11.14.2019

Travel Shmavel


Travel is one of those things that, in my socio-economic class at least, is an assumed good. All you have to do is peruse any dating app — at least in the Bay Area — and see that travel is this hallowed, revered act, an unquestioned good. Every woman, and I assume every man, proudly displays their pictures from exotic lands as they giddily inquire: Where's my next adventure? Jordan, maybe. Or Cappadocia! Let's grab our passports and go! This word, adventure, comes up a lot. I'll get to that.

All of this is unfortunate for me as, well, I don't particularly care for travel. And, in our world today, I'm the one who needs to defend this heretical belief. Such is the way of discourse: it establishes the terms of what can be said and the relative valence of those things. In the discourse of our times, travel is good. It just is. So as one who doesn't share this sentiment, the obligation falls upon me to explain myself.

The same goes for lots of things in my life. Take voting. Of course I don't vote. Why would I participate in such a conspicuously corrupt system and give the impression that voting mattered? (I've written about that here.) Yes, many of you are bristling as the usual mantras are paraded out. You can't complain if you don't vote. Which is funny as I feel the opposite: if you participate in this corrupt system, you can't complain! In any case, to most people, voting is an assumed good and so my refusal to participate is met first with a distinctly violent bile — so goes that liberal attitude! — and then with the burden of having to defend my presumed heresy.

Profanity is another area. I used to curse like a banshee in my lectures at Berkeley. Every semester, there would always be at least one student who'd ask me why I curse so much. This question really irked me. After all, why wouldn't I use any and all words at my disposal, especially ones that convey such emphatic umph?!? So I'd refuse to answer and put the question to them: Why don't you curse? The burden of defense should not fall to me. After their initial fluster, their answers never persuaded me to change my ways.

So, yes, travel. Let me be clear. I've traveled. I even enjoy traveling, sometimes. I've driven across the United States repeatedly, each time with great relish and delight. The rolling plains of Nebraska running into the towering peaks of the Rockies only to majestically descend into the salt flat desert before crossing the Sierras and meeting the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco: Oy! So good! And that's just taking i80! So, yes, I like seeing different skies and colors. I've even traveled all around Europe as people from my background tend to do. I feel like this needed to be said. I'm building my case. Bear with me.

Personally, I don't like traveling that much as it makes the most mundane things — water, food, bed, money — of the utmost importance. At home, all the quotidian nonsense is tended to: I know how to get water and food, where to pee, how to spend money. This allows me to focus on other things that interest me more, namely, ideas, words, my own sense of peace. Mind you, I understand that having the everyday become extraordinary affords its pleasure and, better, its pedagogy. But, for the most part, I'd rather have such things be taken for granted.

Language, however, is a more interesting matter when traveling. I relish speaking and speaking cleverly, eloquently, wittily, quickly. Being in another country strips me of all this. I always hated that thing that happens when I'm in another country and I'm reduced to the vocabulary of a toddler, at best, and so my native hosts and I giggle at my attempt to find a bathroom. It's humiliating. And yet I can see the value of doing it now and again, to be stripped of my linguistic scaffold, just to render me humble. So every now and again, yes, I can see that value of traveling.

But all the time? I have things to say, dammit! I want to be funny and witty. I want to make keen cultural references and not always have to explain them. I want to be able to discuss architectures of the invisible, topologies of the event, the nuances of an infinite gaze. I want to be able to flirt and inflect, emphasize and qualify, refine and explore. These are things I do here all the time that I can't do when I travel. So when someone tells me I need to travel to expand my boundaries, I tell them: Expand your vocabulary! Try to think radically differently!

Then there's this word I've noticed of late, a word travelers return to so readily: adventure. This is a tricky one as it's always relative. Travelers who seek adventure in Bora Bora more than likely don't seek adventure every day in who they are and how they go. In my experience, the people who talk the most about travel adventures are the most set in their ways. They have a salary job and always have had one; they own their place; they think and believe the same things day in and day out. Me, I refuse to have a job job so, financially, it's always an adventure. I try to think differently all the time, push myself — sometimes — to be different. And, yes, this might even involve traveling — but not because travel is inherently adventurous but because it takes me out of my comfort zone. I'd ask some of these Tinder travelers if they've ever considered the infinite curvature of space, the untethering of the ego, if they've smoked DMT and had their lives rearranged in ways they never thought possible.

I'll say this: the people I know who have traveled for adventure, truly, are the people who would never say they love travel and adventure. In fact, the person I know who's traveled the most extensively far and away, and the most adventurously, is the one person who rarely brings it up. In fact, when I met her through a dating app many years ago, I believe she never even mentioned travel in her profile. In my interpretation, she views thinking and being differently as continuous with travel.

On the other hand, I had a hilarious date once in which this exact subject came up. I knew the date was a disaster so, rather than playing my predefined role within the discourse, I turned it on its head. I told her I don't like traveling and why did she? She became flustered and said, I shit you not, "Travel expands my boundaries." To which I replied: "And yet you can't understand why I don't like travel (not to mention everything else about me)"?  The irony was so glaring I couldn't stop laughing. Needless to say, there was no second date.

But it's pretty obvious that the squarest people are the ones who talk about the adventure of travel the most. What is square? As I've said, it's the people with a job they think they love with desires and aspirations right out of Hollywood drivel. Meanwhile, I've met — and loved — women who love to travel, love adventure, who are not square at all. And they don't assume travel is a good; they travel because they like it as a pedagogy and existential delight.

So why do the squarest people insist on travel adventures so insistently? Because they're miserable! This is the logic of people who live for the weekend: they accept that their time is owned by their capitalist overlords that they're grateful for the weekend. Eeesh! But I get it, I do. People are so unhappy as their vitality and well-being are drained from them in a systematic fashion. And rather than question this oppression, they take whatever slivers of life their owners dole out. Two weeks vacation! So of course they want to go hang gliding in Bora Bora! It's their only chance to be free.

And, yes, seeing the desert in Zion National Park, the Maasai in Tanzania, hiking the Himalayas are all of course amazing, even life changing, boundary extending adventures. But other things are amazing and life changing, too, that many "adventurous" travelers never indulge. Which is to say, just because travel can be amazing doesn't make it a mandate. More often that not, I fear, travel is a treat thrown to people by their colonial overlords to get a whiff of existence before returning to their cubicle. By having all the banalities of life rise to the fore, these people are forced to focus on things besides their life draining job and depressing search for a mate. It's a vacation, not an adventure — a respite from the fray, a way to quash any desire to leave or smash the system.

This is why travel is considered an inherent good in our popular discourse: it's become the opiate of the masses. To be as clear as possible, this is not to knock travel per se. It's to knock the widespread assumption that travel is an inherent good while masking deep existential malaise. I just wish this declared will to expand one's boundaries and experience adventure were a greater part of everyday life. Of course, maybe I'm just a homebody who enjoys his comforts (or so I've been told; I don't disagree). The more likely scenario, however, is it's all of the above.

11.04.2019

Space Taught Me Everything




On the eve of my 50th birthday, I found myself blissfully alone at ocean's edge — Stinson Beach, to be precise, just north of San Francisco, a slice of the coast tucked behind some earthly swells at the end of a stretch of windy-as-fuck Highway 1. Which is to say, while it is a well known beach, it is not so casually visited. There were no lit high schoolers with bonfires, no toddlers shrieking, no families arguing. It was just the infinite and me — and a freakish number of pelicans. I love pelicans — they're pterodactyls! — and they were kind enough to put on a show just for me.

Anyway, it was hours before the near full moon rose and, as the sun set, the sky became denser and denser with this and that. As I reckoned it and it, in turn, reckoned me, I could feel the cosmic embrace, the fullness of it surround me. And I realized that the key realizations in my life have been about space which, while seeming to contradict each other, actually conspire to offer a view on existence that informs my life at every turn, in every way.


My step father was an astronomer who studied the atmospheres of other planets. Perhaps this is what had me looking up at the night sky at a young age. But, unlike him, I wasn't interested in planets. Nor was I interested in stars, galaxies, asteroids; I never cared for the names on moons or constellation. I still don't know which way is north. No, I was interested in space itself, that infinite regress. (I wrote about that here).

And this, the infinity of space, is what transformed me starting at a very young age. To quote myself (what an odd and beautiful thing to do, to quote oneself, to see one's writing for what it is, fodder out there, no more mine than yours): "Lying alone at night tucked into my safari sheets, I'd track the movement in my head from the bed outwards — past my ceiling and roof, past the trees, through the clouds, past the everyday blue sky and moon, past the sun and planets, past the stars. What I loved was that the movement didn't end...." I found this experience at once intoxicating and erotic in a pre-sexual way: my nine year old body would quiver, the limits of my mind giving way as layer after layer of existence vanished in the rearview mirrior — past the ceiling, clouds, atmosphere, past the solar system, past all those stars — woosh, woosh, woosh until my mind and body became one continuous woosh! I became  verb, a will to infinity, pure becoming.

This was my first awakening: space is infinite. It's not just so-called gods and ideas, morals and concepts, that are temporally infinite. The stuff of this world — the world itself! — is infinite. Extension, which everywhere seems limited, has no final limit. Oh yes.
 
And as space is infinite, there's no fixed position, no final orientation of anything — no center, no up or down. This radical decentering of my existence was exhilarating. I never found it upsetting or disorienting: I found it liberating, ecstatic — the ecstasy of vertigo as I imagined myself hurling through the cosmos. In such a vertiginous world, you're always where you are, a relative position that is nevertheless absolute precisely because you're not closer or farther from a center. You are the center just as no one is ever the center. 


But then there is this second realization I had about space much later: space is shaped. It is relentlessly inflected, bending this way and that. We can see it when we look up at the sky and see the curvature, see the bends. Space, then, is not a neutral backdrop in which planets and other things move about. Space is itself something — a fabric, a flesh, so much stuff. It doesn't take an astrophysicist to see this. Just look up. You can see the shaping of space, its bends and curves, its swirls. I could sure see it, feel it, know it that night at Stinson. I could see, feel, and know the very texture of the cosmos — not as black abyss, not as a nothing, but as an all this

A few days later, I was talking to my parents, sharing this very couple of insights. And my mother replies: "Well, that's a contradiction. Shapes have limits so can't be infinite." This, I'm willing to bet, is a common perception of both shape and infinity: shape is bound, infinity is unbound.

But that's confusion born of a series of interconnected mis-readings of things. We assume infinity is a generality, a concept rather than a function, an operation, or a trait. I knew as kid that there must be difference between the infinity that exists between numbers 1 and 2 and, say, the infinity of space. Sure, conceptually we can say they're both infinite and be done with it. But this disregards a very strange aspect of infinity: it's particular. There is not just one infinity — except as a concept. There are infinite infinities.

Consider the number Pi. It's infinite. And not only is it infinite, it's non-repeating (which means it's not 3.14141414...). It's an infinite number that is absolutely particular and unknowable before experiencing it: it is infinite along this trajectory and this trajectory alone, according to such and such rules that are continually playing themselves out. There are teams of scientists dedicated to finding the next number in Pi. So Pi is, indeed, infinite and has limits. After all, it doesn't sprawl in every direction as it becomes every number. No, it stays very much itself — unto infinity. It is a becoming, much like me lying in bed, my mind moving towards the infinity of space. We're all wooshes. Or, better, we're all wooshing.

This is all to say, there is no neutral ground, no backdrop, no nothing. All there is is something(s). The world is full of itself, a plenum. There is no vacuum per se. And everything is in the mix. We may look at the planets and stars but we look at space, too. And space is not nothing; on the contrary, it is something — the interstellar and intergalactic medium of plasma and such. Space is not a tablecloth on which we set the table. It pushes and pulls, it careens and swirls, bending light, gasses, bodies, moods, and minds.

We know this as we make our way through the world, walking down streets. Every moment is something, full and rich, brimming with sense, affect, light, gas, smell, dreams, dust. We tend to focus on ourselves and the petty nonsense that defines us — job, shopping, dinner, dates. But despite our best efforts to act like actors on the backdrop of the world, this backdrop is nudging us this way and that. All these swirls of mood. (The first three "Pirates of Caribbean" films perform this well: in the first, there are actors on a boat; in the second, the boat is alive; in the third, the ocean is alive until the whole thing is a gaseous mess, beautiful and unwieldy.)

This double whammy of ideas that came to me looking at the sky has informed everything I think and am:
  • Infinity is a dimension of extension as much as a dimension of thought.
  • This means there is no fixed orientation, no up or down. We are all free floating, the ecstasy of vertigo.
  • I am the center; there is no center; everything is the center; nothing is the center.
  • There is no such thing as neutrality; everything is inflected.
  • The infinite is inflected; there are infinite infinities.
  • A thing, including each person, is a particular infinity: Pi(n)
This is how I see the world: all these becomings becoming unto infinity, all these Non Terminating Non Repeating Decimals, all these inflections of space, all this stuff I'm swimming in and swimming with, all these eddies and streams of affect and thought and gas, all swishing every which way as we hurtle and plod and saunter through a shaped cosmos that is always becoming along an infinite trajectory. It's a messy every-which-way world and it's confusing and beautiful and asks very different things of us than perhaps we'd previously  thought. Sometimes, we may even have to, together, turn the whole damn thing upside down.




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10.22.2019

Why Phenomenology, or Transcendence without Asceticism



I like saying phenomenology. Among other reasons, it reminds me of manah manah, which brings me such joy for so many reasons — some personal, some more general.

Growing up in my house, we didn't watch a lot of TV. But one thing we all watched as a family was the brilliant, beautiful, hilarious "The Muppet Show." My siblings and I actually had Muppet Show action figures; mine was Statler. Of all the skits and characters manah manah stands out to this day. I assume I am not alone in this.

The delirium of it all! Put aside the music for a moment and consider the strange drama. After all, they're not just performing the song. There's this odd dynamic between the Animal-like singer and his alien back up singers, some burbling hostility from him that seems paranoid. How can we not be paranoid in the media age? But, in this case, his paranoia seems ill formed, a Hunter Thompson bad trip. What are these aliens doing??? And yet, despite his fear, he's still feeling it, man! What a beautiful drama. What a beautiful take on the "show must go on."

Then again, maybe it's the paranoia inherent to all assemble music. Everywhere I go, they go! 

And Sharkey says...."You know, I can see two tiny pictures of myself and there's one in each of your eyes. And they're doin' everything I do
Every time I light a cigarette, they light up theirs
I take a drink and I look in and they're drinkin' too
It's drivin' me crazy. It's drivin' me nuts."


In any case, manah manah is brilliant as a complex of factors intertwine in odd ways. The best sense is the sense that belies sense and hence has to create it. At the performance's end, we cut to Statler and Waldorf who provide their ever incisive critique:

Statler: The question is, what is a manah mahah?
Waldorf: The question is, who cares?

From phenomenology to manah manah to paranoia to Laurie Anderson and William Burroughs to the critical insight of Waldorf: this is how immanent reading works, how phenomenological critique functions. It follows emergent networks, follows threads that wind here then there, often taking us to surprising places as it stitches together new fabrics of the world. This is the world emerging before our eyes, genesis in action. This is the absolute.

And this, for me, is the pleasure and the promise of phenomenology: it offers a logic and a methodology of engaging the world that never settles for transient pleasures but rather miraculously manages to find the absolute, the cosmos itself, within experience.

Phenomenology, of course, comes from "phenomenon." It's a philosophy that begins with our experience of things, with phenomena, rather than with ideas or concepts. This runs against the grain of how many people imagine truth to function. Things, we tend to believe, are ephemera. What matters is what's eternal — the soul, truth, big ideas, things we can't touch, things that aren't things at all as they don't pass away.

For millennia, philosopher after philosopher along with theologian after theologian has argued that our senses can't be trusted. We can't know the world through the world, they maintain; we can only know it through the mind, through reason, through prayer, through a denial of the world. How bizarre! This prompts Nietzsche to argue that both religion and science are nihilistic: their methodologies for knowing the world are premised on a rejection of the world, a hatred for life.

Descartes, for instance, locked himself in a room and found himself doubting everything about his senses. The one thing he decided he couldn't doubt was that he was doubting which, in his mind, was thinking — hence his famous proclamation, his refutation of skepticism, cogito ergo sum: I think therefore I am. For Descartes, as for much of the Enlightenment that followed, the way to ascertain truth is through the operations of thinking, of the mind, of reason.

Not one to trust the senses either, Kant gets himself into some truly convoluted positions as he tries to make sense of the aesthetic experience. The beautiful, Kant argues, is indeed a claim about the thing one sees: that painting there is beautiful. And yet there is no universal concept of the beautiful to rely on such as Kant discovers in, say, morality. At the same time, the experience of beauty isn't purely subjective either because, in that case, you wouldn't be making a claim about the painting — you'd be making a claim about yourself: I think that painting is beautiful rather than that painting is beautiful

Kant's resolution is strange — all because he assumes the senses can't be trusted. Beauty, for Kant, doesn't reside in the painting per se but in the  universal effects of the painting on the faculties — sensibility, understanding, reason. Beauty, Kant maintains, puts the faculties into a state of proportional play without resolution into a category or concept: it is an experience, not a knowledge. But Kant distrusts the senses so much that the senses' experience of beauty is not relevant; what matters is the effects of the thing on the faculties of the mind. Nothing is more insane than reason.

As Nietzsche argues, science and religion share an asceticism as both deny the reliability of experience. Our bodies, they both argue, can't discover or deliver the truth. For science, only reason can bring forth truth — reason carried out in a lab as free of human experience as possible, ideally in a vacuum. Yes, science for centuries has believed that the truth of the world can only be known in a place that can't exist in the universe, a literal no place — a vacuum. This version of science is, alas, not empirical.

Meanwhile, religion has long enjoyed a disdain for the body, for the things of this world, preferring to focus on some nether region — heaven, the after life, the soul. This is as true of Catholicism which denies its priests the experience of sex as it is of Judaism and Islam with its women forced to cover themselves as it is for so much of Buddhism that focuses on monks who remove themselves from the everyday, refuse sex, and eat gruel day in and day out as they sweep the monastery steps.

Now, many throughout history have worked against these ascetic tendencies. There are writers of all sorts who relish the pleasures of the body — Rabelais' grotesque Gargantua, de Sade's museums of sexual torture, many anonymous Victorians' lusty affairs, Oscar Wilde's celebration of whimsy. The common approach to these varied and brilliant texts is to reduce them to hedonists privileging the senses over and against ideas and reason. They are, from such a vantage, immoral rather than amoral — outside of morality all together. (Needless to say, these all operate in more complex ways than I can explain here. For example, to read de Sade's "Justine" is to transcend the everyday and experience the sublime, the rupturing of order and boundary including the order of the body.)

We are left, then, with this false and crippling dichotomy: on the one hand, the pleasures, horrors, and inherent limitations of the flesh; on the other, the good, if at times demanding, truths of eternal ideas.

Ah, but phenomenology offers a radical alternative to such a reductive duality, a line of flight as Deleuze and Guattari might say — a new approach that at once supersedes and takes leave of such ascetic dualism. Experience, phenomenology claims, is not just the only way to experience the world, to know the world: it's the way to experience the truths of the world, its ecstasy, its abundance: experience as the way to touch the absolute. It's not by taking leave of the body that we transcend the limitations of our bodies; it is through our experience as a body, with our bodies, that we come to participate in the creation of the universe itself. We don't just witness the absolute. We become the absolute. 

In Creative Evolution, the great French philosopher of the early 20th century, Henri Bergson, argues that rather than facilitating knowledge of the world, the models of knowledge we have impede our understanding of the world. In fact, our models make knowing the world impossible! So he proffers another way that I consider phenomenological: "[A]n intellect bent upon the act to be performed and the reaction to follow, feeling its object so as to get its mobile impression at every instant, is an intellect that touches something of the absolute." He calls this methodology intuition.

Let me parse this. He asks us to bend our intellect to the thing at hand, the event, in order to feel that things' movement through the world. The senses make an impression: when we see, touch, feel, smell, hear the world, the world enters us, impresses itself upon us. As a later French phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty argues, to see the world is to be entwined with the world as seer and seen swap places at near infinite speed. And so Bergson has us feeling, with our senses and intellect, for the movement of things as they move and impress themselves upon us — and, in so doing, we participate in the genesis of the world: we touch something of the absolute. 

Note that the absolute here does not refer to an absolute truth or a fixed state but to the very phenomena of the world happening. This absolute is not the finality of scientific knowing nor of religious transcendence: it is the absolute of life itself in all its temporality. Bergson uses the word "absolute" to distinguish this mode of knowing from casual sensory experiences that are mired in layers of cultural nonsense, that are mere habit. This knowing transcends — but it doesn't transcend life itself: it transcends the bullshit of culture by enmeshing you in life, with life, as life.

The religious promise of transcendence is nihilistic, ascetic, disdaining this life for the spirit, the soul, for the swells of silence that refuse the banter of humanity. Phenomenological transcendence is of another order all together: through this methodology of intuition, we transcend but we don't transcend this world. On the contrary, we touch this world intimately, transcending the blindness of habit and idiocy by entwining ourselves with the the undulations and vibrations, the smells and textures, the endless emergence of the world.

Science, in an effort to know the world, leans back from it. Religion, in order to discover divinity, turns away from the flesh. But phenomenology goes the other direction — to know the world as the absolute, it leans into the way of things, feels the friction of becoming, taste the fumes of creation and loves it all. This knowing is neither categorical nor divine: it is worldly, winding every which way: manah manah to infinity. Manah manah as transcendence.

9.24.2019

Data Property, Not Data Privacy: How Blockchain Can Change the World




Privacy as a Red Herring
So I recently watched the Netflix documentary, “The Great Hack,” which purports to reveal the nefarious things Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have done with our data. It seems these companies used our information to sell us things — in particular, to sell us a world view that supported a certain candidate in an election. Egad!

What the film, in its achingly obvious and predetermined sanctimony, fails to talk about is that these companies — Facebook and Cambridge Analytica along with Google, 23andMe, etc — sell our data without sharing any of the wealth with us. Another way to say this is that these companies steal our property, generating such absurdly vast wealth — for themselves.

Now, the film’s presumed whistleblower, Brittany Kaiser, repeatedly says this to the camera. But the film ignores this thread, focusing on how one or two companies seem to have been unethical in how they used our data. No mention of massive theft. No mention of financial retribution. No mention of Ms. Kaiser’s campaign, #OwnYourData. Instead, the film turns the systematic, institutional pillaging of our data into a few instances of bad behavior.

Which of course is precisely what Facebook wants. As long as the conversation is about data privacy, not data property, all it has to do is amend some terms of service, perhaps pay some fines, while its immense coffers remain untouched. The audience feels outraged. But the real question — whose property is this data? — remains unasked.

What is the Information Resource Economy?
As Edward Hickman, the CEO of Anatha, argues we are living in an information age economy — a resource economy of information. That is, information has become the most valuable asset in the planet — more than oil — propelling what are now the richest companies in the world.

We all know this. We are not an economy of manufacturing; we are an economy of data. The biggest companies in the world, such as Google and Facebook, don’t make much. In fact, the things they make — software — they mostly give away for free. They make their money by selling information. But here’s the odd thing: it’s not their information they’re selling. It’s ours. And yet when we talk about data today, the discussion is never about property — and its theft by these companies — but always about privacy.

In the age of smart devices, consider for a moment all the data you (potentially) generate that is used and sold for enormous profits. Take your driving: where you drive, how fast your drive, what car you drive, how often you buy a new car, how often you repair your car. Now clothes: what clothes you buy, how much research you do before you buy, when you buy them, where you buy them, why you buy them. Your music, your food habits, your home buying, your DNA, your voting, what you read and watch: all this is your data that companies want, that they gather and sell.

And yet we don’t share in any of the tremendous wealth that our data generates. And, what’s stranger, we even pay to give our data away. Just think about companies like 23andMe. People pay to give their DNA to a company which turns and sells it to pharmaceutical companies.

Now, I understand that 23andMe provides a service that costs the company money. The same is true of Google and Facebook: they spend money creating software that we use and should therefore be compensated. Of course. But should they own 100% of the profits our data generates — data that we literally create?

What I’m saying is that we are experiencing a dramatic shift in the global economy. Whereas resources such as oil and metals dominated the economy for decades, information is now the most valuable asset. And where does this data reside? In each of us, individually. Every person alive is a kind of oil well, an enormous and continuous source of this sought-after resource. Each person is now their own source of wealth generation. The question is: Who gets to enjoy this wealth?

I understand that legally defining the limits of data property can be tricky. After all, if I’m using Facebook’s software stored on their servers, why isn’t it their data? I understand that, perhaps, this needs to be worked out by the courts.

But there’s a better solution: it can be worked out by the market via new economic tools in which individuals not only control their data, they share in the value it generates. Consider for a moment that the the country of Iceland sold the DNA of its population to Roche for $200M which, I believe, it shared back with its citizens.

What if there were a new social media app in which all users were stakeholders? Where you shared in the wealth generated by your activity, by the content you created? Wouldn’t we all use that one? We don’t need the courts. We need new applications — and new economic tools to drive them.

Enter Information Age Economic Tools: Blockchain & Decentralization
Try to picture Facebook, Google, Uber, Twitter, Yelp suddenly shifting their economic model and sharing the wealth they generate selling your data. Well, it’d be complicated — technologically and practically speaking. All those unique contracts between the company and its two billion users. Oy!

Now try to picture the complexities of actually sharing that wealth with you. All those different currencies, each with its own set of regulations that change nation to nation. The fact is: it’s hard for me to even get paid by my clients. They issue a check from a bank that holds their money; they send that to me; I then go to another bank that holds my money. If my client chooses to wire me money rather than send a paper check — yes, most payments are still done via paper checks — then there are other intermediaries overseeing and managing that flow of funds. We take this process so for granted that we never even consider it odd that all these intermediaries — multiple banks and payment services, each with their own legal regulations — have to manage an exchange between two parties, my client and me.

Why can’t my client just pay me directly? Because that’s not how our centralized economy of government run fiat currency functions. Everything has to be run through a central point.

Blockchain technology, along with other means of decentralization both known and yet-known, proffer a different model. Currencies are no longer managed by a central party such as a government or corporation. Rather, each runs independently, according to rules set forth from the get go (if you don’t like the rules, use a different currency; yes, cryptocurrencies make currency itself multiple and competitive). So payments are peer-to-peer. No need for the bevy of intermediaries that carry money from one person to another — no need for banks, no need for financial services such as VISA, no third parties siphoning off money just so my client can pay me.

At the heart of these currencies is what people call a smart contract. A smart contract is an automated, computer-run set of transactions between parties that needs no third-party to oversee or execute it. It executes itself. As Blockgeeks define it: “Smart contracts help you exchange money, property, shares, or anything of value in a transparent, conflict-free way while avoiding the services of a middleman. The best way to describe smart contracts is to compare the technology to a vending machine. Ordinarily, you would go to a lawyer or a notary, pay them, and wait while you get the document. With smart contracts, you simply drop a bitcoin into the vending machine (i.e. ledger), and your escrow, driver’s license, or whatever drops into your account."

So now picture a social media company, such a new version of Facebook, that is run on a decentralized platform. When you sign up, you agree to certain terms — what data you’ll share and sell (if any) and what data you won’t. Based on these terms, as the company manages and sells your data, real spendable value is returned to you. It’s all worked out by the smart contract as payment is delivered directly from the company — that is to say, from the network or DAO (decentralized autonomous organization) — to you.

And while you’re probably thinking that the company would inevitably try to screw you over, two aspects of such decentralized technologies are immutability and transparency. As all transactions — the exchange of data and currency — happens on the blockchain, they are all recorded for anyone to see (transparent). There is no way to tamper with it, no way to embezzle (immutable). This is why these networks and contracts are called trustless — not because you don’t trust anyone but because you don’t need to trust anyone. The code executes the terms of the deal without anyone getting involved.

Suddenly, all technological and bureaucratic obstacles are removed. As the information resource economy is as distributed and decentralized as human beings are, the blockchain offers distributed, decentralized economic tools, readily distributing wealth as information is created and shared.

Now picture your own digital identity that moves between apps, smart devices, and currencies. At each step, you control what data you share and what you don’t while you share in whatever value your data generates — automatically.

And voilĂ : now every person on the planet who so chooses is suddenly participating in the vast wealth creation that is the information economy. And, together, we all flourish.
Some years in the future, we’ll look back at this time as the age of the Information Robber Barons. Do you remember Facebook, we’ll ask each other, that company that so relentlessly stole our data to get rich? That was nuts! I wonder what happened to them.

9.23.2019

Uncertainty & Stories All the Way Down: On HBO's "The Leftovers"

So, yes, this essay has spoilers. But what's a spoiler, exactly? And do they matter? "The Leftovers" is an odd beast that is at once highly expressive, leading with affect, sentiment, and feelings. In fact, its affective intensity is downright relentless even, or especially, as it's inflected by strong, incongruous music choices.

 
 "The Leftovers" deploys strong music choices that inflect the action and feeling in endlessly surprising ways. The music rewrites the story we're seeing, another "fact" within the storytelling.

At the same time, the show is fundamentally driven by narrative twists and turns. In fact, the show is of, and about, competing narratives on the cosmic, societal, and personal level —  narratives that will never have been veneer or ornament but, on the contrary, are ontological in that they are the shaping of life itself.

"The Leftovers" argues that stories are relational, putting people, data, events, and feelings in relationships to each other. This makes them epistemological as all knowledge claims are first, foremost, and finally stories that link things together in a way that makes sense. And ontological in a sense as stories don't create the world but, in their distribution of experience, data, and events, they are always already shaping life itself. Stories don't come after the fact or before the fact: stories always already inflect, deploy, and distribute facts.

Bear with me, please.

One of the great things about "The Leftovers" is that there is no master narrative to which we are privy. There is nothing we know that the characters don't. We never know the limits of actions, of what's actually possible. Like the characters, we never know what's going to happen, what's real and what's not, what's dream, hallucination, what's madness. We are contemporaneous with the characters' discovery of the limits of the world after it's now possible for people to literally vanish from the face of the earth in the blink of an eye.

So, in this sense, this essay does have spoilers as you'll know how some things turn out. But, on the other hand, the ambiguity of competing narrative never resolves. There is no end point per se. In "The Leftovers," as with most great stories, it's the living through that matters — which is to say, it's all in the storytelling.

But I want to first talk about "The Walking Dead," another show that opens with an event that destabilizes societal and institutional power — a virus that turns the majority of the world's population into flesh eating zombies. (Both shows feature handsome, grizzly white male cops as their lead but that's where the commonality ends: "TWD's" Rick and "The Leftovers'" Kevin enjoy radically different postures towards others, towards power, towards the story, towards us — but that's for another essay. I'll say this: Kevin will never have been the master of anything other than abiding the demented flux around him — and taking a beating in the process.) In "TWD," the structures that determine the consequences of our actions — institutional ethics — no longer exist for two interrelated reasons. One, there is simply no government left, no police, no church. They're all dead, or undead, but in any case certainly not alive. And, two, the ethics of those institutions no longer apply. How do you determine murder for, and of, the undead? Old ethics are predicated on a near-globally shared understanding of the distinction between life and death. Once that distinction goes, so goes the foundation of ethics.

"The Walking Dead," then, gives us a series of ethical structures competing to effectively govern and control people — from forms of democracy and anarchy to ideological and practical fascism. This is what drives the show episode to episode, season to season: in the face of the collapse of existing institutionalized ethics (what Deleuze and Guattari would call their deterritorialization), we witness the emergence of competing ethical modes — or what we might call territorializations as different camps in different regions with differing ethical structures vie for resources and control.

Sure, this has some existential ramifications but only in as much as one is defined ethically. The show doesn't explore other aspects of one's constitution such as, say desire. "The Walking Dead" explores what it is to be a "good person" in the zombie apocalypse, never what it means to be in general. There is no cosmic exploration; the show's horizon is limited to the constitution of the self within the social (if you're a Kierkegaard fan, this is what he calls "the ethical stage" — not aesthetic or religious immediacy but the mediation of self by the social; this became the basis for what would become existentialism). 

Like "TWD," "The Leftovers" is propelled by a destabilizing, deterritorializing event: the sudden departure of 2% of the world's population, more or less evenly distributed (although the terms of this distribution become one element within the drama as one town had no departures: is it for a reason? If so, why?). Needless to say, this undoes the power of certain institutions. The police state's hold on things is redistributed: in what becomes a mostly background refrain, a kind of sick joke, the police state now more openly and aggressively kills emergent competing structures while at the same time tolerating a higher level of day to day chaos and murder. It seems that when citizens can simply vanish into the ether without a trace, it's not so easy to govern.

Science, too, is crippled, at least as master of knowing this unknowable event. In the end, science plays an essential role — not in understanding it but in reckoning it. A group of outlaw scientists have presumably created a way for people to go where the departed went. This is fantastic: science here offers no explanation, no knowledge per se, only more facts that become elements with "The Book of Nora" (the title to the series finale). Which is to say, science here offers data, not knowledge: the story creates the knowing. 

Generally speaking, "The Leftovers" doesn't care as much about the ethical structures that are deterritorialized. It focuses instead on the epistemological and existential scaffolds that buttress identity and social relations. If people can suddenly vanish without a trace, thereby breaking all existing laws of nature, what else is possible? What else don't we know — or even know how to know? And then what are the limits of a self, of a life, if it's no longer death and the rules of life are so cruelly unknowable and seemingly capricious? Say what you will about the mystery of death, we have no shortage of beliefs about what causes, and protects us from, it. There is no such explanatory scaffold for the Sudden Departure.

This epistemological quandary calls all departures into question. Suddenly, divorces and break ups, parents abandoning their children and children moving away from their parents, comas, the inability to have kids, not to mention regular old death are all cast out of their petrified stories and back into uncertainty — and the grief that such unknowability of loss creates. The Sudden Departure, it turns out, is one event within a vast network of loss that pervades life all the time. Only now, all that loss is no longer asleep within tired narratives: they're all alive and flailing as everyone in this show, along with this show itself, is careening.

In "The Leftovers," people come in and out of our lives all the time. Yes, they die. But they also divorce, move away, drift apart. Departures are not new to this world. But all these other kinds of departure are, like death, situated. A lover leaving us may tear us apart but any mystery there has long been eradicated, explained this way and that until we no longer find it bizarre that people we were once so entwined with are no longer part of our lives. We even have remedies — psychiatry and its meds and a flourishing industry of self-help.

This epistemological event, this rupture in the edifices of knowledge, this glaring unknowability is more than a lack: it is a creative event, a productive vacuum that births relentless tales of meaning. Judeo-Christianity inevitably at once splinters and surges. But what's so interesting is that the same event is situated in such radically different ways in these competing tales. For some, the departure is a rapture; for others, a damnation. And so there are competing narratives as to the status of the eponymous leftovers: are they the ones saved or the ones not saved?

This is one of the great profundities of "The Leftovers": things are never just themselves. All things, all bodies and events, are always already situated within stories of cause and effect, stories of meaning. The same facts can be, and are, always read in fundamentally different ways. Indeed, on its own, a fact has no meaning. The departure, like all things, is always already taken up by competing narratives.

What makes the Sudden Departure so different is that it's new to us. These emerging stories have not had time to lose their valence to become habits of knowing, to be metaphors that we've forgotten are metaphors (pace Nietzsche). All explanations — of knowledge or meaning — are wacky, poignant stories. Whether it's religious creationism of Hinduism or Judaism; the scientific stories of big bang, black holes, and replicating crystals; or the psychology of motivation and affect: they're all very strange stories we've forgotten are actually stories. In "The Leftovers," all stories suddenly seem odd as we see them for what they are — stories, not facts. 

This, in turn, inaugurates a widespread epistemological dilemma — or perhaps "opening" is a better word than dilemma. The dominant story of matter and life and death no longer applies and so now everything is up for grabs about what counts as knowledge, what counts as a way of knowing. In the last season, a refrain we hear come out of different character's mouths is: "I don't understand what's happening." This is the very conditions of the shows drama: uncertainty.

Suddenly, "The Leftovers" moves into a new semiotic regime in which signs no longer signify what they used to as they're taken up by different people for different reasons. Dreams, coincidences, hallucinations take on new roles. Are Garvey's visions actually hallucinations, signs of a psychotic break, as Laurie Garvey argues? Or revelations, as Matt Jamison believe? Or an inherited madness from his father who also hears voices? And do all such visions share the same viability? Are Kevin Garvey Sr's voices equally valid because we believe his son's visions are real? The show never lands any one place; the decisions are ours as to who's insane, who's a prophet, and who might be something else entirely. Holy Wayne and his hugs; Kevin's deaths and resurrections; Dean's conspiratorial dogs; Evangeline's "seizures"; Kevin Sr's voices; Patti's ghost; Virgil's ability to see the dead; the little girl pushed down the well; the town of Jarden; the "lens' theory: the valence of each is sure and unsure, situated in different narratives in different ways.

Such is the way of knowing: we believe on the strength of the uncertain.  How do you go home from the land of the dead? You sing Simon & Garfunkel's "Homeward Bound" in a hotel lobby bar karaoke.



In the second season, the show pays clear homage to David Lynch. Odd things happen as Lynch's signature mechanical drone plays, a sense of impending menace. Meanwhile, in good Lynchian style, signs proliferate — a town without departures; cigarette smoking; silence; goats; leaking faucets; barking dogs; earthquakes; fake prophets; crosses and oar beatings; back doors; and on and on. They all seem somehow significant, brimming with meaning. Only we don't know what they mean. And nor does the show. Rather than signification, "The Leftovers" give us the valence of signs without clear signification. Like Lynch, the show plays in the power of signs and where they might point.


But, unlike Lynch, "The Leftovers" never suggests some secret, impossibly strange cabal behind the red curtain. No, the show takes more from Pynchon: everything is a sign that at once connects and doesn't connect with other signs. Lynch gives us a world where meaning may be unknowable but something knows — always off screen. Pynchon, on the other hand, gives us an endless proliferation of signs that circulate in different economies of meaning, coalescing and dissolving as they go.

In "The Leftovers," signs are taken up by stories and made to work in vastly different ways. And no story ever prevails. Nor does the show itself give us any firm ground to stand on, no privileged perspective of knowing. The last season becomes explicitly about all these competing stories, who has the better story. The bookend episodes of Season 3 are entitled "The Book of Kevin" and "The Book of Nora." In between, there's "It's a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World." It's all stories — science, religion, self. We're constantly writing and rewriting our stories, as individuals, as families, as communities, as nations, as a species.



And that is what the show is: this following of different ways of taking up signs, different stories that wind through and around each other at ever different angles without certainty. The ground will never firm up. The show is all these stories at once, all competing and colliding and intertwining, offering neither respite nor resolve.

Here, stories are not fiction: they're creative, forging the sense of the world. Stories are epistemological: ways of knowing the world. And stories are ontological in that they are the sense we make of this life, the creative force always at work distributing facts, emotions, bodies, and events into relations with each other. We lost 2% of the world's people; those 2% lost 98%. The Sudden Departure happened October 14 here, on October 15 in Australia. Kevin navigates the dead and hallucinates like a madman; he's just a guy and he's a prophet. Same events, different perspectives, different worlds, different ways of relating to each other, all happening at once.

It's all always already stories. There's no real underneath or above to curb the tides: it's uncertainty and stories all the way down. And it's downright beautiful.

9.07.2019

Love is a Practice (a spoken essay)



Inspired by this great Erich Fromm quote, “Love isn't something natural. Rather it requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism. It isn't a feeling, it is a practice," I riff on taking acid, seeing anew, being in a relationship, meditation, the way capitalism coerces it all — and how to do it all differently. Or some such thing.

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