My partner, Rosalynn, is not only a senior dispatcher and calltaker at the Bureau of Emergency Communications [BOEC] here in Portland, but she is finishing up her Master’s Thesis as a candidate for her MA in Folklore, which is about the narrative structures in her workplace and the impact of multi-modal forms of communication on narrative in the workplace. We’ve had several conversations to record her own thoughts about the workplace, and for me to provide a point of perspective about certain technological aspects. This conversation is part of her forthcoming thesis, and with her permission, I’m publishing it here, because I think the things we are discussing about the unavailability of technologically distinct narratives for important strategic and emergency positions are very important.
Interview with Adam Rothstein
33:15 to 43:00
October 8th, 2012
Location: The Nighthawk, North Portland
A: (33:15) (Unknown song playing in the background, sounds of other patrons at the bar talking) But it is sort of the same thing for suffering. You were wounded and you lost your limb. You fought over a long time in physical therapy to earn it back, you know? That is a discourse we have. That is a narrative we have come to accept as a way that things work, that is a way that suffering works.
R: You persevered over physical disability?
A: Yeah. You put it behind you. Something happened to you. You were damaged. And you put in the work and effort and through that [you put it behind you] you become whole again, you regain that part that was broken.
R: And in that way there is no real language for us to talk about that. We are not the people who get ejected from the car and have to be transported in three different pieces to the hospital and put back together. We don’t experience the one time severe trauma, it is daily bullshit that becomes overwhelming at times. But then too, I sit here now and have this conversation and I think of new [BOEC] trainees. It is basically two years of your life, ruined. Not like I still don’t get that… I had that today, I woke up today with my heart racing having a nightmare about dispatch and felt fucked up. But that is the difference between now, when it happens sometimes, and sometimes I get overwhelming anger I can’t control–and the beginning where I couldn’t sleep and woke up screaming and shit like that. But it is that day in and day out. It is not like it happens once when something is really bad and then you move on it through like perseverance… everyday that you go to work it happens.
A: I wonder if it is because [pause] so historically… that is a relatively new sort of thing to have happen. (Music switching to Madonna’s Material Girl) So here is a thing where it is kind of interesting it is new. There is not, a situation, a role in human history where you have to vicariously hear a very short, detail-oriented account of somebody else’s horrible trauma. And then you don’t have time to reflect on it, because your whole position is based upon you being able to deal with these quickly in succession.
R: It has existed for like thirty five years.
A: Yeah, so [pause] this is like a brand sort of new human experience that we have. We have narratives of heroes that go back thousands and thousands of years, but whatever it is that you do, whatever it is that we want to call that role, it has only existed for thirty five years. Fuck, we don’t have a narrative about it. We don’t even know what it is called, you know?
R: (36:40) Well and no one has bothered to study how it effects you, until like four months ago.
A: It makes you wonder, how long did it take us to develop our concept of heroism. So you have like the concept of the Homeric hero developing in 2000 B.C. or whatever. But clearly those weren’t the first wars. There were thousands of years to get to that point. So here we are, developing these new roles that we are throwing people into, in which they are having to deal with trauma in ways for which they don’t have a narrative pattern, and who knows if they will ever develop one before technology and society changes so that position disappears. It is something completely different. Maybe it is totally conceivable that in twenty years your job will be done by, like uhh… voice responsive algorithms. Totally possible. They just have a computer that listens to someone shout until it gets the address. It dispatches the car and that is all. There is no question, no answer, no human involved.
R: Except for the fact that I think, they will do a lot more other stuff like that before they do our job like that.
A: Well you know, that is neither here nor there.
R: After you insult me. [Adam coughs and drinks from a glass.] I am basically a computer.
A: Well, nobody’s job is safe.
R: Maybe drones will tweet themselves in thirty years.
A: That is what I am saying. Drones will see the accident in progress and just respond. Who are you gonna call? The drones are already watching. [Mutual laughter.] I am seeing my job out sourced in ten. Computers writing bullshit essays for blogs, you know. Fuck. Let alone for pay. A human will do it for free, don’t need to pay anybody. [pause] But anyway, back to the point. That calltaker/dispatcher position could disappear from human history before anybody has even named it, let alone developed a sort of narrative to cope with physiological discourse, cultural discourse. In that sense it is awesome that you are doing the project you are doing, because it is not like, “oh 911 operators, you know, Cicero wrote about 911 operators,” [laughter] we have heard that story. No this is a relatively new part of human history that is too new to be studied and, who knows what technology will bring, what history will bring in the next twenty years. Being replaced by computers is just one particular option. It could be like…
R: Apocalypse happens?
A: It could be that one quarter of Americans are basically taking 911 phone calls as they try and dispatch drones to solve all the problems we have created for ourselves.
R: (40:30) We could all be dead.
A: That is what I am saying. Eventually what your position will do is fly a drone. So you will be controlling the drone and responding to the callers at the same time. And then dispatching drones to the location to find out what exactly is going on. Then, dispatching the police. So drones will work on the dispatch end, and then they will have tactical handheld drones that police can launch for their own purposes. Police helicopters will basically be phased out and…
R: We will have the non-tactical drones, like the video camera drones.
A: Well no, you guys will fire kill shots from drones. They will adapt the military model which is where soldiers on the ground request support from the drones.
R: They will never. Culturally speaking, there would have to be a huge cultural change to imagine us being the ones… I like can’t even conceive that in the next twenty years.
A: It will be like a skill set. Cause just like cops can’t run their MDTs [mobile data terminal] now, they won’t be able to fired a heat-seeking missile from a drone.
R: This is horrifying.
A: This is…
R: Well did I tell you about the mental health desk or whatever? They are supposed to get a mental health desk at the dispatch center.
A: Is this because of the whole DOJ [the Department of Justice was investigating the use of force in the Portland Police Bureau] thing?
R: DOJ, yeah.
[REDACTED FOR PRIVACY REASONS]
A: Well, there is a lot more money in studying PTSD in drone pilots, [than 911 dispatching] so hopefully when your career syncs up with that you will be set.
R: Hmm. [long pause. KC and The Sunshine Band’s Get Down Tonight starts playing]
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.
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.
I’m unsure of exactly how to say this, so I’m going to just say it.
I’ve noticed more than a couple instances recently, in which a blog post decrying rape culture was beset by comments in the comment thread, supporting rape culture. That’s putting it mildly, of course. And unsurprisingly, indignation followed as people saw how horrible their fellow humans really can be.
While people have every reason to be angry about people supporting rape and rape culture in blog comment threads, I sincerely wish that the “shock” that people express about this would stop. This surprise, to me, is akin to surprise that one would be unable to have a productive discussion about rape culture on the wall of a bathroom stall at a rest area. This is the internet. There is child porn on the internet. Prostitution. If not physical rape, certainly sexual harassment, and the precursors to rape. A blog comment thread is an uncontrollable, pseudo-anonymous, short-text medium. To think that the internet would respond to the awfulness of rape culture with uniform sensitivity, courage, and understanding is naive.
The fact of rape culture is that one in four college age women have survived rape or attempted rape. 8% of men admit to committing rape. (These and other statistics here.) Do we believe that these 8% of men don’t use the internet? Where do we think these men are? That they live in dark alleys, or in some “backward, ignorant” place far away from us?
I don’t bring this up just to feel pleased with myself by calling bullshit on people claiming to be “shocked, just shocked” at verbal abuse in comment threads. I’m actively concerned by this, because it perpetuates a belief that the world is a reasonable, generally kind place. We should never “expect” to see examples of rape culture, or dismiss it as “normal”. Nor should we be “surprised” that rape culture exists. Holding up blog comment threads as if they were anything less than the detritus of the internet skews the way which we confront rape culture, and keeps us off balance. It’s already generally agreed by both blog authors and readers that the comment threads are often devoid of most critical value. Why, suddenly, are we shocked?
This is not the equivalent of suggesting that “if people don’t like rape culture, they should not bring it up on blogs”, or otherwise avoid the internet, or stop wearing short skirts. Far from it. There should be many, many more posts pointing out egregious instances of rape culture. Anyone who, even as a joke, decides it is okay to tolerate rape culture or others who do should be called out, and forced to recant. But as for pseudo-anonymous blog comment threads? Maybe if we had DHS’ resources we could track down every asshole with a keyboard, half a brain, and 15 seconds of free time (if only the surveillance state were on our side, no?). But as we don’t, we should close the comment thread, or be prepared to be confronted with a direct example of what we are up against. Consider it simply prudent, like putting up storm shutters.
I’m reminded of people who would attend various Occupy meetings, and make the, apparently, sincere suggestion that we get bankers, police officers, and government officials to attend the GA. Similarly, people would voice the idea that the 1% might be alienated by the slogan 99%, and this was bad, since we wanted everyone to be on the same side. In fact, any time an idea was proposed that might just be unpopular with a measurable amount of people, the 99% slogan was rolled out again, in some sort of dogmatic and extreme notion of populism. Not only did I find these positions idiotic, I found the incredibly insulting to people who had been fighting the banks, war, and the government for years, often receiving blows from the police for their trouble.
It is an extreme form of class privilege to believe that people will do the right thing, simply because it is the right thing. This is a fight against late capitalism. One of the main reasons we are against this capitalism, is because it will go to nearly any length in order to defend itself and increase its profit. There are literally trillions of dollars being made via this system. To think that it will give up and die, that it will give up these profits, and that it will do so without committing extreme violence in the effort to defend itself is not just naive, but reflects a vulnerable misunderstanding of what the enemy is. Don’t think for a second that the CEOs of investment banks misunderstand this. Don’t think for one second that surprisingly low levels of police authority know exactly when they will fire a gun into the face of an unarmed protester to protect bank property. This is not an apocalyptic eventuality, this unfolds every day. If you have not seen the violence already occurring against non-violent people, with the aim of simply making more money for someone with already a large amount of money, then you are willfully ignoring it.
The worst part of this was not having to sit through asinine comments at Occupy meetings, but it was in the street, when suddenly the police would turn on people, and the crowd would either flee, or panic. It was inconceivable to the majority that someone would actually try to stop them from protesting with force, and when this inconceivability actually happened, they crumbled.
Not that it is my role to tell anyone what to do, or when to stand up to blows, or when to run away. And I don’t want to argue that we all must become scarred, jaded people who think the worst of the world, in order to do any good.
But all the same, obsessing that a blog comment thread, which is really only an IP log away from being equivalent to 4chan, is showing signs of the same rape culture that leaves one out of four college-aged women raped, is probably not. While getting angry about it is natural, spending all our time trying to purify the comment thread of signs of rape culture is like trying to fix a stalled car by washing the windows. Fighting capitalism or rape culture is not easy. It is long, hard, filled with minor defeats, and horrible mental wounds (if not physical). Burning out on washing the windows doesn’t help anyone.
If there was no other way to fight rape culture than in comment threads, that would be one thing. But it is just as easy to close the comment thread. That is what BoingBoing eventually did on the post at the top of this essay. No sense not to start out that way. (Comments on this post are closed. If you want to discuss this, I’d be happy to, but reach me through another means.)
On a more positive note, you know who is awesome? This woman, who punched a guy in the face after hearing him make “rape jokes” (rape threats) in the street. She didn’t waste any time with dickheads in the comment thread. In the link above, even the Jezebel writer is forced to backpedal from violence (actually, self-defense to legitimate threats) because violence is never the best answer, goodness knows, and rationality ought to prevail. No, as a matter of fact–rationality does not often prevail. That is what the writer’s “irrepressible little voice in my head” knows, and why it is telling her to thank this woman for doing what needed to be done.
We need a plural noun for drones. Cows are a herd, sheep are a flock, fish are a school: what are drones?
The need for a term is dire, because it is becoming quite obvious that while one drone is interesting, several drones are uncanny. Especially if there is the potential that they are networked together.
I’ve called this uncanny the “drone swarm“. But this term is more of the conceptual idea of a swarm, drone edition. One bee isn’t something to worrying about, but a swarm is. One bird isn’t something to make a horror film about, but… you get the idea.
So what is it? Perhaps something from the animal kingdom? Justin Pickard suggests “murder”, which is used for crows, and has a quite delectable sound to it. But drones are different than other flocking beasts.
Tim Maly has used “panoptiswarm“, but while this could be applicable to drones with cameras, it doesn’t really apply to drones without cameras. Also, equally applies to large groups of cameras, without drones.
Tim also suggested “argus”, which was the name of a mythological giant with a hundred eyes, as well as numerous instances of military and security hardware and corporations throughout the more recent years. I am a bit partial to this one because it is short, and original.
Something I think is crucial to the decision, however, is the behavior of the group of drones. If it is just a group of drones sitting on an airstrip, this is not very interesting. However, the idea that a number of drones, aloft, are possible networked together, communicating, and enabled with some sort of swarm intelligence responsible for group decision making… now that is something. Chris Arkenberg’s recent design-fiction piece revolves around the idea of a “murmuration” of drones. A murmuration is the word used for that aesthetically pleasing flocking motion of birds (see above photo, taken from Chris’ article). It seems that drones that are engaged in some sort of communicative behavior are much more along the lines of “murder” and other animal-esque plural nouns–because a flock of sheep is not just sheep in proximity, but sheep that act in a particular way, because of other sheep in the same space.
One more data point: Ryan Oakley suggests that “arcade” might be used to describe, if not the drones themselves, a group of people who are controlling or piloting drones. This throws in a wrinkle. We are near the technological point at which multiple drones might be controlled by a single person. Does this mean that each drone is an individual thing? Or ought we to refer to the entire group of in-flight robots as a single entity, and what really matters is how many people are controlling them? Which nodes are more important for our standard of naming?
I have no clear answers, only more questions. Please–let’s take the conversation to the comments. And if you have more instances of proposed naming conventions or alternate concepts that might complicate this development of a standard, do suggest them and I’ll add them to this list.
Edit: Chris also notes that “Locals in North and South Waziristan refer to the drones as ‘Bangana’ – a Pashto word for wasp.” Perhaps the drone theorists are not the best to name these things, and we need to hear more about people on the receiving end of drones in the field.
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.
I have very little in the way of an affinity group, mostly because I don’t know many people in my local area that are interested in going to the protest. The point of an affinity group, of course, is to provide small groups of people who know and trust each other before hand with a “local” group, that can then decide to or not to take part in bigger actions at a protest. This is sort of an accepted format for protests (at least those I am familiar with), but it is limited by the obvious caveat: you must have this affinity group to take part in this strategy.
Part of the spirit of the “Occupies” protests, at least from what I’ve read of it in other cities, is that many people who are not usual to the protesting “scene” are coming in to see what it is all about, and getting drawn into the general assembly process, the consensus groups, and all the rest. (For a nice narrative of this sort of experience, I suggest this.)
I love that. For one thing, it breaks with the usual, super-serious protest-clique experience, which while not a uniform negative in organizing culture, is enough of a real thing that if you’ve been to a protest before you know what I mean. Second, it is more of a network-culture element, not unlike some of the network-culture online, which you and I both are probably familiar with.
Twitter is, in a sense, an occupation of virtual space. An occupation of virtual space is not the same thing as an occupation of physical space, but it is similar in that the occupation is only constituted by those who are there, in an always-on presence that defines the space. Twitter is “on” and existant 24 hours a day, but only in that I have a network that is checking in, taking part, and constituting the space 24 hours a day. We, that is, my loosely-affiliated follower/followee lists, are the Twitter occupation. Whatever the point of the Twitter-occupation is, that is how it exists. We are the affinity group that makes the virtual a reality, and while it may not be identical to the trust and solidarity of a physical-space affinity group, it does have a certain sort of solidarity to it, the full implications and extents of which we are still discovering.
I’m wondering to what degree a loosely-affiliated network might affect a similar occupation in physical space. And thus, I propose this plan for tomorrow:
I invite anyone reading this who is interested, who knows me from Twitter or elsewhere, to find me and introduce themselves tomorrow at Occupy Portland. I don’t have a large network, but my network is not nothing, so I hope that at least a few people can get to know each other in person tomorrow, in the context of the protest.
What happens next is up to us. I’ll be Tweeting from the protest, as well as posting pictures and other distributed-media sorts of things. If you and I meet up, chances are you will be as well. Perhaps we might work together on it. This could look like a specific hashtag, a joint Twitter list, a photo set, a live blog, or a Storify. Heck, with the online tools at our disposal, we are technically able to start a website chock full of live video and audio, tomorrow, from the occupation, using only our cell phones. Not that we need to, or should. But it could be done. With these sorts of tools, we should be able to do something interesting, and network-culture oriented, together. This will be the second experiment I’ve conducted to see how my own personal network connections might manifest in physical existence (this was the first, that went rather well). Maybe nothing will happen, or maybe something interesting will take shape.
But the most important thing, and the reason we are all attending Occupy Portland (amid all the OTHER reasons) is to meet each other, and to network physically to occupy a space. I’m hoping to make that a reality, if nothing else. So, hey! Let’s meet face to face, tomorrow, at Occupy Portland!
How to find me: I’ll be wearing a green hoodie, and I have dreadlocks. Because this is Portland, and there is a chance I won’t be the only person with this description, I’ll also have a sticker on my chest identifying me as “@interdome“, like it’s some sort of professional event or reunion. Because it kind of is, isn’t it? For those of us, spread out across the wires in our diverse and asynchronous networks, gently magnetized into action by the flows that stimulate our drives to do something. This is our event. Lastly, if all else fails, feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org, or message me on Twitter.
If you’re shy, I suggest wearing a tag with your own Twitter handle. Then I can introduce myself to you, and everyone who uses Twitter, and therefore is in our wider, open-ended network, can introduce themselves to everyone else.
See you tomorrow!
ps. If nothing else, I’ll be providing traffic on Twitter and here at POSZU about whatever happens tomorrow. So if you are in a different physical location, feel free to check this general virtual space for updates about how the experiment went.
Bruce Sterling commented on this diagram on his blog:
*These icons represent user interactions associated with Layar augmented “Points of Interest,” or “floaties.” It’s a pretty good graphic-design job and I have no problem with that, but check out how many of these icons are archaic “skeuomorphs,” or references to archaic, no-longer-functional forms of analog media.
“Hey!” I said. I have many of these so-called skeuomorphs sitting in my living room. They would be littering my desk, if I had one. I use these things often, and not just for kitsch value, but for their intended and designed use, of all things.
I have a certain dislike of the term skeuomorph. It is a meaningful term, of course, defined like so on the helpful Tumblr-style site, Skeuomorphs.com:
Wikipedia defines a skeuomorph as “a derivative object which retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original.”
Skeuomorphs.com uses the following tests to determine if an object is a skeuomorph:
- the function of the design cue must be lost, otherwise it is an example of path dependence
- the design cue must be inherited from a predecessor, not copied from a similar object
- the object must be derivative. Functional objects do not become skeuomorphs when they are repurposed as decorations
Fair enough. You can see plenty of good examples on their site. But, I often see this term used (skeuomorphically repurposed?) to denote things called “obsolete”, or otherwise less fashionable than objects that perform a similar task more quickly/cheaper/alternatively/on the internet.
The point of the definition above is a sort of “empty design echo”. A form or aesthetic of a functional object is deliberately maintained, inherited from a completely different object that does not require that form or aesthetic to function. This is not the same as being a vinyl LP afficionado; this would be like making a tone arm to come down over top of an open CD player, the arm being non-functional because the sound data is read from the bottom. Why would you do that? Good question.
On the other hand, to actually listen to vinyl records has a distinct function. And it is not just to be “retro”. Vinyl has a distinctive sound. There are vast numbers of vinyl records and equipment for playing them out there and available, many of them inexpensive. Some people still have vinyl they bought when it was new, and would rather continue to listen to them just as before, rather than “upgrading” for the joy of being “current”. To call something obsolete just because it is “behind the times” is to almost make a reverse-skeuomorph: to select an object for a design that attempt to evoke modernity, futurity and State-of-the-Art-edness, thereby ignoring the function for the sake of the curve. Are stainless steel appliances and fixtures really better than those made from plastic? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t ask Kohler or Whirlpool for their reverse-skeuomorph marketing schtick.
Anyway: I decided to play a fun game. I went down the list of icons above to see which ones I could produce the symbolized object, not just its functional equivalent. I did this because I am unpacking from a move, and so for at least a week I know where everything is. The point isn’t to prove anything, just to see to what extent these symbolic skeuomorphs are or are not part of my everyday life.
Skeuomorphic Symbol Scavenger Hunt
Here are the rules:
I get one point if have the actual object.
I get half a point if have a very similar object, that actually has the same symbolized function without being a skeuomorph. Or in the case of those that are more of verbs than nouns, I have something pretty close.
I don’t get any points if I “recently had one”, or “I’ve got one in storage”, or if “I know where I can get one”. The implication from the full-point status is that I not only have this object as if I collected it, but I use it regularly as it was designed to be used, not just getting it out on weekends for fun, like my pinstriped sport suit I wear when I ride my penny-farthing down the promenade (I don’t actually do this).
So without further ado or theory, my results.
Info – One Point
You’re probably pretty skeptical that I’m giving myself a full point for this first one, but I consider this correct. The “i” stands for info, or alternately, a person, as in the “You Are Here” symbol on the map located at an information kiosk of some sort, because if you are looking at the map, you are at the kiosk. And, I have a travel map, of the kind that is the sort of info that is handed out at travel kiosks.
Audio – One Point
Say hello to my Grado Labs SR-60s! Some of the best headphones you can get in the price range. And would you look at that functionalist earphone profile? The icon is almost a silhouette of it.
Video – Half Point
Arguably, the icon is of a projector, not of a camera, because even film cameras utilize cartridges. I had a 8mm projector up until last week, and have a 8mm camera in storage, but neither of these count. However, I do have a video camera that uses tapes. Digital magnetic tapes, but they have the functional reels that make up the primary feature of the icon. “Rewind” is not a metaphor.
Phone – Zero Points
I got nothing. I had a plug-in handset up until I moved a week ago, but I hadn’t plugged it in in five years. And despite the urging of the Qwest salesperson who signed me up for Internet, I was not about to start. My phone looks like a pack of playing cards, and I can shout at whatever side I want.
Email – One Point
I send mail in envelopes all the time. I even have stamps too, though we used the last one this morning. Why do I send “snail mail”? I’ll tell you why. Because, if nothing else, the electricity company charges a surcharge for electronic payment!
Position – One Point
Because there ain’t no cellular network in the woods, fella. In fact, at the speed the network works sometimes, I’d take a quadrangle and compass over a crashing app. Interestingly enough, my cell phone uses this symbol for its location feature, even though it only has GPS and no compass.
Add/Remove – Half Point
These are verbs, so that’s a bit difficult to produce. But, I do have this awesome TI-2550. Check out the red display! It uses 4 AA batteries, and claims operating time of 6 hours on this charge. But, it’s sturdy as shit and doesn’t break the way that crappy credit card solar calculator did when I put it my bag. Plus, as a co-worker once remarked, “it works in the dark!” I give myself a half point for both of these combined.
Edit – One Point
Accept no substitutes.
Collect – One Point
Handmade by some hippie in the third-world ghettos of Portland, Oregon. Cost like $10, and holds more groceries than any other reusable bag we have. Also makes a bitchin’ picnic basket.
Play – Half Point
This is a verb, but the symbol shows up in black and silver on my tape recorder, though you can’t see it in the picture. And this is a functional usage, because it differentiates between tape direction, and the relative speed of rewind and fast-forward.
Play – One Point
You can’t hear it, but I’m singing the theme to Link right now. Dum, dum, da dadadadada! Dum dada, dum da dada! Probably best this way.
Share – Zero Points
Bruces is right, this is an interesting symbol. I thought for a long time about what retro-sharing might look like, but couldn’t come up with anything. Maybe hands exchanging something? I don’t know. I do have this cool folding ruler, but it’s not earning me any points.
Pin – One Point
This kills me, because just yesterday I was holding a box of honest-to-goodness map pins in my hand, that were used to pin locations on a paper map. I dug through a bunch of half-unpacked boxes, but couldn’t find them. Instead, I guiltily present these thumb tacks, and take my full point anyway.
Check In/Out – Zero Points
I don’t know about this one. I have some hotel room cards, of the swipe-in/out variety, but I don’t think that counts. It’s hard to tell exactly what that symbolizes, and it doesn’t make me think of checking in to anything. Not sure what would–a revolving door, maybe? Anyway, instead please see my awesome flight calculator, which CAN ALSO BE USED AS A SLIDE RULE, and will totally be helpful to me when the apocalypse hits and I’m stuck on a boat or a plane?
Log In/Out – One Point
I think the name of this one is the actual skeuomorph. Yeah, your sign-ins to a service may be logged, but so is just about everything. You are really unlocking a service, when something requires a “log-in”. And without the proper key, you do not have access. The log is just a record of that. I wonder, tangentially, when “log on” became uniformly “log in”?
Lock/Unlock – One Point
Keeping gym lockers secure. This one looks pretty flimsy, but I’d trust it more than certain web sites that don’t even run SSL.
List – One Point
How I GTD. I’ve never liked any GTD app as much as paper, and this floppy little book cost less than a buck and fits in my pocket. The list is part of the contents of my storage unit.
Money – One Point
Virtual currency, of the seemingly “real” variety. Interestingly, the “$” symbol does not appear anywhere on the bill.
Open/Close – Zero Points
Nothing for these verbs. And again, the nomenclature is the skeuomorph. “Open” and “close” are what the “windows” are animated to do. If anything, you are running and halting a program or process, conjuring or dispelling a dimension of the GUI.
Search – One Point
The best for last. I suppose I have never really “searched” for anything with my magnifying glass, but I have found things with it. Talk about your semantic search–with this search tool, context isn’t everything, it’s the only thing!
FINAL SCORE: Out of 22 items, 14.5 points.
Think you can do better, or would like to dispute my scoring? Take it to the comments, suckas.
There has been a drama of mis-attributions on the Internet lately, which, if you recall the anti-Wikipedia-style hysteria of years back, would seem forewarned. But the dramatic element is that the loose, crowd-sourced, volunteer aspect of the Network has been exposing and solving mis-attribution errors, not causing them.
And then yesterday, in consideration of these events, I decided to repost a quotation mystery that has baffled me for years: that in the University of Minnesota edition of Deleuze & Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, there is a endnote left absolutely blank, with the quote unattributed. William Ball jumped on it, and solved the mystery by figuring out that the quote was oddly translated, the citation left blank, the punctuation misprinted so as to obscure the context, and perhaps the passage creatively-recalled to begin with. Like that, my mystery fell away, like scales from the eyes.
by Flickr user hans s
Perhaps it is apt that we can watch these little sessions unfold over Storify, because it is not really the work of one person that uncovered the puzzles of these mistakes. One person could perhaps fix a mistake, not unlike editing, if he or she had the knowledge to rectify an obviously perceived error. But it was because these were mistakes echoed wide and far throughout the network, or because one person’s doubt could be shared and extended by other interested parties, that there was a conclusion to these, and a narrative of the puzzle could be established. They are dialogs. One person has a doubt, and expresses it outwardly. From the topology of their Network, no doubt established by a previous acknowledgement of similar interests, comes the response: yes, I share your doubt. Then the synthesis: let’s see if we can’t manipulate the Networks to find our solution.
As I mentioned to @exstasis, who pretty much solved my mystery single-handedly as I watched in awe, it was amazing that he solved the issue using only online sources that were readily available. Search engines, scans of books uploaded (perhaps with dubious copyright conformity), and the various versioning that the wide duplication of resources on the Network can provide. While the puzzle could no doubt have been solvable with standard academic resources at hand, such as a good academic library, he didn’t need any of this. And considering the fact that we found no mention of the existence of the puzzle at all, it is entirely possible that no one has ever bothered to track down the solution. Therefore, the Network allowed a couple of “amateur” scholars satisfy their curiosity, without needed to avail themselves of the resources of the standard fact-checking institutions. Those institutions that through their mistake, created the puzzle to begin with; but we won’t blame them for that, as what all these cases make clear is that the Network is in fact equal to “higher” academia when it comes to creating these intellectual puzzles, as well as solving them. One wonders if in fact, the Network has further merit in that not only does it allow access to anyone with the basic ability to connect and the will to participate, but the pace of both mistake and correction is incredibly rapid (perhaps related to the scale of participation as compared to academia).
All of this being fairly apparent to anyone who is more than a casual user of Twitter, or some other tight-knit soft-network.
by Flickr user Randy Son of Robert
But here’s what I wonder, and what I’d like to suggest. The theory of gamification states (my own generalization here) that a motivation strategy for behavior could be an assigning of points and reward structure so that a person can more easily visualize their progress towards a goal. But perhaps rather than gamification, we should be considering puzzlification as a strategy for utilizing these sorts of soft-networks.
The difference is this: a game is designed to structure goals via a definition of quantified points and winning conditions. A puzzle, on the other hand, is itself a structure of a qualitative and logical quandary. A game can be cheated when the points structure is manipulated to achieve the winning conditions without necessarily achieving the goal. But a puzzle can only be solved, or not. However, a proposed solution to a puzzle can be at first accepted as seemingly correct, and then later found to be incorrect. A puzzle can be be the goal, structured into part of game. And in a sense, the strategy for winning (or cheating) a game can be thought of as a puzzle. But the difference is quantitative/qualitative.
To more directly contrapose the two: the game structuring numerous small problems together via a generalized quantitative network, the puzzle an isolated network structure of specific logical quandary. Both are ways of structuring our assessment of reality, and so neither is more “real” than the other. The facts of gamification are not about the ability to cheat, so much as what that ability entails. A poorly-described puzzle is in no way superior to a well-designed game. Nor is a properly-apportioned game necessarily worse than a clever puzzle. They are merely alternate ways of describing a goal, so that the mind can attempt to guess what its move should be to satisfy that goal, so defined.
Furthermore, I would venture to say that in addition to simply quantifying the issue, a game’s rules are more generic and abstract from the actual tasks at hand, bridging beyond one issue to a whole set of issues, wired in series as it were. While a puzzle, in addition to quantifying the situation, is specific and concrete to the issue, considering everything holistically. Once the puzzle is solved, that is it. It may be intricate in its layout, but a puzzle is entirely self-contained.
Because these are similar ways of assessing problems, both have merits which are no doubt applicable to different situations. But to a soft-network such as Twitter, I think we should look towards the puzzle. I am calling it a soft-network because Twitter is not meant to organize any particular process or activity. Sure, it is based around 140 character messages, but clearly the point of Twitter is not simply to create 140 messages. Twitter represents language itself, in a way. Language is for communicating, but that’s not all we do with it. We also grunt, express emotion, think, act, commune, organize, and many other things through language. With Twitter we send messages, but also network (in the verb sense), share, express, link, and a bunch of other things. It is that there is a very basic framework without explicit purpose that we are able to do so much with it, extending it outward from its premise. On the other hand, a hard-network is defined by specific tasks. The html structure of a website, for example, is designed to render information via a browser, and provide programmed functionality. There are different ways of doing this, and one can do an incredible number of things with such a structure. But it is a specifically-defined system and outside of its core task, has no other function.
And this difference is ironic, when it comes to interacting with these structures. Problems with hard-networks, those structures that are very specific, are perhaps best solved by quantified assessment. HTML ought to render fast and error-free, and be coded simply and quickly. With a specific structure to act upon, we can take an abstract and generic method of assessing those actions and still assess very effectively. On the other hand, with a soft network like Twitter, it is very difficult to generically assess a “winner”. Rather, with such an open-ended structure, it is better to assess our actions within it logically, only according to a concrete and specific set of qualitative parameters. Do you “win” Twitter by tweeting the most, or fastest, or having the furthest reach? It all depends on the specifics of the particular puzzle you are trying to solve. You can see with the traits I’ve identified above, that a puzzle has certain attributes of a hard-network, which a game has attributes of a soft-network, and yet I suggest they should be oppositionally aligned.
These interaction pairings are antithetical to how we might think of them. Wouldn’t a well-defined hard-network structure benefit from an assessment system specific and concrete to its limited definition? And wouldn’t a more flexible soft-network require a general, far-reaching assessment? The answer is no–because assessment is not about mimicking what is being assessed. It is about control through overlap. Reality and our conceptual schema are always, in a sense, in opposition. We can’t think that our mental conceptions of the world will ever catch up with the detail of the mechanisms of the world. Instead, we need to model and simplify. The best model is one that overlaps the boundaries of what it attempts to model, rather than mimicking the subject. It looks at the difference between the object and field, rather than the undifferentiatedness of the middle of the object or the edge of the field. If a system is limited, a generic model will cover more of the extent of the system. If a system is more fluid, specific samples will gain a better sense of what needs to be observed. The model is part of the system it observes and assesses, and therefore it ought to fit in as component, rather than attempt to draw a map of each grain of sand.
Consider again, these checks of attribution error conducted via soft-networks. Should we award each of these people who succeeded in correcting an error “points”? Why? What would these points mean tomorrow? What do they mean in terms of the errors themselves? The game, as it were, is not “winning the Internet”, as the joke often states. The puzzle was identifying and correcting an error that no one knew existed. These puzzles were each solved in their entirety, and no doubt many more lie out there waiting to be discovered. If we awarded these players a number of points, how would these points help them prepare for the next puzzle? On the other hand, if we congratulate them for solving a puzzle, we can trace the steps that went into the solution. We read back through the dialogic steps of the Storify, and see the moves they made. We don’t attempt to replicate these moves exactly, but we recall the strategy they imply: collect a network of intelligent, like-minded individuals; keep a sense of what search tools are more helpful; locate resources for finding illicit copies of otherwise un-retrievable texts; and when you think something is amiss, why not say so out loud, and see who responds? “TRY TO GET MORE POINTS” is not a helpful tactic here.
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.
Friendster is one of those old social networking sites of the first wave, like Live Journal, Myspace, and others, where many of the tech-elite cut their teeth by posting embarrassing photos and basically conducting the passive-aggressive life of a post-teenager via the “web”. Pre-Facebook stuff. Dinosaur, ancient stuff. The stuff of Onion spoofs. When you say “social networking”, and then look at this stuff, it is kind of like walking down the jetway to find Leonardo Da Vinci’s paper spiral helicopter thingy with a Jet Blue logo on it waiting for boarding.
But I never joined one of these sites, and so I can’t share in the nostalgia. I did learn my Internet chops on an early social network, but it one you’ve never heard about. Let me introduce you to Plans.
I went to a small, Midwestern liberal arts college called Grinnell College, which you probably have not heard of either. It was an idyllic place for those three weeks of May when the Midwest is the most beautiful place on earth, when it was not humid to the point of death, or blowing cold to the point of madness. A school of fun-loving smart kids who didn’t quite fit in well enough to go to the schools all their friends went to back east or further west, it was a place of an odd semi-anarchic community, mixed with liberal political theater, sprinkled with general intellectual geekery.
And from the computer science department’s geekery, was birthed Plans. According to the Plans FAQ:
In the days of old, Grinnell College had a Vax computer system. One of the standard commands available on this system was called ‘finger’. This command gave various information about a user, including showing the person’s .plan file. Each user had their own .plan file, which was originally meant for people at companies and elsewhere to post what their work plans were. The .plan file at Grinnell College (and many other places) gained a social aspect however. People started posting notes to their friends, writing stories, or writing whatever else they felt like writing. At Grinnell College, a small group of students called the ‘VAXGods’ wrote and maintained scripts to allow users to automatically keep track of which of their friends had updated their .plan files.
During the summer of 2000, the Vax at Grinnell College was phased out of operation. There was a time period in which no sort of plan system existed at Grinnell College. During this time period however, older students felt a strong dismay over the loss of the popular plans system. Thoughts floated around about creating a new web-based version of plans, and so Rachel Heck (’01) was the first to take the initiative in creating a web-based plan system.
If you know anything about Vax, (I don’t) I take it that the concept of “plans” should be familiar to you. It is basically a text file, and that was what the web-based Plans service was and is.
When I was in school (’01-’05) webmail was becoming a standard, and common WYSIWYG systems were mostly on the horizon. The text-entry box was about as cutting edge as any of us could have hoped for. Blogs were not yet a thing, and so the concept of having a little bit of text space online, easily editable through a web browser, was a new concept to almost all of us. And, Grinnell being a vastly incestuous community in which everyone was always up in everyone else’s business if not their beds, the idea of sharing one’s life within the community’s computer network made about as much sense as screwing your friends. College!
What remains the most uniquely interesting thing about Plans in my mind, is how the bare-bones freedom of the text box still engendered various forms of online communication that would be immediately recognizable to us today, even with the supposed technological wealth of various service’s UIs that are available to us. Different people had various styles of editing their Plan to be sure, but tropes developed, that I could easily name by their similar services today.
There was the “blog” style, of course. Dated entries, tacked on above the previous entries in the text file, so one could read a person’s thoughts like a journal in reverse chronological order. There was a limit to the size of the text file (it escapes me now, but it was in the tens of thousands of words) so the person adopting this style would have to eventually “purge” or backup the Plan to elsewhere.
There was the “proto-tweet”, otherwise known as the Plan one-liner. Sometimes verbosity was exceeded by brevity. No character limit of course, but the literary impact of checking a person’s Plan to see it all wiped clean except for the “fuck ya’ll” sort of statement had its effect. And, it was easy enough to make a timeline of sorts, adding additional one-liners above the previous, to form one’s sardonic view of the trials of college life.
I myself preferred to wipe clean every update, keeping each post like it’s own individual essay. Some of these would get pretty long, as I’m sure any POSZU reader could imagine. I did have a hard-break at the bottom, below which I stuck a contact info sig that stayed there. This was a common tendency, and to this day most of my friends primarily use Plans to find people’s most recently updated phone numbers and email.
There were a number of basic html tags that could be used. Linking made the Rickroll and the Goatse common, before that was such an Internet trope. But most importantly, there was Planlove, which engendered a number of other tendencies of its own.
Not unlike the @ on Twitter, surrounding a person’s username with brackets like [rothstei] automatically converted the name into a link to that person’s Plan. To do this was called “Planlove”. I believe, like Twitter, it first began unofficially, and then was incorporated into the code to be automatic. The semiotic quality was also surprisingly similar to Twitter. It was not uncommon to sign one’s name on some campus sign, letter to the editor, or notice board as [username], because the meaning was obvious. In fact, the first time I became aware of Plans as a freshman was seeing a graffiti tag that used the brackets. Remember, this was 2001. I doubt Plans was the first to use such tags in this manner, (Twitter’s @ was itself taken from another system) but it shows how given an Internet community, there are certain patterns of usage that develop naturally.
Of course, a function was added to Plans that allowed a user to search for instances of his/her own Planlove, to see how popular one was. No Klout score, but I do recall, perhaps apocryphally, a hack that ranked usernames by the quantity of Planlove.
One could “follow” a Plan, and add it to one of three auto-read lists (only named as 1, 2, and 3). When the person updated the Plan, the name appeared in one’s lists in a column on the side of the screen. I remember much better a scandal, in which someone created a hack website that would tell you the usernames of the people who followed your own Plan. It was the rage for a week, but then it was disabled. Many users felt it violated their privacy to not be able to follow a Plan anonymously. It is interesting how expectations of what is “privacy” normally come out of the way a user learns a system. To change the rules is more a violation of a person’s trust than what the rules allow or disallow. Consider how on Twitter, another asymmetric following network, it is a central feature to be able to see one’s follower count. And yet, on Twitter it is possible to have a private account, only approving particular followers. No such thing on Plans. One could set one’s Plan to only be viewable to people in the Plans network, (requiring login, rather than an open, static web address) which most did select. However, if one had a Plan, one could read all Plans. There was a certain inclusiveness to this network, that in many ways mimicked the social structure at the college. You might imagine correctly we did not have a Greek system at our school.
There was the Secrets function, however. I believe there is a public service similar to this now, where you can basically shout your secret anonymously to the world. From the entire Internet, I don’t quite see the point, as people are constantly posting their secrets all over the place. But to know the secrets were from one of 1300 other students, maybe one of your friends, maybe that person you hate, maybe the cute guy/girl you sit next to in class, had a certain sexiness to it. It was feasible that you might be able to guess the identity of the writer, and so it made for good reading. This was not without controversy, of course. Secrets passed through various periods requiring levels of moderation, to make sure no one was referred to using a real name in the attempt to prevent slanderous or otherwise hateful statements. I’m not sure what the current status of Secrets moderation is, but the feature is certainly still there, and still mostly revolves in content around friends wanting to have sex with their friends, and then cheating on each other. Ah, the liberal arts human condition.
There was also a threaded forum section that was tacked on as a separate feature, not unlike Secrets, but this was not as popular. People enjoyed having their discussions through Planlove, as the ability to completely delete one’s Plan added a level of freedom to the sometimes heated conversations. Naturally, these were known as “Planwars”. I did my first trolling on Plans, learning the tactics of how to get peoples’ emotions stirred while not leaving myself vulnerable. I’ll never forget a particular person whom me and my friends bullied into abandoning his account. I look back on it, and we were cruel and ruthless as one can be on a text-only system where you know the person in real life. And yet, I don’t regret it, because the person started the confrontation, fought back as hard as we did, and in the end, I think the community was made better for his having left. Life lessons about the Internet, here. It was like the proverbial school yard, in more ways than one.
The single most educational experience, and the greatest controversy, occurred my junior year of college. A person I knew socially made some… “unfortunate” remarks on his Plan, that were then interpreted by school authorities AND governmental authorities as terrorist threats. He was charged with felonies, in violation of what I still believe is clearly protected speech (without getting into the details). It was 2003, we were in the heights of a post 9/11 society, and the administration totally hung him out to dry. Controversy, anger, campus unrest, etc. In the wake of this, during the week of spring break the following year while the campus was near empty, the College pulled the plug on the Plans system. It was entirely student designed and administered,* but it was run on those students’ space on the College server. My first object lesson: the Internet is not free, and the pipes are private. But, this was closely followed by the another lesson: the community is its own power. Before the age of Kickstarter, a donation campaign was begun and spread via phone and email, and within a week Plans was back up on a private server, funded by a trust set up by alumni and students. To this day, the disclaimer on the front page reads that the site is not in any way affiliated with the school. It is run for and by the community… a community that only happens to be seeded by a separate, real life community.
I graduated in 2005, the year Facebook came online. I signed up for Facebook that year, as it was billed to me by a friend as “Plans for the real world”. It was, but it wasn’t. (I canceled my Facebook account in 2010.) I stuck around in Plans for the next two years, while I was in grad school and nostalgic for my friends and life from school. But as underclasspeople I knew graduated, and everyone moved on, the magic of the community dissipated for me. In 2007, I got my first Blogger account. In 2008, I joined Twitter. And now, I sync my WordPress posts to a separate Twitter feed as well as a Tumblr, and I do most of my writing in the cloud.
If this feels like the end of an Animal House-style college movie, then good, because it kind of is. An idyllic social network lived four of the best years of its life, and then drove off into the sunset, taking those memories into the future, but only as memories. And yet, Plans is still around. I’m not sure if current students at Grinnell use Facebook more or less than Plans. Maybe only alumni of my generation (is six years ago a generation?) still use it. I know one thing for certain though… it’s not going out like Friendster. The cost of maintaining a text-only social network is relatively nothing. It may not live forever, but it won’t be rebooted, either. Plans never sought to be a killer app, and never was. It was a semiotic moment, with all the reality that that entails. It was a bit of realism in the vaporous atmosphere of social networks, a plateau in the building of certain peoples’ communication skills. Every time I write online, the lessons I learned from Plans are there. I blog and Tweet, but not because they are natural writing tools… not organs and appendages attached to my body as if part of it. I use this social network because I learned to use it. The same way I learned to type, and the same way I learned how to have friends. I learned, because I had a somewhat safe-space of networking, a place to experiment. A place to get in fights, and to think about consequences. A place to speak one’s mind, and to see if anyone else is going to read it and respond. This might be the most important sort of social tool of the Internet, and it is something that seems all too rare.
The one thing I think about today, when I see idiot all-caps comments and Facebook style wall scrawlings? I think: “Poor kid. S/he never had Plans.”
- Yours 4eva, [rothstei]
*Plans is open-source, and you can find the source code here. Another early Internet lesson learned. :) I know there is at least one or two other schools that have used variations on Plans. No reason there couldn’t be more. Kind of doubtful, though.
I self-published a new novel a couple months back called Light on Fire. I’ve been wanting to write a little bit about the book, other than a general shameless plead to have you buy it. I am trying something a little different: I am serializing the book on its own website for free. Because I wanted to have at least a good number of chapters available free before I dug into the meta so you would know what I was talking about, I held back in discussing it too deeply here on POSZU. But as of today, there are just over 20% of the chapters available, so I think I can finally let loose.
First, let me get any and all shill information and links out of the way.
The title of the book: Light on Fire
By me: Adam Rothstein
The book is being serialized online at a rate of a little over 3 chapters per week, normally released on Tuesday mornings. The location for that is here: www.lightonfire.net
There is an RSS feed for the new chapters, as well as a Twitter feed.
The book is available for sale in eBook format, which I heartily encourage you to purchase, as it is only 99 cents! ($2.99 at Kindle store, because this is Amazon’s minimum, apparently. Sorry.) Here is a list of retailers and formats. Pick whichever one is convenient for you; though if you asked me, I’d suggest Smashwords, because not only do they offer the most formats all DRM-free, my experience using them as a means for publishing with other retailers has been very positive, and I’d suggest them as a first stop if you were ever to self-publish your own eBook.
Now that’s out of the way, let’s talk about the book. Writing, for me, is a very philosophical process. There’s a good deal of thought that goes on about the form of my writing, as well as the content, while I’m writing it. This is, in a way, the invisible plot of the book, considering most of my writing is philosophical at least a little bit. So I like to share my thought process, in addition to publishing the work. Who knows, this might even be more interesting than the book itself.
At any rate, it will be shorter. That is probably the first thing one might notice about Light on Fire: it’s about 200,000 words long. If you are hefting the eBook, of course, you won’t notice a thing. At least, until you read, and you read, and you read, and you wonder when the book is going to get anywhere rather than just rambling on and on about a group of perhaps teenagers, perhaps college students, perhaps adults, a character called the Angel of History who seems to have something important to say but can’t get around to it, and chapter after chapter of metaphorical description of mundane activities.
It is meant to be this long. Naturally, because I wrote it this long, and didn’t cut very much of it, even though it is the first thing any editor would tell me to do. No novel should look like Light on Fire. For a long time, I had mental trouble calling it a novel, because I knew that wasn’t what I was trying to write. I had something else in mind. Maybe a piece of generative, ambient music. Or perhaps a mini-series, that would have ordinarily been cancelled after a few episodes, but in a bizarre twist of alternate universes, was allowed to continue exactly as it was. It could be more like a road trip, which is a fun journey at first, but when you are tired, your muscles are cramping, and you are burning up money refilling the tank yet again, starts to seem like it is about a third longer than you wish it was.
Why would I want to make such a thing? Obviously I can do such a thing, because this is the age of self-publishing. I could also scream thousands of words of shitty poetry through a megaphone in the supermarket parking lot, or communicate with others only in the sound of my own urination and call it performance art, or record the sound of a bulldozer crushing one hundred violins and say it’s music. In addition to the age of self-publishing, this is the age of Dada as the status quo. Everything is always a certain level of crazy/sublime, at minimum. So the only reason to pay attention to any of it at this point, would seem to be for sheer spectacular entertainment sake. The semiotic rationale of throwing pieces of lead type at Tea Partiers is no better than any other rationale (just making up an example). And so, the greatest common denominator of art-for-art-sake is entertainment. In which case, I probably should have done one of these things I just listed, because those would all be much more entertaining than a very long, slightly-boring book.
But I wasn’t just doing “whatever”–you know, “semiotically novelizing”–for what artistic merit it might bring me. I had a very specific goal in mind. I was trying to make something in particular, and whatever value it might (or might not) have as art is completely secondary to that.
I wanted to write a novel of America. Not a Great American Novel, mind you. I wanted to capture what the novel of America looks like, not according to the artistic genre of the GAN, or the formal conventions of the novel. I wanted to end up with a novel that accurately reflected America: the present. This is something that, as far as I know, does not exist outside of this work I have completed.
Such a thing is rare, because there isn’t much that is common about it. Right away I realized that such a novel would hardly look like a novel at all. There are many, many reasons why not. To begin with, there is nothing actually in reality in America today that looks at all like a novel. Novels have characters whom we like, or at least like hearing about. Novels have beginnings, middles, and endings. Novels have events that mean something in context of each other, in the context of the author and the reader’s preconceptions, and should seek to inform some sort of altered postconception after the novel has been finished, even if only in the slightest of degrees. There is nothing like this, truthfully, in America reality today. There are plenty of lies going on in America that resemble novels. There are thousands and upon thousands of novels written in America, about America. But it isn’t even that these things are not true, whereas there is some sort of hidden Truth about America that isn’t being told. It is that the time of Truth is over for America. Today, presently, America just is. American Reality is a parking lot. It is a parking lot that abuts another parking lot, which abuts another parking lot, and the only thing that distinguishes the hoardes of steel and future e-waste Lifestyle Utility Vehicles, filled with dogs, babies, and the rest of us hyperventilating in the sweltering climate change reality, is a grid work of numbers and letters, unless you happen to be lucky enough to be parked at a place with enough intellectual property to name all these lots. American Reality is the difference between The Goofy parking zone and parking structure F2. American Reality is long, ever so long, and not very entertaining.
I think the previous form of the America’s Novel, the one that was entertaining and perhaps a least occasionally historically meaningful, ended with the election of Barack Obama. I don’t want to wax too political here. In some ways, 2008 was obviously a happy-ending for many people. For others, it was a looming cliff-hanger, a prelude of the eventual cash-in sequel of Palin, etc. But I make this epochalization of the novel based upon a number of factors, that are really unrelated to the election or the president himself. Of course the presidency is a major epoch foundation for American history. But there was also the state of the Internet, and what that means for language and history. There was the state of world history around that time, and America’s changing role on that stage. There was the economic thing, which seems to be almost entirely repressed in today’s memory (a good indicator of trauma). There was the whole post 9/11 environment, another source of trauma, that finally we are beginning to be far enough from that we can start analyzing. And then there was literature.
I’ve read some novels about America from the post 9/11 years, nowhere near most or even a good number of them. Among them, I notice a trend. There is something big that is unspoken. Not entirely a thing of repression, it is not the same void in all of them. Books are quite different. Some may cover certain bases, and others wholly over-represent other areas. But in each, there is a blind spot. A void. The 270-some degrees outside of a camera’s view when it closes in on the protagonist’s face in a thriller, so we cannot see the person creeping towards them until they put on a look of shock as they ought to, though the actor can clearly see what’s going on with stereoscopic human vision.
It’s not a lacuna brought on by a base view of the world, or some intricate Other perspective that everyone but me ought to have seen and now I’m going to call them on it. I think it is just that there is no complete picture of America any more. There is no multi-cultural melting pot, no flag that can carry all the stars and stripes, no common dream and aspiration. All of that is over, if it ever existed. It just isn’t feasible to even pretend. The only narrative of a coherent America in America today is that spouted by politicians, whom are considered the biggest liars out there, and a marginal, political un-party activism group that has some sort of name that everyone turns into an insult, and is commonly associated with the Know-Nothing Party of days past. Looking to either of these places for coherency… well, you’d be better off asking a conspiracy theorist. It’s something that I tried to get at with my Museum of Small American Museums series. There is plenty going on, but it is only viewable up close. The telescopes are broken, and we only have microscopes left. It is a fairure of perspective lines, so we are forced to use real lenses again, rather than just our simulations of their optical properties.
I could go on about this and cite a dozen other examples of the general failure of America’s Novel, but I want to move past this and talk more about my book. Because, this is why I wrote my book. I was tired of seeing the novelization of America fall short, nothing more than a genre of a time that is now closed to us. I was tired of that vertigo that comes from turning ones head so fast, trying to see everything going on, when there is no way to do so. I wanted to back up, sit down for a minute, and take it slow. Abandon the pace of news, music video, dance music, TV drama, the Internet, and all the rest that causes this vertigo. I wanted to find what is literary about America, even if that meant writing something that wasn’t necessarily entertaining as is. And so, that is what I did. Because America, as it is, is so beyond entertainment. At least at one point we were a TV society. We still might be. But if so, it is because America represents TV. Not the other way around.
Parts of America are still entertaining. But to hoist these up and make a complete TV program or a novel either requires a disgusting perversion of what is actually going on, like turning the lives of high school students into soft-core porn, or a terrible violence to the mundanity of life, like inventing a plot about a terrorist plot at every mall in America all at the same time. And yet, the lives of high school students are like hardcore porn, and there are terrorist plots not just in the malls, but in the bars, the alleys, the bathrooms, the bedrooms, and the playing fields of America as we plot against our enemies, our loved ones and ourselves constantly, somehow seeking to make a point with threats, violence, and fear. So how to we show these parts? How do we put the parts in the context of the whole?
It is this effort of trying to encompass, while not unifying or holifying, that is hard part of confronting America’s parts. While some of these parts are bad, there are other parts of America that are good. There are people making things, all the time, and some of them are not just good, but great. Most of the land here is still beautiful, despite what we’ve done to it. People live in relative safety and security, in health and in wealth, at least compared with history if not with their neighbors and the rest of the world. But what is this? Some sort of generic optimism, that can be tied around the shitty parts like a bow? A consolation prize? Does anyone really feel consoled by a consolation prize? Isn’t optimism the resolve we apply to the things we are trying to fix? Not a whimsical act of quitting, a meek smile, and a “it could be worse”?
There are just so many people in the world today. In America today. There is nothing that even begins to be a coherent narrative. It’s not as easy as a simple “death of grand narratives”. You cut off a head of that hydra, and five more grow in place. In fact, the hydra breaks apart in to thousands of small worms, some with one head, some with more, some with none, and they wriggle off to hide under rocks where you’ll never be able to get them all together again. Humpty Dumpty is the narrative our current Herculean narrative task. And in the American narrative, there are at least three Dumpty’s, all involved in a taser fight/DUI accident/revenge orgy, and it’s dark out, and someone just made off with the flashlight, and I think there’s a shard of one of them stuck in the bottom of my foot.
None of this is a reason to give up. This is why I couldn’t just give up, edit down, and make a real novel. I wanted to. I would have been done in half the time… okay, maybe two-thirds. I would have had something that I really liked, and that other people liked too, instead of an abstract epic poem to the atemporalization of history and the death of not just a nation, but probably my future and that many of my friends. An epic of anxiety, that made me as uncomfortable about the time I spent on it as I spend trying to imagine myself as the fellow citizen of the people I mean in the street. But I couldn’t stop writing it until it was done. The uncertainty is a reason to keep working. To pick at it until it bleeds. My American anxiety is an obsessive compulsion. It is a reason to buckle down, to get moving, to pick up one’s tools, and get cracking. Maybe to cry a little bit while doing so. That’s what I thought every time I sat down to work on Light on Fire. I’m not sure what I thought it might accomplish, if it would do anything. No artistic rationale here, really, I swear. I just wanted to do it. I wanted to give it a shot, and see what America looked like after passing through the literary filter, with all of this in mind. Will it be interesting? Maybe to some. Will it be a best seller? I seriously doubt it. It might not even be a “seller” at all. But it will be a complete thing. A project accomplished. As much as it can be complete.
There are blind spots, there are dead ends, there are red herrings, there are side plots bigger than the main plot. There are characters whom we aren’t sure of their description, though we could give them one. There are boring moments, and little flashes of excitement. A bit of humor, a bit of horror, a bit of deep thinking, and a bit of porn. All of these in are in Light on Fire, I mean. I’m not sure all of these are in America–that is, I’m sure they all are in America, but I’m not sure they are constituent in the same proportions as they are in my book. And yet, when you take the literary lens I did, and turning it around and around trying to focus, that is what those squiggly lines and blurry colored dots most closely resemble. One hundred and three stories that don’t really go together well, and yet are related. That’s the book. That’s what I made. And you know, I think it actually kind of works.
Perhaps conveniently, the first book I read after finishing Light on Fire was Don DeLillo’s White Noise, which I had never read before. I avoided it, because it sounded too much like something I wanted to write, and I was afraid of being too influenced. As it is, I’m very glad I read it immediately after finishing Light on Fire, because it is almost exactly the same. Very different, but very much the same. I don’t want to speculate too deeply on DeLillo’s motivations for the book, but as the reader, I earn a certain privilege to do so. The book is very much about a certain disenchantment of the 1980s in America, with its culture, with its science, with its goals and preoccupations. The plot of the book rises and falls in barometer-like excitement in a precipitatory way, condensing certain themes in parts where the pressure lowers the clouds, and then concentrating and whisking away the moisture in other areas. Where the plot falls away, we see the themes laid bare.
If there was a continuation of a similar literary system for this decade, I would perfunctorily place Light on Fire not far from that mark. We’ve gone beyond the disenchantment, the blank static views of TVs tuned to dead channels that are tuned back on us, the cultural unconscious of talk radio, the bedrooms that look more and more like kitchen appliances. Or rather, all of that is still here. But we, the children of that corn, have grown up, and we are now adults. And we are normal–or at least according to certain definitions our parents have had to settle for. Few of us have jobs, fewer of us own homes or cars in which the scenes of White Noise might take place. The fear and loathing has shifted. The terror we live with is more specific and human, and the technological amusements work much better, because they’ve been designed so that we’ve customized them to our liking. Unspecific generalities like Fear are something for people with mortgages. Fetish, not defined according to sub-culture or music genre, is something for people with a reputation to lose. The swirling storm clouds of plot are now more of a mist. There is a certain wetness to the pavement, but we can’t really say when it rained. And so, we are left to continuing living, not bad lives, but not exactly what was promised to us in elementary school either, living in basements, in group houses, in our broken down cars and on public buses. These lives, if that is what we call them, which we are waiting on, hoping that the plot will one day start. And while in the ‘80s the form of this waiting might have had a sort of stasis to it, a blank wall of prescription drug haze, and white noise anxiety, today it is something different. For young Americans today, the color of our dead channel is fire.
It irritates me when people say something along the lines of, “Unions in America are good in principle, but…”
The “but” is followed by some sort of criticism about how the institutions of unions are corrupt, or inefficient, or outdated, or not applicable to all industries. This is then followed by most often by an anecdote about a cousin’s friend’s father in New York who was a union member who was really lazy and overpaid and was then cheated out of his inheritance by his union that was supposed to protect him. Or something of the kind.
It irritates me because people who say this are wrong. People who espouse this sort of caveat are hurting us–all of us. They are tools of our society’s downfall, whether they wish to be or not, and every time they open their mouths to rehash this sort of argument, they should be shouted down and told to shut up.
I’m going to tell you why.
My argument is not about the 40 hour workweek, or about the weekends, or anything else you might see on a bumper sticker or a protest sign. My argument is about what a union is, not about what any particular union has done. In the realm of ideas, where we are now and where these statements are made, it is important to begin from the general, and move towards the specific. Anecdotal evidence may sound good, but holding general statements to be true based on only specific evidence is a logical fallacy.
A Union is, in principle, the sum of its parts. There are many different kinds of unions, ranging from civil unions to the Soviet Union. We are interested in labor unions specifically, but it is important to remember that in essence, it is a union, and should be considered thusly before any other sort of analysis.
There is nothing wrong with a union in this general sense. As an organizing body meant to represent its parts, there would be no cause to deny those parts the ability to organize themselves for any reason they chose, whether it be for love, for diplomacy, for collective bargaining, or to usher in the future communist order, if that’s what those parts so desired. Self-determination is generally considered a right of all humans, before any particular reason to deny that right might adjudicated. And so, if any person declares him or herself in unified allegiance with another person, who could raise an argument to deny that union?
Except, of course, that the right to unify is denied all the time, for various reasons. Certain love unions are denied, to allegedly protect a certain ideal notion of that union. Public gatherings are often disallowed, for reasons of safety, hygiene, or other effects of that gathering that might infringe upon others’ rights. Even national sovereignty can be questioned, if that nation acts as a threat to other nations, or to itself. But these denials of the right to unify are all considered after the fact, once the union in question has presented itself as a threat (at least in the eyes of those in charge of making such decisions).
A labor union is made of workers. A labor union separates itself from other kinds of unions by fact of its membership. Sure, union members could marry each other. And unions could combine to form bowling leagues, international organizations, and various other things. But the labor union is a union of workers. And so any judgment of a labor union must be constructed on that basis.
What is a worker, anyway? It’s a person with a job, of course. Having a job is still, despite the unemployment rate, a common occurrence in the United States. But what does it really mean? Perhaps because it is so common, and because it is such an indicative part of every day life, we tend to forget what it really is. Having a job is working, and receiving pay in return. Nothing more, nothing less. Among all the jobs that exist, we can say that all qualify in this distinction by being work for pay.
Now, when we are discussing the general in this way, it is important not to be taken in by our understanding of the ideal. The ideal job is not necessarily the general job. In the general, a job is the common traits of all jobs. In the ideal, a job is what we most commonly think about when we think about all jobs. In this way, the ideal is no more than another anecdote. It is a particular job, that we think of in place of all the other particular jobs.
I’m not sure what your ideal notion of a job is, but I can tell you mine. I think of a particular locally-owned grocery store I know, in a small town in Iowa. They hire stock boys from the local high school. Yes, “stock boys”, because they hire exclusively males. Females worked the registers. (Ah, small town Iowa.) The stock boys also wore identical green aprons, and they pushed around identical wide, shop brooms. They were paid every week with identical checks, drawn on the local bank around the corner, for identical wages. This isn’t what job I would do, given the choice. And this isn’t what I think jobs should be like, necessarily. This is simply the common example I think of, when I think of a “job”.
There is nothing wrong with this ideal job. Ideally. A young man without any experience starts at the bottom in a locally-owned business, doing the grunt work. He is paid for his time, and if he works hard and learns, he eventually moves up the meat counter, or to manager, or whatever might be next in line. Then he receives a pay raise, and he starts doing his darnedest at these new increased responsibilities. And so on and so forth, all the way to the American Dream.
The only thing wrong with this ideal job is that it is not the general form of employment in the United States, and to act as if it is, demeans all of the people out there working in less-than ideal conditions. There is nothing general we can say about employment conditions in America. How do we describe in common hedge fund managers with seven digit bonuses, smart creative people “living the dream” earning money doing exactly what they want, workaday folks feeding their families month to month, people without education or experience unable to find any job but manual labor, and the underpaid and exploited who are put in dangerous situations or straight-up robbed because they are criminals or immigrants or threatened or simply not very clever? All of these things exist. And there is no general state to describe them, other than “work for pay”. They are workers, all. And this is all we can say.
Luckily for them, these workers are able to form unions. A labor union gives definition to the dynamics of everything entailed within “work”. Because the ideal does not exist, unions instead provide a commonality, and a general status by which we can address the problems and benefits of certain trades. Labor unions form their membership from those who can ally together, to form a single entity from disparate individuals. Workers self-determine themselves by identifying that generality, and expressing it via their membership.
From this commonality develops the notion of collective bargaining. If an organization exists that counts similar workers in its membership, the workers can use that organization to bargain to change aspects of their employment. No one would argue that an individual isn’t free to bargain the specifics of his or her employment. That is what “work for pay” is. Somehow the work and the pay must be agreed upon between the employer and the employee. And so, the idea that workers would unite into one body for the purpose of more expediently bargaining together at the same time with the same employer isn’t too far of a leap.
Except, that collective bargaining is much more effective. Unions have higher salaries and better benefits because they are able to bargain with the employers on equal terms. An employer is already unified. If a worker loses a job, s/he doesn’t have other jobs to fall back on. Whereas, an employer can lose one, two, or more workers easily, depending on the size of the operation. An employer holds all the cards. S/he knows all the salaries of all the workers in the operation, knows the value of all the positions in terms of the profit generated. When workers are unified, that dynamic changes. The workers know each others’ salaries, know how much labor charges affect the employer. The employer can no longer select and drop workers at a whim, like produce at the supermarket. Grievances aren’t ignored, and they are factored into the bargaining process. Hence, collective bargaining bargains a much better deal than any employee individually.
Collective bargaining is so effective, it can, in fact, take advantage of the employer. It can put in place rules that hardly seem “fair” in a general perspective. It can organize extortion and crimes, in addition to legitimate bargaining. Nothing that an individual couldn’t do, and nothing that the unified organization of an employer couldn’t do, either. But it can do this, and if it does, it does so more effectively than it would without that unified force.
It is the effectiveness of collective bargaining that spurs the attempt to deny the right of union to form. No one would dispute the right of individuals to enter the street, until the individuals do so in such numbers that the union of people in the street has effects not recognized as caused by a single individual; no one would deny the right of two people to engage in a love union, until the genders of the members of that union contradicted a closed and ideal notion of what love is; no country would dispute a sovereign nation unless its sovereign disputed their own; and no one would oppose workers coming together to organize, until they were organizing for collective bargaining. One cannot argue with the general definition of a union, because it is no more than individuals, together–one seeks to ban the general by nature of its effect.
This effectiveness is the basis by which people try to make unions illegal. When we look at it in terms of what unions are in a general sense, the idea of illegalizing unions on this basis seems ridiculous. There is nothing about a union that is illegal. It is what any particular unified group of individuals chooses to do with that unity. What a labor union decides to do with its unity is to counter the unity of the employers, and this is what is despised about them. The ability to collectively bargain makes a union dangerous, not necessarily to law and order, but to employers who are trying to extract every bit of value they can from workers. It reduces employers unified power to manage workers, by balancing that power and leveling the playing field, and so they dispute it. Workers’ exploitable value to employers is diminished when employees know and demand their worth, and so it contradicts their notion of what the ideal employee ought to be.
Let me summarize:
1a – Unions are, in general, a constituent organization of individuals
1b – Unions do not have any abilities outside of the unified power of these individuals
1c – Therefore, to deny the ability to form a union, it must be justified by the effect of this unified, and not by nature of any other ideals or anecdotal evidence.
2a – A Labor Union is a constituent organization of workers
2b – A Labor Union’s ability is collective bargaining
2c – To deny the ability to form a union is to deny workers the power of collective bargaining, for good or ill, lawfulness or lawlessness.
Now that I’ve stated these general ideas more or less clearly, let me talk about you. Yes, you: you who would perhaps agree to these points, but still disparage unions for all the ways that their collective bargaining does not fulfill your personal definition of justice, rights, or productivity.
You are on the side of those who seek to exploit, those who seek to silence, those who seek to malign humanity and take advance of individuals in their faults. You may be against crime, against graft, against extortion, and against laziness. All of those are noble beliefs. But to take specific wrongdoings and lay them at the feet of organized labor in principle is to follow the urge of the employer, who would find any excuse, sensible or baseless, to destroy opposition to his/her own cause. And because they cannot find general, logical reasons to deny unions the right to exist, they use these specifics to further their partisan cause. The enemies of the labor union, of the general concept of collective bargaining, of organization for the betterment of the individuals involved–they take specific wrongs and blow them up as evidence against the general. They lie, steal, and extort in addition to this. But we could even set that aside for the moment. What they are doing here, and what they have convinced you to do as well, is to reject the reasonableness of the concept because it threatens them. They deny the right of forming a union because it contradicts their notion of what they can get away with, and of what ought, in their opinion, to be the status quo. They deny that workers are capable of forming their own law-abiding constituent organizations, because to them, worker organization is as dangerous as a blood-thirsty mob. They have reduced reason and logic to a tool, that they deploy only when it benefits themselves.
I’m not saying the ends justifies the means, or to support the power of the movement means we should not question its actions. Never would I stoop to that utilitarian logic, which is the exact thing I am arguing against. There is nothing more important than the specifics. There is no fight other than the day to day aspects of organization, where abuse and exploitation ought to be settled on every side. But in order to fight abuses, one must have an organization with which to do it. Humans naturally form organizational structure, whether it be government, labor union, or abstract social relations. We cannot question the fact of this organization, and still seek to fix its problems and weaknesses. One can’t fight crime by dissolving society, improve the institution of marriage by excluding individuals from it, or solve international conflicts by denying countries’ right to exist. One can’t improve employee and employer relationships by removing organization. We need organization. If you think the organization should look and function differently, then join it, or start your own. The last thing we should be doing is denying to principle of organization. It is a general fact of the human species, and one of our best attributes.
When you defend unions, but with these caveats, you do not help humans to organize. You help those who would dis-organize us all, and then feed on the chaos.
I hardly would like to implement a hierarchical taxonomy of American culture, either with upper and lowercase C’s, or with any other modifier to the word. No judgment, please, on what is good culture or not. No suffix of “Americana” for example, to connote a certain sort of nod and wink behind the back of certain less popular states in the middle of the country. Nor would I, through my abrasive tone of a curmudgeon seeking to willfully impose anti-establishment incitement upon people far too busy to think about such foolish things, and as part of my lifelong role as generally ungrateful son of these shores, seek to simply lambaste and deride any particular part of the cultural content of this vast continent. Whether through the expositionary exhibition of suspicion and distrust at which I excel, the ad hominem insult and verbal roll of the eyes I all too often express, or the openly paranoiac philosophical theory I pull out of my pocket and wave in the air when I’ve had one too many and forget that I’m in a public bar and that they’ll probably call the cops. I would hope not to take on, any more than the average writer, such tendencies we typically summarize as bias; the mental price of doing business that we inwardly acknowledge as what we must reign in and control if we wish to take part in a liberal society. I have my own opinions about what is good culture and what is… well, otherwise than that. As do we all. I acknowledge them, but have no need to tack them to any cathedral door, nor cast them in stone and deposit them on a courthouse lawn.
Not to say that there is any good reason to hide these opinions, so long as they are presented as a (albeit, often argumentative) theoretical basis for self-motivation to aid the production of worthwhile cultural products, rather than those that are… less than worthwhile. I would hope and expect that anyone else would be just as willing to justify their own pursuits by judgments about its cultural worth, at least internally, so as always to be pushing the envelope towards whatever it is that they seek. Just as I would also expect that upon confronted with criticism towards oneself, a person would be able to either surmount that criticism in his or her own mind, or otherwise interpolate it, to emerge with one’s own course improved and/or reified. Whether that course is the creation of a controversial piece of avant-garde artwork, or the decision to take a cruise to Cozumel. Maybe the rationale is apropos of nothing; but this is still a rationale, and ought to be defended as such. “What is the reason? No reason!” Perfectly acceptable and difficult to refute. And therein, a cultural process on such firm ground should not be wary of receiving criticism. And so we shouldn’t shy from giving it, if we feel it is necessary.
But, this sort of epistemology and hermeneutics of judgment and justification is dry and dull. Because really, once you have attained a certain perspective of relativism for critical judgment, you are simply locked into a cycle of your own self-improvement. If all criticism can be taken or given constructively, then everything, critical or not, becomes constructive. And there is no choice but to construct. This is good, of course, because you can finally stop castigating television for ruining society and start working on actually improving society; you can stop complaining that there is nothing worthwhile in the world and begin making what is worthwhile; you can stop basing your career around proselytizing against certain things, and base it on supporting things. In general, criticism becomes a very positive activity, because even when you are lambasting the shit out of some poor artist/tourist you detest, you are only ever preaching to the choir. Your negativity is transmuted into positivity, because once you’ve realized the person you are criticizing probably doesn’t give a shit, you are only going to be stimulating yourself in your own chosen direction. The thesis and the antithesis are synthesized; the dialectic is complete; we wake up and try harder tomorrow. And this is boring. You can’t burn anyone at a stake once you realize everyone is playing different roles in the same stage-play that is the human species. Real progress, as it turns out, is as boring as world peace.
Luckily, there is another sort of epistemology that we can turn to for that carnivalesque excitement. The sort of rush, a will to power and manifest destiny that will get us out of bed in the morning. We’re not slaying barbarian hordes, and there probably won’t be a medal in it for you. But we are discovering and claiming resources, in the biggest gold rush in human history. The borders are open folks, and tickets are cheap. Welcome to the cultural gold rush. Get in while the getting is good.
Let’s turn that mischievous metaphor aside, because it is mischievous, and because it is not really accurate. There used to be a resource market in culture. This was called Classicism, Antiquities, Anthropology, Folklore Studies, Archaeology, History, Literature, and more generally, the Humanities. There was a rush to accumulate all kinds of cultural artifacts and artistry, once these minerals were discovered. As the waters of criticism receded, the value of everything was laid bare, and it was ripe for the taking. Land once considered valueless was determined to have vast veins of semiotic deposits. Economies that had been sinking for centuries were boosted when the boom of cultural production came to town. Entire civilizations were revitalized. Great mercantile exchanges were founded back in the home countries, to which the cultural colonists could send the fruits of their prospecting, for sale on the open market. Entire educational industries developed, feeding on the flows of these resources, and the liberal arts education was one of the hottest commodities out there. Good for a thousand uses, the liberal arts education was made of cultural minerals, and ran on cultural minerals. Nearly every home in America had one—the first member of the family to obtain such a commodity was more celebrated than the main bread winner of the household. And with this gadget in his or her (but often his) possession, the task of winning the bread often fell on to the shoulders of this new education-bearing class.
But you know all this. Ancient history. We might have learned it somewhere along the way, as sort of an explanation for while our modern versions of that cultural commodity don’t seem to pack the same punch. Or maybe we deciphered this history through our own intuition—via our suspicions that somehow they’ve changed the formula somewhere along the line, or that perhaps the construction quality just isn’t what it once was. At any rate, there is a sense of the old, the obsolete, the outdated to our current liberal educations. That maybe this commodity had more of a relationship with ancient history than it ever had with us.
Thankfully, I don’t have to solemnly add that the former boom towns are now decrepit wastelands, and that the once proud factories stand like ghosts, uncanny reminders of the curse of economic cycles and the fleeting, transitory nature of any wealth and success. On the contrary. The culture industry is just as strong as it was, and it is probably more profitable now than ever. More educational commodities are produced each year than the last, and the countries that mine the cultural minerals are getting more of a share of those profits than they ever did. Something is changing, it just isn’t reducible to GDP.
The functional monopoly is fading. The luster and quality of the mineral isn’t diminishing, but its effectiveness is. Not in a way that it is being less effective, but that its presence doesn’t guarantee anymore success than a synthesized substitute. What is running out is the metaphor. Now it isn’t liquid gold. It’s only book learning. The molecular structure is less structured. The reaction was only ever a catalyst—and now the reaction is running on its own.
Okay, really—enough of the poetic license. I’m overstepping the bounds of my land grant. You don’t need me to dig this out for you, and that is the whole point. Cultural products and the skills we use to develop them—be it liberal education, a general appreciation for the humanities, an artistic goal, or even cold hard cash—are better distributed than ever before. It turns out that culture is not a mineral after all. It doesn’t have to be compressed in the earth for thousands of years before it becomes virile. It is not only found in certain places. It doesn’t only form in the rare pinch-point between a set of specific historical circumstances or at the hands of great persons. Meaning is now found in the least assuming of places, and in this way, meaning means more to the people to which it means than it ever did in the past. The metaphor that constricted how we understood and used culture, is broken. Anything goes, as long as it explodes. If you can light it on fire, it’s fuel. Culturally, that is. Maybe for other things later.
One of the best ways to see this is by, as ever, seizing the means of production. Visit the mines and the factories. The former centers of educational production are well-funded, but they are beset by problems. As they add wings and libraries, found new on-site museums and repatriate artifacts, they only draw further criticism. They get the money they need eventually, and perhaps they even spend it well. But are they doing it right? Are they up with the times? Are the customers satisfied? Is the product worthwhile? No one seems to know anymore. We go to the museums, we read the books, we take the classes. But have we learned anything? What’s more frightening than this fate is not knowing how to fix the problem or whose fault it is. Everything seems educational, and yet we don’t feel any smarter.
But this is not the end of the tour. Perhaps it has always been around to a certain extent, and we just ignored them in our thrill at the tall skyscrapers and massive smokestacks, the expansive parking lots and the expensive executives of the major industrial centers. There is, mostly unseen, a cottage industry in culture. A distributed, effective, industrial grassroots. A thriving network of culture that we hardly notice, and perhaps doesn’t even notice itself. These are, for lack of a better unifying rubric, the Small Museums of America.
You’ve seen these museums advertised when you drive along the interstate. The Museum of Western Industry and Mining. The Cowboy Museum and Alligator Center. The Tri-Country Fabric and Textiles Museum. The Town of ______ Heritage Center and Museum. The _____ Museum, with the blank filled by some unknown person’s last name as indicator of, what? How are we supposed to fit these small museums into the ecosystem of our cultural industries? The large museums, the Smithsonian, the British Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art all hold particular places. They fill roles in the canon. The big exhibitions travel to a certain number of pre-designated spots, like a large concert tour. We know how to treat these institutions. We know why we visit them: they are the central trading houses of certain cultural markets. We know what we can find there, and we go there for that purpose. But what about the small museum? Is it a tourist trap, just meant to suck a little cash out of the pocket when you stop for lunch? Is it simply something to do, in an area that has no other attractions? Or is it a vanity museum, only in existence by bequeath of some person or group that would like to see a particular “museum” dedicated to a certain topic in a certain place, and this was the limit of their resources? How do we know that anything important really happened in this place, and that this museum has any cultural artifacts of real worth?
We don’t know. It could be a worthless waste of five dollars. It could be a waste of time and gas to drive that far from the highway to find out. Or worse, it could simply be boring. Any of these things are possible. But here is something that we do know: it will be a museum. What good is a shitty museum, you might ask? The very thing that makes it a museum. Perhaps amateurish pit stops along the highway could be enjoyed on the level of kitsch, or in that nod and a wink Americana way I mentioned previously. But there is something about a museum that cannot fake or mimic what it does. There are no fake factories: a factory produces things, and if it does not produce, it is not a factory. Similarly, there are no false museums. You could argue the merits of that museum’s production, but you could not argue that it produces. The very act of calling oneself a museum denotes a very real effort to collect a certain amount of objects, and to present them to the public in a meaningful, cultural way. It is a dedicated arena of exhibition, whatever that may entail. Perhaps it is a collection of memorabilia, with only handwritten index cards to identify them. It could be a house full of antiques, with a volunteer staffer the only guide for their interpretation. It could be art that would never be shown on the walls of a canonical museum, and yet someone picked them to hang on these walls, in lieu of others. Every museum is curated. Every museum exhibits. And every museum wants you to come and see what it has waiting for you.
If you talk to the people who work at these museums, you will find a good number of volunteers. You will find people who already have an intimate connection to the subject matter, and not just a desire to work in museums. They will tell you about how they got barely enough donations to stay open this year, and how they have plans to add another room, or to build an accurate recreation of _____, if only they can reach their new fund raising goal. They will tell you of other small museums in the area that are similar and worth your while, or completely different and worth your while. And they will be glad to see you, and glad that you are hear to see what they have to show you.
Yes, it’s off the beaten path, and it’s a breath of fresh air, and it’s something different, something unique, and something new. But what it is, more than anything else, is culture. This is the stuff, right here. Not the true, the authentic, and the real: but the actual, the close-up, and what remains. A lot of this stuff, if it was not in the Small Museum, would not exist. No one else wants it, and no one else has the money and time to care for it. But this museum does, and so it exists, entered into the vast catalog of human culture. It might not be the most superlative instance of whatever it is, but it very much is what it is. There is an element of actual being to these things, a different sense of the world historical. They are not perfect specimens, preserved against the ravages of time. But they are what’s left. They are what could easily not exist, except for the fact of their exhibition. And in this way, they are art. They are cultural production. They are nothing more than what someone took the time to create with his or her own hands, and in that, they are everything. It is not a class of culture, or an aspect of culture that we’ve previously overlooked. It’s culture, no different than a Michelangelo or an Air Jordan sneaker, for exactly the same reasons. It is this culture, the vastness of the Small Museums in their totality, that is reducing the vitality of the canon. For better or worse. Far be it from me to judge.
What you get from a visit to a Small Museum is all up to you. There are no guarantees from this sort of cultural criticism. Like all consumption, what you get largely depends on you. The Small Museum is something of the “getting to the bottom of things”. As I stress, this verticality is not in the sense of a hierarchy or systemic ranking, nor anything radical or of deconstruction. But underneath the larger structures of our cultural production and distribution, there are minor structures and systems. Smaller, and yet the same. The hand that picks two shells out of thousands from a beach, tosses one into the ocean, and puts the other in the pocket. The mechanisms of choice. The Boolean logic binaries hiding within the vast spectra of aesthetic preference. The oddly human way in which we pour our memory over unsuspecting inanimate objects using our senses. This is going on all the time—not so much at the root of everything, but comprising the root, the stem, the sap, the leaves, and the fruit of everything. Everything that we would want to refer to within the easy confines of a metaphor. Once you’ve visited some of the Small Museums of America, you’ll want to see more. It will become a “thing” with you. You might, if you let it get to you, even start thinking of non-museums as Small Museums. The gum on a sidewalk. The bathing suits that people choose to wear. The names of gun shops. The taste of shitty beer. Other people might think it’s odd, even though they are doing the same thing more and more often, even though they don’t realize it. We are all judging, offering our criticism, and then turning around and showcasing, exhibiting, viewing, consuming. And then moving on. Others might treat you as an odd specimen. But don’t let it bother you too much. We’re all moving in this direction.
If you like, you can accompany me on my visit to yet another Small Museum of America next week. We’re going to the Museum of Walmart Parking Lots. Don’t forget your permission slip, and $9.99 for an extra value meal.
QUESTION: Some of the governments that have been mentioned in these cables are heavily censoring press in terms of releasing some of this information. How do you feel about that? (Laughter.)
MR. CROWLEY: The official position of the United States Government and the State Department has not changed. We value a vibrant, active, aggressive media. It is important to the development of civil society in this country and around the world. Our views have not changed, even if occasionally there are activities which we think are unhelpful and potentially harmful.
QUESTION: Do you know if the State Department regards WikiLeaks as a media organization?
MR. CROWLEY: No. We do not.
QUESTION: And why not?
MR. CROWLEY: WikiLeaks is not a media organization. That is our view.
QUESTION: So P.J., going back to the answer to your last question, have you contacted governments that have been censoring this to protest that – or sites that they have –
MR. CROWLEY: I’m not in a position to say what governments have done or what conversations have occurred between governments and media. There’s – certainly, there are countries around the world that do not have as robust a focus on these issues as ours does. That’s probably not a surprise to us, and when we do meet with these governments, we talk about media issues among key human rights issues. Our dialogue is not going to change over this.
QUESTION: P.J., on that subject of WikiLeaks, Amazon, as we know, did have them on their server for a time and then stopped doing that. And there’s a human rights group that says that Amazon was directed by the U.S. Government to stop that relationship. Do you know anything –
MR. CROWLEY: All I can say is I’m not aware of any contacts between the Department of State and Amazon.
QUESTION: Or the U.S. Government or just State?
MR. CROWLEY: I’m not in a position on this particular issue to talk about the entire government. I’m just not aware of any contacts directly.
QUESTION: From your perspective, what is WikiLeaks? How do you define them, if it is not a media organization, then?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, as the Secretary said earlier this week, it is – one might infer it has many characteristics of some internet sites. Not every internet site you would call a media organization or a news organization. We’re focused on WikiLeaks’s behavior, and I have had personally conversations with media outlets that are reporting on this, and we have had the opportunity to express our specific concerns about intelligence sources and methods and other interests that could put real lives at risk.
Mr. Assange, in a letter to our Ambassador in the United Kingdom over the weekend, after documents had been released to news organizations, made what we thought was a halfhearted gesture to have some sort of conversation, but that was after he released the documents and after he knew that they were going to emerge publicly. So I think there’s been a very different approach. And Mr. Assange obviously has a particular political objective behind his activities, and I think that, among other things, disqualifies him as being considered a journalist.
QUESTION: What is his political objective?
QUESTION: The same letter –
MR. CROWLEY: Hmm?
QUESTION: What is his political objective?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, his – I mean he could be considered a political actor. I think he’s an anarchist, but he’s not a journalist.
QUESTION: So his objective is to sow chaos, you mean?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, you all come here prepared to objectively report the activities of the United States Government. I think that Mr. Assange doesn’t meet that particular standard.
QUESTION: But just so I understand, P.J., what – I mean you just said the – that you thought he was –
MR. CROWLEY: Well, but I mean – let me – he’s not a journalist. He’s not a whistleblower. And there – he is a political actor. He has a political agenda. He is trying to undermine the international system of — that enables us to cooperate and collaborate with other governments and to work in multilateral settings and on a bilateral basis to help solve regional and international issues.
What he’s doing is damaging to our efforts and the efforts of other governments. They are putting at risk our national interest and the interests of other governments around the world. He is not an objective observer of anything. He is an active player. He has an agenda. He’s trying to pursue that agenda, and I don’t think he can – he can’t qualify as either a journalist on the one hand or a whistleblower on the other.
QUESTION: Sorry. What is that agenda, that political agenda? Can you be more –
MR. CROWLEY: I’ll leave it for Mr. Assange to define his agenda. He has been interviewed by some of your news organizations. He has the ability to talk for himself. But you asked — I was asked a specific question, “Do we consider him a journalist?” The answer is no.
QUESTION: In the same letter, he said that U.S. is trying to suppress the whole thing about human rights abuses. And do you agree with his contention that the U.S. is –
MR. CROWLEY: I found very little that Mr. Assange has said that we agree with.
Get that? Let’s summarize. The State Department deplores censorship of the media. But Wikileaks is not a media organizaton.
So if it is not a media organization, what does the State Department think it is?
[I]t has many characteristics of some internet sites. Not every internet site you would call a media organization or a news organization. We’re focused on WikiLeaks’s behavior….
And that behavior?
Mr. Assange obviously has a particular political objective behind his activities, and I think that, among other things, disqualifies him as being considered a journalist.
And that political objective? Despite being an anarchist, of course.
He’s not a whistleblower. And there – he is a political actor. He has a political agenda. He is trying to undermine the international system of — that enables us to cooperate and collaborate with other governments and to work in multilateral settings and on a bilateral basis to help solve regional and international issues.
What he’s doing is damaging to our efforts and the efforts of other governments. They are putting at risk our national interest and the interests of other governments around the world. He is not an objective observer of anything. He is an active player. He has an agenda. He’s trying to pursue that agenda, and I don’t think he can – he can’t qualify as either a journalist on the one hand or a whistleblower on the other.
So to do anything that might directly risk US interests and other governments’ interests is a political objective. So-called “objective reporting”, and even legitimate “whistleblower” status, must not contradict government objectives. Because that would make it political.
I don’t think I have to drag out the political theory to describe this as patently ridiculous. We don’t have to realize that everyday life is always political to acknowledge that, for example, suing the government over an eminent domain case and thereby challenging government objectives is a legitimate act. Endorsing a candidate is a legitimate act. Exposing corruption is a legitimate act. A media organization, a private citizen, whomever–they can do these things without attracting the ire of the State Department, without being anarchists.
The word I believe Mr. Crowley is looking for is “activist”.
To be in the media these days, to be a private citizen, is to be an activist. Either you stand up, or you sit down. If in this time politics includes web-borne leaks, a precipitous control of information, personal secrecy, and the ability to run a world-wide info-anarchist organization simply by being able to maintain a website (DDOS or not), then any person who forwards email is an activist. We already know that anyone who blogs can be part of the media. We’ve already fought this battle. What we’re learning now is that it isn’t about being media. You don’t have to be media to be in the right place at the right time, snap a photo with a cell phone and put it on your Twitter feed, and change the world. Maybe the media will reserve a certain sort of objective reporting, and write editorial columns to MLA standard. That is, as long as that sort of thing continues to be profitable. But the people who change the world with media won’t necessarily be media. They… YOU will be activists.
All activists have political objectives of their own. These political objectives are of minimal importance. Each piece of media is taken by various agencies, individuals, government entities, blogs, aggregators, and remixers, and interpreted in all of the ways that media is consumed and reproduced. Maybe that political objective is passed along, but it could easily be reversed or ignored.
This is no surprise to anyone who is not the Department of State. But what is a surprise to the rest of us is that all of a sudden, censorship of activists–that is, censorship of anyone who produces, holds, retransmits, or consumes media that is potentially contrary to the objectives of the State–is now permitted. Freedom of the press is obsolete, become obsolete with the presses and the publications they produced. In this present day future, the only protection is “objectivity”, of the kind that is never activist. Of the kind that is not contrary to the objectives of governments. Freedom of media is problem for other countries. Whereas, control of anarchists is the problem the State Department faces.
Julian Assange has made every person with a blog a potential anarchist. The real control of whether or not you are an anarchist, is how much the government disagrees with you.
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.
These are excellent. They are artwork, and so I could show you a screen shot, and you could see what they looked like. But they are also websites, so it would be like looking at a photo of a sculpture.
I can’t find out very much about the artist, except that his name is Andrey Yazev.
These remind me of the Stainless Steel kinetic ball toys. Machines which we can clearly see how they function, and yet have no purpose but to entertain. These sites are kind of like that, but for the age of the cloud. We click and drag, re-size and select all day long, but this is sort of way of “getting it out”. Just play with it. Like the satisfaction of clicking a bunch of times on a blank screen. Nothing at all, just cliclickliklciklickcicklick. A basket woven from bands of ten-fingered catharsis.
Also interesting: having to have the right browser to view a piece of art.
And one more fact: by hitting CTRL-U, you can see how he made his artwork. Cool.