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Sensorium Versus Sensibility

Beware — navel-gazing ahead! I calculated Exolymph’s growth rate(s) and it prompted me to reflect on this endeavor.


Exolymph is billed as a cyberpunk newsletter, but it’s not actually very cyberpunk. At least not in the traditional sense. I don’t cover pop culture like Neon Dystopia does, and I don’t report on concrete happenings like Motherboard.

No one would mistake my commentary on current events for Gibsonian fiction — except to the extent to which they mistake the reality of living on the internet for Gibsonian fiction. And yeah, that’s sort of the point.

Still, I worry that people think they’re signing up for one thing and end up getting something else. I’ve never been chastened, so I guess those people just unsubscribe without mentioning their disappointment.

In my essay about cyberpunk as a sensibility, I wrote:

Cyberpunk is a type of “taste in ideas” that weds aesthetics with politics. It is not a framework with a specific hypothesis or clearly defined rules. Rather, cyberpunk is an assemblage of loosely related themes, tropes, and aesthetics. […] Noticing the moments of techno-dystopia in our world can jolt people awake, causing them to realize how computing — especially the internet — is impacting their lives on every scale.

The events or ideas that trigger the mental switch-flip are usually exotic, […] but the deeper level of using the cyberpunk mental model is looking at mundane things like commerce and subculture formation and seeing how computers and the internet change the dynamics that we used to be used to.

From what I can tell, this attitude isn’t widespread. I like sci-fi aesthetics, but I get tired of the superficiality. Prestige TV (think Black Mirror) does a decent job of incorporating cynical futurism into conventional cyberpunk, but it feels scarce online.

/r/Cyberpunk users upvote cityscapes that combine a Jenny Holzer installation with /r/UrbanHell. In the Cyberpunk Science Fiction & Culture group on Facebook, they share memes, “is [thing] cyberpunk?” posts, and unsourced artwork. /r/DarkFuturology gets a little closer to interrogating the present. A splash of Hacker News ties it back to capitalism.

I feel more of an alliance with Glitchet, the meanderings of Adam Elkus or The Grugq, Breaking Smart, and Circuit Breaker back when it was active.

I hope this is a niche that other people care about, and that they’ll keep paying attention to. We probably don’t qualify as an egregore yet — too fragile — but I think the cyberpunk sensibility is worth maintaining.


Image via ▓▒░ TORLEY ░▒▓.

Nothing Clever, I’m Just Scared

Warning: I’m only equipped to gradually wind my way around to the point.


I’ve been trying to write down my feelings all day. I reread Cat Marnell’s Amphetamine Logic columns and pondered oblivion. Did you know that I’ve basically never done drugs? It’s silly to be a teetotaling transhumanist, no matter how passive. Maybe shooting up would Show Me the Way. Perhaps I’d be a better advocate for total bodily autonomy (AKA trans rights).

My partner gave me the corner of an edible once and I just felt like I had a fever. That’s the closest I’ve gotten to “doing drugs”. Alcohol, on the other hand. Well! I do have an appropriately addictive personality, and my therapist is so concerned when I admit that I drink as much as any other formerly depressed twenty-something.

On the subject of depression, I felt more anguished today than I have in a long time. The SFO protest helped in the moment, but comedowns are always painful. Venlafaxine fixed my brain chemistry. But as far as I know, neurotic personalities can’t be fixed. BEING YOURSELF IS PERMANENT.

I reread Marnell’s essays, and I reread my post-election blog post. Then I second-guessed myself. Back in November I wrote, “I don’t believe we’re on the edge of a national apocalypse,” but what the fuck did I know? What the fuck do I know now? How can I pull away far enough to judge my own capabilities?

You could call this liberal tears. Please, feel free. Here in the United States, we’re close enough to my pre-committed “total resistance” threshold — the Muslim registry — that I’m pondering the best strategy of, uh, total resistance. Tips welcome. If you live in an authoritarian country you might be laughing at me, and that’s fine.

At the protest last night, I cried once, and wished the crowd would sing “This Land Is Your Land” even if most of us are colonizers because I need some kind of harmonious resistance in the present. I need an identity politics that is able to unite people instead of sectioning them off into boxes and imposing baroque rulesets.

Last year on Tumblr I coined the term “femmencholy” and that’s how I feel. I’m never more ladylike than when I’m sobbing. Not that I’m literally sobbing — it’s more of a symbol. A concept.

Image by @greatartbot.

Image by @greatartbot.

What does this have to do with techno-dystopia?! You may be wondering. It does and it doesn’t. You see, this is where we are:

As a result of many related factors — difficult economic conditions, the recrudescence of nationalism and tribalism, weak and uncertain political leadership and unresponsive mainstream political parties, a new era of communications that seems to strengthen rather than weaken tribalism — there has emerged a crisis of confidence in what might be called the liberal enlightenment project.

They don’t mean the lefty type of liberal, they mean the “believes in representative democracy” type of liberal.

The “new era of communications” is what enables me to contact you and also what enables everything that scares me.

We’ve found ourselves here as well:

The Internet was supposed to liberate us from gatekeepers; and, indeed, information now comes at us from all possible sources, all with equal credibility. […] The belief in the corruptibility of all institutions leads to a dead end of universal distrust.

How very Russian of us, comrades!!!

Liberal tears, I know. I know, okay? I suspect many of you have an anarcho-libertarian bent, which is my preferred brand of radical. I hope you will forgive me for being partisan.


Header artwork by Magochama.

Trust Not the Green Lock

Eric Lawrence works at Google, where he is “helping bring HTTPS everywhere on the web as a member of the Chrome Security team.” (I preserved his phrasing because I’m not 100% sure what that means concretely, but working on security at Google bestows some baseline credibility.) A couple of days ago Lawrence published a blog post about malicious actors using free certificates from Let’s Encrypt to make themselves look more legit. As he put it:

One unfortunate (albeit entirely predictable) consequence of making HTTPS certificates “fast, open, automated, and free” is that both good guys and bad guys alike will take advantage of the offer and obtain HTTPS certificates for their websites. […]

Another argument is that browsers overpromise the safety of sites by using terms like Secure in the UI — while the browser can know whether a given HTTPS connection is present and free of errors, it has no knowledge of the security of the destination site or CDN, nor its business practices. […] Security wording is a complicated topic because what the user really wants to know (“Is this safe?”) isn’t something a browser can ever really answer in the affirmative.

Lawrence goes into much more detail, of course. His post hit the front page on Hacker News, and the commentary is interesting. (As usual! Hacker News gets a worse rap than it deserves, IMO.)

I want to frame this exploitation of freely available certificates as a result of cacophony of the web. Anyone can publish, and anyone can access. Since internet users are able to choose anonymity, evading social or criminal consequences is easy. (See also: fake news, the wholly fabricated kind.) Even when there are opsec gaps, law enforcement doesn’t have anywhere near the resources to chase down everyone who’s targeting naive or careless users online.

Any trust signal that can be aped — especially if it can be aped cheaply — absolutely will be. Phishers and malware peddlers risk nothing. In fact, using https is not inherently deceptive (although it is surely intended to be). The problem is on the interpretation end. Web browsers and users have both layered extra meaning on top of the plain technical reality of https.

To his credit, Lawrence calls the problem unsolvable. It is, because the question here is: “Can you trust a stranger if they have a badge that says they’re trustworthy?” Not if the badge can be forged. Or, in the case of https, if the badge technically denotes a certain kind of trust, but most people read it as being a different kind of trust.

(I’m a little out of my depth here, but my understanding is that https doesn’t mean “this site is trustworthy”, it just means “this site is encrypted”. There are higher types of certificates that validate more, usually purchased by businesses or other institutions with financial resources.)

High-trust societies can mitigate this problem, of evaluating whether a stranger is going to screw you over, but there’s no way to upload those cultural norms. The internet is not structured for accountability. And people aren’t going to stop being gullible.

Anyway, Lawrence does have some suggestions for improving the current situation. Hopefully one or multiple of those will go forward.


Header photo by Joi Ito.

Peace? Hogwash

Adam Elkus wrote:

All systems of communication and control — from the human mind to [a] command and control network — can be subtly degraded, disabled, or subverted by feeding them false inputs or exploiting weaknesses in how they process, evaluate, and act on information. […] We sit at the threshold of an new era characterized by the ubiquity of adaptive, data-hungry systems and a corresponding society characterized more and more by the offloading of its collective memory, cognition, and reasoning to computers. [… Our] increasingly informatized identities, culture, society, media, and politics can be easily manipulated by actors that understand how the organization of information networks determines their influence on our beliefs and behaviors.

We’re stuck here, aren’t we? The older I get, the more fatalistic I get. The internet, replete with endless information, can be weaponized in a variety of different ways.

If you can change what people people believe, it’s easy to manipulate reality in other ways. We humans have scant resistance to digital infowar. Weapons of mass rhetoric are wielded by other humans.

But the catch is that they have fewer scruples! Most people are morons — or at least uneducated — and susceptible to even naive or ridiculous attacks.

There is no hope of mutual understanding across ideologies. We’re primed to morally entrench. Perhaps the most optimistic future is one in which we fracture into city-states. Hopefully we’d be able to maintain free trade — but I don’t know what realistic impulse would make me hope for that.

On the bright side, I finally read BuzzFeed’s August report on the effort to outlaw “killer robots”. Uh, disregard the efficacy of that push.

The Internet of LOUD

On the way home from dinner, I wondered, “What am I gonna write about tonight?” Then I opened Twitter and faced this headline: “Hacker breaches the US agency that certifies voting machines” (only semi-confirmed).

So, ah, there’s that.

Cybersecurity is vital but hard and also the most important institutions seem to ignore it. Great!

Also, Adam Elkus said something funny:

This is 2016, so I should be able to back a secessionist kickstarter with bitcoins sent via virtual reality

It’s kinda possible if you donate to Liberland. Apparently a lot of their funds come through bitcoin.

Avalanche in progress. Photo by Sean Gillies.

Avalanche in progress. Photo by Sean Gillies.

Anyway.

What I really want to talk about is something else. I feel angsty. It’s a result of the cacophony. The unfettered flow of information that we’ve set up for ourselves, where people’s opinions about the news go straight into my face for hours on a daily basis. (What? I could choose not to do this? Preposterous.)

I like keeping track of what’s going on. But I hate putting up with the constant ambient wrongness.

Now, I’m a reasonable person, so I know that I’m not right about everything. I have natural biases, delusions engendered by tribalism, and often I must draw conclusions based on incomplete information. Some of these flaws will be discovered and fixed at some point, but others will continue to taint how I perceive and analyze the world. Just another stellar perk of being human!

Since I am human, even though I intellectually know that I’m wrong about some things, on an emotional level I think that all of my firm opinions are correct. It is extremely grating that everyone goes around disagreeing with me all the time. Especially since I have an agenda — a way that I want the world to proceed — and pesky other people never stop working against it.

This isn’t new, of course, but I can’t help but think that the volume has increased. There is so much of it. In the “olden days” did people with opinions have to restrain themselves from starting arguments left and right?

(Pun intended.)

Internet Influences and Old-School Artisanship

“Dissonance series is my body of work that explores a broken, futuristic dystopia where adornment is used as a means of coping with the environment around us. Dissonance is about a disharmony within the self and the coping mechanisms created.” — Alice Argyros

Artwork by Alice Argyros.

Artwork by Alice Argyros.

I interviewed Alice Argyros about the cyberpunk-inspired jewelry she creates. Since we did this via email, I’m just going to omit my questions and present Argyros’ answers like they’re an essay (lightly edited for readability). She said…


I actually had no idea what “cyberpunk” was until Asher of ReTech told me that my work leans in that direction. There was a boom of steampunk about ten years ago that I found intriguing. However, it was short-lived with all the mass production and nonsensical aesthetic decisions. There were some really great stories and comic books that came out of it, though.

Perhaps it’s the stories more than anything that draws me into the realm of cyberpunk. I currently have a collection of jewelry based on my own utopian world where people don’t pop pills to solve problems, they just alter the world around them. [Editor’s note: You can pry my pills out of my cold, dead hands! Venlafaxine forever.]

But as far as aesthetics, I’ve always loved the strong bold lines of Art Nouveau and dark tones of macabre art. Sergio Toppi is a huge inspiration of mine, with his illustrations utilizing asymmetrical balance and broken lines.

I didn’t always have this style with my jewelry. I got into metalsmithing back in college and it’s been a slow-moving career choice since then. There’s a fine line between doing what you want to do and doing what sells.

I have a saying, “My hands know more than my head.” Take away everything else in our lives and what we have left is our abilities; that is what defines us. I’m okay with being incredibly low-tech. I’m still able to do a lot of things despite being behind with the tech times. All I have is a website and Instagram. I don’t bother doing Pinterest and I just found out about 4chan and Reddit. Still have no idea what they are… really.

It’s also about being the kind of maker I want to be. I’m not into production lines and shipping out hundreds of little packages every month. Slow progress helps me keep everything in check, to choose my next step rationally.

Despite being low-tech, there is so much in the digital world that is absolutely fascinating. For example, there are incredibly talented artists who utilize technology to make things faster but are also more intricate. Check out the work of Nervous System when you get a chance. [Editor’s note: I also highly recommend this.]

In short, I don’t really feel downsized or inadequate for not utilizing technology to my advantage. Working with my hands is what makes me feel good. I know some of my more detailed works could be easily cut out with a laser cutter. It would certainly make the time go by faster.

But, not only is it an expensive piece of equipment, there is a part of me that would just be exhausted sitting in front of a computer instead of physically sitting at a bench and designing the work. I like to get my hands dirty.

I don’t really like to pass the time surfing the internet. So, I kind of hear about these outlets through conversations with people… which takes a while. It’s interesting to see what people are up to and some of these outlets are really good at showcasing that creativity. That’s why I to stick more to Instagram; it’s just an immediate way to see what people are doing without a lot of the drama.

Once you get into other social outlets, the temperature quickly changes. That’s why I steered clear of a lot of social media. I joined Facebook back when it came out years ago, and it was interesting to see the flow of information. But it has a way of pandering to our lowest, most basic pleasures by allowing people to pick and choose a reality based on their beliefs. Maybe it’s self-inflicted propaganda?

I don’t know, either way it got too difficult dealing with people always having an answer for everything but never questioning anything. That’s why I’ve limited which areas to expend my time. Another reason is the false sense of accomplishment we can get from these outlets. As an artist, it can be helpful to showcase what we do on these outlets but if we’re not actually communicating with galleries, emailing curators, and making strong connections, we aren’t doing much at all. We can’t get paid in “likes”!

I could appreciate the business side of being an artist a lot more if I didn’t have a day job. I’ve always enjoyed math but it’s difficult navigating taxes, licenses, and legal issues. Right now any free time I have, I’d rather spend it on designing and making instead of crunching numbers and filing papers.

As far as marketing goes, I’m pretty terrible at talking about my work. Artist markets can be difficult to navigate. I’m confident in my work but I’m not always confident when talking to people about my work. That’s the feeling I get from a lot of other artists and independent creatives as well. Luckily we have a local service here that caters towards helping women and small business owners get their feet on the ground. That’s been a huge help.

My closest cousin died a year back. She was the older sister I never had — dark, punk, goth princess with dreams of heading to the stars. I think it hurt me more than I ever though it would have.

I needed to get out of a slump. I took the attitude of, “Fuck it, I’m going to make what I want to make, regardless of what other people want.” This new turn helped me get back on track and has made me develop a stronger hold on the kind of artist I am. Whenever I hit any rough patches, I just tune into that inner punk nature we both had.


Go follow Argyros on Instagram and buy her jewelry.

It Shouldn’t Be Easy to Understand

Mathias Lafeldt writes about complex technical systems. For example, on finding root causes when something goes wrong:

One reason we tend to look for a single, simple cause of an outcome is because the failure is too complex to keep it in our head. Thus we oversimplify without really understanding the failure’s nature and then blame particular, local forces or events for outcomes.

I think this is a fractal insight. It applies to software, it applies to individual human decisions, and it applies to collective human decisions. We look for neat stories. We want to pinpoint one factor that explains everything. But the world doesn’t work that way. Almost nothing works that way.

In another essay, Lafeldt wrote, “Our built-in pattern detector is able to simplify complexity into manageable decision rules.” Navigating life without heuristics is too hard, so we adapted. But using heuristics — or really any kind of abstraction — means losing some of the details. Or a lot of the details, depending on how far you abstract.

That said, here’s Alice Maz with an incisive explanation of why everything is imploding:

Automation is transforming bell curve to power law, hollowing out the middle class as only a minority can leverage their labor to an extreme degree. Cosmopolitan egalitarianism for the productive elite, nationalism and demagoguery for the masses. For what it’s worth, I consider this a Bad Outcome, but it is one of the least bad ones I have been able to come up with that is mid-term realistic.

Which corporation will be the first to issue passports?

Rushkoff argued that programming was the new literacy, and he was right, but the specifics of his argument get lost in the retelling. The way he saw it, this was the start of the third epoch, the preceding two ushered in by 1) the invention of writing, 2) the printing press.

Writing broke communal oral tradition and replaced it with record-keeping and authoritative narration by the literate minority to the masses. Only the few could produce texts, and the many depended on them to recite and interpret. This the frame (pre-V2 maybe) that Catholicism inhabits.

The printing press led to mass literacy. This is the frame of Protestantism: the idea is for each man to read and interpret for himself. But after a brief spate of widely-accessible press (remember Paine’s Common Sense? very dangerous!) access tightened up. Hence mass media as gatekeeper, arbiter of consensus reality.

The few report, and the many receive. Not that journalists were ever the elite, just as the Egyptian scribes. They were the priestly class, Weber’s “new middle”. (Also lawyers. Remember the backwoods lawyer? Used to be all you needed was the books and a good head. Before credentialism ate the field.)

The internet killed consensus reality. Now anyone can trivially disseminate arbitrary text. But the platforms on which those texts are seen are controlled by the new priests, line programmers, which determine how information flows. This is what critics of “the Facebook algorithm” et al are groping at. The many can create, but the few craft the landscape that hosts creation.

It’s still early. Remains to be seen if we can keep relatively open platforms (like Twitter circa 2010; open in the unimpeded sense). Or if the space narrows, new gatekeepers secure hold. But that will be determined by programmers. (Maybe lawmakers.) Rest along for the ride.

That’s all copy-pasted from Twitter and then lightly edited to be more readable in this format.

I included the opening quote about complex systems because although this neat narrative holds more truth than some others, it’s still a neat narrative. Don’t forget that. Reality is multi-textured.


Header photo by kev-shine.

Tiny Subculture Wars, Part 29348927

Last week Jeremy Southard offered up this prompt in the chat group:

what about gatherings/collectives? The cyberfuture is now! Online or otherwise, more and more groups of diverse people are coming together and sharing their interests in tech, the future, and their own projects. This slack is one of many. There’s local makerspaces (I can submit pics from the one I’m a member of if you’d like), thingiverse, osh park, adafriut, hackaday.io, sparkfun, etc… Then deeper from “just tech” to body mods like the NFC implants and 3d printing limbs like openhandproject.org.

See also: biohack.me and eight zillion subreddits.

In fact, this gathering-of-semi-obscure-enthusiasts phenomenon is the effect of the internet that I am personally most stoked about. I get to fraternize with people who share my niche obsessions, and I don’t even have to leave my house?! Paradise.

It sounds cheesy to say “I just want to make friends!” — and truth be told, I also want to be widely read. However, making friends is a big part of why I go around shouting into the void all the time. It turns out the void has other shouting people in it, and if we’re shouting things that mesh well, we can cluster and shout together.

On the other hand, subcultures breed drama. They’re sort of like small towns. This isn’t unique to the internet at all — join a local punk or anarchist scene and you’ll be awed by the amount of interpersonal conflict — but it’s particularly easy to observe on the internet. Everything is documented in comment sections or Twitter threads or what-have-you. Usually the detritus is messy and hard to follow, but you can piece things together. I enjoy watching drama from the outside, but having it happen to your own community is horrible.

What happens more quickly on the internet than IRL is subculture dilution. Anyone can access any information effectively instantaneously, so cultural distribution speeds up. There’s an iconic Meaningness article called “Geeks, MOPs, and sociopaths in subculture evolution” that outlines some of the problems that inevitably arise. (“Mops” are casual fans.) Anyway:

Fanatics want to share their obsession, and mops initially validate it for them too. However, as mop numbers grow, they become a headache. Fanatics do all the organizational work, initially just on behalf of geeks: out of generosity, and to enjoy a geeky subsociety. They put on events, build websites, tape up publicity fliers, and deal with accountants. Mops just passively soak up the good stuff. You may even have to push them around the floor; they have to be led to the drink. At best you can charge them admission or a subscription fee, but they’ll inevitably argue that this is wrong because capitalism is evil, and also because they forgot their wallet.

Mops also dilute the culture. The New Thing, although attractive, is more intense and weird and complicated than mops would prefer. Their favorite songs are the ones that are least the New Thing, and more like other, popular things. Some creators oblige with less radical, friendlier, simpler creations.

The dilution process is really disappointing to the hardcore fanatics, and the creators have mixed feelings about it. This reminds me of another excellent analysis of subcultures, “Social Gentrification” by Simon Penner:

[T]here’s a class conflict between the people already there and the people coming in. The people coming in are mostly middle- and upper-middle class folks with safe, stable lives, money enough not to be living precariously, etc. (Analogy: the people participating in nerd culture, now that it’s mainstream, always had other communities and social outlets that worked for them.) The people who are already there, on the other hand, have poor, hard lives because life screwed them over (analogy: the existing “real” nerds, for the most part, have suffered serious physical and social bullying that has severely impacted their life for the worse). More importantly, the people who are already there have nowhere else to go; they can’t afford the rising rental prices around here (analogy: the “real” nerds, being social outcasts, don’t have any other social communities they’re welcome in). […]

The end result is that every time I find a community or activity I like and enjoy, and try to get involved in it, it inevitably gets yanked away from me once people figure out that it’s cool.

Penner goes on to say, “I know two people who would have killed themselves if they didn’t have 4chan as a social support network (which sounds insane to everyone who hasn’t been a /b/tard, and obvious to all who have).”

I don’t think there’s any obvious solution to this problem of “social gentrification” — there might not be any solution as all, since people getting more empathetic in aggregate is a development I have doubts about. I dunno, what do you think? (Just reply to this email.)


The header image is a screenshot by ▓▒░ TORLEY ░▒▓.

A Grand Theory of Cyberpunk

Today I’m supposed to disseminate my steadfastly cyberpunk take on empires. Conveniently, today is also the pub date for my Ribbonfarm guest essay, “The Cyberpunk Sensibility” — it lays out the philosophy that I’ve been developing via Exolymph for almost a year. Unsurprisingly, that philosophy has plenty to do with government. A taste:

Protesters’ advantage is their ability to take over the news cycle, simultaneously in every part of a given country, because the internet means information travels instantaneously. Many of us have smartphones that ding us every time something new develops. “Did you see… ?!”

But the police and other fiat institutions have the same advantage they’ve always had — the ability to lock people up, sometimes justified but often not. What’s new to the law enforcement arsenal is being able to sort and target high-impact targets at scale. […]

Cyberpunk highlights the power of vigilante hackers, sure, but it also points to the power of institutions, whether stultified or moving fast and breaking things. The balance between these two types of entities is what’s fascinating and crucial to watch.

So go read that! I’m quite happy about how it turned out, but I’m also very interested in your feedback. (As always!)


Header photo by Spencer.