“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.

 

 

 

it’s still summertime

Many miles of driving later — I’m in New York!

 

Like many of my friends, I’m finding that both watching and ignoring the media are really painful things to do right now. Looking forward to heading back South in a few weeks, but home is an OK place to be at the moment.

It feels a little tone deaf to draw attention to anything other than all the violence transpiring in our country, but in other corners of reality, life continues… confusing and hard to make sense of, yeah, but still pretty beautiful.

Since I’m in the Hudson Valley, this article by David A. Banks — on the homogenization of small cities, particularly those along the Hudson River —  is striking a nerve.

Also, I really like this — Primavera de Filippi on the need for human intervention in blockchain-based decentralized organizations (in light of the recent~$50M DAO hack).

As she writes: “if the objective is to promote individual emancipation, we must give people the ability—and the responsibility—to shape their own future. As long as there is consensus, people should be able to update their ‘social contract’— even if it has been encoded into a ‘smart contract.’ Any refusal to do so would mean that people have ultimately lost agency to a trustless system that might eventually turn against them.”

Indeed: I’ve also been reading about hypothetical blockchain DAOs that incorporate some elements of AI in them. If such things ever come into existence (and the author of that article thinks it’s inevitable), we’ll probably want some humans in there.

OK, think that’s pau for now. Happy Summer.

it’s summertime

This is my last full week in Asheville!

Next Sunday or Monday I’ll be heading to Columbia, South Carolina, where I’ll be spending the fourth of July. Around the seventh, I start driving to the Hudson Valley to house-sit/see friends and family (including my new nephew, born in May, who I’ve yet to meet) for a few weeks.

Will mostly be landed in Poughkeepsie and driving my car across the mid-Hudson bridge to Rosendale and New Paltz as much as possible… and maybe haunting some strange corners of the Bard College campus, too. Will also probably head into NYC at least once or twice, until the twenty-fourth, after which I’ll be in Manhattan for a few days to become enlightened by the cool freaks and hackers populating the HOPE conference. (By the way, they just posted the HOPE schedule today and it is so good, check it out).

After HOPE I’ll be back in the Hudson Valley for a day or so. Then my car and I will make our way back down to Asheville before July’s end for the sole purpose of moving furniture and boxes to a storage facility in Blacksburg, Virginia, where my stuff will live for about eleven days while I hole up in a hotel nearby (and/or bounce down to South Carolina … or crash in Asheville …?)

I move into my new place in Blacksburg on August eleventh, and some time within the following week, will formally begin the next phase of the research/writing/teaching life at Virginia Tech.

Not sure who’s out there reading this, but to all yall, please send good vibes and traveler’s luck my way! And if it looks like we might cross paths let me know, too. Some of this travel is to spend much-needed time with people I love, and some is to make new friends (provided I have enough energy to do so).

the black peaks (fiction)

I said to him: people these days sense everything that speaks to their hearts must be totally contained, must rise to the surface of things. Nobody can reconcile those hidden staircases in themselves, not with all the debt on their hands.

When we’d get worried about our future together he’d say: intelligence won’t save us. I’d say that we’re pattern-recognizers, decent at prognostication, and he’d reply (cool as ever) that clairvoyance won’t save us either.

We’d both say that we saw meaning everywhere. That the world was our body — until we got so uncomfortable with what was undeniably mundane, what was not part of or designed for us, that it made us depressed.

I told him about the difference between difference and indifference. Indifferent means apathetic in a relative way because… difference connotes meaning? Undiscovered vistas for the mind? Is that right? (Yes, that approximates all this strangeness I’m trying to convey).

Because thinking is always an excursion out toward the new. Not the exotic, the sanitized novelty of the foreign available only to those with disposable  income. What I mean is the alien, the hostile. I’m still getting chills from the thought of those thrills.

***

It’s an election year. You know that old saying, as goes Ohio…

I told him I only dated boys from flyover states. That I liked Midwestern simplicity. I told him I meant that in a nice way. Trust me I hate New York (and by the way, I live in the South now).

***

I want a hero, an uncommon want when every year and month makes the idea more ridiculous. A boy with a mind bright and exact as polished lacquer. On a day so hot that sentences dry on the page long before I write their end and my perception liquifies to near worthlessness this dream boy could still offer a little incisive comfort. Like, go take a cool shower.

Go take a cool shower, I’ll think of the steam rising from your red collar bones up to the crown of your dark wet hair. Fog on the mirror, condensation on my glass. Think about me thinking about that.

***

Now pretend we’re lost on a day hot as this and trying to divine water.  No time to pretend.

So tell me a secret. (I’ve got too many, he’d say).

Then give me your most well-guarded, the one you swore you wouldn’t take to your grave but still might for having never found her, that merciful  trusty harbor, what romantics call The One. Make me her.

Because we’ve got a desperate thirst now, and a climate unpunctuated by rain, this drought that gives us nothing but a production and carnival of mirages. Heat that makes the sky shine like a wedding band, the ring you forged in the fire of your cheap college age mythology (the one you never gave away). Stagger the minutes before this air kills us both. You, Hero, you make my heart stop first.

But maybe the sky would open and rain would save us while the words were on the edge of your lips. Right after you’d already come to a decision about which to reveal. And then you’d go back, home to the black peaks I wrote as your home after we met.

I’ll get a message from you one day, another reminder of what won’t save us. Go out and find him in reality, you’d say, and don’t forget not to think weird things.

 

 

 

immemoria (fiction)

(1)

They’ll laugh when they don’t understand you and they’ll laugh when they do. He was very tired, she could tell by the colors around his eyes, he’s tired and so am I.

I feel helpless against the surveillance state, against the inexorable spread of technology. The worst part is that it’s not fit to write about. Maybe it’ll pierce me to the core, cataloguing every corner of my Self, and an aura of information will crown my head.

We’re the first to suffer these indignities. He told me that he time-traveled to the year 2000 in a dream. To stop the terrorists, to stop the government, or something. Did you succeed? Well, I woke up, he said. I woke up too soon.

Once I read that the Internet makes people glassy. That means it either makes them perfectly transparent or given to revealing themselves through a veil of distortion; I’m not sure which.

I also read that past-life regressionists work by hypnotic suggestion, implanting false memories into their patients’ unconscious minds. They might tell you in a past life you were an escaped slave that died before reaching safety.

If you’re into past lives you should take an interest in epigenetics, too, he said, it’s always relevant in a post-genocidal society like ours.

(2)

Someone told me that we remember our Internet browsing history as if it were a dream.

I remember none of it, he said to me.

None?

Only porn, conversations with other people, and extremely interesting pieces of writing.

In 2016 fiction writing strikes my friends as a disordered language game, its relationship to words as arbitrary as the rapid-fire associations made by the schizoaffective. This is what happens when you lose your intuitive feeling for reality: moments cease to be irreducible. They become atomized in order to make themselves available to a taxonomy. It’s a sort of fascism too. The imagination breaks; storytelling becomes an impossible art.

In 2011 one girl told me that her therapist diagnosed her with “hyperrationality disorder.” She was just intellectualizing herself out of her sadness, he said, and that’s a slippery slope.

I wouldn’t have agreed back then —  I would have protested, taken the explanation as haughty. But I could have if I’d been more wise. I know now, I know I know there’s a way out of this and it’s not through.

“Much has been made of the resemblances between the two totalitarianisms, communism and Nazism. They are undeniable, with this one difference, that the communists committed their crimes in betrayal of the values on which they founded themselves, and the Nazis, in fulfillment of theirs.” – Chris Marker, Coréenes

note

At the very beginning of my PhD research — which formally begins in August — here’s some stuff I hope to be working on:

  • The  all-encompassing directive of transparency, in particular the role of interiority and personal myth-making in the “post-privacy” age.
  • Power differentials between individuals and institutions re: surveillance and data gathering.
  • Social issues of blockchain development and other “Web 3.0” technologies.

This is subject to change, and it almost surely will. (It’ll narrow down significantly or change completely).

And here are some contemporary thinkers whose work on these subjects I like:

 

abstract / in progress: a garden of forking code

Working on this.

***

In this essay, I argue that regular social media use imposes unique difficulties on the process of writing fiction, and that these difficulties stem from the social web’s overarching ethos of personal transparency. The essay takes a first-person perspective, drawing on my own experiences online and as a writer, though it is primarily built around arguments from recent theoretical works on literature and the Internet. I begin by identifying myself as a lifelong writer of fiction as well as a social media user and state that I’ve experienced difficulties with writing fiction, problems I believe are related to my own social media use. I then turn to works of literary criticism that argue for the necessity of deception and illusion as tools of fiction before making the claim that the same mechanisms of deception so central to fiction writing are considered anathema on social networks.

Then, I proceed to philosopher Byung Chul Han’s 2012 book The Transparency Society to flesh out this argument. Taking Han’s central claim in this work — that transparency is the guiding principle of the digital age, and that this has a negative impact on the inner lives of individuals  — as a starting point, I argue that digital transparency has a specific chilling effect on the writerly imagination and capacity to storytell. I then build on Han’s arguments about the Internet to argue that social media exemplifies the hyperreal in Jean Baudrillard’s sense of the term: the Internet is a space “more real than real,” I claim, and is thus ontologically further from fiction than the offline world. Because social media exemplifies Baudrillard’s hyperreality, I write, its frequent use widens the cognitive gap between the self and the imaginative mental landscape fiction writers must inhabit.

I move on to discuss Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “Funes The Memorious.” “Funes” describes a man who, after a freak accident, begins to remember everything that ever happens to him. In so doing, he loses his ability to generalize, deduce and make meaning from his day-to-day experiences: his awareness becomes so full of details that he fails to abstract any meaning-conferring frameworks from them. I argue that the situation of poor Funes is analogous to the lived experience of frequent Internet use: it extracts so much detailed information about our lives that constructing meaning from them on terms beyond those already provided to use by the web’s frameworks become difficult. Social media use, I argue, defamiliarizes us with the process of intuitive patterning that allows us to make meaning from our lives, offering curated timelines and other other content structures as a substitute for our own personal meaning-making frameworks. I argue that this defamiliarization with the internal narrativization process in turn makes it difficult to imagine stories for made-up characters and situations.

I end my essay with a restatement of my argument: the landscape of the social Internet, a structure that deteriorates the possibility for a cohesive internal narrative in its orgiastic production of ever-more self information, is problematic for fiction writing. It must be tread conscientiously by writers who wish to preserve a healthy relationship to their art.

***

why aren’t there more women futurists?

Last week I found this piece in The Atlantic: Why Aren’t There More Women Futurists?. Taking the introduction of Facebook’s Moneypenny (presumably a prototype of M, which was just being launched around the time the article was published) as a point of departure, writer Rose Eveleth picks apart the lack of women in the field of futurism. “Both the World Future Society and the Association of Professional Futurists are headed by women right now,” she writes, “but most lists of ‘top futurists’ perhaps include one female name. Often, that woman is no longer working in the field.”

I got excited by the article because a) I’m female and b) I have, at various times, self-identified as both a futurist and someone who finds the whole subject, and particularly the label, kind of silly. It’s like magician or hacker. You have to be careful about using those terms; it’s too easy to arouse suspicion that you’re a weird person or trying to look like a weird person, neither of which are really desirable if you’re actually hacking, practicing magic, or studying the future. When that’s the case, it’s in your best interest to try to blend in with the crowd.

The words hacker, magician, and futurist  have a few things in common: they’re specific enough to be meaningful but vague enough to be powerful. They also refer to the unknown: deep technical infrastructures, the occult, our grandchildren’s generation. And although those words are technically gender-neutral, it’s far more common to find male hackers, magicians and futurists than those who ID as female or other genders.

The vagueness of the term futurist seems to have something to do with the gender disparity. At least, Eveleth devotes a bit of her article to it. “It turns out that what makes someone a futurist, and what makes something futurism, isn’t well defined,” she says. “When you ask those who are part of official futurist societies, like the APF and the WFS, they often struggle to answer.” Apparently some think of transhumanists as futurists, and some futurists hate that; many people consider science fiction authors to be futurists; some think that a degree in foresight (an emerging academic field that draws on business and technology studies; this one is exemplary) qualifies one as such.

According to her, everybody basically agrees that the following people are futurists: Aubrey de Gray, the chief researcher at the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence Research Foundation; Elon Musk, the head of SpaceX; Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google; and Ray Kurzweil, the director of engineering at Google.  (Fun fact: I saw Ray Kurzweil give a lecture on the singularity in 2010. I had a good time, but my friend told me she thought he was an asshole).

Aubrey de Gray, Elon Musk, Sergey Brin and Ray Kurzweil are all men, which is of course important to the conversation about women and futurism. “The thing is,”  Eveleth writes, “the futures that get imagined depend largely on the person or people doing the imagining.” No kidding. She then launches into a discussion of how futurism is inevitably linked with the male-dominated fields of science and technology, and has also struggled with a major legitimacy crisis since the 1960s. She quotes Amy Zalman, CEO of the World Futures Society: “Like magicians, crystal ball gazers, sort of flakey, that’s the reputation that followed the WFS for awhile. Because the field itself had to struggle to be taken seriously, that put more pressure on folks to demonstrate that they were scientific. And it was coded masculine,” Zalman says.

There’s nothing quite like adopting a masculine image to legitimize your field. There’s also nothing like tech savviness to affirm the seriousness with which you pursue your interests. If you write poetry and make music, people tend to offer you more respect as a creator when you say that you build websites to display your poems and digitally mix and produce your own songs (just trust me on those counts). So perhaps futurism came to associated itself with not only masculinity, but also science and technology, for respectability purposes.

Eveleth also discusses how leaving women out of the futurism conversation means that the futures we imagine and build wind up excluding women (again, no surprises there). She quotes Madeline Ashby, a futurist with a degree in strategic foresight, on this. “For a long time, the future has belonged to people who haven’t had to struggle,” Ashby says. Indeed, all of the futurists listed above are not only men, they’re white men with lots of money. The futures they imagine draw on life histories most people can’t relate to.

I think it’s important here to emphasize the necessity of female and minority perspectives in futurism without conflating womanhood with an intrinsic preference for arts and humanities (especially insofar as those interests are typically seen as being exclusive of interests in science and tech). That’s a little too close to second-wave feminism for my comfort level. Eveleth interviewed several women who are either self-identified futurists or who work in associated professions to get a well-rounded set of viewpoints. The picture that emerges is nuanced.  It’s not at all what she was going for in her article, but this still bears mentioning — it’s just too easy to confuse the fact that women and gender minorities have to deal with a lot of social issues that men do not with a reductive vision that sets women up as being more altruistic or having “softer” concerns than men.

I kept thinking about this when I read this quote Madeline Ashby: “the one reason why futurism as a discipline is so white and male is because white males have the ability to offer the most optimistic vision,” she says. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine the brightest possible futures when you’re of the gender, race and income level that offers you the power to build it.

I initially thought it remarkable that Ashby seemed to take for granted the fact that futurists must be optimists; actually Ashby and Eveleth responded to me when I posted this blog out on Twitter. “People ask for the optimism. I don’t impose it,” Ashby explained. People like optimism, as a general rule, and it seems pretty important with respect to futurism. Maybe this, too, has something to do with futurism’s legitimacy crisis: historically doomsayers aren’t known for attracting widespread audiences, except to be held up as cultural or religious heretics or even straight-up conspiracy theorists. Eveleth points out that “TED speakers always seem to end their talk, no matter how dire, on an upward-facing note.” Indeed, TED built its brand on feel-good, easily digestible futurism. I have yet to watch a TED talk that made me feel worse about humanity.

It can be hard to stir up feelings of optimism about the future if you aren’t male and white, if you’re under the poverty line, if you are disabled or chronically ill. This is well-known territory for many of us, and it’s important to keep saying these things.

It’s also important to remember that women and demographic minorities  do the invisible work that keeps the world turning: domestic and affective labor. Drudgery and dirty work. It’s hard to pitch your mind into visions of the future when you are stuck taking care of the Here and Now, which is often far less interesting, but that caretaking work happens anyway, of course, because it has to.

When you lack control over your own destiny, when you’re forced into life circumstances you wouldn’t choose, what gives your life meaning has to be a little bit different for you than for those who do have power and agency. Instead of getting excited about a brilliant future, perhaps you find enchantment in more seemingly mundane things. Or are interested in living by timeless values, principles that need no funding, research, or engineering. Again, it’s not easy to make this argument without falling into a narrowly-construed vision of women and other minorities. I’m not trying to say that women fail to participate in futurism because they’ve been trapped in the Here and Now as a function of intrinsic gender qualities, but that — if it relates to anything beyond preference on an individual level at all — it’s a matter of circumstances beyond their control.

…and, also:  as with many of the women interviewed by Eveleth, my vision of the future is very different from that of Ray Kurzweil, Aubrey de Gray, and whoever dreamt up Facebook’s M. I would argue for a futurism that examines arts, social structures and respect for the environment of our planet more so than one that accelerates the development of augmented reality or life-extending technologies. I would like a futurism that sees in human beings the same enchanting qualities that we see in new technologies while also recognizing the primacy of timeless principles.

I’m not sure it’s possible to promote a futurism that re-enchants the human as long as we’re all living in this secular, culturally heterogeneous modern world — just like I’m not sure that my gender has anything to do with my opinion on futurism overall (I suspect it doesn’t, honestly). But it’s not a bad idea to think about. It seems like a lot of people are already doing the work, even if they don’t ever want to call it “futurism.”