epistemic black markets; algorithmic governance; psychedelics; the future

Lately I’ve been reading the work of Sun-Ha Hong, a scholar whose work “examines how new media and its data become invested with ideals of precision, objectivity and truth – especially through aesthetic, speculative, and otherwise apparently non-rational means.”  That bio statement is taken from his website: sunhahong.wordpress.com.

He writes about the future as a cultural motif:

On Futures, and Epistemic Black Markets

The future does not exist: and this simple fact gives it a special epistemic function.

The future is where truths too uncertain, fears too politically incorrect, ideas too unprovable, receive unofficial license to roam… The future is a liminal zone, a margin of tolerated unorthodoxy that provides essential compensation for the rigidity of modern epistemic systems. This ‘flexibility’ is central to the perceived ruptures of traditional authorities in the contemporary moment. What we call post-fact politics (David Roberts), the age of skepticism (Siebers, Leiter), the rise of pre-emption (Massumi, Amoore), describe situations where apparently well-established infrastructures of belief and proof are disrupted by transgressive associations of words and things. The future is here conceptualised as a mode for such interventions.

This view helps us understand the present-day intersection of two contradictory fantasies: first, the quest to know and predict exhaustively, especially through new technologies and algorithms; second, heightened anxiety over uncertainties that both necessitate and elude those efforts.

So the future, as Hong conceptualizes it, is almost an episteme — an ” ‘apparatus’ which makes possible the separation, not of the true from the false, but of what may from what may not be characterized as scientific.”  (Foucault, Power/Knowledge). The possibilities of prediction now structure the research and development of all sorts of important tools. If the future, the idea of it, doesn’t strictly determine scientific knowledge, it at least assists in its production.

In a talk titled The Digital Regime of Truth: From the Algorithmic Governmentality to a New Rule of Law, philosopher Antoinette Rouvroy discusses that which defies capture by the digital:

Another remnant that escapes digitisation is the future. Spinoza said we do not know what a body can do. This conditional dimension about what a body could do, it is the conditional dimension in itself. Previously I wrote that the target of algorithmic governmentality is precisely this unrealised part of the future, the actualisation of the virtual. But of course, there is a recalcitrance of human life to any excessive organisation (Manchev 2009). I think that this unrealised in the future is effectively a source of recalcitrance, and even if we believe that we can predict everything (and this comes under the Big Data ideology: ‘crunching numbers is the new way to be smart’).

There’s a clear connection between the future and capital. We need the future as a valve for production. The insights of Rouvroy comport with Sun-ha Hong’s.

The future is the eminent epistemic black market, the general category of the subject of algorithmic governmentality. Unpredictability ought to be exterminated, or at least meticulously controlled, under this program. Psychedelic experiences — which are by nature speculative and unpredictable, and whose efficacy as therapeutic tools may come from their tendency to break predictable psychological patterns — are an important point of intersection here. Psychedelic experiences are wild and unruly; they tend to dig new tunnels into the infinitesimally small, elusive spaces of their own ontological and phenomenological continuities. Thus psychedelic science is a useful case for affirming (if not articulating) the unique character of the unrealized dimension of the future — an element of life itself which resists digital control.

(painting by Guy Billout)

come back trish keenan

I’ll show you for example / a situation that’s like winter / and I’m not complaining about night time / it’s harder in the morning / my room’s too small for parties / too spacious when you’re lonely / so books can make us friends / that’s as long as we are reading /  turn the lights off when you`re leaving / I want to watch the car park empty / it’s easy when they’re strangers / to wave goodbye / my brother’s back off holiday / he’s been chasing girls in Spain / he said he’d bring me a guitar / which I said would bring me fame / I remember your excitement / choosing pictures for your wall / and now you’ve seen them oh so often / you hardly see them anymore / turn the lights off when you’re leaving / I want to watch the car park empty / it’s easy when they’re strangers / to wave goodbye / I remember your excitement / choosing pictures for your wall / and now you’ve seen them oh so often / you hardly see them anymore / turn the light’s off when you’re leaving / I want to watch the car park empty / it’s easy when they’re strangers / to wave goodbye

Sights and sounds a little mystical,

Sensoria, tactile apparatuses for the brain. If the verses for the second aren’t proof of a psychedelic protocol in literature — see the second paragraph  — I don’t know what is.

“Only a palace with interior doors / well painted well gargoyled with multiple floors / two windows let free this projector machine and the magical world here appears on the screen / my servants attend me with tricks of the senses / the past and the future and similar tenses and on platters of air they convey me my measure both gladness and sorrow, I lack not for treasure  / the lord and his lady are seated within / in the court of the mind where the song does begin / the song is as fine is as fine is as follows  / the song does continue through measureless hollows that sink from the level of personal being through caverns of darkness where dragons are dwelling  /the mountains above them are raised at my calling /  there the apples are ripe or the rain is a-falling / in ships of white vision I sail the horizon / where three spinners stand beyond the horizon / under the tree of the apples of beauty / I watch them arranging my days and tomorrows / The song is as fine is as fine as it follows / I stood on the beach where the moon was a-curling / Laughed on the wings of the sea birds calling / I loved when sweet Venus a lover did bring me / I cried when sweet Saturn and Jupiter moved us and all of my servants were fighting their brothers / And the lord and the lady they hated each other / Till the spinners arose with their work on their fingers / Commanding the presence of Heavenly singers / That spoke of the silence so soon to be coming / When all would be still in the wonderful palace / The peace is not stillness but peacefully changing / This hope is the hope of the man on the gallows / The song is as fine is as fine is as follows / The infant I was in the womb of my mother White sperm I was in the loins of my father / Before that I swam in the oceans of nowhere / Where the fish are as fine as the colour of colours / Where waves are the message of centuries rolling / Where wind is the breath of the Holy Creator / Where no ship sails but only the ocean / Where all the rivers grow mighty with showing / And crowned with the gifts of the myriad valleys / Return with a sigh to the sea of the coming / Forever and ever and ever and ever / be glad O be Glad for the song has no ending.” The Incredible String Band, The Head

 

Tomorrow I’ll be giving a talk at the Human Futures and Intelligent Machines Summit at Virginia Tech.

 

Check out the program: http://o-culus.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Human-Futures-and-Intelligent-Machines-Agenda1.pdf and a link to the livestream: https://virginiatech.zoom.us/my/tech4humanity

Here’s an excerpt from an essay, in progress, which includes some of the ideas I’ll share in the talk.

***

As a scholar, I am less interested in the Internet than I am in emerging cultural and ethical problems presented by data at scale. However, Internet studies is an important stage for my research, as data and the Internet are mutually constitutive. Because critical perspectives on data are welcomed within its scope, I am invested in this field.

An important accomplice to my scholarship is queer theory; specifically, the growing movement toward a “queer Internet studies.” I maintain that queer Internet studies can be used to challenge digital positivism, and that queer theory’s treatment of gender identity in particular is a highly useful tool for scrutinizing the epistemic ground of digital positivism. As the name suggests, “queer Internet studies” deploys queer theory and methodologies in its investigations of the Internet. Per the work of one of its founding figures, Michel Foucault, a major function of queer theory is to reveal the lack of determinacy in the emergence of dominant power structures — in other words, to demonstrate that events which have appeared natural or inevitable were as historically contingent as “unnatural” or “queer” phenomena. A queer perspective on the Internet gives traction to research that subverts or “makes strange” given precepts of digital modernity. Thus queer internet studies can significantly decenter digital positivism.

Of course, “queer” is not just a name applied antecedently to outcomes prescribed by Foucault. Historically, queer studies has focused on subjects relating to gender, sexuality, affect, identity, and related topics. Of these, “identity” is among the more difficult to define: whereas there is some consensus that “sexuality” guides specific desires, what identity means in function and principle is a more intractable riddle. In fact, the persistence of this conflict has itself proven to be a rich site for investigation. Gender and sexuality may partially constitute personal identity, but the difficulty of the project of isolating an essence to identity itself has frequently been both a beginning and terminal point for inquiry.

In the digital world, however, “identity” has at least one unambiguous meaning: it refers to the external markers by which expressed online selfhood is confirmed to be the real you. These are the markers that are “stolen” when identity theft occurs: your name, date of birth, social security number and so on. Put together, they form an image of a human being that has financial value across various platforms, which is why identity theft is a lucrative crime. According to this usage, identity is always and only data. But less instrumental conceptions of “identity” are also finding increasingly greater expression in data. With the rise of personal quantification tools and positivist self-reflections produced by our networked habits, selfhood has never before been understood quite so much a function of metric as it is today. Social media theorist Rob Horning paints an unsettling picture of this in his essay “Sick of Myself:”

As more information about ourselves is captured within Big Data systems by phones,
social media platforms, fitness trackers, facial recognition software, and other forms of surveillance, algorithms assign identity markers to us, place us in categories based on correlations to patterns drawn from massive data sets, regardless of whether these correspond to how we think of ourselves. We become, to an extent, what other people do, as their data contributes to how ours is interpreted. The system will infer our identity, according to categories it defines or invents, and use these to shape our environments and further guide our behavior, sharpen the way we have been classified, and make the data about us denser, deeper. As these positivist systems saturate social existence, they nullify the idea that there is something about identity that can’t be captured as data. (Horning, 2017)

Here, Horning points out that the ineffable parts of identity are not only under siege by information, but that the information which assaults human beings on an individual basis is not actually native to each individual. Rather, a great deal of it issues from statistical means: the data-individual is in part an average derived from varyingly-sourced information that is algorithmically grouped and blended into opaque homogeneity. Here, selfhood is understood as a triangulation from demographic factors that apply to humans en masse. The person reflected is not so much themselves as a representative sample, stripped of the quirks and rough edges that would disturb the smoothness of a statistical normal curve.

For this human simulacrum, philosopher Gilles Deleuze coined the term “dividual.” In his essay “Postscript on Societies of Control,” he writes: “the numerical language of control is made of codes that mark access to information, or reject it. We no longer find ourselves dealing with the mass/individual pair. Individuals have become ‘dividuals,’ and masses, samples, data, markets, or ‘banks’” (Deleuze, 1992). None of the data the compose the Deleuzian dividual exist beyond a network that gives them meaning, a network that averages the information of millions to make of each one a picture with least enough structural coherence to render it cogible to others. Here, the question of identity is answered by equivocation and resemblance-making rather than the proclamation of unique character.

By certain accounts of what is meant by the term “queer,” then, the Deleuzian dividual is already not-queer. In her essay “A Declaration of Psychedelic Studies” — which, like this one, sees in queer theory a possible ally to a developing interdisciplinary field — psychedelic researcher Neşe Devenot interprets a formulation promoted by queer theorist David Halperin to reflect queerness as defined by deviance:

Unlike gay identity, which, though deliberately proclaimed in an act of affirmation, is nonetheless rooted in the positive fact of homosexual object-choice, queer identity need not be grounded in any positive truth or in any stable reality. As the very word implies, “queer” does not name some natural kind or refer to some determinate object; it acquires its meaning from its oppositional relation to the norm. Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence. “Queer,” then, demarcates not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normative…it describes a horizon of possibility whose precise extent and heterogeneous scope cannot in principle be delimited in advance. (Devenot, 2012)

If “queer” demarcates a positionality as opposed to a positivity, it is always beyond the reach of the reifying operations of data production. Horning’s “Sick of Myself” draws attention to the economic logic that underscores these procedures: the ineffable self as ever-more occluded by data is a product of the capitalist injunction to transform all phenomena into profit. This process begins with reification, or the concrete representation of a transcendent or ineffable entity. Reification may distort or misrepresent its subject, but in this case, faithful representation is beside the point: if an entity cannot take form and shape — if it demonstrates no positive core or essence — it cannot be mobilized as a vehicle for capital. As such, capitalism has no need to acknowledge it.

Following this, if there is indeed an aspect of identity that cannot be expressed in data, drawing attention to this is not in the interest of the largest financial stakeholders of the Web. Amazon, Alphabet, Facebook, Netflix, and similar companies depend on a constant stream of user engagement, out which is derived more potentially profitable information about them. A positivist perspective suggests that this picture is capable of wholly encapsulating its subject, or at least every profitable angle of it. This representable self is the data-self, the self as a function of algorithmic reconstruction. Because the data-self, the dividual, is a useful figure for intervening in data positivism, in/dividual identity is the main conceptual lens through which I mobilize queer Internet studies against digital positivism. This is not to imply that queer identity is the only intellectual antidote to digital positivism. But it is productive for this insofar as identity is both a foundation of Internet business models and a primary concern for queer theory.

Christian Fuchs, Vincent Mosco, Rob Horning and a growing number of like-minded contemporary thinkers question the assumption that more information leads to more truth. This is a bold line of reasoning, and it is necessary to foreground it in Internet studies. Internet research that is founded on the same precepts by which Internet stakeholders conduct business can only hope to make a small amount of room for surface-level cultural and social analyses. In his essay “From digital positivism and administrative big data analytics towards critical digital and social media research!” — exclamation point included in the original title — Fuchs offers a clarion call to scholars who would hope for something more:

We need a paradigm shift from administrative digital positivist big data analytics towards critical social media research. Critical social media research combines critical social media theory, critical digital methods and critical-realist social media research ethics. Challenging big data analytics as the mainstream of digital media studies requires us to think about theoretical (ontological), methodological (epistemological) and ethical dimensions of an alternative paradigm. (Fuchs, 2017)

As he notes, this critical turn must unfold on many fronts, furnishing dynamic opportunities for reflection, inquiry, and transgression. Such scholarship can reveal the current state of the Internet for its precise lack of inevitability, for the fact that Web infrastructure has been appropriated to serve normative ends, and that this was not determined in advance but rather a function of the capitalist telos.

 

 

more jazz listening than usual these days

I took this video about seven years ago on a very very cold night. There were so many people in the audience I couldn’t maintain a decent shot for ten minutes.

A little easier on the ears/brain.

mood antipodes

 

Polar ends of a strange and specific but very familiar (to me) emotional spectrum.

Excerpt from Betty Grover Eisner’s “The Importance Of The Nonverbal In Psychedelic States”

In this highly logical and verbal society-where semantics appear to be the trafficway of human relationship-it may be disconcerting to find that words often complicate interaction rather than Simplify it. This is particularly evident in relationships where neurotic elements are present. In our culture ego defenses most commonly use verbalization as a method of manipulation and control. Words are also used, consciously or unconsciously, to deny basic motivation and intent. As our western civilization has grown toward the logical, the rational, and the scientific, attention has been diverted (sometimes forcibly) from the intuitive, the spontaneous, and the so-called irrational. This split between rational and irrational-between conscious and unconscious-makes an individual feel pulled apart. In order to operate efficiently with other people he must close off his deeper levels. The price of effective closure is a feeling of emptiness and loneliness; as a by-product creativity shrivels and dies. The use of psychedelics has made excruciatingly but excitingly clear the extent to which adults have been conditioned away from access to the unconscious during the process of growing up. The psychedelic experience gives glimpses that life is intended to be full of brilliant color, stereophonic sound, flowing dimensionality on the sensory level, and unitive and ecstatic experience in relationship to the one-or to the many.

During the past nine years of work with mind-changing drugs, the focus of our interest has turned increasingly toward the removal of barriers which stand in the way of the individual’s fulfillment of his creative potential. In the language of psychotherapy, this means concern with change of character-change of lifelong habit patterns of perception and action. Most of the patients seen and worked with have been from the hard-core residual of individuals who have not been helped by any form of ordinary psychotherapy. ‘Ne have watched the psychedelics emerge not only as the fastest potentiators of character analysis but in many cases as the only possible tools able to create conditions wherein change can occur-tools, so to speak, for opening doors closed by heavy locks and bolts of long disuse. It has been of interest and importance to discover that with knowledge and experimental experience, smaller doses can be substituted for larger ones, and less potent, less esoteric drugs can be as useful as LSD and mescaline. The techniques that make this possible also speed the process of psychotherapy. One factor is the increasing use of individuals trained in drug work and in group processes. (By “drug” is meant treatment with LSD, mescaline, Ritalin or amphetamines, used alone or in various combinations, and also experimental work by the research group with other psychedelics such as ibogaine and ololiuqui). The other is the development of a whole new series of therapeutic techniques-mostly non-verbal.

Betty Grover Eisner’s Erowid page

indignities

Writing tweets; thinking in pull quotes; drunk brocialists; disappointment, faintly suggested but fully registered; hangovers; Puerto Rico; superhero movies; Elon Musk; Bitcoin boosters; union busters; the treacly-precious task of recuperating “dignity;” being a good sport; tawny blonde highlights; forgetting how to offend; being forgotten; forgetting faces but not conversations; losing your religion; enjoying yourself more when you realize you’re enjoying yourself; bug bites; the tradeoff between pure erotic fantasy and spontaneous honesty; stuttering; politically incorrect lucid dreams; the jokes that don’t land; the jokes that land too much; the agora of protein bars; New York, NY.

I’ll think of more later.

picture update

Since I sometimes think I should post more images here, some screenshots I’ve taken recently, plus a photo of a gorgeous copy of Avital Ronell’s CRACK WARS.

 

I like that it has three ribbons, presumably to mark three different places in the text. It’s useful.