InfoReal

CyberRevolution
I wrote this in the late 1990s for a book called CyberRevolution, edited by Yoshihiro Kaneda – this was translated into Japanese and was published only in Japan. Yoshihiro also interviewed me via email.

It’s time to wake up and do some critical thinking about the information highway, which we know will be a reality, at least next century, because we can already see the construction of infrastructure in Japan, the United States, and other countries (though the nationalist/geopolitical thing is increasingly irrelevant), and because we can sense the demand for expanded information services not just within online cultures but in the proliferation and success of neighborhood video rental stores. The videoplex explosion is an important key to the inforeality of the near future because it reveals a pent-up demand for entertainment software, not just film on video, but games and even audiotapes, all of which can be delivered digitally directly to the consumer over the high-bandwidth fiber optic networks that will comprise the infobahn. The potential power of these networks still hasn’t sunk in; infotainment corporations are still attached to the concept of product embodied in a particular hard medium that can be sold over the counter, like the compact disk or digital audio tape. They haven’t quite got the message that this superhighway we’ll building will render obsolete those vehicles that travel so much slower than the speed of light.

Those of us who live on the cultural fringes might want to consider the advantages and disadvantages of global high-speed digital links forming high bandwidth networks with sufficient capacity for unimaginable numbers of information channels. Those of us who’re hanging out on today’s Internet have already experience some crazy affects of high-volume internetworking, a handful of which I will mention here:

1) Chaos rules. Information spews from every conceivable direction, and it’s difficult to filter any clear sense of stable reality when you’re barraged with this degree of infoglut. This heightens the postmodern sense that there is no real truth, that all laws are relative and all reality is open to multiple interpretations all of which may be pure baloney…as the Firesign Theatre said, “Everything you know is wrong,” and an internetworked reality only serves to emphasize this disquieting fact. Though this is a disorienting perception, it carries the advantage that no single ‘truth’ can dominate, which means that tyranny is difficult to sustain. Politically, networked cultures seem to be more anarchic/democratic. This feels pretty free, though a community that is structurally democratic can sometimes feel like a mob.

2) People think they have community when they don’t. “Virtual community” is hot terminology, but misleading. You get some pieces of community online, a sense of unity with others, even a sense of common (virtual) location in cyberspace, but there’s something missing, a 3D flesh-and-blood element that the dictionary definitions of community don’t mention. But it’s clearly an issue: for example, members of the floating online community built around the Leri-L discussion list on the Internet decided that virtual meetings weren’t enough, so they began holding ‘fleshmeets,’ informal gatherings at various geographical locations. I haven’t been to a Leri-L fleshmeet, but I’ve been in similar situations with other groups, and there’s clearly a sense after such a meeting that the virtual community was “community” only in an abstract sense before the face-to-face connection completed the social transaction from which true fellowship is formed.

A related point is that a virtual community may fall apart when it’s carried from cyberspace to physical space. We can make ideal representations of ourselves in online text-based worlds, but our physical reality establishes a different context which I hesitate to say is the more “real,” but it will be judged as reality, and that reality may not measure up to the virtual promise.

3) Access will be limited. Short-term, at least, computer networks will remain more accessible to those who have an affinity for telecommunication gizmonics, and who have relatively high literacy and at least adequate typing skills. This effectively locks whole classes of folks out of the virtual world, which they perceive, if at all, as an obscure netherworld populated by various flavors of geeks. This is a clear advantage for the technical early adopters (in what other context would a Bill Gates become a billionaire?), and (down side, at least in my opinion) it may have a mainstreaming effect on constituents of fringe cultures. This happened to at least some elements of the sixties counterculture, an example being Rolling Stone magazine, which evolved from a radical underground newsrag devoted to arts and music to a middle-of-the-road yuppie scumsheet oriented, like the radio culture of the 90s, to product dissemination.

4) We will always have an audit trail. Everything you do on the information highway will have your digital signature stamped on it (perhaps a representation of your DNA?), so it will be difficult to hide who and what you are from someone with the determination and the technical prowess to find your tracks. This will facilitate a refined targeting of marketing sludge, and it will open a few new business opportunities: authentication, for instance. We will see the proliferation of clearinghouses to authenticate your digital reality to facilitate credit and digicash transactions, among others.

Other businesses will be formed, perhaps underground, to sell strategies for digital camouflage, and to search and hack patterns within data they may reflect digital individual or group identities.

These four infobahn-related issues are a foundation for thinking about the complexity of the digital world, but if you don’t *like* it, what can you do about it? After all, it’s inescapable, we’ve gone too far into this digital frame…we’ve formed identities around digitalia, and digital identities can be hacked, another worry.

The cleanest thing you can do is tell technology to fuck off, move to the mountains and live an idyllic existence by the campfire, eschewing all connection with the digital world. Since I know you’re not gonna *do* that, I won’t address the possibility. Another thing you can do is get involved in the politics of evolving infosystems, which you can do online simply by making your presence known at high volume and with high redundancy.

Or you could drop into a fringe reality, the culture hacker’s alternative world, and hack the media in the Situationist/Immediast sense…subvert the messages of the mainstream top culture wherever you can, and toss subtle packets of dissident memes into the infosphere, allowing the winds of chaos to blow yer memes into hurricane mode. The last great advantage of the information revolution we’re into is that insurgency doesn’t require confrontation, it doesn’t even necessarily require discomfort…it just requires the sharpest possible perception of the cosmic giggle….

Technopolitics

21C: Technopolitics

Originally published in 21C, 1997

The global Internet’s awash with email lists, chats, and online conferences for discussion of governance and what goes with it: the politics of issues and of personalities, trad partisan thrashes, visionary thrusts (e.g. Barlow’s Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace), theoretical rants and practical spins. But is this all just talk talk talk? Or do we see action emerging from this hash?

So far no distinct political FORCE or suite of positions has emerged (unless you take seriously the dreamy anarchy of technolibertarians, who thrash about many issues but always return to one, taxation-as-theft). Though dedicated political activists increasingly use the Internet to build organizations and share information, and a growing number of orgs and individual users are finding ways to leverage net access, net.activism has found success on a limited playing field, where the issues are mainly Constitutional (First and Fourth Amendment issues, censorship, search and siezure): issues that can be supported as absolute values requiring no partisan wrangling. The movement, as it stands today, is a RIGHTS movement, without regard to the messier political questions of welfare and healthcare, environment, defense, taxation, etc.

Contemporary politics has a forest-for-trees relationship with technology; in fact, the politics of a postindustrial society is itself a technology for organizing and managing those messy piles of unique, increasingly opinionated individual products of universal education and the global media wash. Though elsewhere (third world) dictators, unrefined jerks, still rule with brute force and terror, they’re like relics, fading from the scene as the postindustrial postmodern wash pumps through media pipes worldwide.

What happens when you funnel information into a culture where force and coercion were the key determinants of power? Force is an external, but information, education and democratization work to internalize control, making the individual responsive to sophisticated forms of communication (sign the social contract, then read the daily updates). This is a reality of the cybernetic world: "they put the control inside!" as a character in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow says. Cybernetics is the science of communication and control theory, and there’s a clear theoretical link between ‘cyber’ and ‘polis’ that predates the age of ‘a Pentium in every pot, a web in every Pentium.’ Broadcast media (a prototype cyberactive technology) changed the face of politics in the era following WWII; during the war Hitler, Roosevelt, and Churchill made especially effective use of radio as propaganda tool, and the concept of ‘news’ was redefined by folks like Ed Murrow and his ‘boys.’ What does news/propaganda/agitprop do but pipe suggestive memes into the heads of individuals with the expectation that the distribution of information will change the power equation big time. The mob reads the handwriting on the virtual wall, and opposes the dictator, whose machinations, once exposed, lose their mojo.

Once you’ve flattened those hierarchies, though, propaganda mode can backfire as manipulation of information replaces brute force as the source of power. After WWII broadcasting and politics coevolved, producing today’s carefully managed media circus that dilutes information with showbiz glitz and leaves a cynical populace and an ever-widening credibility gap. The average high school graduate has more facts and more cognitive skill than the best and brightest of a century ago, and broadcasting’s morphed into narrowcasting and, with the Internet, many-to-many communications that defy control by propagandists. Those who get their information from the Internet have a vastly different (though not necessarily more accurate) picture of the world than those who read newspapers or watch television, or even those who listen to NPR everyday while driving to and from work.

Originally a defense network, then used to support research and development, the Internet was no household word when the first seeds of net.activism were planted in the late 1980s, when a few adolescent "hackers" let their digital explorations carry them to the point of intrusion, just to show that they could do it. Once they’d hacked into a system, they would grab a ‘trophy’ and show it to their friends and rivals, which meant emailing it across various systems.

Just such an incident led to the creation of the seminal online activist organization, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). John Perry Barlow was a lyricist for the Grateful Dead and regular participant in discussions on the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), the BBS on which the concept of virtual community was formed and tested. He had links to the hacker community which led the FBI to question him about the theft of Apple Computer proprietary software by the NuPrometheus League. It was clear to Barlow that the FBI did not understand enough about the technology of computer networks to distinguish prank intrusion for criminal espionage, and this concerned him. Flash! Cyberspace is an electronic frontier, unsettled, poorly understood by those who don’t ‘live’ there. When the powerful misunderstand, great harm can result. Barlow talked this through with Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus Development Corporation, and activist/entrepreneur John Gilmore, and EFF was born from those talks. Initially misunderstood as a "hacker defense fund," EFF grew through three major iterations. First, as grassroots activist org, with Kapor and then Cliff Figallo at the helm. (No time to explore the implications here, but consider that Figallo, a communitarian from Stephen Gaskin’s farm, had been director of the WELL, a true fountainhead of the virtual community concept, a conferencing system formed originally by Steward Brand and the Whole Earth bunch, virtual home of Bay Area deadheads, with whom Barlow, a lyricist for the Grateful Dead, had clear affinity.) Grassroots EFF morphed as a Washington, DC wing was added, with former ACLU activist Jerry Berman at the helm; for a time EFF tried to accommodate two approaches to activism, the grassroots model, from their Cambridge office, and the Washington lobby model, from their D.C. office, with some hope that the two could derive strength from each other. However at a facilitated retreat in 1992, just before a meeting in Atlanta with potential EFF chapters, the group decided to focus on lobbying, legal work, and building industry coalitions. The organization would drop the grassroots aspect of the organization and close the Cambridge office.

The DC/Beltway version of EFF lasted until, in 1994, financial and personnel problems, along with flak from the activist community over support for compromise Digital Telephony legislation, led to a split. Jerry Berman formed his own Center for Democracy and Technology; EFF moved to the Bay Area and continues to work effectively as an activist organization, considering a possible return to grassroots development, but focusing primarily on development of a Silicon Valley pro-user response on issues of privacy, access, free expression, etc. This is market-oriented political activism: convincing the Silicon Valley companies that their markets depend on a free and open cyberspace.

From EFF’s influence several influential cyberactivist groups have emerged. "Electronic Frontiers" groups span the globe: EFF-Austin, EF-Australia, EF-Canada, EF-Florida, EF-Georgia, EF-Houston, EF-Ireland, EF-Italy, EF-Japan, EF-KIO (Kentucky, Indiana, Idaho), EF-New Hampshire, EF-Norway, and EF-Spain, in addition to CDT and its spinoff, CIEC (the Citizens’ Internet Empowerment Coalition), VTW (Voters Telecommunication Watch), and New York’s SEA (Society for Electronic Access), which was originally named NTE for "Not the EFF."

Online activists focus on issues like censorship, privacy, encryption, intellectual property, and universal net access, i.e. issues associated with transmission and protection of, and access to, information. Organizations and coalitions emerge ad hoc from hot issues of the moment, though momentum’s not always sustained as issues lose their sense of urgency, e.g. activist energies diminished after Steve Jackson won a decision against the government, and after the Communications Decency Act was overturned by a lower court in Philadelphia. However activists still don’t focus on the partisan model to build support. Rather than constructing elaborate philosophies and platforms, cyberactivists build networks, replacing belief systems with cycles of information and opinion.

Given the brief of the history of net.activism, it’s hard to draw conclusions about potential long-term efficacy and feasibility of a broader appeal. Consider the barriers to entry, not only for the activists themselves, but for their constituents. Moving to the Internet with a sense of purpose requires a commitment of money (for the technology) and time (for the learning curve and ongoing maintenance of the information flow). "Netizens" are inherently members of an elite group, well educated, with discretionary money and discretionary time. Some have decent incomes, others are students with decent potential incomes…but it’s not a large group, compared to traditional political parties. Traditional politicians don’t get the smell of cash from the Internet just yet, and many of the issues of relevance to net activists are considered fringe issues. Cyberactivists have yet to establish focused and well-financed (i.e. "real") political clout, and have been unable to influence legislative initiatives in major ways.**

**But what we call ‘technopolitics’ or "net activism" is not about politics as usual and not a short-term blip on the radar of political evolution. A focus on core civil liberties issues narrows the scope of netizen activity so that consensus is possible among those with diverse political positions. On the net.politics scene we see broad-based coalitions formed ad hoc with minimal partisan wrangling and little reference to any particular agenda other than constitutional integrity.**

When Senator Jim Exon and friends proposed a bill to squelch ‘indecent’ speech on the Internet, opposition to the bill was initially unfocused, but had the advantage of established paths through electronic networks to spread the word, the warning, of Exon’s proposal. Activists thought the bill was dead ’til it was glommed onto the Omnibus Telecommunications Act as a rider, a political trick that called for quick response. Shabbir Safdar and Steven Cherry of Voters Telecommunication Watch organized an online campaign with just the focus and energy that urgent issues demand. CDT and EFF joined in, too. They didn’t succeed in blocking passage of the CDA, but the thousands of phone calls and letters to legislators that resulted from VTW’s bulletins led to some revisions, and psyched the ACLU and other opponents of the bill, leading to a court challenge fought successfully by a coalition of activists and civil liberties organizations. The bill was overturned, but that decision’s been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. However, as Mike Godwin noted, the findings of fact in the lower court decision, informed as it was by highly effective opposition arguments (assembled with substantial online support), make it difficult for the Supreme Court to reverse.

When VTW emailed bulletins to its email list, those bulletins were retransmitted to others who again retransmitted them, so that the CDA updates were reaching many thousands of "netizens." A political force was building, ad hoc, and the campaign was so successful that opposition to the CDA seemed near universal among Internet users. If there were online critics of VTW’s campaign, they found fault only with the lack of focus on other potential problems within the Omnibus Telecommunications Act. However many opponents of the CDA found the OTA otherwise acceptable if not desirable; VTW showed smarts in keeping the message focused on the issue about which broad agreement was possible.

This ad hoc opposition to the CDA demonstrated the potential of online organizations to build powerful organizations around particular issues. This kind of networking’s not new, but computer mediated communications enhance the speed and effectiveness of networking by factors of magnitude. There’s a sense that decisions could be made within global online communities so fast that legislatures and executives will always lag, and will eventually be considered archaic. It’s the virtual equivalent of taking the power to the streets, creating either more effective democracy (if you listen to the angel on your right shoulder) or inchoate mob rule (if you listen to the devil on your left shoulder).

Partisan politics reflects the government’s hierarchical structure: parties, like nations and states, have leaders, committees, hierarchical bureaucratic structures, and set articles or principles to which members of the party (or subscribers to the doctrine) must adhere. Computer mediated chaos politics is way different: there are no established parties, no hierarchical structures, no established principles; groups form around particular issues, but group members may agree with each other only about this one issue.

This isn’t new. Traditional politics emerges from the same tendency to form constituencies around issues; partisan politics hardwires these constituencies and holds them together from election to election, hoping to have the winning numbers. Participation in partisan politics is still limited; no party has the numbers to win an election. Political parties build and sustain power by playing to the ‘great silent majorities’ of the world, appealing and winning votes on focused, carefully researched issues, with more or less charismatic personalities fronting the elections.

With computer mediated, relatively instantaneous communications, you can toss this institutional approach. Netizens respond in blocs to particular issues but are increasingly reluctant to join parties or vote party lines. Technolibertarians particularly share this mindset. Libertarian thinking is widespread in virtual communities on the Internet, its proponents voluble in their opposition to the complexity, intrusiveness, and evident inefficiency of big government. Libertarians are at the edge of a movement to dismantle government bureaucracies and decentralize governance wherever possible. This resonates with the tendency to move away from established, monolithic political parties. Even the big-L Libertarian party has difficulty recruiting small-l libertarians.

Netizens, libertarians, and cyberactivists orgs are not going to replace party politics in the near future, but given the mood of cynicism and the growing opposition to large institutional approaches to damn near anything, and you wonder whether this is the handwriting on the wall.

On the Radar, 2018

I created the list below for the State of the World 2018 conversation (which is something I do every year with Bruce Sterling).

2017 was a nervous year of overwrought blustery political cultures, a year of normalized psychosis amplified by media distortion, a year in which we all learned to live in the upside-down, losing our hats in the process of flipping.

Wary though I am of year-end top-ten lists, I couldn’t help assembling such a beast as a way to organize my thoughts and generally keep track. These were the blips on my radar…

1. The normalization of deceit in US politics, melting reality into surreality, a postmodern politics constructing “alternative facts” and liquid narrative. Donald Trump is in the lead here (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/06/23/opinion/trumps-lies.html), and Russian propaganda engines have contributed many bits of misinformation and disinformation. Reliable, accountable news sources have been labeled “fake news,” undermining the credibility of accurate news reporting vs false narratives polluting the information ecosystem. Don’t get me started about Fox News (and a shout out to Shepard Smith, still trying to practice real journalism in that difficult context.)

2. Mainstreaming of fringe whack, dismissal of evidence-based research and science, resulting potential for institutional rupture. Alex Jones at Infowars accurately says “there’s a war on for your mind!” Hopefully Jones and his ilk aren’t winning.

3. Climate change kicks into higher gear while we argue whether the scientific consensus is just another shaggy apocalypse story, or whether economic interests have priority over human sustainability. Meanwhile ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising, and extreme weather events probably related to climate change are wreaking havoc. (I say “probably related”: always important to note that weather and climate are different but related things.)

4. The blockchain, still confusing, with use cases unclear, has become more of an established phenomenon, even as Bitcoin seems imperiled by the expansion of an apocalyptic bubble. Related: hard currency is increasingly replaced by plastic cards and electronic transactions (electronic fiat), but not so far by cryptocurrency. Will there be meaningful and sustainable alternatives to fiat money? See the infographic at https://holytransaction.com/blog/2014/07/bitcoin-vs-banking-infographic.html

5. Platform Cooperativism. Emerging interest in egalitarian worker co-operatives meets platform-based business structure (as in gig economy platform-based powerhouses Uber and Freelancer.) Platform co-ops have multistakeholder governance that is, as with worker co-ops in general, more democratic and inclusive. See https://platform.coop/about – “Platform cooperativism is a growing international movement that builds a fairer future of work. It’s about social justice and the bottom line. Rooted in democratic ownership,co-op members, technologists, unionists, and freelancers create a concrete near-future alternative to the extractive sharing economy.”

6. #MeToo: Sexual misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein triggered an avalanche of similar reports by women and some men, shining a light on a whole, previously hidden, culture of misogyny.

7. Net neutrality interpreted as damage, and routed around by the Trump/Pai FCC, arguing that net neutrality rules are heavy-handed, stifling the Internet. In fact, net neutrality was a support for digital freecom and equality. It’s not clear yeat how this will play out: most likely result is that the Internet will be more expensive. (See https://boingboing.net/2017/12/26/creeping-blackmail.html.)

8. UFOs get real, Oumuamua suggests a rendezvous with Rama scenario. As the supposed asteroid Oumuamua shot through the solar system, its odd properties caused speculation that it might be an alien ship or artifact. Meanwhile the government revealed a secret UFO study program and two F-18 gun-camera UFO videos. A boon for the credibility of UFO research, at least, though Scientific American says “The world already knew that plenty of smart folks believe in alien visitors, and that pilots sometimes encounter strange phenomena in the upper atmosphere – phenomena explained by entities other than space aliens, such as a weather balloon, a rocket launch or even a solar eruption.” (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-truth-about-those-alien-alloys-in-the-new-york-times-ufo-story/)

9. Transportation meltdown, probable ascendance of autonomous vehicles and mass transit. The transportation infrastructure in many parts of the world isn’t up to managing the increasing load, and individually-owned vehicles burning fossil fuels, as primary contributors to the climate change problem, seem less sensible (unless you’re a climate change skeptic and/or fossil fuels enthusiast). Some cities are adjusting urban infrastructure away from support for individual vehicle traffic, and all sorts of transportation alternatives are under consideration – even gondolas, which do a great job of moving people up and down mountains. Something’s gotta give… I suspect a combo of increasing use of mass transit, more “transportation on the fly” services like Car2Go, ascendance of autonomous vehicles, and – of course – more bicycles on the thoroughfares.

10. Psychedelics reconsidered for therapy, especially the treatment of depression and PTSD. When I first heard about LSD in the sixties, it was through and account of Cary Grant’s therapeutic use of psychedelics, before hippies took it to the streets. (Grant’s use was recently documented in a Guardian article, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/may/12/cary-grant-how-100-acid-trips-in-tinseltown-changed-my-life-lsd-documentary) LSD and other psychedelics became class 1 drugs (i.e. illegal) via the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. This means that, in the eyes of the government, they have no accepted medical use – so your physician or psychiatrist can’t prescribe LSD for therapy. However there’s a renewed interest in therapeutic use: see https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/17/upshot/can-psychedelics-be-therapy-allow-research-to-find-out.htmls Will psychedelics be legal to prescribe in the near future?

IndieWebCamp Austin – December 9-10, 2017 – Austin, Texas

Attending IndieWebCamp Austin - December 9-10, 2017 - Austin, Texas
IndieWebCamp Austin 2017 is a gathering for independent web creators of all kinds, from graphic artists, to designers, UX engineers, coders, hackers, to share ideas, actively work on creating for their own personal websites, and build upon each others creations.
This is my RSVP for IndieWebCamp Austin, and I hope you’ll join me there! I’ve been an active proponent of an IndieWeb meetup in Austin, and my company, Polycot Associates is an IndieWebCamp sponsor. The ability to share and acknowledge content has always existed, and a decade ago it was common for users to create their own blogs and other systems, and to control their own content. IndieWeb rolls the web back a decade; IndieWebCamp helps provide the knowledge and tools you need to create your own independent online presence.

The Indie Web philosophy is that your data and content should belong to you, not to Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr or Instagram – i.e. not to a corporate entity that manipulates and controls your content for its own commercial purpose and gain.

IndieWebCamp Austin is 9am-5pm December 9-10, 2017, at Capital Factory in downtown Austin.

Fiction that Bleeds Truth: Lenny Bruce

We were watching the excellent new Amazon series, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which featured Lenny Bruce as a catalyst for Mrs. Maisel’s decision to do standup comedy: “Do you love it?” she asks him, and he shrugs. The first episode in the series shows how the best standup depends on authenticity, and maybe on love. I was reminded of this piece I wrote over two decades ago, republishing here…

THE LAW

Why should the average cyberdawg have any interest in Lenny Bruce?

One of the young turks of cyberpunkdom was finding my interest in Lenny hard to understand: wasn’t he just a junkie who spiked himself to death? Would I have wanted to live next door to this guy, have him shooting up in my bathroom while my kids peered through the crack in the door, wondering why Uncle Lenny wants to give himself a shot in the vein?

Drugs. It’s obvious that cyberpunk fictionoids are packed with references to drugs, and to somatic technologies mimetic of drugs, so the junkie thing might be Lenny’s link to today’s world, but oddly enough I seldom think about drugs when I think of Lenny. It’s not a drug thing, but a fringe thing. When I think of Lenny, and when I think of the sixties, I see grainy b&w Alphaville visions of urban and academic fringes, my first exposure to an alternative culture where, at the time, Lenny Bruce was as fringe as you could get…along with his compadre Paul Krassner of The Realist, who’d been a standup comic himself and was writing a column called “The Naked Emperor.” And there was Thomas Pynchon, who’s since become a course of study unto himself, but at the time was a surreal sponge slopping over with reams of drug-stained prose…and Bob Dylan, Philip Dick, William Burroughs, Maurice Girodias (of Olympia books and Evergreen Review), Charles Bukowski, Tuli Kupferberg, Tim Leary, etc. Tech wasn’t central to this picture. It was an evolving concern, especially in the context of McLuhanesque media study (though nobody’d quite envisioned the PC, since we were still using punch cards to feed data to monolithic flea-brained CPUs). Tech was the subject of a few crazy sf novels and, of course, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (“They put the control inside!”)

What these guys and obvious others had in common was that they were on and of the fringes, living the truth of the street, alienated from the bourgeois world of calculated denial. It would have been easier to deny the immorality of a culture whose subsistence depended on oppression, repression, the exploitation of hidden masses; to go along, buy into denial, live with the war machine hidden in the basement and the hate generators buried beneath tv whitenoise. But denial can be tough for some who’re so sensitive that Truth is like a thorn in the side, a nagging concern that won’t go away.

Lenny was like that, he couldn’t go along, couldn’t buy into the denial of a world that included motherfuckers, cocksuckers, queers, perverts, and hidden demons. The police busted him for obscenity something like three or four times, they hauled him into court where, he said, he had to defend somebody else’s interpretation of his act. Yet he kept performing the same kind of act, in fact evolved a meta-act which included commentary on the court’s interpretation of his various bits. The cops and the court simply didn’t understand, they were ignorant of the street and ignorant of the voices of the street, including Lenny’s, which had transcended the street and threatened to become public record.

Compare this to what Bruce Sterling calls the “hacker crackdown,” where cops raid bbs nodes the contents of which they can’t begin to understand. It’s the same principle, and Lenny did a bit about it, about police mentality. The simple origins of law are in tribal customs that set a social contract to protect everybody, so that we literally don’t dump on each other. As the laws grow more complex and diffuse, we hire enforcers, i.e. cops, and we create courts to ensure balance. At the same time, it’s harder and harder to interpret what constitutes a crime. It’s tough for the cops to know who to bust. If a concerned, apparently upstanding, citizen reports a crime, and the cop doesn’t know enough about the context to determine whether a crime’s actually been committed, he’ll make the bust and leave it to the courts to decide…meanwhile, the bustee is out megabucks for legal defense. Ruined, perhaps, financially and psychically. That’s what happened to Lenny: is it any wonder that he spiked himself? The courts were breathing down his neck, he was broke and dependent on others for his legal defense. Drugs made him feel better, and the ultimate injection took his pain away for good.

THE BIT

Okay, this is the bit. Steve Martin said “comedy is not pretty,” and he was right. Not pretty, and often not funny, at least not anymore. How much standup can you take, vs how much you can actually see if you watch the stuff on all the cable channels, HBO and MTV and Arts & Entertainment, and you go to your local comedy clubs, all of ’em, and you watch some late night stuff, too, Jay Leno plus Arsenio times about three comix per week, that’s six more routines, however many bits per routine…how funny can all these folx be?

But that’s not really the subject of my rant, we’re talking about Lenny. He often gets the credit (blame) for the evolution of the kind confessional comedy that standups perform today, comedy that doesn’t know the restrictions on language and thematic content that Lenny fought.

The best standup routines are a form of storytelling…maybe there’s something of the epic poet in there, if you can imagine Homer standing on a rock doing ‘bits,’ and stringing these routines together so that the form the epic poems we know today, which were refined by retelling and further refined by recording…maybe someday Lenny Bruce’s bits will have evolved through bastardization into a kind of epic poetry, told originally by the master, then retold by one neurotic exhibitionist after another, a web woven from all the standup routines that ever were….(Okay, okay, epic form has dignity and heroism, the antithesis of mud dawg neurosis…it was just a thought…..)

DENIAL

Lenny Bruce was different from today’s average standup in a couple ways: first, he was truly funny, and second, he told the truth. When lamebrain psycholiterates rave about Lenny’s contribution to the free speech movement, they convey the twisted impression that Lenny suffered the slings and errors of the judicial circus so that Eddie Murphy could fuck-you- motherfucker all over the stage. Well, if you believe that, then fuck you, motherfucker! Lenny Bruce wasn’t busted because of his language, and it wasn’t for free speech that he continued to stand and fall, one bust after another. It was for Truth. Lenny made it clear, if you read his stuff, that he really wanted to respect authority, that he didn’t want to fight the establishment or any of that crap. What he wanted to do was tell the Truth, as he saw it. Actually this was more than what he wanted to do, it was what he *had to* do. He saw the world pretty much as it was, the emperor’d left his stuff at the laundromat and, as Lenny once said, we’re all the same schmuck. And in his world there were people who wanted to fuck and would play any kind of twisted game to make it happen, and there were perversions of power on every streetcorner, and there was such amazing denial…big problem in the 50s, denial, not much better now. These were the subjects of his monologues, the realities of everyday life, told in a language he heard every waking street moment, but that respectable society, whatever the fuck that might mean, chose to suppress and ignore.

Think about how weird it would be (is?) to see the “real” world of midclass establishment America totally ignoring the facts of your life! When they busted Lenny, it was like they were trying to tell him that his life, his reality, had no existence. This word, cocksucker, that got him into such trouble, was an Evil Word representing a closet reality. Amazing repression in 1950s America, and as I said, it’s not much better today. Do you think it’s better because these words are no longer taboo? Do you think it’s a better world where Eddie Murphy and Andrew Dice Clay can appear right there on television and talk gutterphile blue streaks?

Naw, man, we’re still in denial. We still lie about the essential barriers that stand between us, pretend they’re not there, avoid community, avoid heart, avoid real love… Lenny Bruce loved the characters he described, you could tell. He loved his audience. Could you say that about Eddie Murphy or any of the ten dozen standups that parade across the teevee screen every week of the year?

We’re still in denial, yes. Maybe not about the mechanics of sex, but about the gestalt of Love.

“My concept? You can’t do anything with anybody’s body to make it dirty to me. Six people, eight people, one person — you can only do one thing to make it dirty: kill it. Hiroshima was dirty. Chessman was dirty.”

“…this lady here is not obscene to me at all. And I damn anyone who will say that my mother’s body or my daughter’s body or my sister’s body is dirty. No.

“You tell me about this god of yours that made this body – but then you qualify it. You tell little children to cover up. You make it dirty. The dirty body. Well, I’m going to tell you something: this is the most decent-looking chick I’ve seen since I’ve been in town.”

Was the development of the Internet a wrong turn?

internet

[I posted this on Facebook, seems it struck a nerve based on the likes and responses. Reposting here, perhaps time for a blog revival.]

I argued in the early 90s that the Internet would connect creatives on the fringes and fringe communities would form and have more impact on social and political cultures. What I didn’t see was that communities or armies of ignorant, racist, fascist, paramilitarist, arguably insane, rabid right, false Christian gremlins would form and seize control of an existing political party, that they would undermine their own interest and dismantle the middle class, that they would endeavor to promote dark-age philosophies over advances in reason and science, and that they would not be opposed, but cultivated by politicians and wealthy business and media interests who would see them as a source of potential power, missing dangerous signals from the emergent mob and their unholy alliance with it. These people may be a vocal minority, but they seem to have growing force. I’m not so sure the Internet has proved to be a Good Thing. It may be the catalyst for the rapid unraveling of civilization.

I added a link to Jennifer Granick’s post, “The Dream of Internet Freedom Doesn’t Have to Die.” And Hoder’s just posted “The Web We Have to Save” on Medium. He says “the web was not envisioned as a form of television when it was invented. But, like it or not, it is rapidly resembling TV: linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking.”

Trends 2015

Monkeys in Space

Here’s a list of trends I see going into 2015, created for this year’s “State of the World” conversation.

Privatization of outer space: A number of companies are developing spaceware, and there’s one nonprofit that’s formed to colonize Mars by 2023 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_One). Is the investment entirely speculative, or do we have clear business models driving a potential new space age?

Currency revolution: a number of alternative currencies have appeared, most notably the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. There are also technologies for digitally mediated barter. How will these be integrated into existing economic systems? Are we really looking at a (more? or less?) radical transformation of global economies?

AI/robotics: we’re beginning to see practical, usable applications of robotics, and there’s much talk of evolving artificial intelligence and possible singularity.

Alan Turing, via Benedict Cumberbatch, is getting some attention. When asked in “The Imitation Game” whether machines will ever think like humans, he scoffs – that’s the wrong question. Machines may think, but not “like humans.” Much of the singularity talk doesn’t get this point, but is rooted in anthropomorphism, which makes about as much sense as a golem emerging from a carefully-shaped clay effigy.

We like to think there’s no intelligence that ain’t human, but that’s a shadow of anthropocentric hubris. As we get into robotics and AI in a bigger, industrial-strength, way, what will they teach us about intelligence, human and other?

Practical backlash against 1% and hyper-neoliberalism: the political pendulum swings persistently, and it doesn’t make human sense to roll backwards to some sort of feudal society. Also propaganda only works so far before practical intelligence engenders some degree of critical thinking. Okay, I’m being hopeful here, but I believe the extreme factions in the civil cold war du jour will be overcome by those who are more balanced, reasonable, and practical. 2015 could be the turning point; waiting to hear the alarm ring.

Internet of things: There’s buzz around the IoT now, probably not altogether practical, but driving investment that could fund innovation. We ask the wrong questions about it, i.e. “why do I want my toaster to talk to my refrigerator?” We should be considering what “things” are most practical to network, and the pro and con implications. Are there security implications? Are we depending too much on networks, creating too great a vulnerability to network failure?

Cyberwars, hacktivism, crypto activism: Networked information systems have inherent vulnerabilities, increasingly exploited by various actors for various reasons. To the extent that we live our lives online and invest in our online identities, we’re subject to these vulnerabilities. This is increasingly obvious, and the question for any one of us is, how vulnerable have I become, and how to I mitigate risk? This is a question for individuals, corporations, and governments. Mitigation can create obstructions and limit the value of networks, so we have to think hard about the risks we’re willing to take the measures we’re willing to adopt to limit those risks. It’s also clear that governments (and non-governmental movements) will engage in cyberwar – to what extent will some of us suffer collateral damage from those engagements?

Network fatigue: Expect to see more strategic cord-cutting: limiting online activity generally and persistently, or perhaps periodically (“no Facebook for 30 days”). Response to information overwhelm is inevitable.

“New democrats”: Liberal entities like the Democratic party in the U.S. have proved ineffective as alternatives to well-organized corporate conservatives. The health of societies depends on a balance of the two approaches characterized simplistically as “left vs right.” Correction of the current imbalance is inevitable, but will likely involve entities that are nascent or don’t exist yet, vs the established entities of the left, which seem irrelevant and obsolete, partly because they have sought to compete by identifying with their opponents, rather than by emphasizing alternatives.

One possible trend could emerge from a middling trend, i.e. a rejection of polarization and an emphasis on a practical middle path between “left wing” and “right wing.”

Demilitarization of police: Militarization of police after 9/11 may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but none of us wanted to create a police state, which is a potential effect. Going forward, we’ll be reconsidering the roll of police departments in communities and considering how to undo the downside of the militarization efforts. We’ll be rethinking the role of police departments in communities, and how to respond effectively to potential terrorist acts within borders without confusing police objectives with military objectives.

Crowdsourcing medical solutions: smart patients will have more of a role in evolving therapies, and have more input into our understanding of human systems and response to disease. Participatory medicine will become more established. Medical research will consider patient feedback to get a better sense of complex contextual factors affecting health. More people will do granular “quantified self” tracking, and there will be systems to aggregate and analyze this information, impacting our understanding of prevention as well as disease.

Civil asset forfeiture, yikes!

In 2013, The New Yorker published a revealing, troubling piece called “Taken,” an in-depth investigation into the practice of civil asset forfeiture, where American citizens can have their property (cash, cars, homes) confiscated by police, even though they haven’t been charged with a crime.

Now John Oliver on HBO takes on civil forfeiture:

The Institute for Justice is tackling civil forfeiture: website here: http://endforfeiture.com/

Bukowski

Saw this at bOING bOING (via Cory Doctorow) and ported it over here:

In comments on the video at Youtube, someone posted this Bukowski quote:
“I think my writing is really pretty fucking powerful stuff but I think after I’m dead and safe, they’re going to trot me out, I’m going to really be discovered you know.”

Here’s another quote from Bukowski:
“For those who believe in God, most of the big questions are answered. But for those of us who can’t readily accept the God formula, the big answers don’t remain stone-written. We adjust to new conditions and discoveries. We are pliable. Love need not be a command nor faith a dictum. I am my own god. We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state, and our educational system. We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.”

He lived 74 years, which is longer than you might expect if you knew something of his habits. He drank heavily, perhaps he was pickled? He also wrote a lot, and his writing had power.

Bukowski

air and light and time and space
by Charles Bukowski

“–you know, I’ve either had a family, a job, something
has always been in the
way
but now
I’ve sold my house, I’ve found this
place, a large studio, you should see the space and
the light.
for the first time in my life I’m going to have a place and
the time to
create.”
no baby, if you’re going to create
you’re going to create whether you work
16 hours a day in a coal mine
or
you’re going to create in a small room with 3 children
while you’re on
welfare,
you’re going to create with part of your mind and your
body blown
away,
you’re going to create blind
crippled
demented,
you’re going to create with a cat crawling up your
back while
the whole city trembles in earthquakes, bombardment,
flood and fire.
baby, air and light and time and space
have nothing to do with it
and don’t create anything
except maybe a longer life to find
new excuses
for.

State of the World 2014

Bruce Sterling and I are into our annual “state of the world” mischief. [Link]

Google was going wild in early 2013, they were like android demigods.
Now Google is, all of a sudden, presto, Russia. Google is a
surveillance secret-police empire with spy binoculars on their faces.
Sergey Brin’s pet Moonshots are just a lame prestige show.

It’s sad, really. Larry and Sergei used to be the Not-Evil Guys, they
empowered the users and won their instinctive trust. Now, if Snowden
entered the boardroom of Google, Larry and Sergei would shriek in
falsetto like the Wicked Witches of the West and melt into two puddles
of black wax.

That doesn’t make Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and Amazon any better
than Google — Facebook in particular, oh my God — but it’s the first
time that these new titans of American industry have really looked
genuinely ugly. Just, nasty. Because they’re rich and powerful, but
they’re also narcs. They’re creeps and snoops. They’re police
informants.

They were kinda tricked into it — but everybody knows it, and their
unwillingness to face up the stark embarrassment is an act of tacit
consent. The Brazilians, Germans, French, Italians, Russians, the
Chinese ten times over, everybody, they all know. It takes a while for
that kind of damage to the reputation to sink in, but it will.

2013 Top Ten (Social/Political/Technical) Culture Blasts

These are things I thought were important in 2013.

NSA Leaks and surveillance society

I always figured the NSA was watching, but it was still a shock to find how extensive surveillance had become – and it was disturbing to see clearly how surveillance of this kind was somebody’s job, something they would inscribe in how-to PowerPoint presentations. This realization via Snowden leaks brought the panopticon home in a big way: as we move so much of our lives into massive databases, we’re increasingly trackable, increasingly exposed to those who know how to capture and analyze the data, and especially vulnerable to government scrutiny. But NSA and government is only part of the story. We’re seeing widespread surveillance by both public and private entities – marketing analytics engines could be or become as robust as NSA tools, meanwhile none of us has ownership of, or control over, our personal data.

In 2013 our level of trust was low and declining. We especially don’t trust governments and corporations with our data because we’re so increasingly aware of the potential for, if not the fact of, abuse. To some extent concerns are legitimate, and to some extent they emerge from a culture of paranoia that has evolved in the wake of mass media and network technology, which have had several relevant effects: greater awareness of abuses when they happen, feeding into myriad fictional surveillance and pursuit fantasies, and more recently the emergence of a social media panopticon. But the Snowden revelations make paranoia feel pretty rational.

Andrew Leonard has a good Salon piece about surveillance/sousveillance: http://www.salon.com/2013/12/27/how_to_defeat_big_brother/

Death of the Internet /DIY/free culture etc.

As the Internet has become the pervasive platform for media and commerce, it has ceased to be the “network of networks” of the 90s. As so many of us predicted, the Internet has been transformed into something more like the cable networks. Content and technology are increasingly locked down behind paywalls and other barriers. Even social media have become more professional, less DIY. Anyone can still participate, but few will capture attention or persistent mindshare as the Internet version of mass media has emerged, more conversational and less top-down than the 20th century version, but nothing like the transitional blogosphere. As small publishers moved from desktop publishing to the web, 2013 saw bloggers moving onto managed platforms like Facebook and Tumblr. We now have a media environment that includes a relatively small number of high-profile content sources, and smaller clusters of online conversation and sharing. Shirkification proceeds (referring to Clay Shirky’s predictions that just such a thing would happen). Question is, how will cream rise to the top? How will new voices emerge and capture attention? Or they be excluded by stricter gateways and media dominance by a limited few. The promise of the Internet was that it could bring a vibrant mix of new perspectives and a cheerfully unmanageable confluence of cultures, but we lose that, if network culture is dominated by a top-down mass media paradigm.

Boston Marathon bombing

The Marathon bombing was similar to the 9/11/2001 attack on the World Trade Center, though smaller scale and evidently involving only two Chechen Muslim perpetrators who didn’t seem to be acting as part of a larger conspiracy or movement like Al Qaeda. This seemed to be more the case of “another nut with a gun” (and some bombs. However I find it just as troubling, maybe more so, to see the bombing as part of an epidemic of random acts of senseless violence. Note also that there were 359 mass shootings in the USA in 2013. (http://www.reddit.com/r/GunsAreCool/wiki/2013massshootings)

The Tea Party gets elected

Through a combination of hard work, effective propaganda, big money, and possibly a heavy thumb on the voting scales, a number of Tea Party politicians have been elected to public office, have been empowered by their supposed popularity, and have managed to freeze Congress from producing any effective legislative solutions. 2013 has been the year of peak Tea Party ascendance, much to the dismay of Democrats and pragmatic Republicans whose business-as-usual has been derailed. The debate about the role and extent of government may ultimately be healthy, if it doesn’t kill us first.

Pope Francis

As religious figures go, this is a breath of fresh air. Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope, and the first pope from the Americas, is known for his humility and openness, and the simplicity of his demeanor. These are welcome traits in the leader of the world’s largest, and arguably most influential, Christian religious organization. He hasn’t sold all the Catholic gold, but he’s wearing less of it.

Economy, what?

We keep hearing that the economy will tank any day now, and for anyone who’s on the exasperating downside, that doesn’t seem so speculative. Tech is booming (but it could be a bubble), and there are signs of life in the world of manufacturing. Innovation is everywhere. However the American middle class is on the ropes, and much of the world’s money is socked away in Swiss bank accounts, i.e. out of play. And while there are many experts in the infosphere, nobody seems to have a definitive clue. There’s a lot of “next economy” talk, and we may very well see a collapse of traditional means of exchange and the ascendance of new forms – worker cooperatives, alternative currencies and barter systems, resilient communities, etc. These are gathering steam (and may have to be steam-driven, as fossil fuels burn away).

“Obamacare”

Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) depends on the commitment of citizens and corporations to make it work. However opponents who see in the potential for broad mandated insurance a kind of socialism, where the strong support the weak, have undermined that commitment. Those that are healthy/wealthy don’t want the sick and the poor in their insurance pools, just as they don’t want their tax dollars spent on benefits or “entitlements” for the lower and middle classes. The actual launch of Obamacare was the best they could’ve hoped for: the web technology to support ACA exchanges and enrollments was poorly planned and executed, and this seemed to validate the opponents’ arguments that the ACA would be a disaster. But the botched website development doesn’t say anything about the viability of the ACA system itself. While the law’s not ideal, it’s a step toward universal healthcare and improvement of the whacky dysfunctional American healthcare system. As of this writing, the website’s working better, so we may be past that particular glitch. Meanwhile ideological wrangling over the complex (ergo not well understood) legislation sucked much of the political energy out of 2013.

Chelyabinsk meteor

What happens when an asteroid strikes the earth? We’ve often wondered, and the answer depends on the size of the particular rock. Many think the Tunguska event in Russia was an asteroid or comet strike. The Chelyabinsk meteor, also in Russia, was also thought to have been an asteroid, and the first case where a meteor blast caused documented widespread injuries. I’ve used the word “strike” here, but in the case of both Tunguska and Chelyabinsk, there wasn’t a direct hit. Both exploded above the earth; most of the damage was caused by shock waves.

How can we prevent larger asteroids from striking the earth? NASA’s currently planning an asteroid-tow-and-study mission that would be a step in the right direction: http://www.space.com/22764-nasa-asteroid-capture-mission-candidates.html

Miley Cyrus twerking

Miley’s unconventional, racy MTV Video Music Awards appearance shocked the Twitterverse and escalated her prominence as a pop culture icon, not so much because of the performance itself (which I saw as a clever, entertaining parody of pop culture excess) as her smart handling of the supposed controversy. Can’t say that there was any shift in mainstream commercial pop culture as a result of the furor, but hey, it was just a bit of fun.

Google Glass

I guiltily admit that I haven’t taken any opportunity, and there’ve been some, to give Google Glass a try. I’m skeptical whether I’ll be able to see much of the overlay, but it might be cool to shoot photos and videos on the fly, though a GoPro would be better for that. To me, the real significance is not so much of the specific product or platform but the boost for the wearable computing meme, which we’ve been talking about since the early 90s. However my pocket device is useful enough, I don’t have to “wear” it (though I’m jonesing for a wearable health data tracker like FitBit.)

The point of “wearable” is that computers are increasingly embedded in the fabric of everyday life, via devices like Glass, Nest, FitBit et al, and concepts like the Internet of Things. 2013, two decades after the Internet’s mainstreaming began in 1993, these next generation technologies have arrived. Soon enough, they’ll be commonplace and boring.