Menu Close

Month: January 2016 (page 1 of 4)

Robot Uprising, NBD

Bernie or Hillary meme

The political horse race is stressful to observe, but damn does it produce some good jokes! Picture via @ObeseChess on Twitter; origin lost in the swirling mists of memedom. (Usually true, but in this case the source is actually Obvious Plant.) In not-unrelated news, we’re careening toward a weird techno-plutocratic status quo and it’s pretty entertaining:

Saladin Ahmed on Twitter

Of course, the current status quo is already quite techno-plutocratic… Which is the whole point of this newsletter.

IRL, the future labor situation will be mostly mundane, just like our current setup. Dystopia doesn’t feel like dystopia unless it accelerates especially quickly (knock on wood). Just be grateful that you’re not a protagonist! If you are a protagonist, please get in touch so that I can write about you and piggyback on your eventual fame and fortune. Unless you’re the other kind of protagonist…

Longer dispatch coming tomorrow. I hope you don’t mind when Exolymph is on the short side.

Irrational Word-Picture Strings

Please liberate yourself from the need — or even the desire — to make sense. Stop producing sense. We have enough sense. There is a surplus of sense and you’re adding to it. Cease and desist! This is an order. Furthermore, we resent the implication that we’re begging you to obey. “Passionately requesting” is a better way to phrase it.

Artists propose more compelling futures than venture capitalists. However, like venture capitalists, artists are not good at actualizing their ideas (and many artists would cringe, rightly, to see their fantasies made flesh). Once again resembling venture capitalists, artists provide accelerant rather than fuel. They need an enterprising individual or organization to carry out the doing, to build the fire. George Orwell couldn’t have orchestrated the collapse of the Soviet Union or the rise of today’s surveillance state, but he provided a way for us to process both political turmoil and SIGINT.

Artwork by Marc-Anthony Macon.

Artwork by Marc-Anthony Macon.

You’ll notice that my logic in that example is circumspect. Aren’t “accelerate” and “process” different verbs? It doesn’t matter, because I’ve released myself from sense-making tonight. I’m making something else, hopefully something more necessary.

“The gameworld is too complex and multi-dimensional to ensure every contingency is managed.” — The Tao of D&D

Of course I know that my free-form musing is self-indulgent. Reason is the hard thing, the valuable thing. But it’s difficult to maintain without an equal dose of nonsense. Material needs material. Analysis never exists without data, and I don’t think it can exist without randomness and play either. Our brains need a chance to seize on unexpected adjacencies.

Yet another reason to love Twitter bots 😉

Conspiracy Theories Suppressing Conspiracy Theories

Today’s dispatch was contributed by Ken Rodriguez.


I recently watched the first installment of The X-Files’ new six-part series. In order to avoid spoilers, let’s say that the conclusion is surprising and expected at the same time. The government is hiding more — and less — from us than we think (according to the show’s plot). Watching it reminded me of a thought that I had several months ago (when no one was encouraging me to write about it). I was wondering whether “the powers that be” allow us to have a certain amount of entertainment that criticizes government and corporate intervention in our private lives. Are movies and shows like The Machine, Breaking Bad, and Idiocracy rationed at a high enough frequency to let us blow off some steam, but not so often that we can keep the concepts in our collective minds and put the pieces together? Is there more than an element of truth in what these shows contain?

Scully and Mulder depicted by Taylor Rose; $30 on Etsy.

Scully and Mulder depicted by Taylor Rose; $30 on Etsy.

The American public is maddeningly forgetful and inattentive. We see it in our lionization of figures such as Oliver North, George Gordon Liddy, and Howard Dean. Even Patty Hearst and OJ Simpson have a certain cachet. We scare ourselves with movies like The Matrix and Terminator, happy to idly ponder if we’re really being controlled by something outside of ourselves — but then we go home, crack open a beer, watch the game, and go to bed. We go on with our lives because, really, what are we going to do about it? We need food. We need shelter. We have children. People are depending on us. It’s easier and safer to go on as we have because to do otherwise is to face the possibility of disgrace, upheaval, or worse.

Since 1999, Donald Trump has quit the Republican party, been a Reform Party candidate, a Democrat, and a Republican. Does anyone remember this? We’re too busy being entertained by him to consider his policies. Barack Obama came into office on a left-wing wave against government conservatism, only to deport more immigrants than any other president before him and mount a drone war that makes him look as hawkish as George Bush. We didn’t protest when Obama failed to employ grand juries to investigate the banks and brokerages behind what we are calling the “Great Recession”. If it isn’t in our faces right now, it never existed.

This ignorance exists in an era when there is more information available than ever before, and it is right at our fingertips. Yet we know more about our Netflix queue and our Facebook friends than we do about who is the vice president. Anybody remember Google Glass? The evening news only carries the most sensational stories because ratings are more important than current events. Are we amusing ourselves to death?

Contemporary entertainment is full of conspiracy theories and government plots to exert more control over the citizens. Corporations are demonized regularly. These works reflect the reality that we see in targeted advertising, the Patriot Act, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, to name just a few. When we go to the movies or watch our favorite shows, we rail against the intrusive government or the evil corporations. We feel angry about what is being done to us by the faceless entities that we fear.

Chris Carter, before the first run of The X-Files, was afraid the FBI was about to “shut [him] down”. We may even think ourselves smarter than the average American zombie because we see through the commercial propaganda that permeates even the programming we pay for (remember when cable TV had no commercials?). But when someone tries publicly to do something about these intrusions, they are “too radical” or a “weirdo socialist”. We like to see someone in the movies succeed against the oppressors, but we don’t want to be the one who sticks their neck out. We’ve heard too many stories like those of John Savage in Brave New World or Winston Smith in 1984.

With all of these anti-authoritarian ideas out there, how much is enough to make us break out the pitchforks? Or is it this very content that prevents rebellion? The cyberpunk Facebook page where I hang out has plenty of curmudgeons and anarchists. There’s copious ranting about government intervention in our private lives and about corporate control of media and government. Weekly we have a dustup about some meme or post that the administrators deleted. Are we defeating our own angst by having these blowoffs?

We experience the effects of endorphins when our brains shift from left to right during TV watching. This is what gets us addicted to visual media. Is this pleasure short-circuiting our outrage, making us docile and suggestible? Or have we just not yet reached a critical mass in our frustration? Or are we afraid that, like Howard Beale in Network, if we’re “mad as hell” and are “not going to take it any more”, we will end up like him, with the corporate media having appropriated even our anger and rebellion?

Garbage & Gold

Alien-girl graffiti in San Francisco.

I saw this graffiti in San Francisco a couple of months ago. The woman got a little alien implanted in her forehead — Google Glass of the future? Or perhaps body mod as witch’s familiar. I’m not sure why her mouth is dripping blood. Maybe it’s… dystopian pudding. Yes, pudding. Not blood at all! Not even slightly sinister!

I grew up in the Bay Area. It seems normal to me. Even though I’d read that San Francisco’s levels of inequality were comparable to Third World countries, the reality didn’t hit home until I was on a date in the city with my boyfriend. We were walking through the financial district and he said, “San Francisco is so cyberpunk.”

“What do you mean?”

He pointed out the animated software ads wrapped around bus shelters and glowing on the sides of buildings. He reminded me that the streets smelled of urine and we were passing homeless people wrapped in rags. Sleeping on the damp sidewalk. Meanwhile, money churned in and out of Silicon Valley’s sister city.

Extreme elements, juxtaposed. A wealth of desperation next to desperation for wealth. Welcome to twenty-first-century capitalism!

A Secret Message

Loosely inspired by North of Reality’s cryptofiction initiative, even though I’m not exempting this from the archive.


Tonight we insert the plug. It’s big and ugly, made of grey industrial plastic. The metal prongs look like an iridescent alloy. The socket is composed of two vertical voids set in the wall. We lift the plug — all together now! — and shove it in.

The machine turns on. It makes a classic grinding sound as power pushes through it. We wonder if we oiled the parts properly, checking the grease stains on our pants for proof.

The screen flickers, and then it’s live. Our worried faces appear on the plasma expanse. Someone turns to a neighbor and whispers. The rest of rotate toward the disturbance and frown at him. Noises like gossip aren’t appropriate for the solemnity of this moment.

Around the world, other groups are jamming their own large plugs into gaping sockets. Their machines and their screens are awakening. Hopefully we calculated the time zones correctly. Globally, we must all execute the maneuver within an hour of each other, give or take a few minutes. Give or take a disaster.

Now we wait. Everything is ready. We just have to count on the other continents, the nations that remain.

After forty-five minutes, the mass of us starts to disintegrate into smaller clumps. We don’t lose hope.

After seventy minutes, we do lose hope. Clearly it is too late. We tried, and we failed. This was known to be possible, and yet we are devastated.

I Swear I’m Not a Statist

Allow me to string some ideas together, using technology as a metaphor:

“A world where people, businesses, and governments rely on IT for almost everything they do is a world where SIGINT will be the most important form of espionage.” — John Schindler on “SpyWar”

“If you’re not looking for the structure, you won’t find it. If you are, it’s obvious.” — Scott Alexander on his mystical universe

“Only machines that can be inventoried and centrally managed can reasonably be secured against advanced attackers.” — Brandon Wilson on enterprise security

The community of Bitcoin developers is currently struggling to decide between a couple of different technical directions that I don’t understand or care about. The interesting parts are the human conflicts and what the whole brouhaha says about group politics. When I wrote “Power Is Necessary”, this controversy was on my mind.

Wind turbine photographed by Paulo Valdivieso.

Wind turbine photographed by Paulo Valdivieso.

There is a reason why centralization happens over and over again in human history. We didn’t invent the Code of Hammurabi out of the blue. Monarchy did not develop randomly, and republics require executive branches. Centralized power is efficient. Hierarchies of decision-makers, each able to dictate and veto the level below, allow for instructions to be disseminated and enforced.

“It is generally considered that there are four forms of structure employed by terrorist groups: conventional hierarchy, cellular, network & leaderless resistance. The decision to employ one of these formats is grounded in the security/efficiency trade-off of each; conventional hierarchy providing the most efficient and least secure, leaderless resistance the opposite: highest security, least efficiency.” — Tom Hashemi on guerilla warfare

I love the ideals of anarchy, but it fundamentally doesn’t work. Neither does direct democracy or its hands-off “don’t tread on me” equivalent. Coercion is a basic component of societal structures that accomplish things and manage to self-perpetuate. Are fear-based incentives good? Are they virtuous? No, of course not. But they get the job done.

Mystic Game Design

The first three of Sol Lewitt’s “Sentences on Conceptual Art”.

The first three of Sol Lewitt’s “Sentences on Conceptual Art”.

“If you’re doing something that nobody else is doing, it’s either really stupid or really smart. If it’s really stupid at least people will talk about it, but if it’s really smart you’ll have no competition.” Zach Gage on his creative process. He cited Lewitt’s “Sentences” as an influence.

So who is this guy, anyway? Zach Gage is a conceptual artist. His work encompasses “games, sculptures, websites, talks, prints, photos, videos, toys, hacks, fonts, installations, and more.” He is best-known for iOS apps like Ridiculous Fishing and SynthPond. I’m struggling to summarize Zach’s work in a way that encapsulates why I find it exciting. Maybe an example will help — my favorite of his creations is warorpeace.net:

The site can display either “WAR” or “PEACE”, depending on how many people Google each word in a given day. The most-searched of the two words will win.

The site can display either “WAR” or “PEACE”, depending on how many people Google each word in a given day. The most-searched of the two words will win. Zach explained, “On the day that more people search for peace than war, the site will say peace. As of this writing, that has never happened, but the work awaits the day it does.”

warorpeace.net is more of a pure conceptual piece, but Zach’s bread-and-butter is game design. That’s how he makes most of his money, and based on his list of complete works, interactive creations are an enduring interest. I think it’s important to talk about the paradigms and techniques employed by game designers, because they have power. As virtual reality continues to gain traction, we’ll spend larger portions of time in worlds programmed by other humans. (Not necessarily a bad thing!)

On Friday morning, Zach and I talked about designing generative systems that manage to keep surprising people — including the creators. (We agreed that Olivia Taters does a great job.) I asked why systems intrigue him, and Zach said, “I think one of the biggest things is that people just don’t understand systems. It’s kind of a complexity thing.” Therefore system design “provides kind of a good target for art and a good target for games.”

Like many artists, he wants to make people think. Most of the time, we default to a sophisticated kind of autopilot. Zach told me, “You start doing things by pattern recognition and you do a lot less sitting, thinking, and wondering.” It’s a natural reaction, because we all have to get on with our daily lives — but it’s also valuable to be snapped out of the monotony. Zach likes to observe the rules of systems that people are following by rote, and try upending one assumption. This is a way to interrogate how things work — to prompt people to question their own habits and processes.

“There are not a lot of ways you can build something that will ask people to think,” Zach said. When people puzzle through a game and solve problems, they stretch their neural muscles and often feel good about themselves, especially if the story was also beautifully immersive. However, providing this experience is extremely difficult. Zach told me, “Designing games is really hard. It’s really challenging. You’re trying to design something that you yourself could never fully understand, because that’s what’s fun about games.”

When Minecraft became a huge hit, a lot of people released copycat games. Zach contends that they imitated Minecraft aesthetically without reproducing the core magic. He explained to me, “When you deal with randomness, most of what you get is just a regression to the mean.” For example, “The longer you generate [procedural] landscapes, the more you realize that although technically every landscape is unique, they’re all the same.” Ho hum, another winding river and a few more snow-capped mountains. Even if the contours are a little different, the way we perceive the environments and interact with them is the same.

Zach thinks that Minecraft “did a really good job tying together the generative components with these actual functional components” in a way that allowed people to apply meanings that resonated with them. (I wish I had asked him to elaborate on how Minecraft does this better than others.) In his own work, Zach tries to build depth and profundity into systems that use random elements. Zach wants to “make sure that [players] are engaging in the way that the stuff is the most interesting.” This is a tricky design problem, but he seems to be tackling it well.

Tiny Friendly Robots

Nanobots were first developed for medical purposes, of course. That’s where the funding was — both pharmaceutical companies and government grants supported the initial research. Army surgeons used the earliest models in the field, and eventually big hospitals could afford fleets of little medbots. Before long nanobots could do more than clear internal blockages and seal wounds. They could purify bodily fluids. Dispense chemicals. Stimulate particular areas of the brain.

That last application was tricky to develop. Predictably, as soon as the tech was ready, Congress wanted to futz around with legislation. For a while, people who could afford it traveled to less-regulated parts of the world for treatment. Neither mental illness nor cancer were solved, exactly, but they were a lot easier to deal with.

Artwork by psion005.

Artwork by psion005.

The original nanobot swarms had to be injected into the patient’s bloodstream. But the programming rapidly became more sophisticated, and the info-storage hardware was engineered to be extremely tiny. Third-generation nanobots could be swallowed. They’d swim to the area where they were needed. Or, to be more precise, where they were directed to go.

The espionage possibilities were obvious — spike a plate of salmon crostini at a party and hack all the guests’ pleasure receptors. Making someone too happy was a good way to disarm them, literally and figuratively. Nanobots were a drug and a scalpel combined. Anyone who thought they were worth targeting became very cautious about what they consumed.

Ordinary people, however, were thrilled. It took a little while, naturally — ten years had to pass before commercial nanobots really took off. When mothers give something to their schoolchildren, that’s when the big money starts rolling in! The grind of daily life and the respite of entertainment were both impacted. Nanobots regulated your emotions during the workday. When you got home, they made whatever you wanted to do better than it had been a decade ago.

VR enviros were touted as immersive in the 2020s, but now your brain didn’t need to be tricked — the holo scenes and the nanobots had integrated instructions. You really felt the sensations that you were supposed to. What a relief!

Who’s In Charge, Anyway?

“Any form of protest can be effectively prevented if the state is willing to employ the full range of its resources for authoritarian repression and control. The only form of ‘direct action’ which cannot be contained by the state is popular revolution. […] We can win the cooperation of the police for precisely as long as we fail to genuinely threaten the existing social order.” — Rob Sparrow in “Anarchist Politics & Direct Action”

Photo by Cory Doctorow.

Photo by Cory Doctorow.

I tend to be a cynic, like I said earlier this week. So I agree with these specific fatalistic sentences from Sparrow’s article (and a few of his other statements). However, I’m doubtful that an anarchist revolution is feasible, and revolution is Sparrow’s overall goal. Then again, plenty of smart people disagree with me. Theorists, organizers, and perhaps an economist or two — they believe in better governance by the people, for the people. I mean, democracy was supposed to fill that niche, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Remember how the Ferguson protests didn’t show up on Facebook because the News Feed algorithm doesn’t like ~negative~ content? I don’t think the state needs to employ its full range of authoritarian resources. We’ve constructed systems for ourselves that do the job just fine. When we gave up our lives to corporations, it was a sign that we like control — at least most of us — and we don’t want to make our own decisions in every instance. Who has the energy to choose, choose, and choose momentously again?

Quote from The Intercept.

Quote from The Intercept.

I don’t believe that we entirely lack autonomy. Free will is a myth, of course, which I’ve written about extensively. But there’s grey space between humans as automatons and humans as gods, masters of our own fates. We’re somewhere in between — more like pre-programmed machines executing decisions in reaction to various stimuli.

What do you think? I genuinely want to know. Just email me. (But I can’t guarantee that I’ll agree with you…)