Recommended Reading 20

This week’s recommendations cover the history of Wall Street’s addiction to inhumanly fast and economically abstracted trading practices; the history of “dark money” in American politics, culminating in the current game-changing dominance of hidden funding; the rise of real-life “cyborgs” via the burgeoning body-hacking movement; a couple of considerations of what it means for human social and personal existence to be wired into a digital social network of ad hoc spying and self-promotion; a look at the rise and definition of “knowledge art” in an age dominated by objectified scientific understandings of life and reality; a look at the meaning of art in light of evolutionary biology; an opinion piece from The New York Times lambasting the “positive thinking” movement as exemplified by Tony Robbins; and links to podcasts on “recovering environmentalists,” Jung and synchronicity, and findings from the new scientific study of the biological unconscious with neuroimagining technology.


Raging bulls: How Wall Street Got Addicted to Light-Speed Trading
Jerry Adler, Wired, August 3, 2012

Teaser: Wall Street used to bet on companies that build things. Now it just bets on technologies that make faster and faster trades.

High-frequency traders are a subset of quants, investors who make money the newfangled way: a fraction of a cent at a time, multiplied by hundreds of shares, tens of thousands of times a day. These traders occupy an anomalous position on Wall Street, carrying themselves with a distinctive mixture of diffidence and arrogance that sets them apart from the pure, unmixed arrogance of investment bankers … Faster and faster turn the wheels of finance, increasing the risk that they will spin out of control, that a perturbation somewhere in the system will scale up to a global crisis in a matter of seconds. “For the first time in financial history, machines can execute trades far faster than humans can intervene,” said Andrew Haldane, a regulatory official with the Bank of England, at another recent conference. “That gap is set to widen” … [B]arring any new breakthroughs in physics, we are in the final stages of a trend that began when the Rothschilds, by legend, used carrier pigeons to trade on the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo. For roughly a century leading up to 1970, the state of the art in financial communication was the telegraphic stock ticker (for receiving data) and the telephone (for transmitting orders). Now it is the high-speed server linked to a financial exchange by fiber-optic cable as short as physically possible, because each mile adds about eight microseconds of latency. There is so much money to be made that any expenditure on research and infrastructure to shave those microseconds is worth it … High-frequency trading raises an existential question for capitalism, one that most traders try to avoid confronting: Why do we have stock markets? To promote business investment, is the textbook answer, by assuring investors that they can always sell their shares at a published price—the guarantee of liquidity. From 1792 until 2006, the New York Stock Exchange was a nonprofit quasi utility owned by its members, the brokers who traded there. Today it is an arm of NYSE Euronext, whose own profits and stock price depend on getting high-frequency traders in the door. Trading increasingly is an end in itself, operating at a remove from the goods-and-services-producing part of the economy and taking a growing share of GDP—twice what it did a century ago, when Wall Street was financing the enormous industrial expansion of the economy.



Follow the Dark Money
AndyKroll, Mother Jones, July/August 2012

[NOTE: Forget about Mother Jones’s left-leaning tendencies. This amazingly extensive piece is an equal opportunity takedown of explosive proportions for all wings and factions of the current American political scene.]

Teaser: The down and dirty history of secret spending, PACs gone wild, and the epic four-decade fight over the only kind of political capital that matters.

Super-PACs, seven-figure checks, billionaire bankrollers, shadowy nonprofits: This is the state of play in what will be the first presidential election since Watergate to be fully privately funded. Faced with this money-drenched system, reformers respond: It won’t last. The pendulum is poised to swing once again. “I promise you, there will be huge scandals,” McCain said in March [27], “because there’s too much money washing around, too much of it we don’t know who’s behind it, and too much corruption associated with that kind of money.” Russ Feingold, McCain’s longtime legislative partner, agrees. “When this kind of money is changing hands secretly, it’s almost automatic that there will be a scandal,” Feingold says. “And this scandal could be the mother of all scandals.”



Cyborg America: inside the strange new world of basment body hackers
Ben Popper, The Verge, August 8, 2012

[NOTE: This extensive article is not only for its content but for its visual design, which is a beautiful example of what the Web can do to enhance a story. It also comes with a slickly produced 13-minute original video documentary.]

With the advent of the smartphone, many Americans have grown used to the idea of having a computer on their person at all times. Wearable technologies like Google’s Project Glass are narrowing the boundary between us and our devices even further by attaching a computer to a person’s face and integrating the software directly into a user’s field of vision. The paradigm shift is reflected in the names of our dominant operating systems. Gone are Microsoft’s Windows into the digital world, replaced by a union of man and machine: the iPhone or Android. For a small, growing community of technologists, none of this goes far enough … [Many] call themselves grinders — homebrew biohackers obsessed with the idea of human enhancement — who are looking for new ways to put machines into their bodies. … In one sense, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, part man, part machine, animated by electricity and with superhuman abilities, might be the first dark, early vision of what humans’ bodies would become when modern science was brought to bear … Over the last decade grinders have begun to form a loose culture, connected mostly by online forums like, where hundreds of aspiring cyborgs congregate to swap tips about the best bio-resistant coatings to prevent the body from rejecting magnetic implants and how to get illegal anesthetics shipped from Canada to the United States. There is another strain of biohacking which focuses on the possibilities for DIY genetics, but their work is far more theoretical than the hands-on experiments performed by grinders.



Agents Without Agency
Rob Horning, The New Inquiry, June 18, 2012

[NOTE: You might want to read this essay in tandem with “Facebook, Fahrenheit 451, and the crossing of a cultural threshold” for enhanced effect.]

[In the age of social media] We have come to take for granted comprehensive lateral surveillance. We have grown used to regarding friends as also spies, whose allegiance is uncertain; they are agents who are liable to identify us in photographs, keep tabs on our whereabouts, spread misinformation or disinformation in permanent, public forums on our behalf — or to our detriment, who can be sure? Even intimates can become inadvertent double or triple agents in the infinite regress of strategies and counterstrategies in our intricate social-media self-presentations, which we can never really be sure aren’t false-flag operations … Everything is a move in a complicated game that social-media surveillance makes sure we are always playing. Control over even our own identity slips away from us, as we lose sense of what is spontaneous and what is mere tactical performance in the midst of such recursive reflexivity … Surveillance has been sugarcoated as considerate sharing, as inclusive fun. When you talk about your medical conditions, for instance, you aren’t tipping off possible insurers but building community and offering hope to the similarly afflicted … We are continually faced with the tension between paying due social attention and making our friends incidental spying targets — what security experts call collateral intrusion … We see things more in terms of how they may be retransmitted rather than as they are … If we accept the consolations of the spy game, and embrace the sort of self-conception it structures, then we also concede that we are without agency. We are content to serve as a subroutine in a much larger program that we have no ability to direct. The incentives we experience stem not from some inner yearning, they don’t reflect the urge to exercise our will. Instead they are the means by which we are programmed to continue in our information-transmission functions. Any sense of personal mission shrinks to local tactics for keeping our intelligence pipeline flowing. Since we can’t understand the purpose of all the information we can gather, the only meaningful metric is more. As spies we come to learn that we are safest of all when we have nothing to hide and no one to protect. And in a brutally competitive, atomizing economy in which we must perform ourselves to survive and collecting as much information as we can for a market mechanism that works against everyone, we’re spies in a war of all against all, without a side to choose.



I’m wired, therefore I exist
Santiago Zabala, New Statesman, July 29, 2012

Teaser: But has your existence started to belong to others?

[NOTE: This is simply brilliant. It’s one of the best, most insightful, most penetrating articulations of a profound problem with “wired” life ever to hit the media webs, and it’s written by a sharp European philosophy professor. Note especially his keen distinction — an existential distinction, he stresses — between people who are simply online and those who are truly wired, with the latter group being those whose social and personal identities have become largely mediated through their online activities, and whose very existential distinctiveness and autonomy are therefore threatened in a very real way.]

Today if you are not often wired, you do not exist. Like radio and television in other times, the internet has become not only an indispensable tool but also a vital component of our life … But the ownership of this interactive life is troubled: when you start seeing interesting advertising on your Gmail banner, personalised ads aimed just at you, your existence has begun to belong to others … [T]here is a big difference between being online and being wired. This is not a simple semantic difference, but rather an existential distinction that determines our roles, tasks, and possibilities in the world today. Without suggesting a return to twentieth century existentialism (which arose as a reaction against scientific systems threatening humans beings uniqueness) philosophy must stress the vital danger that being wired can pose for our lives. Not everyone who is online is also wired. The latter refers to those capable to finding a date or a job through social networks such as LinkedIn, downloading the latest episodes of True Blood, or purchasing self-designed Nike shoes; the former avoid these services. Using the internet just for an email account and cheap airline tickets does not make you technologically incompetent, but rather concerned for your existential distinctiveness, that is, autonomy. For the wired West the danger of the internet does not lie in going crazy from too many hours spent online, although this is becoming more common, but rather in considering a wired existence transparent, free, and vital for your life rather than an active threat … If being wired seems the only possibility for existence today it’s because only those who have an IP address or Facebook account are recognisable; in other words, only the wired have identities. But the existential issue of wired does not inhere in the fact of being monitored, which is inevitable even offline today, but rather in the existential unfairness of our interactions on the web. We sacrifice not only the personal information we submit when we join a network or make a purchase but also part of our being, that is, our autonomy … While there is no quick answer to this question, the existential issues it raises are becoming as crucial as they were at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Like the worker in Chaplin’s Modern Times, who ends entangled in the machinery that has conditioned his existence, we must avoid seeing our preferences, interests, and views only in the banner advertisements constantly waved in our eyes.



Towards a Definition of Knowledge Art/Wissenskunst
Renée Gadsden,KM-A, January 13, 2010

What is the connection between knowledge and art, and is there such a thing as ‘knowledge art’ itself? The term Wissenskunst  was created by the English speaking social philosopher and author William Irwin Thompson. After a discussion with physicist Werner Heisenberg in Munich, Thompson created the word Wissenskunst  to describe his attempt to define an essay-narrative that was not just non-fiction, but something more art-oriented for a culture that is no longer simply orally bardic or academically literate. Thompson contrasted his word Wissenskunst with the German word for science, Wissenschaft, and contended: “As fiction and music are coming close to reorganizing knowledge, scholarship is becoming closer to art” … It is the consensus that science has been the official and dominant model for observing, understanding and interpreting the world since the Renaissance. This scientific view of the world is essentially dualistic and hierarchical, and is seen as being absolute and containing the “truth” about existence. In the last 400 years, non-scientific ways of recognition or knowledge (artistic, from old traditions or from non-industrialized cultures etc.) have been marginalized, labeled “un-scientific” and devalued. In the second half of the 20th century, there has been a steady increase in many sectors to revise and expand this dualistic and limited scientific conception of the world … The illusion that science is value-free, and that there can be a separation between knowledge and impact, is changing. All these factors have lead to a transformation in the relationship between science and art … More and more art can be looked upon as Wissenskunst, as the researching and explorative portions of art are being examined and determined.



Art over Biology
Adam Kirsch, The New Republic, July 12, 2012

The problem with Darwinian aesthetics and neuroaesthetics is not that art is like religion, something divine that can only be violated by bringing it back to the realm of biology. Aesthetics is different, in that the facts it has to work with are terrestrial, this-worldly. They are the feelings and the thoughts we have in response to works of art, and the feelings and the thoughts that lead us to want to create them in the first place. So it would seem that there is no reason, in principle, why these cannot be illuminated by evolution. But this can only happen if we begin with a full and accurate account of what we are trying to explain. Today’s Darwinists treat the aesthetic as if it were a collection of preferences and practices, each of which can be explained as an adaptation. But the preferences and the practices are secondary, made possible only by the fact that the aesthetic itself is a distinct dimension of human experience — not the by-product of something more fundamental, but itself fundamental. This dimension is defined in many ways — by its love of the hypothetical, of order and symbol, of representation for its own sake, of the clarity that comes from suspending the pragmatic; and it has, perhaps, as much in common with theoretical knowledge and contemplation as it does with sensory enjoyment. The “usefulness” of this whole way of being is what must be explained, if there is to be a plausible Darwinian aesthetics. Even if there were, it is hard to see how it would change the way we experience art, any more than knowing the mechanics of the eye makes a difference to the avidity of our sight.



The Positive Power of Negative Thinking
Oliver Burkeman, The New York Times, August 4, 2012

[NOTE: We’ve observed the beginnings of this trend before; see “Gloom Is Good: The Rise of the New Pessimists.” And all we can say is: it’s about time.]

What if all this positivity [in, for example, Tony Robbins-type seminars and other contemporary manifestations of the “positive thinking” gospel] is part of the problem? What if we’re trying too hard to think positive and might do better to reconsider our relationship to “negative” emotions and situations?  … Ancient philosophers and spiritual teachers understood the need to balance the positive with the negative, optimism with pessimism, a striving for success and security with an openness to failure and uncertainty. The Stoics recommended “the premeditation of evils,” or deliberately visualizing the worst-case scenario. This tends to reduce anxiety about the future: when you soberly picture how badly things could go in reality, you usually conclude that you could cope. Besides, they noted, imagining that you might lose the relationships and possessions you currently enjoy increases your gratitude for having them now. Positive thinking, by contrast, always leans into the future, ignoring present pleasures … From this perspective, the relentless cheer of positive thinking begins to seem less like an expression of joy and more like a stressful effort to stamp out any trace of negativity. Mr. Robbins’s trademark smile starts to resemble a rictus. A positive thinker can never relax, lest an awareness of sadness or failure creep in. And telling yourself that everything must work out is poor preparation for those times when they don’t. You can try, if you insist, to follow the famous self-help advice to eliminate the word “failure” from your vocabulary — but then you’ll just have an inadequate vocabulary when failure strikes. The social critic Barbara Ehrenreich has persuasively argued that the all-positive approach, with its rejection of the possibility of failure, helped bring on our present financial crises. The psychological evidence, backed by ancient wisdom, certainly suggests that it is not the recipe for success that it purports to be.



Recovering Environmentalists
The Extraenvironmentalist #46, July 28, 2012

[NOTE: You can read about the general purpose and vibe of the always-excellent Extraenvironmentalist podcast here. Then check out this recent episode with its typically sharp combination of high production values and fascinating (and valuable) content.]

Episode description: Success for the environmental movement has meant many of its members adopted mainstream values in attempts to sustain the unsustainable. Is sustainability a farce when associated with a way of life that is out of touch with reality? Global droughts, weather catastrophes and heatwaves are demonstrating the rapidly increasing impact of atmospheric greenhouse gases. With decades of inaction on climate change, are we all climate denialists? Could there be an environmental movement that works to exit the collapsing global system? In Extraenvironmentalist #46 we speak first with Paul Kingsnorth on why he’s withdrawn from the mainstream environmental movement and its discussions of sustainability. Paul tells us about developing the Dark Mountain Project to help us tell creative stories that embody the new narrative evolving from the end of industrial society. Then, Michael M’Gonigle [55m] joins us to talk about the importance of creating an exit-environmentalism that allows us to leave a global system which is falling apart. Michael describes why liberal environmentalism is no longer useful in creating laws to protect our environment in the extended version of an interview that originally aired on Radio Ecoshock. Finally, John Michael Greer [1h 56m] takes root in a new recurring and irregular segment to talk about denial and his take on the environmental movement.



Synchronicity and The Interconnected Universe, with Jungian Analyst Joseph Cambray
Shrink Wrap Radio #311, June 29, 2012

[NOTE: This is a podcast interview with Jungian analyst and scholar Joseph Cambray, Ph.D., who in addition to being President of the International Association of Analytical Psychology is a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, an adjunct faculty member at Pacifica Graduate Institute, and a working analyst and author. The topic is indicated by the title. The interview presents an interesting treatment of a fascinating subject.]



Subliminal – the new unconscious
All in the Mind, ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), July 1, 2012

[NOTE: This is a fascinating recorded presentation that’s capped by an amazingly astute series of questions from the studio audience. The presenter, Leonard Mlodinow, talks about the subjects covered in his new book, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior.]

Leonard Mlodinow is a theoretical physicist who’s turned his mind to the unconscious.  Not the unconscious mind of Freudian fame which was examined through psychoanalysis in the 19th century — but a new science of the unconscious made possible by technologies which reveal the physiology of our brains. We discuss the hidden forces that rule our behaviour.



About Matt Cardin


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