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.
If I tried to combine every thought that came in my head while watching this video into a coherent essay, I would have something book length, so instead, I’m just going to spit it out.
Wow. Mind blown.
First of all, great job, Grand Rapids. Sincerely. The city put together a mammoth effort, even without the help of Kickstarter, and came up with an Internet video that was not only successful, but put others in the category to shame. I tend to think with art of a more casual sort, if you don’t have a concept that in itself is necessarily going to knock it out of the park, at least go big on the effort. Done and done.
And in throwing their hat into the meme, white America reminds the internet that it exists. The internet is not just pro-democracy fronts and third-world music blogs, folks! It is possible to have a good old fashioned Main Street parade online. No taco truck reviews, no workers’ rights, no sex, no militant screen printing hacker collectives. Football, American made cars, and, well, apple pie.
I don’t say this simply to be facetious. Main Street America does exist, and it would only be a publication as idiotically outdated as Newsweek, (see link for back story on that) who thinks that it is somehow more an arbiter of taste, more up with the times and pace of the internet than a city on a river in Michigan. All those “real Americans” you saw in the video have Internet connections, and you better believe they cancelled their subscriptions to Newsweek, if they even had any.
And isn’t it somewhat refreshing, to see the meme of America rescued from hate-filled invective, pulled out of the politics for one minute, to mug for the camera in a way that makes us seem welcome in “real America” once again; to make Chambers of Commerce look like nice community organizations, rather than the money behind union crushing, the propping up of corporate property rights, and anti-gay legislation? I mean, it is almost enough to make me forget the experiences I’ve had being called “fag” while crossing Main Street, USA, and make me think about living in the Midwest again. Almost.
Not that any of these nice folks in Grand Rapids would do something like that. They all look like nice people, with nice lives. And with the sort of effort necessary to put a project like this together, the goodwill and support for the community provided by local businesses, lawmakers, and everyday people alike, they might have a different sort of town that defies the norm, where people band together and form a community, indeed, the only thing that’s ever formed community, unlike many so-called defenses of “family, community, and small business”.
And so I wonder if, after raising $40,000 to make this video, the next weekend they all got together to put in bike lanes. Or to build low income housing. I just wonder, I don’t mean to imply that they should have done this instead. They can do whatever they like with their time, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with making a video, any more than there is anything wrong with putting in a statue of Robocop, as elsewhere in Michigan. But a community is defined by what they choose to do with their community. And a definition is not only what is said, but also what is not said. This might be the cornerstone of self-expression, whether you are a city or a person, or any other entity.
This juxtaposition between the little that is said and the lot that isn’t said is not an accusation in my mind, but when I watch two videos back to back (as the vicissitude of the Internet decided for me), the question is automatically posed. And what is the question, anyway? I’m not entirely sure. But when there’s a nice singalong going on in the streets of one town, when somewhere across the world there are beatings and worse going on in the streets of another town, there should be a question asked, shouldn’t there? Even if we can’t quite bring it to our lips.
I wonder if, maybe not unlike in the classic song Grand Rapids decided to sing, this video could be the moment that something died. Not in a fiery plane crash, of course. But in the sense that when something is memorialized, it in its reality is somewhat ceased. You don’t plant a gravestone for something that is still living. Don McLean reacting to the 60s with nostalgia for something that people wanted to believe still existed, even though that sort of Americana was now a ghost. The ghost of Main Street America, in a world of Tahrir squares. And yet they can still sing this song, with help from their platinum sponsors. That’s something, right? Isn’t it? To whom?
Lastly, in a fit of SF splendor, I imagine this clip resurfacing after a number of years, and discovered by some disaffected youth, longing for the way the continent “used to be”. In a saga reminiscent of Damnation Alley, they set off across whatever this terrain will look like then, attempting to find the promised land of Grand Rapids. What is it that they will find? Probably not radioactive, mutated cockroaches. But other than that, I can’t say that I know with certainly in any direction.
Sony’s servers were hacked, and credit card information for some millions and millions of users was exposed. According to this article, a DDoS attack took security attention away from… a unknown previously known vulnerability?
So how did the attackers gain entrance? Around two weeks ago, Sony was defending itself against constant denial of service attacks, and it seems the entirety of their online team was busy dealing with that threat.
“Detection was difficult because of the sheer sophistication of the intrusion,” Sony wrote in the letter. “Second, detection was difficult because the criminal hackers exploited a system software vulnerability.” A company executive had previously stated that the hacker gained entrance through a “known vulnerability” that the company was unaware of. Sony also claims that because its team was so busy defending against the denial of service attacks, detection of the hack was even more difficult. Sony claimed that this was “perhaps by design.”
Okay. But that is not all. Sony also claims to have found a smoking… well, not a gun, so much as a business card.
Sony also claimed it found a files on its server named “Anonymous,” with the text “We are Legion.” The document also places the blame of the denial of service attacks directly on Anonymous.
The ludicrousness of this claim is also the basis for its complete possibility of being true. Anonymous is anyone who claims to be Anonymous for any purpose, unless Anonymous claims that someone claiming to be Anonymous was not Anonymous. Both parties of which could be anyone, of course. While incredibly unlikely that a banner most often used for pro-democratic and free speech hacking activities would be waved by data thieves, it is also entirely possible, because, the nature of that banner is that it can be held by anyone. Except, that it is equally suspicious that such a banner, specifically called “Anonymous” and championed for this unique group-subjectivity under which anyone can feel free to speak as part-leader, would be purposefully chosen as ideological-zombie for a false flag attack, because they might as well have chosen the name “John Doe”, for all the malicious effect this will have for anyone actually named John Doe, or any claim to political purpose such a circumspect name might imply. It is is absolutely as equally likely that someone would actually attack Sony under the guise of Anonymous, as attack Sony under the fake guise of Anonymous.
All of this, of course, depends on the assumption that Sony really did find a business card of Anonymous on their servers. Which, of course, is probably about as equally possibly true as possibly not true.
by Flicker user Anynonymoose
To sum, let’s review the equal possibilities:
1) Anonymous attacked Sony and stole data
2) Anonymous did not attack Sony and steal data
3) Someone claiming to be Anonymous attacked Sony and stole data
4) Someone claiming to be Anonymous did not attack Sony and steal data
5) Anonymous attacked Sony while someone else who was not Anonymous stole data
6) Anonymous attacked Sony while someone else claiming to be Anonymous stole data
7) Anonymous attacked Sony while other Anonymouses stole data
I think that exhausts all possibilities. But, I logically conclude that every single one of these possibilities is true. What we know for sure is that Sony was attacked, and then that data was stolen. Because of the unique nature of the status/banner known as Anonymous, as soon as the name “Anonymous” is mentioned, we must assume that Anonymous was involved, was not involved, was fake-involved so as to be a patsy, and that more than one particular instance of Anonymous was involved/not involved. The invocation of the name of “Anonymous” is akin to “The Game”: the point of which is to win, by not being the first to mention the existence of The Game, and thereby losing The Game. The similar paradox is that by using the name Anonymous as a subject responsible for a verb, Anonymous is suddenly involved in the action, explicitly not-involved, maliciously and falsely implicated as being involved, and split into two or more facets that are involved/non-involved. The unique constitution of this non-organization lays bare the philosophical implication of the word “anonymous” (lower-case), and by giving this philosophical non-subjectivity a face (as it were), radically gives this disorienting effect of real anonymity a place in the world. And also a non-place, if you get my meaning. Anonymous might be the most existentially interesting subjectivity position/non-position since the theory of the unconscious. Before the theory of the unconscious, thoughts in our mind that were not consciously available to our mind were emotions, demons, or alien intrusion. But by popularizing the idea of a non-conscious realm of thought, we can have unconscious thoughts, which are thoughts/non-thoughts to the conscious part of our mind that we recognize as ourselves. Similarly, by invoking Anonymous, we have subjects who are simultaneously non-subjects, fake-subjects, and multi-subjects. Anonymous is the un-ego to the ego, and simply by speaking its name, it can create these doubles, fissures, inverses, and multiplicities.
But, we should hardly expect the media to be ready to grip this complicated state of affairs. Note the title of the Ars Electronica article from which come my block-quotes: “Sony: Anonymous provided cover for PSN attack.” While the headline is phrased to make it clear enough that this is Sony’s contention and not fact, it does not allow for the host of simultaneously contradictory and yet accurate possibilities that are immediately implied by such a statement. What is sure is that someone attacked Sony, and someone stole data. Sony, and by extension, this media outlet, have found whom they will blame. A person named No One. If this is a sign of things to come, in a time when Anonymous is a new subjectivity position now technologically able to exist, (and I believe it is) this is not the first crime that we will find No One at least partially responsible for.
Perhaps it is also not insignificant than Osama bin Laden, as public enemy number one, is now a dead letter (excuse the awful pun). Perhaps the whole left by the disappearance of this negative, will find its new subject in Anonymous. The age of Anonymous-Humanism: a time when we hunt No One, and by extension, Everyone.
The B.s, who only came up to London a few weeks ago and have seen nothing of the blitz, say that they find Londoners very much changed, everyone very hysterical, talking in much louder tones, etc., etc. If this is so, it is something that happens gradually and that one does not notice while in the middle of it, as with the growth of a child. The only change I have definitely noticed since the air-raids began is that people are much more ready to speak to strangers in the street. . . . The Tube stations don’t now stink to any extent, the new metal bunks are quite good, and the people one sees there are reasonably well found as to bedding and seem contented and normal in all ways – but this just what disquiets me. What is one to think of people who go on living this subhuman life night after night for months, including periods of a week or more when no aeroplane has come near London? . . . It is appalling to see children still in all the Tube stations, taking it all for granted and having great fun riding round and round the Inner Circle. A little while back D. J. was coming to London from Cheltenham, and in the train was a young woman with her two children who had been evacuated to somewhere in the West Country and whom she was now bringing back. As the train neared London an air-raid began and the woman spent the rest of the journey in tears. What had decided her to come back was the fact that at that time there had been no raid on London for a week or more, and so she had concluded that “it was all right now”. What is one to think of the mentality of such people?
When one suggests that SF involving people living underground in tubes because they fear an unspecified danger above ground is unrealistic, I suppose that we should remember that of all the horrible things we could possibly think of to do to other people, someone has already thought of, and most likely, done so.
There are the things you think about, and then there are the things you feel. I’d put sex in the category of things that we think about. Sure, we feel a great many things about sex. There are entire realms of feeling beneath the cogent level, and no doubt these deep veins of strata, containing everything from repressed childhood memories to ideas repressed for proprieties’ sake, to the deeper machines actually controlling how our minds work, would be illuminating if we could mine them up, process them, and use them to drive the turbines and engines of our conscious thought. But there is so much of it up here on the surface already that digging below the awareness’ permafrost is more effort than necessary for most of us. We already are thinking about sex all the time, so why find more sex to think about? Our brains are so polluted with the raw material of sex, sometimes it’s a wonder that we can ever think about anything else.
And yet we do. We think about impossibly vast, diverse networks of things. We think about the course our lives ought to take. We think about the many distances separating us from the rest of the things in the world which we are always navigating, seeking to increase and decrease the distance between particular objects and ourselves. We think about what things mean, and how the way we find things in the world changes what they might mean. As if we could ever know. And then we share these ideas with other people.
And then there are the things we feel. These things. Emotions we call them, at least when we can identify them. We’re all a bit more emo than we’d like to be. We feel these things cropping up at the worst possible moment. When having an argument with a lover. When being screamed at by a stranger in the street for no apparent reason. When your boss tells you something only an idiot would need to hear and only something an idiot would say. For the third time that day. And you just sit and listen to it. What would you different if not for emotion? Would you simply tell him or her to fuck off? Or would you not need to say anything at all? There’s absolutely no way to tell.
It’s not all as bad as that though. There are the good emotions too. I don’t need to run through them for you, because there is no need to stew over good emotions. We bask in the sunshine, and we huddle indoors and moan about the rain. We have no problem thinking about nothing when all is well, adopting a zen-like pacifivity to that which we would not seek to change. But we start sharpening knives when things go poorly. We develop a legal suit to indict the entire court of universal fairness. We brood, and write manifestos on the walls of our mental cell, and each trickle of rain water running down the wall is a personal insult and attack upon us.
And then one day it rains fire.
Lots of names for this. Anger. Hate. Terror. Fear. Like ember, like flame, like heat, like smoke. Metaphors and categories. Theories and hierarchies. Cause and effect. Thermodynamics. It’s part of the structure of our psyche’s physics. It’s always been here, and it always will be. Homes burn down every day. Bad wiring in a cheap appliance. Candle left by the bathtub. Dirty flue. Used water on a grease fire. Struck by lightning. Smoking in bed.
And this says nothing of the fires that are set by purpose. A crime with many rationales, and yet one name dedicated to the method. Arson. Maybe for money, maybe for love, maybe for hate itself. Maybe just for fire. To watch the flames consume. To see the historical process writ large in light, the entire life and death of a structure compressed into an hour or two, maybe less. With the lives of humans inside the structure too, maybe. At high enough temperatures, everything burns the same. Breaking down into it’s components, releasing gases, converting molecules into simpler forms. But once you reach much higher temperatures, the process reverses. In the sun, fission turns to fusion, and things get bigger again. Relatively.
And so what does this mean for you? What is the layperson to take from such exhibits? Sure, we can be aware of hydrogen fusion, but on a daily basis, what is the point? Well, it only matters twice a day. When the sun comes up in the morning, and when it goes down at night. These are the transition points, at which we notice, no matter how we try to ignore it, that another day has begun or is ending, during which brief and arbitrary but endlessly repeating period of time, the sun will not crash into the earth. The truly amazing fact of human civilization is that all of the incredibly flammable shit we have built all over the face of the earth is most of the time not on fire. We are more often than not, not rioting, not screaming in panic, not torching the homes of the people we hate, and not burning the evidence of what we refuse to believe in. This is spectacular. It is miraculous. A species capable of so much destruction, fighting daily against the flow of hormones and the fire of synapses within their complicated nervous and endocrine systems that they do not understand, and for whatever reason, and mostly it seems in a complete lack of reason, finding something to distract themselves, something to think about, so that they do not exercise this power. They–we–keep building. We make things more flammable by the minute. We stack up fuel, and we let it dry out. We build our houses bigger, and our cities more tightly packed. We huddle closer together, even though there are no doubt far too many of us in here as it is. And it could all go up at any moment. Evidence is building that eventually, it most certainly will. So what? It’s just a bad day, a bad feeling, a bad idea that we’ll work to correct.
We all have bad days, bad feelings, and bad ideas. Some of us let this bother us, and some of us don’t. Either way, regardless of how you are programmed to react to these facts of life, it will never get better. It will change, no doubt; but this will never be a world that does not have a sun a certain distance away from it, around which we spin, whose fusion furnace we depend on for everything, that causes this planet to grow thick with flammable bodies and materials, explosive gases and minerals, with which we surround ourselves. The potential energy builds. The electrons climb ladders up into the sky. The vibration increases, and the velocity continues to build.
It’s only emotion, I suppose. We should probably just deal with it, get over it, convert that anger and rage into something productive, sublimate the heat from those sparks into growing more fuel. We shouldn’t focus on it too much, because focus concentrates the heat and the light, and then we’re right back in the explosions again. Thousands and thousands of our progenitors before us managed to overcome the brutality of their emotions and live peaceful lives. Or perhaps they simply burst into flame, at such a point that it no longer effected their ability to pass on their emotional genes. More potential energy, building up and passing it along. Up the ladder. A ladder with a top?
If you look out over this continent, you can see the lights of all kinds of fires burning. It sounds romantic and melancholy when I say it, but it’s not. It’s not a metaphor. There is a tractor trailer fire off the side of the road in Wyoming, where a truck filled with who knows what blew off the side of the road and caught. A brush fire starts at a rest area in the Utah desert, sending clouds up over the bluffs and into the air. In many of the Midwest states it’s still legal to burn your garbage in your own backyard. In Florida, and many other eastern states, they burn trash to build steam to run turbines, and use it to generate electricity. I know a story about a truckload of polypropylene that accidentally went to the wrong place and ended up in a trash incinerator. In Ohio, maybe? The plastic burnt so hot that it melted the boilers, fusing them into solid lumps of steel. And you’ve probably heard the one about the burning coal mine in Centralia, Pennsylvannia. Burning underground since 1962. These sorts of things happen in America. I wouldn’t really know, but I would imagine that they happen in most other places too. And if you look out at night, you can see all these fires burning. All kinds of fires burning. All right, so some of those lights are parking lots, cars, street lights, homes, airports, and industrial sites. But if you think any of these are safe from catching fire… well, just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
When I look out at these lights, I can’t help but wondering why the fires are so few and far between. The distance that separates them–like that between sunset and sunrise. I wonder what’s going on in that darkness, because fire, at the very least illuminates. Photons set out in jagged harmonic paths from an exothermic oxidation reaction. You can see what burns. But everything else is hidden. Dark as the sea at night.
One of the most dangerous places for fires is at sea. Because there is no where to run on a burning ship. Not to make too gothic a thing of it, but it’s true. Next week, we’ll visit the Museum of Ships at Sea, and Seas as Flat as Parking Lots.
These are some of my favorite Small Stuff pictures so far. Passports are one of the few instances of really quality print today. While much of bureaucracy is trending towards the electronic, and thankfully so, passports remain an application of delicate print, where the delicacy is used as a security measure. This is my old passport, pre-RFID, so the design has changed. But you can see the important of the grain of the paper, as well as an overlay of litho inks done in precise colors. A color copy of a passport, done on even the best quality digital equipment, would be instantly recognizable on simple magnification. To create a decent forgery, one would have to have the exact plates, ink, and paper used in the official version, and even then I am sure there are other techniques and indicators in the print process I don’t know that would let an expert tell the different.
I don’t have a full essay in my head about Wikileaks, but I do have a little blog post in me. Something called so historical, even if it is not, bears a little bit of thought on whether or not it is.
Largely, I’m in favor of Wikileaks and the recent leaks that have provoked such historical emotions. Embarrassment is one of the worst reasons to keep a secret. And furthermore, anyone who argues that the truth ought to remain hidden should really think about whom this would benefit. Regardless of your opinion of Julian Assange or Wikileaks’ philosophy, what is really in question is the documents themselves. Arguing that you, either as American citizen or citizen of the world, would prefer to be lied to about government activities and opinions around the world, displays such a head-in-the-sand attitude that if I kicked you in the ass, you’d probably break your neck. Lies have utility. But the truth’s utility is greater. Considering that lies’ utility hasn’t gotten us anything other than a generally rotten foreign policy and two long wars, I think it’s time to give truth a shot.
Furthermore, look at the amount of these cables that seem related to ensuring the stability Western investment abroad–not lives, infrastructure, or ecosystems. That benefits investors, not you and me. And if you think that investors should lie to improve their profits, then you are on the side of Bank of America, Enron, BP, and every capitalist that has even stolen, lied, and assaulted their employees to benefit themselves. So, bear that in mind.
But all that aside, let us look at the historicity of this event. Much is made of Assange, because every story needs its central character, and because that makes Wikileaks easier to assault. There is a head of that snake, which the Canadians could assassinate, or who could be brought up on charges, or about whom jingoistic jerks could make any number of threats to make themselves feel awesome. There’s also Bradley Manning, who allegedly leaked the documents originally, and who will almost certainly be brought up on charges.
But I think the emphasis on these two characters is misplaced. Certainly, these documents would not be leaked to Wikileaks if each of them had not taken the steps that they have taken, at least according to the narrative of this event. But does that mean that in an alternate, Assange/Manning-free dimension, these documents would still be secret?
I say that they would still be released. This is obviously a broken hypothesis, because unless we could prove that other dimensions exist, peak into them, and then come back into our realm without tearing time-space, there is no way to prove or disprove it. And yet, this is what proves it for me. Because there is no way to prove what would happen without the presence of these two actors, the question is mute. But what this means is that transitively, we cannot prove the positive causality of these actors actions, either. The basis of causality is “for every action an equal and opposite reaction”. But what if without the action, the reaction was still there? Schrodinger’s Cat begs us withhold judgement on causality until we find out for sure. Naturally, at first glance these two are (allegedly) “responsible”. But to attribute a unique historical causality to these events, imbued by wills of these two people, would require additional, and impossible, proof in the negative. IF Assange and Manning are historically necessary for the exposure of these documents, THEN their absence would result in these documents never being exposed in such a way. Regardless of what is likely, what is plausible, or what is “close enough”, there is no way to say for sure. In another dimension, literally ANYTHING could happen. The cat could be both dead and alive.
I don’t strictly believe in the will, and I also don’t strictly believe in fate. Both are ways of explaining causality. The former links historical causality to direct human action. The latter links historical causality to a lack of direct human action. Clearly, human action plays a role in all historical occurrences we call “events”. But to what extent? Solely and directly? Or only tangentially and haphazardly? We can say neither with assurance. I love the Final Destination series for this reason. The plot of these films implies a strong role for the tangential and haphazard in controlling events. There is a “fate” (again, a characterization for the purpose of telling a story) that would see these attractive young people dead. But, Fate could not murder them if the scissors had not been placed at such an angle, if a desire to drink tea hadn’t led to a spill of liquid on a wood floor, which you live over because you hate carpet, and if the mouse hadn’t run past your leg, leading your cat to tangle your steps at the exact moment… and so on. Human action is not irrelevant, it is just so much smaller than the larger network of “Fate”, which is the culmination of all the abstract, obscure, and eventually murderous effects of human action that we would ordinarily consider irrelevant and unrelated. And this is the horror aspect of the film–the horror is not that we can’t control our fate, but that EVERYTHING we do controls our fate, from leaving a toothbrush at a certain angle, to taking the car rather than the bus, to sitting facing the sun rather than away. Your life is always at risk, and everything you do minimizes or increases that risk. THE WORLD IS OUT TO GET YOU, simply by being the world. Death is stalking you simply by you being mortal. And who could prove any different, without visiting another world exactly similar except for a few small differences, to see if that world is out to get you any less?
So, if Assange/Manning didn’t exist would these documents still be exposed? Yes, because while these two individuals may have had the dedication to certain anarchistic and populist goals, this is a world of 6 billion people. The chance that others, given the same opportunity, would have done the same, is great. 3 million Americans had access to these documents–the surprising thing is not that they leaked. It is surprising that they didn’t leak sooner. Secrets are meant to be shared. You can quote me on that. The motivations that would lead someone to keep information to themselves is exactly the same as the motivations that would lead someone to share that information. It is entropy. As secrets pile up, they will eventually spill. Secrets are created, just as higher energy systems will develop from humble beginnings, but only to eventually return to earth. As I said, there are 6 billion people out there. The real irrational attribution of historical will is to assume that you alone, puny human, are strong enough to keep a secret. Harriet the Spy learned this lesson. Why didn’t the State Department? All it takes is a few anarchistic hackers, and all of your brilliant powers of international intrigue are posted on a website.
What is historical here? The status quo. Someone tried to build a big tower, and then it fell down. It’s happened before, and it will happen again. This is what humans do. We can remark on the particular humans that seemed to have affected this particular collapse, but we can’t praise them or blame them. We can only acknowledge them as equal variables in the massive human equation, outliers perhaps, until they return to the center and click into place in the algorithm. So if you want to blame anyone, blame yourself. We’re all equally human, and we’re all part of the system that kept the secrets, and part of the system that leaked the secrets. To call anyone more deserving of blame, or blameless, is to take a view of history that blames the bullets for the wounds they cause. Persecute them if you will. Try and keep all pointy sticks and cats out of your path. But the minute the point of a blade finds you, it doesn’t matter how many you dodged in the past.
And yet, we all keep trying to dodge. Every single day.
The imprint of a typewriter compared to a black and white copier shot from Monday. A typewriter is similar to a letterpress, in which every character is created by a pre-molded piece of type. This creates sharp lines and the characteristic imprint in the piece of paper, but also necessitates setting each page of text before hand. A “laser” style toner machine uses an image loop charged with ions to create a one-off “plate” for adhering toner to paper. The lines are much less precise, but can be reset hundreds of times a minute during printing.
Digital color printers also use the 4 color process method, but with toner rather than ink. Compared to litho printing, the toners can melt and achieve a smoother color gradient, depending on the size of the toner. Also, because the toner is more translucent than ink, overprinting achieves a color gradient as well.
“Full color” print is typically achieved by mixing different dot densities of four main colors, cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, in what is known as the four color process. While this is standard full color print in your magazine or postcard, different effects can be achieved by mixing more particular colors in a similar process. Check out the color bars on the flap of your cereal box or other packaging to see the different inks that went into creating the image as you eye perceives it.
These dot patterns are the detail of a image of a grassy field from a magazine.
Last week, the Internet was destroyed in an apocalyptic inferno, only to be reborn again on Monday.
I have this theory: every week the world of the Internet finds it’s ultimate expression in a blossoming eschaton, and then after an odd purgatory of a weekend, begins again in genesis; or less abstractly, just as it ended, and as if nothing had happened. Only to destroy itself again at the end of the coming week. A constant cycle of continuous birth and death that becomes an extensive, planar, existence of fire.
After all, eschatology is always (at least until the world really DOES end) an existential thing. The end of the world, just like the beginning, is a diagrammatic cosmology of the world as we know it. In birth and death, we discover the meaning of everyday life, and vice versa. Every day is another boring slog away from birth and toward death, and in this way it is both being born more and dying more, all the time. Until it isn’t. In the manner in which we exist, so we see the world, until such time as we stop existing.
Or maybe not. But regardless, the blogging world poured out its own seven terrible vials of the wrath of Blog last week. A mini-apocalypse, but yet the end of a certain world, all the same. Because there really are seven vials here and too many to analyze in detail even for me, I will outline them for you in abstract, if not poetic John of Patmos form.
Hail, fire, and blood in the fountain! You’d think the hallowed institution of blogging media wasn’t going to surpass the epoch set by print media, or something. This rickety tower of babel keeps plummeting down, no matter how many times I quickly lash it together! One semiotician just can’t keep it standing up by himself!
And yet, blogging is a defined world, even if its cosmology is loose at the seams. Let’s look at what we learn about this world-view from this particular seven-headed apocalypse.
Let’s start with the author-function. I like the author-function. For a long time, I made it my mission to write entirely without the author-function. Inspired by the likes of Foucault and Derrida, whom each in their own ways identified and confronted the fragmentary and shifting nature of the author-function, I explored the philosophical and literary possibilities of writing without a position of authority. But in the end, I discovered it was impossible. And not just from a lack of success in actually doing it. I believe it is theoretically impossible, from a semiotic perspective. To create a link of signs together that transmits meaning, a narrative must be constructed. A narrative necessarily links the act of expression and reception of that expression–a link between two entities. The primal network connection, if you will. Two entities necessitate a single authorial combination, a method of getting from A to B, even if that conjunction is not a person. It could be a noun and verb, a single publication, a set cultural beliefs, a history, a unified physical plane, a logic, a common language, or an actual author and reader. If there are two points, there must be a distance between them. The act of signification requires a “narrator”–an ego assumed by the very construction of meaning itself. Freud, in describing the forces that embody the very roots of memory in the unconscious, identifies a Word-representation and an Sense-representation. These exist as separate areas of “charge” in the mind, but the minute they begin to inform each other–the Word to express what the Sense received and vice versa–there is a positive existential entity embodied in this feedback loop. The word and the sense are the first network connection. Freud calls it the ego, this “first” symbolic entity, that not only exists but seeks to express the “being” of that existence in reflexive self-definition. Whether there is or is not a Freudian ego isn’t the point. There must be a thing that is capable of both describing its existence and existing as described. A thing must have “thingness”, if you like. And accordingly, a thing with thingness must be constantly exhibiting that thingness, or else cease to be that thing.
I wrote a master’s thesis about this, but with much more bigger words.
But the point is, if you are going to write even without using a single damn pronoun and with infinitive verbs only, you are still going to have an author-function. I like the example of a loaded pistol. A pistol can always be a killing weapon, even if it is put away and not pointed at anything. And even if it is accidentally fired, a bullet will always go exactly where it is aimed, even if the aiming is not intended. Like they say in Law and Order, “intention follows the bullet”. If you fire a weapon in the air and the bullet somehow kills someone, it is still your fault. It is impossible for a bullet to not shoot, just as it is impossible for a word not to authoritatively mean. There is a nice Schrodingerian fatalism in this. The bullet is always already fired/not-fired simply by nature of being a bullet. Otherwise, it would just be metal. In the long term, every one is dead. Even to say, “no no no, let’s just look at the short term” admits the same, because in order to have a short term, you must presuppose a long term, and ignore it. If you want words to mean something, they will always say something about something. Words shouted abstractly still mean something, the shouter just chooses to use that meaning abstractly. Nonsense words don’t have a dictionary meaning, but they still mean within a certain category of non-sense. If it is a word, it could be used to mean. Ignoring meaning is a positive act, not an absent negation.
I think that Marc Ambinder desperately wants to ignore a certain meaning of things that is becoming more common as times change, and as we get used to writing and reading blogs. And in this way he seeks to negate (at for himself) certain functions of blogging through a refusal. He seems to be nostalgic, and perhaps rightly so, for a time when the meaning of reporting was channeled through an institution that held the author-function rather than the individual writer. He writes about a pure method of merely seeking to inform the reader. And who knows–perhaps this purity still exists somewhere. But it is becoming obscured in this world. For a variety of different reasons, people are informed from a number of sources, and in different ways, and at different speeds. There may indeed by a bedrock anchor of informing institutions, but above that, lies the obscuring clouds we all see. Negotiating these layers of clouds is a different problem, depending on exactly what sort of role you want to play. But it seems like the pure role of an informing institution is over. To attempt to negate that there are clouds obscuring your vision is silly. To dislike blogs and seek something else does not take away the reasons that blogs have become “a thing”.
If anything proves that the field of meaning is changing significantly from that nostalgic “cloud-free” blue sky of intentional informing, it is the number of bloggers out there that do not necessarily seek to inform, and are bloggers, nonetheless. And yet we can identify them as part of the same blogging world–that continent of the damned, always on some corner sliding into the sea. Bloggers can be journalists, they can be curmudgeonly semioticians, or they can be performing whatever pseudo-academic off-brand of awesome Geoff Manaugh perpetrates on BLDGBLOG. Or they can… LiveJournal. And yet, we realize they are all bloggers.
There are some technical elements that we use to identify the form, of course. The single column of holy fire, lighting up our RSS readers on a regularly basis. The small trace elements of repetitive form that Blogspot, Tumblr, and WordPress characteristically provide, like the subtle clues at authorial provenance scattered through the chapters of sacred scrolls. The timeliness, or lackthereof, after the fact. The nature of search engine optimization, and the pace of decay in a feed.
Most importantly, there is the technical achievement that it is no technical achievement to have a blog. The great leveling effect is also a great multiplying effect, and also a great divisor effect. Among all of this worldly chatter, is becomes difficult to have any narrative at all–or, I should say, a narrative distinct from all other narratives that one might want to, you know, say, read. It is easy to copy and Like and link and RT, but it is much more difficult to compose anything with a thingness that is unique. We do the best we can, but more often than not we go scattering to the niches.
The Persona is a big and comfortable niche. Furthermore, a well-deployed author-function in the form of an attractive Persona is one way of bringing a niche to the mainstream. It is personifying the niche, making it more friendly, and giving it, as we might say, Character. The author is really a character in this sort of writing, and that character has to be likable to the readership. The character-function is a powerful function in modern literature, often yoked with its twin ox, the author-function. Notice how many books these days are written in the first-person. Did we lose our taste for the omniscient narrator? Or is it just easier to demote the narrator, and promote the ever-present character that always and foremost is the author to a common-man character? Not so much a death of grand narratives, as a forced equity of narratives. Another leveling. The author has so many component flaws in today’s writing ecology that it is just easier if we excuse him/her as another one of the characters–possibly non-fictional, but as non-serious as a wallpaper pattern when it comes to critical assessment.
Not to say that there isn’t a lot of pressure put on the author-functions, and accordingly, the actual writers who wield these foam swords and masks. When the lines become thin, and the light grows dark, you can easily end up on the wrong side of whatever metaphor-function you are currently attempting to employ. How true to real life must a non-fiction story be? How falsified must a fictional story be? Did Joel Johnson overshare real life in his blogging Persona? Undershare? Is he a jerk? Or justified? Where is the moral compass to help us determine these questions? There isn’t one. Not just because blogging is new, but because the idea of a moral compass that would actual solve such problems is idiotic. These things are solved in the streets, or, in these sorts of literary cases, in the letters to the editor section, and in the comment threads. Hate ‘em or love ‘em, that’s where you find out what is the lowest, basest truth. Just feel lucky to have enough readers that you even get to know one way or the other.
The number of functions that we, as one-person teams of author/publisher/illustrator/editor/characters, have to shuffle and fold together is almost mind boggling. Syndication-function, Twitter-function, Trollslaying-function. What about factchecking-function? Do we still do that? Wikipedilink-function, maybe. SEO-function, obviously. Snark-function? Topical-function? Response-by-way-of-starting-dialogue-function? What is it you want your blogging to be able to do, and what sort of functions should you assemble to make that happen? Cover-page-function? Is it more important that your cover page denote the content inside, sell news stand copies, or not offend elements of your vocal readership? At what point do your readers become editors-by-mob? When do you throw open the gates, straighten your tie, and march to the guillotine, or order the troops to fire? What if the troops won’t shoot? Funny how my analysis of modern technology always comes back around to the socio-politico-problems-of-the-19th-century-function. Well, works for me.
If we’re having problems understanding and organizing our functions, it is because they are important. We know that these are powerful forces, we’re just not sure how to make them work. It is the history of invention–you know something is going on here, but you just haven’t got quite the right mixture yet. Sometimes you go back to the drawing board, like Ambinder. Other times you have to hold your ground against detractors, like Manaugh. Or you could join the mob, like Royal, and maybe even find yourself as the head of the Public Safety Committee (this is just a continuation of my metaphor, not a direct analogy to what Royal was doing).
I think there is a certain segment of the blogger cosmology that doesn’t shy away from the evolving and becoming-visible feedback loops. Call them the prophetic texts, if you will. A certain conservatism of prophets is taken for granted–things change, and that is always dangerous. But there is also an atemporal futurism to every pseudographic apocalypse. The evocation of relevant names. The careful summoning of particular symbolisms. The overblown condemnation, and the ecstatically insane affirmation. The effort to portray oneself as a thing of ancient history, but also as an accurate prognosticator of the shape and sense things to come. Not of pure continuity, but of cyclical presence through change. “I have seen this feedback loop before, and I believe I will indeed see it again.” The effort to find meaning in dreams. To see chimerical beasts in real life. To drink that strange drink, to eat that odd leaf, and live-Tweet your revelations back to the lay folk. We unabashedly analyze our lists of followers. We are always on the lookout for new soapboxes, mounts, and other cliffs on which we can speak, and tempt… what? What is it we are warning against, or rejoicing in the glory of? Is it any such thing? Take a cue from Zarathustra. You can celebrate the negation, but you cannot negate the celebration.
Some people like the institutions, the academies, the fair and balanced, the definite and clear. Luckily, all of this hierarchical control is leaking out into the chaos as much as the chaos floods back into these towers and citadels. Bloggers are having to start figuring out what ad marketing is, as much as they journalists are having to assemble and defend some sort of counter-cultural persona. I say counter-cultural, because it’s all counter-cultural now. No more sub, no more main. Taxonomies are metastasizing. This is an agonist-culture. Not antagonist, not difference for the pleasure of opposition, or what other gains such an attitude might provide. Agonism is the every day state of difference. The positive presence of opposition, and the only means by which anything has a unified number of traits. After all, what is the difference between SEO-function, Twitter-function, and author-function? Only what is no longer treated as the same. We are back to that original differentiation between two things–the primal network connection. Only that connection is everywhere, between every two things you might name, identify as, or write about between two given posts, or between the beginning of a post and its end. Agonism is that vibration, humming out of the vials. Destroying the world, and making it again.
The interesting part of that article, is the proposition that using such technology will be a “dominant strategy equilibrium.” The term comes from game theory, and denotes the condition when all players choose the outcome that will dominate regardless of other’s choices. In the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma, the result of both players consistently defecting is this sort of equilibrium–they both choose to screw over the other player, in order to save themselves being screwed in an unmitigated fashion. (There is a phrase to quote!) There are other sorts of dominant strategy equilibriums, depending on the game–it is whatever works out best for everyone so that they don’t need to worry about everyone else. Hedging your bets, in a way.
Which makes sense. When everyone has Google Maps in their pocket, you will be at a disadvantage if you don’t. Not only in the simple competition of finding the way to the nearest coffee shop the fastest, but also the generalized act of “finding your way”. Try this experiment: ask someone with an iPhone how to get somewhere a fair distance away. Watch their face squint up, as they attempt not to suggest, “can’t you just look at your iPhone?” Indeed, once you see someone with a smart phone, it’s pretty difficult not to want one yourself. It appeals to all kinds–those who tweet or text constantly, those who rely on business email or other network connection, those whose appetite for trivia necessitates a Wikipedia implant, those who like the interface for games, or those who simply like music and video wherever they go. And yes, those who want to find coffee shops.
But we are only in the first “mini-game” of the smart phone world. In game theory application, any theorized game is only part of the bigger picture. You solve the small games, and then those equilibriums become the rules for a larger game. For the game, “who wants a smart phone?” we get “Everyone wants a smart phone”. Equilibrium created. Now, on to the next game.
Another game could be “what smart phone do I buy?” From the choices of features, phones in existence, and your desired usage, you could find yourself another equilibrium. An “when do I update my phone with the next version?” could be another, with factors such as feature change, plan cost, and local availability. Either of these could be analyzed according to game theory, or some other method of diagramming rational choice.
But here’s one that is a little more complicated, of which we are only seeing the beginnings. What happens when the original dominant strategy equilibrium is an equilibrium, but is not a balanced equilibrium? What happens when access to game choices are not distributed equally? This is called an asymmetric game. Equilibrium does not necessarily mean fairness, or balance between players.
Picture this: two players have established the dominant strategy equilibrium, and decided they both need smart phones. To make it simple, we’ll just say they are both business people, that need smart phones for business. Player A’s company is doing well, so they play the “What smart phone game?” and spring for an iPhone 4–top of the line. Equilibrium established, smart phone in hand. Player B owns his/her own company, and is barely making it through the recession. His/her equilibrium lands a [insert smart phone you feel is less capable than the iPhone 4 so I don't have to go there.] Both are fulfilling their dominant strategy, but Player A ends up better than Player B. His/her phone is faster, so s/he arrives to appointments on time. It has more value as a status symbol. S/he has access to numerous productivity apps, and so on and so forth.
Maybe the difference isn’t really pronounced between Player A and B. There are plenty of other variables. Maybe B’s business acumen totally makes up for less than cutting edge technology. But because we are talking about game theory, let’s extend the pattern to infinity. Let’s look at two entire classes of people, divided by whether they have the best phone, or the second best. Let’s imagine that this differentiation also falls across an app compatibility divide, so class A has access to different apps than B. The new social network develops their apps for class A first–better press that way, and that class has a bit more disposable income for premium apps. Now their phones are, for the moment of that app divide, even more different than before. Take a look at the difference in app availability between Sybian OS and iOS. That is probably the furtherest extreme of this app divide–for now. Both are very popular, and yet iOS has many, many more apps than Sybian.
And this leads us to the example of a more historical technological divide, between first and third world. Sybian is widely used because it is the OS for many Nokia phones, the most popular mobile handset manufacturer in the world. But Apple is the most popular handset manufacturer in the FIRST world. This is, in a sense, no different than any other technological divide between first and third world. I hear Internet is faster in the first world too (just not in the US). But this is divide that is going to appear in the first world, as the slope of asymmetric equilibriums in personal technology increase.
I’m finding this out now, as my iPhone 3G slowly expires. I bought it in 2008 when it first came out. I coughed up the dough because not only did I have an extra $200 bucks, but because it was “the future”. I even named my phone “The Future”. Now, as I am short on cash after being unemployed for a while last year (thanks, recession! Debt is the gift that keeps on giving!) my choice in name is providing me with a delightful bit of retro-future irony as compensation for low battery life, crashing apps, and intermittent antenna problems. Not only is my phone less than status quo compared to the new iPhone 4, it is decidedly less useful that it was originally, as evidenced by comparison to my partner’s iPhone 3G, purchased in 2009. She did not upgrade to iOS 4, and uses her phone (and battery) far less than I do. It’s like a breath of fresh air when I use her phone for a moment, as opposed to the sluggishness of “The Future”.
Although it is certainly what they call a “first world problem” that my mobile phone’s web browser crashes, it is also by this distinction that the problem becomes apparent. If the first and the third world is divided by the rational choice equilibriums represented in Nokia vs Apple, then the division between the iPhone 4 and the 3G is class difference. The astute sociological observer would note that this class boundary, if it amounts to anything much, would be the difference between middle class and and lower-upper-middle class, if that is such a thing. And it might also be explained by other divisions such as geeky tech hobbies, and what I choose to spent my money on. The strategies of this game are complicated, and many. But compare this division, which I am sure I am not the only one to feel, to when the iPhone 3G was first released. As the first widely adopted full-powered smart phone (an odd differentiation of categories in itself), everyone who bought one was instantly a member of the “iPhone club”. But it was a single level club. In a way, smart phones were the beginning of a new utopia–in which we will all be wirelessly integrated into the network, constantly on, and all equal members of the social network and the meritocracy of the commons. But in only two years, and in two yearly iPhone model iterations, new strategic games have been introduced. A rift is opening. How far can I let myself fall from the cutting edge? How far can you? Where is the equilibrium for anyone, in a constantly accelerating terrain of technology? How far can you drift to the back of the pack before you can never make up the ground that is lost?
The identifiable rules of a game are in themselves, a certain equilibrium of the folded strata of choices. They are a pattern, denoting a landscape–a plane of existence defined by certain variables. Option points, and choice vectors that move between them. Smart phone technology is only a recent surface for this landscape. Class differences have been around longer. Class is nothing more than a “family structure”: a strategic alignment whose constituent interests are best served by an allegiance to this abstract concept. It behooves a certain portion of the population to identify as middle class, and defend those “values”, because in the end as self-ascribed members, they will benefit as part of the whole. The family was once the primary structure to defend, from a evolutionary perspective. It was the basic pattern of human productive relations. As society and its productions get more complicated, we get other structures, that will either defend themselves, or fade away. They will create strategies of existence–the choice to adhere to said equilibrium and promote its strategy becomes an identifying factor for group membership.
Take fan-based, or “hobby” industries. The Commodore 64 was the best-selling computer from 1982-86. It introduced the home computer to thousands of homes (the “family” computer, as it were) before being discontinued in 1994. But, it still is around today. For archive purposes perhaps, for nostalgia–not necessarily out of a sense of computer conservatism. But regardless of the reason, it has achieved a certain equilibrium among its fanbase. There are people who make the choice to write and collect software for this system, rather than any number of other systems. As a structure within the history of technological development, it is no longer an avant-garde player. But it exists as a class unto itself, and perpetuates on that basis.
If we are to believe that dominant strategy equilibrium will eventually put computers into our bodies and interfaced to our brain, isn’t it overwhelmingly likely that we will see classes of technological generation develop in those venues as well? Tim Maly, in an piece published while I’ve been writing this, perhaps stimulated in part by the same original article, envisions a world in which early adopters of implant technology are left to suffer on their own, without upgrades:
We can envision drone pilots getting these implants as part of the march of progress. Once the tech is friendly enough, it gets sold out to consumers. Meanwhile, you have all these down and out veterans, their brains stuck wired up with old half-working interfaces, begging on the streets for change to pay for a firmware upgrade or a tune-up for their barely-functioning bluetooth legs.
It is easy to envision these uncanny lapses between classes occurring when we start fusing bodies with machines, because to imply that our bodies can easily be obsolete machines threatens a certain humanist concept of our bodies as a unifying quality to our species. But we don’t have to start invading the body to find differences that affect our ability to stratify ourselves into classes. If the equilibriums of the relations of production can develop a rift between first and third world without personal technology, between upper class and lower class both before, and as we start to use computers to identify ourselves as class member, why would one not also occur between “cutting-edge” and “deprecated” classes as technology becomes more “personal”–magnetizing that one kernel social structure not yet susceptible to fracture and evolution? At what point will our devices themselves reinforce the equilibriums of choice they themselves provide, by being the motive force for separating individuals into groups? If not by lasting only as long as their minimal service contracts in a planned obsolesce that intensifies the slope of device turnover, then by active means? An app only for the iPhone 8, that can detect models of the iPhone 5 and below–letting you know that you’ve wandered into an area with a “less than savory technological element?” When will emergency services only guarantee that they can respond to data transponder calls, and not voice requests? The local watchman has been phased out, in favor of centrally dispatched patrols that require phones to access. Isn’t it only a matter of time before central dispatch is phased out for distributed drone network policing? The ability to use a computer is a requirement for many jobs. When will the ability to data uplink hands-free be a requirement?
We don’t want anyone to fall behind. But we have to think rationally. Why should the state pay exorbitant amounts to service old deprecated implants under the national health care plan? People born in this country receive Bluetooth 14.0 transmitters at birth. But to provide one to every migrant worker would be an extraordinary burden on the taxpayer. If you live in this country, upgrade yourself to a compatible firmware. It’s not that I’m prejudiced against people with your OS, it’s just that we both will never be as compatible together as among our own systems. That isn’t systemicism–it’s just the way plug n play protocols work. Look–I’d love for you to join in network allocated processing with my daughter. But she is quad-core x86, and you are single chip ARM. I’m sure you’re great for certain applications, but you would just slow my daughter down. If you love her, wouldn’t you want her to have all the giga-flops she’s entitled to?
Society governs itself by rational choice. Rational choice dictates that a strategy must be chosen, and an equilibrium based on the best strategy established. But despite the improvements to our technology, the patterns of human structural organization and the anti-distributional, magnetic plateaus inherent in our equilibriums will continue to repeat themselves. The more things change, the more we try and keep the terrain the same–divided abstractly in aid of maintained abstraction. All the better for us to navigate by. Google Maps, it seems, comes pre-loaded with a certain human quality for class consciousness.
Update:I think my comment below in the thread explaining how the original cartoon was a false syllogism does a much better logical job of making my original argument than the rhetorical strategy I originally implied. Consider my first try “deprecated technology”. :)
This XKCD from yesterday was a bit frustrating for several reasons.
And rather than just say to myself, “well, it’s just a cartoon” and forget it, I made my own chart.
Firstly, it’s not that I think that new age stuff “works”. Or that I think the original table wasn’t meant to be reductive. I think any reasonably intelligent person will agree that there is more than “the economic argument” involved for describing human behavior, even if it is marginalized by calling it “the personal”, or “the spiritual”, or something equivalent.
What bothers me about the XKCD cartoon is the reductive attitude towards “works”. As if anything could really be said to “work” in any comparative sense. For example, if you ask a dowsing expert if homeopathy “works”, they might agree that homeopathy is a crock of shit. Just because they believe in new agey stuff doesn’t mean they think it all “works” equally. Or that it “works” similarly. Drinking certain herbal teas might purportedly cause a general amount of bodily good, and “work” on that basis. But that isn’t to say that anyone can pick up a dowsing rod and find water. It would seem that such a thing would work differently for different people, in that not everyone could make it “work”, and that it might only “work” in certain circumstances. Even if it was a hoax. In other words, sawing a woman in half “works” perfectly well on a magician’s stage, but not so well in the operating room. Not because one is fake and the other is real, but because the qualitative definition of success on the stage is the different than the hospital. On stage, “working” is a convincing illusion. If the audience sees that the woman is not really sawed in half, then the sawing fails, even though the woman is no more or less actually cut in half than she would have been had it worked.
This is to say that “working” is relative; but also, it is not relative. If it were completely relative, it would always be up for interpretation, and mitigation, or excuses. “If only I had tried dowsing where the water table is higher, then it might have worked.” Or, “I didn’t find the water I was looking for, but I found some awesome bedrock!” Those don’t cut it. The positive existence of cause and effect are not up for negotiation. What is negotiable is that the cause and effect might not be what you originally thought. The goal is not to actually saw a woman in half. The “Working” is about praxis–it is about attempting to achieve a specific desired effect, but in a way that is uniquely essentialized to the action’s material being. You know it is a trick, and yet you paid money to see the trick. If you really wanted to see a woman sawed in half, you’d be one sick piece of work. An action’s recognizable existence, as an action, is defined by an expectation of cause and effect that will exist, regardless of success. It is the relationship between cause and effect that is already assumed. If a device doesn’t work the way it is expected, it is broken. If the way the device was expected to work was not expected, then it wouldn’t be a device. Only a thing.
Therefore–a dowsing rod “works” by sometimes not working. If it found water exactly every time, then it would be called “water radar”, or something with an air of certainty. The mystery about whether it will work or not is the dowsing–that’s how it works. You might test a dowsing rod in a series of objective studies, completed to the nth iteration, replicated all around the world with all variables controlled, and find no significant ability to find water using the rod. And yet, it is still a dowsing rod. It is a dowsing rod in that people will use it to try and find water, and not use their shoe, or their toaster, or ground penetrating radar. The dowsing rod “works”. Otherwise it would just be a stick.
Hence, my list. Other things that do not “work” according to a certain qualitative assessment of their intended action, and yet are clearly still things that work. The first two, electric cars and video phones, are easy. They are technology that has been around for a while, function as advertised, and yet are not used for their intended function. Why not? Because the rationality of the market has decided so. Maybe. Or maybe the function too well, doing things that certain interests would prefer they did not do. They function as they are expected to function, and yet we are perfectly happy with their non-functioning. And in this way, they continue to function, as expected.
The next two are similar, but the other direction on the atemporal spectrum. They still function amazingly well, but are now specialty items only for particular tasks, and not used by the general population. The New York Times is still the same paper it always was (more or less) but the task it used to accomplish is now diminished. We could call these things obsolete, and say that other objects work better than these, but that is not true either. Other things work different. The surrounding environment of other working objects channels need in new directions. Reel to reel no longer provides high quality audio recording; it provides a warm crackle to sound, and a feeling of nostalgia, even though it is the exact same device. We don’t need an entertaining media magic show anymore, and so the NYT isn’t worth the paper its printed on. Now we need information surgery, and so we saw the gray lady in half with Google News. Their non-function is a function of other functions.
The next two: world peace and evolution, are a bit different. They are conceptual, and not purely objects in and of themselves. And yet, we know specifically what they are. There is a large portion of the population that defines both of these in the negative–they acknowledge them in that they claim they do not function as advertised. That they are myths. And yet they are no less precise concepts to the warmonger and the creationist, because they still represent the presence of a cause and effect, though the cause may be bleeding heart liberalism and atheism, respectively. And what is our evidence for either of these in the positive, other than that we find specific instances that are consistent with their theories? We find fossils of animals, not fossil copies of The Origin of the Species. Is the theory of evolution a conceptual, taxonomic, dowsing rod? Is there anything wrong with it if it is?
The next two entries are a mix of the physical and the conceptual. There are physical objects that correspond to a conceptual matrix of theoretical function. SETI assumes that electromagnetic radiation might be emitted from other intelligent life forms in the universe, and seeks to look for it. We don’t know that there are other forms of intelligent life, though it is logical to assume so. And we don’t know that they would emit electromagnetic radiation, though that is also a logical assumption. For every quasar and neutron star found, intelligent life is not found. And yet, SETI is still functioning just as advertised, with no results to show for it. Ubuntu does have results. So many successful installs, a long versioning history, many satisfied users. But to what end? To continuously produce these results? Until when? When will Ubuntu successfully “have worked”? At what point could we say that it has stopped “working”, despite any number of people still using it, despite it’s history of successful function? Do we define historical “working” as a certain period of function at or above certain qualifications? How did we know that Linus Torvald wasn’t wasting his time when he first sat down and started writing code? Every thing that is something starts out not looking like anything. And will most likely end up that way, too. What is our functional, “working” theory for measuring diminishing returns on something that has only theoretical, potential, or archival value? And why hasn’t someone explained this all the people still emulating Commodore 64s?
Praxis is a complicated thing. Comics are relatively simple things, and snarky to boot. But that’s why we love XKCD, isn’t it? Not to say that New Age pseudo-science is a complicated thing by comparison. Homeopathy doesn’t exactly treat mainstream medicine with, err… objective scientific respect. But with every legitimate criticism ought to come, at least in my opinion, a multi-axis perspective. For criticism to “work”, not only must you identify failures in reason and observed patterns of cause and effect, but you must understand how the failures themselves “work”. Broken is a function, just not the one you wished for.