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Nootropics, Outrage, and Neuroticism

Two things:

1) I published an essay called “Practical Nootropics; Political Brainhacking” on my personal website. I posted it there instead of sending it to you, dear readers, because the post was sponsored and I didn’t realize until after arranging everything that Exolymph would be a more appropriate venue. (My very first sponsored post! Are you proud of me, or shaking your fist because I’m a sellout?)

If you’re interested in applied transhumanism, the essay is up your alley. Don’t worry, it’s not a long ad disguised as a blog post — I thank the sponsor at the top and bottom, that’s all.

2) I was a little bit manic from too much caffeine last night so I wrote a long tweetstorm about the pervasive bad faith that poisons so much of online discourse. It ties together the prisoner’s dilemma, hyper-scaleable media distribution (AKA cheap virality), and the incentives of tribalism.

And now, a prose poem about the interminability of sentience. Because why not, I can be angsty and avant-garde too. Tumblr-era Sonya would be so proud.

Glass Cacophony

Artwork via (by?) the Twitter bot @youtubeartifact.

Artwork via (by?) the Twitter bot @youtubeartifact.

“The algorithm has been kind, has granted me a strong body and a violent disposition.” — @ctrlcreep

You have been yourself the entire time that you’ve been alive. Layer on layer on layer, like stacked panes of glass. Each scribbled all over with black marker.

The stack becomes murkier as it rises, when viewed from the top. It’s the same stack all the way up and down.

Despite the persistence of yourself, the entire-time-ness of it, you struggle to define your own substance. Observers list the ways of knowing what you are. You must not despise yourself. It is unseemly.

You are bothered by wanting an identity, by wanting to reduce yourself. The nebulousness is an itch. The need for a coherent mind is an itch. Counting breaths is fall asleep is an itch.

Each moment more you-ness accretes. Black marker skids on the glass; fills up the clear space. Pile on a fresh one. The ink dries gummy. It peels instead of smearing.

The very best feeling, you think, is to realize that you’ve driven home on autopilot. You didn’t need to be present. A respite from the consciousness of consciousness of consciousness that fills the mind, that is the mind, that spills into your hands and none of the onlookers can help you hold it.

Still you are yourself and still the complexity assaults you.

Always the Object

There’s an intriguing subreddit called /r/trashyboners. (Today you should assume that every link is NSFW.) The tagline is “Maybe a true hot mess?” and the featured content is basically what you’d expect it to be: photos and videos of attractive women who are considered trashy. Think of the stereotypes evoked by the terms “trailer trash” and “white trash” (although women of color do show up occasionally) with a splash of “party girl.”

The sub is classist by default — “trashy” connotes undignified poverty — and often exploitative. You see girls who are passed-out drunk or out of their minds on drugs. You might see a police officer displaying a woman’s genitals under unclear circumstances. (The only reportage on that incident comes from the untrustworthy Daily Mail.) Power imbalances abound.

Interestingly, some readers will defend the women they ogle. In early May there was a topic titled “nasty whores drinking beer off each other.” The commenters complained about this derogatory phrasing. One person wrote, “We know nothing of their background, can’t we just enjoy without the shit talk?”

Not long ago I posted an Instagram snapshot of Bella Hadid and the readers downvoted me for saying that her outfit was trashy. They disapproved because I was perceived as puritanical. Overall, more comments than you might expect are about whether the woman in a given photo actually is trashy. (Here’s an example from a recent post.) It’s an inherently subjective judgment, of course.

By contrast, here’s another thread where the woman in the photo faces constant derision, this time with no protest from the readers. I’m not sure what determines which reaction will dominate. It may be that young, conventionally attractive women are more likely to be championed, but I’m not positive about that being a meaningful trend. There is also a “walking the fine line” element that’s very difficult to articulate. When is skimpy clothing just skimpy, and when is it trashy? It’s the kind of nuance that you can only intuit, not teach.

Either way, /r/trashyboners is a good companion to the Slate Star Codex essay about how class is just as cultural as it is financial. Consider:

[S]uppose a lady comes in with really over-permed dyed curly hair wearing several rings, bracelets, and necklaces. Her name is Sherri and she calls you “darling”; she’s also carrying her lunch, which is KFC plus a Big Gulp. Without knowing anything else about her, you can peg her as working class. Maybe she won the lottery ten years ago and is now the richest person in your state. It doesn’t matter. She’s still working class.

Or suppose a thin 25-year-old man comes in wearing glasses, a small close-cropped beard, and a Led Zeppelin t-shirt. His name is Alex and he apologizes for being three minutes late. This guy is probably middle-to-upper-middle-class and college educated, maybe not a great college but still college-educated. And maybe he’s fallen on hard times and doesn’t have a dollar to his name. It still doesn’t matter. He’s still middle-to-upper-middle class.

/r/trashyboners is dedicated to both shaming and celebrating the slutty versions of Sherri.

I’m some flavor of feminist, so you might expect me to be opposed to this subreddit. I have mixed feelings about it. The content is aesthetically fascinating — it’s an inversion of crazy girl chic. And I find the community puzzling, as you may have gathered. I’m not above participating. My opinion isn’t settled yet, I suppose. What do you think?


Header photo by MarkScottAustinTX.

The Copy-Paste Guillotine

For those of you who aren’t familiar, the Death of the Author is a theory that can be aggressively summarized like this: A creator’s interpretation of their own work is not definitive, but rather one among many interpretations generated by the people who experience the creation.

Therefore, a given piece of art doesn’t “mean” anything in a be-all-end-all sense. The meaning resides with the viewer. A sufficiently compelling interpretation may end up dominating public discourse, but whether it’s “true” is beside the point. “True” is not always a relevant or adaptive quality for an idea. Information spreads based on other factors.

"Pepe the Frog was already a perfect demonstration of The Death of the Author, but now it's even funnier"

Tweet by @drethelin.

The average person who recognizes Pepe’s woeful face has no idea that he was first drawn by Matt Furie for a comic called Boy’s Club. The internet is practically an author-killing machine, since it’s so easy for content to be pulled out of its original context. That’s how memes work — both the image-plus-caption kind and Dawkins’ original formulation.

Now Furie has symbolically slaughtered Pepe, and I really mean symbolically, since the rest of the Pepe-using internet will ignore this. (Except… it’s possible that Blepe will become a robust replacement? I dunno, y’all, 4chan has unpredictable whims.) To his credit, Furie does seem to understand how it works:

Before he got wrapped up in politics, Pepe was an inside-joke and a symbol for feeling sad or feeling good and many things in between. I understand that it’s out of my control, but in the end, Pepe is whatever you say he is, and I, the creator, say that Pepe is love.

I think the phenomenon actually goes further than the Death of the Author. First the author dies and then their body is resurrected and defiled, or spliced into a Frankenstein-style army. (Sorry, I’m butchering the metaphor, and yes, pun intended.)

Alt-right jokesters aren’t passing around the original “feels good man” reaction image anymore. Well, they are, but it’s not the dominant use-case for Pepe. He’s been remixed and morphed beyond what Furie created — internet denizens took the idea and ran with it, like they did with Slenderman. (As far as I know, Pepe hasn’t motivated a murder yet.)

I mentioned in my previous missive that I want to investigate how information flows up and down the cultural stack, from subcultures to the mainstream and back again. The process that Pepe underwent — is undergoing — constitutes one pattern. I suspect that authors who make meme-able content will lose bets on their own survival.


Header artwork by Matt Furie for The Nib.

A Shift in the Wind

I think that Exolymph is ready to change. In retrospect, I’ve been getting bored with my “dystopia is real and we’re living it” thesis since writing “The Cyberpunk Sensibility” last October. (Luckily I didn’t call the project A Cyberpunk Newsletter, so the inscrutable name will stay. Besides, it’s more like I want to zoom in on a particular niche topic, not ditch everything.)

“Cyberpunk is now” was an exciting revelation a year ago — at least to me, although I certainly didn’t come up with the idea. Now it feels banal. The mainstream press is covering cyberpunk themes more and more, and other blogs are doing my schtick better than me. I talked around this when I made a list of cyberpunk content sources back in February.

Most of the publications that I mentioned then don’t delve into the sociopolitics of cyberpunk, but anecdotally the topic is more prevalent than it used to be. Today someone posted on Hacker News, “Would you be interested in a ‘cyberpunk’ inspired news site?” In the comments people pointed out that Wired covers a lot of this territory, as do fringe outlets like those I listed months ago, and N O D E.

So anyway. Like I said, the dissatisfaction has been simmering in my head for months. But reading David Auerbach’s latest essay on the Trump regime is what flipped the switch and made me realize that I need to change Exolymph’s editorial mandate. (No, I’m not going to join #TheResistance and write about Trump all the time — let me explain before you roll your eyes.)

In his essay, Auerbach laid out the relationship(s) between the American overculture (his preferred term) and the country’s surging undercultures. “If you went on 4chan in 2016, you were part of the underculture. If you read about 4chan in the news and believed what you read, you were part of the overculture,” Auerbach quipped.

As it happens, I tend to bounce between these realms more than the average person. Subcultures have long fascinated me, since I’m an incorrigible drama voyeur (like any good journalist). That’s what I want to concentrate on now: How subcultures relate to the mainstream in the twenty-first century.

The internet has transformed the way that social information (memes, if you will) travel up and down between subculture and mainstream. Traditionally, the elites of the mainstream directed the grand narrative. The geeks, MOPs, and sociopaths of subcultures provided the components that were used to compile that grand narrative. But now the elite gatekeepers have lost so much of their power — not all of it, but enough for Auerbach’s underculture to shake things up.

These are the questions that I want to explore:

  • Who is able to travel up and down the cultural stack?
  • What do they bring with them?
  • Do the messages that they carry change along the way?
  • How much do they change?
  • Is it on purpose?
  • When are travelers able to make the trip safely, and when are they hijacked?
  • How do the different levels govern themselves?
  • How do they govern each other?
  • Which factions are able to go vertical, encompassing cross-sections of multiple strata?

On a concrete level, the newsletter probably won’t feel very different. For example, here’s an issue that I would have covered before that will be even more relevant given the new focus.

And now, an abrupt ending! I have an early flight tomorrow and honestly that’s all I have to say.


Header artwork by Albert Ramon Puig.

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 ░▒▓.

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 ░▒▓.

Corporate Ecology

Sci-fi author Charlie Stross wrote the following in 2010:

“Corporations do not share our priorities. They are hive organisms constructed out of teeming workers who join or leave the collective: those who participate within it subordinate their goals to that of the collective, which pursues the three corporate objectives of growth, profitability, and pain avoidance. (The sources of pain a corporate organism seeks to avoid are lawsuits, prosecution, and a drop in shareholder value.) […]

We are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of non-human entities with non-human goals. They have enormous media reach, which they use to distract attention from threats to their own survival. They also have an enormous ability to support litigation against public participation, except in the very limited circumstances where such action is forbidden. Individual atomized humans are thus either co-opted by these entities (you can live very nicely as a CEO or a politician, as long as you don’t bite the feeding hand) or steamrollered if they try to resist.”

This is true to an extent, insofar as any way of regarding a system can be true. But it’s more complex than what Stross has laid out. Real life is always more complex than the aesthetically appealing description.

To grab the most recent counterexample, the results of the Brexit referendum were abhorrent to London’s financial sector. It remains to be seen whether and how the UK will withdraw from the EU, or if it will have to relinquish Scotland in the process, but it’s pretty clear that outcomes fiercely opposed by the corporatized elite can come to pass and gain tremendous public prominence.

This is also a simplification: “those who participate within [a corporation] subordinate their goals to that of the collective”. Not exactly. I might say “those who participate in a given system act according to the system’s incentive structure” instead.

You get ahead in a big company — companies of most sizes, actually — by making your boss look good. Raises and promotions are allocated to employees who boost their supervisors’ status. (Wisdom from my dad, who’s worked for the same giant enterprise tech company for thirty years.) Making your boss look good may or may not align with helping the company succeed as a whole.

In 2007, political humorist and journalist Jon Schwarz defined the Iron Law of Institutions:

“[T]he people who control institutions care first and foremost about their power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself. Thus, they would rather the institution ‘fail’ while they remain in powerwithin the institution than for the institution to ‘succeed’ if that requires them to lose power within the institution.” [Italics in original.]

This could be summarized as “people care about their status among members of their ingroup, not members of the outgroup(s)”. Almost all cultural entities — and corporations are encrusted with culture — can be examined as communities going through hipster hype cycles and jockeying for power among themselves.

But of course, reality is also more complex than this paradigm. People can and do raise a cause above their individual wellbeing.

Corporations are assemblages of different types of people arranged in various idiosyncratic feedback loops. For the corporation to be sufficiently successful and stick around, the system must be reasonably optimized for its own survival. But it doesn’t have to work well from any objective standpoint. It can lurch in one direction or another on both macro and micro levels (the infamous Nokia acquisition and employee rating system are beautiful examples).

Anyway, we should not forget that regarding a company as a united entity with clear goals is just a rhetorical device, not a 1:1 reflection of reality.

What Counts as Cyberpunk?

Cyberpunk artwork by mjbauer.

Artwork by Micah Bauer.

There are several definitions and a lot of cultural baggage attached to the word “cyberpunk”, so applying it can be contentious. What counts as cyberpunk, hmm? Who gets to decide? Most people agree that NeuromancerBlade RunnerGhost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, and the Walled City of Kowloon all qualify, but anything else is subject to much debate. Here’s my opinion — if you can answer yes to these two questions, then a given piece of media or real-world phenomenon is cyberpunk:

  1. Does it involve computer technology that was new or didn’t quite exist yet at the time of writing / creating / happening?
  2. Does it feature a shadowy corporate elite exploiting the plebeian masses?

The following sources should establish why that’s my two-part test.

Cyber Model: V3-X (vex.ilo)

Image via Jamie.

Cyberpunk: Aesthetic, Subculture, Futurist Trend, or All of the Above?

Cyberpunk originated as a fiction genre — it started with novels and now extends to anime and beyond. It’s also a political attitude, and increasingly commentators like myself claim that we already live in a tech-fueled digital dystopia. Personally, I take an expansive view of cyberpunk, and I’ll use the label for anything that demonstrates futuristic computer-based technology and scarily inequitable distributions of power.

Wordnik pulled this definition from Wiktionary, and it fits decently well: “A subgenre of science fiction which focuses on computer or information technology and virtual reality.” The relevant Wikipedia article starts with a decent overview:

“Cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction in a future setting that tends to focus on the society of the proverbial ‘high tech low life’; featuring advanced technological and scientific achievements, such as information technology and cybernetics, juxtaposed with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order. [¶] Cyberpunk plots often center on conflict among artificial intelligences and among megacorporations, and tend to be set in a future Earth, rather than in the far-future settings […] Much of the genre’s atmosphere echoes film noir, and written works in the genre often use techniques from detective fiction.”

header of the cyberpunk subreddit

The cyberpunk subreddit is emblazoned with the tagline “High Tech, Low Life” and its sidebar explains, “A genre of science fiction and a lawless subculture in an oppressive society dominated by computer technology and big corporations.”

The CyPunk article that describes the 1980s origins of cyberpunk is worth quoting at length:

“The word ‘cyberpunk’ first appeared as the title of a short story ‘Cyberpunk’ by Bruce Bethke […] Bethke himself tells, that the coining of the word ‘cyberpunk’ was a conscious and deliberate act of creation on his part. The story was titled ‘Cyberpunk’ from the very first draft. In calling it that, Bethke was actively trying to invent a new term that grokked the juxtaposition of punk attitudes and high technology. His reasons for doing so were purely selfish and market-driven: He wanted to give his story a snappy, one-word title that people would remember. And he really did succeed.”

Furthermore:

“The technology of cyberpunk is ultratechnology, which mixes genetic material from animal to animal, from animal to man, or from man to animal. This technology raises human embryos for organ transplants, creates machines that think like humans and humans that think like machines. This is a technology designed to keep people within the ‘system’ that dominates the lives of most ‘ordinary’ people. This is the science of controlling human functions and of electronic, mechanical and biological control systems designed to replace them.”

On the Cyberpunk Forums, Sophia Andren appeases my own preference for a definition that observes rather than dictating:

“In a world saturated with violently accelerating change, the cyberpunk must find herself armed with a sharp awareness of what is going on around her. Most people seem to be apathetic about the philosophical implications of the uncanny technologies of the near future; the issues invoked by artificial intelligence, transhumanism, and the technological singularity continue to evade our collective consciousness. […] While these technologies are not inherently malign, we would rather not see what happens when they are exclusively in the hands of the corporate elite.”

Andren continues:

“Perhaps the most clandestine aspect of cyberpunk is the ethereal subculture of hackers, phreaks, netrunners, ravers, and razor girls. It is androgynous, sophisticated, and futuristic. It is also impossible to restrain as it has slipped through the cracks; it is now lost in the delicate balance between the analogue and digital worlds, avoiding both the attention and oppression of the system. With the rise of a ubiquitous internet, cyberculture has begun to permeate throughout the popular culture of modern society. Meanwhile the cyberpunk subculture remains underground, though where one ends and the other begins is often difficult to discern.”

Cyberpunk artwork by AdrianDadich.

Artwork by Adrian Dadich.

To hammer the point home, popular cyberpunk blog Neon Dystopia proclaims:

“Cyberpunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that features advanced science and technology in an urban, dystopian future. On one side you have powerful mega-corporations and private security forces, and on the other you have the dark and gritty underworld of illegal trade, gangs, drugs, and vice. In between all of this is politics, corruption, and social upheaval.”

I’m getting a little tired of quoting, so I’ll just say that TV Tropes echoes a lot of the above.

If you’ve read this far, you probably get the sense that there are varying definitions of cyberpunk, although they converge on a few points. Of course, it’s a semantic argument — the word itself only matters insofar as it determines how people allocate cultural power. The truth is that any definition will be based on past usage rather than future manifestations, and I firmly believe that cyberpunk has explanatory power when it comes to the next century. Exolymph is all about looking at our current situation and wondering what it says about where we’re going — this has always been the role of cyberpunk media.

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