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Month: May 2016 (page 1 of 2)

Meandering Digital Meta-Anxiety

Sometimes I make grand declarations: “Fundamentally, I am a cynical optimist.” Imagine that accompanied by a sweeping gesture. But it’s not true, of course. Fundamentally, I ride the tides of the media I’m absorbing on a given day, and whether I’ve remembered to take my meds or not.

(A cynical optimist believes that the world is gradually improving over time, but that human beings are selfish above all else. I do believe both of those things. However, like most ideological posturing, at core it’s probably just my way of signaling a certain set of sympathies.)

“You are what you eat.” I am what I consume, information and images included. And so are you, meaning that I’m feeding you right now, if we stretch the metaphor a bit. The phrase “media diet” is kinda played out by now, but you know what I mean.

Does this seem disjointed?

Photo by Dave Bonta.

Photo by Dave Bonta.

Well, it is disjointed. That’s how I read nowadays so it’s also how I write. I came back to this browser tab after detouring through Facebook and Slack. It’s okay, I suppose. The ideas are still here. Or at least I don’t know about the ideas that have been sacrificed.

“To the days beyond this one which are still perfect” — that which is unborn is unspoiled. It’s easy to expect so much of the days that haven’t come yet. But I worry, too. I’m sure Y Combinator and everyone who hates Y Combinator will find a way to make their basic income experiment contentious, for example.

Here in the US, those of us in the Blue Tribe are increasingly frightened by Trump as the election trundles onward like some perverse version of Manifest Destiny where meme magic conquers every plot of land and the fucking alt right gets to decide who can sharecrop.

So the days beyond this one are not only perfect — the possibility also exists that they’re horrific. And we’d obsessed with both dialectical futures.

The “Dot Hack” Anime

The .hack series sprawls confusingly through at least three forms of media, including video games and manga books. Here I just included the anime, which was more than enough.

.HACK//SIGN

.hack//Sign cyberpunk anime

“Tsukasa wakes up inside The World, a massive online role-playing game full of magic and monsters, and finds himself unable to log out. With no knowledge of what’s happening in the real world, Tsukasa must discover how he ended up stuck in the game, and what connection he has with the fabled Key of the Twilight — an item that’s rumored to grant ultimate control over the digital realm.” — Funimation

.hack//Legend of the Twilight

.hack//Legend of the Twilight anime

“Rena wins a limited edition character model contest for The World and invites her twin brother Shugo to play the legendary character Kite while she plays as the legendary BlackRose. On their first outing together, Shugo is killed by a monster, but is revived by a mysterious girl named Aura. As well as reviving Shugo, Aura gives him a mysterious bracelet. Shugo and Rena continue to play ‘The World’ and find many warped monsters.” — Wikipedia

.hack//Liminality

.hack//Liminality anime

.hack//Liminality is an OVA series directly related to the .hack video game series for the PlayStation 2, with the perspective of Liminality focused on the real world as opposed to the games’ MMORPG The World.” — Wikipedia

Couldn’t find much else about this one, but the Wikipedia page and the .hack Wiki page have varying amounts of information about the plot and how this title fits into the overall .hack universe.

.hack//Roots

.hack//Roots cyberpunk anime

“In the newest version of the massive online RPG know as ‘The World,’ Haseo and his guild mates search for a legendary item called the Key of the Twilight—but they’re not the only ones looking for it. When a rival guild faces off against Haseo and his teammates, the conflict has deep repercussions both inside and outside the game, and threatens to leave the players forever changed.” — Funimation

.hack//G.U. Trilogy

.hack//GU Trilogy anime

“After one of his friends falls into a coma playing an online game called The World, Haseo logs in to find the man responsible. But before he can unravel The World’s many mysteries, he’ll have to awaken the secret power hidden in the code of his character.” — Amazon

The next part is .hack//G.U. Returner; there is more information on MyAnimeList and the .hack Wiki.

.hack//Quantum

.hack//Quantum anime

“Tobias, Mary, and Sakuya are into the The World. Together, they grind toward the break of day and run dungeons in search of the artifacts of adventure. But when the trio becomes lost in this virtual labyrinth, their lives will change forever.” — Amazon

.hack//The Movie (Sekai No Mukou Ni)

.hack Sekai No Mukou Ni

“In 2024, the computer network prevails throughout daily life. Sora Yuuki is a 14-year-old girl. One day, she is invited to an online game ‘The World’. After an accident in the game, the real world begins to deform.” — MyAnimeList

“But not all is well in The World: a malicious virus has been spreading around the net and will soon cause a new network crisis. Aura, the omnipotent goddess of The World has devised a plan to stop the virus, and although Sora might not know it yet that plan requires her cooperation.” — .hack Wiki

Sekai No Mukou Ni reportedly also includes an OVA short called Thanatos Report.

Something Something Blockchain

Yay, We Don’t Need Politics Anymore!

The DAO's logo, grabbed from their website.

The DAO’s logo, grabbed from their website.

I wanted to resist writing about The DAO — that stands for “decentralized autonomous organization” — but after going through my notes from this past week’s reading, I realized that I can’t avoid it.

The reason I wanted to steer clear is that everyone else has already said it better, but maybe you don’t subscribe to their newsletters. Besides, who else will address the cyberpunk angle?

Bloomberg columnist Matt Levine covered The DAO with delightful snark:

“One of the great joys of our modern age, with its rapid advances in financial technology, is examining the latest innovation to try to figure out what centuries-old idea has been dressed up in cryptographical mystification.”

To summarize aggressively, The DAO wants to crowdsource an entire company, which will sort of act as a venture capital partnership, dispensing ETH, a bitcoin-like cryptocurrency. You can read plenty more about their structure and setup on their website. The DAO’s main differentiators are “smart contracts” and, as the name suggests, decentralized governance:

“The ETH held by The DAO will never be centrally managed. DAO Token Holders are able to vote on important decisions relating to the management of The DAO, including the power to redistribute its ETH amongst themselves.”

Cryptocurrency Art Gallery by Namecoin.

Cryptocurrency Art Gallery by Namecoin.

The cryptocurrency crowd fascinates me because many of them seem to think they can opt out of normal human power structures, or somehow use code to avoid disputes. And I think that’s… well, impossible. (Maybe I am strawmanning egregiously, in which case I hope a cryptocurrency enthusiast or garden-variety libertarian will email me to point it out.) As I’ve written before:

“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.”

Direct democracy is a terrible system; I would go so far as to say it’s unworkable. Does anyone endorse mob rule? And centralized power is an oft-repeated pattern because it’s efficient. Furthermore, we have courts and the like because they’re useful — because the need for arbitration arises frequently despite the existence of contracts. Going back to Matt Levine’s article:

“The reason that ‘law and jurisdiction’ come into play is that sometimes stuff happens that is not addressed with perfect clarity in the contract. Sometimes the parties need to renegotiate to address something not specifically anticipated in the contract. Sometimes they can’t agree, and need an outside adjudicator to decide what should happen. And sometimes the project affects people who never signed the contract in the first place, but who have a claim nevertheless.”

And as business analyst Ben Thompson wrote in his “Bitcoin and Diversity” essay:

“I can certainly see the allure of a system that seeks to take all decision-making authority out of the hands of individuals: it’s math! […] If humans made the rules, then appealing to the rules can never be non-political. Indeed, it’s arguably worse, because an appeal to ‘rules’ forecloses debate on the real world effects of said rules.”

Lots of people don’t want to do the hard things. They don’t want to admit that decisions always carry tradeoffs, and they don’t want to negotiate messy human disagreements. But a world without those hard things is fairyland — nothing more than a nice dream.

As we continue to integrate computing into our daily lives, our legal system, and our financial system, we will have to keep grappling with human fallibility — especially when we delude ourselves into thinking we can escape it.


Update circa June 19: I was tempted to write about The DAO again, since it’s been “hacked” (sort of) and a “thief” (sort of) absconded with $50 million (USD value). However, a lot of other people have already published variations of what I wanted to say. The drama is still unfolding — /r/ethereum is a decent place to keep track — so I can’t point you to a canonical writeup, but Matt Levine’s new analysis is both cogent and funny. Also this Hacker News comment is smart.

A Cyberpunk Logo or Several

The greatest cyberpunk logo is, I would argue, the Laughing Man icon from Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex:

Cyberpunk logo: Laughing Man interpretation by thooley.

Laughing Man interpretation by thooley.

The hacker gleefully teasing his staid corporate victims with a symbol of youth culture: perfect. And I’ll have you know that my opinion is backed up by a random Reddit comment from two years ago! The ultimate measure of legitimacy! (Just kidding, of course.)

Cyberpunk Logo Origins

The Laughing Man’s emblem is particularly potent because of the quality of the series it comes from. But the wider world of cyberpunk media yields equally great graphic design — and occasionally tech companies accidentally (or intentionally?) mimic the aesthetic. Marco Ricchi has put together a compelling roundup of both types of images on Pinterest.

CD Projekt RED, the video game studio behind The Witcher and Cyberpunk 2077, has a dope logo, which marries the medieval arcana and dark futurism of its two landmark titles:

CD Projekt RED logo by, unsurprisingly, CD Projekt RED, makers of the The Witcher series and Cyberpunk 2077.

CD Projekt RED logo.

Cyberpunk 2077 itself, eagerly awaited by fans of the genre, sports an unabashedly ’80s-feeling neon splash:

Cyberpunk 2077 game logo.

Cyberpunk 2077 game logo.

Across the web many independent artists have drawn cyberpunk logos for companies from beloved media series, or logos that express the artists’ own imaginations; Redbubble lists a variety of these, as does DeviantArt.

Cyberpunk logo by Overdrive Graphics.

Cyberpunk logo by Overdrive Graphics.

Unexpected Gifts

Sometimes a stimulating cyberpunk logo slips into an otherwise straight-laced film (comparatively speaking). Initech is the white-collar hellscape from Office Space, and it has appropriately “software modernist” branding:

An unexpectedly cyberpunk logo: Initech, the white-collar hellscape from Office Space. Graphic cribbed from Alex Bigman on 99designs.

Image cribbed from Alex Bigman on 99designs.

Cyberpunk Logo Principles

I think these are the elements that unite various different cyberpunk logos:

  1. Visuals that evoke technology, especially computers or bioengineering.
  2. Either antiauthoritarian or hyper-corporate connotations.

It’s messy, though — questions of aesthetics are always messy. In the cyberpunk Facebook group that I occasionally frequent, people constantly argue about whether this or that “counts” as cyberpunk, and when writing the Exolymph newsletter I often must ask that question myself. Luckily I put together a list a while ago 😉 We must always return to the phrase “high tech meets low life” — it expresses the core of cyberpunk so neatly.


Commenters on Facebook contributed more awesome cyberpunk logo examples.

Futuristic Furniture: Examples from Two Sci-Fi Movies

What does futuristic furniture look like? It depends on when you’re asking. The aesthetic we imagine for the future shifts depending on the decade defining it. For instance, the interior of the space shuttle in 2001: A Space Odyssey looks quaint in retrospect, but felt cutting-edge at the time.

Futuristic furniture: sleek white floors and ceilings, contrasting with scarlet Koonsian chairs in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Sleek white floors and ceilings, offset by scarlet Koonsian chairs, in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

And yet we’ve held onto some of the trends that preoccupied the design futurists of the late 1960s — stark colors (or absence thereof), shiny opaque surfaces, and an ineffable sense of mystery are all still crucial. In fact, we haven’t moved very far from modernist forms; the computer screens were updated, but not their surroundings. In general, the surfaces are simple, and the shapes are either rounded or defined by plain rectangular angles.

Observe this set of ascetic end tables built by Patrick Cain Designs, which are explicit evocations of modernist style, and which wouldn’t feel out of place in a venture capitalist’s office:

Two powder-coated white end tables, examples of futuristic furniture, by Patrick Cain Designs.

Two powder-coated white end tables by Patrick Cain Designs.

Or this much more intricate end table that plays with interlocking patterns while restricting itself to right angles:

Black-painted steel end table with a glass top, sold by Etsy shop ObjectOfBeauty.

Black-painted steel end table with a glass top, sold by Etsy shop ObjectOfBeauty.

The vendor writes of the latter table:

“The overall style is very reminiscent of Paul Evan’s metal furniture creations as well as Harry Bertoia’s metal sculptures. The design includes a brutalist style decorative detail also representative of the period and the aesthetics of the aforementioned artists — three gold tone, textured discs (appear to be gold leaf plated).”

And yet this clean, intellectual vision of the future is artificially limited, only addressing the conditions of a digitized technocracy, and even then only depicting the upper classes. Another vision of futuristic furniture and next-century decor significantly differs from this pattern. The post-apocalyptic movie Snowpiercer imagines a stratified aesthetic stack — gritty, Dickensian slum conditions for the proles versus baroque, almost steampunk lushness for the rich.

Where the poor people live in the dystopian movie Snowpiercer -- a different take on futuristic furniture.

Where the poor people live in the dystopian movie Snowpiercer — a different take on futuristic furniture.

The desk of the teacher who raises well-off children in Snowpiercer.

The desk of the teacher who raises well-off children in Snowpiercer.

The bourgeoisie paradise in Snowpiercer.

The bourgeois tea-party paradise in Snowpiercer.

However, Snowpiercer‘s depiction of ultimate power recalls the tunnels and sleekness of 2001: A Space Odyssey, albeit with more embellishments:

The control center in Snowpiercer.

The control center in Snowpiercer.

Perhaps futuristic-ness — futuristicality? — doesn’t so much depend on visual specifics as it does on the political and technological context. Which has been my thesis about cyberpunk all along…

The Mad Monk in a New Century

Cyber portrait of Rasputin. Artwork by ReclusiveChicken.

Artwork by ReclusiveChicken.

Some men gain their reputation and influence through sheer charisma, perhaps with a dash of self-engineered notoriety:

“I realized, of course, that a lot of the talk about him was petty, foolish invention, but nonetheless I felt there was something real behind all these tales, that they sprang from some weird, genuine, living source. […] After all, what didn’t they say about Rasputin? He was a hypnotist and a mesmerist, at once a flagellant and a lustful satyr, both a saint and a man possessed by demons. […] With the help of prayer and hypnotic suggestion he was, apparently, directing our military strategy.” — Teffi (Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya)

Now imagine if Rasputin had deep learning at his disposal — a supercomputer laden with neural nets and various arcane algorithms. What would Rasputin do with Big Data™? Perhaps the Rasputin raised on video games and fast food would be entirely different from the Rasputin who rose up from the Siberian peasantry.

Which rulers would a modern Rasputin seek to enchant? Russia has fallen from its once formidable greatness, and I don’t think Vladimir Putin is as gullible as the Tsar was. China is the obvious choice, but Xi Jinping similarly seems too savvy. Somehow I doubt that Rasputin, the charlatan Mad Monk, could gain much traction in a first-class military power these days. Would he be drawn to the turmoil of postcolonial Africa?

Maybe Rasputin would be a pseudonymous hacker, frequenting cryptocurrency collectives and illicit forums. Would that kind of power suffice? Would he be willing to undo corporate and governmental infrastructure without receiving credit? Would he have the talent for it, anyway? Not everyone can become a programmer. Maybe he’d flourish on Wall Street instead.

What I’m really wondering is whether Rasputin’s grand influence was a result of being in the right place at the right time. Would he have been important no matter when he was born? You can ask this question about any historical figure, of course, but I want to ask it about Rasputin because he’s cloaked in mysticism. I can imagine him drawing a literal dark cloak around himself, shielding his body from suspicions that he was just a regular human.

You’ve probably heard the rumors about how hard Rasputin was to kill. Who is the Mad Monk’s modern counterpart? Which person who wields the proverbial power behind the throne will be very hard to disappear when it comes time for a coup?

Cyberpunk Librarian: Podcast & Research Paper

Cyberpunk Librarian is a podcast with the tagline “High tech, low budget”. You can listen on the official website, on YouTube, or via iTunes, where it is classified as “Software How-To”. The podcast’s creator is Daniel Messer, a technologist who works for the Maricopa County Library District in Phoenix, Arizona. He describes himself as an internet fiend:

“While some people log in, do their online stuff, and then log off, I pretty much stay online twenty-four hours a day. Sure, I sleep just like everyone else, the biggest difference is that I’m sleeping next to a tablet computer, smart phone, and occasionally a laptop computer — all of which are jacked into the Internet.”

Both at work and recreationally, Messer is a fan of open-source software. As he writes, “open source is accountable to, and partially owned by, a community, which makes it very similar to a library.”

Daniel Messer, the cyberpunk librarian himself.

Daniel Messer, the cyberpunk librarian himself.

Messer used to blog at the website Not All Bits, but in January, 2012 he moved to a self-hosted instance of WordPress (linked above). He can also be followed on Twitter, and has written three books:

The other thing that comes up when you Google “cyberpunk librarian” is a research paper called “Enter the cyberpunk librarian: Future directions in Cyberspace” by Jonathan Willson. You can’t easily access the full text online, but according to ERIC:

“This article describes the properties and culture of the electronic frontier, discusses the social impact of cyberspace, examines the role of libraries and librarians in the future. Argues that librarians can help shape a vision of cyberspace that benefits society by providing fair and equitable distribution of information resources.”

ResearchGate has another, slightly different description.

Cyberpunk librarian photo by Cindi on Flickr.

Perhaps another sort of cyberpunk librarian… Photo by Cindi.

Health, Happiness, 8asdf6a7f57

Photo taken in Oakland, California.

Photo taken in Oakland, California.

I was nervous in all the cliché ways — sweaty palms, rubbing them on my thighs, slightly flushed and slightly sweaty. Everyone said the procedure wouldn’t hurt. But I didn’t know of any person who had gotten it reversed. So this was permanent. It wouldn’t help to dream of regaining ownership.

The recruiter gave me a kind glance over her desk. “Are you ready, dear?” She seemed configured to look grandmotherly, complete with the faint cookie smell. I felt a little suspicious, wondering if she was a bioengineered multi-stack human, placed here to comfort me into signing myself over. Or maybe her personality was just a happy coincidence for the corporation.

I needed the money. That’s how these things always happen. People used to join the United States Army because the education and income were worth risking your life. I heard about that from old Boomers on street corners. When I was a kid, they still hung around.

I never liked their greyness, the frozen-in-time feel of them. Boomers rocked back and forth on their haunches, shooting the shit with each other, and you couldn’t help but listen while waiting for the crosswalk. My parents’ parents, the generation birthed by the “Greatest Generation”; the generation that caused all of this anyway. Fuck ’em.

The recruiter pushed a tablet and stylus toward me. She nodded with a smile, just like a benevolent automaton would. I swiped through the forms slowly, trying to read everything but feeling my eyes glance off the denser patches of legalese. What could they say in these documents that would deter me, anyway?

I needed the money.

The press called them “oblivion jobs” — liberal columnists thought they were evil and conservative columnists called them an honest day’s work. Snapchat blew up with the debates for a while. Then other liberals jumped in and pointed out that this new solution was better than fully conscious drudgery.

Besides, the second faction of leftists argued, it was condescending to confiscate options from the poor. Let them choose. We chose, in droves, because it paid decently. Finally, something that paid decently! I was a holdout, actually. Paranoia and an irregular news habit kept me away from the recruiting offices until almost everyone else I knew had signed up.

The value proposition was straightforward: Sell your time and labor, like any job. But you don’t have to be awake while it’s happening. Rent out your body and accept long stretches of blankness. Would you rather be aware of the monotonous physical labor — hollowing out arcology units, adjusting every terminal for the dirt it was lodged in? Or would you rather wake up ten hours later, never having processed how you spent the time?

The commercials said it would be like going straight from breakfast to watching TV with a beer in hand. And you’d stay in shape, hooray!

The hardware-wetware combo behind this was complex and poorly understood, controversial among engineers as well as pundits. Roboticists were exasperated at first, not used to being second best, but eventually they resigned themselves to the new status quo. Machines were physically more capable, but they couldn’t match the sensory intuition of oblivion workers.

Everyone who told me the procedure wouldn’t hurt was right. And soon my employment situation felt familiar, of course. It was only strange for a couple of weeks to “wake up” with an aching back, nearly ready to go back to bed again.

Means & Ends of AI

Adam Elkus wrote an extremely long essay about some of the ethical quandaries raised by the development of artificial intelligence(s). In it he commented:

“The AI values community is beginning to take shape around the notion that the system can learn representations of values from relatively unstructured interactions with the environment. Which then opens the other can of worms of how the system can be biased to learn the ‘correct’ messages and ignore the incorrect ones.”

He is talking about unsupervised machine learning as it pertains to cultural assumptions. Furthermore, Elkus wrote:

“[A]ny kind of technically engineered system is a product of the social context that it is embedded within. Computers act in relatively complex ways to fulfill human needs and desires and are products of human knowledge and social grounding.”

I agree with this! Computers — and second-order products like software — are tools built by humans for human purposes. And yet this subject is most interesting when we consider how things might change when computers have the capacity to transcend human purposes.

Some people — Elkus perhaps included — scoff this possibility off as a pipe dream with no scientific basis. Perhaps the more salient inquiry is whether we can properly encode “human purposes” in the first place, and who gets to define “human purposes”, and whether those aims can be adjusted later. If a machine can learn from itself and its past experiences (so to speak), starting over with a clean slate becomes trickier.

I want to tie this quandary to a parallel phenomenon. In an article that I saw shared frequently this weekend, Google’s former design ethicist Tristan Harris (also billed as a product philosopher — dude has the best job titles) wrote of tech companies:

“They give people the illusion of free choice while architecting the menu so that they win, no matter what you choose. […] By shaping the menus we pick from, technology hijacks the way we perceive our choices and replaces them new ones. But the closer we pay attention to the options we’re given, the more we’ll notice when they don’t actually align with our true needs.”

Similarly, tech companies get to determine the parameters and “motivations” of artificially intelligent programs’ behavior. We mere users aren’t given the opportunity to ask, “What if the computer used different data analysis methods? What if the algorithm was optimized for something other than marketing conversion rates?” In other words: “What if ‘human purposes’ weren’t treated as synonymous with ‘business goals’?”

Realistically, this will never happen, just like the former design ethicist’s idea of an “FDA for Tech” is ludicrous. Platforms’ and users’ needs don’t align perfectly, but they align well enough to create tremendous economic value, and that’s probably as good as the system can get.

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