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Software Meets Capitalism: Interview with Steve Klabnik

Old woman working at a loom. Photo by silas8six.

Old woman working at a loom. Photo by silas8six.

I interviewed Steve Klabnik via email. If you’re part of the open-source world, you might recognize his name. Otherwise I’ll let him introduce himself. We discussed economics, technological unemployment, and software.

Exolymph: The initial reason I reached out is that you’re a technologist who tweets about labor exploitation and other class issues. I’m currently fascinated by how tech and society influence each other, and I’m particularly interested in the power jockeying within open-source communities. You seem uniquely situated to comment on these issues.

Originally I planned to launch right into questions in this email, but then I start opening your blog posts in new tabs, and now I need a little more time still. But! Here’s a softball one for starters: How would you introduce yourself to an oddball group of futurists (which is my readership)?

Steve Klabnik: It’s funny that you describe this one as a softball, because it should be, yet I think it’s actually really tough. I find it really difficult to sum up a person in a few words; there’s just so much you miss out on. Identity is a precarious and complex topic.

I generally see myself as someone who’s fundamentally interdisciplinary. I’m more about the in-betweens than I am about any specific thing. The discipline that I’m most trained in is software; it’s something I’ve done for virtually my entire life, and I have a degree in it. But software by itself is not that interesting to me. It’s the stuff that you can do with software, the impact that it has on our world, questions of ethics, of social interaction. This draws a connection to my second favorite thing: philosophy. I’m an amateur here, unfortunately. I almost got a higher degree in this stuff, but life has a way of happening. More specifically, I’m deeply enthralled with the family of philosophy that is colloquially referred to as “continental” philosophy, though I’m not sure I find that distinction useful. My favorites in this realm are Spinoza, Nietzsche, Marx, and Deleuze. I find that their philosophical ideas can have deep implications for software, its place in the world, and society at large.

Since we live under capitalism, “who are you” is often conflated with “what do you do for work”. As far as that goes, I work for Mozilla, the company that makes Firefox. More specifically, I write documentation for Rust, a programming language that we and a broader community have developed. I literally wrote the book on it 🙂 Mozilla has a strong open-source ethic, and that’s one of the reasons I’ve ended up working there; I do a lot of open-source work. On GitHub, a place where open-source developers share their code, this metric says that I’m the twenty-ninth most active contributor, with 4,362 contributions in the last 365 days. Before Rust, I was heavily involved with the Ruby on Rails community, and the broader Ruby community at large. I still maintain a few packages in Ruby.

Exolymph: To be fair, I described it as a softball question precisely because of the capitalist shortcut you mentioned, although I’m not sure I would have articulated it like that. Darn predictable social conditioning.

What appeals to you about open source? What frustrates you about open source?

Steve Klabnik: I love the idea of working towards a commons. I’d prefer to write software that helps as many people as possible.

What frustrates me is how many people can’t be paid to do this kind of work. I’ve been lucky to been able to feed myself while working on open source. Very, very lucky. But for most, it’s doing your job without pay. If we truly want a commons, we have to figure out how to fund it.

Exolymph: I’ve been reading a bunch of your blog posts. I’m curious about how you feel about working in an industry — and perhaps doing work personally — that obviates older jobs that people used to count on.

Steve Klabnik: It is something that I think about a lot. This is something that’s a fundamental aspect of capitalism, and has always haunted it: see the Luddites, for example. This problem is very complex, but here’s one aspect of it: workers don’t get to capture the benefits of increased productivity, at least not directly. Let’s dig into an example to make this more clear.

Let’s say that I’m a textile worker, like the Luddite. Let’s make up some numbers to make the math easy: I can make one yard of fabric per hour with my loom. But here’s the catch: I’m paid by the hour, not by the amount of fabric I make. This is because I don’t own the loom; I just work here. So, over the course of a ten hour day, I make ten yards of fabric, and am paid a dollar for this work.

Next week, when I come to work, a new Loom++ has been installed in my workstation. I do the same amount of work, but can produce two yards of fabric now. At the end of my ten hour day, I’ve made twenty yards of fabric: a 2x increase! But I’m still only being paid my dollar. In other words, the owner of the factory gets twice as much fabric for the same price, but I haven’t seen any gain here.

(Sidebar: There’s some complexity in this that does matter, but this is an interview, not a book 🙂 So for example, yes, the capitalist had to pay for the Loom++ in the first place. This is a concept Marx calls “fixed versus variable capital”, and this is a long enough answer already, so I’ll just leave it at that.)

Now, the idea here is that the other factories will also install Loom++s as well, and at least one of the people who’s selling the cloth will decide that 1.75x as much profit is better, so they’ll undercut the others, and eventually, the price of cloth will fall in half, to match the new productivity level. Now, as a worker, I have access to cheaper cloth. But until that happens, I’m not seeing a benefit, yet the capitalist is collecting theirs. Until they invest in a Loom2DX, with double the productivity of the Loom++, and the cycle starts anew.

Yet we, as workers, haven’t actually seen the benefits work out the way they should. There’s nothing that guarantees that it will, other than the religion of economists. And the working class has seen their wages stagnate, while productivity soars, especially recently. Here is a study that gets cited a lot, in articles like this one.

“From 1973 to 2013, hourly compensation of a typical (production/nonsupervisory) worker rose just 9 percent while productivity increased 74 percent. This breakdown of pay growth has been especially evident in the last decade, affecting both college- and non-college-educated workers as well as blue- and white-collar workers. This means that workers have been producing far more than they receive in their paychecks and benefit packages from their employers.”

We haven’t been really getting our side of the deal.

Anyway.

So, this is a futurist blog, yet I’ve just been talking about looms. Why? Well, two reasons: First, technologists are the R&D department that takes the loom, looks at it, and makes the Loom++. It’s important to understand this, and to know in our heart of hearts that under capitalism, yes, our role is to automate people out of jobs. Understanding a problem is the first step towards solving it. But second, it’s to emphasize that this isn’t something that’s specific to computing or anything. It’s the fundamental role of technology. We like to focus on the immediate benefit (“We have Loom++es now!!!”) and skip over the societal effects (“Some people are going to make piles of money from this and others may lose their jobs”). Technologists need to start taking the societal effects more seriously. After all, we’re workers too.

I’m at a technology conference in Europe right now, and on the way here, I watched a movie, The Intern. The idea of the movie is basically, “Anne Hathaway runs Etsy (called About the Fit in the movie), and starts an internship program for senior citizens. Robert De Niro signs up because he’s bored with retirement, and surprise! Culture clash.” It was an okay movie. But one small bit of backstory of De Niro’s character really struck me. It’s revealed that before he retired, he used to work in literally the same building as About the Fit is in now. He worked for a phone book company. It’s pretty obvious why he had to retire. The movie is basically a tale of what we’re talking about here.

Exolymph: I’m also curious about what you’d propose to help society through the Computing Revolution (if you will) and its effect on “gainful employment” opportunities.

Steve Klabnik: Okay, so, I’m not saying that we need to keep phone books around so that De Niro can keep his job. I’m also not saying that we need to smash the looms. What I am saying is that in a society which is built around the idea that you have to work to live, and that also rapidly makes people’s jobs obsolete, is a society in which a lot of people are going to be in a lot of pain. We could be taking those productivity benefits and using them to invest back in people. It might be leisure time, it might be re-training; it could be a number of things. But it’s not something that’s going to go away. It’s a question that we as society have to deal with.

I don’t think the pursuit of profits over people is the answer.


Go follow Steve on Twitter and check out his website.

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Hacking as a Business

Update 1/19/2018: The interviewee asked me to redact his identity from this blog post, and I obliged.

[Redacted] describes himself as a “web application penetration tester.” I asked him a bunch of questions about what that entails. [Redacted] answered in great depth, so I redacted my boring questions, lightly edited hisanswers, and made it into an essay. Take a tour through the 2000s-era internet as well as a crash course in how an independent hacker makes money. Without any further ado, here’s the story…


Origin Story

I got into my line of work when I was thirteen, playing the game StarCraft. I saw people cheating to get to the top and I wanted to know how they did it. At first I wasn’t that interested in programming, purely because I didn’t understand it. I moved my gaming to Xbox (the original!) shortly thereafter and was a massive fan of Halo 2. Again, I saw people cheating (modding, standbying, level boosting) and instantly thought, “I want to do this!” I learned how people were making mods and took my Xbox apart to start mucking with things.

I moved away from Xbox and back to the computer (I can never multitask). Bebo was just popping up. With an intro to coding already, I saw that you could send people “luv”. Based on my mentality from the last two games I played… I wanted the most luv and to be rank #1. I joined a forum called “AciidForums” and went by the names [redacted] and [redacted]. Suddenly I was surrounded by people who shared my interests. I started to code bots for Bebo to send myself luv. My coding got a lot better and so did my thinking path. I’d come home from school and instantly go on my computer — it was a whole new world to me. I still have old screenshots of myself with seventy-six million luv.

As my coding came along I met a lot of different types of people. Some couldn’t code but had ideas for bots; some couldn’t code but knew how to break code. We all shared information and formed a team. Suddenly I became the main coder and my friends would tell me about exploits they found. We got noticed. I’m not sure how, or why, but I seem to always get in with the right people. Perhaps it’s the way I talk or act — who knows. I made friends with a couple of Bebo employees. They were interested in how I was doing what I was doing.

This was my introduction to hacking and exploiting. I moved on from Bebo after coming to an agreement with the company that I’d leave them alone. Sadly my friends and I all lost contact, and it was time to move on.

Next came Facebook. At this point I already knew how to code and exploit. I instantly found exploits on Facebook and started again, getting up to mischief. Along the way I meet [redacted] and we became best friends because we share the same ideas and interests. Two years passed and again, my mischief went a bit far, so I got in trouble with Facebook. We resolved the issue and I vowed to never touch Facebook again.

I guess three times lucky, hey? I moved my exploiting to porn sites. After a year I was finally forced to make peace with the porn site I was targeting. I was getting fed up with always having to stop… but I was also getting annoyed at how easy it was to exploit. I needed a challenge.

I took a year off from exploiting to focus on improving my coding skills. I worked for a few people and also on some of my own personal projects, but it got repetitive and I needed a change. At this point, I was actually arrested by the eCrime Unit for apparently being [redacted] from [a hacking group; name redacted]. The charges were dropped since I was innocent. My former friend [redacted] was in prison for hacking so I was feeling quite lonely and not sure what to do. I’ll be honest, he had become like a brother to me.

I kept on coding for a bit, feeling too scared to even look for exploits after what happened to [friend’s name redacted]. (A few years have passed since then — [redacted] is out and he’s learned his lesson.) I knew that hacking was illegal and bad. I’d just like to note that I’ve never once maliciously hacked a site or stolen data, in case you think I was a super blackhat hacker, but the incident also scared me. Especially since I got arrested too.

Because of this and through other life changes, I knew I wanted to help people. I took my exploiting skills and starting looking. I found some exploits instantly and started reporting them to companies to let them know, and to also help fix them. 99% of the companies replied and were extremely thankful. Some even sent me T-shirts, etc.

I started targeting a few sites (I can’t name which because we have NDAs now; I’m still actively helping many). By using my words right, I managed to get in with a few people. I start reporting vulnerabilities and helping many companies. Months passed and one company showed a lot of interest in what I was doing. I got invited to fly over to meet them. I knew something was going right at this point, so I knuckled down and put all of my focus on finding vulnerabilities and reporting them to this company. Things were going great and I soon overloaded their team with more than they could handle. I started looking further afield at more sites, and suddenly I was introduced to HackerOne. I saw that LOADS of sites had bounties and paid for vulnerabilities. I instantly knew that this was where I wanted to stay. To this day I am still active on HackerOne, but normally I run in private programs now (better payouts).

Fast forward through a year of exploiting and helping companies and now we’re here. I’ve been a nerd for ten years. Eight years coding, and around seven years exploiting.

Business Practices

For companies that don’t have a bug bounty, I tend to spend thirty minutes to an hour finding simple bugs such as XSS (cross-site scripting) or CSRF (cross-site request forgery). I’ll try find a contact email and send them a nice detailed email about what I’ve found and what the impact is. I also supply them with information about how they can fix it. I never ask for money or anything over the first few emails — I tend to get their attention first, get them to acknowledge what I’ve found, and get them to agree that I can look for more. At that point I’ll ask if they offer any type of reward for helping them. The majority reply that they are up for rewarding me, due to the amount of help I’ve given them.

After I’ve helped the company for a while and they’ve rewarded me, etc, I usually suggest that they join HackerOne for a much cleaner process of reporting bugs and rewarding me (it also helps my rep on HackerOne). So far two have joined and one started their own private bounty system.

To sum it up, I’ll start of with basic bugs to get their attention, then once I’ve gotten the green light to dig deeper, I’ll go and find the bigger bugs. This helps me not waste my time on companies who don’t care about security. (Trust me, I’ve reported bugs and gotten no reply, or a very rude response!) I like to build a good relationship with companies before putting a lot of hours into looking for bugs. A good relationship with companies is a win-win situation for everyone — they get told about vulnerabilities on their site, and I get rewarded. Perfect.

In case you wanted to know, I’ve helped around ten companies who didn’t have a bug bounty. Nine of them have rewarded me (with either money, swag, or recognition on their website). Only one has told me they don’t offer any type of reward, but welcomed me to look for bugs to help them (pfft, who works for free?). Out of the nine who rewarded me, I’ve built a VERY close relationship with three of them. (Met with one company in January, and meeting with another in June.)

There are two types of companies. Those who simply can’t afford to reward researchers and those who think, “Well, no one has hacked us yet, so why bother paying someone to find bugs?” [Redacted] is probably the worst company I’ve dealt with after reporting a few critical bugs. They rarely reply to bugs, let alone fix them. It took an email letting them know that I was disclosing one bug to the public, to warn users that their information on [redacted] was at risk. After that they finally replied and fixed it.

100% of companies should change their perspectives. Again I’ll use [redacted] as an example. I only really look at their site when I’m bored (which is rarely) and I’ve uncovered a ton of vulns. I wonder what I could find if I spent a week looking for bugs (and if they rewarded me). Companies need to stop thinking, “No one has hacked us yet, so we’re good.”

If a company can’t afford to pay researchers to find bugs, then they should reconsider their business. Hacking is on the rise and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon (if ever). If you honestly can’t afford it, though, then my suggestion (if I was the CEO of a company that couldn’t afford security) would be to run a hackathon within the company. Let the devs go look for bugs and run a competition in-house. Your devs not only learn about writing secure code, but it’s fun too!


Many thanks to [redacted] for writing great answers to my questions.

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Lich’s Maze & Computer Creativity

Tyler Callich (also known as @lichlike) is a storyteller who makes Twitter bots, among other narrative vehicles. “Lich” is the last syllable of her last name, and it’s also a type of creature that exists between life and death. Wikipedia edifies us:

“Unlike zombies, which are often depicted as mindless, part of a hivemind or under the control of another, a lich retains revenant-like independent thought and is usually at least as intelligent as it was prior to its transformation. In some works of fiction, liches can be distinguished from other undead by their phylactery, an item of the lich’s choosing into which they imbue their soul, giving them immortality until the phylactery is destroyed.”

Tyler’s symbol — her conceptual avatar, if you will — is the lich. When I spoke to her on the phone, she reflected, “I like the concept of this liminal half-dead, half-alive, potent-but-still-waning [being].” A lich is “like a ghost, but not quite” — essence externalized. “It’s one way I conceive of identity, also. It’s in this removed far-outside-of-me place, like a phylactery.” Somewhat akin to @lichphylactery, which shakes up Tyler’s words and spills them back in new arrangements.

That particular creation is Tyler’s own phylactery, a Markov-based ebooks bot with a straightforward name. It says things like, “One and all bring its water which they observe are the 3 styles we’re featuring?” Another recent comment: “Atlnaba a All comprehended within the form of these systems upon the doctrines of the informers were led off s訖”

Tyler explained, “With Markov chains, you’re taking some text and using its grammar to make something new, but still sensible or almost sensible.” She noted that “unintelligible nonsense is novel for a little while”, but it gets boring. Bots like @lichphylactery — or Olivia Taters — are best when they’re close to passing the Turing test, but still not quite there.

My favorite of Tyler’s projects is Lich’s Maze. Here is a recent @lichmaze micro-story:

Lich's Maze

The bones of Lich’s Maze are a loose mythological system that Tyler put together. She fed it a corpus of text, some that she wrote and some that she found. Then she released @lichmaze to wander through people’s Twitter feeds, sending out cryptic moments from an arcane techno-magic game-world.

Tyler told me, “Symbolic thinking is a way for me to just let my mind wander through association.” She “can get a computer to make random associations for me” which “augments that free-thinking / brainstorming”. I asked if she uses @lichmaze’s output as writing prompts, and surprisingly the answer was no. Tyler answered in a thoughtful voice, “It never really occurred to me.”

Beau Gunderson said of Twitter bots, “they’re creators but i don’t put them on the same level as human creators. […] i’m giving the computer the ability to express a parameter set that i’ve laid out for it that includes a ton of randomness.” On the other hand, Tyler doesn’t feel a strong ownership claim. “I take a big backseat to that.” She said, “I think of [the bot] as its own entity after a certain point. It’s kind of independent from me.” She even wishes “that it could change the password on itself and go off on its own”, in a direction unspecified. Tyler’s bots are probably best compared to a growing tangle of plants. Tyler told me, “I think randomness is natural [and] finding that grit or that little kink in digital art is something that I connect closely to organic structures.”

Another project of Tyler’s is Restroom Genderator, which comes up with “extant (and not so extant) genders”. This is a perfect example of “taking a concept and pushing it toward its eventual ruin”, as Tyler put it. A bot like Restroom Genderator is tireless and thorough — eventually “you get a rich contour of all of the iterations of something”. It was originally based on a joke with a friend. “The initial concept — you come up with something and you’re like, ‘Oh, this is funny!’ It can become kind of mundane after a while to write out five thousand combinations and figure out what the best one would be.” So you construct a bot to do it for you.

Asked to define her practice, Tyler told me, “I would consider myself a writer, but it’s hard because I don’t write, like, novels usually.” She continued, “If I was working in a normal platform, I would consider myself a poet, but that seems kind of lofty. I consider myself a tinkerer more than anything else… like a word tinkerer.”

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Technological Abundance: Interview With Multimedia Artist Torley

I originally discovered Torley through Flickr, where he shares screenshots of ethereal and bizarre scenes from Second Life. He is also a musician and has released projects like Glitch Piano, an album described thus:

“Not long ago, in a parallel universe fairly, fairly close… humans imported a master race of sentient pianos through spacetime portals, using the instruments as labor-beasts and war-weapons. Predictably, these magnificent creatures rebelled and bass’ed civilization, enslaving the masses like the un-self-actualized lowminds they broadly are.

The contained aurelics (sonic artifacts) are historical evidence of such a traumatic time, and oddly, we detected halos of rich emotional spectrum — including loveliness and humorosity — amidst the runes.”

I emailed Torley to request an interview, and he answered my questions at great length. The full text, minus a couple of portions redacted for his privacy, is available as a PDF. The dispatch that you’re currently reading is a sort of “greatest hits” summary, like what I did with Andi McClure’s interview.

During a hard period in his life, Torley read some of the classic cyberpunk novels as balm. Consequently, he…

“wondered if there was a ‘real’ (as real as real can be) place where I could explore some of these ideas. I learned of the cyberpunk city ‘Nexus Prime’ in the Second Life virtual world — almost all content created by its users! — constructed on the aptly-named Gibson region […] As a metaphor that worked on such a practical level, my first avatar was an amplified version of my physical self, then I projected further into the future — and became an incarnation of my time-traveling daughter, who came back to tell me ‘THINGS ARE GOING TO BE OKAY’. […] Eventually, I was hired by Linden Lab (makers of Second Life), which I am immensely grateful for as it changed my first life even further. I continue to work here on all of their products, including Sansar — our next-generation virtual world.”

I asked about the appeal of this genre, and Torley told me:

“I’ve long romanticized big cities with towering skyscrapers, and couriers scurrying in the dark, running past neon signs with some data that was too precarious to simply upload… so it had to be done sneakernet-style. I definitely enjoy the whole audiovisual package, even if it’s the most superficial images of what comes to mind when a cyberpunk trope is mentioned… and as a strain of sci-fi, to quote Gibson, to realize we are living in an unevenly distributed future RIGHT NOW. It’s happening all around us.”

He continued:

“For me, cyberpunk has always meant giving unpopular (minority) ideas a fighting chance. […] it means a resistance to change the system, and augment one’s personal self. Which is what I chose with my life path. […] We each contain that power to alter the operation of the big machine, even if we may be ‘just’ a gear or cog in the works. Megacorps fascinate me, and all the fictional marketing that goes into the worldbuilding process.”

Torley on his own daily habits:

“I enjoy consuming Soylent 2.0 everyday. ‘Revolutionary’ is an adjective not to be applied lightly, but it’s saving me an accumulating amount of time. I always wake up and have a bottle or two to start my day. I’m drinking some as I communicate right now. A few bottles make up the majority of my meals. […] I suppose Soylent is a cyberpunk ethos foodstuff — the target demographics are both diverse and fascinating. Yet we are all human, and time is a teacher that kills all its students. That’s why I think their marketing is clever — they emphasize that Soylent does not outright replace conventional food, but FREES you to choose what meals you want to chew.”

Circling back to Second Life:

“Second Life has been a safe space for me and many others — whether that’s exploring identity, sexuality, racial-cultural constructs, etc. How you perceive SL depends on how you perceive yourself […] It’s very easy to experiment with identity here. You can change your whole look as easily as people can change clothes in ‘meatspace’. One’s avatar’s total appearance can be changed in mere seconds, yet may get a completely 180-degree response from those around you inworld. A hulking dragon brings out a totally different reaction than being an adorable pixie. I have been many forms, almost always revolving around my pink-and-green color scheme. I’ve called it ‘the Torley Council’, wherein I imagine a type of mini United Nations in my head, with each persona diverse yet unified — it’s all me, after all.”

In closing:

“We are blessed to live in such an age of technological abundance, as unstable as some systems may be. We owe it to ourselves to harness those tools to be healthier, happier, more creative human beings. When our own needs are met and our resources are replenished — and when we are genuinely comfortable in our own skin — we can more ably help each other.”

I’ll crack open a neon watermelon and toast to that.

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Once & Someday Software Experiments

Andi McClure is an artist whose primary medium is code. She uses proverbial `1`s and `0`s to make game-like creations, a programming language called Emily, and digital sigils. Andi and I chatted on Skype recently about these various projects and how she conceptualizes her work.

This conversation took place via IM. The full transcript is available for your reading pleasure, but it’s much too long for a newsletter. Instead, I selected some of Andi’s loveliest statements.

Art-Purposed Computing

“Um, I guess I just had this drive to make stuff. I didn’t really question it. I guess at the beginning, when I was making things, I seemed focused on making worlds people could dip into? all my BASIC programs were grossly simple text adventures, and hypercard I was all making point and click adventures (it’s suited for that, it’s technically the program Myst was eventually made in)”

On the games Cyan made before Myst: “you’d explore these bizarre alice-in-wonderland worlds that were full of stuff that reacted in funny ways when you clicked on them.”

Cover art from McClure’s collection Sweet Nothings.

Cover art from McClure’s collection Sweet Nothings.

“I do definitely think of myself as an artist. Code happens to be the thing I know how to express myself through, so that’s how I create art. Sometimes I think of the way I approach certain things in life (politics, day to day problems) as being sort of an engineer’s mindset, but if i’m writing code, that’s art. My programming language project is maybe not itself art, but I’m doing it with the goal of making art WITH it, so.”

On trying to distribute “little minimally-interactive systems”: “I’d have this problem that the only way anyone could see this little bitty thing I made, that I spent like a day on and that takes about a minute to two minutes to appreciate fully, was to download this 2MB .exe, and run it on their computer, and half the time have to disable their antivirus or something. So that was awkward.”

The answer to that problem was a website called…

dryad.technology

“dryads are trees that are also girls and that is very compelling to me.”

“i was very specifically trying to find something that evoked a sort of a tension between something organic and wild and something mathematical and technological. like some of the ones i didn’t go with were ‘glitch dot flowers’, ‘fleshy dot rocks’, ‘screaming dot computer’”

“i really really liked the idea of a dryad trying to design technology and what that would look like. i imagined that it would involve lots of crystals. i had this mental image of a tiny plant girl holding a wrench about as tall as she is, looking out over some kind of cryptic crystalline machine.”

“Again I’ve only got two things up so far but the descriptions are all going to be completely inaccurate descriptions as if the little toy I made was some sort of device built by dryads, with a specific purpose which is vaguely incomprehensible to humans but makes a lot of sense to a tree.”

“i do want to make sure this doesn’t feel like trees trying to use human technology and make sense of it. this is trees doing their own thing that may or may not have anything to do with you.”

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Andi McClure Chat, Full Transcript

Andi McClure is an artist whose main medium is code. She uses proverbial `1`s and `0`s to make games and game-like creations, a programming language called Emily, and digital sigils. Andi and I chatted on Skype recently about these various projects and her artistic practice(s).

This is the full transcript, which is messy like most IM conversations. I sent a collection of quotes to the newsletter subscribers. Read more

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The Surveillance Paradigm

According to her website, “Addie Wagenknecht is an American artist based in Austria, whose work explores the tension between expression and technology. She seeks to blend conceptual work with traditional forms of hacking and sculpture.” She succeeds in this endeavor. I asked Addie some questions about her artistic philosophy.

Artwork by Addie Wagenknecht.

Artwork by Addie Wagenknecht.

Exolymph: Much of your body of work deals with surveillance, but I would go farther and say that you deal with the power differentials highlighted by acts of witnessing. Do you agree with that, or is it pseudo-intellectual bullshit? Either way, how do you feel about being watched?

Wagenknecht: Yes, I agree with that statement entirely.

Regarding being seen, being watched, there is a trauma to not being seen, as much as one exists for those being watched. Who is allowed in to the public sphere? Who is allowed to be visible? I have been reading a lot of research and papers on the implications of race/sex/religion within the canon of surveillance, as these factors serve as both a discursive and material practice of sociopolitical norms. Crypto is an inherently elitist technology; it is simply not available to people who are not highly fluent in their hardware and software bases. The more people outside of the hacker scene I teach these tools to, the more I believe how insanely secretive and elitist these so-called open protocols are.

Here is the thing: “public” has a reliance on the notion of a binary between private and public, visible and invisible space. This implies that we have spaces which are not part of this surveillance paradigm, but with the nature of smartphones being on everyone, everywhere, I am no longer convinced that this binary exists. “The personal is political” can also be read as saying, “The private is political.” Because everything we do in private is political: who we have sex with, what we eat, who does the cleaning, and so on…

Exolymph: How do you see your work evolving over time? What new themes interest you now?

Wagenknecht: I’d like to do more collaborative longer-term projects. I’ve started working with Peter Sunde on some small works which I hope we can release in the coming months, and also Quayola on interpretation of code as a visual entity.

My research in the last two months has been primarily about living in entirely man-made environments and the Internet of Things. The genesis of matter, the history of the earth, and how they are being reinterpreted as a form of speculated geology by the human race and the machines which we version-control that control us. I am also researching mineral composites, which would otherwise not be found in nature, to challenge definitions of “real”. I’m looking at how to play homage to the Western valuation of hyper-optimization by maximizing the believed properties of various specimens.

Exolymph: In general, what draws you to conceptual art? Why sculpture in particular? It’s interesting that you address digital realities in corporeal forms.

Wagenknecht: As artists, our role is to take complex ideas and encapsulate them in a way that society can parse. I want to subvert systems and objects in ways which people can hopefully better understand and reflect on why we need them at all.

Exolymph: What are you interested in building that you haven’t had a chance to do yet? What if you had unlimited resources?

Wagenknecht: I’d do more physical works that rely on fabricating with robotics and robotic arms, large-scale pieces, in materials like stone and metals. I also have some large-scale installations that I’ve been wanting to do forever and I’d get that list of works complete.

Exolymph: What have you downloaded that did get you in trouble? [I was referencing a piece that involves the sentence “I will not download things that get me in trouble” scrawled repeatedly across a wall.]

Wagenknecht: Ha! I’d prefer not to answer that.


Ways to get in touch with Addie Wagenknecht, as well as more examples of her artwork, are listed on her website.

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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.

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Cyberpunk Is Now Q&A, Full Transcript

There’s a Facebook page called Cyberpunk Is Now, followed by 696 people. The nameless creator narrates the ongoing digital revolution via links to Wired, Vice’s Motherboard, and similar websites, captioned with insightful or cutting comments. I was curious about Cyberpunk Is Now’s motivation and background, so we did a Q&A.

I sent an edited version to the newsletter subscribers, but I wanted to make the full transcript available as well. Full disclosure: I also made a few small grammar edits.

Blade Runner promo image.

Blade Runner promo image.

Exolymph: What inspired you to start the Facebook page?

Cyberpunk Is Now: Well, I’ve always loved the notion that the world we’re living in today is the same dystopian world — not exactly, but eerily similar — that numerous cyberpunk authors warned us about. I’d always see things in my news feed that made me come back to that thought, and I’d share them with my personal account to various cyberpunk-based Facebook groups. But once I realized I also had things I wanted to say about these news articles or posts, and messages I wanted to convey alongside my sharing of them, I decided to create this page in order to keep all of my musings concerning the subject in one place. Another benefit I learned soon after creating this page is the fact that I’m able to reach a wider audience this way. It went from merely observing the state of the world to actively working to inform people of it — and encouraging them to stay aware and fight back against corruption and tyranny in the coming post-industrial age.

Exolymph: What’s your personal political position? Do you consider yourself an anarchist, libertarian, or…?

Cyberpunk Is Now: It’s hard for me to define my political views through any exact term because nothing is ever absolute — what works for one country may be the bane of another, and I can only speak for the United States seeing as that is where I’m from. There are bits and pieces of many different political philosophies that I adore, but I prefer to stay away from labeling due to the various implications and misunderstandings that can arise.

In my opinion, the most desirable course of action in the present moment, given the present political and socioeconomic climate here in America, is to elect Bernie Sanders. I am only attempting to work from a short-term view here — I know that there are anarchists and anarcho-communists who’d rather just torch society altogether, and they aren’t wrong, but now just isn’t the time for that. Humanity has a bit of a way to go before we can start initiating huge shifts. We need to get on stable footing and toss out all the corruption at the top before that, and until that happens, that’s as far as my political musings normally go. At this point in human history, nothing too extreme is very feasible — we still have to work out way up to that. We have to be realistic about what we set out to do. We won’t be able to innovate if the top 1% of our society is holding nearly the entire sum of our wealth.

I know that scenario makes people want to throw bricks through windows and anarchy-it-up, but let me quote a favorite artist of mine, Pat The Bunny, to illustrate what I am trying to convey: “There’s no brick we can throw that will end poverty, and we can’t blow up SB1070. Things will never be as simple as when I was twelve years old reading Karl Marx in my bedroom alone.”

Exolymph: How do you think accelerating technology will affect people’s day-to-day jobs? What about the labor market overall?

Cyberpunk Is Now: We’ve been seeing some version of Moore’s Law successfully play out since the turn of the millennium. Since technological advancement is exponential, not linear, it’s very hard to say where our society, or the world as a whole, will be at any amount of time in the future. Hell, I fully expect that even by 2017 I’ll be seeing things that I would have thought impossible today. People have been complaining about how “robots will take our jobs” (they just love to say that to demonize certain groups) like it’s a bad thing. But trying to hold that off would just cause us to stagnate.

Yes, many jobs will be replaced by automated processes and machines, but those machines themselves will create three jobs for every one job they take away! I always try to tell people that, if they fear such a scenario, they should go into the tech field in order to pursue the new positions this automation will create… however, these people would rather not educate themselves in any form or fashion, so my point is always lost to them.

People always fear the unknown. First jazz was “the devil’s music”, then all of a sudden he jumped to rock ’n’ roll and, later, heavy metal. First, radio was corrupting our youth — then television — then video games — then the internet — etc. People are always so quick to demonize new innovations because they’re afraid of the unknown and don’t want to make an effort to keep up with the rest of humanity.

Like I said, in the very near future, many jobs will be replaced with some form of automated technology, and this will open up three job opportunities for every one it closes, but the difference will be that there will, obviously, be certain requirements in order to fill these positions: technological prowess, intellect, problem-solving skills…

I know that my argument, “if you don’t want a robot to steal your job, get a job working on that robot” has an inherent flaw: automation will replace the jobs of people not qualified to work with technology. Hopefully this will finally push the ignorant masses to pursue education, at the very least in their own self-serving interest, in order to keep up. Politicians will certainly play on the fear and hatred of those who choose not to, just like a certain dickhead here in America is playing on people’s hatred of certain minority groups right now. Politics never changes. But, with the boundless sharing of information the internet has allowed, people are finally beginning to wake up and give a shit.

I don’t need to tell you just how fucked the entire higher-education system in America is, but — with the seismic shifts in public awareness we’re seeing now — the corruption will hopefully be mitigated by the time this near-future vision arrives. But, then again, you don’t necessarily NEED a degree to be good with computers. Most people I know in the tech field were already good at what they did — their degrees served more as proof of what they already knew, rather than proof that they learned it all at a college. College degrees are already losing worth in this economy, so I wouldn’t be surprised if — by then — tech companies will be more concerned with natural skill than anything else.

We’re standing right at a major tipping point in human history. Things could either go very bad or very good. Millennials are pissed. Even some Baby Boomers are pissed, and waking up to the shit world we inherited from them. We need to stop murdering our natural environment and focus on innovation. Research. Design.

Where am I going with all of this?

The way I see it, by the time all of this new tech rolls around, a certain type of ignorance will be banished forever from mainstream society. The people who complain that “immigrants are taking our jobs” will likely say the same thing in five years about robots. In ten years, this closed-minded attitude will leave them on the fringes of society. The same thing goes for people who oppose research into gene-editing because they feel “scientists are playing God”, and people who deny science entirely — due to religious belief — and actually think the world is only 6,000 years old. In a world where technology governs everything from our everyday interactions with our peers to the routes we take to work, that just isn’t feasible.

The triumph of knowledge, creativity, and innovation due to the increasing prevalence of (and dependence on) technology is all I’m sure about and can really say about the future. Truth be told, I’m excited.

Exolymph: What can you tell me about your real-world self? Day job? Hobbies?

Cyberpunk Is Now: I very much value individuality and self-expression in the ways I present myself, both through my appearance and the ways I go about communicating with others. I pretty much wear nothing but black and gray clothing (it makes doing the laundry easier) that I’ve found at thrift stores over the years. I don’t think I own a single garment that isn’t from some sort of secondhand store, actually. I also like to repair my clothing with dental floss and sometimes do some DIY stuff with patches or spikes to pass the time when I can’t sleep. I always have to carry around an inhaler and other medical supplies, so I prefer wearing leather jackets or hoodies with an abundance of pockets. I mainly wear combat/work boots because, back when I was in high school, they were the only sort of footwear that extensive longboarding didn’t utterly destroy. This was back before I drove, so I longboarded pretty much everywhere, and ended up loving the feel so much I never went back to regular shoes. (Also I practiced taekwondo for about five or so years — a martial art focused mainly on kicks and keeping distance from one’s opponent — and it’s always a plus to know I’ll have steel toes in case I’m ever in a position where I must defend myself.)

I never really learned how to make eye contact with others, so I’m always wearing a pair of sunglasses (classic mirror-shade aviators or black-lens teashades) and I’ve bullshitted my way into having everybody I know think I have a sensitivity to fluorescent lighting in order to justify the constancy of their presence on myself even when indoors.

People always say that “the eyes are the window to the soul”, and I like to think of my sunglasses as my own personal curtains.

So, pretty much, I’m the sort of person you’d expect somebody’s grandparents to gawk at if they saw them walking down the street. I actually love it. People always shit themselves when I’m polite to them, because they judge based on appearance and expect me to act like a dick. I almost get a high from proving people’s preconceived notions wrong like that.

I’m currently attending college and working part-time as a freelance writer and tech-support guru. People always need an iPhone unlocked or an Android tablet rooted or a virus wiped from their computer or an essay written. My hobbies, just as well, mostly revolve around writing and technology — all things from video-editing to image-manipulation — though I’m also an avid electric bass player. In the past, I’ve even played upright bass for a few bands. But I haven’t had much time for that as of late, unfortunately. Too much obligatory stuff (college, work, etc) getting in the way.

My main passion, however, is definitely writing. It flows so naturally to me — like I sit down at a keyboard and zone out and when I come back I’ve written a ten-page essay. It’s also generally a skill I try to practice and hone as much as possible, considering how universal it is, and it’s saved my ass a bunch of times when my forgetful/anxious mind has gotten in the way of my future. I also try to use technology to my advantage whenever possible, and sometimes the two go hand-in-hand.

Also… I smoke a lot of weed, and my favorite band is Nine Inch Nails, and — yes — those two facts are directly related. I read more often than I watch television, and try to relegate my video-game usage to the weekends because I sorta have an addictive, in some sense of the word, personality. I love existentialist literature, and due to the nature of this page you can probably guess what my favorite fiction genre is.


Cyberpunk Is Now exists on Facebook, which proves some kind of point about the future of media. Go follow the page.

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