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COVID-19 and our apocalyptic house of cards

During this present moment of breathtaking global turmoil that’s characterized by crumbling foundational assumptions and free-falling civilizational presuppositions, the above video, published at BoingBoing, may constitute the most necessary viewing on the entire internet. Words and narration by long-time Teeming Brain friend Erik Davis. Card manipulation by renowned magician and “magic experience designer” Ferdinando Buscema. Musical soundscape by Bluetech. Overall production and direction by Italian mentalist Francesco Tesei. All of it focused on the matter of “the ongoing pandemic, disorder, and the opportunity emerging from the entropy.” (Thank you, btw, to Teem member David Metcalfe for alerting me to the video’s existence with a tweet.)

The first part of Erik’s narration sets the philosophical scene:

Everyone knows what a house of cards is. But until recently, you probably didn’t realize you actually lived in one. Normally, we ignore the complexity of the human world around us, this network of unstable structures propped up through improvised designs and just-in-time responses. But the pandemic has now shown us just how flimsy these structures are. Now we can all sense the fragility of our institutions, especially for the most vulnerable. The mask is off. From financial markets to health care, from jobs to the food supply, from debt to news, we can feel the rickety edifice of civilization begin to wobble and crack. The rug, it seems, is being pulled out from under us. And as we hunker down, anxious and isolated, our own personal realities begin to disintegrate as well.

Erik goes on to point out that such periods of crumbling structures and their accompanying apocalyptic anxieties, which have erupted into human affairs throughout history, bring with them an unexpectedly salubrious result and a major opportunity as they deliver us from the unacknowledged prison of what we have mistakenly thought of as solid, permanent arrangements, and toss us right into the heart of “the chaos that precedes all creation.”

That particular wording brings to mind the theologian Catherine Keller and her article “The Lost Chaos of Creation,” a portion of which I used nearly 20 years ago, with her permission, as the closing epigraph to my Divinations of the Deep. More recently, in fact just last month, she and her fellow theologian John J. Thatamanil wrote an op-ed for the ABC’s Religion and Ethics portal titled “Is this an Apocalypse? We certainly hope so — and you should too.” Their point, which they built around the original and profound meaning of the word “apocalypse” (something I’ve talked about here many times in the past), resonates warmly with the house of cards illustration above:

Contemporaries keep using the term “apocalypse,” but literalist biblical interpretation notwithstanding, the term doesn’t mean what many think it means. Deriving from the Greek apokalypsis, the word means “unveiling” or “revelation.” Hence, the title given to the final book of the Christian Bible, “The Apocalypse of John,” is accurately translated “Revelation” not “Cataclysm.” Not “The End.” Unfortunately, this root meaning has been forgotten in popular circles.

When the term is understood as “unveiling,” we can then ask the right questions: What does this pandemic unveil? What have we refused to see about ourselves and the precarious world we’ve built, a world that now stands exposed and tottering in the harsh light of this unasked-for revelation? If we permit this crisis to expose the fissures of our failing world, this pandemic will have served as properly apocalyptic. If instead, despite its devastating toll, we return to an obsolete and unsustainable world, nothing meaningful will have been revealed. . . .

So what might coronavirus “reveal” to us? Is it at once our inescapable interdependence with an earth-full of humans and nonhumans? Does that entanglement turn deadly when we repress it? When we think we can control, commodify and consume the matter of the world, does it bite back at our own mattering bodies? . . .

Perhaps, if we are able to awaken to what is unveiled in this apocalyptic moment, we will make our way forward into a new world rather than shore up the old one. . . .

[W]hat are the chances for a habitable and hospitably shared future? Close to none, if responsibility for the damage remains concealed. Which is why, even in the midst of flood, fire, or pandemic — a way, a wisdom, can get revealed. Apocalypse after all? May it be so!

As I myself argued here some seven years ago, apocalypse, rightly regarded, is a path of spiritual awakening. You walk it when you deliberately allow and encourage the crumbling of surface appearances and seemingly solid structures around you, and even within you, to serve as spurs to awakening. When you let the death of the false, which you had formerly and mistakenly regarded as the true, wake you up to the real. When you embrace the exit from Plato’s Cave because somebody blew it up around you. When you embrace the desert of the real that came into view when you woke up from the Matrix because somebody pulled the plug.

As I said seven years ago, like any real spiritual path, this is ultimately not something that you choose but something that chooses you. And as it so happens, with the advent of the Coronacene, the Way of Apocalypse has apparently chosen all of us at once. It remains to be seen how many of us will prove to be like Cypher, who begged to be plugged back into the Matrix, to reenter the dream because he hated reality. How many of us will be like the prisoners in the cave who didn’t want to leave because they loved their imprisonment. We’re seeing aspects of that particular psychological and cultural tension beginning play out right now. The quote from Philip K. Dick that rounds out the house of cards video (drawn from his 1978 speech/essay “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later,” whose title helps to explain the title of the video) supplies a necessary and steadying insight for such things:

Do not assume that order and stability are always good, in a society or in a universe. The old, the ossified, must always give way to new life and the birth of new things.

Teeming Links – August 9, 2019

Before the links, a brief screed that arose spontaneously from some well in my psyche:

If you’re a writer or another type of creator, never compare your gift to that of others. Your particular gift of vision, subject matter, passion, skill level, style, approach, and the life circumstances in which these all exist and unfold neither gains nor suffers through comparison. Just write or create what you have to write or create, and do it in whatever way you’re inexorably called and driven to do it. Do the necessary inner and outer work of finding out exactly what those things are (your personal subject matter and style). Then make good on them.

(A brief gnostic/cryptic aside on “having to” create: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” – Jesus, Thomas 70)

And while you’re at it, enjoy the hell out of it whenever you see other people doing the same. Their gains aren’t your losses, and vice versa. It’s not a zero-sum game. When you live out your creative calling, you’re part of the rising tide that elevates everybody.

From the Illuminati to Alex Jones, how did conspiracy theories come to dominate American culture? “[S]omething new . . . has transformed the conspiratorial landscape: conspiracism — a mental framework, a belief system, a worldview that leads people to look for conspiracies, to anticipate them, to link them together into a grander overarching conspiracy. Conspiracism has been building for some time, and by now it appears to have emerged as the belief system of the 21st century. “

On the danger of off-loading human memory onto machines: “A new kind of civilisation seems to be emerging, one rich in machine intelligence, with ubiquitous access points for us to join in nimble artificial memory networks. . . . But dependency on a network also means taking on new vulnerabilities. The collapse of any of the webs of relations that our wellbeing depends upon, such as food or energy, would be a calamity. Without food we starve, without energy we huddle in the cold. And it is through widespread loss of memory that civilisations are at risk of falling into a looming dark age.”

Synthetic biology could bring a pox on us all. “There’s no telling when a manufactured disease will become a reality. If that occurs, the culprit might be a lab-trained terrorist or a basement biohacker, a bumbling grad student or a Russian microbiologist on the lam.”

Why Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is more relevant now than ever (paywall): “What happens when our newly created life forms can copy themselves, are immortal, can update their own software and make their own decisions? Will they feel remorse? Will humanity really be worth keeping?”

Beware the panopticon in your pocket. “You’re not using the phone; the phone is using you. The smartphone is a Trojan horse, and you are Pavlov’s dog. The machine studies you with an alien’s eye, serving you with injections of warmth and affection (grandchildren, frolicking dogs) in order to suck out information, assembling a dossier — noting where you have been, what you have said, what you have bought and thought, your very footsteps and heartbeats — reproducing you as a useful commercial or political object, as if in a 3-D printer. . . . It’s not entirely paranoid to assume that, not far down the road, smartphones and electronic appliances may fulfill old science-fiction fantasies by figuring out what we are thinking or even dreaming, and that the thought or dream — unless it is of an approved nature—will be enough to condemn us. Intellectual endoscopy, why not? Privacy of mind, an atavism already under siege, will vanish.”

Also beware the mindfulness conspiracy. “Mindfulness has gone mainstream, with celebrity endorsement from Oprah Winfrey and Goldie Hawn. Meditation coaches, monks and neuroscientists went to Davos to impart the finer points to CEOs attending the World Economic Forum. The founders of the mindfulness movement have grown evangelical. . . . [But n]eoliberal mindfulness promotes an individualistic vision of human flourishing, enticing us to accept things as they are, mindfully enduring the ravages of capitalism.”

Then there’s the more general subject of meditation. Everybody’s heard about how meditation is supposed to help. What everybody’s forgetting is that meditation can topple you over the edge into a hell of psychosis and/or a dark night of the soul: “I started having thoughts like, ‘Let me take over you,’ combined with confusion and tons of terror. I had a vision of death with a scythe and a hood, and the thought ‘Kill yourself’ over and over again.”

A question raised by recent startling reports from mainstream outlets such as Politico and The Washington Post: What the hell is going on with UFOs and the Department of Defense? “Someone or something appears to have some extremely advanced technology and the Pentagon is actively changing the nature of the conversation about it.”

The Navy says UFOs are real. UFO hunters are thrilled. “So why is no one freaking out about these revelations making front page news? As UFO author Chris Rutkowski once explained, perhaps it is because we have become acclimatized to seeing UFOs invading Earth in books and on screen. Whether you are of the Spielberg generation, watching a candy eating E.T., or a millennial who grew up watching The Avengers fight off hordes of evil intergalactic aliens, we are used to seeing this archetypal other in our media. UFOs, as a result, have become much less frightening and perhaps much more interesting. Have we negotiated UFOs into our cultural framework and identity?”

Alien Abductions, Flying Saints, and Parapsychology: Grappling with the “Super Natural” (paywall). An article (not free, alas) in the academic journal Religious Studies Review on Jeffrey Kripal and Whitley Strieber’s The Super Natural, Michael Grosso’s The Man Who Could Fly: St. Joseph of Copertino and the Mystery of Levitation, and my Ghosts, Spirits, and Psychics: The Paranormal from Alchemy to Zombies. “[These three works] raise questions about exactly which questions scholars studying the paranormal ought to be asking. . . . Ultimately, Kripal, Strieber, Grosso, and Cardin dare us to take their work and the ‘super natural’ seriously.”

Exorcism goes mainstream: Combined Churches assemble in Rome to learn “best practice” eviction of demons: “The Roman Catholic Church has for the first time opened up its annual exorcism class in Rome to representatives of all major Christian faiths. . . . [T]he doors of the 14th Exorcism and Prayer of Liberation Course have been thrown open to groups once considered heretical and demon-infested only a few short centuries ago. Now some 250 Catholics, Lutherans, Greek Orthodox and Protestant priests have assembled to arm themselves with the sword of the holy word to battle Satan amid the souls of their parishoners.”

On forgetting how to read in the Internet age: “For a long time, I convinced myself that a childhood spent immersed in old-fashioned books would insulate me somehow from our new media climate – that I could keep on reading and writing in the old way because my mind was formed in pre-internet days. But the mind is plastic — and I have changed. I’m not the reader I was.”

To study the humanities is to study the meaning of life. “I tell my students, ‘Look, we’re here to discuss the meaning of life.’ The meaning of life is that I’m alive for the time being. I’m in a world which is making contradictory demands upon me. What do I do?”

Missives from another world: Literature of parallel universes. “Alternate history functions to do what the best of literature more generally does — provide a wormhole to a different reality. . . . We are haunted by our other lives, ghosts of misfortune averted, spirits of opportunities rejected, so that fiction is not simply the experience of another [person’s thoughts and viewpoint], but a deep human connection with those differing versions on the paths of our forked parallel lives.”

YOU ARE NOT ALONE: A Conversation with Christopher Ropes on Stigmas, Writing, and Mental Illness. “Writing is not easy for me to begin with because I dredge up all my own demons in my stories. When you have mental health issues, you have some pretty terrifying demons to encounter. I think we all face down those demons to some extent in our writing, even those writers who are writing more to entertain than to create an abiding sense of terror or awe. Human life is a process of coming to terms with those things that frighten and hurt us. I just go through that process in a very raw way that can sometimes actually damage me more in the process. . . . Possibly the best reason for creating art for mentally ill creators is that some other mentally ill person can look at, listen to, read, watch that art and say, ‘Someone out there sees me, hears me. I am not alone.’ Never underestimate that power.”

Speaking of books, reading, writing, and horror fiction, now see this: Mannequin: Tales of Wood Made Flesh, “an anthology celebrating the uncanny realm of the living inanimate. Featuring tales of dolls, mannequins, statues, and other varieties of humanoid horror, Mannequin explores the intersection between artificiality and life through a stunning variety of writers both established and new.” Featuring stories by Ramsey Campbell, Michael Wehunt, Christine Morgan, Richard Gavin, Kristine Ong Muslim, Nicholas Day, Austin James, William Tea, Duane Pesice, S. L. Edwards, Matthew M. Bartlett, S. E. Casey, Justin A. Burnett, Daulton Dickey, C. P. Dunphey, and Jon Padgett. Introduction by Christopher Slatsky.

Teeming Links – March 8, 2019

Has it really been more than a year since I published a Teeming Links post? It would seem so. The last one is dated October 2017. Chalk it up to the fact that I’m deep into a Ph.D. and now buried in my dissertation. And also the fact that 2018 was the most insane race-to-the-finish-line experience I’ve had in my non-writing professional career thanks to a year-long project at my college that involved the near-term fate of the institution, and that I was charged with directing. In any case, it’s been too long.

Oh, and I recently reestablished a Twitter presence after abandoning all social media several years ago. Join me there if you’re interested.

On to the links . . .

I read a lot of ebooks these days, but a writer for The Millions is correct: ultimately, when you’re reading a digital book, you’re holding a ghost in your hands.

Speaking of books, John Langan’s new horror fiction collection Sefira and Other Betrayals has some excellent pre-publication buzz, including a glowing review from Publishers Weekly, which says its horrors “all arise from intensely intimate instances of personal betrayal and the emotional unmooring it causes, their vast cosmic scope notwithstanding.” As a confirmed fan of John’s writing, I’m quite looking forward to this one.

Also speaking of books, Erik Davis’s forthcoming High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies promises to be positively delectable. Developed from his doctoral dissertation, which he wrote under the direction of Jeffrey Kripal, it will offer “a study of the spiritual provocations found in the work of Philip K. Dick, Terence McKenna, and Robert Anton Wilson.”

In a recent BBC Radio 4 documentary titled “Losing the Night,” writer and economist Umair Haque, who has to live mostly in the dark, asks if the night itself is being eroded, and what this might mean for all of us.

Isaac Newton’s alchemy was formerly branded an extraneous embarrassment. Now it’s seen as underpinning his whole worldview and standing behind all his endeavors.

According to an insightful writer for The Atlantic, America’s real religion is “workism.” We’ve created “a culture that funnels its dreams of self-actualization into salaried jobs,” and it’s making us miserable. “There is something slyly dystopian about an economic system that has convinced the most indebted generation in American history to put purpose over paycheck. . . . For the college-educated elite, work has morphed into a religious identity — promising transcendence and community, but failing to deliver.”

Can the United States learn from the fall of Rome? Are we really on a similar path? The idea continues to resonate.

Newsflash: Boredom, as described nicely in this short (one-minute) video featuring the words of psychologist Sandi Mann, is mentally and creatively enriching. These days we short circuit that benefit on a mass scale, primarily through our digital devices. (Um, what was that I said about being on Twitter again? And do things like this very post contribute to the problem?)

In a short, recent, fascinating paper titled “CTHULHU: The Occult Riddle of H. P. Lovecraft,” the author, one Luís Gonçalves, goes all guerilla ontology by employing gematria, the Qur’an, and various mythologies to conduct “a short investigation on the possible roots of the name ‘Cthulhu,’ as the most legendary creation of Lovecraft’s horror fiction.”

Finally, two links related to me. First, my post here on sleep paralysis and discarnate entities, published nine years ago, continues to be a magnet for readers to share their own anomalous sleep experiences. It’s striking to scroll down the list of more than 250 comments, the most recent of which arrived last month, and absorb the fact of just how many people are struck with strange and terrifying sleep-related phenomena.

This past Feb. 13, I experienced not just one but two UFO (or actually UAP) sightings within half an hour of each other. These were unexpected and startling. I submitted a separate report for each to MUFON, which is dispatching investigators. Here’s the first report, and here’s the second. Seriously, these happened. I make no claims about what I “really saw” or what it might mean. I just know I saw it.

Brain photo credit: www.modup.net

The necessity of constructive pessimism in our dystopian world of digital illusions

Robert Kaplan, writing for The Washington Post:

It is impossible to imagine Trump and his repeated big lies that go viral except in the digital-video age. It is impossible to imagine our present political polarization except in the age of the Internet, which drives people to sites of extreme views that validate their preexisting prejudices. And, in the spirit of Hollywood, it is impossible to imagine the degree and intensity of emotional and sensory manipulation, false rumors, exaggerations and character assassination that decay our public dialogue except in this new and terrifying age of technology which has only just begun.

Digital-video technology, precisely because it is given to manipulation, is inherently controlling. Think of how the great film directors of the 20th century were able to take over your mind for a few hours: a new experience for audiences that previous generations had never known. Theater may be as old as the ancient Greeks, but the technology of film lent a new and powerful force to the theatrical experience. Moreover, it was contained within a limited time period, and afterward you came back to the real world.

In the 21st century, dictators may have the capability to be the equivalent of film directors, and the show never stops. Indeed, Joseph Goebbels would undoubtedly thrive in today’s world. As for warfare itself, it will be increasingly about dividing and demoralizing enemy populations through disinformation campaigns whose techniques are still in their infancy. . . .

Never before have we had to fight for democracy and individual rights as now in this new and — in some sense — dark age of technology. We must realize that the fight for democracy is synonymous with the fight for objectivity, which lies at the core of professional journalism — a calling whose foundational spirit was forged in the print-and-typewriter age, when mainly the movies were fake.

We will fight best by thinking tragically to avoid tragedy. This means learning to think like the tyrants who feed and prosper on misinformation so we can keep several steps ahead of them. Only in that way can we build safeguards against the specific dangers of the digital experience. The pioneers of Silicon Valley were inherent optimists who simply believed in connecting the world. But it is precisely such integration that provides our authoritarian enemies with access into our own democratic systems. The future will be about wars of integration rather than wars of geographic separation. So now constructive pessimism is called for. The innocent days when illusions were the province of movie stage sets are way behind us.

Full text: “Everything Here Is Fake

 

You will be assimilated: Our future of tech-enhanced brains to keep up with AI

Here’s renowned neuroscientist Christopher Koch explaining in a Wall Street Journal piece that our future will be a dystopian nightmare in which humans will necessarily become ever more completely fused on a neurological level with super sophisticated computer technologies. This will, he says, be a non-negotiable requirement if we want to keep up with the artificial intelligences that will be billions of times smarter than us, and that will otherwise utterly rule humanity and pose an existential threat to us in all kinds of ways that we, with our currently unenhanced meat brains, can hardly imagine.

Or actually, Koch speaks not grimly but enthusiastically of this future (and semi-present) scenario. He views the technological enhancement of the human brain for purposes of keeping pace with AI as an exciting thing. The negative gloss on it is mine. What a wonderful world, he avers. “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated,” my own meat brain keeps hearing.

Whether you are among those who believe that the arrival of human-level AI signals the dawn of paradise, such as the technologist Ray Kurzweil, or the sunset of the age of humans, such as the prominent voices of the philosopher Nick Bostrom, the physicist Stephen Hawking and the entrepreneur Elon Musk, there is no question that AI will profoundly influence the fate of humanity.

There is one way to deal with this growing threat to our way of life. Instead of limiting further research into AI, we should turn it in an exciting new direction. To keep up with the machines we’re creating, we must move quickly to upgrade our own organic computing machines: We must create technologies to enhance the processing and learning capabilities of the human brain. . . .

Unlike say, the speed of light, there are no known theoretical limits to intelligence. While our brain’s computational power is more or less fixed by evolution, computers are constantly growing in power and flexibility. This is made possible by a vast ecosystem of several hundred thousand hardware and software engineers building on each other’s freely shared advances and discoveries. How can the human species keep up? . . .

In the face of this relentless onslaught, we must actively shape our future to avoid dystopia. We need to enhance our cognitive capabilities by directly intervening in our nervous systems.

We are already taking steps in this direction. . . .

My hope is that someday, a person could visualize a concept — say, the U.S. Constitution. An implant in his visual cortex would read this image, wirelessly access the relevant online Wikipedia page and then write its content back into the visual cortex, so that he can read the webpage with his mind’s eye. All of this would happen at the speed of thought. Another implant could translate a vague thought into a precise and error-free piece of digital code, turning anyone into a programmer.

People could set their brains to keep their focus on a task for hours on end, or control the length and depth of their sleep at will.

Another exciting prospect is melding two or more brains into a single conscious mind by direct neuron-to-neuron links — similar to the corpus callosum, the bundle of two hundred million fibers that link the two cortical hemispheres of a person’s brain. This entity could call upon the memories and skills of its member brains, but would act as one “group” consciousness, with a single, integrated purpose to coordinate highly complex activities across many bodies.

These ideas are compatible with everything we know about the brain and the mind. Turning them from science fiction into science fact requires a crash program to design safe, inexpensive, reliable and long-lasting devices and procedures for manipulating brain processes inside their protective shell. It must be focused on the end-to-end enhancement of human capabilities. . . .

While the 20th century was the century of physics — think the atomic bomb, the laser and the transistor — this will be the century of the brain. In particular, it will be the century of the human brain — the most complex piece of highly excitable matter in the known universe. It is within our reach to enhance it, to reach for something immensely powerful we can barely discern.

Full article: “To Keep Up with AI, We’ll Need High-Tech Brains(You may or may not encounter a paywall)

Brilliant: This one-minute short film about a prepper’s dream coming true

This one-minute film by neophyte French filmmaker Gaspar Palacio is just brilliant. And I don’t use that word lightly. It’s like a master class in cinematic microfiction. Here’s how Palacio describes it at Vimeo:

The one minute tale of a survivalist. When the siren rings in the distance, a family has to get inside the shelter. Nothing will ever be the same again.

At Digg it’s described like this:

When the sirens started blaring, the survivalist was ready. He had been planning for this all along.

Of additional interest: The film’s writer, Robert J. Lee, runs a site titled Two Pages a Week, where he shares two-page film scripts that he began to produce weekly after someone challenged him to do so. The site currently features more than seventy of them.

The tragedy of Rome and the farce of America

I’m confident that what follows is the best paragraph I’ll read this week. I daresay it may be the best one you’ll read, too. Unsurprisingly, it’s from James Howard Kunstler’s blog. For me, it provides both a substantively and a tonally accurate description of what I’ve been seeing, hearing, and experiencing around me in recent weeks and months (and years).

Poor old Karl Marx, tortured by boils and phantoms, was right about one thing: History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. Thus, I give you the Roman Empire and now the United States of America. Rome surrendered to time and entropy. Our method is to drive a gigantic clown car into a ditch.

BONUS ITEM: Here’s the best headline I’ve read in recent memory. The story itself resides behind a paywall at The Washington Post, so I don’t know what it actually says, but the headline alone probably says it all:

Rocket man and dotard go bonkers in toontown

I can’t help wondering if this headline might serve for future generations as some sort of quasi/crypto-Zen koan of esoteric fascination, in the same way that “No Wife, No Horse, No Mustache” worked for Robert Anton Wilson.

 

Our Craving for Apocalypse: ‘Dispatches from the Ruins’ (short video)

This brief video essay on the source of our collective craving for “the awful futures of apocalyptic fiction” is really well done. Skillfully executed and thought-provoking. A worthwhile investment of five reflective minutes. Here’s the description:

In the first two decades of the new millennium, stories of the post-apocalypse have permeated pop culture, from books such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009) and Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014) to films and TV programmes such as The Walking Dead (2010-), the Hunger Games series (2012-15) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). While post-apocalyptic fictions of previous eras largely served as cautionary tales — against nuclear brinksmanship in On the Beach (1959) or weaponised biology in The Stand (1978) — today’s versions of these tales depict less alterable, more oblique and diffuse visions of our doom. So why can’t we seem to get enough of humanity’s unavoidable collapse and its bleak aftermath?

Dispatches from the Ruins reflects on what these stories — set among crumbling buildings, overgrown lots and barren wastelands — might be telling us about modern fears and fantasies. This Aeon original video is adapted from an Aeon essay by the US writer Frank Bures. Bures is also the author of The Geography of Madness (2016), a book about cultural syndromes across the world. His work has been included in the Best American Travel Writing and appeared in Harper’s, Lapham’s Quarterly and the Washington Post Magazine, among others.

 

Orwell Meets Frankenstein: The Internet as a Monster of Mass Surveillance and Social Control

The following paragraphs are from a talk delivered by Pinboard founder Maciej Cegłowski at the recent Emerging Technologies for the Enterprise conference in Philadelphia.  Citing as Exhibit A the colossal train wreck that was the 2016 American presidential election, Cegłowski basically explains how, in the current version of the Internet that has emerged over the past decade-plus, we have collectively created a technology that is perfectly calibrated for undermining Western democratic societies and ideals.

But as incisive as his analysis is, I seriously doubt that his (equally incisive) proposed solutions, described later in the piece, will ever be implemented to any meaningful extent. I mean, if we’re going to employ the explicitly Frankensteinian metaphor of “building a monster,” then it’s important to bear in mind that Victor Frankenstein and his wretched creation did not find their way to anything resembling a happy ending. (And note that Cegłowski himself acknowledges as much at the end of his piece when he closes his discussion of proposed solutions by asserting that “even though we’re likely to fail, all we can do is try.”)

This year especially there’s an uncomfortable feeling in the tech industry that we did something wrong, that in following our credo of “move fast and break things,” some of what we knocked down were the load-bearing walls of our democracy. . . .

A question few are asking is whether the tools of mass surveillance and social control we spent the last decade building could have had anything to do with the debacle of the 2017 [sic] election, or whether destroying local journalism and making national journalism so dependent on our platforms was, in retrospect, a good idea. . . .

We built the commercial internet by mastering techniques of persuasion and surveillance that we’ve extended to billions of people, including essentially the entire population of the Western democracies. But admitting that this tool of social control might be conducive to authoritarianism is not something we’re ready to face. After all, we’re good people. We like freedom. How could we have built tools that subvert it? . . .

The economic basis of the Internet is surveillance. Every interaction with a computing device leaves a data trail, and whole industries exist to consume this data. Unlike dystopian visions from the past, this surveillance is not just being conducted by governments or faceless corporations. Instead, it’s the work of a small number of sympathetic tech companies with likable founders, whose real dream is to build robots and Mars rockets and do cool things that make the world better. Surveillance just pays the bills. . . .

Orwell imagined a world in which the state could shamelessly rewrite the past. The Internet has taught us that people are happy to do this work themselves, provided they have their peer group with them, and a common enemy to unite against. They will happily construct alternative realities for themselves, and adjust them as necessary to fit the changing facts . . . .

A lot of what we call “disruption” in the tech industry has just been killing flawed but established institutions, and mining them for parts. When we do this, we make a dangerous assumption about our ability to undo our own bad decisions, or the time span required to build institutions that match the needs of new realities.

Right now, a small caste of programmers is in charge of the surveillance economy, and has broad latitude to change it. But this situation will not last for long. The kinds of black-box machine learning that have been so successful in the age of mass surveillance are going to become commoditized and will no longer require skilled artisans to deploy. . . .

Unless something happens to mobilize the tech workforce, or unless the advertising bubble finally bursts, we can expect the weird, topsy-turvy status quo of 2017 to solidify into the new reality.

FULL TEXT: “Build a Better Monster: Morality, Machine Learning, and Mass Surveillance

Storms, Floods, Droughts, and Fires: Our Climate Change Future Is Actually Now

Here in North Texas we’re currently experiencing the warmest start to a year on record. This comes on the heels of the warmest winter in Texas history. A few years ago we had the dramatic wildfire apocalypse — enabled by an epic drought — that engulfed huge portions of the state, and that had me nervously watching huge plumes of smoke billow up from behind the hillside in back of my house. The drought was ended by historic flooding. The same year as the floods, a positively crazy chain of severe spring thunderstorms tore right through the area where my family and I live, spawning a line of repeated tornadoes, one after the other, all afternoon and overnight. This is something that has always been more common back in the Missouri Ozarks where I’m from. Nor was the perception of something different down here merely a subjective one; 2015 ended up being a record year for tornadoes in Texas. Last year there was more severe flooding, including right where I live. Thus far, my entire time in Texas has been marked by one natural disaster after another. And to think, one reason my family and I moved down here in the first place was to leave behind the increasingly severe weather in Missouri, especially the brutal winters where crippling ice storms have become much more frequent during the past ten and fifteen years than they were during my entire previous life up there.

So in light of such things, this meditation in The New York Times Magazine on not just the future but the present reality of climate change really hits home.

The future we’ve been warned about is beginning to saturate the present. We tend to imagine climate change as a destroyer. But it also traffics in disruption, disarray: increasingly frequent and more powerful storms and droughts; heightened flooding; expanded ranges of pests turning forests into fuel for wildfires; stretches of inhospitable heat. So many facets of our existence — agriculture, transportation, cities and the architecture they spawned — were designed to suit specific environments. Now they are being slowly transplanted into different, more volatile ones, without ever actually moving. . . .

We seem able to normalize catastrophes as we absorb them, a phenomenon that points to what Peter Kahn, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, calls “environmental generational amnesia.” Each generation, Kahn argues, can recognize only the ecological changes its members witness during their lifetimes. . . .

Scenarios that might sound dystopian or satirical as broad-strokes future projections unassumingly materialize as reality. Last year, melting permafrost in Siberia released a strain of anthrax, which had been sealed in a frozen reindeer carcass, sickening 100 people and killing one child. In July 2015, during the hottest month ever recorded on earth (until the following year), and the hottest day ever recorded in England (until the following summer), the Guardian newspaper had to shut down its live-blogging of the heat wave when the servers overheated. And low-lying cities around the world are experiencing increased “clear-sky flooding,” in which streets or entire neighborhoods are washed out temporarily by high tides and storm surges. Parts of Washington now experience flooding 30 days a year, a figure that has roughly quadrupled since 1960. In Wilmington, N.C., the number is 90 days. But scientists and city planners have conjured a term of art that defuses that astonishing reality: “nuisance flooding,” they call it.

Kahn calls our environmental generational amnesia “one of the central psychological problems of our lifetime,” because it obscures the magnitude of so many concrete problems. You can wind up not looking away, exactly, but zoomed in too tightly to see things for what they are. Still, the tide is always rising in the background, swallowing something. And the longer you live, the more anxiously trapped you may feel between the losses already sustained and the ones you see coming. . . .

The future is always somebody else’s present — it will very likely feel as authentic, and only as horrific, as our moment does to us. But the present is also somebody else’s future: We are already standing on someone else’s ludicrous map. Except none of us are in on the joke, and I’m guessing that it won’t feel funny any time soon.

FULL TEXT: “Our Climate Change Future Is Actually Our Climate Change Present