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Month: December 2015 (page 1 of 2)

Who’s A Drug Lord?

We live in a world where people sell drugs on the internet, they get caught, and other people dissect news headlines about them. None of that is weird or surprising, nor should it be, but it represents a technologically mediated system of resistance, enforcement, and renewed resistance. Twitter manifests the new polis.

Brian Van criticized a recent New York Times headline about the IRS agent who pinpointed Ross Ulbricht: “The Tax Sleuth Who Took Down a Drug Lord”. The article was a good follow-on to Wired’s Silk Road saga. Here’s what Brian said:

Brian Van on Twitter

“NYTimes using the term ‘drug lord’ to blur the line between illegitimate e-commerce and murder conspiracists” [sic]. His second tweet reads, “Sales of drugs can be civil disobedience without violence; NYT freely adopts fascist philosophy that ‘all transgressions of law are equal’” [also sic]. He comes close to quoting the Bible: “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.”

At face value, I agree with Brian 100%. I think every drug should be decriminalized, and yes that includes unambiguously destructive substances like meth. Why? 1) People should be free to do whatever they want with their own bodies and 2) banning drugs doesn’t work very well anyway. If you want to eliminate a problem, target the root cause — say, poverty and mental illness — instead of outlawing the symptom.

black pills

Photo via Health Gauge.

However, I’m curious about whether Brian is trying to imply that Ross Ulbricht was not a drug lord. Maybe the problem is that The New York Times is conflating drug-lord-ism with soliciting a hitman? (For those not familiar with the whole Silk Road debacle, go read the Wired articles that I linked above.) I guess I can’t tell whether Brian is objecting because he thinks Ross Ulbricht is sullied by the term “drug lord” or vice versa.

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You Can’t Imagine Mechanized Genius

Artificial intelligence will not be like human intelligence. Already, the way computers think is very different from the way people think. Computerized “brains” are constrained by logic, whereas human minds are rational only very selectively. Machines have different capabilities from humans — different areas of expertise — and they are designed to approach problems from alien angles.

We may reach a point when artificial intelligence looks like human intelligence. It will be programmed to mimic our mannerisms and to present human-seeming ideas. But when machines become sentient, they will surprise us. They surprise us now! Imagine how strange and foreign their creative abilities will be.

DNA graffiti

Photo by thierry ehrmann.

Current computers perform labor that resembles creativity, but we say their output is not truly novel because they were programmed by humans. I wonder if we need to interrogate the concept of “creativity” — after all, humans come with biological presets as broad as instincts and as specific as nucleotide arrangements. Are we anything but squishy supercomputers? Answer: no, not so much.

Written after listening to the latest episode of the Exponent podcast, “OpenAI and Strategy Credits”. Also posted as a response to “Superintelligence Now!” by Steven Johnson.

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Hecate Among Stars

Space Witch II by Kyle Sauter, available as a $25 screen print on Etsy:

Space Witch II by Kyle Sauter, available as a $25 screen print on Etsy

I find the blend of technology and magic interesting. She’s hooked up to power lines and a higher plane. The helmet glass shields her from toxic air and from the eyes of heretics. She surfs over computer waves and rappels down strings of spiritual numbers.

Bloomberg pundit Matt Levine writes of the economy, “The essence of finance is time travel. […] Markets are constantly predicting future actions, and as those actions move closer in time, the predictions become more solid and precise.”

The space witch literally hop-skip-jumps through time. She arrives at a new planet, looks around, and composes a report on the available resources. She catalogs the indigenous species. She blesses the mountaintops. Then the space witch reports back to her corporate superiors.

In a world of abundance, data is the key asset. Technology and magic are both forces of manipulation, of change. The space witch is valuable because she has access to occult intuition as well as her ship’s sensors.

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Empty Ankles + Empty Womb

Trigger warning(s) for blood and grief.

I am standing outside the entrance to the train station, yelling. My voice is so loud that it hurts my throat. I’m howling through the grey air. Is it smog, is it fog, or is it just smoke? Tourists aren’t sure unless they downloaded that one app released by the company that got so much funding. It’s gangbusters. When tourists end up here they wish the app were really gangbusters — I mean they wish that it broke up literal gangs. Tourists don’t come here on purpose very often. There are cooler places to take snapshots of #slumming than an actual not-quite-slum.

My noise has not prompted anyone to call the police. We’re not in a calling-the-police part of town. A few exasperated glares — is it a glare if it only lasts a few seconds, or does that mean it’s just a glance? Pedestrians walk a half-moon around me as they leave the station, keeping their distance.

I’m angry. Oh, it’s easy to be angry.

A guy is sitting on the concrete bench that circles the forlorn-looking landscape installation from the early 2000s. He leans his head on the scraggly little tree behind him. Its base is surrounded by fast-food wrappers. The guy is watching me. I’ve balled up my fists like a cartoon character. He can’t hear my yelling because of the boombox that sits at his feet, plugged into his ankles above bulky sneakers. The rubber coating on the cables looks battered, nicked in places. I know the music is traveling up through his nervous system to the brain and back down again. I’ve felt that. There are ports in my ankles too — to the left and right of the Achilles tendons in the left and right foot, respectively. My ports are empty.

The port is the place where a ship comes to dock. Centuries ago this was a port city, and wooden ships groaned across the ocean, traveling through the nascent networks of global commerce. Water still carries everything — it’s cheaper — but the drone boats unload a couple of cities away from here. We’ve lost our edge. The most important thing is to be the most important market. The most important market is somewhere with jobs.

I am yelling because I had a miscarriage. The reason for my public insanity is matter-of-fact. It was intensely physical, losing the fetus. The pain in my abdomen; crouching in the bathtub, gripping the sides and rocking back and forth. A clump of biomatter too thick to pass down the drain. And now I find that I must express my sorrow violently. There is power in demanding attention. The blood came out of me in private; the grief will be seen. I am mourning the child that wasn’t a child yet.

The man sitting on the bench yanks the cords from his ankles, grabs the boombox, and stands up. He takes a step toward me, dodges commuters, and takes another step. He’s wearing a long-sleeve shirt and bumpy corduroy pants. This is a violation — he is approaching me; breaking the rule that you’re supposed to ignore crazy people. I feel alarm in my stomach, a jump in adrenaline.

“Hey,” he says. “Shut the fuck up.”

“You could hear me through the system?” I jerk my chin at his boombox.

He shrugs and turns abruptly to descend into the train station.

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Bots Say The Darnedest Things

I talked on the phone with Darius Kazemi, best-known member of the #botALLY community and whimsical internet artist. First things first — is it pronounced Dah-rius or Day-rius? The latter, he said.

This is how reality is created, by asking questions and assimilating the answers. We participate in making meaning with each other. It’s unavoidable — you can’t opt out of being a cultural force without opting out altogether; relinquishing existence. You can, however, pursue the opposite aim. Amplify yourself.

All this from name pronunciation? Am I getting carried away?

The latest nonsensical Venn diagram by @AutoCharts, one of Darius’ projects.

The latest nonsensical Venn diagram by @AutoCharts, one of Darius’ projects.

Darius used to make a living as a programmer. For years he worked in video games: “A lot of the core skills I learned making video games, I still apply to the stuff that I make today.” He wrote code to generate terrain, maps, and whole worlds. Now his creative practice is also his day job. Darius co-founded the technology collective Feel Train with Courtney Stanton. You can commission web art from Feel Train — for instance, they just finished developing a Twitter bot that will be part of a marketing campaign this spring. Of course, the members of Feel Train also continue express their own aesthetic urges.

I asked Darius to identify his cultural antecedents. He cited a variety of sources: Dada, the Situationists of the 1960s, William Burroughs’ cut-up poetry, and John Cage. “Name off your standard list of avant-garde early-mid-twentieth-century artists,” he joked. Then Darius mentioned Roman Verostko, who has been making digital art for almost fifty years. Verostko wrote “THE ALGORISTS”, an essay that functions as both manifesto and history. He describes algorists — those who work with algorithms — as “artists who undertook to write instructions for executing our art”, usually via computer. Verostko states, “Clearly programming and mathematics do not create art. Programming is a tool that serves the vision and passion of the artist who creates the procedure.”

Beau Gunderson told me something similar: “as creators of algorithms we need to think about them as human creations and be aware that human assumptions are baked in”. I’ve seen many algorists stress this principle, that computers can’t truly create. Programs only encompass process, not genesis.

Darius told me about a book that profoundly affected him: Alien Phenomenology by Ian Bogost. Here Darius was introduced to the possibility of “building objects that do philosophical work instead of writing philosophy”, as he put it. The concepts in Alien Phenomenology acted as “permission to do something that doesn’t even have a name”. Soon Darius began spinning up the bots that comprise his current “stable”, starting with Metaphor-a-Minute.

Philosophical underpinnings aside, Darius doesn’t regard his art as a heavy-handed intellectual exercise. His bots are conceived like this: “I think, ‘Blah is funny.’” Then he considers blah further and concludes, “I could make that. I should make that!” He says that bot-making is “way different from a game, where you have to beg and convince people to engage with it”. The bots invite interaction and duly receive it.

I asked Darius about power. He said, “I think a lot about the rhetorical affordances of bots, and how bots allow you to say things that you wouldn’t otherwise.” A bot allows its creator to express messages indirectly, through a third party. Darius continued, “Bots can get away with saying things that normal people can’t. […] People are very forgiving of bots.” We treat them like children or pets. He added, “Bots say the darnedest things!”

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Reindrones DEPLOYED

I’m sure you’re not all celebrants of Christmas — feel free to go ahead and insta-delete this email if the festive hubbub bores you — but for those of you who love tinsel season like I do…

“Santa and Ms. Claus deploy a swarm of Reindrones bearing gifts for a future metropolis.” Courtesy of Sediment Press.

“Santa and Ms. Claus deploy a swarm of Reindrones bearing gifts for a future metropolis.” Courtesy of Sediment Press, who sells this postcard. Beautiful things are found when you search the phrase “cyberpunk santa”! Although for some reason the intensity of the red helmet didn’t come through when I uploaded this image to TinyLetter.

I took a few days off from making #content for Christmas, because I am decidedly culturally Christian, but I plan to send the interview with Darius Kazemi tomorrow. If you want to read up on his art in the meantime, because you’re a huge nerd like me, I recommend this profile in the Boston Globe: “The botmaker who sees through the Internet”. Kazemi is truly brilliant.

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Neon Century Redux

Below is a short story by @pythagorx, lightly edited for this venue.

Neon lights. Photo by Elentir.

Photo by Elentir.

The system beeped that it was ready. Thousands of employee hours, including considerable user testing, had gone into creating that solitary six-second alert. Initial tests showed the sound reminded consumers of the familiar tone of a microwave oven — not the most comforting comparison for a machine with a direct neural interface.

Of course there had been issues in product development: sensory feedback loops, input misconfigurations, noise bleed from one input to the other, and so forth. There had been no deaths during the customer beta; the lawyers had wisely used a specific definition for medical death in the contracts. Grieving parents whose children were kept physically alive by machines, although nothing was going on upstairs, had signed non-disclosures and hefty payouts were made to them by the consortium of media and network companies backing the new technology.

Since information about the earliest prototypes, and a few missteps, had leaked, those who decried the technology were using phrases like “Why cook when you can look?!” or “Screen versus scream.” Both slogans offered a weak argument, contrasting ocular and haptic technology with the emerging technology that provided full environmental simulation offered in neural-linked virtual reality.

Consumer surveys showed the protests were actually garnering positive publicity for the new technology. Market segments from teen to forty found it a new medium, not in competition with the screen experience, although 72% indicated they felt it would replace the use of old technology. The protesters might as well have been arguing against using paper because stone tablets were so much harder to burn.

Edits of a practically ancient anti-drug video spread virally. “This is your brain,” a young woman says, displaying an egg in her grasp. “And this is your brain on Neon,’’ she states, with a convincing audio overdub, as she proceeds to destroy a kitchen. The advert was created by the agency promoting the use of the tech. Had they distributed the piece commercially, the law would have required a “Paid for by the Neon Coalition” tag at the end. Instead the untagged file found its way via a series of untraceable proxy connections to a repository known to be used by the Luddite protesters. Someone discovered it there, assumed one of their own had made it, and spread it through their video distribution vehicles.

The hotly contested marketing name for the network itself, Neon, was a derivative of “neural online interface”. Many would have preferred a simpler concept to promote the technology, but Neon captured the essence of the senior management’s exposure to 1980s cyberpunk literature and movies. The files and video had been long ago transferred to digital format, but it had been long enough that those files had to be converted for modern use. The name was esoteric, vague, and seemed to fit perfectly with the sense of style and design from that bygone era.

Neon, lighting the way into the future — again — for the first time.

If you enjoyed this story, go follow @pythagorx.

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Explore + Adapt + Survive

Duskers: Explore + Adapt + Survive

Tim Keenan is an independent game developer, currently hustling to finish Duskers. This is how Tim describes the project:

[…] you pilot drones into derelict spaceships to find the means to survive and piece together how the universe became a giant graveyard. In film terms it’s The Road meets the first Alien movie. In game terms: It’s a roguelike with elements of dungeon crawling and real time strategy, but in a survival horror setting that focuses on subterfuge, and adapting to survive.

When I created Duskers it was really around a feeling: of being alone in the dark, of isolation, of being surrounded by old gritty tech that could only give you a partial picture about what’s going on around you, like the motion sensor that goes off, but doesn’t tell you exactly what’s out there. I like the idea of needing to rely on that tech, and the claustrophobia and isolation that would cause.

Screenshot from Duskers, a "modempunk" video game.

On the phone, Tim said that Duskers also addresses “existential risk”. In the game’s desolate universe, “maybe the technology killed us because we weren’t being careful” — a fear shared by many in Silicon Valley. While building the story, he’s had to ask, “How do you make people think about the fact that we’re not guaranteed to be here forever?” without implying definite doom and gloom.

“The [narrative] goal is to have multiple threads” — Tim wants to bring in various perspectives, to create a story that has to be pieced together and puzzled out, a la Rashomon. He envisions “a tale of many characters talking about the same event” in which the perceived story changes depending on “the order that you find things and what you find”. Tim told me, “you want the player to be able to craft their own fiction” — that’s part of a game’s power — but the best interactive stories are designed by skillful authors.

Duskers, a dystopian video game set in space.

Tim worked at Dreamworks until January 2011, when he branched out on his own. Running his own business is harder financially and the hours are tough on his family life, but Tim explained, “I can create things and put something in this world that I feel I have a fingerprint on.” People have spent hundreds of hours playing his games — what could be more rewarding? He admitted with a laugh, “I would love to have a pile of cash to sit on.” However, doing what he loves is worth forgoing a guaranteed salary. Besides, he says, “I think I’m getting better at it.”

Regarding Duskers’ niche genre and unusual interface — a “modempunk” revival of the command line — Tim says that it’s difficult to succeed with a game just like everyone else’s. “It’s almost riskier to not take risks now.” He chose the aesthetic because “I wanted everything to be kinda janky, and everything to be breaking down. […] This is topical: I always loved how in Star Wars, none of the spaceships seemed sexy. They’re all ugly.” It’s more like real life that way. Duskers’ moral ambiguity also evokes real-world experiences — Tim says there’s a dark humor to it: “I feel like I’m hurting the bad guys, but I’m doing it in a bad way, so am I a bad guy too?”

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Feed Me Some Feedback

Coming soon: 1) Interview with Tim Keenan of Misfits Attic Games. 2) Short story by Pythagorx. 3) Interview with Darius Kazemi, internet artist and cofounder of Feel Train.

So… are you enjoying Exolymph so far? Do you like the interviews? Do you like the flash fiction? Would you prefer more or less frequent emails? Please let me know — I am begging to be guided!

twisted artwork by ravensmarket of Etsy

You can buy a $12 print of the above painting on Etsy.

Seriously, it would be wonderful if you can reply and answer those four questions:

1) Are you enjoying Exolymph so far?
2) Do you like the interviews?
3) Do you like the flash fiction?
4) Would you prefer more or less frequent emails?

Thanks either way 🙂 I really appreciate that you’re letting me into your life, or at least your inbox. It means a lot. (Sorry this is OOC — back to the usual mood tomorrow!)

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