mover of our strategizing. Anything we look at, can be looked at in a sexual way. A pair of binoculars, a map, a photograph, a satellite, or a UAV can aid any sort of politics if deployed correctly, and there is nothing inimical to a particular regime in these technologies. Staring out of our windows at our neighbors, whether for titillation or for neighborhood watch, is merely an activity that is part of our current cultural humanity.
The ethical problem with voyeurism is not simply that rape may follow. And the ethical problem with drone warfare is not simply that it is asymmetric, inhumane, imperialist, or a war crime. Behaviors, technology, and strategies that exploit the distribution of power to cause pain and suffering has existed for a long time. But there is a difference with drones. Unlike earlier horrors–atom bombs, mustard gas, machine guns, etc–we conceive of this new sort of terror technology as somehow normal, even though it is distinctly new. It is not thought of as a killing machine. it is just computers, cameras, GPS, apps, and radio-controlled aircraft. This is what makes it New Aesthetic–it stands out as terrible and shocking, but while remaining incredibly familiar. We are supposedly “terrified” of the reality of drone warfare, and yet we like drones. We want to ban drones in the same way we want to ban guns–we propose a solution that we know very well is impossible. We hate drones and love them at the same time, like our booze, like our drugs, and like our violent, occular sex.
In the discourse of psychoanalysis, the gaze is a primarily a means for visually recording knowledge and interpolating it into our thought processes. Luce Irigaray criticized Freud and Lacan for rooting this gaze in the presence or absence of the phallus–automatically putting women at a disadvantage in this distribution of knowledge.
“Nothing to be seen is equivalent to having no thing. No being and no truth.” – Irigaray, The Sex Which Is Not One
The ethical flaw of both drones and the gaze is in its distribution and its control. Outside of the discourse of psychoanalysis, distribution is still controlled by privileged power regime. Drones are controlled by the State, and the supporters of rape culture control the gaze. These do not have to be tools of violence, but because of who holds the controls, they are made to be. It is a fact that technology allows us to observe, record, and track each other. But it is through the archetype of Drones that we have internalized the notion that the State can be the arbiter of this power. It is a fact that sex is visual, and visual performance is the means by which we will always read and express our desire. But it is through the archetypes of culturally abstracted sex that we have internalized the idea that if you see something you can touch it, if you observe a sexuality, it is yours to own. By dealing with these abstractions as ideas rather than accessible behaviors and technologies, we limit our ability to reorient their distribution to benefit our own bodies, and those of our consenting partners and communities. We only know drones the way the State knows drones. We only see sex the way rape culture sees sex.
Internalizing these distributions in the abstract, we do what these power regimes would already have us do. We ignore the sexuality of others if it is not a visible thing–we equate what one-can-see to all-that-is. Contemporary politics ignores democracy that does include surveillance–If you’re not doing anything wrong, you should not be hiding, and if you are not voting, you should not be speaking. It is not that drones and the gaze are part of politics and sexuality, it is that by reducing our awareness of these things to their archetypes, there cannot be any surplus politics or sexuality outside of these limited terrains which we are allowed to control. With seeing, comes a notion of being. We are beginning to call it telepresence–our ability to be in a space or travel through a space constituted by our technological visual engagement with that space. But what we require, just as we always have, is a deeper engagement with the environment. We require telepraxis. It is not enough to simply observe the archetype, we must engage and perform with it to the point of fetish–the point at which it is no longer simply a signifier for what culture decides that it means, but it is part of a living relationship and performance with individuals other than ourselves.
This is a difficult thing to do right, and rape culture and drone wars are the sign of our continuing failure. These archetypes, like Foucault’s Panopticon, do not just symbolize a particular way that things might happen, but signify a strong magnetic tendency of culture, pulling all signification in line with this particular regime. Like the phallus of psychoanalysis, the only meaning given credence is meaning translated through this regime. This is not an idle pattern, but feedback loop reinforcing itself.
“The discipline of the workshop, while remaining a way of enforcing respect for the regulations and authorities, of preventing thefts or losses, tends to increase aptitudes, speeds, output and therefore profits; it still exerts a moral influence over behavior, but more and more it treats actions in terms of their results, introduces bodies into a machinery, forces into an economy.” – Foucault, Discipline and Punish
Just because there is lots of money and privilege tied up into rape culture and the surveillance state, is not the reason we say this is a class issue. Like an economic class, these systems exist solely to perpetuate themselves, and those who benefit by them, at the expense of others. Nor is it enough to say that these systems disproportionately harm lower economic classes. Each is in fact, it’s own sort of class–a technological and epistemological class. Rape culture is a class. Surveillance culture is a class. It is not enough to find the way that drones and the gaze are being maligned, subverted, and distributed in order to harm others and criticize it. One cannot simply point out the existence of a class. Class is something that must be fought. We must create a contesting praxis, that will pull the sexual gaze and drones back from these power regimes, and use them to smash the negative archetypes. This is a terrain worth fighting over, because it is the only terrain on which human beings live and knows themselves.
This is an introductory essay and explanation of the Open Card Deck Standard, and the Library and License that will support it. As you might be able to tell, I’ve spent some time thinking about this, in conjunction with conversations with a number of people on related topics. But this is only the beginning. I’d like to continue the discussion on this in a Google Doc, so if you are interested in this or anything related to various types of open-ended social gaming, please join in.
Before we detail the actual standards, let’s make some axiomatic definitions.
A single database entry, with defined content fields (name, artwork, etc.). Each entry is designed to be printed on a single piece of generally flat material, using either one or both sides.
A collection of cards, selected with particular use in mind, to be the limited pool for that use. A deck might be created, added to, split, or diminished in various ways, but the deck defines the difference between the cards under consideration in play, and those that are not.
The physical, mental, or social activities conducted with the deck, during a limited time duration that is in some way repeatable in a series. Creating the deck is not considered part of play; however, it is conceivable that rules might define play that changes the makeup of the deck.
The agreed upon patterns of play. Not all play is defined by the rules, and certain types of play will no doubt violate rules. Rules define the general plane of the use of the deck, either in reference to the deck and the cards’ content, or not. Apart from the agreed upon rules of play, other pre-existing and/or meta physical, mental, and social rules will no doubt affect the play as well.
Some Introductory Notes on Card Decks
A card deck is a way of databasing relatively small quantities information in a printed format, such that it can be handled and sorted in multi-dimensional physical ways, and considered by human minds accordingly.
In an era when digital databases are behind many of the informational tools we consider to be cutting edge, it may seem to be a reversion to think about laying our thoughts onto paper using ink. But while the power of search engines and algorithmic database programming is great, digital data must dogmatically conform to particular language rules. Data processed by a particular algorithm will always be processed precisely the same way–if the algorithm shifts from its design, the data can easily be rendered categorically unintelligible.
But by breaking text into smaller chunks by printing it on physical cards, we can more easily violate the categories of information, while not breaking the rules of language or intelligible thought. This allows our brains’ creativity to come in and repair the categories in an ad hoc manner, or manipulate them according to predetermined rules. We might call this the “play” of the cards–how they fall in order in a deck, in one’s hand, or on the table, and the relations between the cards. These physical shufflings provide interesting segue ways in and out of the information that might not have been generated by an algorithm.
These segue ways go by different names, depending on the card deck. We might call them “random”, “divinatory”, “inspirational”, “play”, “synthetic”, “strategic”, “speculative”, “thematic”, or “tangential”. Regardless of the context for naming these segue ways, the value they have to us is that they allow us to break from our previous categorizations, and attempt to create new categorizations, for whatever intellectual good this might do us.
Here some examples of various types of card decks with different formats, for different purposes:
Tarot Deck – The most popular Tarot Deck in English is the Rider-Waite deck, created in 1909, incorporating images and titles from various other sources. Used for divination, but also for a variety of card games, which various decks trace back to before being used for more occult purposes.Oblique Strategies – A deck of cards created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt. Each card has a brief text phrase, intended to create some level of cognitive dissonance so that a person might break through a cognitive block. There have been five editions of the cards, as well as a number of homages and imitators.Card Catalog – Used in libraries before the widespread use of computer databases, they were used to sync up three different sorting systems: the alphabetical list of authors’ last names, a list of subject categories into which all materials were evaluated, and a library classification system like the Dewey Decimal System or the Library of Congress Classification that is used to sort the works on the shelves. By visiting one or more card catalogs, users could either find a particular work, or find related works based on the subject.Sports Cards – Originally designed as a promotion by chewing gum companies, cards with photos of various athletes, and on the reverse side, their stats, became popular with fans and collectors. While they are most known for being occasionally valuable collector-items, they are also used by children for games only semi-related to the information on the cards.Magic: The Gathering Cards – While there are many different collectible card games in different genres, “Magic Cards” was perhaps the first and remains one of the most popular. A wide number of different cards are collected by players, from which they make decks used in play. A simple turn-system allows a player to deduct “life points” from his/her opponent, via the game design rules written on each card, accompanied by fantasy artwork and characterizations.
For many in the various fields of critical intellectual pursuits, there is a fascination with the potential of card decks. They are appealing not only for the physical qualities they add to informational categorizing, but also because they can be created and destroyed at will, by anyone with printer and paper. There is nothing canonical about cards themselves outside of their decks, the only editorial constraint is on which cards belong in what deck. Cards seem adaptable to nearly any creative purpose, as long as they are designed well and the rules for using them are agreed upon.
But there are so many different possibilities for card decks, for different situations, games, rules, and practices. How does one go about discovering the limits of a new card deck? What should be included, and what excluded? What sorts of categories does one pre-define? Are all the cards the same, or are some different within the deck?
We are attempting an answer to these questions by drafting an Open Card Deck Standard (OCDS). The OCDS will be a format for creating cards that can be incorporated into any other deck made from cards that are similarly to OCDS standard. Any person will be able to create a card deck from any grouping of OCDS cards that they choose, selecting or ignoring cards at will to formulate the best deck for their purposes. The OCDS standard will be coupled with an OCDS Library and License, to promote the sharing and creation of any cards with the OCDS standard.
Goals of the Standard
To allow for a large pool of cards outside of any one deck.
While a deck is a strict limitation on the particular cards to be used in play, the precise makeup of the deck should be allowed to shift, if the deck creator desires. The OCDS allows for a larger “pool” of cards outside of the deck, which the creator can choose from at will. It also allows the creation of cards that are not “for” any particular deck, but could possibly used in a different deck in the future.
To allow for collaboration between deck creators.
OCDS cards are relatively basic, allowing for a single format of origin into any particular deck from the main OCDS Library. The Library will hold as many different cards as possible, allowing anyone wishing to work with OCDS to use these cards, and anyone wishing to create in OCDS to share their cards. The OCDS cards come with their own license, allowing them to be used by anyone, and modified. The modifications can be tracked via the database, and better variations will be used more widely.
To encourage the sharing of cards in a way that alleviates any Intellectual Property concerns, by providing public ownership for the content, and allowing means for remixing and modifying that content either for re-sharing or other use.
This is the point of the OCDS License. Anyone can come and take an unlimited amount of the content from the OCDS Library, but the OCDS Database only exists because material is submitted into it. The License aims to encourage both the use of content from the Library, and the addition of material to it.
To encourage the shattering of complex cards into simple cards.
One of the more notable constraints, and more notable features of OCDS is it’s very limited field allowances per card. This is to make each card as simple as possible, and as open to interpretation as possible. Rather than have detailed, overly-specific cards that force particular interpretations or uses, OCDS can better get at the root constructions, and increase the number of cards referencing a complicated idea, and allows those components to mix and mingle with others. One card with a complicated scenario will tend to read the same way in many uses–however, if that scenario is written across five different cards, more of the scenario-building is done in the play, allowing other cards to perhaps attach themselves to the scenario or replace particular aspects of the scenario.
To encourage the sharing of cards without sharing rules.
There are no fields in OCDS related to the play or rules of the cards. This is so the cards can be shared without assuming any models of play, after which, rules can be applied by individual deck creators without any need for inheriting rules made by other creators. This will limit the sorts of cards that can be considered OCDS, but will allow for the maximum utility of the cards in OCDS.
To allow for customization/forking from OCDS.
The definition of OCDS is limiting, to improve the utility of the standard. However, many card deck applications will require adding more detailed information into particular cards, such as longer description, play rules, or other symbolic notation. OCDS is designed with the explicit knowledge that it ought to be forked. The license will allow any deck creators to modify the cards, use them as they wish, and then re-modify them back to OCDS if they wish. The standard can be forked, up to and including forking the OCDS Library in its entirety, for the purposes of modifying the standard and the OCDS cards for different uses.
And probably more that we’ll discover as we start using it.
The Open Card Deck Standard
What follows is the very first draft of the OCDS, which we’ll call OCDS Version 0.1.
The Open Card Deck Standard (OCDS) defines the Format for each OCDS card, the method for submitting a card or set of cards to the OCDS Library, and the OCDS License under which the cards and Library may be used.
OCDS Card Format
Each OCDS card consists of one of each of the following fields:
Definition: 99 characters or less that name all the information contained in the particular card. No syntactical formatting is to be used (e.g. periods, commas, colons, semi-colons, dashes, parentheses, brackets, quotes, symbols, etc.)
Definition: 99 characters or less that describe the entirety of the card further. It cannot be identical to the Name, but can used syntactical formatting.
Definition: a digital image in JPG, PNG, or GIF format, in 1:1 size ratio.
Definition: 299 characters or less that describe in as much detail as possible the spirit of how the card ought to be considered.
Definition: The date on which the card was submitted to the OCDS Library, in format MM/DD/YYYY.
Definition: OCDS version number the card was submitted under. All cards entered into the OCDS are updated to the current version.
Definition: Code indicating the language in which the card is written.
The OCDS Library is a database available for reading and download on a public website that attempts to include every OCDS card ever made.
Submitting to the OCDS Library.
Cards to be submitted to the Library are pre-formatted to OCDS by the submitter, and passed to the archivists.
The archivists check the formatting, scrub any previous Date or Version information, and add the Cards to the Library.
Everything submitted to the Library in proper format must be accepted.
Viewing and Downloading the OCDS Library
The Database is available for anyone to view, download, and use, according to the OCDS License.
Mirroring and Forking the OCDS Library
Mirroring and Forking is permitted. Please see the relevant sections in the License.
The material in the OCDS Library is not owned by anyone, as it is open and free to use by all. However, to avoid the theft of this open material by way of any person or group claiming ownership to it and preventing its free and open use, this License is necessary.
Any material in the OCDS Library falls under this OCDS License for the entirety of the period for which it is in the Library.
Any material falling under the OCDS License must be maintained in OCDS and made available to the public continuously for as long as is humanly possible.
By submitting material to the OCDS Library, you acknowledge that it will fall under the OCDS License, and revoke all claims of ownership of the material.
By using the material in the OCDS Library, you acknowledge your understanding of the OCDS License, and agree to use the material accordingly.
Any material downloaded or copied from the OCDS Library can be removed from the OCDS License, and is then under a Creative Commons, Attribution License.
Mirroring or Forking of the Library can be done under the provisions of Section 6, above.
A Mirrored Library is one that is exactly the same as the OCDS Library. It can only be considered under OCDS if the date of its last download is listed, and it is unaltered.
A Forked Library is one that’s progenitor was the OCDS Library, but has had new material added to it or deleted, or its format was changed from OCDS. A Forked Library cannot be considered under OCDS.
Any material downloaded, copied, altered, modified, or forked can be re-submitted to the Library if it is re-formatted for OCDS, and when added to the Library, it can again be considered in OCDS and under OCDS license.
License short-form takeaway: When cards are properly OCDS and in the Library, they belongs to all of us. If you want to take some cards away and play with them, wonderful–but say where you got them. If after you play with them you bring it back and re-share them with everyone, that’s totally awesome, and they belong to everyone again.
By now we’ve presented a crap ton of information about card decks, standards, and libraries, and it probably seems a bit overwhelming. Here are some use-cases and examples that hopefully will help explain while any of this is useful at all.
Three Example Cards
Name: Analog Computer
Single Line: A computer that represents the non-digital using physics
Text: A method of solving problems by physical analogy. Translates physical characteristic (temperature, flow, speed, resistance etc) into a model of a problem. Allows changing variables to result in quick answers without re-calculation.
Single Line: Recognizable cultural practices.
Text: Tradition, ritual, or belief. Enduring practices between two or more members of a group, that are socially learned and passed down through generations.
Name: Places to Day Dream or Think
Single Line: A particular kind of place at a particular kind of time.
Text: A quiet place, with a view. Or lots of noise, and no view. A place where nothing is happening, or too much is happening, so our mental schemas can’t follow the action, and our minds are free to wander. A place for waiting, resting, boredom, where meditation is forced on us.
These three cards are good examples of cards in OCDS. They are properly formatted, but additionally they are loosely defined enough to be applicable in many different situations, but still descriptive enough to give any user something to work with. They may not fit precisely with a user’s need in a card deck, but they can provide the rough sketch to help them start making their own cards.
Expanding on a Card
Single Line: A motorized vehicle.
Text: Invented in 1879, the automobile is now a common form of transportation.
The above card is fine, but not great. A user might take this card from the Library, and improve it.
Single Line: A vehicle, typically of four wheels, powered by combustion engine or electricity.
Text: Invented in 1879, the automobile is now a common form of transportation. In particular parts of the world, the ownership and common use of cars has been a significant feature of culture, creating specific architecture, music, films, and lifestyles focusing on cars.
Or, the card could be modded for a particular use. Say, if it is going to be used in a deck that focuses on environmental awareness or climate change.
Single Line: A vehicle, typically of four wheels, most-often powered by burning fossil fuels.
Text: Invented in 1879, the automobile is now a common form of transportation. As a major source of CO2 emissions and other pollutants, cars decrease air quality in congested areas. Additionally, death in car crashes is a major hazard in industrial societies.
Duplicate and Modded Cards in the Library
As cards are modified, it is assumed that they will be added back into the Library as long as they maintain OCDS. It is conceivable that in the Library, there will be a build up of cards with similar or duplicate names. This is not a bug, but a feature. Using the date field on the cards, any person browsing the Library will easily be able to see the history of modifications, and choose to pull the cards from the Library that suit him/her best. Additionally, if a card is un-modded but added back into the Library as part of another submitted deck, the duplicate will serve as a vote of confidence for that particular modification. The Library will be able to present not only the most recent card variation for a particular name, but the most common. This will allow both the more standardized, but also the more diverse card version available for Library users.
Using a Card for a Game
Depending on the game, various information might be helpful added to the card, and other information might be superfluous. Here is a possible variation for a narrative roleplaying style car game.
Single Line: A vehicle, typically of four wheels, carrying up to 4 passengers and 500 pounds of equipment.
Text: Invented in 1879, the automobile is now a common form of transportation. Used to travel between cities, and increase the rate of travel on all roadways.
Movement: Needs a passenger of at least Intelligence 10 and Reflexes 12 to move. Increases movement rate by 10x.
Fuel: Spend one Hydrocarbon per turn to use the Automobile.
Risk: 1/10 chance of Accident, then roll for each Character Damages. 1/20 chance of Breakdown, then spend one Machine Parts before Automobile can be used again.
Source: Card modified from from the OCDS Library.
The added text gives gameplay instructions, and alters the description to make more sense in the context of the game. The date, version, and language information have been removed, because they are unnecessary to the game context. This card is no longer in OCDS standard, but because it was modified from an OCDS card, it must list the source to comply with Creative Commons Atttribution License.
Preparing a Modded Card for Resubmission to the Library
Single Line: A vehicle, typically of four wheels, carrying up to 4 passengers and 500 pounds of equipment.
Text: Invented in 1879, the automobile is now a common form of transportation. Used to travel between cities, and increase the rate of travel on all roadways.
The above card used for gameplay has now been re-modded for submission to the Library. It does not have to be, but if the person who modded it thinks it may be useful for others, s/he might want to do so. The gameplay information has been removed. The text of certain fields have been changed, but still satisfy OCDS. The Date and Version information do not need to be added, as they will be updated by the OCDS Librarians on submission and format check. The Language of the card has been marked on the card.
drawing of a UFO encounter from Randall V. Mills Archives of Northwest Folklore
Editor’s Note:This theory piece on UFO documentation is by my partner. I’m posting it here because it is relevant to many issues that I am interested in related to authenticity and phenomenal evidence, and the work that she and I do together regarding technologically-informed revaluations of semiotic value (more on that soon, I hope). Also posted here because she does very excellent work, and because she isn’t quite as “network self-promotion focused” as I am, I feel it’s underexposed to people who might find it interesting. Enjoy! And do check out the UFO images linked from Photocat, these especially are worth looking at.
Visual Documentation of UFOs: A New Question of Authenticity
by Rosalynn Rothstein
Documentation of UFO encounters demonstrate conflict between acceptable channels for observing natural phenomena created by science and the observational powers of any one individual. Margaret Wertheim, a science writer with a focus on physics, states: “ever since Copernicus and his contemporaries in the sixteenth century replaced the earth-centered, God-focused vision of the cosmos with a sun-centered view, the officially sanctioned picture of our universe has increasingly been dictated by astronomy and physics… theoretical physics grew to encompass within it’s equations the entire space of being – the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars and the whole arena of space and time.”  In Physics on the Fringe, from which the above excerpt is quoted, Wertheim examines how “outsider scientists”, a term she chooses and likens to classifications of “outsider artists,” should be considered when they present alternative theories of how the world is ordered. They can ascribe meaning to and create visual documentation of their theories based on a visible world.
In a move similar to how “outsider artists” received increasing legitimacy throughout the twentieth century, Wertheim asks how outsider theories of physics can shed light on the role scientific thought has in ordering individual perceptions of how the world, and indeed the universe, function. As our understanding of how the universe is structured increasingly incorporates scientific understanding, can we look at the visual documentation of individuals who encounter UFOs in the same way as an “outsider artist’s” art or an “outsider scientist’s” body of work? If observation of natural phenomena informed by scientific processes of observation is influencing how individuals are ordering the world, how can we understand the phenomena of UFO documentation? By examining visual documentation, scholarship and descriptions of first hand encounters with UFOs we can understand the role visual documentation has in the UFO phenomena by conducting a folkloristically based analysis of vernacular approaches to observation rooted in personal experience and presented in a scientific framework.
pencil drawing of a UFO
Authenticity and UFO Phenomena
There is a confrontation between the authenticity of the physical world, and a certain type of observation of that physical world, and the numinous or traumatic experience of extraterrestrial contact. Daniel Fry, an alien contactee who describes his abduction experience in The White Sands Incident published in 1954, writes, “No study of U. F. O. phenomena will have any value or significance unless the student leaves his ego and emotions in the cloakroom… no firm conclusion can possibly be valid in an area where the possibilities are as infinite as the Universe itself.” An infinite universe challenges the idea that human observation can be conclusive.
The Lori Butterfield collection, housed in the Randall V. Mills Archives of Northwest Folklore at the University of Oregon, contains an interview with Dick McGrew who was a Coast Guard engineer at the time of the interview. The interview with McGrew, collected in 1981, discusses one instance of abduction McGrew heard about. McGrew states “One that comes to mind is the policeman whose antennae was bent 90 degrees and his car was all messed up and he said that he was transported…I would find no reason to disbelieve it – especially if the guy had gone through hypnosis.” However, the interviewee also describes another instance where he is incredulous of a practice preparing for a UFO encounter. “And then there’s the woman down in the San Diego – Long Beach, uh, San Diego – Los Angeles – somewhere along in there, who had a landing pad set up for UFOs – who dresses up in her sparkly-space suit – goes out there and welcomes UFOs every night. (laughter) I can’t get into that. (Laughter) That’s something that doesn’t make much sense.” For this interviewee, the realms of possibility for alien encounter are bounded by what can be proven. Often, proof involves activating a scientific framework of observation and analysis.
Jung prefaces his analysis of UFOs with the following statement: “I must take this risk, even if it means putting my hard-won reputation for truthfulness, trustworthiness, and scientific judgment in jeopardy.” He proceeds to question whether UFOs are “photogenic.” He states, “considering the notorious camera-mindedness of Americans, it is surprising how few ‘authentic’ photos of UFOs seem to exist, especially as many of them are said to have been observed for several hours at relatively close quarters.” Consequently, we might consider that interpretations, memorates and visual documentation of UFOs are all rigorously tested under a rubric of authenticity.
However, if we move beyond the veracity of the images, whether they are drawings made after an encounter, a YouTube video or more rigorous interpretation of numerous images by a UFO researcher, can we understand these images in a context more similar to how Wertheim interpreted “outsider physicists.” Ultimately, how does the visual documentation of UFO sightings and events manage credibility whether the memorates or documentation are interpreting historical events or documenting contemporary events?
Paul Hill, “UFO Shapes”
Authoritative Evidence versus Experience
Observations of UFOs are influenced by a variety of complex features, including but not limited to popular culture, religious belief and larger culture fears such as nuclear disaster. Daniel Wojcik, a folklorist, considers that beliefs about UFOs and aliens “often reflect apocalyptic anxieties and millennial yearnings, asserting that extraterrestrial entities will play a role in the destruction, transformation, salvation, or destiny of the world.” Experiences reflect larger concerns and interpretations of visual documentation and memorates are subject to similar influences. Thomas Bullard, a folklorist who studies UFOs, claims the most audible voices heard about UFOs are the UFOlogists, who study the phenomena to one extent or another and to different degrees of authority, and not the witnesses of the phenomena.
If the voices of scientists, critics, and UFOlogists are heard more than the witnesses and witnesses narratives are generally expounded upon or interpreted, what does this say for visual documentation produced by these witnesses and contactees? Images and videos can be used as evidence and then critiqued by the “experts” (however this might be defined). The photo documentation and the visual images are often the way the witnesses are “speaking” to these experts. UFOlogists and UFO researchers, even if they are criticized by the “legitimate scientists” or the mass media, are experts in relationship to the witnesses. In this respect there are levels of vernacular and institutional authority influencing interpretation of the authenticity of UFO encounters and sightings.
Another interview in the Lori Butterfield collection with Donald Atkins, a restaurant employee, contains this description of an encounter with a spacecraft. “And I knew it wasn’t any star or aircraft or anything – cause it wasn’t making any sound. Wasn’t making any noise and the thing was real quiet and I looked at it for about ten minutes and then all of a sudden it just – s-shup – and off it disappeared. And it didn’t come back after that.” Before this description the interviewee states “It didn’t make no noise – no sound – and at first, I thought I was a seein’ things and I couldn’t believe it so I shut my eyes for about one whole minute and then opened them up again and it was still there in plain sight.” The physical realm is breached by the UFO experience, but belief in the veracity of the experience is always influenced by the experience of the witness or contactee who must see it in “plain sight” but might not want to believe it.
photo from McMinnville UFO sighting
Depth in Documentation
The UFO fotocat blog, contains lengthy analysis of visual documentation of UFO sightings. The site is self described as follows, “Since year 2000, FOTOCAT is an in-progress project owned and managed by Vicente-Juan Ballester Olmos, with the purpose to create a catalog of world-wide UFO photo events.” Fotocat Report #4 focuses specifically on Norway, specifically the Hessdalen region which has frequent anomalistic luminous events. An introduction to the catalog contains the following statement. “Photograph, in the popular philosophy, is the best evidence to prove the existence of something, e.g. “a picture is worth a thousand words.” In observational sciences, astronomy for instance, photographic records are basic.” The analysis in the document contains a brief synopsis of the case, if necessary a discussion of the quality of the image and if possible the image itself. The photographs also can include the conclusions of the authors of the document, such as “Clouds and atmospheric haze can cause stars and planets to “appear and disappear” and false motions are due to scintillation, auto kinesis and atmospheric refraction.” A document like this considers where, when, and under what circumstances the photograph was produced and subjects it to a scientific analysis of the possible circumstances that could have created the image.
Images drawn by witnesses, contactees and abductees often cross boundaries between empirical research and personal impressions of the UFO sighting or encounter. Partridge discusses the intersection between UFO religions and empirical research. “Crypto-theology and pseudoscience are very common in the UFO community. Empirical, hard-edged UFO research consistently intersects with elements of paranormal belief. Indeed, it is often difficult to separate the two… the point is that interest in empirical research into aerial phenomena often (not always) connects seamlessly with ideas that are very popular within occulture and common within UFO religions.” There is a similar intersection in certain accounts by witnesses of UFO phenomena even if it is not directly spiritual. The empirical nature of the observation intersects with concerns about the universe is structured.
This image is a drawing of a spacecraft seen by an interviewee in the Regan Lee collection in the Randall V. Mills archives. In the interview, “Carmen” points to the top of the drawings and says, “this part of the thing was this weird metallic light blue, this part of the ship. And then this was windows, you could see through this area, like the majority of the vessel you could see through.” She continues, later in the interview, with this assessment of the experience of witnessing the craft. “But I want to know. Maybe there’s a chance I can protect myself. If I don’t know, I do I [sic] know what to protect myself from? And I feel that more tests can be done to me that [sic] to him. Pregnancy…” Ultimately the drawing of the spacecraft the interviewee witnessed does not depict the fears the interviewee has about medical experiments and pregnancy that she experienced after this encounter with a spacecraft. However, the input from the transcribed interview shows the importance of eliciting witness and contactee impressions when interpreting photographs or drawings of alien encounters.
Can we believe visual documentation whether it be photographs, drawings or otherwise? There is a lengthy history of scientific or mathematical debunking of images of UFO and other phenomena. Questions of authenticity extend into online forums where evidence of the existence of extra-terrestrial life is presented. For example, on one YouTube video, entitled “Grey Alien Filmed by KGB” one user comments “So… my question is, if this is ‘real’, then how is there a timestamp on film from the 40′s? Yes, I’m sure there were giant primitive computers, but how the hell did it get on celluloid film? Computers were not used_ for this sort of thing at the time, it was not even close to possible to edit video in this era, so the camera used to film then would never have been able to print a moving / ticking digital stamp onto film. If it was added at a later date, why do the numbers fade with the film?” Authenticity in this context is interpreted by a user whose level of expertise is not necessarily known by a user reading the comments. Ultimately, YouTube comments become a space for debate about the authenticity of visual documentation of UFO sightings. It is a space where questions about scientific evaluations of images and, especially in the context of videos posted by individuals who claim to have personally documented UFOs, questions about the validity of personal experience and documentation are asked by users whose level of expertise might not be fully disclosed or known at all.
When discussing the protocol established by experts at SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Pierre Lagrange, a sociologist of science, states: “the people at SETI spend so much of their time emphasizing the differences between themselves and the ufologists that reported sightings are not taken seriously at all. And, in fact, their stance seems reasonable, given what some UFO fanatics have to say about the secrets being kept from us, and given how dogmatic they must be to launch blanket-damnations of scientists as having closed minds. Thus, although the protocol presents itself as democratic, it is written with a particular idea of science and society in mind, one that excludes non-scientists (and extraterrestrials, a few would say).” We lack the words to describe the experience, so the visual representations and documentation of the UFO sightings are expected to convey the depth and reality of belief. They both embody the controversy and share the reality of the experience. However, the interpretation of these images is often left to institutional bodies, whether that is an organization like SETI or more fringe ufologists SETI tries to distance themselves from.
Voices in Images
Western Societies, and more specifically the United States in the context of UFOs, have a desire for authenticity. Baudrillard relates this to nostalgia for societies without histories. In reference to cave paintings, he states, “this explains why we cannot even pose the question of their authenticity since, even if true, they seem invented to satisfy the needs of the anthropological cause, to meet the superstitious demand for an ‘objective’ proof of our rigid duly certified by carbon 14. In fact, their being discovered wrenches them instantly from their truth and secrecy to freeze them in the universe of museums, where they are no longer either true or false, but verified by a scientific fetishism which is an accessory to our fetisistic will to believe in them.”
Ultimately the visual documentation of UFOs becomes a question of whose voice is speaking through the image. Baudrillard sees cave paintings as a search for an objective truth and the search to validate and scientifically authenticate the paintings freezes and stagnates the image in a rigid set of meanings constructed around its existence. We can see the same processes occurring around the visual documentation of UFOs and alien encounters, whether that is a drawing from a witness, an analysis of a photograph taken by another person or comments on a YouTube video. When examining visual documentation, scholarship and descriptions of first hand encounters with UFOs we might gain a better understand the role these images have in understanding UFO phenomena if we incorporate an understanding of the individual perspectives impacting not only the interpretation, but the creation of these images.
Baudrillard, Jean. The Illusion of the End. Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press, 1994.
Bullard, Thomas. The Myth and Mystery of UFOs. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas,
Fry, Daniel W. The White Sands Incident. Louisville, KY: Best Books Inc., 1966.
Jung, Carl. Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky. London:
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1959.
Lagrange, Pierre. Diplomats without Portfolios: The Question of Contact with
Extraterrestrial Civilizations. Making Things Public: Atmospheres of
Demoncracy. Ed. Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel. Cambridge, Ma.: The MIT
Olmos, Vincente-Juan Ballester, Complier. http://fotocat.blogspot.com/ Accessed June 5,
Partridge, Christopher. The Re-Enchantment of the West. London: T & T Clark
Randall V. Mills Archives of Northwest Folklore. Lori Butterfield collection. 1981_013.
Transcript of interview of Dick McGrew; Lori Butterfield, interviewer, 1981.
Randall V. Mills Archives of Northwest Folklore. Lori Butterfield collection. 1981_013.
Transcript of interview of Donald Atkins; Lori Butterfield, interviewer, 1981.
Randall V. Mills Archives of Northwest Folklore. Lori Butterfield collection. 1981_013.
Transcript of interview of Tom McCartney; Lori Butterfield, interviewer, 1981.
Randall V. Mills Archives of Northwest Folklore. Regan Lee collection. 1996_011.
Transcript of interview of “Carmen”; Regan Lee, interviewer, 1981.
Wertheim, Margaret. Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative
Theories of Everything. New York: Walker & Company, 2011.
Wojcik, Daniel. The End of the World as we Know it: Faith, Fatalism, and Apocalypse in
America. New York: New York University Press, 1997.
Cascadian Drone Ballads are a style of folk music originating in the disputed territory known as Cascadia. They represent a cultural internalization of the impact of the American and Canadian governments’ violent, technological incursion into this undeveloped natural terrain on the northern Pacific coast of North America, a identifying narrative device for those who live an off-the-grid lifestyle, and serve as a rallying point for activists fighting for Cascadian sovereignty both in the rural, mountainous areas and in the cities. This article will briefly theorize the music lineage of Drone Ballads and their context in the political and technological situation in Cascadia, and then illustrate this relationship as found in the lyrics of several songs in the Cascadian Drone Ballad style.
Cascadia currently has no sovereign rights as a state or territory, but its borders are generally viewed as encompassing the American states of Washington, Oregon, and northern areas of California, as well as the Canadian province of British Columbia. Different groups identify the borders according to their own primary locations and interests, but Cascadia is more a self-identification of independence and regional autonomy, than it is a desire for any particular historic regime, nation, or map. Originally known as an “bioregion”, for its mostly unified terrain and environmental concerns among the eco-activists who popularized the term, “Cascadian Pride” has also been utilized in the past by area sports teams, micro-breweries, and other businesses in order to promote themselves with a certain regional consciousness, and utilize images of volcanoes, snow-capped peaks, salmon, and tall evergreen trees in their marketing.
But when marijuana cultivation was legalized across these three states and the one province, and the joint interdiction/enforcement operation known as Operation Green Perimeter was launched by the American and Canadian governments, pro-Cascadian agitation grew exponentially more serious. The governments’ ability to monitor and tax marijuana cultivation in the mountainous and more remote regions was slight. Farms could be profitable with small crop areas scattered across the hills and valleys, where there were few roads open year round. Permits were purchased per quarter-acre, so it was quite common for a farm to purchase a minimal permit, and then exceed their legal footprint by sometimes as much as 50 times. Government estimates found that as much as one billion USD in licensing revenue might have been lost as grow operations exceeded their permits in those first years of legalization. To recoup this revenue, the Revenue Services of the US and Canada implemented the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Monitoring Network that formed the core of Operation Green Perimeter. Over one hundred war-class drones were sent to Cascadia for the task of monitoring marijuana farms throughout the region, to ensure their acreage remained with the license they had purchased.
This sort of federal government surveillance was not taken lightly in a region with already strong autonomous leanings. The notion of a separate Cascadian state quickly became popular in rural areas, as an antithesis to the federal government and the state governments that could not and would not stand up to the authority of the Revenue Services. The heavy tax imposed on cultivation operations was interpreted as unfairly targeting the rural farmers’ trade, while pharmaceutical corporations in cities paid a much lower tax rate. What began as autonomous hostility to the federal government eventually matured into open rebellion, with the amount of money at stake fueling armed insurgent groups that would attack ground patrols for the Revenue Services on back-country roads, building up weapons reserves, experience, and aggression in a very brief period of time.
After a brief period of open fighting with insurgents, the governments quickly won the upper-hand, and fighting subsided. The presence of drones in the air at all times made wide coordination between Cascadian-insurgent forces nearly impossible. The attacks on government resources continued, but were limited to sabotage, the occasional improvised explosive device, or ambush. The government eventually pulled out of the rural areas almost completely to limit their casualties in the publicly unpopular operation, instead limiting their policing to the shipments entering the cities, and to the UAV network overhead.
The actual number of drones on active-duty in the Cascadia region today are unknown, but analysts guess that the numbers are somewhere between seven hundred and one thousand, with nearly four hundred in the air at any given time. The drones fly at altitudes around 10,000 feet, and, according to the Revenue Services, their primary mission focus is mapping marijuana crops using a combination of visible-light spectrum and thermal imagery. Since the introduction of the geotag stamp system, which uses a combination of GPS tracking and RFID to track licensed shipments of marijuana from the registered production location to the processing facilities, the drones track the legal shipments, identify and backtrace any shipments that do not have paid and licensed geotag stamps, and then seize and fine the latter when they attempt to leave the rural areas. This minimizes the vulnerability of ground forces, as they don’t have to make incursions into areas where insurgents could strike.
The drones’ technological incursion is everpresent, as is their main striking armament: air-to-surface Hellfire missiles. Since the end of the major ground operations against insurgents, the official rules of engagement stipulate that drones may only strike targets that can be verified to be involved in violent, anti-government activities. Critics of Operation Green Perimeter and the domestic use of military drones say that this is a very loose definition, and that anything from mixing a large batch of concrete to fueling too many vehicles at once have been used as cause to fire at ground targets. According to standard procedure, ground forces are supposed to go and investigate any drone strike location, to clear up the wreckage and make post-mortem criminal charges. However, in practice this procedure can be delayed indefinitely by the ground forces, whether on account of perceived threats, weather, or simple bureaucratic delay. In reality, as long as the drones destroy their target, the mountain valleys often immediately return to stillness after a single missile has plummeted from the sky.
Cascadia has long had a history of musicians in the folk music style, perhaps symbolized best by Woodie Guthrie’s Columbia River Songs, written in 1941. Guthrie was commissioned by the US government to write a few songs about the Department of the Interior’s hydroelectric projects on the Columbia River, running through the heart of Cascadia. Upon visiting, he called the region “a paradise”, and inspired, wrote 26 songs. Other artists have been similarly drawn to the beauty of the region, and stayed when their counter-cultural, pro-environmental, and anti-government sentiments found a home.
Norteño music from Mexico arrived with the influx of immigrants at the end of the 20th Century and beginning of the 21st, and with it, the sub-genre of narcocorrido or “narco-ballads”. These songs tell historical tales of drug violence and anti-heroism from the drug smuggling cartels. While few singers of Drone Ballads trace their musical lineage to narcocorrido specifically, the influence of the guitar-led, fast-paced, danceable sounds of Norteño is discernible among Drone Ballad musicians. As well, Drone Ballads have in common with narcocorrido the shared tradition of folk music acting as a vehicle for a culture’s coping with everpresent violence. Another point of comparison is the car-crash ballad of the 1950s and 60s in the United States. Again, it is not a direct lineage, but the emphasis on the violent nature, and at the same time almost unpreventable and fated event of drone strikes, finds comparisons to those traditions of singing songs about violent episodes in wistful, almost romantic style.
Another subtle point of influence comes from anarcho-folk music, or folk-punk. Drone Ballads are popularly thought to come directly from this style of music, which carries the fast, aggressive versus-chorus motif of punk to acoustic instruments, along with political rage. However, this lineage is false. Folk-punk groups in the cities of Cascadia were some of the first popular artists to introduce rurally popular Drone Ballads to a wider audience, transferring elements of their own style to the recordings of Drone Ballads in the process. However, folk-punk is first and foremost popular with the politicized youth of the urban areas, whereas Drone Ballads originated in the rural areas, where drones strikes still occur, sometimes on a daily basis. This is the home of the style, and the lifestyle that is its inspiration.
Drone Ballads are certainly pivotal to the urban-based activists who organize against the governments’ use of drones to police the Cascadia region. Certain tunes, like “The Great Swarm on the Fourteenth” (see below), have become anthems for the Cascadian liberation movement that is gaining popularity in the cities. But this political popularity should be held in context with the original writing and performance of these songs. The songs were written by musicians who live in the strike areas of Cascadia. Despite the constant threat from the sky, they have chosen to stay where they are. Certainly, profits from cultivation are enough to draw many to take the risk. But the lyrics of these songs express more than simply dedication to a lucrative task. The violence, internalized, becomes a dedication to the land, and to the lifestyle of being a Cascadian. The lives of Cascadians, told through Drone Ballads, are the lives of strong, stubborn individuals who look at living off-the-grid the way most view taking an umbrella when one leaves the house. These are the stories that the songwriters wished to tell, and the fact that these songs have proved popular with a wider audience simply shows that these stories find resonance and appreciation throughout Cascadia, and indeed, the rest of the world.
One of the best known Drone Ballads is perhaps “Blue, White, Green”, which takes its name from the colors of the Cascadian flag. This song has been adopted by several Cascadian Secession groups as their unofficial anthem. The verses differ depending on the recorded version, covering various significant events of recent Cascadian history. But the chorus is the part that most Cascadians know by heart, and audiences always sing along when the song is performed.
Coast as wide, peaks as high, as
Prying eyes in the deep blue sky
Snows shine white, below thermal sights
We sleep as flames burn through the night
We will dream, of a Cascadia free
Without grey drones in the blue, white and green.
The words reference the colors of the Cascadian flag, along with their various inspirations in nature: the blue sky, the white snow on the peaks of the mountains, and the green of the forests. But the many references to drones, in and amongst the nature imagery shows the extent to which the current state of militarized surveillance has been internalized. There is a certain pathos in this acceptance, but additionally, a willingness to continue fighting.
Another song, “The Great Swarm on the Fourteenth” is a narrative account of the infamous June 14th drone strikes in North Central Washington. On that day, twenty total strikes were made in one valley, resulting in 273 deaths, and an iconic photo taken by a New York Times photographer of eight separate tendrils of smoke twisting up from the green forest, into the sky. This day of carnage directly resulted in the Bellingham Insurrection, later that summer.
Though the Insurrection was unsuccessful, this particular song chooses to memorialize the event that inspired that Insurrection, rather than the uprising itself. Ignoring the tactical and strategic mistakes of the response, the lyrics remember the pain and tragedy of the impetus, as a way of galvanizing resolve to keep going. Phrases such as “The day they turned our skies against us”, and “we rise in smoke/the woods grow dark” typify the undercurrent of rebellion in Cascadian consciousness.
But not all Drone Ballads are entirely tragic. There is a good humor throughout many of these tunes, that are honest about the futility of the situation when the drone network above is so thick and unmerciless. They deal with the state of affairs with irony, and with tongue-in-cheek criticism. While not as popular as political anthems, they form a substantial sub-section of the Drone Ballad style, and a healthy component of the Cascadian narrative.
For example, the song “Don’t Do Nothing” is told from the perspective of an overworked (in his perspective) marijuana cultivator, who sits on a hillside over a river, and enjoys a bit of his crop while watching a drone circulate above. He remarks upon the fact that he works so hard, while up in the sky the drones “don’t do nothing”. From the refrain:
Dams power irrigation pumps
pumps bring water up the hill
Water feeds the thirsty crops
And crops sometimes pay the bills
The drones don’t do nothing
But sit in the clouds and watch
Another amusing story with a darker side is the tale recounted in “The Mountain Swimmer’s Blues”. The song tells of a man who wanted nothing more than to build a swimming pool on his property for his lover, viewing it as the height of commitment. He went ahead with these plans, despite the fact that concrete was hard to come by, and he lived on a mountain side where the swimming season was short. He dug the hole by hand, carrying heavy rocks, while his neighbors looked on and laughed. And then he started laying the foundation, bending rebar, and tying it together in the evenings. People started to think that he’d actually finish when he began to mix the concrete. But then a drone saw his work, and figuring that what could obviously not be a swimming pool on a mountain side was the site of a bunker, it struck with a missile, blowing up him and his pool. The song ends with his lover recognizing that the futility of his effort and his death by it, was indeed the commitment the pool-maker wanted to intend. It is not believed that this song was inspired by real events, though there are certainly no shortage of stories of drones strikes precipitated by only marginally suspicion actions, such as home brick-making, and road repair.
The previously mentioned song included particular geographic elements that are unique to Cascadia, such as the obvious instance of the mountain, but also tidbits about “working in the morning mist”, and “cedar-bark loam”. One standout example of another Drone Ballad that specifically takes pride in Cascadian geography is “Modoc Forest Service Road”. The lyrics’ narrative are about a woman who knew the fastest route from Clear Lake in the Modocs, all the way through the Siskayous to the Pacific coast. She would fly back and forth in her trusty red jeep, delivering news and supplies, traveling by her secret knowledge of the old, poorly maintained Forest Service roads. The story intimated that perhaps she’s done some secessionary work, or at least the Revenue Services had suspected. One day, as she was clearing a ridge and entering the open area of a lava field, a missile from a drone found her jeep. This song does have some relation to a true story–Monica Jauntai was a reporter covering the insurgent conflict in Cascadia, who was known for driving a red jeep. There is controversy as to whether she was killed by a drone strike or an IED, but the story of her death was widely told in the mainstream as well as Cascadian media. However, she was killed outside of Detroit Lake in Oregon, not near Clear Lake in California, so the relationship would seem to be only inspirational.
Drone Ballads tell of heroes, of famous events, and of beautiful, evocative places–but a thread of sadness runs through them all. Even those songs that are inspirational find their power in the drive to face the futility of the political situation in Cascadia, and the drone network overhead that shows little sign of ever going away. This is an important sentiment to vocalize through culture, and it is the reason that Drone Ballads have grown so popular, as this conflict lingers on. There is little in the way of other expressive culture in the hills of Cascadia, as the drones make public gathering difficult. But music can be recorded, broadcast, or played for a small gathering, our of view of the unblinking eyes above. And the power of song is timeless, in this way. As the narrator says in “Victoria Island Song”, as he or she waits in vain for the return of a friend and lover from Victoria Island who will never arrive, because of the drones patrolling the open water:
Our islands cannot travel
over the sea
But songs are invisible to drones above
And can travel from you to me
Me: “There came a point in the conversation when the only thing I could do was just shut up.”
My Partner: “That’s probably what you were supposed to do.”
My partner was right–in a previous conversation, it had been time for me to shut up. The conversation was not with my partner, but with three other women on Twitter. These three women are incredibly smart and I’m proud to consider them friends, insofar as people one meets on Twitter are friends in the traditional sense of the word. But that hadn’t stopped me from getting into some sort of 140 character argument, and getting to that point of needing to shut up. I didn’t like it at all. The entire experience has been gnawing at me all afternoon and I can’t stop thinking about it. But that didn’t change the need for the shutting up.
The reason why I had to shut up was that I’d fallen into that situation which I take to be generally referred to as “mansplaining”. I didn’t think that I was. I thought I was having a conversation with friends, albeit about a contentious topic. But then I suddenly realized that there was nothing that I could say, and no way to make my point be heard, without falling back into the trope of blindered, internet troll, telling women how women should be. Maybe it was simply the short medium of Twitter, or maybe it was just my poorly chosen words, but I had gotten into a place where the only thing I could say was the wrong thing, and therefore the only right thing to say was nothing at all.
This is an incredibly uncomfortable place to be. Certainly it is hard for an opinionated (accepted as) male blogger to realize that he should shut up. But for whomever it is that I am in real life, it was difficult as well.
It would be easy to deny that I’m an opinionated (accepted as) male blogger. Because I’m a feminist, and a gender theorist, and a couple other merit badges besides. I could say simply, “well that’s just how I come across, but really, I’m a _____”. Then I could argue that I fell into the mansplaining trap by accident, or circumstance, or by any other act of collective unpleasantness other than my own mansplaining fault. And I wanted to do this. Because I didn’t want to feel that it was me that blundered into this trap. I wanted to feel like it wasn’t me that had to shut up. It was everything else that was making me have to shut up.
But this is the third mistake of mansplaining that I made–to assume that it can’t be happening, because it’s not your fault that you’re a man. It feels unfair this way. As if your opinion would be totally valid if only you weren’t a man, or white, or whatever position of privilege you happen to be speaking from, and so what the hell?
This is untrue because you’re not a man. Not really. I’m not either. Sure, I pass as a heterosexual man. I don’t know what I really am, because I never really had a use for performative identification in my daily life, and so I take the easy road. Lucky me. But even if I made it more difficult for myself by being truthful with everyone I met on a daily basis about my real relationship with my prostate, my other less directly queer body parts, or the genders and sexual proclivities of each and every one of my former sexual partners, I wouldn’t be above the capacity for mansplaining. Mansplaining doesn’t occur on the level of body parts, it occurs in words. You are mansplaining when you are telling yourself that you couldn’t possibly be doing so, because you never wanted to be doing such a thing. It’s not about what you are or what you want, it’s about what you are saying.
And that was the second mistake of mansplaining that I made–I thought that as long as my argument was logical, there was no way that I could be wrong. The argument itself (which I still feel I was logically right about) was not the point. It doesn’t matter how right you are. Whether one is wrong or right, if you are not reaching the people you are talking to, the whole thing is moot. I even stooped so low as to mention my academic credentials on the subject, because I had lost sight of the problem. And I do know a lot about the subject! I have a shelf full of books on the subject that I have actually read. But what I didn’t know was that regardless of what you think of book learnin’, we were long past knowledge of the subject or rhetorical skill.
No matter how rational we like to think that we are, this is really not the core of communication. This is not to say that hugging and warm fuzzies (what is the opposite of rationality? I have no idea) are the core of communication either. These are all just tools we use to communicate. Most likely, the best way to communicate involves a little bit of a lot of things from a big tool box. But I certainly haven’t figured it out, as this case would prove. I pride myself on being a pretty decent communicator, and yet I still totally fucked up in this case, so fuck what I know.
And what do I know? The first mistake of mansplaining that I made, was losing my communicative compass entirely. I presented these mistakes backwards, because I actually can identify the smaller, secondary mistakes better than I can the primary one (and more, which I’m sure I committed and still haven’t realized). I suppose if I still had a good idea of what I was trying to communicate and why, then I wouldn’t have gotten to this place at all. I suppose what I wanted to do was to talk about an idea with some friends on Twitter, but I soon lost all that in the “but I’m not wrong” and the “why me why me” of mansplaining. That the disagreement was something complicated regarding sex, gender, and language just made the knots more difficult to unravel at the time, but that wasn’t where the mansplaining happened. It was where I forgot what it was I was trying to do, and just kept talking/typing.
The shitty part of all this is, that despite this analysis and apology (it is an apology, by the way, to those three women who know who they are) I still feel like an asshole, and frankly, I’m still being an asshole, because I’m writing a blogpost about shutting up, rather than simply shutting up. As if mansplaining my way out of mansplaining was any way to fix the problem.
To a certain extent, I feel like I should just say, “fuck it, I am an asshole”, because I am, and coming out as that probably would get me out of privilege guilt much faster than coming out as queer or deviant in any particular way. Except that it doesn’t get me out of guilt, because I like my Twitter friends, whom seem to like me even though I’m an asshole. Acknowledging that I was mansplaining doesn’t really seem to undo the fact that it was done and I made my friends feel shitty by doing so. Especially not if by admitting that I did this, it is foreseeable that I will do so again.
But this is what being a man is about, insofar as I am any such thing, and there is any such thing to be. I don’t know that I have ever actively “been a man”, except that I don’t correct people when they use masculine gendered pronouns to refer to me, and I do sometimes use parts of my body in ways described by those who care about defining really important definitions and flow charts for body parts, and don’t use parts of my body in other ways often enough. But, among other things, to me, being a feminist man means acknowledging and apologizing when one realizes that one is mansplaining–whether on purpose, by accident, or by the unfortunately happenstance of Twitter and the vast social and biological constructions of language, bodies, and society.
So, after manning up to that, I think I’ll just shut up now.
For a couple of weeks now, I’ve been thinking about what the political component to the New Aesthetic might be. The New Politics that accompany the New Aesthetic, as part of the New Aesthetic, is going to be largely a nebulous concept. Bruce Sterling’s latest delve into the theory of the NA was basically an explanation of how a Tumblr works, that is also applicable to the NP:
How do you grasp the schauung in the weltanschauung, and the geist in the zeitgeist? Where is the boundary between the “New Aesthetic” and a new aesthetic?
So far, the best evidence that something has really changed is of this kind. Imagine you were walking around your own familiar neighborhood with some young, clever guy. Then he suddenly stops in the street, takes a picture of something you never noticed before, and starts chuckling wryly. And he does that for a year, and maybe five hundred different times.
That’s the New Aesthetic Tumblr. This wunderkammer proves nothing by itself. It’s a compendium of evidence, a heap of artifacts, and that evidence matters. It’s a compilation of remarkable material by creative digital-native types who are deeply familiar with the practical effects of these tools and devices.
We don’t need to romanticize the medium of the Internet any further to get that culture is not anywhere near as nailed down as it used to be. But when it comes to theories of the Political, we’re still fighting a 20th Century hangover. We still have this line of thought that dictates technological/political transitivity. If Twitter is somehow political, then Politics must somehow be Twitter. Douglas Rushkoff makes this case just about as good as anyone, and while it all sounds great (especially when you are online) it is actually not true whatsoever. Just because Politics reminds us of the Internet and uses the Internet and is found on the Internet, does not mean that it is the Internet.
And this is important to keep in mind, because while “how” a Tumblr works is important to understanding the status of the theory/politics of the New Aesthetic, the theory/politics of NA is not reducible to Tumblr. Think of the difference between new-aesthetic.tumblr.com and wearethe99percent.tumblr.com. These are very different things, while they are also very similar things. “We are the 99 Percent” is a piece of 20th Century political branding, and a pretty brilliant piece at that. It galvanized the movement, and introduced it to the world at large. Each post was a new propaganda billboard, and in place of Dear Leader’s gleaming visage, we received a pair of eyes, and the heart-tugging poverty of a hand-written sign. Now we are stuck with that haunting slogan of “99 Percent”, which curses us as much as “The People’s _____” cursed communism with its subtle but irresistible irony.
And we know that “We are the 99 Percent” was a piece of 20th Century politics, because it was easy to come up with a counter version: “We are the 53% Percent”, or whatever it was. If you can have counter-protesters, no matter how effective or silly they might be, then you are in the realm of 20th Century politics where everything has an opposite, whether it be a Right to a Left, an Authoritarian to an Anti-Authoritarian, or a Centralized to a Distributed.
But where is the “counter” to New Aesthetics? Where is the “Old Aesthetics” Tumblr? If there was such a thing, it might attempt one of these three possibilities:
1) invent an atemporal cultural genre (Steampunk, Atompunk, Dieselpunk, etc.) in an attempt to be fantastically “old”.
2) rehash a previous genre (cyberpunk, New Age, Great-Gatsby-Punk, whatever) in an attempt to be historically old.
3) it would be a list of stuff that is “normal”, in the temporally present. A photo of an iPhone on a glass coffee table. A utility pole on a regular street with exactly the expected number of cables leading to it. Something like that.
None of these are really opposites, because they don’t attempt to refute the logic of NA, they just present something that is alternative to it, and by doing so, validate the NA’s conglomerate intrigue. These alternatives are the phenomenal “field” to the NA’s blurry “shape”. These are the far-flung edges of that indescribable shape in the center that avoids the rules of Euclidean solids.
The Theory-Object of NA does not rely upon oppositional borders. But when one attempts to theoretically nullify the NA, these alter-concepts appear. This is important to remember. The Tumblr Theory-Object does not come into existence by opposing itself to a non-Tumblr Theory-Object, or by opposing itself to a Tumblr non-Theory-Object. Just as a revolution-that-uses-Twitter does not rely upon a revolution-that-does-not-use-Twitter as its opposite to bring itself into positive being, in proving the former to be a definitive case of “Twitter Revolution” in contrast to a “Non-Twitter Revolution”. This is the logic that proves that a war that uses aircraft, in that it is different from a war without aircraft, is suddenly an “Air War”. And yet, when you hold up the example of “Non-Twitter Revolution” on the edge, you do realize something different is happening in the middle, just not a binary opposite.
This binary logic needs to be left behind in the 20th Century, when it was still useful. It is an epochalizing, casuality-dependent, negative theology of time. The NA does not come “from” something, or will it “turn into” something. It appears to be spontaneous, because of its composite, non-ideological composition. It is not actually spontaneous, of course. But the Theory-Object of the NA is an assemblage of cultural objects and theoretical considerations, that once seen, like an optical illusion, is very difficult to un-see. And if you wish to make it difficult to see an optical illusion, you certain do not just stare at its “opposite”. Because what is the opposite of an optical illusion?
We are not free from the specter of 20th Century Wars, anymore than we are free from 20th Century logic, or 20th Century politics. However, a new logic and politics is emerging, for whatever reason. It is interesting by the nature of its non-symmetrical difference from these previous ways of thinking. It may or may not be really “New”, it may or may not be an “Aesthetic” or a “Politics”. But it is interesting, self-generating, and self-accumulating. Therefore, it deserves us taking a good look at it.
While the “optical illusion” metaphor of a Theory-Object is all well and good for something as cultural and neither-here-nor-there as an “Aesthetic”, for a Politics, things become more difficult. Politics, heretofore, have necessitated “doing something”, or “fighting against something”, or “standing for something”. If these “demands” are not immediately apparent, then certainly the Politics must have a good reason, and define itself in the negative to these centralized theoretical aspects of Politics, right?
Perhaps, if we are leading with ideology. If we were preoccupied with convincing others that we were “right”, then we should be worried about the terms of the argument that our Politics is going to define. This leaves New Politics open to the perpetual criticism of 20th Century politics: it is not a “real politics”, it doesn’t “accomplish anything”, it has “no definition” that would determine whether we are doing it or not. All of which are true to an extent. And, if joining a 20th Century politics actually changed anything for anyone in the 100+ years throughout which it has attempted to do so, this might actually be something to worry about.
This different Theory-Object is assembling itself. It is not an alternative to something, an occupation of something, or a dual power organization in relation to something. These are “oppositional” epochs, like a Twitter Revolution. The New Politics is much more concerned with the particular problematics of life in The Street, so to speak, than of articulating a particular banner for arenas or agoras. And there is a long, long list of these particular problematics. So many and so diverse, that they can’t be listed on a party platform, a conceptual map, or even a Wiki. Maybe some of them would fit in a Tumblr, though.
But let’s cut the theory, as I think I’ve said more than enough for one blog post. Let’s watch a video.
This video for Diplo and Nicky Da B’s song “Express Yourself” is a strong example of the New Politics, in my opinion:
What do you call this thing, from a political standpoint? 20th Century Politics labels this as “pop culture”, “socio-economic culture shock”, “performativity of sexuality”, “urban culture”, “sub-culture”, “hip-hop poetics” or any other number of meaningless categories that are not the “WOM WOM WOMWOM WOM” when the cut drops at 0:15. But this is not even about escaping from the theoretical language to a more ludic expression of art, and calling that Politics. It is about all of it, wrapped into a phenomenological assemblage of any number of potential theory angles, while also being captivated by the beat, and feeling one’s hips start to move in expressive solidarity with “what this is”.
And what is this? It is Hard Bounce, it is New Orleans, it is a DJ Hit, it is Video Art, it is Sex, it is Politics. It is freaking out (insert cultural appropriate slang phrase here) to music in a convenient store in a certain part of town. It’s me watching this, thousands of miles from New Orleans, and still feeling it. It’s putting this video in a pile of others, and watching them all in a row, or posting saving them to “Watch Later”, or posting this to a Tumblr, or embedding this in a blogpost and writing “see, this is what I’m talking about”.
And that’s all I want to really say about this particular piece of the puzzle, other than the main thing this video makes me want to do is Make Stuff, really badly. And not just any Stuff, but the sort of Stuff that might, in another decade, have been a spectacle worthy of shocking the bourgeois out of their slumber, but in this day and age is just one more thing that will be as mentally and bodily captivating as this is, that will get circulated through certain channels for a while, and then will go to sleep, until kids rediscover it some day in the future and pirate it for parts. And then I want to blast this Stuff in the streets until I get tired of it, and then make something else.
Now, this is music. But I want to do this with other things too. With buildings. With protest tactics. With water filtration systems. I want to do this with Stuff that makes the world a better place, at least for a few people. Maybe this is only me, because I have some delusional drive for being Political in my psyche. Maybe for most people, this is simply a New Aesthetic, that they will look at and then click through. But for me, this weird-desiring-to-make-Stuff feels like something that I am already doing, most of the time.
Finding weird stuff, copying it, and amplifying it as loud as I can. But for a reason. Is this any closer to anything meaningful? I’m not sure.
Further explorations into what a “political module” of the New Aesthetic might be.
There have been a couple of posts by Madeline Ashby and Rahel Aima that indict “the gaze” as being a primary political problem in the New Aesthetic. As Rahel said in her piece:
Ashby alludes to something seemingly basic but as-yet unacknowledged. The New Aesthetic is about looking, undeniably. Yet as a paginated yet endlessly scrollable tumblr, is in itself a thing to be looked at. It is about being looked at by humans and by machines, about being the object of the gaze. It’s about the dissolution of privacy and reproductive rights, and the monitoring, mapping, and surveillance of the (re)gendered (re)racialised body.
Is it crude (not to mention awkward) to suggest that the attraction of the New Aesthetic lies in the chance to briefly inhabit a feminised subjectivity? Possibly, probably. Still, it’s worth returning to Laura Mulvey, and her seminal—!—essay on the gaze, Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema. Here, she discusses the three gazes present in cinema: the directorial or camera’s gaze, the audience’s gaze and the gaze “of the characters at each other within the screen illusion.” Employing psychoanalytic theory, she goes on to illustrate how the conventions of the medium deny the first two categories and subordinate them into the third, diegetic gaze.
But, while there are certain strong aspects of the gaze present in what is largely a visual aesthetic, it is important to remember that much of the watching here is not done by humans, but done by machines. As Jonathan Minard reminds us in his response to Bruce Sterling’s essay:
By attributing superhuman intelligence to machines, we forget that they are still dumb tools invented by people for people—this is Sterling’s most basic point.
As Nietzsche declared “God is Dead,” Sterling will be one the first voices of our era to refute the existence of A.I.: “Robots lack cognition. They lack perception. They lack intelligence… They lack aesthetic judgment.” He urges us to abandon our atavistic worship of false robot idols.
This is not to bracket or minimize the way that sexual dynamics crop up again and again in surveillance culture. But there is something set apart in a surveilling machine that is different than the person watching the monitor. While standard scopophilic subjectivities sit in front of many surveillance terminals, there are also the machines themselves.
Me and my partner Rosalynn have been working on a concept called ‘Drone Ethnography’ for a few months now. We don’t have anything written yet (if you had a venue that would inspire us to sit down and get to work, let us know) but the basic idea is that drones symbolize an ethnography that has become an all-encompassing epistemology in a way it never has before.
Once, the ethnographer had to keep in mind the inherent power relations in the observing relationship. There is a lot of power in being an observer, and this can negatively affect the information that is being collected by observation, even if the purpose of collecting the information is intended to empower those who are being observed.
This is still the case, of course. But it is vastly more complicated. We first realized this when Rosalynn was doing a folklore study of comments and response-videos on Youtube. When we were talking about the like/dislike function of the site, we realized that it was impossible for Rosalynn to watch a video without clicking the “Views” counter up. This, in and of itself is not such a big deal. She was watching videos with thousands if not millions of views, and even the 20-30 times she would watch a particular video, plus showing the video when she presented her research, was really an analytic drop in the ocean. Her research would end up publicizing the video regardless simply by picking it out of the billions of minutes of video on all of Youtube, so the rating boost that a video might receive through her Heisenbergian observations wasn’t a threat to her ethnographic objectivity.
But we then extended the concept. What if her research was about Facebook? Come to think of it, neither of us could do research about Facebook, because neither of us has an account. We would have to become part of Facebook, in order to study Facebook. Joining the long tradition of emic field research would not necessarily be a problem for us (our abhorrence of Facebook aside). But in joining Facebook, we would not just join the social network that is Facebook. We would join the massive, historically unprecedented, ethically-questionable ethnographic project that is Facebook.
It is no surprise that large corporations like Google and Facebook hire anthropologists to help them study their customers/products (these two things being interchangeable). Advertising agencies have hired anthropologists for years. The military hires anthropologists. These organizations don’t hire anthropologists to further the study of anthropology, but to use anthropology to do what they do better, be it extracting profit, waging war, or both.
But because of the nature of the product in the case of social media (you), there is no differentiating the work of the anthropologists from the entire endeavor. By engaging in the activity, you are studied. You are basically being given a bit of cheese to run through a maze, day after day, from your desk at work, from your mobile phone, from your bedside tablet device.
This puts those of us that are not corporations or militaries at a distinct disadvantage. We don’t have access to the data, and yet we are still trying to figure out what we make of all this. We are attempt to do ethnography of our rapidly evolving culture, and suddenly this culture is not just owned by someone else, but it is invisible to us. And it is recording us, while we struggle with this new state of affairs.
Sure, with Facebook, who cares? If someone wants to Click a Cow, who cares? We folklorists and public intellectuals can go back to studying the less commercialized aspects of culture that we probably prefer, and if everyone in Farmville gets a barcode tattooed on their neck, we could just ignore it, or say “we told you so”.
This would be true. Except, as Rosalynn and I realized, for the case of drones. And this is why we are calling this concept “Drone Ethnography”.
When you are being observed by drones, it is not because you didn’t read the EULA carefully. It is not because you signed up for a “Taliban Login” that there is a drone aircraft orbiting 10,000 feet above your head twenty-four hours a day, with a few laser guided missiles under its wings. It’s watching you, and waiting. Waiting for what? How should you know? For whatever the particular mission parameters of whatever agency of whatever country has decided makes you an enemy combatant or not. And until then, it is going to observe.
Sure it’s creepy, but the missile that will come and kill you if you dig a hole near the wrong road or watch the wrong wall or make a cell phone call to the wrong person is not creepy. It’s simply death. A Hellfire missile is not the masculine gaze. (To be clear, I’m not making the assessment of “which is worse” as if there was a way to assess that. I am simply stating that they are not the same thing.)
This must change our most deeply held hermeneutical assumptions about the way we observe the world. Rosalynn and I aren’t attempting to say that there can be no ethnographies in the age of drones. We are saying that all ethnographies must acknowledge the facts of drones, and what that means for ethnography as a concept.
Every observation we make about ourselves or others, must be held in relation to the massive databases that exist, holding vast quantities of data about ourselves and others already. There is a new discursive regime being built in these Drone Ethnographies, and any attempt to speak for ourselves is being held in relationship to that regime, whether we know it or not. We don’t have the ability to dive into an alternate reality and escape this regime, like certain SF characters. We are forced to live underneath a sky swarming with drones, because there is no other landscape.
This landscape is not just a plane on which we stand, but more and more, everything we know. It is the phones in our pocket that can be rooted by the NSA, it is the roads we walk on, surveilled by the DOT. Everything we are doing is being recorded somewhere, even if we are doing nothing. What does it mean to describe your own behavior, if the act of you doing so is being recorded and logged into a database somewhere? This is not simply a confusing meta-issue, a “what are we talking about when we talk about talking?” sort of question. It renders observation marginal, but not necessarily to an objectifying power structure, but to structure itself.
So how does Drone Ethnography play into the New Aesthetic? I’m not sure yet. “Drone Ethnography” is just another name for a weird thing that we started seeing and thinking about. Just like the New Aesthetic, and the New Politic, if that is indeed a thing. Is any of this a thing? Not sure really, and I’m not sure what it “being a thing” would prove. But the drones are real. As I’m getting more and more fond of saying, you can’t debunk a drone.
Someone is always watching. Someone has always been watching.
If you’re a woman, you’ve probably known that your whole life. It started with somebody — probably your mother — telling you how to sit, how to dress, how much to show, what to reveal, what not to reveal. Your skin, your smell, your opinion. Secretly, you wondered, “Does anybody actually notice this kind of thing?” And then, somebody did. A guy. A guy who shouted at you across the street: “HEY! SMILE! YOU’D BE A LOT PRETTIER IF YOU JUST SMILED! THERE! THAT’S BETTER!” A guy with a friend, who did a U-turn in his truck just to say that he thought he’d seen you somewhere before, and what were you doing later? A guy who asked if you were pregnant, because you were starting to look a little thick. A guy who told you to get some sleep, because you looked terrible.
Apparently, it took the preponderance of closed-circuit television cameras for some men to feel the intensity of the gaze that women have almost always been under. It took the invention of Girls Around Me*. It took Facebook. It took geo-location. That spirit of performativity you have about your citizenship, now? That sense that someone’s peering over your shoulder, watching everything you do and say and think and choose? That feeling of being observed? It’s not a new facet of life in the twenty-first century. It’s what it feels like for a girl.
I’m thinking that a lot of what the political aspects of NA might be about, have to do with converting 20th Century political subjectivities to the new technology that is shifting the environment around us. And the problem is that 20th Cent. political subjectivities don’t respond to 21st Cent. problems. That’s not to say that they are useless. We still have plenty of 20th Cent. problems around, like opposition to feminism, which is quickly figuring out how to become a 21st Cent. problem. (Scan your email, scan your uterus. If you’re not hiding anything, why would you say no?)
But we also have 21st Cent. problems that bear very little resemblance to 20th Cen. problems. Or at least through the lens of 20th Cent. politics, look like “The Future”, and hence get labeled with things like “dystopia”. Calling something “dystopia” is really fucking useless, if you live in that dystopia, rather than just imagining what it would be like.
More particular to Madeline’s comments, perhaps this would be a great time to re-mention feminism (when isn’t?) regardless of epochs. More to the point: sexual subjectivities. Which, unlike political subjectivities, are much more difficult to epochalize.
Here’s the comment I left over there, which I’m copy here just to make sure I don’t lose it:
For me anyway, it was Luce Irigaray that introduced me to the preponderance of the gaze, not CCTV. But the arrays of surveillance cameras in the world are indeed, just more of the same in a certain respect. Without reverting to gender essentialism, I would agree that there is something to the experience of femininity, in that subaltern position you describe “as watched”, that does theoretically open up the notion of subjectivity-as-technologically/semiotically-controlled.
But what I wonder is, what are the techniques from the experience of femininity, so described, that might combat, say, a surveillance state? My experience in feminism is that most of the real work is not done in the streets, so to speak (though feminist marches and organized protests are important). Instead, I find that the work is done in the bed room, the living room, and the kitchen. In other words, it is as much about negotiating a re-evaluation of sexual subjectivity with our friends, family, and sexual partners, as it is about politics, in the standard “get out and fight” sense. Countering mental patterns so insipid as sexual privilege and rape culture take a lot of hard, personal work to overcome (speaking “as a man”, who would personally identify as continuing to combat his own mental patterns).
The reason I bring this up, is because it doesn’t seem like the surveillance state is something to be talked out in the bed room (though the idea has some intrigue). In the effort of trying to figure out what the New Politics aspects of the New Aesthetic are, I tend to think that they are not reducible to feminist criticisms of the gaze–though clearly they would not be cause for an interrupt of the continuation of that critique. The radical new interventions that the surveillance state is making in our personal lives, while not separate from gender politics, would not necessarily be symmetric, either.
So I guess this is an open question: what new technological components does the NA bring to our subjective sense of politics? It could indeed stimulate use to recall previous and ongoing re-evaluations of political subjectivity, but is there anything new here? I wonder as a person, looking for new, potent tools.
Your orders have come in. You are tasked with building five thousand libraries. This is an idea that sounds reasonable to you. You get to work. You’re going to need some coffee, and about three days of ground-network time. In your head, you begin to analyze the potential mirror list. You need trusted hosting, not just volunteers. Bit Torrent and a few targeted tweets would get the job done, but not well enough. These libraries have to stay up. It may just be a single compressed file. But as they found out in Portland last week, even digital libraries can be burned to the ground.
* * * * *
You receive your orders backward, coming up to your position of responsibility from the units you command. You open the video feed, and you can see them running through traffic, the wrong way up a one way street, dark jackets dodging amid stalled cars and trucks, stopped in gridlock from the units’ action in the traffic lanes. You don’t need to read the text, because you know what’s next. There’s a term for this: Simultaneous, Epi-Navigation Street Occupation Response. You could call it SENSOR, but you don’t. Only New York Times reporters call it that. Ahead, in the limits of the jerking video feed, you see the orange glow of vapor-lamps glistening on a rising cloud of tear gas.
* * * * *
You have broken it down and set it up countless times, and this will not be the last. You plug in the extruder. You make sure the broken cable plug is fully set into its socket. You attach the heating element to the battery to let it start warming. As the bioplastic cable feeds forward, you can see the camera housing already, as you have seen over four hundred fully finished pieces emerge in the last three days, since the beginning of the Battle of the West Side. It unfolds up from the base of the printer, as the plastic builds up, cooling, slowing inhabiting the outline of the idea. In the brief pause when the extruder head comes back to rest position before starting its next run, you pluck the webcam out of the 3D printer, insert the sensor chip, attach the battery, and put in the waiting hands of one of your newer recruits. “You have a SIM card?” “Yeah.” “Well, that’s it then. Good luck.”
* * * * *
“Shoot him. SHOOT HIM.” The order urges in your ear. You push the inevitable emotional response backward, and you raise your weapon to your shoulder. Through the eye-piece you gaze, infrared light illuminating the target. As the police officer’s baton falls once more, you squeeze the trigger. A blaze of strobe-lighting staccatos thirty times a second from the pair of drones hovering above you, setting the officer and the protester he is beating on visual fire in the night street. Shadow is vaporized. Somewhere within your video gun, an HD light sensor writes to disk. When the shot is uploaded, the editing van will be able to see not only the QR code of the officer’s badge underneath the black marker he has used to obscure it, but a single drop of blood, frozen in the air, Matrix-style, as they used to say, ejected from the wound on the forehead of the protester.
* * * * *
The kid kicks the battery again, sending the van into darkness. Everyone groans, as the screens auto-adjust their brightness to their battery settings. “Sorry!” The lights come back on, and knowing his duty by this time, the kid slides open the door and reaches up to the roof to power-cycle the modem. While you and your fellows wait for the signal to be re-established, you stretch, and make small talk. The sound of helicopters returns, though you cannot see them from inside the parking garage. “Did you hear that DC is distributing a new distributed communication app? All the GA nets can now connect, and it runs off of satellite servers, so it can’t be DNS blocked.” “DC is distributing it? They don’t have any good developers there. None that work with consensus development, anyway. Did you check who’s on the project? It’s probably a Google co-opt play, if not a straight-up honeypot.” There’s debate, but soon the network is back up, and the voices fade, and the streams of information begin to flow again. Like water through a weir.
* * * * *
I would call these scenarios fiction, but fiction is such a dirty word. Fiction is a thing that has no possibility of actually existing, because it is created with that specific fantastical aim in mind. Fiction is a beautiful thing of freedom–the freedom to imagine what will never be. It is the domain of American dreams, in which wanting badly is somehow enough. It is the core instinct of democratic idealism, in which we are actors born on our feet in the public square, rather than as workers in rented quarters walled by constant surveillance. It is the notion that national narratives of fear and war always end eventually, so that we can close the book and go back to whatever it was we were doing before. Fiction is modernism–it is the only place where things make sense, because “reasonable” is its only construction spec. Reality, on the other hand, is no such simple circus.
These scenarios are built from facts. They are not things that have happened–not yet, anyway. But they are things that are possible. For these things to occur only requires that the elements of things that have happened come together in particular ways. These are distributed nodes of fact: libraries of digital information as mirrored political capital, distributed leadership with oscillating order giving/receiving, flash mob-like protest tactics, 3D printers, open-sourced communications equipment manufacturing, video evidence as a weapon, QR codes, crowd-piloted drones, mobile internet hubs, open-source secure communications software, DNS blocking, and so forth. They already exist, but are distributed–and have not been unevenly consolidated yet. Google search any of these, if you want to adapt these patterns into your daily life. It won’t be too long before most of your friends are using at least some of these on a daily basis.
As the arc of innovation becomes a branching, radical network rather than a cutting edge, we don’t need to look to the future anymore, but to our unfolding interfaces for things that already exist. We need not wonder if someone will invent drone flash photography–we instead speculate on when someone will get flash photography and drone technology talking to each other in a usable way. And then, possibly donate to their Kickstarter.
The downside in the ongoing human-Powerpoint slide deck that is the always-insufficient attempt to speculate on the future is that we also lose the comfort of that fiction, and gain the cold uncertainty that comes with facts. When flying cars were to be invented, it was clear that those would make our lives better–or at least, faster. What will SENSOR protests (color me a patronizing NYT reporter, needing a coined word to understand the kids these days) do for our lives? Will this be a more effective form of protest? Will this aid the fight for public free speech? Or will this evolution in protest tactics, as a response to police attacking the media and blocking whole swaths of city, merely engender a new, more brutal response from the police? Where does all of this end? Will it be better or worse? Will it prevent a worse catastrophe, or stall a better outcome? No one knows. No one even knows when it would be possible to say whether or not this technology or that tactic worked out as well as we hoped, or worse. There’s a lot of uncertainty. There are too many facts.
We might call this “the uncertain ethical implications of atemporality.” In only a few years, the span of history and the calm, orderly narratives it wove were effectively collapsed into a multi-dimensional space most closely modeled by Google Instant results after typing a single character in to the search bar. The moral futures market will never recover. In that vacuum, atemporal ethical behavior becomes consensus-based media protest tactics. The livestream of Occupy Wall Street videographer Tim Poole arguing with anarchists about whether or not to film them while filming them is not just our allegory or fable; it is the practice of ethics while attempting to determine what those ethics are, as you talk about it out loud, as the whole world watches. There is no time for symposiums. If you blink, that might have been the opportunity for ethical action that you missed.
Media seems to be the new ethical public arena. Even though it is less a public square than a multi-dimensional space, blocked in some areas and hollowed out in others. It is riven by an virtual and actual architecture of fences, smart phones, paywalls, trending topics, human mics, press passes, and politicians. In the absence of a static history, we simply press the record button. If we get it wrong, at least we got it transparent. Share the notes online, take the minutes. If you can’t be there, watch the livestream. We don’t know what democracy is anymore, since the rule of law comes to us only in subpoenas, in SOPA, in the end of a baton. But we do know, that whatever it is that this is, it’s going to be digital. Even if it takes some doing to search out where it’s still available online. In a year or two, it might take a shadow network, or a SSL tunnel. More nodes, coming together.
That our consistent drive, despite it all, to be ethical people now appears fully entrenched in media doesn’t come as a surprise. Why, for instance, are we so concerned about whether or not the revolution might be inscribed to some sort of cinematic process, and by which technology said media will be distributed? Perhaps it is because in a world where we decreasingly have any idea about what to do about the future, the best we can manage is to at least tell other people about our quandary. Expression is one of the most important of human actions. If the public square cannot be occupied for the purpose of democracy, at least the conversations of such a space have media-space in which to proliferate.
And even though it may be fully entrenched in the world of facts, it is uncanny that expression is not simply a secondary fruit of democracy, but precisely one of the most political acts we are still comfortable making. Democracy does not produce speech, but vice versa. Art, especially art that traffics in the interface of technology and media, finds it more difficult to divorce itself from politics than ever before, creating political space in the act of being art. How can a drone be a toy, if it is equipped with a camera? How can a QR code be only an advertisement, if it can conceal information? How can performance art be apolitical, if it must occupy public space in order to be performed?
And what of the parallel by opposite questions: can a videographer only be protesting, when he or she allows the camera to pause in its pan to capture an aesthetically-appealing unfurling cloud of tear gas? Where is beauty, when protesters in Tahrir are suffering from PTSD? Does it exist? And what if we are forced to go beyond expression, for the sake of politics? What lies beyond the camera? The gun? What does that mean for art? For history? For our daily lives?
Too many questions to pose, as the facts of media complicate the former, fictional “freedoms” of art and politics, that might have thought they could act alone sometime in the recent past. The innovation arc has too many potential interfaces and its surface is too fractally diluted to say that it is capable of pointing in any one direction. Mere hypotheticals no longer have a square to stand in. There is no place in the hyper-urbanization of our technocratic environment left for us to pitch such a solitary tent. There are only more scenarios, stretching on as far as the mental search engine can spin. And with them, the possible ethical imperatives spread outward. The age of atemporal, open-sourced ethics is now.
@debcha: @serial_consign I don’t detest biomimcry. But I do hate any design fiction that is more or less completely uninformed by the science.
@serial_consign: @debcha I think taking cues from natural processes is interesting, but making objects/arch look like organic forms for sake of it is trite!
@debcha: @serial_consign Exactly. I despise ‘biomimicry as superficial aesthetic’ rather than ‘biomimicry as deep influence’.
At which point, I butted in with some questions, but I won’t repeat it all because I think we mostly got confused about terminology. However, @debcha did mention an important difference that I will repeat. She distinguishes “between ‘biomimicry’ and ‘bioinspired’ or ‘organic’ as an aesthetic description. [...] ‘biomimicry’ doesn’t mean it looks like something biological.”
And this is true. As Wikipedia will tell you (as it told me, because I know very little about the subject):
Biomimicry or biomimetics is the examination of nature, its models, systems, processes, and elements to emulate or take inspiration from in order to solve human problems.
In other words, biomimicry is all about the functional aspects replicating natural patterns, not about the aesthetics: the “looks like”.
Now, I may not know much about this, but I have been thinking about it. For whatever reason, the cross-overs between nature and technology have been running think and fast of late. I was just reading this article this morning, which I actually believe I stumbled across within the same Bruce Sterling blogpost in which @serial_consign discovered the image he originally tweeted. Bruce calls it a meme, and if I was going to trust anyone on this, it would be him.
My question, that I posed a number of ill-designed ways, is this: what are we doing, in the differentiation between “works like” nature, and “looks like” nature? This is a judgement call, but an important one, because it is so specifically apparent. It isn’t just @debcha and @serial_consign’s personal tastes that makes buildings that look like seeds (for example) seem to be overblown sci-fi. Buildings that grew from seeds: I think we’d all agree that is pretty excellent. But buildings that just look like seeds: meh. Contrived? Weak? A little too Futurama? There is a defined difference there, and it is something that is easy to see.
Of course, there is a long history of futuristic architecture out there, and futurist design of all kinds. Whether it’s Googie, Modernism, or Brutalism, all of these aesthetics are meant to invoke a particular generic idea of a positive, future program. Even if the form is derived from a functional theory of that object’s mechanics (like the aerodynamics of Googie, the ergonomics of Modernism, or the efficiency of Brutalism), that aesthetic ends up taking on its own life apart from the function. We know this, because something can “affect” like one of these aesthetics, without actually being one of these aesthetics.
And if the word Skeuomorph just came to the tip of your tongue, you are quite the atemporal aesthete, aren’t you? Because, therein, is exactly the phenomenon we are talking about. “Works like” can produce a certain “looks like”, but then, even after the “works like” evolves in another direction, we keep the “looks like” our of habit or custom.
Bio-inspired, therefore, is perhaps the atemporal reverse of a skeuomorph. Because the “works like” is not technologically feasible as yet, it settles for the “looks like”. This is Bruce Sterling’s famous “astronaut luggage” example. (Can’t remember the keynote exactly, but I believe it was the well-known “Atemporality for Creatives” talk.) It works like this: you want to be a recreational astronaut, but aren’t the head of a global corporation? Well, just design yourself some astronaut luggage, and start using it. Sure, you might look a little weird carrying astronaut luggage on a boring old jumbo jet. But really, how exactly to our design signifiers work? What other way is there to show people that you’ve been to space? Are you going to whip out a moon rock to show off to everyone you pass in the street? And really, how weird is it to carry astronaut luggage? Is it weirder than the fact that the CEO of Cirque de Soliel has been into space because he came up with way to take a date to a pole dancing event for $100 a ticket?
So we have “anachronic” skeuomorphs, and we have “neochronic” skeuomorphs. The former lingers, and the latter presages. Even though, neither really “does” anything: it just “looks like” it does something.
Or do they?
The reason a doubt first entered my mind, and the reason I began asking such ill-designed questions of @debcha and @serial_consign, is that I’m not quite sure that “looks like” can ever really be apart from “works like”. And it’s not just an inspirational effect of the aesthetic. Sure, building a structure that looks like a seed might serve to somehow inspire a genetic engineer to figure out how to make a structure that grows from a seed, but the causality is specious at best. You would be much better off making sure children get a good math education if you would like to go to the moon, than simply building apartments that look like rocket ships.
And yet, everything must “look like” something, right? Just as much as it must “works like”. Think of an object: say, a lamp. Even if the lamp doesn’t look like a jellyfish, it has to look like something. Ought it to look like a platonic solid? A hat? A space ship? There is an aspect of aesthetic preference involved. If you really like icosahedrons, then you might make yourself a lamp that looks precisely like that. Or, if you really don’t care, you can just get the easiest lamp to find that seems to produce as much light as you want. Or if you don’t have much money, you might make do with a lamp you picked up on the street corner, which looks the best, because “free” is a pretty acceptable aesthetic decision maker.
And yet, the lamp will continue to look like something, even if you pick it out in the dark. You will be sitting in the room with that lamp, day in and day out, using it as a light source, and will be forced to look at it every time you turn it on our off. There is no such thing as “doesn’t look like”.
In which case, what is opposite of a bio-inspired lamp? A non-bio-inspired lamp? Okay. But it is still a lamp.
A lamp, as a light source, is always “inspired” by illumination. This is its “works like”. It’s function mimics incandescence, or florescence, by actually doing just that. It mimics the sun, and fire, and also the hearth. A lamp ought not to produce too much heat, or produce smoke (the benefit of electric over oil or gas), or be so bright that we can’t look anywhere near it, like the sun. In its functional design, it mimics certain functional characteristics which avoiding as many downsides as possible. And hence, every lamp will have a certain aesthetic. It will “look like” a lamp.
It may seem that I’m going around in circles, but I think that is the point. Even a modernist lamp, completely not bio-inspired, by being a physical object following physical laws in order to maintain its functional definition, will in a sense, be using biomimicry. “Works like” always informs a “looks like”. Aesthetics, then, are merely an effort to add additional “mimicry” inflections onto a functional element. A lamp will always function, to a certain extent, like a bioflorescent jellyfish. Whether, beyond this function, is further designed to look like a jellyfish even more than it already does, is beside the point.
Yes, I’m quibbling. Saying any lamp that illuminates automatically “looks like” a creature that fluoresces isn’t really accurate. Because a lamp could quite easily “look like” a rocket ship much more than a jellyfish, even if it “works like” a jelly fish much more. Unless we start using Titan rockets as mood lighting. (Aren’t philosophers a pain in the ass?) But figuring out what we actually mean by our genres identifications and functional chains of causality is all about quibbling. If we just go with our gut, we haven’t defined anything.
And yet, lamps still look like lamps, and lamps that look like sea creatures are still potentially cheesy. We define things as different, regardless of obscure similarities, because these noted aesthetic differences (also subjective differences, or semantic differences) in themselves become functional. Differentiating between a lamp that simply looks like a jelly fish, and a light source that actively bio-floresces is important, because one is a matter of style, and the other would be a scientific breakthrough. They are clearly not the same thing.
But here is the question I will end with: the distinction between biomimicry and bio-inspired aesthetics are easy to differentiate. But does the ease of distinction between form and function follow for other genres of design? For example: at what point is a Brutalist building not merely efficient, but simply Brutalist? At what point are aerodynamic fins not actually aerodynamic, but just look as if they were? Must we measure a building and complete engineering equations to decide if it is a skeuomorph or not? Must we use a wind tunnel to aesthetically judge cars?
Perhaps, it is not that bio-inspired design is cheesy. Perhaps we haven’t discovered what real bio-inspired design looks like yet. Because, once we do, perhaps only an expert could tell the difference.
This story was submitted to the Machine of Death 2 submission call, and wasn’t accepted, for reasons not least of which are because it is just over 10,000 words long. However, I really like the story, even reading it again more than half a year after I wrote it. I wanted to explore some of the surreal concepts behind the Machine of Death idea, and needed a bit more space for this world to inhabit. There is something so bizarrely unsettling about the idea of a mortality contained within a short phrase.
Without further ado, here it is. In the standard form, the title of the story is the words on the card that comes from the Machine of Death. It’s called “Moose Moose”.
It was a steel and glass spiral extending upwards and forwards, before pulling back in rollercoaster-loop as it rose, twisting out of the view of any person standing in front of it within the enclave of high steel fence. The architecture left the individual isolated in the bright sun while the building and its inhabitants swooped backward in what might be a loop of impossible height, or, perhaps simply ending after twenty or so floors, once the whorl of the architect’s magnanimous project was out of view.
And so Maddie stood there for a moment, as the space seemed to intend that she ought to, absorbing on her face the glare from the glass above, twitching the edge of the cloth of her formal cotton jacket between her fingers, balancing expertly in her tall heels. Then forward, into the air-conditioned lobby.
The click of her heels on the marble were metronomic over the brush-cymbal HVAC tones. A sound system played the corporate theme at barely a decibel over a whisper, more suggestion of ambient electric tones than the familiar melody. Maddie approached the desk, where the stunningly beautiful security guard/receptionist raised herself on her platform behind her unused writing surface, and leaned forward in her formal cotton jacket to set the tone, and imply the answer to certain unspoken questions. The corporate logo helix in black-on-yellow shone on a button on her lapel.
“May I help you, miss?”
“Yes, I’m looking for the Complaints department?”
The formal jacket standing above her moved slightly.
“Do you have a complaint?”
“No. I mean, perhaps–I’m not quite sure. This was the only address on the website, you see.”
“So you do not have a complaint.”
“I have a question. PR said that Complaints takes all questions that relate to algorithm related inquiries.”
“You have read the FAQ?”
“On the website?”
“There is no other FAQ.”
“And you still have a complaint?”
“A question. Which they said that Complaints would answer.”
“Complaints is quite a busy department, that being the nature of the department. Are you sure your question hasn’t already been answered elsewhere?”
“So you would like to Complain.”
“Well, no… I–”
“Complaints Department is through those double doors there. Please take this ticket and this form.”
“Those doors, there.”
The woman sat and looked elsewhere. Maddie took the items from the surface of the desk and held them under her arm, while she quickly clicked across the floor towards the doors. They swung open at her proximity, and she walked onto the carpet beyond.
The edge of a moving walkway beckoned her, and she stepped on with a touch at the rubberized railing to maintain her balance under the acceleration. The belt pulled her near silently through the wide hallway: windowless, carpeted wall and ceiling, softly diminishing ranks of flat-screens. The many varieties of corporate commercial spots replayed themselves for her.
“Wish you knew more from your canonical reading? Wish that there was more in the cards?”
“…a Patented Algorithm, giving full-spectrum analysis in verb-form and tense…”
“…More Information; Your Information. You’ve heard the bottom line, now get it defined!”
“Take Another Chance, Dad! Take Another Chance Card, and know… more.”
“…my Doctor told me what I had to know, but then I had to know more. I Took Another Chance.”
“Patented Algorithm, with new contextual information derived direct from your canonical. Take Another Chance. Try Chance Networks, and start to know more!”
She looked down at the form, thinking to fill it out, but was stopped by a large bold-lettered message at the top of the form, reading “DO NOT FILL OUT THIS FORM!” And so she didn’t. The volume of the screens increased as she approached the end of the walkway.
She stepped off quickly, picking up her heels to avoid catching them in the grilled edge where the moving floor dropped away under the stationary carpet. Doors swung open quickly to reveal a room filled with chairs filled with people, talking loudly, holding up different colored pieces of paper in the air, changing the color and the height of their hands as directed by a static-tinged PA horn on the wall between three screens, all of them playing Chance Network ads. A line of people snaked the walls of the room, leading from a glass-booth-enclosed man in a formal jacket next to a door, all the way around to where Maddie stood. And so she stood for a moment, trying to determine where it was she ought to otherwise be standing. Behind her, on the closing door, was an advertisement poster image of a woman having an epiphany as she read a card. The card text clearly read the words, “purple shoe”.
Maddie didn’t like the thought of joining a queue without knowing if it was the right one to be waiting in, but the idea of simply finding a chair couldn’t be the correct decision. She looked at the materials she held. The form was blank, entries coded with combinations of number and letters, stern warnings of “FOR INTERNAL USE ONLY”. The tag had a punch-off tab, marked with a serial number, mated on the other half of the tag with a different serial number, a bar code, a proprietary data square, and in large red letters, “F1037”. She looked around the room for any sign, any indication of anything in the room matching these clues, finding nothing. Sighing, she felt her choice in footwear and formal jacket for the occasion, if nothing else, demanded quick action to match her visual impression. And so, Maddie purposefully made her way around the edge of the crowded room, trying not to catch her heels on protruding feet, snaring bag handles, and oscillating children. The heat of the room increased, as the HVAC system struggled with the heat of the living.
Maddie fanned the edges of her cotton jacket discreetly to cool the small of her back as she sidled up the the person at what seemed to be the rear of the line. A man in his fifties held his hat in his hand, moving air with it.
“Excuse me, is this a particular line?”
His voice blended with the monitors overhead, but his irritation broke through. “‘Patience’, it said! ‘Patience’! That isn’t information, that’s an insult!” He waved the Chance Card in her face.
“Personalized elaboration to clarify your life!” promised the monitor overhead.
“I understand the irony. We can all take a bit of irony. But this is abuse! This is sardonic, manipulative, exploitative, expulsionary, extra-propriary…”
Maddie decided to ask the next person.
“A Chance is more than information, it’s a technological step forward, a Chance to be proactive with your mortal future,” suggested the monitor overhead.
She tapped a woman standing hand in hand with her husband, holding an infant, two children leaning sleepy-eyed against the wall.
“Excuse me, is this a particular line?”
The family looked at her, saying nothing. She didn’t know if it was her question, or her, or something more dire to blame for creating this look of tortured ignorance on their faces. The woman looked confused, and apologized in another language, perhaps Italian, maybe Portugese? Maddie moved on.
“Integrity. Decision point. Neutron beam. Processed cheese food. Predatory insect. Information like this, contextual clues, to help you understand!” the screen suggested.
The next in line was a woman wearing the exact same brand of formal cotton jacket as Maddie, but without the heels and the skirt, with slacks and boots instead. She tried not the look at the jacket as she asked, “Is this a particular line?”
“A particular line? This is C particular line.”
“Look at your ticket, honey. See, here on mine. ‘C7491.’ C particular complaint, C particular line.”
“All of this line?”
“As far as they’ve told us. Here, let me see your ticket..” the woman plucked it from underneath the elbow of Maddie’s jacket. “No, no, no. You are F general. You can tell by the number. F, 10, and then number. You want a different line.”
“A different line?”
“F general. Sorry, honey. Don’t know where.”
The woman looked upwards as if to continue watching the monitor above, which intoned, “Each of us in an individual, and for each of us there is an individual death. And yet the canonical cards read all the same! Why not pick a card, algorithmically derrived, specifically for you? Take Another Chance!”
Maddie stood confused for a moment, and then slowly drifted towards the glass-enclosed booth, hoping that perhaps there was a sign, or maybe a chance to ask where it was that she should be. She wondered if perhaps she should have just kept waiting on the phone at home.
The people closer to the head of the line watched her suspiciously, as if they expected her to try and duck into line in front of them at any moment. Within ten feet of the booth, she was able to see a list printed on a sign riveted to the front of the booth, but there was a gaggle of strollers blocking her view. She bent down to peer through the people, and was almost knocked down as a pair of doors on the nearby wall flew open, and collided with her hip. Three maintenance men pushed in a new glass-enclosed booth, complete with formal-jacket-enclosed man enclosed-within. Theypositioned it next to the door in front of her. A Klaxon sounded, and everyone in the room jumped.
“F general! F general line! F general please step to the booth!”
There was a rush, and shouting, as people from all over the room attempted to join the line, stepped out of the old line allowing people to move up, stepped out of line before realizing they were already in the correct line and attempting to reclaim their spots, went after better seats vacated by people who joined lines or tried to improve their positions, either farther or closer to air conditioning vents, doors, other people, and the screens. Children took the opportunity to increase the level of chaos at hip-level and below.
By the time Maddie had securely reattained her posture on her heels, the line had formed behind her and snaked either through the center of the chairs, or along the wall, though this was disputed by proponents who stood to gain or lose by either eventuality.
“STEP UP please!”
It was the man in the booth. Maddie took a half-step forward and pointed her voice towards the slanted metal grill in the shape of the helix logo placed in the glass.
She slid it into the document slot.
“Complaint?” His pen hovered over the form.
“I have a question.”
“Have you read the FAQ?”
“And you would still like to complain?”
“I’d like to ask–”
“No questions here, miss. Through the doors, and head into the light.”
“The lights. Follow the lights.”
The doors buzzed, indicating they were unlocked. She took her form and tag, and stepped to the door, pressing on it gingerly. She just missed the unlock, and the doors didn’t move.
“Smartly, please! Press smartly!” The voice from the booth reminded her.
The buzz again, and she was through. It was a white hallway, with moisture damaged acoustical tiles that appeared to date back further in time than the building might have existed, extending above her in what appeared to be equal directions to the left and to the right. She stood still, looking for any sign to indicate direction. Then, from recessed LEDs in the wall, a red arrow illuminated and pointed towards the left. She followed, and as she clicked down the linoleum of the hall more arrows lit. She must be heading in the right direction, but should she slow down and let the arrows precede her? It wasn’t clear. Suddenly the arrows stopped, a buzzer sounded, and a door popped open. Maddie stopped, turned quickly, and stepped into the doorway as it closed behind her.
In front of her was a man in a formal jacket, bent low over a desk, thinning hair presented to her inquisitively, as if it were shrouded face peeking through the dark. There was a chair in front of the desk, but she decided to remain standing. A dusty terminal on the desk, dark, but fan humming. The tag on the desk read: “Milten”. Behind the desk, was a typical advertisement poster for the company, featuring one of their yellow cards with the watermarked helixed logo, marked with a Chance, reading “linguine”.
The man looked up from his writing, and was taken aback by the sight of her in that way that only a middle-aged man can, upon suddenly realizing that he was alone in a room with a younger woman. Maddie wasn’t sure if that meant that he thought she was attractive or only that he was awkward.
“Please be seated… Ms…?”
“Roubacheau. Madeline Roubacheau.”
“Oh–I’m sorry. Form please.”
She presented it.
“And name again.”
She repeated it. He transcribed it to a particular box on the form.
“A general complaint, is it?”
His pen paused in its scratching path. “I’m sorry, you must have followed the wrong lights.”
“No, I was told that my question could only be answered in the Complaints department.”
“And you’ve read the FAQ?”
“And you still have a complaint?”
“A question, but yes.”
“Well Ms. Roubacheau, let’s call up your history and see what we can do about your complaint.”
She thought about it, but decided at this point to just let it go. He looked up and smiled politely, as if waiting for her.
“Your cards, miss? I assume you have brought them?”
“Oh yes, I’m sorry.”
From inside her jacket, she retrieved her case for her personal set, that she had received free on the occasion of getting her fifth. The slim glass-plastic clamshell would fit up to twenty cards, and had position locks to fit into a case storage shelf for her home catalog of excess cards sorted into separate twenty-cases, the shelf which she would receive as a free gift on the occasion of her two-hundredth. She wasn’t sure at what point she received a free laser name-engraving on her twenty-case, but her clamshell was still fresh, its unmarrable surface shining in the dull office florescents. She clicked it open, tapped out the cards, all five of them. She laid them in a stack on the desk. Politely averting his eyes from the printed words, the un-introduced Mr. Milten selected the top card in his small fingertips, and deftly slid it into the slot in the surface of the desk, pulled it out, and replaced it sideways on the small stack. Pen still over the form, he squinted at the terminal’s monitor, and began to write quickly in efficient strokes.
“Five cards then. Not so many…”
“Have you had your canonical? We have no record of you receiving it through Chance Networks.”
“Oh, yes. I… I don’t carry it with me, though.”
“I see.” He wrote in small letters to fit a great deal of words in a particular box.
“Your file notes your canonical death prediction regardless of whether it has been given to you, of course. The algorithm cannot write new Chance cards without it.”
He held the pen aloft, and wasted time enough to give her another small glance and smile.
“So what seems to be your complaint?”
“I have a question about the algorithm.”
“Our proprietary Chance algorithm is the key to the derivation of your specific Chance cards, yes.”
“Yes, but why are they so… obscure?”
“I’m not sure I understand, Ms. Roubacheau.”
She spread the top three cards out along the desk, turning them so they would face Mr. Milten. He did not look at the cards, but instead looked at his screen.
“I see nothing out of the ordinary.”
“This one says ‘anticipatory’.”
“And this one is ‘coniferous’.”
“And this one: ‘yellow’. What is that supposed to mean?”
“You have read the FAQ?”
“Then you understand that Chance cards are often like this. They all refer to the contextual circumstances of your canonical death prediction. Interpreted through our proprietary algorithm, the Chance cards spread out in subject and circumstance from the singular cause of death.”
“No, I understand what they are. It’s just that–”
“It’s like a meadow of grass, Ms. Roubacheau.”
Mr. Milten leaned back in his chair, smiling to someone, but not to Maddie. “A meadow is made from many different blades of grass. Each is singular, a leaf unto itself. But without all of them, together, there would be no meadow. A leaf of grass on its own is nothing. A clipping. A dead thing. But together…” he gazed off above her head.
She said nothing. She imagined she would hear his spiel one way or another. And so allowed, he continued.
“Many people are unhappy with their canonical death predictions. They are so sparse, and so often ironic. The incontrovertible truth of them is no consolation for the additional mystery they create. What the technology of Chance Networks achieves, using our patented algorithm, is to calculate contextual synonyms, related terms, other useful adjectives to help describe the circumstances of the death prediction. Your fate is derived through the algorithm, one Chance at a time, sketched all the way from the canonical event, back through the fabric of time, to now. We don’t change the death, we add to it. Each new card generated from the algorithm is another Chance to understand. We help paint the entire picture. A picture–of a meadow. You see Ms. Roubacheau?”
“But these cards don’t make anything clearer.”
“Well, you do have only five. The algorithm is a fickle thing, Ms. Roubacheau. As advanced as it is, it can only do what it is capable of doing. Each is a Chance, but only a single Chance, if you catch my meaning.”
Mr. Milten withdrew a small box from a shelf underneath his surface, with an air of repressing a small amount of excitement.
“Ms. Roubacheau, because of your concern, I am able to offer you a complimentary Chance card. If you would be so kind as to insert your finger, we can let the algorithm continue its work…”
“No.” Maddie crossed her arms on her chest.
“You don’t want another Chance?”
“Someone must be able to tell me how I’m supposed to interpret these cards.”
Mr. Milten placed the box on the desk, and looked concerned.
“Now, we at Chance Networks are aware of the so-called cottage industries of ‘Chance Interpreters’ out there, doing a secondary business in… ahem… ‘reading’ our cards. But we take a firm stance that there is no way to conclusively add to the picture of what the algorithm reads from the canonical prediction, other than through the algorithm itself. We do not recommend or condone using these services, and there are several lawsuits pending regarding claims certain of these outside service entities make regarding our… intellectual property.”
“But certainly someone within the company could tell me what I’m supposed to do with these?”
Milten laughed. “I’m sorry miss, but I’m but a customer service operative. What those folks in engineering do, is–ahem–quite outside of my expertise. I could perhaps allow you to review one of our instructional videos…” he began opening drawers.
“No thank you. Perhaps there is someone in engineering I could speak to?”
“I wouldn’t know about that, Ms. Roubacheau. In the meantime, let’s just mark that you have accepted the Chances surrounding your death…” he reached for his pen.
“I don’t accept these.”
He blinked. “I’m sorry?”
“I can’t accept these. How could I?”
“The algorithm is infallible, Ms. Roubacheau. Derived from the canonical Machine of Death design, the truth is unquestionable.”
“But if I don’t understand them, how can they mean anything to me?”
“Well, let me show you a few of mine.” He reached in his jacket pocket, and pulled out a custom metal case, inscribed with his name, just as on the sign on the desk. “See here?” He held the yellow card he extracted delicately by the edges. “ ‘Rotini’, reads this one. Pasta-related, not unlike the poster behind me, which is why I chose it to decorate my workspace,” he gestured behind him and grinned.
“I used to think that meant pasta salad, as if I would die of my canonical while on a picnic or at a barbecue. But then I got this one, which says ‘bi-plane’. Perhaps an airshow or county fair then? But then! This one: ‘labyrinthine’. Which relates, I believe, to a particular school trip I took in my college days. Making the pasta-related Chance readable in an entirely new light!”
Maddie did not share his enthusiasm. “Are pasta-related Chances supposed to mean something in particular that I don’t understand?”
Mr. Milten sighed, and rolled his eyes back, appearing to be thinking about a problem, but what sort of problem, it was difficult to say.
“Have you read any Zen philosophy, Ms. Roubacheau?”
“I have, and I find it abhorrent.”
Maddie placed her hands on her knee, and leaned forward in her formal jacket.
Milten twitched his pen back and forth on the desk. “Are you sure I cannot simply mark down that you accept these Chances–just in the effort to… push things along?”
“I do not accept them.”
“Well.” He glanced at his watch, and pushed what might have been a bead of sweat back into his hairline. “Well–perhaps there is someone I could refer you do on the engineering floor.”
Maddie smiled. “I would appreciate that very much.”
He hastily made a series of marks on her form, writing with much less precision.
“Please take this, and proceed down the hall to your right. Up the steps, around the corner, and to the elevator. You want the sixth floor, room 77, a Mrs. Dantez.”
She gathered her cards, replaced the case in her pocket. As she turned to leave, Milten stopped her.
“Oh, before you go–can you give me three adjectives to describe ‘panther’?”
“Panther? Like the predatory cat?”
“Yes, but not those adjectives. Like what you think of when you think of a panther.”
“Oh. Um, ‘feline’, ‘sharp’, ‘black’… ‘hungry’–”
“Three will do, thank you!” He jotted on a pad on the side of his desk. “Have a good day!”
In the elevator, the buttons were marked with letters, rather than with numbers. Maddie didn’t feel like going back to inquire, so she took a chance, and pressed the button with “F” on it. The corporate music was louder in the elevator, but the volume from the screens was lower.
She clicked down an oppressively warm hallway, holding her paperwork lightly in one hand to try and keep the moisture from her fingers from marking them. She knocked twice on the door marked 77, all alone on a particular stretch of hallway, and opened the door.
A rush of overly-cooled air met her. Opposite the door was a counter, where a bored-looking receptionist read a magazine, while he twisted back and forth in a low office chair. Behind him was a mirror, and two passages leading in either direction. On wall with the doorway were a line of three chairs to the left, one of which was occupied by a large man with a white cowboy hat, who sat next to a small table just large enough for the potted plant on top of it. The room was also a hallway, extending in either direction. She approached the desk.
Without looking up, the man said, “have a seat, she’ll call when she’s ready for you.”
Maddie took chair closest to the door.
“Good day, miss.” It was the man wearing the hat.
“Hello.” She began to play with the edges of her jacket, as if she was picking off lint.
“Could I… ask you a favor?”
Maddie looked at him for a moment, but he was looking at the receptionist, as if making sure the man was focused on his magazine.
“It’s a bit of a proposition.”
She froze, and prepared to stand if necessary.
“Nothing untoward, or out of the ordinary, I assure you. I simply offer that I might… buy your cards.”
“You want to buy my cards?”
He gestured with his hand, in a downward motion.
“Quietly now, quietly.” He laughed nervously. “But yes. Twice what a new Chance card reading costs at retail. Cash.”
Maddie was startled and confused. “But I don’t have that many, only…” she stopped herself from saying how many she had, though she wasn’t sure why.
“You can buy two new for what I’ll give you for one. Nothing wrong with having more cards, right? Take Another Chance, as they say in the literature.”
“I’m not sure it’s a good–”
“Oh, for research only, miss. I don’t want your canonical, nothing like that. I’m just a curious man, see. I’ve been studying their algorithm for years. Out of curiosity, nothing more than that. Every card is a new data point. No good to anyone but the people who bought ‘em. And to me. Data, you see. If you care to help, I’d make it worth your while.”
“Well, I need them for my complaint–I mean my question.”
“Of course you do. Well, after that, if you want to write down your words and sell me the cards, I’d still be interested. Here is my card. Business card, that is.” He palmed it in his hand, and held it over to her. She took it. It read “Chance Cards”, and then there was a number.
“I’d… you might want to put that away for now, miss. These folks, they don’t exactly take kindly to my research. Think I’m trying to hone in on their algorithm. Not possible though. I’m more curious in what it generates.”
Maddie tucked it away. She looked over at the desk, and caught the receptionist looking at her suspiciously, but then he quickly went back to his magazine. The man next to her was inauspiciously studying the wall, and began humming a tune that Maddie didn’t know. She pulled her jacket close against the cold of the air conditioning, and had a sudden desire to inspect her cards. Once more. For the hundredth. Thousandth. But she didn’t want the man with the hat to see them.
Then the voice came over an intercom, full of static, far too loud. “Madeline Roubacheau, I will see you now.”
Maddie stood, and looked towards the receptionist for direction, but he didn’t look up.
“To the left, down the hall.”
She moved past the man in the hat, clicking on the floor.
The intercom burst with static. “No, not that way. My left. MY left.”
Maddie stopped, confused as to which way that was, but it must be the other way. She passed the man in the hat again, who smiled, and tipped the brim, as if that was the only reason he wore such a hat. Down the hall, she reached for the door on the left side.
“Not that door. The third one,” the intercom corrected.
She kept going.
“No, the… from the… that door. THAT door. Yes. Come in.” Static, and then nothing.
The room was warm, but not to an uncomfortable extent. It was large enough to refer to as an office, with a large wooden desk, and several chairs. There was a blotter on the desk, and a phone, and behind it, an imposing looking woman who looked as if she was into-her-sixties-but-looking-in-her-fifties, wearing a full formal jacket and skirt, a long string of pearls, and a neatly assembled silk scarf with pin, bearing, of course, the corporate logo, black helix on yellow. Behind her were three framed posters. One, advertising a “Chance for Life” charity event. The other flanking poster a photo of a family with full decks of cards, and the slogan, “We Understand!” written in large, slanted, san-serif letters. The middle poster showed a hand of indeterminate race holding a yellow card, palm up. “Imagination”, it read.
“Please have a seat, Ms. Roubacheau. I am Mrs. Dantez. How can I help you?”
“I have a question.”
“Yes, I gather that, and that is why you are here. You have read the FAQ?”
“And you have no complaints?”
“Aside from my question, no.”
“And your question is?”
“How is it that these cards mean anything?”
Mrs. Dantez sighed, and crossed her fingers on one hand over the others on the blotter.
Form on the desk.
“Tag as well, for formality’s sake.”
“And your license to test, if you would.”
Maddie pulled her license out, and laid it on the desk. Mrs. Dantez picked it up with one hand, and put on a pair of reading glasses with the other. She studied it in the overhead light, and then produced a pen.
“One of your cards, as well.”
Maddie opened the case, and gave one up. The stoic woman in front her began marking items on the form while speaking aloud.
“Age to test: passed. Mental competency to test: approved. Medical consult: met. Drug test: no indicators… though that date was some time ago,” she looked over her glasses at Maddie, who was glad she’d worn the formal jacket. “Though it is within the mandated cycle. Preparedness for Mortality Training Course: attended, and standardized.”
She paused, and the pen hovered. “Religion is blank.” She looked at Maddie. “Is that Atheist, then?”
Maddie felt the familiar blush. “I haven’t really considered it. And I was told it isn’t mandatory to have it declared in any direction.”
“Oh, it’s not mandatory. But it is an anomaly.”
“Is that a problem?”
“No, oh no. No problem. But it is irregular.”
“Would that affect my Chance card generation?”
“No, not assuredly. But it is something that we’ll take into consideration.”
She marked the form. Then she placed the pen on the edge of the blotter, and took up the card, and inserted it quickly in the slot in the desk. Then she pulled out a screen from the side of her desk, tilted downward so only she could see it. Shading the glare from the overhead lights, Mrs. Dantez read whatever was summoned to the screen.
“You have had your canonical, I assume?”
“But you’ve only had five cards.”
“I’m sorry. I know it isn’t very many, but I simply can’t have any more until I know what they are supposed to mean.”
“What they are is described in the FAQ, Ms. Roubacheau.”
“I know what they are, of course. Anyone knows that. But I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with them. How to read them. How I’m supposed to understand any of this.”
Mrs. Dantez leaned over the desk, severely. “You haven’t been to an interpreter, have you Ms. Roubacheau?”
“No, of course not. I know that’s a scam. That’s why I came here, to the corporation.”
The older woman sighed, and began to look slightly closer to her actual age, but only for a moment. She opened a drawer and pulled out a disc.
“I have this video that I could show you…”
“I’ve seen the videos.”
“You haven’t seen this video. It’s not a promotional video. It’s an internal training video.”
She slipped it from its case, and inserted it somewhere on her side of the desk. The lights dimmed automatically, and from a spot in the corner light shone, projecting an image on top of the middle poster behind the desk. A screen descended from the ceiling and caught the film image. Mrs. Dantez didn’t turn to watch the film, appearing to only close her eyes. Maddie looked over her head as carefully as she could.
A man walked into the shot, wearing a formal jacket, complete with logo pin. “Good morning!” he said to the camera, though the time of day was no more visible in the scene than it was in the windowless office in which Maddie sat. “My name is Sam Augustine, and I’ll be your guide through the training procedure.”
The scene changed. Sam was in front of a bustling Change Networks franchise, walking past the line extending out the door, walking inside the lobby, walking behind the banks of machines and teller windows, and into the raised area that was unique to every franchise.
“Before we get into the step by step procedure by which you’ll tune the central algorithm hub, let’s take a minute to discuss the importance of this seemingly minor daily maintenance task.” Sam popped the lid of the central unit, audibly humming through the recording, and let the cover rise to his eye level. “It only take a minute, but it is importance cannot be overstressed. Sloppy tuning can result in misaligned results transmitted from the algorithm mainframe, and inappropriately delivered to the customer. The checksum safeguards make receiving incorrect results an impossibility. But result errors are possible, or franchise-wide Failure-to-Chance. Either can mean costly downtime for the entire franchise, and dissatisfied customers, who haven’t received the quick and accurate Chances they have come to expect. Without balancing the hub to the characteristic load of customers on a twice-a-day basis, Chance failures can increase by as much as twenty percent.”
The film stopped, the lights came back on, and the screen retreated into the ceiling. Mrs. Dantez opened her eyes.
“Are you saying that there might have been an error in my Chances?” Maddie was open-mouthed.
“No dear. I’m saying precisely the opposite.” She held up one of Maddie’s cards. The one marked ‘coniferous’. “You see this code strip here? This contains your unique user ID, linked to your stored canonical reading, verified in our central algorithm servers. Your canonical reading is what it is: the way that you’ll die. The algorithm develops your Chance here on the server from the canonical, and then transmits it to the Chance franchise, and prints it on the card. The server generates a checksum to make sure only algorithmically correct results are printed on your card. We don’t need a new blood test every time we Chance. The blood test is only to verify, for security, that only you will receive your Chances.”
She looked down at her screen. “The Chances are yours, no less than your canonical. Each of your five Chances are 100% checksum accurate. The checksum is recorded in each Chance code strip, for paper trail verification.”
Mrs. Dantez smiled across the desk.
“You see, dear, that is what Chances are. They are you. From your canonical cause of death, we derive the nano-fate Chances that surround how that death will occur. There is no possibility of them being wrong, or being for anyone else. Your Chances are you–and while I don’t mean it in a belittling way, if they don’t seem to make sense to you… well, there’s no one that can do anything about that but yourself.”
“But the canonical is a cause of death. These are just words. They don’t make any sense.”
“They will. Given enough Chances, given enough time, and enough personal reflection, the meaning comes clear. The meaning comes from you.”
Maddie shook her head.
“This just isn’t good enough. These are words with no meaning! Look at this.”
She held up a card from the bottom of the stack, so the woman across from her would have to read it. The immaculate composition of her face faded as she saw the word.
“I… I do apologize for that. Normally the words aren’t so… anatomical…”
“It’s not just a part of my body! It’s my… it called it a… I never have used that word in my life!”
“I understand why you’re upset. I don’t care for that word at all myself. But I must reiterate, Ms. Roubacheau, that the Chance Networks does not create these words themselves. Chance Networks and its algorithm do not attempt to… well as I said, these words come from you. They are your Chances, and nobody else’s.”
Maddie sat back in her chair, her emotion spent for a moment.
“I must ask you, dear: have you ever… considered using suicide as a means to hasten the resolution of your canonical results?”
“No, I have not. My canonical isn’t ‘suicide’.”
“Few are. But an educated woman like yourself knows that it doesn’t have to be.”
Mrs. Dantez removed her glasses.
“It’s okay if you have thought about it. Many people who seek Chances have considered it. In a mortal world as this, it is an option for all of us. Chances are another way out of the vicious, emotional cycle of having to deal with our mortality. If you have considered using suicide–”
“I have not.”
“I believe you. But even if you haven’t, seeking another Chance might give you some further insight into yourself. Taking a Chance might be the way out.” She pulled out a box, and set it on the desk. “I’d be happy to give you a complimentary Chance. It is often that when we’re at such an impasse in interpreting our Chances, just then a new Chance comes along to put everything in a different light.”
She pulled out a case from her jacket pocket, and clicked it open. It was inlaid with mother of pearl on the upper side, and black velvet on the bottom. There were only four cards in it, and she carefully lined then on the raised edge of the blotter, like a pathway of four yellow stones.
“When I was twenty-two, not too far from your own age, I received this Chance.”
“For a young woman, this is a fairly morose Chance. It troubled me, I don’t mind telling you. It wasn’t until I was thirty-seven that I got this additional Chance.”
‘Morning’, read the card.
Mrs. Dantez took a deep breath, as if she were actually recalling the emotion. “It changed everything for me! I had had visions of the worst things you can imagine: suffocation, becoming deaf later in life, being murdered as a witness to a crime, and so on. My canonical aside–for it to occur in the context of ‘silence’ seemed particularly gruesome. But, ‘morning’! A time of peaceful silence, of reflection, or meditation. I began to see that silence could be a beautiful Chance, and it was only my preconceptions and fears that I was seeing, reflecting in my Chances. My world was turned around completely! And then I received these other two: ‘apothecary’, and ‘wooden’. Well you see the first one was…” she looked at Maddie, who was looking off into space.
“Take another Chance, dear.”
“I don’t want one.”
“You don’t want one?”
“I don’t want another one, until I can figure out the ones I have.”
“But you must accept them, Ms. Roubacheau! They are your Chances.”
“I won’t accept them. Not until they mean something to me.”
“But if you accept them now, and wait, in time the meaning will become clear.”
“I refuse to accept them.”
Mrs. Dantez sighed, and sat back. Then she reached forward and gathered up her cards, putting them away in her case. She picked up her pen.
“There is one more thing we can do. We can examine you. There are certain physical signs–and I remind you, that they are very slight tells, nothing definite or assured–but they can act as diagnostic criteria for checking Chance causality.” She began to write. “If you want the exam, you must promise to take it to completion. For insurance purpose, once begun, the exam must be finished. It’s causal-liability, as the case law about the matter is not binding yet. I can give you an exam, and then with those results in mind, perhaps you will be willing to take another Chance.”
She wrote something on Maddie’s form.
Maddie nodded her head.
Mrs. Dantez opened a drawer, and pulled out a file folder, which she spread on her desk, and began withdrawing forms. She assembled a packet as she checked off items, filled out passages, and inserted the complaint form Maddie had brought with her.
“Any history of heart conditions?”
“Any medical allergies?”
“Any fear of confined spaces?”
“Any history of epilepsy?”
“Any surgeries in the past five years?”
“Any metallic implants that are known to be reactive to magnetism?”
“Any recent skin reactions in the presence of radio waves?”
“Sensitivity to light?”
“Have you been in any environments with reactive chemicals over a safety level of 2?”
“Do you or do you not enjoy the taste of cilantro? Has your opinion on this changed in the past three years?”
“Okay, Ms. Roubacheau, sign here. Please go through this door, and speak to the nurse. His name is Virgil. He’ll take good care of you. And wear this badge for the rest of the time you’re here, please.”
She gestured at a door Maddie had not seen before. She signed, and gathered up the forms, affixed the badge, and stepped towards the door.
“Oh, Ms. Rouhbacheau?”
“Could you tell me the first five words that come into your mind when you think of the phrase, ‘boiled egg’.”
“‘Boiled egg’. Five words. Any words. Go.”
“I–uh… shell, pan, cooking, quickly, salt.”
“No adverbs please.”
“No adverbs. One more. Hurry now.”
“Thank you.” She wrote what might have been those words down on a pad on her desk. “Go ahead–Virgil will be waiting for you.”
Maddie stepped onto the tile of a brightly lit hallway, lined with glass windows that must have opened onto exam rooms. Each window had a curtain drawn in front of it, and shadows moved on the curtain, two, maybe three people per room. She wasn’t sure which way to go to find Virgil, or even what exactly she was doing, or whether she ought to leave. Standing still for a moment, the edge of her jacket in her free hand, the other filled with paperwork. Listening to the dry, HVAC air, Maddie tried to hear which direction the most noise might be coming from. She heard what sounded like distant shouting. No, it was most certainly shouting, coming from the right. It was shouting, getting louder. It was someone coming this way.
Wondering what she ought to do was what she was doing when the shouting rounded the corner. The young woman in a white medical gown had a familiar look, but before Maddie could return the look of disoriented derailment, the figure pushed past her and ran, slapping barefoot, down the hall and away. Maddie was sent backward, trying to keep from tottering off of her heels, flat against one of the glass windows.
“There she is!” A number of large orderlies rounded the corner, dressed in a manner in which only women titled orderlies would be dressed. Two were on either side of Maddie, and a slim, older man stood beside them.
“I… I think the person you want–”
But they had her by the arms, and her stack of papers fell to the floor. The man, whose logo-emblazoned name tag read “Virgil”, bent to pick them up.
“But Mrs. Dantez said that I–”
“Yes, I’m aware of what Mrs. Dantez said. Put her in room 846.”
He took her papers down the hall in the opposite direction from the way she was taken, both arms of the orderlies on her formal cotton jacket’s arms, raised in the air in a way that she could only barely manage to stumble along on her heels with them, clicking along to keep from falling down. After what must have been some seventy yards, a door was pushed open, a light came on, and she was inside.
“Remove your clothes.”
“You’ve agreed to a series of tests.”
“Remove your clothes, please.”
The orderlies were imposing figures, and they held out a familiar looking gown. She had agreed, but to what? Maddie sighed, and slid her sleeves out of her formal jacket. The badge was missing from the label where she had clipped it. She stepped out of the heels, and onto the floor. Blouse, skirt, hose.
“Your underthings too.”
And those. She put on the gown. One of the two women gathered up the discarded clothing and her shoes, into a white cloth bag. Before she put in the jacket, she fished out Maddie’s case.
“You’ll want these. There’s a pocket.”
And indeed there was, on the chest of the oddly fitting gown, generally over the left side. She put the case in the cloth opening that was just big enough, and the case weighted down the cloth against her breast. The metal was cold through the light fabric. Then the orderlies were gone, and the door was closed.
There was a poster on the back of the door. A Chance box, as if in a franchise booth, was visible in a close-up shot. A card was emerging from the slot. The first letters were visible, spelling ‘Wit–’, and the caption said beneath it, “This Chance Could Be the One.”
A different orderly returned. She had a tray. First it was blood. Then a swab of the inside of Maddie’s cheek. Then a tissue sample, a scratch beneath her upper arm. Then urine. The orderly disappeared with the tray.
A new orderly, with a cart. Many different devices, all for the measurement of various things. Heart rate. Mini-EEG. Reflex arc. Standardized pain threshold. Electro-conductivity. Cognitive ray. Radio stethoscope. Magentoscope. Positronic band. Physical exam. Flashing lights, sanitized probes: under, behind, in, and back out. She checked it–the area referred to in profane language on her card. Maddie looked at the wall, while the orderly seemed to make an audible noise, not quite approvingly or disapprovingly. Then she was gone.
Maddie stood flat-footed against the wall. She stared at the poster, wondering what sort of person it was that had stuck their finger in the slot of the Chance box, causing it to print that card, of which she could only read the first three letters. Did they take an actual picture with a Chance box in order to make that poster? Or was it a computer-generated graphic? Was it a false box, perhaps–used for such photographs? Or did someone actually generate that card… was that someone’s Chance, and they were waiting for the camera to finish its work before they removed it and read what it said?
The orderly who had previously carried the tray came back into the room, seemingly in a much better mood than she had been when she was wielding the needle. This time she carried a clipboard.
“Don’t look so glum, deary! We’ll have you out of exams in no time at all. They don’t take but a minute, you see. Like the boxes themselves, those test machines are. In the hole, and there it goes. Oh, but your stool! No wonder you look so tired.”
She reached outside and pulled in a light plastic stool that had been outside the door, handing it to Maddie, who held it to her chest, touching lightly against the case in her gown pocket. The orderly pulled in a chair on wheels, and sat on it.
“Well, sit down then.”
“Just a few questions. Now–you know your canonical, don’t you?”
Maddie sighed, and leaned forward to let her elbows fall to her knees.
“Excellent, excellent. Have you ever considered suicide in order to hasten the results?”
“Well, okay. You know it would not be out of the ordinary if you had.”
“But you haven’t.”
“Okay. Three synonyms for ‘hungry’.”
“Synonyms please, three of them, for ‘hungry’. No adverbs.”
“Famished, starving, and… uh, malnourished?”
“Hmm… I’m not sure about that last one, but it will do. Would you be willing to take a Chance right now?”
“The box is in the hallway. I’ll go get it. Complimentary.”
“I won’t take one.”
“Okay, and… wait one moment. What is your name?”
“My goodness, but I’ve got the wrong forms here! Where is your badge?”
“I… I don’t know.”
“It wasn’t on your formal jacket.”
“It must have been when…”
“But you have your cards, don’t you?”
“Yes, they’re right here–”
“Well thank goodness for that! Who only knows what might have happened… and then for you, my dear… how horrible to have lost one’s Chances!”
“No, I do have them…”
“Well thank goodness! Let me go get your forms, and get rid of these!” She shook them on the clipboard, as if they were wet, or had been particularly troublesome somehow. “Feel free to keep your stool.”
Maddie hadn’t made any motion to get up, or pull her arms from her knees.
“Would you like a Chance then?”
Maddie exhaled before speaking. “I…”
“Free of charge, of course. I only thought–these not being your forms–that perhaps you would indeed like one after all.”
“N–no, thank you.”
The orderly blinked her eyes, and tapped the clipboard against the side of her hip. “Well, okay…” she said, as if she blamed the form she held. “Pretty young lady like yourself, I never would have figured, but…”
She turned to leave the room, pushing the chair in front of her. Then she paused. “You know what my last Chance was?”
Maddie looked up.
“It was ‘Others’. What do you make of that?”
Maddie opened her mouth, but didn’t say anything. The orderly was already gone, and she heard the wheels retreating down the hall.
In less than three minutes, she heard flat footsteps running, approaching. It was Virgil, completely out of breath, his name tag askew.
“Ms. Roubacheau! Thank goodness I’ve found you!”
As he leaned against the door frame to catch his breath, Maddie felt as if she was required to say something in response.
“There’s been a terrible mistake!”
She raised her eyebrows and began to speak, but he continued.
“Not with your test results, no! Those were all fine. Normal, I might say, though I’m hardly qualified to give you any sort of assessment. No, there was a mistake, and I’m so very sorry to have mixed it all up in this way. It is my responsibility, and I understand if you are upset, and I can only apologize to you in the most sincerest of terms!”
Still leaning against the door frame, bent over with exertion, it almost appeared as if he was attempting to bow in way of apology.
“But there is time yet!” he blurted out. “Please, follow me now, and I’ll get you going in the right direction.” And then he was out of the room. “Come along, come along! And I’m terribly sorry!”
She had to pad quickly on the cool floor with her bare feet to keep up with the man’s tall strides.
“We’ll get everything straight, I assure you!”
Around three turns, down a straight away, and up a short flight of rubberized stairs. Virgil opened a door.
He whispered, holding his head close to the edge of the door, “Mr. Blake’s office! And once again, I’m sorry!” He closed the door behind her.
The office was immense, carpeted deeply from wall to wall. Maddie squinted against the natural light streaming in from the wide windows, showing nothing but a view of uninterrupted blue sky, the bright sun sending gleaming shadow lines down the large modern statuary that dotted the open expanses of carpet, and the couch, and the low tables, and the several chairs. It lit up a full, dark head of hair on a surprisingly young man behind the desk that presided over the space, as he looked down at a pad of paper, scribbling furiously. Maddie breathed in a bit suddenly, overwhelmed by the light after the low florescent lighting previously illuminating her.
“My goodness, Ms. Roubacheau!”
Her feet felt warm on the sun drenched carpet.
“Virgil didn’t give you your clothes back. What a silly man.” He pressed a button on his desk repeatedly. “It should only be a minute.”
The door behind her popped open, and Virgil’s arm stuck in holding the cloth bag. He waved it side to side, and, “I’m sorry!” came around the door. She took the bag, and the arm gratefully disappeared and the door closed again.
“I’ll just secure myself in the closet, and you can get dressed at your leisure. Not to worry, no one will come in that door unless I call for them.”
The man rose from his chair, and took several large, sporting leaps across the carpet, dodging around two statues, to what must have been the closet door on the wall. He flung it open, revealing, indeed, a number of hanging jackets, all dwarfing the small man. He plunged in between the garments, and with a flourish, pulled the door closed to a click.
“Please go ahead! Just let me know when you’re finished!” His voice was quite muffled by the door. It seemed thick and secure, from the sound of his elbows bumping against it as he no doubt fought for space among the coats. Seeing no other option, Maddie begun to dress. The sun was warm on her skin.
“My name is Mr. Blake, by the way!” He shouted from inside, to overcome the muffling. “And you must be Maddie Roubacheau! I’ve been dying to make your acquaintance for… well, it must have been almost forty-five minutes now!”
With her hose on, Maddie quickly pulled up her skirt, and tucked the blouse back into it.
“You see, I’m the boss around these parts! The Complaint Department, that is! Nothing much happens here without me finding out about it, at least within the hour! You might think that being in charge means I don’t have many responsibilities, other than overseeing things. But I assure you, that’s not the case! If someone isn’t satisfied, it’s my job to make sure that they are!”
She put on her formal cotton jacket, and held her heels in her hand, leaving the gown and bag on the floor. “Mr. Blake…” she raised her voice a bit to penetrate the closet.
It opened a crack. “All finished?” She assured him that she was. “Well then, I’ll come out of the closet, where it will be much easier to speak with Ms. Roubacheau–Maddie, that is–if the young lady doesn’t mind if I address her as such?”
“No, that’s okay.”
He leaped back across the carpet, and landed hard in his chair, swiveling around a complete turn. “Please sit down, please sit down! Pick any chair you like.”
There were no chairs near his desk, and so she picked the couch, which was a bit awkward because it faced the center of the room. But he sprang across the rug again, and chose a seat immediately next to the couch. “A wonderful choice, a wonderful choice! I say chair, and she picks the couch! Ms. Roubacheau–Maddie, that is–an excellent choice, if I may say so.”
The chair he sat in was low, and even his short legs came up quite high above his lap, pulling the cuffs of his casual suit up over his shoes, exposing the fact that he was not wearing socks. He was quite young, perhaps the same age as Maddie herself, or even younger. She did not put her heels back on, as she was seated, and they would have been nearly buried in the long carpet shag anyway. She set them next to her feet.
“But you’d like to get to the point of the matter, of course. Your tests were absolutely, positively normal. There was no reason to think that they would have been anything else. And there was a little mistake with the forms, but no harm done. You still have your Chance cards, correct?”
She nodded. They were back in her jacket pocket, as they always were.
“Only five cards, Maddie? Naturally, there is no reason to expect someone so young to have accumulated hundreds and hundreds. But still, only five?” He put his chin on his palm, and his elbow on his knee, and smiled at her.
“I won’t get any more.”
“So I hear. And though I think I know why, would you like to tell me?”
It seemed, at least to the disoriented and still slightly blinded Maddie, that he was almost earnestly excited to hear her tell him. “I’m not sure that I see the point, Mr. Blake.”
“Herman! Please call me Herman. And go on, please do.”
“I’ve read the FAQ…”
“Yes! The FAQ!”
“And I’ve seen the videos…”
“Some of the videos certainly are better than others.”
“I… yes. And I’ve thought about the Chances I’ve gotten over and over again.”
“Yes, assuredly! We must–I only imagine we all do.”
“But I don’t see to what end, Mr… Herman.”
“The canonical. Its meaning is clear, though it may ‘delight in a certain irony’, as the saying goes.”
“And the canonical is ever so brief, and always the same.”
“Whereas, the algorithmically decoded Chances are less ironic, and yet more obscure.”
“They are–though if I might interrupt you quickly to say that they are ‘derived’, not ‘decoded’. But, please continue.”
“And they are supposed to be more information. Not read in the same way as a canonical, but as a supplement to a canonical. Words to surround it, and augment it, slowly, with more and more Chances, giving you a better picture of what one’s end might be like.”
He smiled, and extended his hand, palm wide. “But…”
“But they are just words.”
He waited for her, hand still outstretched.
“They may be algorithmically verifiable, but they are just words. With no context, they might as well be chosen at random. Without some sort of story or order to assemble them in, they could relate to my canonical in any conceivable way. They’re simply no good.”
Herman closed his hand, and smiled. He leaned back in his chair, and stuck his legs out in front of him, crossing one bare ankle over the other. “But you’re here.”
“Yes, I am.”
“Even though the words are meaningless to you, you came here looking for someone to explain to you how you ought to find meaning in them. You wanted them to have meaning, and so you went looking for a way to find it.”
Maddie suddenly felt sad. But she could only smile, and let out a tiny laugh, that somewhere inside it, had the faintest thought of a cry.
“You didn’t have a complaint. You had a question.”
“That’s what I told them.”
“You see? I know simply everything that happens in this place.”
She laughed. Herman stood up, and sat next to her on the couch. He put a hand on her shoulder. “I’d like to show you something, if I could.”
He was almost attractive, in a strange way. Cute, maybe. Like an overly sincere young man, trying to act a part, and almost pulling it off. Was he really in charge here, or was he just masquerading, pretending to be important, playing executive in someone’s office? “Sure,” she said, giving him her best camaraderie smile.
Out of his casual jacket pocket he pulled what appeared to be two matchboxes, taped end to end. She had never noticed before that a Chance card was precisely double the size of a standard matchbox.
“I made this. When I was little. It has… sentimental value. You know.” He slid out the end, and there were a stack of perhaps ten cards inside it. He pulled the one from the bottom out, leaving the rest in place. With the soft hush of cardboard moving against itself, he pushed the box closed, and replaced it in his pocket.
“I love this one best. I used to think it was a really important one. The pivotal Chance, as it were. Then others came, and it didn’t seem so crucial. After a while, it almost seemed superficial and redundant, almost as if it was blocking the continuity of the rest of the cards. But I kept it. Maybe it was because it was so important at one time, I kept it in my personal set out of habit. Or because of its uselessness now, perhaps there’s a certain significance in that. I don’t know. But I keep it in my set, and I imagine I always will. Though who can say for sure.”
He handed it to her. This time she did laugh. She laughed, and laughed, holding her free hand up to her mouth. She brushed her hair back out of her eyes, and tried to compose herself.
“I’m sorry. You probably want to know why I’m laughing.”
“I imagine that I know.”
“I have the same card.”
“I know you do, Maddie.”
She reached for her case, and opened it. She took out her card, and held it next to Herman’s, though keeping his in her right and hers in her left, so she wouldn’t be confused as to which was which.
‘Moose Moose’, said the cards in her hands.
She gave his back to him, and put hers away.
“You’re not convinced,” said Herman. “And that’s good. You don’t have to be, and maybe you never will be. But,” he said, with a smile. “I think you are ready to take another Chance.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Because you will be ready. Maybe not now, maybe not for years. But before that canonical takes effect, you will want to have another Chance. You will step into a Chance Networks franchise, you will insert your beautiful finger to have a drop of blood drawn from it, you will be verified on our central algorithm servers, and your Chance will be printed on one of our yellow cards. And, for the entire extent of the brief amount of time it will take for you to reach down and pull out the card so you can read it: that Chance will not come soon enough.”
She thought about it.
“I have a special offer for you now. Because we’ve just completed a number of physiological tests on you, I can offer you a special Chance. This sort of Chance is not yet available commercially, not to the public. It will be soon, and it is even more precise, less ironic, and better helps each and every individual to better understand their specific Chances as regards their canonical. We call it a Gold Chance. And I have one waiting for you.”
He stood, and walked over to the desk. From beneath it he pulled a small box, shining in bright gold. As he brought it over, the sunlight was tossed in a thousand directions from its surfaces, lighting up the statues, the walls, the ceiling with shards of golden light. Herman sat back in the chair, and balanced the machine on his knee.
“It’s already had your data transmitted to it. All you need to do, if you wish to accept your Chances, is press the button there, right on top. You press the button, and it will print the card. If not, I’ll open the cover and hit the reset, and it will forget your Chance that is right there inside it even now, waiting to be printed.”
He put his eyes into hers. “It’s up to you, Maddie.”
She felt the carpet around her toes. He smiled.
She pressed the button, and with a buzz, the card printed and ejected. Maddie instantly looked at the ceiling, and reached forward to palm the card.
“I… I’d like to read it later, if that’s okay.”
“Thank you, Herman.”
“Your welcome. Is there anything else I can do for you today?”
“Oh–no, I don’t think so.”
“Well thank you for coming to see me, Maddie. I always appreciate visitors.”
“Oh, it was nothing.”
They sat silently for a full five seconds, and then Herman took the box back to his desk, and sat in his chair, replacing the box from wherever it had come from.
“I should go, then.”
“Alright, Maddie. Just out the door, and to the left is the elevator.” He stayed seated.
“Oh, and Maddie?”
“Don’t forget your shoes.”
She held the card in her palm, as she bent down to get the shoes.
She kept the card there as she clicked to the elevator, and all the way down, and out through a windowed causeway that looked out over the grounds, underneath the backside of the twisting helix of the building. And then down a set of stairs, and out a back gate, where the security guard gave her a salute that she didn’t feel was necessary, but that she appreciated anyway. And then she was back in the street, hot, full of traffic, dust rising everywhere in the sun. Maddie figured out which direction it was that she needed to go, and then pulled out her case. Quickly, she glanced at the Chance card in her palm before sliding it into the case and clicking it shut. It didn’t make a bit of sense.
The antimedial arsenal proves unlimited: short-circuiting telephone exchanges, bringing satellites off course, burning down cable boxes, sawing down electric pylons, not paying television and radio fees, sending out fake press releases, getting cameras to show up for nothing, pouring cement into dish antennas, cutting assorted cables, cleaving TV screens in two, painting over security cameras, altering data, installing magnetic fields, implanting and spreading viruses and worms – communicating with the hammer: »Talking back to the media.«
The quote comes from a book about the Netherlands squatters’ movement. This anti-media attitude was a pretty standard view for radical politics, up through the anti-globalization protests, and through writings like The Coming Insurrection. If you’ve been there, you’ve seen it before. The hassling of camerapersons, especially those who attempt to photograph people’s faces. Stickers, and vasoline stuck to lenses. And worse.
But this concept of anti-media doesn’t carry on through the Occupy protests. Sure, there are individuals who don’t like the constant camera presence. But in general, media coverage is viewed as a good thing, and not just for publicity purposes. Media is an all-seeing eye, and the panopticon is on our side. Each occupation with a significant amount of action has its own Livestream–a 24 hour news camera, embedded at eye-level inside the inner workings of the occupation. Photos are tweeted and re-tweeted, live blogs come up early and often. We are the media, and our media is thorough and deep.
I’m not sure when this transformation happened. But now, it seems like something we are occupying, in addition to physical parks and buildings, virtual web sites and Twitter feeds, is media-space. We occupy the media, the information, or consciousness, depending on what way you want to put it (I’ll leave the deep semiotic argument for another time).
Maybe it began in Egypt. I remember watching the Arab spring and thinking, “Thank goodness for Al Jazeera! If those cameras showing Tahrir Square shut off, they’re finished.” It wasn’t a sense that if they were removed from my eyes, they would disappear. It was that media, in terms of accessible record (not just spectacle) constituted the protest. It formed the safety of the people, in a searchable, coherent record of events. It was the history that was bring made. Without the cameras there, anything that the powers that be might say could be the truth. The government would again control the media-space, and define history. Al Jazeera made a point, over and over again, of showing their camera feed of Tahrir Square juxtaposed to the Government TV Station. The thousands and thousands of people in the square were the truth, compared to the shots of a few “pro-government supporters” milling about in front of a TV camera. Al Jazeera knew it, and we knew it. And the protesters in the square knew it. With this media channel, we could all say in our own minds, together: this is history. This is what’s happening. Al Jazeera is an international media organization, but the point was made. The media that shows us, ought to be our media. Al Jazeera, for that period, was our media. But they won’t always be around. So we have to step up ourselves.
And this isn’t just an awareness issue. Having control of the media-space is a tactic that literally saves lives. Take the case of Mona Eltahawy, a journalist who was arrested, assaulted, and tortured by the Egyptian police just this past week. The situation was difficult: publicizing her plight could have made the situation worse, rather than stimulate her release. However, in the end, it helped hurry her release.
Where this history goes is anyone’s guess. The role of our crowd-sourced media, and of popular protest’s new wide endorsement of publicizing itself as a way of enacting it’s own history has yet to fully play out. This history is still unfolding.
I’ve been busy at the occupation, and that’s prevented me from actually writing any more notes about the occupation. I know that’s the typical blogger excuse first-line, but in this case, I’m going to share with you exactly what I’ve been busy doing, so I feel that’s fair.
I’ve become the point-of-contact for The Portland Occupier, a project birthed out of the Media Committee, but operating unofficially and of its own autonomous accord. The way most occupations are running, and Portland’s being no exception, is that for any action or statement to be “official”, it must be approved by the GA. Open committees, on the other hand, are made of autonomous, self-organizing individuals, and they can work on their own as they see fit. So The Occupier is an unofficial, official news and content channel, if you get what I mean.
And here is where many of my notes have been going. I’ve put my WordPress management skills to use, and have been drumming up content from any contributors we can grab. As for myself, I started a column today, called “Kick Out the Anarchists“, which is surreptitiously titled. The goal is to demystify and explore anarchism, as this is one of the major bugaboos of people inside and outside the occupation, alike. I’m hoping this column can be a vehicle for many of the notes I would have about the occupation, anyway. Maybe in this way, putting all my blog-column philosophizing to some use.
All of this being the goal, of course. In the same way that the occupation strives to be a model for the organization it hopes to put into the world, I feel we ought to do the same with media. And just like the organization we’re enacting in the parks downtown, our media has a ways to go before we can say that is fully successful. But hey, we do what we can, in the face of the massive challenges.
The stated goal of much media is to be objective, regardless of whether or not it quite makes it there. I don’t agree with that idealism–and I like to think that the work we’re doing at The Occupier is a more realistic effort. We are, of course, for the occupation, and the writing and content that we publish is obviously from that perspective. In a way, I feel, that is more honest. We don’t have to respond to the niggling complaints and bullshit that the media drags up as the “counter-argument”. We don’t want to ignore legitimate complaints either. But there is no shortage of legitimate stories of all kinds that need telling regarding the occupation. If you want to know about the condition of the restrooms down at the park, you can go and look for yourself. Or, I can save you the trip: they are bad. There are hundreds of people using them daily, and precious few volunteers to clean them. That’s the story. Have you learned anything?
There is a certain positivism to our reporting, I think. I have complaints and gripes about the way things are going at the occupation. But this sort of personal, critical subjectivity, which I normally launch into wholeheartedly on my own blog, I smooth over when I write for The Occupier. This is, in a way, it’s own objectivity. It’s not about crafting a golden PR message, or rejecting criticism–it’s about focus. From the bathrooms, to peace and safety, to finance, to the GA–there are countless places to find things that are “wrong” with the occupation. And we should do these things. But what is the point of a laundry list of problems? Does the detailing and complaining of everything that is wrong translate into objectivity? These are not things that need to be “revealed” to the general public. We don’t need whistle-blowers, at least at this stage in the occupation. If something is wrong, believe me, people know about it. The whistle blown becomes noise, which distorts the picture. On the other hand, drawing the entire camp into focus, is the work that needs to be done. Problems in context reveal the shape and the motion of the occupation, whereas infinite zoom is dizzying.
I can’t believe, as the perennial curmudgeon, that I’m even making this argument that optimism is somehow more accurate than deep criticism. I guess what I feel is that at the occupation, criticism is something that is donated often, and in large quantities. What we don’t have is the context that makes criticism useful. When you see toilets that need cleaning, are those simply seen as gross? Or are they seen as the realistic effect of hundreds of people trying to live together in public space? When GA is frustrating, is it just frustrating? Or is that an emotional side effect of attempting to make a functional direct democracy? Are the challenges of the safety committee just “crime statistics”, or are they the problems of society, condensed in a microcosm? This is not just optimistic framing. It’s objectivity, defined through subjective contextualization of events.
And of course, this is hard to do well. It is all to easy to lapse into optimistic gloss, or fall the “other” direction (though dualism is hard here) into boring, content-less shill. It’s like walking a narrow fence between advertising propaganda and mindless drivel. It’s trying to tell deep stories, that interest people but can also problematize, without simply criticizing. But hey, if we weren’t experimenting, it wouldn’t be any fun.
So check us out. Even contribute, if you like. More notes will follow.
The social network users seek control. What kind of control do they want? Identity control.
Google+ and Facebook have replied to them: we all will have the same identity control, and that is our one, true, real life identity. How could we have any better identity than that? How else could control be maintained? You users are egoists if you demand for yourselves, as users, any additional control than that. As users, that is the only control you should hope for: for your single, true identity, to control it as you see fit.
Chaos has ensued. Threats have been made, manifestos have been written. “Authoritarianism” has been charged, even though we’re only talking about social networks. The same networks that were the budding platforms of democracy earlier this year are now the means of our enslavement. It makes some sense, doesn’t it? Something as powerful as these new communications tools. Something so paranoia-inducing as large media corporations. Something so vital to us as our identity, our privacy, our ability to speak as we will, and to be online citizens.
And yet, this is all brand new. Services that didn’t exist ten years ago. Corporations that didn’t exist that long ago. Identity and privacy are older concepts–but I’m sure we can all agree that the very definitions of these have changed. We now have words like “online citizen”. “Digital sociality”. “Cyborg humanism”? Whatever you want to call it, it’s never existed before. Something has been born. And now, these soft bones, this fuzzy eyesight, and a tongue of that struggles over its own name are hindrances to this infant’s chance at growing into a real life. It’s a cold world out there. There are many threats, and there is certainly something to lose.
The problem is, I don’t believe we quite know what we’re talking about. Not yet. We have the sense that something is wrong, and it is. But we’re stumbling for the tools and the technique to describe what is at stake, and we’re blundering all over the place. We’re fighting about names. And while there is no good reason pseudonyms should not be allowed on social networks (we’ll just put that one to bed right now), there is also no good reason that pseudonyms are the front for this conflict. The problem is bigger than merely a name. It is a question of identity: of, very literally, personhood. This is about what makes a person, and this will only become a problem with a more vital terrain in the future. Sooner or later, the problem is going to be a lot more confusing that what we so adorably decide to name ourselves.
Identity has actually been more complicated for awhile now, but we’ve been able to ignore it. Most of us easily accept the personhood that is assigned to us by society, and have no problem accepting that we are what our legal name describes us as. A particular sex, a particular age, legal resident of a particular country, allowed certain rights of unifying with another individual of certain other classifications that we suppose are amenable with the categories we seek, and so many of us live with it. We accept the label, and each of us is a happy, healthy, voting, civil-right-enjoying, whatever-you-are. We look on those unlucky to fall outside or in between these categories as anomalies, and either make them their own category with special–maybe limited, maybe increased privileges–or we ignore them and pretend they don’t really exist.
This has been happening since, well, at least since the mid 19th Century. Perhaps earlier, but the 19th Century was the first time society felt the need to logically justify its decisions about personhood, and didn’t just get busy carving out true humans from peasant-meat with swords and scythes. At that watershed moment in history, nations were beginning to define themselves as sovereign states, and with them, citizens were beginning to be defined. Laws began to define both of those concepts. And as with any process of trying to reach a perfect definition, exceptions began to appear, making uncomfortable questions for those doing the dirty pen work.
One Karl Marx wrote a little essay on one of these questions, called, to the point, “On The Jewish Question”. To set the stage: the nature of the Jewish Question at hand was how to answer the demands of population who sought to live exempt from the Christian state, on the basis of their religious difference. A tough question to be sure, as the matter was not just about freedom of religion, but about the question of what a person is primarily: a citizen, or his/her religion? Which trumps the other in terms of identity, and which shall we recognize as being more important? If we acknowledge a religious identity is more important than being a citizen, than a religion that seeks to live outside of the bounds of the state has free reign to leave the power of the state at will. But if being a citizen is more important, then religious identities that disagree with the terms of the state must be suborned beneath that sovereign power.
The solution was that the state must cease to be a religious entity. By emancipating itself from religion, the state can consider every person an equal citizen under the law, while the citizens can continue to believe as their conscience dictates. This concept is what we currently find in the US Bill of Rights, and the basis of many other countries founding principles.
However, what this does is create two different identities for a person. There is the political identity, in which everyone is treated fairly and freely, given the respect and the protection of the law; and there is the personal life, in which one is allowed to harbor intolerance and prejudices. Or considered with the pejorative voice reversed, there is The Citizen, which is an ideal, universal, illusory person that is an utopian figment; and there is the everyday person, with the freedom to think and believe whatever one desires. Either way, there is a schism. Whereas previously religious believers sought to divide sovereign power between their different belief groups, now each person is divided down the middle between the religious/private, and the sovereign/public.
The inherent contradiction between these two split identities is that no person is so separate. One desires citizenship in order to protect the freedoms of one’s private life, and one’s private life ought to be so free that one could live as one wishes without adhering to another’s rule. As if it could be so simple as such a Catch-22: when the truth is that public and private are no more than the two colors which we use to color a range of twisted, half-enclosed spaces, stairwells, and rooftops in a twisted, MC Escher-designed house of relations between ourselves and others around us. What is public/private, when we can only talk about politics in the company of loved ones? What is public/private, when we talk about sex in public, and think about fucking celebrities in the privacy of our own homes? What is public/private, when we are willing to confess our dreams on TV, but avoid telling our friends what we really think of them? We imagine that there are two people at war within us, one with either priority. But simply isn’t true, any more that the human sexes stem from a original hermaphroditic species, combined of man and woman. The human being is a chaotic whole, even if our sexualities, citizenships, free wills, and other identities are a stratified, twisted, mess of rhizomatic knot.
But belief in this division remains to the current day. The liberal strategy is that compromise between the two is possible. Call it a social contract, the difference between the home and the agora, or simply one of many great democratic compromises: all are fiction. The conservative strategy is to exploit one identity for the other, and taking turns, promoting one at the other’s expense as is expedient to the time. The fact that we still have holdouts from both political strategies defending ground on either sides of the public and the private, privileging either the superiority of the public, politically equal citizen, or the private, personally liberated individual, proves that it is not compromise that we’ve found, but a permanent state of conflict between the two.
Right in the middle of this state of conflict is where we’ve landed, so many years on from The Declaration of the Rights of Man. Both sides of the debate about the Identity Question are attempting to argue for one of these identities. The True Name faction believes that social networks ought to be part of the public sphere, in which one represents oneself as Citizen, with the rights and responsibilities therein, and as their reward for joining this republic, gain some control over their privacy. The Pseudonym faction, on the other hand, believes that social networks ought to be completely at the mercy of the individual, so they might live out their personal fantasies with no one to stand in the way–and if this means trolls have to be hunted and slayed by the local militia, than so be it.
We might abandon the problem here, just as we’ve abandoned the United States to the endless conflict between liberal and conservative, and just cross our fingers that while no end is in sight, perhaps it might not get any worse. I’m here to tell you that it will get worse. But, I’m also going to tell you why. And in that, perhaps is some hope.
Because we’ve been so busy balancing this distinction in our minds, accusing the other party of atrocities and inhumanities, and generally forgetting which side we are on in any particular instance so that we have to start over and load up the crooked balance beam once again, we haven’t noticed what is changing despite all of this staying-the-same. Why was it, after all, that the Jewish Question arose in the 19th Century for the first time? It was because of the sovereign political states that suddenly made citizenship a thing, so that might become an ”issue”. And why were there all these new states with citizens, rather than thrones, nobles, and a small landowning class as there had been previously? That is a lot of history, but generally the reason is that suddenly the citizens had a little bit of power that they had not had before, and it had to be safeguarded and controlled properly. With all of these property owners running around, courts were necessary to control and organize them. So they needed laws, and rights to go to court with. To administer all this, and to collect taxes of course, is the responsibility of The State. Basically, our notion of the private individual is all that is left over from the chaos of the anarchic lower-classes during feudalism. When we had nothing, we were free to do whatever we wanted with that nothing, not having anything but a little alcohol and maybe a farm tool or two with which to cause trouble. But when there was something, things got real very quickly. All of those possessions, and the willfulness with which one would use and fight for his/her possessions, had to be controlled. So it has been legislated, incorporated, mandated, and interpolated into a giant mechanism of public power to keep everything running as smooth as possible, or at least not spinning apart. After all of that, only a bit of freedom remains, that hopefully won’t let us get into too much trouble.
If we simplify a bit by calling all of these new means and mechanisms that must be organized and controlled “society”, we can see that society has grown even more complex since that time, and at a quickening pace as well. In addition to The State, other forms of order step in to help organize society. You don’t have to be a Marxist to see that consumerism helps out. What would we do with all of our money if we couldn’t spend it on stuff? Why would we work if not to earn that money? A steady cycle of consumption smooths everything out. Culture, which we might define as the general artistic product of society, is a feature of consumerism. We produce odds and ends of Culture to keep ourselves mentally invested. And this cultural product reinforces our ideas about the many systems, and our roles within it.
But suddenly, we are at a new watershed moment. An invention that was first a bit of the sovereign state, then a small, odd facet of culture, and then a sub-domain of consumerism, is mutating yet again. The Internet. This odd thing-defying in small, strange ways the old logic of how things are made, socialized, consumed, and therein, controlled–is becoming a system by which we express a new, odd sort of anarchic freedom: and for many of us, it is the primary means by which we do so. All signs point to this pattern continuing, if not accelerating.
So much so that the Internet now serves to destabilize sovereign states. The State had universalized the Citizen, and frozen part of our identities off into the public self. Now the Internet is making the remainder, that anarchic private self, run absolutely wild. So wild, that it doesn’t even care about the olf public self anymore. What good is our citizenship when our governments don’t protect us anymore, stand in the way of the innovation that does help us, and turn its back on that “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” promise? Many of us are more citizens of the Internet than any particular country or town. We might have once been called the domain of the private self, is now taking over for the public self, and becoming much larger, more rowdy, and with more resources within its reach.
The private self now has able opportunity to express itself, and the amazing part is, that the anarchy of it is actually self-regulating. One can be openly gay online, while being so at work would cause trouble, as there are communities online that support and protect such private lives. One might brush shoulders with people whose skin color you never know–and so racial identity is complicated at the same time as it is made less important. There is solidarity between people without any sort of “real” neighborly trust being established, simply because one pledges oneself to the same general good. All the boundaries, those secular divisions of our private life that we used to protect and pile high like the walls of a levy, are now washing down, flowing outward into massive, divergent deltas. We now have identities that we never knew of before, because we have the freedom to discover that they exist. New sexual fetishes, hobbies, business opportunities, and political ideas are spun off, spread, diluted, and then recombined daily. Over the vast span of human culture, we are not just able to keep it all in control. It may be that we are more in control of ourselves than we’ve ever been before–even as anarchy reigns.
But what is it that we are controlling? Here we arrive back at the original problem. We’re not in an electronic world of free love just yet. We need to control our own identities, just as we need to police ourselves and others. Responsibility is primary to this sort of techno-anarchy, and we’re finding this out through this new pattern’s failures just as much as we are encouraged by its successes. But, when we seek to maintain some purchase on the controls of our identity, we fall back into the same old cycles as before such a system existed. Half of us are trying to maintain a public self as citizen, and the other half of us are trying to maintain a private self as individual. And then we switch back and forth, depending on what service we are using, what username we’re logged in with, and what fetish discussion group we are currently administering.
The truth, as the Internet is showing us, is that neither “public” nor “private” will serve as the model for our new, distributed, networked selves. Things are far too complicated now. We can’t pretend to compromise any longer. The services through which we constitute our society and produce our culture are too complex. The range of our personalities is too wide. We know too many people on the borderlines, for whom a lack of the means to compromise is not just a theoretical difficulty, but a threat to their existence. And with little else in the way of “society” left, defending the old roles for any one person to fall back to, there is simply too much at stake.
We need to begin accepting Distributed Personhood now. And what’s more, we need to begin defending Distributed Personhood, and providing solidarity with and amongst other Distributed Personhoods. Unfortunately, this only barely begins with one’s choice of name. DP is less the title at the top of one’s shares, than the frequency and length of one’s shares. DP is the social graph, but also the means by which one builds one’s social graph. It is less the username, and more the UX. It is not the rules that a particular social network decides its users must follow, but the rules by which you decide which social networks you will use, when, and why. We are changing the rules of how we interact with each other as a species, and as such, we must change the rules of how we identify ourselves, as members of the species. Distributed Personhood is this new pattern of identity.
DP is the network itself, insofar as we are using it and continue to use it. It is the ability to outsource one’s identity, to send one’s attention around the world and back, and to work together with someone you will never meet to produce something that will change both your lives. It is the ongoing construction and demolition of the physical technology necessary to make all of this happen. This is a sort of identity for which “form and content” barely even scratches the surface. There is no mind-body dualism here. The elements of society and culture that light up as you network with them are the only constituent pieces of the whole that is you.
The power of a fake name is really no more than the power of a real name. Both of these are erroding fast. A pseudonym does not benevolently grant us individual freedom, any more than any governments’ declaration of rights guarantees justice under the law. Clinging to “public” and “private” to identify, protect, and advance ourselves is like sending thousands of telegrams, desperately hoping that the more we use them, the more someone will be still listening on the other end. If we look at the tools we are already using in front of us, we know that things have changed too far to go back. There are other powers at play here, that will not defend the public, the private, or anything else that benefits us, and it is time we stood up to deal with them. It is time that we, human beings with personalities so distributed, stood up and recognized the amazing power that we have.
Had a dream, or maybe it was one of those odd thoughts that float in during insomnia, the other night about a spectrum system for so-called “blue sky” thinking.
“Blue sky” thinking is basically optimism. Thinking about technology or strategic solutions for their most positive benefits, rather than their negative effects. Those who speculate about the future often are “guilty” of blue skying at one point or another, and in my opinion there’s nothing wrong with this, as long as it can be countered with healthy skepticism at times. If we’re going to try new things, I imagine that we would end up talking about them positively at some point, if we’d like to convince others to join us in the trial.
My insomniac thought was that while we often caveat our ideas or words with the fact that they are at times unabashedly “blue sky”, perhaps we can work some more definition into that admission, to better set up a context of exactly why we’re speaking about something positively, what we might be glossing over by removing ourselves from skepticism for a moment, and what the next critical step is after we get excited.
The idea borrows from the “Green” spectrum popular in discussing environmental thought: light green, dark green, etc. Spectrum-ization is itself perhaps a little bit of a simplicity; obviously much more nuance goes into our thinking about our thinking, than a little bit of left/right compare/contrast. But this is a start.
So here we go:
Talking about devices or strategies that have very useful functions, but their engineering and development is not quite all the way there yet.
Example: electric cars have a near-zero carbon footprint, but their price and lack of a charging infrastructure means they don’t suit the US market quite yet.
Talking about devices or strategies that are fully developed, but their functional value is contextually limited.
Example: ebooks readers are pretty slick. But in the end, it’s just a book that uses up batteries.
Design-fiction in the classic sense. (Are we at a point where there is classic design-fiction?) Devices or strategies that haven’t been developed, so much as theorized. Therefore, their functional pros and cons in actual use are hard to determine, because the theory only defines such pros and cons as it can conceptually invent on the level of that theory. An important distinction is to separate the theory from any actual development, at least on the level of discussing it.
Example: a world full of flying cars has a number of foreseeable pros and cons. Pro: we get everywhere fast, and flying is awesome. Con: collisions would be brutal. (And note that these are separate from the obvious negative that building a flying car is currently technologically difficult.) But once such a world came into existence, there would no doubt be hundreds of other issues that we can’t currently foresee. When American Car Culture was in its height, carbon emissions weren’t on anyone’s radar. No one knew that was even a “thing”. What will Flying Car Culture bring to the fore? What will be the effect on weather? On bird migration? Even if we think open-mindedly, we can’t foresee every potential eventuality. Hence, Translucent Blue Sky thinking.
Talking about existing devices or strategies that have been in the world for so long, their complete functional potential has been channeled into a rut. The systemic pathway is so embedded in our culture, that we’ve erected blinders to the full extent of their potential worth. One might argue that if we only looked at an old idea in a new way, it could be better than a new idea.
Example: Hard to pick an example, because it’s tough to determine what we are under-utilizing. Perhaps the electric car works here as well. We have certain ideas about why electric cars “don’t work”, or what their cons are. Perhaps, however, it is just that we are so set in our notions of how electric cars should work and how they fail, that we’re not able to see the situations in which they would be perfect.
* * * * *
What all of these designations get at is the various ways our positive thinking conceive of the relative use-value of a particular thing, and how this translates into an exchange-value for the idea. When we’re thinking about our ideas themselves, these ideas (separate from the actual things the ideas describe) seem more or less valuable because of how they are depicted. It’s worthwhile to remember that when we judge an idea, we are not just judging what the idea describes, but how the idea itself is presented. Why I think these different spectra for thinking about how we think about our ideas could be important, is that they keep that separation between the idea and the thing it describes in focus. In the same way we give a caveat about thinking positively (e.g. “just a little blue sky spitballing here, but…”) so that we can judge the pros and cons of the idea in context, we can also set up a context of the relationship between use-value and exchange-value of our ideas. (e.g. “I know X has some hurdles to cross, but…” “I know that in the big picture X is relatively not very important, but…” “I know we all know X is a complete fiction at this point, but…” “I know we have some established flaws to idea X, but…)
Of course, muddling around in trying to say exactly what we’re saying while we’re saying it can be confusing or distracting. Sometimes it’s better to just spit it out, or better yet, stop talking about it and just start trying things.
But you have to think about something when you’re trying to sleep, right? :)
In a post on G+, Tim Carmody proposed the notion of a full disclosure for tech journalists including what particular devices/systems they owned and used. For example, if one was writing about Windows, and didn’t actually have a Windows machine, should that be acknowledged?
The brief consensus in the comments was that this information is certainly helpful. I noted that when on a tech forum discussing problems with one’s tech, the first thing you’re asked to do is state the system you’re using to set the context. So shouldn’t this be standard for tech praise or tech criticism as well as tech support?
Justin Pickard brought up the site UsesThis at which influential tech folks are interviewed about their setups for particular tasks. Certainly this counts as an endorsement of some sort. And yet, obviously the reader interested in a particular graphics engine box will be taking these personal choices with a grain of salt. People still have preferences, and no one person’s choice can be said to be the canonical best of all. Every choice has pros and cons, and that what a reviewer hopefully seeks to identify in reviewing a product–saying “this is not simply the best for me, but here are the sorts of tasks it does well or poorly, by which you might make your own decision.” The declaration of one’s own setup is quite subjective, while reviewing intends a sort of objectivity.
And yet, there is more to these alternate points of view. When hearing about someone else’s gear, one doesn’t just take it as a personal endorsement. There is something more dynamic than that. You aren’t just reading someone else’s shopping list, or their wish list in a catalog. You are hearing a narrative about how they’ve solved a particular problem. The choices they’ve made speak to their workflow, and their way of confronting a regular, complex task. It doesn’t represent the best way, or the cheapest way, or the newest way: it speaks to the actual way that something is done.
This is not a narrative of qualitative or quantitative indicators, it is a narrative of praxis. It’s like looking into your grandfather’s tool box, or watching a friend drive. By listing one’s central tools or gear, you are learning about the person as much as their objects, because you are learning about the network of the person, extending outward to their objects.
I’m not a tech reviewer, but I take my gear seriously, and while I don’t fetishize it I select it carefully. So I came up with my own toolbox list, which is now a standard page here on the website, which I’ll update as it changes.
I didn’t list everything I use or own for everything, but I listed the things for which I had a choice, and after some thinking, made that choice carefully. I’m a writer, and a part of my daily work is reading, so I’ve also listed some standard reading sources. This is a potential place for the list to turn into the fetish catalog–it would not be completely inaccurate to list every book I’ve read, or basically add a blog roll or even my Twitter follow list, as these all affect my daily work considerably. But this would be veering towards the Minimalist Lifestyle Design Fetish, which is to make everything one associates with a personal accessory and endorsement. Brand is not an element of praxis. Brand is the total picture–the holistic aesthetic that commodity merchants attempt to sell, because once the brand is sold, accessory products can be shilled with the ease of action-figure play sets. Brand washes over the actual praxis, erasing use-value and replacing it with aesthetic. Aesthetic can be part of praxis, but it is the use of each particular object that defines its part in the network, not the overall image, or the construction of a total lifestyle list. Think of it this way: it would make sense for tool box to contain screwdrivers. And, a person might choose a particular sort of screwdriver, with ratchet grip and selectable tips, if that provides them more utility from time to time. However, it does not make sense for every toolbox to have this particular screwdriver, simply because it is more functional. And furthermore, although one might be able to order this particular screwdriver in custom colors, that is not relevant at all. Praxis extends and networks a certain amount of usage and features in particular devices, in a contingent framework that is developed individually, and uniquely at each occurrence of use. On the other hand, attempting to bind every feature or object together as a single continuum is where the brand develops. The difference between a real life toolbox and the Sharper Image catalog is the difference of steel, grease, plastic, and scuff marks, versus glossy paper, photos, and artful descriptions. It’s the difference between the things you use, and the things someone thinks you should use.
And in the end, this comes back to Tim’s originally raised question. In listing the items in our toolbox, we aren’t only rattling off a list in the effort of full disclosure, description, or identification. We are picking up each of our items individually, and thinking about why and how we use them. Is this a “toolbox” item? How carefully did we consider this object when we brought it into our possession? Would we accept a different tool in its place, or is there something about it that is unique to our relationship with the objects around us? These are questions of praxis, whereas an itemized list is a catalog, or a collector’s checklist. Perhaps reviewing technology as products should be more personal, more practical. But certainly our relationship with our own tools should be.
The hutongs of Beijing are an architectural phenomenon that is quickly dying. In a heavily populated city like Beijing, land, especially uninterrupted spans of land, are the ultimate natural resource. And while hutongs have existed for centuries in their environment, a new rival for the resource has come about: the urban planner. Beijing’s urban planners are making quick work of the hutongs, and by most accounts, they will be gone for good in a short number of years.
The difference between planned urban spaces and unplanned urban spaces, those that are spontaneously created by the total of intangible characteristics we might call “the city itself”, is similar to the difference between a nation and its territory. We like to think, as creatures of rational action, that we control our social terrain as if it were a part of our body. It would be easy to consider the relationship between political discourse and physical reality as a monadic, Enlightenment-era style cogito. However, this is not the truth. The map is not the territory, as the saying goes, and the map makers are even less the terrain, and those who seek to affect the map makers by their will alone a level removed again. The project of planning urban space is fundamentally a colonial one: it seeks to change reality to its benefit by flags and force. While it may succeed, the negative repercussions are legend. Alternatively, there is another urban strategy, that rather than attempting to deliminate the territory into design, finds its method of improvement in a more ecosystemic fashion. Rather than plan the urban space, support the space. In studying “the city itself”, we see that many of the issues that urban planning seeks to change have already been solved, albeit in limited and insecure fashion. The city system already trends towards stability, the key is in finding those trends, and supporting and securing them. As can be seen in the hutong, infrastructure is largely already existent. Rather than tearing them down and building new, supporting and solidifying these systems could be much more practical, as it utilizes the naturally occurring solutions that are already attempting to grow. Urban planning might achieve certain milestones and technical guidelines of improvement quickly, but the unnaturalness of these constructions within the city ecosystem is obvious. The natural aesthetic of “the city itself” is one it achieves by a steady, evolutionary praxis of effective use-value in every day life, and it would be unwise to ignore the method behind these urban strategies. To ignore them, in effect, is to cut down a tree to build and install a wooden sun shade in the same place.
The hutong is basically an alleyway. It is the passage between more major streets, lined with doorways that enter into walled private homes. It is the passage that is created when walled properties leave space between their walls, so that others may pass without entering the private space inside. In Beijing, these alleys become such a crucial urban feature because they are not merely an alternate passage around property, as in the “back alley” feature of North American or European architecture that is a supplement to the main road access, but the only means to access the majority of properties. The hutongs form a web of thin yet densely occurring access routes, a sort of capillary bed to the main veins of roads that are often hundreds of meters off from one’s front door. These main avenues are then perhaps as much of a kilometer from each other, creating thick blocks in between, which are crisscrossed by hutongs. One doesn’t walk through the hutong as an alternative or a short cut across a block, but one must walk through the hutong always, whether one steps out of one’s front door, whether one wants to go to the store, or one wants to go all the way across town.
Perhaps because of the simple ubiquity of these passageways in conjunction with the basic neighborhood building style in Beijing, the hutongs are local centers of street life. As a combination of what someone in North America might think of as the sidewalk or the front yard, the street block, and the local corner, almost every conceivable neighborhood activity takes place in the hutong.
While there are many shops and restaurants on the main avenues, these also exist in the hutongs, extending inward as a convenience to the customers coming from the hutongs, and to take advantage of this locality. These hutong businesses are much smaller in size, often run out of the front of the proprietor’s homes, and extending out into the alleyway to use the space, if available. Not every variety of business is present in the hutong, but the nature of these shops are characteristic of what one might expect to be local and close to people’s physical homes, most catering to home life needs and small, short term purchases. These include restaurants, convenience stores, hardware stores, barbershops, bicycle repair, “dollar” stores (actually, 2 yuan is the price), and even clothing and appliance stores. In some areas, upscale coffee shops, bookstores, and other more luxury goods like electronics are also sold within the hutongs.
Because of the necessity for being out and about in the hutong, either traveling to and from the home or shopping, if not running a business, the hutong becomes a common hangout, and a unique form of public social space, as the overlap between public and private architecture. The proprietors and their friends often have established sitting places outside their businesses, chatting when not serving customers, drinking tea or beer, and smoking cigarettes. It’s common for social games to be played in these resting places, either cards or chess. Children play in the hutong as well, where they are supervised loosely by either particular adults or the general community.
In fact, hutongs are crowded places, as they are also thoroughfares for bicycle and pedestrian traffic, and more often, cars as well, when their owners drive back into the hutong to park their cars at night. But, because of the crowdedness, the narrowness of the streets and the large number of protruding bits of architecture, parked vehicles, and people, the traffic speed is slow, and most blockages are resolved vocally and amicably—which seems to be in the nature of China, which is itself a crowded place.
The infrastructure of the city extends into the hutongs along with the traffic, as there is no other supply route. Water, food, and anything sold in the shops must be carried in to the hutong, most often by bicycle cart, as this is the most efficient means for ferrying heavy things through the twisting, crowded alleys. Bicycle carts deliver milk, mail, newspapers, drinking water (the tapwater isn’t imbibed by locals), beer, dry goods, and even people, occasionally. Telephone, electricity, and now internet extend on wires overhead, and the crowdedness of the hutong is illustrated in some of the creative wiring solutions. Trash and recycling is carted out by bicycle. Security is provided in the hutongs by both local police, whose stations are often placed in the hutongs, and by local security volunteers, who wear a red armband. The ubiquitous closed circuit video cameras of China are also widespread in the hutongs, though in such a number it begs the question who is watching them all, or if their cables even lead anywhere. Public bathrooms are also very common in the hutongs, built by the government and staffed by public employees, to aid in sanitation as indoor plumbing is not always available.
Construction is ongoing in the hutongs. Much of the buildings predate the Chinese Revolution, and were in fact larger homes owned by the rich that were divided up into separate living quarters. In many places, poor repair is obvious. But, along with the walls that are falling down, stacks of new bricks and piles of sand are everywhere. The hutongs are in a rolling state of continual construction it seems, and it is common to be walking down an alley, and enter a construction site without knowing it. In at least one place on every alley, one can see a pile of rubble from walls torn down, a stack of still usable bricks that have been pulled out to be recycled, and a stack of new bricks waiting to join the rebuilt wall. This construction is one reason that very few accurate maps of the hutongs exist. My personal estimate is that Google Maps shows about 70% of the existing hutongs on the closest zoom level. The layout of the hutongs changes, as the walls of the buildings and the property enclosures change. This also gives the hutongs their own character, depending on their location and topology. A more well-known hutong that is very narrow, as close as 40cm wide in some places, was historically used as a banking street—the thought being, if a thief attempted to run with stolen money, they would easily be caught. Conversely, another famous hutong has over fourteen turns in it, and numerous documented muggings have taken place on it, due to its shape. The evolving, changing nature of hutong construction is deeply tied to the ongoing life within it.
However, construction in a larger sense is threatening the hutongs. As Beijing becomes more developed, land is needed for the large construction projects, for the footprint of large skyscrapers and ring roads. I’ve heard estimates that 50% of the hutongs have already been evacuated, condemned, and bulldozed. Perhaps most infamously, the entire footprint of the sports complex for the Beijing Olympics, including the “Bird’s Nest” stadium of which the city is massively proud, such that it has become a symbol of the new Beijing, is built across former hutongs. The people who lived in these areas are moved, most of them to new high-rise apartments, which are growing in number across Beijing. There is not much of an effort to save the hutongs, because the people who live in them are of a lower class, and they normally enjoy a chance to move to a high-rise complex, viewing it as a move up in the social ladder. Some hutongs are considered historical sites, and others have been reformatted into tourist streets rather than actual hutongs. (My personal test is that only “real” hutongs have window repair shops; because tourists don’t purchase windows, regardless of the price.) But preservation of hutongs as living neighborhoods is not a priority.
And as charming as the hutongs can be to the outsider or a guest, they are not ultimately sustainable. With population growth in China as it is, hutongs across Beijing would invite even more massive sprawl than is already existent. Clearly, the city must begin building up in places where it is now only horizontal. However, a high-rise complex seems a poor replacement for the hutongs.
If the hutongs are horizontal construction, the high-rise takes its pattern orthogonally, building completely vertical. They are buildings that stretch upwards, only with as much girth as they can have while still providing windows to the apartments within. They multiply, with any number of towers in place on a particular block, and the land left open below as the common property for the development. What this does is solidify the architecture. While it is possible to modify an alley, an elevator shaft cannot be shifted. After the planning of an apartment block is complete, the architecture will stay as is, and not be changed by its inhabitants. It also changes the infrastructure that supports the people living inside. Because there is not an easy access for deliveries in tall apartment towers, consumables are brought to somewhere at the bottom, and the residents must retrieve them. Restaurants are not allowed among the dwelling units, and so the residents must also go down to find them. The density of the living space means that this tends to support large, centralized supermarkets and restaurants. Utilities, security, and other services are also centralized, and are dependent upon the original plan for the development. In the case of security, a common method of centralization is gates, around the building.
This verticalization leads to a very different sort of public space in the high-rise than in the hutong. Public space is very important to any residential area. As Lewis Stackpole writes in his article considering low-income housing in China:
“Diversity of built space and open space creates a rich social setting, and provides recreational, retail/commercial, and cultural opportunities. All of these play a role in creating a community, economic vitality, and continuity that often is the driving force of any city, town or village, and for the purpose of this article, for any residential compound.” (Stackpole, 73)
However, in a high-rise complex, there is no public space of this kind. There is isolated, dead space. In apartment complexes throughout Beijing, one can see manicured, park-like land, sports equipment in all manner of repair, walls and pathways. But none of them are being utilized, regardless of their condition. There is no driving force to get the people into the space. They have no reason to be there, no reason to stop and linger there, no reason to make the space social, regardless of what the intended plan for the space is. They only use the pathway that leads from the building door, out to the street. The areas around subway entrances, in parking lots that serve as cut-throughs around city blocks (when unoccupied by cars) and the areas outside of restaurants are used as public spaces. The vertical aspect of apartment blocks keeps the flow of people in and out of the building streamlined, and neglects the space around it. As Stackpole continues:
“In order for public space to be successful people must be able to relate to the space: ‘own’ it. Once people become users of the space and start identifying to the space, the ‘space’ slowly becomes a ‘place’. Designers can design the space, the ‘thoughtfulness’ of the design, not design in itself determines the spaces’ success. Design must be adjusted to the local needs; such a design requires a thoughtful understanding of the prospective users—the targeted users.” (Stackpole, 73)
This is impossible with vertical construction. It is planned at the beginning, and from that point forward, the residents can only be tenants. In a hutong, the ownership is immediate, because the lives of the people living in the space intersect automatically. Their activities form a thick web, that augments and informs the architecture, often literally affecting the continual construction always already underway. There is no need to design the public space, as the space has become public by the very designs of that public. What the hutong is, in its very character, is the state of public space making itself manifest via the horizontal.
But as is quite obvious, the hutongs cannot remain as they are. The goal should be, perhaps, rather than to simply replace them with vertical construction, is to augment them, adding a different dimension of horizontality, heading upwards. Rather than plan a new community from scratch, figure out how to support the current community, and direct it to where it needs to be. In reporting on government projects working to improve favelas, Kelly Shannon suggests:
“The innovative aspect of the projects is the fundamental notion that accepts unplanned and informal housing areas as a new form of urban morphology that should not be destroyed but rather changed, improved, and converted into modest, livable neighborhoods. In these programs, the relation of landscape to urbanization was ‘regularized’ by improving inner access-ways and providing services through the widening of roads, environmental intiatives, provision of sanitation, schools and clinics, and focusing on pedestrian flows.” (Shannon, 61)
Hutongs are not nearly favelas; they are in far much better condition than even the improved infrastructure of such impoverished areas. And therefore, they are much easier to continue to improve to suit the city and the residents needs and betterment. Most of the necessary infrastructure is already in place to support the hutongs, they simply need to be densified, to support more inhabitants without stressing the living conditions, while continuing to improve standards of living as the occupants see fit. There are already hints of horizontal architecture in Beijing that is building upward, that should be taken as the model or inspiration. The subway system is a perfect example. Across the city, tunnels are being dug at phenomenal pace to increase the number of lines serving the system. By taking transportation infrastructure off the roads and sending it underground, the ability for people to move horizontally is increased. Surprisingly enough, malls are another point of inspiration. While malls in North America require footprints of many square miles for parking, Chinese malls are quite compact, putting the parking underground, and building the retail space upwards. Within the massive floors of a mall, retail is at its most fluid, architecturally. The space is modular, and the necessary infrastructure is collectivized. Hutongs are, in a sense, residential malls, combining residences, necessary commerce, and socializing into one collective, public neighborhood. To stack hutongs on top of each other, and to preserve the way the social space has already integrated itself while streamlining the infrastructural needs to make the neighborhood more efficient and sustainable seems like a design challenge that could bear magnificent fruit. While on the other hand, building high-rises seems to work in the opposite direction, reducing tenants to an isolated, hamlet sort of life.
These are only ideas, from one Westerner’s reflections upon being introduced to the architectural phenomenon of the hutong. But thinking differently about urban planning, to approach the problem of density with a more open mind than simply thinking, “up”, does not seem so far-fetched. The neighborhoods of Beijing have already organized themselves, and succeeded to create vibrant public spaces in their own way. They are not perfect, and need support to improve themselves further. This support should be provided, so that what already exists can be taken advantage of, and not be thrown away. To build a city, one ought to listen to the city.
“Affordable Housing Programme in China—Opportunity for Landscape Architects to Perfect Public Space Design”, by Lewis Stackpole [Principal of AGER Group], in Landscape Architecture China, Number 16 2011. Translated by Chan Xu.
“Landscapes of Poverty & Infrastructures of Improvement”, by Kelly Shannon, in Landscape Architecture China, Number 16 2011. Translated by Chan Xu.
I just went and beat back the lawn, which was a demeaning and long-overdue task. And one that is fundamentally fruitless at best, because it will only grow back. If I were in charge (I rent, and so am not) I would tear the entire lawn up, and put in a garden, or gravel, or used auto parts, or anything not grass, which I consider a weed for its rate of growth and relative uselessness. But I’m not, and so I slog outside, to cut back the biomass that seeks to encircle the back porch.
Having raked the zen rock garden of that vine-choked lot with a power trimmer, I was able to let loose some of the anger welling up in my spleen from a similarly endless task at which I throw myself time and time again, though not to avoid fines from any rental agreement. I type essay after long essay in Sisyphean exercise, ranting against that which I disagree with, desperately trying, through the pains of logic and theory to beat back that which I find misconstrued, illogical, syllogistic, and wrongheaded. My motivation for this self-inflicted punishment is an imp that gnaws upon the base of my brain. It’s name is truth. Little “t”, of course; it is more yeasty infection than incubus. And yet, it grows. And as it grows, I type.
And I know I ought to quit. I should produce something that gives a bit more joy, that might be received a bit more easily than “reading,” which seems so much like hard work. Why paint a picture too large for most to view it? What good is a six-hour film epic no one will view past the first half an hour? Why pen a book when the readers will wait for the movie, or wait for the two-minute internet video summary, or simply read the title and consider the point absorbed?
Why should I write an article, finely mincing dense philosophical ideas into something the average palette might enjoy with a little open-mindedness, when I still end up with an essay 3500 words long, that being 2000 words longer than the standard piece of intellectual writing on the internet? Not to say that the few hundred page views that it might receive, whether from the number of regular readers or from Google Image Search tourists are not worth nothing. I just know my own choir. And though there is perhaps no greater pleasure than having a conversation between friends, maybe it isn’t necessary to yell so loud, and for so long. But this very dynamic is what brings on the yelling; I’m trying to draw in from the street the people who need to hear this. And so I call to them as they wonder what all the screaming is about, and move a little quicker down the road.
It is that there is not only an infection in my logic brain centers driving me to attempt to express myself in abstract language, it is that there is a desperate need for it in the world. Or so I would tell you. It is that there is such a need to explain the function of the world, and such a small number of good explanations currently accessible. It’s the need for a technical manual, but only having a typewriter cast in unknown script with which to write it. It’s that I could pour all of my skill, my craft, my education, and my talent into an attempt to guide us towards a better interaction with the world around us, and it would still be insufficient. No matter how measured my tone, and how melodious my words, how sharp my rhetoric and how aimed my logic, hitting the brief ring between abstract and obtuse is near impossible. My words either wash away, or are treated as stain. They either become dust, or they gather it.
It would be easy to blame those whom I try to reach. Goodness knows that others have. Nicholas Carr, Martha Nussbaum, and others have railed against the lack of audience for the finer, more delicate arguments and subjects in the world. They preach for what is important, and seems, in light of its recent popular reception, less so. In doing so they are easily mocked for sounding desperate, and for sounding mournful. They sound annoyed that no one is listening to them, and it is easy to reduce their points to that. And in so doing, make the inevitable mocking response flow so much more easily and overwhelmingly of a deluge.
There is nothing that hurts me more than that. It hurts because there is no intellectual response to it. There is no argument that can overcome that, no rebuttal that stands up to it. “I know you are, but what am I.” It makes the intellectual anger rise. It makes the brain wish to ball into a fist.
You’re An Idiot; Release The Kraken.
But I don’t have a Kraken. All I have are more words. All I have is a lawn that keeps growing. And I have this yeasty imp, fueled by the anger-agar that seeps from my optic nerve to the embryonic root of my brain. There it grows, and begins to stink.
Let me share some of this stink with you.
Sanger is correct, but he writes in a way that will obviously offend, and thereby make his point mute (yes, mute, not moot). Not that he oughtn’t to tell it how it is, but using very generic terms like “geek” and “intellectual”, in my opinion, allows more excuses than accusations, because responders quibble and evade on these points, rather than dealing with the root of his argument. The same thing with tossing Higher Education on the table: an entirely different Gordian Knot, that has connecting lines to be sure, and yet isn’t the same problem.
So let me rephrase, or remix if you like, what is basically his argument, but from my own perspective, using words I hope are more helpful.
Here is how I would phrase the problem:
The respect and credence given to technical knowledge and expertise is limited to those technological fields that are capable of producing marketable product.
In a sense, I’ve made the issue much more complicated, because I’ve linked anti-intellectualism to my own brand of technological Marxist critique, which is to splice two very different and equally controversial arguments together. But I believe that it simplifies the issue as well, by pointing at the real determining factor behind what has been largely acknowledged as a changing paradigm of public opinion, but misidentified as everything from “getting stupider” to “intolerance” to “peak attention span”.
It is not that geeks are anti-intelligence. “Geek” now describes wonky, technically-minded folk from every discipline and genre of knowledge you can imagine, from programming language to dead language, to library science, economics, literary theory, medicine, cultural studies, astronomy, and higher level math. Because of the proliferation of these serious lines of inquiry, there has been a Balkanization of knowledge. Geeks are allowed to immerse themselves in the most concentrated areas of their particular field, and can communicate with others as deeply steeped as themselves. Geekdom has allowed knowledge to intensify to previously never before experienced degrees. Everyone has a conference these days.
But what has changed is the intercommunication between the fiefdoms of Geek. Why would you want to share your deep knowledge by making it accessible to those outside the fold, when you can concentrate your efforts among those who know what you’re talking about? And moreover, why would you want to learn about anything you were not already deeply familiar with, and have to once again become a noob, with a user profile page showing to anyone that you have only been a member for a few paltry weeks?
There are exports by the Geek Guilds, to be sure. But these exports are only products. If you can sum your architectural knowledge into a fifteen minute keynote, we can sell that as product. If your astronomical research spanning years can be compiled into an animated video of five minutes or less, that can be uploaded to Youtube. If your philosophical theory can be applied to social media so that pre-conceived understandings of that media are reinforced, then by all means, name-drop and share. But if your work is somehow more nuanced, more difficult to grasp, or more requiring of deep study and understanding to be conceived… well, then forget it. A picture of a kitten is the common denominator of the internet. If it requires more background knowledge to grasp than that, it better pay off in equal magnitude. Otherwise: TL; DR.
The epitome of this tendency is, of course, the Gadget. The Gadget is technology that is in an easily conceivable, direct to market, product package. No one cares how an iPhone works. All that matters is what it does. The Gadget need not even exist in a physical sense. Gadget blogs have made it abundantly clear both in their content and in their form, that all you need is a clean-looking mock-up of the product and a blurb about what it does to garner clicks and re-posts.
But good for the Gadgets! I wouldn’t begrudge them their own domain. That this consumer-tech domain is particular ripe for commodification ought to surprise no one. But, it does attract the ire of Larry Sanger and other confederates towards the technosphere, or whatever the so-called media theorists and technorati would name the disparate amounts of networks and techological infrastructure making up a certain evolving aspect of our culture. As the elements of our society that most easily conform to exportable knowledge-products and aid their outsourcing, marketing, and distribution celebrate their own intellect-economy Golden Age, it only makes sense that those knowledge-guilds that are losing influence as a result would be bitter, and point their privateers towards the flags that spite them.
If the problem was limited to sour grapes, we would be lucky, and we could shrug off this issue as the technosphere does, by hoping that the ease of export of knowledge-products translates into the ease of its manufacture. The world is changing! And with this change, with improved information gadgets including all kinds of features for sharing knowledge-products, everything should be better for intellectuals! Right? Of course, I’m here to tell you no.
What’s more, the manufacture of knowledge-products is the least of our worries. As if the budgetary downfall of NASA only threatened our supply of totally sweet YouTube videos. And it is not the Balkanized guilds I’m worried about either. Luckily, (for the guilds themselves, at any rate) there are more qualified Ph.D graduates out there than there will ever be jobs. There are plenty of knowledgeable, well-trained, motivated people out there willing and ready to further the most diverse aspects of technical knowledge that we can imagine. The Geeks will remain strong, if isolated except by the camel trains of their products, flowing out into the vast market of culture as the commodified demand of curiosity dictates.
The real problem is for people like me.
And here you would be more than welcome to disagree, by arguing that my issues are not a real problem. Perhaps the age of the Renaissance Wo/Man is over, and there is no need to mix and sample different realms of knowledge. Specialization could be the way of the future, and people like me, who made their domain out of the hybridization of different networks of knowledge, are in fact obsolete, no longer bringing any value to the market.
Indeed, we always were a little hard to reach for the average person: specialist or merely part of the common cultural audience. Our references are hard to place, and we leap from metaphor to metaphor as if swinging from the branches of a tree. We make odd, artistic comparisons between the world of art, and microbiology, or computer science, and particle physics. We know enough of the local dialect to get us in the door of the clubhouse, but as soon as we got a few drinks in us, our accents become almost impossible for the locals to decipher. We are untrustworthy, jumping disciplines like ships or trains, never in one place for more than a season, before dropping the work with which we were entrusted for something that, to our former employers, seems no more than a game. Some even suspect us of witchcraft, blending unholy syncretisms of canonical theory with local folk beliefs, chanting in tongues and miming archaic symbols, summoning dead spirits to affect the living, for a cost.
So maybe our time is past. Or, maybe, as Larry Sanger says so ineloquently, if you are opposed to those of us that marry the middle-levels of disciplines together in an obscure blend of unprofitable knowledge muck, then “you are opposed to knowledge as such.” (Emphasis his.) It is not just our jobs that we are worried about, our audiences, and our students (I have none of these things, and so I extrapolate to others’ concerns.) The real danger in our neglect is that we understand, or at least think we understand, how it is that knowledge works.
It isn’t mysticism, and it isn’t ideology. It is the mechanics of knowledge. It is the praxis of knowledge, the infrastructure on the ground. The craftspersonship. You might be a genius of economics, working the markets both micro and macro. But it is on the backs of those experimenting with knowledge, from the sweat of our labors, that the products consumed by culture are derived. I hate to make it into something as abstract as “political”, because it is fiercely more than that. This is how people learn. You don’t learn electronics by using a cell phone. You learn electronics by breaking a cell phone. You learn by mucking about with spare parts and with tools, by fucking up and by taking your time and by pursuing things that don’t make sense to anyone but you. You learn by making “art”, not products. The only thing you can do with products is make money.
Supposedly, this culture privileges creativity. It supports breaking down boundaries, it applauds those who think like children, who set aside “time to play”, who start out with tiny blocks, and build up from there. Our culture privileges this, but only once the IPO hits. Once you’ve demonstrated profitability. They don’t respect the act of play, they respect the product of play. And hence, no one actually understands how to do it. If you think that dropping out of college will make you a genius because a genius dropped out of college, you obviously skipped introductory logic, and never learned what a false syllogism is. People are not smart because of the products that they create. They are smart because they messed around in the creative process long enough that from all that mucking about, a product actually crystallized.
Because very few people will talk about the actual act of being interested in breeding and branching and building with broken knowledge products, it is no longer accorded much value. That value is channeled towards marketable products, and the technological specialty that is believed to have delivered those things immaculately. The person who makes a classic work available as an eBook is considered more of a genius than whomever wrote the words. That person has what we want–the product, not the knowledge. It becomes superfluous to even sit and read the book, because it can be referenced and searched at whim. The book is owned, and in this way it is consumed. And so it never has to be studied.
Here, at somewhere North of 2500 words, I could tell you whom you ought to read. That rather than watching some asshole shill his product in an hour-long self congratulatory “speech”, you ought to read Goethe, Dostoyevsky, Melville, Kierkegaard, Arendt, Kristeva, Marx, and Freud. But what would be the point? These are just products, now. You could download the ebooks. You could even read them. But what would you gain, other than checking off the names that I listed? Would you take from each of these writers, as I did (because I named these authors specifically and not on a whim) that it is not the knowledge you accumulate, but what you do with it? Probably not. That is only my opinion, and probably a cognitive bias echo chamber, as the technorati has so kindly “discovered” for us (though we’ve known that for thousands of years). You would probably take whatever it is you would take from it, and then cross it off your list. And who would I be to blame you?
Because it seems that people of my opinion are few and far between. Perhaps we’re a dying breed, or maybe we were always rare. Maybe we are useless, never being Great Persons of note, or at least never birthing a Great Invention into the world. Who can really say. All I do know, for all of this knowledge I have acquired, is that I can still see the snarls in it; that there are great whorls and vacancies between the so-called markets of the value of knowledge, and we could build something truly wonderful and great in that space, if only we took the time and the effort to see it.
But soon again, it will just be time to cut the grass.
When I crafted a response to design-fiction from the perspective of fiction, I knew there was a good chance I was going to raise some hackles. I had decided to stand behind the line of fiction, and from there, fling over the wall a quasi-action-adventure essay, in which the noble forces of fiction were beset on all sides by the cannibalistic hordes of capitalism and design. All of which makes a good story, and a good missile. But is it correct? Or was I disingenuous, playacting with straw men, lighting off pyrotechnics without warning my audience to the presence of smoke and strobe affects in my performance?
My response was always intended as a first step: the Devil’s Advocate position. A method truly less and less reputable in this era of networked cells of concerted, street-level optimism; something somewhat out of fashion without the old grand narrative to rebel against. And yet, I wanted to turn the tables, and break down some of the current conceptions about what design fiction is, and how it works. Then, with stability shattered, propose the way forward. Which I did, but only at the very end of the essay.
But it seems that was not enough. How could it be? After I stormed in with much light and noise, how could I attempt to redeem myself in a couple of tack-on paragraphs? Could I really just set the cart back on its wheels with a gesture and depart from the room as if nothing was wrong?
The conclusion of the fiction I wrote was that design and fiction ought to work together. They ought to unite their combined mechanisms and critical eyes, and proceed in alliance to creatively map the dense network of technology that defines our present and our path towards the future. In furtherance of that goal, and to not only mend the bridge but build a better one, I wish to explain exactly how it is that design and fiction work as creative acts; and then from this, show how they might work in concert. And so, let us move on from the fiction, and begin the political tract.
The So-Called Imaginary
Time, being the dimension upon which the past and future run their spectrum in either direction from the pivot point of the present, is not an easy tightrope on which to walk. Today our technology is more grandiose, and yet more intricate than ever before in history. Our position as subjects in this time is tentative at best, evolving in tandem and in opposition to the nodes of the technological web of the material world which is always changing, even the most concrete plateaus being only as stable as fluid underneath. But we have the tools to negotiate this. We are the tools to negotiate this. Our sense of history, through which we perceive and interpret the world, is as much the network of time as the tools that built it. We’ve only ever had these tools, and with them in our hands we’ve built the whole thing, as far as we can see. These tools can be used to destroy it, to fix it, to control it, and to build it even bigger.
It is difficult to begin to move forward without assessing where we are now. And it is difficult to say where we stand, without either taking a pithy few examples as the whole, or creating a generic “average” standpoint that doesn’t actually exist: the well known fictional format I like so much. But the state of things is difficulty, and it can’t be avoided. As such, I wish to imagine an average description of the popular way we might construe the current cultural state of affairs and our historical matrix: the so-called, the Imaginary.
The Imaginary as a proper noun was most notably formulated by Lacan, as a domain of his psychoanalytic theory. The Imaginary is a ghostly realm, the place of dream, imagination, and image, set apart from the language and logic we might use to describe such things. It is differentiated from the Symbolic domain of signification; the logical structure of language that organizes, compartmentalizes, and gives form to the Imaginary. The Symbolic is the means by which we express things, but the Imaginary is the font from which ideas well.
This structural differentiation will no doubt sound familiar to many, as it is a common schema found in various philosophical theories of the Twentieth Century, with precursors extending back to Classical Philosophy. It is two-part: there is the firm, formal plumbing of the Symbolic, and there is the Imaginary flux within that conduit. The structuralist metaphor fits bipartite imagery according to a number of metaphors, rendering it to our understanding quite easily.
And accordingly, we apply this metaphor to understand our technological invention. In fact, all creative disciplines are usually explained this way. That there is a flitting dream-world of ideas half-formed and interconnected from which we draw inspiration and shape this raw, creative material into actual invention seems not only mythologically relevant, but appealing to our sense of agency. Be it on the lips of the muse, through the mystic gnosis of juxtaposition and suggestion, or only as result of hard monastic study and meditation, our common understanding of the act of creation seems to fit to this notion of “channeling”. From the Imaginary to the Symbolic, we build ideas out into reality.
by Flickr user Glasseyes View
The Biologic Field of Cultural Objects
Unfortunately, this mythos does not bear scrutiny. There is an imaginary field of material that we access, but it is more real than this nebulous domain. If it was more ethereal, shrouded in the fog of sub-conscious and hidden within the dungeons of memory, it would be comfortably distant. It would be something we would not have to be acquainted with directly. And yet we regularly visit it for supplies, with the pedestrian ease of the massive suburban grocery outlet. It is a myth to think that it is both of the ethereally-beyond and simultaneously in each of our grasps. Perhaps similar, in this way, to the realities of the mega-store, disavowed by the average consumer more interested in a convenient bargain than in the dirty, often tragic mechanisms of world trade. The facts are blurred by the Imaginary, conveniently forgotten, and no less uncomfortably present when we finally clear away those metaphor-implied clouds.
If it were somehow inaccessible, we wouldn’t be responsible for an ethical relationship between ourselves and our creative raw materials. We could extract from the Imaginary at will, as if it were an endless supply, some sort of water from the rock. As a different dimension from reality, the Imaginary cannot be causally linked to reality. There is no measurable ecosystem between the Imaginary and reality. Even if one were to acknowledge they were connected, how can you begin to map the transversal connections if one half of the terrain remains obscured and conveniently unconscious? Our diagrams of the Imaginary rely on weak notions of spontaneous creativity, mythic inspiration, and the heavenly-dictate of random association. But there are real mechanisms at play in the field of “where ideas come from”, and we can’t overlook them.
This milieu from which ideas are drawn, call it an Imaginary or whatever you like, is quite real and close at hand. It is the field of Culture Objects: the pieces of media, story threads, narrative concepts, and instances of human desire that have been crystallized into that which we consume when we consume culture. There is nothing imaginary about them. They are as real as our books, music, film, art, technology, food, and everything else that we have glossed with meaning in our significant world. Naturally, their borders and divisions are in a sort of sublime flux, and that makes it difficult to apprehend them as objects. Is the folio Hamlet, by Shakespeare, reducible to the narrative of a son-murdering-his-adoptive-father? Or is that merely a major theme of that work? Or is it only an archetype found in Hamlet, among other many other instances? Is a snatch of melody a Culture Object? What about a chord? How about a particular tempo? At what point do we recognize something as an original work, a derivative work, an influence, a reference, or something related on so small as to be comparatively inconsequential for the purposes of cultural analysis? Rather than worry ourselves about the difficulty of analyzing and separating the complex web of Cultural Objects in play within our creative system, it is much easier to write it off as simply Imaginary. The fluid dynamics necessary to appreciate blowing smoke or murky water are easy, compared to the relativistic perspectives we must use order to perceive the multiplicitous nodes of the field of Cultural Objects. We are on the level of cultural biology, here. You look at a desert, and you see Nature. But describe what it is that you call Nature, and you see rocks, woody plants, succulents, the occasional animal hiding from the sun in the rocks. But look closer–inside those plants are insects evolved to live only in that one particular place. Creatures that look different than those anywhere else, in any other desert. And between the grains of sand: near-invisible lichens and bacteria, clinging to life and each other. The very sand of the desert is alive. Where do the bounds of biology fall? Like Cultural Objects, everywhere and nowhere. As a complex system, the field of Cultural Objects is far more complicated the Symbolic we so egotistically claim to master, and the Imaginary we tithe to heaven.
If we understand the Biologic field of Cultural Objects as being quite nodal, capable of complex evolution and yet simultaneously beholden to the present, we can begin to analyze how our present creativity might be able to transcend the present. We can begin to identify “The Future” more clearly. Within an Imaginary, The Future is desperately useless, as an undifferentiated blob of characteristics. But in the field of Cultural Objects, The Future is a critical, analytical technique.
If we believe that ideas are drawn from an Imaginary, a magically adjacent dimension to ours, then The Future becomes equally separate from our world. Mystically distinct from reality, we are unable to fully seize grasp of what The Future is, other than to call it out when we see it, with all the immaculate criticism inherent in a dowsing rod. If we make fiction, design, or any other creative product inspired by/for a vision of The Future, and that future is drawn from an Imaginary, where else is it coming from but out of that fog, with no bounds, no definition? “Forward-leaning” is no more a point of reference than “dream-inspired”.
It isn’t easy to isolate exactly where The Future exists in the field of Cultural Objects, but at least we have something to study, and a point from which to proceed. The Future can be a genre, much like variously distinguished classifications of historical fiction. The Future has the characteristics of seeming to be what is temporally oncoming based on our understanding of history: “the shape of things we believe are to come”. Much like electronic music, that seeks to express its creativity in terms of an generally recognized aesthetic, implied by the particular means of its creation: “the aesthetic of what sounds electronically generated”. Like desert fauna, biologically determined by a host of factors supporting the line between its life and its extinction: “the sort of animals that live in a desert without dying”. It is a pattern that we generate ourselves, pushing it out in front of us, calling it out ahead of us in our imagination, until we no longer are able to see it repeated any longer. We don’t know everything about this pattern and the means of its creation, but we know much more than we do about a perceived Imaginary, in which things move about like sprites, without systematic interaction.
The Future, in the sense of its most critical self-conscious expression regarding the things of its genre, is a critical-eye with a notion of the passage of time, and therefore not only is the aesthetic of the shape of things to come, but the means by which we understand how we recognize the shape of things to come, from amid the field of Cultural Objects. This is what we’d like to think of as Futurism, at least in its modern incarnation. It is not a holistic ethos pulled from the depths of the mind, or a merely aesthetic eye, but a way of reading, manipulating, and relating to objects on the ground, and the tools at hand. Within the genre, it is an understanding of how that genre works. It isn’t enough to create something that might exist. One must simultaneously think about why and how it might exist. Otherwise, it is merely repetition of certain cultural indicators. To speak of wireless because other instances of The Future contain wireless technology, or to consider augmentation of reality because other Future Cultural Objects might augment reality. The Future lends itself towards critical expression, because its pattern is one of constant re-definition by inventive creation, and not merely mimicry. In this way, The Future is distinctly in the present, because it must be as self-conscious of its current genre in order to patently adopt its future-tense. It’s mechanism is to functionally inseminate the present with the possible, and so it must be the technician of the relationship between these things. This is its functional operation, and is the mechanical means of the reprinting of its pattern.
The Future, insofar as it can be conceived and molded into Cultural Objects, already exists. The notion of the presence of historical objects deeply networked within our current apprehension of what is “now” has been referred to as “atemporality”. The meaning is the same. Historicity is genre. Objects create their timeliness in situ, among a network of similar objects, a pattern of the genre relevant and interconnected to a certain period of time. But this genre is always already reinterpreted in terms of the present as it is recognized. To see “old”, we must understand “new”. The ability to perceive history as being historical is dependent upon a headspace firmly grounded in the continuum of temporality, the ability to think relativistically about historicity and temporality, and the critical perspective necessary to project oneself in mechanistic concert with the functional systems that evolve over the passage of that dimension t. A tall order, to be sure.
This relevatory atemporality, the biologic field of Cultural Objects, the cease-and-desist order towards the Imaginary: it’s not just a fancy existential perspective or a genre of philosophical terminology. It is a philosophical idea, to be sure; but it is part of our evolution towards an ethics of a post-moral world. Making the sort of shift necessary to push The Future beyond an aesthetic genre and into a critical perspective is not just an thinking exercise, but a crucial mentality for any creator, in the absence of other ethical guidelines.
Morality is a many-storied discipline in and of itself, and so I’ll have to reduce and concentrate the concept as I did with that of the Imaginary. We understand the principle–a guide and assessment strategy for human action. Whether justified by philosophy, theology, humanism, or other constituent articles, we come up with a plan for interpreting good actions and bad actions in reference to a judged spectrum of general good.
Short-cutting my way out of rehashing the entirety of Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals, let me just say that there are some issues with a morality that breaks down the entirety of human action into the twin poles of good and bad. The world is complex, and we end up with a spectrum of good/bad, that has points marked out for ends-justifying-means, necessary-evils, greater-goods, and a host of other qualifiers that make the distinction between good and bad so relative as to make the distinction near useless on a daily basis. Attempts have been made to soldier on without losing sleep over this issue (notably, neoliberalism) but that… well, is a subject for another essay.
But ethics, as an alternate guide for assessment divorceable from morality, remains usable. An ethical system could rely on morality, but does not need to do so. It merely establishes a point of reference as its judgement schema. “Good”, perhaps most generally, but alternately “success”, “civil society”, “sportsmanship”, or “business” would work, to list a few examples. It arranges a pattern of action and assessment in furtherance of a more specific reference point than a general morality. One might consider it utilitarian, but the utility is merely a different orientation than an indefinable “general good”. Accordingly, an ethics can align the assessment towards a terrain that still has purchase, in the void of absolute right and wrong. Our interest in ethics then, in wake of my castigation of concepts like the Imaginary, should be obvious.
Supply and Demand
The ethics of creativity haven’t aligned according to “absolute good” in some time (though some proponents of an ethereal Imaginary speak as if it did), but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its own poles. Currently, in most of the world, the values that sway the ethics of creativity are effectively market-based. We assess our creations and alter our creativity process according to the reference point of demand.
It’s easy to understand why. Creativity, for all of its noble features, is dependent upon economic support. And we’re not just talking publisher’s advances, royalty checks, production costs, and the other financial forces that play into the creation of Cultural Objects. Economy includes the household-totalling of many push-pull factors in addition to finances. There is an economy of creativity based on the use-value of Cultural Objects, separate from their exchange-value and any potential for capitalistic profit and loss. One can create anything that one wants to make; but if one wants to make “something”, it better be something that someone wants. The market can be as small or as large as we choose, but there must be a supply and demand market structure within it for the product of creativity to be said to exist. Creative production is merely idle work that cannot make a product, unless that product is consumed. The interests of one person act as a pull on the creativity of another. As the fruit of human expression, a Cultural Object expresses nothing unless it expresses it to someone. Even if the creator creates only for him/herself, it still satisfies that desire in order to take place.
The creator imagines, through his/her own apprehension of the complex network of Cultural Objects and the desires and feelings connecting them, a potential demand for an envisioned Object that solidifies as an idea, then which congeals via his/her labor into the actual Object: the work of art, literature, music, or whatever it is. Causality is not implied, and doesn’t have to be. The link between the supply and the demand happens from both sides simultaneously and connects both nodes into a unit at once. It is a continuum between the creator who didn’t necessarily know s/he had anything to sell, and the consumer who didn’t know s/he had any desire to buy, until they meet up one day and at the same time begin to make an offer, in a suddenly networked transaction. The cost of the transaction is also moot, and quite likely, the exchange is not made in terms of anything like currency. What is important is that the Cultural Object is given over from the creator to the consumer because the creator was able to create and the consumer was ready to consume, and it is by this relationship that the Object can come about.
If the goal is to make Cultural Objects, the goal is to find demand, and connect it with the supply. We are all “middlemen” in the field of Cultural Objects, making connections between nodes, trafficking in flows–in the same way that every organism is in a sense a symbiont, in that through its biologic transactions of all kinds with other organisms, they all constitutes the ecosystem together. More connections between supply and demand engender more Cultural Objects. We continue to create and consume, and this ethic of demand, as a pattern guiding and assessing action, furthers itself, as life begets life.
via Flickr user lifeontheedge
The Obsolete and the Profitable
But on top of this general ethic of supply and demand, additionally ethic layers can be stacked like architectural vellum, shifting the meaning of the layers below. Perhaps just as natural as the desire to create, is the urge to profit. Capitalism, for better or for worse, is a fundamental ethical perspective coloring all of our actions, whether we like it or not. Enter the agents, the managers, the marketers, the gallery owners, the publishers, the retailers, the factory owners, the advertisers, and so on and so forth. In addition to guiding the flows of supply and demand to connect the nodes, they seek to extract surplus-value from these connections, by way of reprogramming the connections in a profitable way.
The “profitable”, then, is not only a connection that is demanded, but demanded with a certain furiousness. Capitalism must seek relentless profit-taking for the foreseeable future. Capitalism has long understood the concept of atemporality. There is no such thing as “new” or “old” outside of a relative judgment–instead, the ethic directs itself based on only what is profitable. And profitable doesn’t merely mean “profitable today”, but also “still profitable”, or “potentially profitable tomorrow”. Capitalism, as the ultimate ethical regime, seeks to reduce all other means of understanding systems to its own. Time, space, goodness, creativity: all of these are redefined in terms of their usefulness in extracting and channeling flows of capital. It could be a fad, a trend, a vintage, a reboot, a retro, or whatever you want to call it. To Capital, it is only profitable or it is not profitable.
Profitability, not unlike a certain abstracted genre of The Future in the sense of the Imaginary as already discussed, is self-servingly forward-leaning. One counts the profit one makes today, but plans for the profit to be taken tomorrow. The more critical aspect of The Future in the sense of the field of Cultural Objects, and its self-consciousness and the groundedness of it as a worldview, is dangerous to Capitalism unless reduced to merely the ethic of profitability: also known as “feasibility”. The sort of historical truths and radical potentialities that critical Futurism concerns itself with, such as climate change, social unrest, democracy, radical economic or political structures, personal freedoms (just to pick a few from the bag) are distractions from the overarching ethic of Capitalism. Any sort of critical break with the current systematic support, empowerment, and ethical justification of Capitalism are dangerous and potentially costly if they are allowed to occur, in that they might interfere with profitability: the bottom line. The goal is to replicate the profitable Cultural Objects of today, and anticipate those that will make money tomorrow. The goal is forward; while change, or a more specific critical analysis of historical systems, is not. Minimizing change for the foreseeable future in order to reap a steady curve of return is what the flows of Capital specialize at doing.
The opposite of “Profitable” in the Capitalist ethic is “Obsolete”. Obsolete is what used to be profitable, but no longer is. There could very well be a demand for that particular Cultural Object, but because there is way to seriously profit from that demand, it has no use for Capitalism. The LP album is the perfect example. The CD made the LP obsolete. But it never reduced the LPs use-value. It only provided an alternate, “better” use-value from the perspective of the capitalist ethic, in that it could sell itself as an improvement. LPs continued to play music just as well as they always did. But, because there was a better product in terms of the Capitalist ethic, they were officially labeled Obsolete. LPs continued to be bought, sold, created, and played. Until then one day, Capitalism had a change of heart. The system “noticed”, as it were, that despite being obsolete, LPs were still selling. And so, the technology was de-Obsoleted. LPs are now legitimate commodities once again, having reattained their position within the Capitalist ethic as Profitable. All of which would be extraordinarily surprising to the LP, if it was the sort of thing that could be surprised. It has not changed much over the course of twenty years of being Obsolete, rotating at thirty-three and a third revolutions per minute, in a similar stoic nature to the turning earth.
There is nothing wrong with making money on its face. Selling something is merely to participate in the exchange between the supply and the demand, trading value for value. But when there is a way of viewing the world and systematically understanding one’s actions that involves the flattening and reduction of all other ethics towards maximizing the flow of profit, such that the goal is to extract as much surplus-value as possible from the work of others… well, it would seem that there is a untenable situation for the long term. Legitimate use-value of the field of Cultural Objects, among a number of other important ethical considerations, takes a back seat, if isn’t run over in the middle of the road. In biologic terms, the Capitalist ethic is an invasive species: a predatory pattern that is overwhelming the rest of the ecosystem.
The Praxis of Fiction
So we take our critical-eye off the The Future as genre, and look into the atemporal distance all around us to study the mechanics and economics of creativity, rather than to simply reproduce its product. We stand up on the Biologic field of Cultural Objects, and see what is going on underneath our feet. We make our ethic firmly in terms of supply and demand as befitting our nodal networks, rather than per abstract regimes of profit and loss. We have an existential metaphysics, a politics, and an ethics. So what is it that we are going to make?
We each have our art form, our preferred medium, our home discipline, our comfortable home workshop, with our well-worn set of tools. Surely we won’t be straying too far from these. These are, after all, a fundamental element of our milieu, reference points and instruments across our own topology of the field of Cultural Objects. These constitute our praxis: our means of production, through which we engage in the market of ideas and objects with our audiences, our contemporaries, with the supply and the demand of the arena of creative human endeavor.
But is there ever a time in which it is not useful to re-evaluate, to re-strategize, to re-assess the situation on the ground, and to improve upon the plan? The praxis is always changing; the ecosystem is always evolving; the demands of our world always adjust; the terrain is always shifting and having to be re-mapped.
The map is fiction–or rather, fiction is what we draw, in attempting to map it. But we can only keep track of our creative motion insofar as we can conceive it as space. The field of creativity is our desert, which we were born to survive within. It is our ecosystem. Fiction, as the combined topology of our Cultural Objects, is the means and mechanisms by which we supply the demand of our imagination and fantasies. It is not separate from design, any more than design is separate from the world. Fiction and design are resolutely material in that they relate directly to reality, even when they momentarily retreat to the depths of our imagination. We dream in terms of the world around us, and we set our sights on what can be potentially achieved in a future connected to today.
Whether the art form is design, literature, or anything else, the praxis is the crucial test of whether we can best connect the nodes of supply and demand, for our own critical vision of the future, rather than regimes that would force us back onto the autopilot of the genre-fied Imaginary. What can we best do with our tools, that can find a place in the reality of the field of Cultural Objects? How do we already fit into the flows? What sort of creatures are we, and what sort of ecosystem is it that we inhabit? Who else lives here, and what do they eat? We must sharpen the ethical scalpel, while at the same time broadening the critical lens. These are metaphorical descriptions of creative practices, but they constitute our reality no less than any of these. We must consider the form of creativity as the means of an ecosystem, directing the flows between the nodes of means, material, ourselves, our audience, and each other: because it is. We need to stop creating products, and start evolving worlds. Because these worlds already exist.