problem children

In November, I’m presenting a paper tentatively titled “The Electric Kool-Aid Turing Test” at this conference  in Brighton, England. My argument is that emerging paradigms in research on the use of psychedelic drugs as psychotherapeutic tools problematize machine learning.

To be more specific: the recent resurgence of psychedelic drug research has, generally, privileged quantitative and empirical methods over qualitative and interpretive methods. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. My suspicion, though, is that quantitative methods may not be sufficient to understand trip reports in a way that contributes to workable medical knowledge — that the data gathered from the profoundly subjective experience of a psychedelic trip requires as much theorization, sensitivity to context and (quite frankly) creativity to parse in order to draw meaningful conclusions from them. This disturbs the capacity for them to be operationalized in an algorithm, especially a machine-learning algorithm that relies on inference and prediction to extrapolate beyond finite training data.

This is pulled from my abstract:

The paper draws from interdisciplinary scholarship that uses qualitative methods to interpret research on psychedelics as psychotherapeutic tools. I combine precepts of machine learning with developments in psychedelic research to explore the complexities of generalizing findings, which includes accounts from those undergoing “ineffable” and difficult- to-predict experiences — for data modeling. In doing so, I demonstrate that the use of qualitative methods in psychedelic drug research may offer useful insights to the field of machine learning… [later]  I explore axioms of machine learning that emphasize the ways in which  generalization and inductive reasoning are used to build algorithms that effectively “predict” the  future. Here I partially draw on the work of Pedro Domingos, whose research explores how  machine learning generalizes “beyond” finite data sets. Joining emerging paradigms from  psychedelic research and machine learning, I offer that the former can help the latter a) account for difficult-to- predict phenomena and b) understand its possible limitations.

The turn toward interpretation and qualitative approaches is the “emerging paradigm” in psychedelic research to which I refer. Scholarly work has been published very recently that foregrounds qualia and subjectivity in clinical trials with psychedelics. Furthermore, some scholars emphasize that philosophy is implicated in the outcome of these trials, and that the answer to why psychedelics are effective at treating mental illness may be entangled with traditionally philosophical concerns.

I’m not unique in connecting psychedelics to machine learning / machine consciousness. Andrew Smart’s book Beyond Zero and One attempts to theorize machine consciousness with the question: could a robot [an artificially intelligent mind] trip on acid [some sort of digitally modeled version of LSD]? Beyond Zero and One came out in 2015 and I suppose I could be accused of stealing some of Smart’s ideas, at least on the surface. Yoinks, a connection between machine consciousness and psychedelic drugs!

Actually there’s a funny story here: I was working at the publishing company behind Beyond Zero and One in the months leading up to its publication — I helped with the publicity for it. Despite a long-standing interest in psychedelic studies and computer science, the book seemed too much like a pop-science head trip to me to bother reading it and I basically forgot it existed until I started doing this work. (I could have even snagged a free copy, but I didn’t … sorry to Andrew Smart and my former employers at O/R Books…).  At any rate, not accounting for the possibility that it somehow got lodged in my unconscious mind, I can say that Andrew Smart and I arrived at the same connection independent of one another. With questions about the mind, consciousness, associative thinking, and so on central to both psychedelic studies and machine learning, this seems fairly plausible.

At any rate, I’m fully in the throes of this project now. It may become part of my dissertation — I hope it does, but as folks in higher ed know, some of that is beyond my control. Honestly, the fact that psychedelic research is so controversial will make this already complicated work all the more difficult. For the most part, I’ve been fairly quiet about this interest to avoid raising eyebrows. But since I’ll be “outing” myself by giving a psychedelic conference talk anyway, a possible new way of confronting the controversy is to own it — to be open about it, stand behind what I’m doing. To that end, I’ve been tweeting a lot more about psychedelic stuff, testing the waters I suppose, and talking to some sympathetic colleagues.

There’s a lot more to say, interesting connections between books and papers I’ve consulted. I’ll write it all down somewhere. One day.

The Virginia Tech library doesn’t have an extensive amount of material on psychedelic science, but they do have a copy of Albert Hoffman’s LSD: My Problem Child that I’m going to check out before I leave here today…




not digging political art

Re-reading Walter Benjamin’s “The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction” — good to remember this, from the epilogue, as fascist tendencies are again on the rise:

“The growing proletarianization of modern man and the increasing
formation of masses are two aspects of the same process. Fascism attempts to
organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property
structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in
giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express
themselves.21 The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism
seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result
of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. The violation of the masses, whom Fascism, with its Führer cult, forces to their knees, has its
counterpart in the violation of an apparatus which is pressed into the production of ritual values. All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war.”

Also I’m not sure what the conventions are, but I don’t want to capitalize “fascism.”

another fiction excerpt — from a story about the boring apocalypse

So we talked about armageddon. We sat and talked in the tawny glow of the night light until the sadness that had cast us in the same shadow for months got too big. You should go, I told him, get some sleep. Give my dreams breathing room. I wanted to return to the warehouse with bloated cartoons that wrapped themselves across the corners of the walls, teasing party kids with their bouquet of fake colors.

He talked about a neoprene vest he bought in Nairobi and I never felt so miserable in my life. He talked about sculpting with vectors in high dimensions, city kids and the smarts required to build gaming machines from local trash. Not a monologue for my taste, I thought and protested with an empty-eyed nod. I wanted to descend the length of the rope ladder that dangled from the industrial neon heights, flex my ankles through the trap door announced by electric bells and LED buzzers. The party dungeon whose real contours are unknowable because it’s a lightless basement. And there to find the magic layers that had peeled off him over time had been reconstituted and made flesh. A new man.

I wanted to walk up behind him, push up his hair and speak into the back of his head. What did you see? Tell me what sight so bad it fixed your mind on the endtimes. What line of reasoning so determinate it made you flee to the domestic. My home where you so coolly remark on this state of affairs, where hours congeal in numb complicity with my desires. Unlike the warehouse-time (kairos) that would press me into oblivion at its whims.

In the tamed world platitudes are enough to tell the truth. So I asked for a lie. Because he said no future is true, but I had something else up my sleeve, a sense that all this was more simple than it seemed. So I parted with my psychic indulgence, restored my attention to our sadness and the single light. He would dream in my lap and I’d stay up to observe a new day breaking.

digital culture: articles assigned on my syllabus

Putting the finishing touches on my Fall 2017 syllabus. I teach an overview of twentieth century comparative literature, with brief forays into art history and media theory. The overarching theme of the course is the impact of technology and notions of modernity on the arts.

Our third and final unit specifically focuses on digital culture. Here are the readings, in order, with links attached if the content is free and available online:


Week 1: Jorge Luis Borges, “Tlön Uqbar Orbis Tertius” (short story) (1940) / watching: The Matrix (1999)

Week 2: Nathan Jurgenson, “View From Nowhere” (op-ed) (2014) link”

Kate Crawford, Kate Miltner and Mary L Gray: “Critiquing Big Data: Ethics, Politics, Epistemology” (article) (2014)

Week 3: Donna Haraway, “A Manifesto For Cyborgs” (excerpt from book) (1984)

Alyssa Battistoni “Monstrous, Duplicated, Potent: On Donna Haraway” (op-ed) (2017)

Week 4: Jorge Luis Borges, “Funes The Memorious” (short story) (1942) / watching Black Mirror, “The Entire History Of You” (2011)

Week 5: Rob Horning, “Social Media Is Not Self Expression” (op-ed) (2014)

and final lecture on Internet concept art.

And here’s what I would assign if I had more time:

Gabriella Coleman, Coding Freedom (book):

Richard Stallman, “On Hacking” (personal thoughts):

Paul Ford, “What Is Code?” (editorial):

Gilles Deleuze, Postscript On Societies of Control (scholarly article):

Shoshanna Zuboff, “Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism” (op-ed):






I’m not updating this a lot, but I’m doing things. Not into the idea that we need to appear constantly productive, engaged, profit-making, etc, either online or in the physical world. But for some reason I’m still compelled every now and then to check in to this site and make some sort of official declaration that

I’m plugging away hard as ever on things I find interesting, more concerned every day about the nexus of global ecological devastation and consumer capitalism, etc. A dissertation proposal, syllabus, some non-coursework essays, that kind of thing. Happy Summer ’17.

A lot of thoughts about data and control in particular. New writing from Rob Horning remind me that there are very useful departure points for my research:

“When we limit identity to consumer choices, it makes us more knowable to others in this datafied form than we are to ourselves. But being scored through our data also feeds the fantasy that we are essentially knowable, that we can know ourselves completely and totally, taking into account all the implications and ramifications of the various traits we possess. Algorithms promise a simple solution to the riddle of the self, should we want one. They promise the certainty that data alone suffices to make a self — just generate data and you are significant, a somebody, a unique identification number at the very least. One can accept the ready pleasure of consumerism rather than pursue the freedom of autonomy, which is always imperfect and requires boundless innovation in our techniques of resistance. We can learn the secret of ourselves, as long as we consent to be controlled.”

The rest is here:

Also I’ve been traveling. At some point I should post photos from Nashville, Brooklyn, Chicago, Dallas, and southern Virginia, AKA home for almost an entire year now. Time’s flying..


book page that says: those who forget the future are condemned to repeat it

don’t ever think that you can’t change the past or the future! (as kate bush says)

entertaining the fantasy of complete psychological self-sufficiency

“I conceived of a rather odd project: not the evolution of sexual
behavior but the projection of a history of the link between the
obligation to tell the truth and the prohibitions against sexuality. I
asked: How had the subject been compelled to decipher himself in
regard to what was forbidden? It is a question of the relation
between asceticism and truth.

Max Weber posed the question: If one wants to behave
rationally and regulate one’s action according to true principles,
what part of one’s self should one renounce? What is the ascetic
price of reason? To what kind of asceticism should one submit? I
posed the opposite question: How have certain kinds of
interdictions required the price of certain kinds of knowledge
about oneself? What must one know about oneself in order to be
willing to renounce anything?”

— Michel Foucault, from “Technologies of the Self”

after life

…the invention of the Morse alphabet in 1837 was promptly followed by the tapping specters of spiritistic seances sending their messages from the realm of the dead. Promptly as well, photographic plates-even and especially those taken with the camera shutter closed-furnished reproductions of ghosts or specters, whose black-andwhite fuzziness only served to underscore the promise of resemblance. Finally, one of the ten applications Edison envisioned for his newly invented phonograph in the North American Review ( 1878) was to record “the last words of dying persons.”

It was only a small step from such a “family record, “with its special consideration of revenants, to fantasies that had telephone cables linking the living and the dead. What Leopold Bloom in Ulysses could only wish for in his Dublin graveyard meditations had already been turned into science fiction by Walter Rathenau, the AEG chairman of the board and futurist writer. In Rathenau’s story “Resurrection Co.,” the cemetery administration of Necropolis, Dacota/USA, following a series of scandalous premature burials in 1898, founds a daughter company entitled “Dacota and Central Resurrection Telephone Bell Co.” with a cap­ital stock of $750,000. Its sole purpose is to make certain that the inhabitants of graves, too, are connected to the public telephone network. Whereupon the dead avail themselves of the opportunity to prove, long before McLuhan, that the content of one medium is always another medium-in this concrete case, a deformation professionelle.

These days, paranormal voices on tape or radio, the likes of which have been spiritistically researched since 1959 and preserved in rock music since Laurie Anderson’s 1982 release Big Science, inform their researchers of their preferred radio wavelength. This already occurred in 1898, in the case of Senate President Schreber: when a paranormal, beautifully autonomous “base or nerve language” revealed its code as well as its channels, message and channel became one. “You just have to Introduction 13 choose a middle-, short-, or long-wave talk-show station, or the ‘white noise’ between two stations, or the ‘Jurgenson wave,’ which, depending on where you are, is located around 1450 to 1600 kHz between Vienna and Moscow. ” If you replay a tape that has been recorded off the radio, you will hear all kinds of ghost voices that do not originate from any known radio station, but that, like all official newscasters, indulge in radio self-advertisement. Indeed, the location and existence of that “Jürgenson wave” was pinpointed by none other than “Friedrich Jürgenson, the Nestor of vocal research.”

The realm of the dead is as extensive as the storage and transmission capabilities of a given culture. As Klaus Theweleit noted, media are always flight apparatuses into the great beyond. If gravestones stood as symbols at the beginning of culture itself, our media technology can retrieve all gods. The old written laments about ephemerality, which measured no more than distance between writing and sensuality, suddenly fall silent. In our mediascape, immortals have come to exist again.

—Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter

Vita Obscura: Reclaiming Your Life Through Lies, Surgery and Performance

Here’s a little video I made. It’s a coda to a paper I’m working on titled Vita Obscura: Obfuscating Biopower. In the paper I talk about how obfuscation as an anti-surveillance strategy can be used to resist biopower (Michel Foucault’s formula for how command and control works in modern societies). The video has some imaginative examples of how this could be applied in a dystopian near-future scenario.


I presented the paper at the Infosocial 2017 Conference at Northwestern University last month. I got some good feedback aaaand now I’m all the more aware that it needs more work before it can be published / put online. Hopefully soon!