masking

“Magic is bloody untruth, but in it domination is not yet disclaimed by transforming itself into a pure truth underlying the world which it enslaves. The magician imitates demons; to frighten or placate them he makes intimidating or appeasing gestures. Although his task was impersonation he did not claim to be made in the image of the invisible power, as does civilized man, whose modest hunting ground then shrinks to the unified cosmos, in which nothing exists but prey. Only when made in such an image does man attain the identity of the self which cannot be lost in identification with the other but takes possession of itself once and for all as an impenetrable mask.” (Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment)

“Whatever is profound loves masks; what is most profound even hates image and parable. Might not nothing less than the opposite , be the proper disguise for the shame of a god? A questionable question: it would be odd if some mystic had not risked something to that effect in his mind…A man whose sense of shame has some profundity encounters his destinies and delicate decisions, too, on paths which few ever reach and of whose mere existence his closest intimates must not know: his mortal danger is concealed from their eyes, and so is his regained sureness of life. Such a concealed man who instinctively needs speech for silence and for burial in silence and who is inexhaustible in his evasion of communication, wants and sees to it that a mask of him roams in his place through the hearts and heads of his friends. And supposing he did not want it, he would still realize some day that in spite of that a mask of him is there – and that this is well. Every profound spirit needs a mask: even more, around every profound spirit a mask is growing continually, owing to the constantly false, namely shallow , interpretation of every word, every step, every sign of life he gives.” (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil)

Image of girl removing her own face

(image by Aldous Massie)

endless, nameless

Thinking a lot about the lack of endings, of resolution and closure in digital worlds. There are the infinite scrolls and timelines of social media, of course, but also the punishing productivity norms of web development. Lots of beginnings and few endings, except in the case of unambiguous failure —a breakup, a parting with a particular platform (like that thing I wrote about Platform Death a while back), a project that simply runs into the ground.

Today I found this passage in The Transparency Society, where Byung Chul Han is specifically talking about the Internet:

“Conclusion in the strict sense is possible only within narration. In a denarrativized, deritualized world, the ending only amounts to a breaking-off that gives pain and unsettles (der schmerz und verstört). Only in the frame of narration can the ending appear as completion. Without a narrative quality, an ending is always absolute loss, absolute lack.”  (page 31)

In the real world happy endings do exist, but of course they exist as the function of a story that preceded them, one with elements that, through some discernible logic, moves to the satisfying conclusion. A narrative.

Probably the Internet we have now is denarrativized to the point where we can’t happily finalize the engagements we get pulled into therein. Of course that’s the point; it’s a product that needs to keep selling itself to you; it just creeps me out when I think about all the extraneous afterlives-of-things it’s encouraged.

spirituality and surveillance

Turns out, a lot of people have been thinking, writing, and preaching (!) about the connections between spirituality and surveillance for some time now.

I found a podcast of a sermon given by Unitarian Universalist Reverend M. Lara Hoke a few years ago. She’s asking people of faith to use their belief system as the basis for questioning government surveillance.

Aside from her ministry work, Hoke is a former government agent and current member of Veterans For Peace (which is an awesome nonprofit). Good stuff in this sermon:

“For those of us who believe in God, there are far more sophisticated theologies than ‘God is watching, so act right.’  And for those of us who want to be good citizens and good human beings, there are more sophisticated and important reasons to act morally than the knowledge that we are under surveillance. I don’t know if it’s in our best interest to act as if though God were there, but I do know that it’s in our best interest to not let our government get away with playing God.” 

But you should really listen to the whole thing.

make america online again

My fifth hotel in ten days — three in Virginia, one in New York City, one in North Carolina. These nights have been punctuated by stays at my parents’ house in New York and my apartment in Asheville, NC, whose lease expired on the thirty-first of July.

Current location is Christiansburg, Virginia, not too far from the place I’ll be moving into next week. Most of my earthly possessions are in a six by ten foot enclosure in a storage facility in the mountainous outer regions of this town fifteen minutes or so from the Affordable Corporate Suites. I have two TVs, two computers and two stringed instruments with me. One plastic suitcase full of cotton clothing. I’m alone.

This week I’ll be trying to finish up writing that I surely won’t have time for during the school year, organize the final leg of this migration (which involves moving my stuff from Christiansburg to the nearby town of Blacksburg, home of Virginia Tech and yours truly for the next four years), and relish the remains of summer (which means something to me, unlike most of my friends, because unlike them I’m still in school).

Here are some of the best things I’ve read recently:

Surveillance, Spectacle and the Panoptic State — one of the more interesting results from a quick search for “spirituality and surveillance.” I’ve been thinking a lot about the connections between the two since HOPE …

Our Fairytales, Ourselves: Storytelling From East To West — good for fans of:  Joseph Campbell, Haruki Murakami, Hayao Miyazaki, aesthetic wonder, aesthetics as ethics, aesthetic solutions. Maybe not good for: die-hard Hero’s Journey adherents; fans of Curious George, Disney Movies or Jane Austen.

Drone Feminism: When Feminists Get A Drone  — did you know Sheryl Sandberg consulted for The Marines?

I also want to tell everybody how much I like Harold Budd’s The White Arcades. Pretty close to what music from an astral plane would sound like, even more so than the Incredible String Band’s Astral Plane Theme (which is also worth a listen).

If I do what I’m supposed to be doing, a more interesting post is forthcoming.

the HOPEaroids

I just got back from HOPE, which was fantastic. All the talks should be archived here.

I also found a Polaroid camera at the back of a closet in my parents’ house. It’s a lot of fun to play with. Some of the first experiments are below.

The color borders bother me a bit.  I bought film for the Polaroid 600 camera from The Impossible Project and had no idea what to expect; I’d never taken a polaroid before last week, and I got one pack of the color border exposures because they’re cheaper. Also, I would have scanned these, but word on the street is that scanning polaroids can damage them.

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Excerpt from “Alice in Prague, or The Curious Room” by Angela Carter

The young girl found her voice at last.

“Tell me,” she said, “the answer to this problem: the Governor of Kgoujni wants to give a very small dinner party, and invites his father’s brother-in-law, his brother’s father-in-law, his father-in-law’s brother, and his brother-in-law’s father. Find the number of guests.”*

At the sound of her voice, which was as clear as a looking-glass, everything in the curious room gave a shake and a  shudder and, for a moment, looked as if it were painted on gauze, like a theatrical effect, and might disappear if a bright light were shone on it. Dr. Dee stroked his beard reflectively. He could provide answers to many questions, or knew where to look for answers. He had gone and caught a falling starre — didn’t a piece of it lie beside the stuffed dodo? To impregnate the aggressively phallic mandrake, with its masculinity to the power of two, implied by its name, was a task which, he pondered, the omnivorous Archduke, with his enthusiasm for erotic esoterica, might prove capable of. And the answer to the other two imponderables posed by the poet were obtainable, surely, through the intermediary of the angels, if only one scried long enough.

He truly believed nothing was unknowable. That is what makes him a modern.

But, to the child’s question, he can imagine no answer.

Kelly, forced against his nature to suspect the presence of another world that would destroy his confidence in tricks, is sunk in introspection, and has not even heard her.

However, such magic as there is in this world, as opposed to the worlds that can be made out of dictionaries, can only be real when it is artificial and Dr. Dee himself, whilst a member of the Cambridge Footlights at university, before his beard was white or long, directed a famous production of Aristophanes’ Peace at Trinity College, in which he sent a grocer’s boy right up to heaven, laden with his basket as if to make deliveries, on the back of a giant beetle.

Arychtas made a flying dove of wood. At Nuremburg, according to Boterus, an adept constructed both an eagle and a fly and set them to flutter and flap across his laboratory, to the astonishment of all. In olden times, the statues that Daedalus built raised their arms and moved their legs due to the action of weights, and of shifting deposits of mercury. Albertus Magnus, the Great Sage, cast a head in brass that spoke.

Are they animate or not, these beings that jerk and shudder into such a semblance of life? Do these creatures believe themselves to be human? And if they do, at what point might they, by virtue of the sheer intensity of their belief, become so?

(In Prague, the city of the Golem, an image can come to life).

The Doctor thinks about these things a great deal and thinks the child upon his knee, babbling about the inhabitants of another world, must be a little automaton popped up from God knows where.

Meanwhile, the door marked “Forbidden” opened up again.

***

*There’s an answer given in the text, but I’m not going to include it here.

“To Those Born Later,” Bertolt Brecht

[I]

Truly, I live in dark times!
The guileless word is folly. A smooth forehead
suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs
has simply not yet had
The terrible news.

What kind of times are they, when
a talk about trees is almost a crime
because it implies silence about so many horrors?
That man there calmly crossing the street
is already perhaps beyond the reach of his friends
who are in need?

It is true I still earn my keep
but, believe me, that is only an accident. Nothing
I do gives me the right to eat my fill.
by chance I’ve been spared. (If my luck breaks, I am lost).

They say to me: Eat and drink! Be glad you have it!
but how can I eat and drink if I snatch what I eat
from the starving, and
my glass of water belongs to one dying of thirst?
And yet I eat and drink.

I would also like to be wise.
in the old books it says what wisdom is:
To shun the strife of the world and to live out
your brief time without fear
also to get along without violence
to return good for evil
not to fulfill your desires but to forget them
is accounted wise.
All this I cannot do:
truly, I live in dark times.

[II]

To the cities I came in a time of disorder
that was ruled by hunger.
I sheltered with the people in a time of uproar
and then I joined in their rebellion.
That’s how I passed my time that was given to me on this Earth.

I ate my dinners between the battles,
I lay down to sleep among the murderers,
I didn’t care for much for love
and for nature’s beauties I had little patience.
That’s how I passed my time that was given to me on this Earth.

The city streets all led to foul swamps in my time,
my speech betrayed me to the butchers.
I could do only little
but without me those that ruled could not sleep so easily:
That’s what I hoped.
That’s how I passed my time that was given to me on this Earth.

Our forces were slight and small,
Our goal lay in the far distance
clearly in our sights,
If for me myself beyond my reaching.
that’s how I passed my time that was given to me on this Earth.

[III]

You who will come to the surface
from the flood that’s overwhelmed us and drowned us all
must think, when you speak of our weakness in times of darkness
that you’ve not had to face:

Days when we were used to changing countries
more often than shoes,
through the war of the classes despairing
that there was only injustice and no outrage.

Even so we realised
hatred of oppression still distorts the features,
anger at injustice still makes voices raised and ugly.
Oh we, who wished to lay for the foundations for peace and friendliness,
could never be friendly ourselves.

And in the future when no longer
do human beings still treat themselves as animals,
look back on us with indulgence.

 

 

intention and its discontents

In light of the DAO hack (here’s a tl;dr for those not in the know), a lot of people have been talking about intention — the role that conscious will, something we generally ascribe to humans, should play in code-based organizations that are designed to be run without centralized human oversight. The logic goes that if all members of a DAO agree on the terms of the smart contract it runs, there should be little (if any) need  for the intervention of human judgment during its period of operation.

In a rather dreamy moment I started thinking about a totally different institution in which the concept of intention is diminished: Eastern religion. Non-intention, surrendering to processes much larger than oneself, and participation in collaborative efforts that minimize the role of individual are cornerstones of Buddhist and Taoist thought.

I was riffing on this cool code-philosophy parallel for a little while, trying to see things from the perspective of a hypothetical autonomous-code purist — a technologist who would never, under any circumstances, support the role of intention in a blockchain program or organization.

Unlike code, intention isn’t scientific. In fact it’s deeply subjective, open not only to varying interpretation by others but to revision and even misunderstanding by the original bearer of that intention, at a later date. There’s something pretty Zen about “trust in the code,” or even “trustless technology” (two terms that essentially mean the same thing, though I prefer the former). And maybe, through some mental gymnastics, the analogy between non-intention in spirituality and non-intention in code could help me understand the appeal of entirely removing humans from processes that may have very deep effects on them (such as the loss of ~$50M).

The only thing is that… drumroll, please… machines aren’t humans!

Non-intention is a beautiful idea when we’re talking about minimizing the role of the ego, of desire and selfishness, in humans — in order to alleviate their suffering (see: Buddhism 101). It’s an interesting way to think about humans creating art, too (see: John Cage).

To get really spiritual here for a second, I think that [insert your higher power of choice] gifted humans with something we can’t give to machines. Or at least we haven’t gotten there yet. You could call it consciousness, though that word doesn’t feel quite right—”soul” and “spirit”  would have to be included in the definition. As part of this ineffable God-given whatever, we have the ability to set forth a will and intention that touches various factors and dimensions of our existence. These may include factors of which we’re not consciously aware.

Since machines are pretty far away from being humans (including the most advanced AI, though I know that this is a contentious opinion among some), I don’t think that what is necessarily good for humans on the level of metaphysical principles works in the realm of computers. In fact, I know it doesn’t. Not yet, anyway.

As it is, this is a very abstract rationale for the same argument  that Primavera de Filippi advances in much more concrete and practical terms here.