Masks All The Way Down

This is a guest post by James Curcio, an excerpt from MASKS: Bowie & Artists of Artifice (Intellect Books), available now

Bowie appeared unusually prescient when it came to the Internet, and what its social significance would be, though he maintained an amount of pre-millenarian utopianism. Perhaps this prescience is more akin to an optical illusion; he was already well on his way, having spent most of his life plumbing the rewards and dangers of the mask before most people had even recognized the unmooring power of anonymity or the virtual. Although an ever-shifting world of masks may be navigable to aliens like Bowie, many have not found themselves so well equipped. This is surely the fraying future society he imagined when he penned the character/interlude ‘Algeria Touchshriek’:

I’m thinking of leasing the room above my shop to a Mr. Walloff Domburg
A reject from the world wide Internet
He’s a broken man, I’m also a broken man
It would be nice to have company
We could have great conversations
Lookin’ through windows for demons
Watchin’ the young advance in all electric 

Digitization has yet to allow us to flee our material origins. If we shut ourselves offline, we do not regain some unity with the silent heart of the world. Those who go permanently offline and return to the village of the future may find it is falling in on itself, the windows cracked and soot-stained. It is eerily silent, with not even the sound of coyotes howling in the distance.

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Plot Economics

For the fourth time in my adult memory, humanity has collectively, visibly lost the plot at a global level. My criteria are fairly restrictive: The dotcom bust and the 2007 crash don’t make my list for instance, and neither do previous recent epidemics like SARS or Ebola. Global narrative collapse is a fairly severe condition, but apparently no longer as rare as it once was. Here’s my shortlist:

  1. Fall of Berlin Wall (1989, I was 14)
  2. 9/11 (2001, I was 27)
  3. Trump election (2016, I was 42)
  4. Coronavirus (2020, I am 45)

It always seems to happen relatively suddenly (but is not always entirely black-swan-level unanticipated; it is typically a gray swan), and in each of the first three cases, by my estimate, it took humanity 1-2 years to reorient. I expect this one will take about 18 months, unless a bigger gray or black swan eats this one (one I’m watching out for is Trump losing in 2020 and refusing to honor the electoral verdict). We will find the plot again after the first vaccines are administered at a large scale, presumably during the 2021 southern hemisphere flu season. We will learn how effective the vaccines are, and the markets will decide how to reprice modern pandemic risks correctly.

So what do we do in the meantime?

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The New Uncanny Valley

This is a guest post by Jakub Stachurski

Every advancement in communication has overcome distance through the reduction of identity. The mail summarizes us, the phone condenses us into a voice, and the Internet flattens us into profiles. We become the necessary abstractions of our technology, reduced for the sake of ingestion. Increasingly we spend more time in this reduced identity state of incorporeal flatness than we do in the face-to-face dimension.

“He’s not seeing real people, of course. It’s all part of a moving illustration created by his computer from specifications coming down the fiber optic cable. These people are pieces of software called avatars. They are the audiovisual bodies that people use to communicate with each other in the Metaverse.” — Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

In contrast to Stephenson’s vision of the avatar, our online interactions occur without our bodies in view, lacking gesture, nuance, inflection and all the unconscious bells and whistles that corporeality adds to a conversation. As the propensity for face-to-face conversation decreases, our average interactions are degraded to the primarily text-based messaging and posting that happens through social media platforms. The Internet has become our primary venue for communication but we lack the technology to project our bodies and voices in the manner of Stephenson’s “Metaverse.” 

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Being Your Selves: Identity R&D on alt Twitter

This is a guest post by Aaron Z. Lewis

I grew up in cyber spaces where legal names were few and far between: RuneScape, AIM, Club Penguin, Neopets, and the like. But when I turned 13, Facebook opened up its floodgates to teenagers across America and washed away our playful screen names. My online social life slowly migrated to Facebook’s News Feed and, before long, I stopped thinking about all the alter-egos I had during my childhood. My digital identity became finite, consistent, persistent, unified. I was Aaron Lewis — nothing more, nothing less.

In 2018, I started feeling nostalgic for the pseudonymous internet of my youth. I decided on a whim to create a “fake” Twitter account, a digital mask to temporarily shield my First Name Last Name from the strange spotlight of social media. What started as mindless entertainment slowly morphed into a therapeutic exercise in identity experimentation. I always thought that masks were for hiding, but I’ve learned that they often reveal as much as they obscure. They allow you to explore a new identity even as you retreat from an old one.

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Worlding Raga 7: Worlds of Worlds

This entry is part 7 of 7 in the series Worlding Raga

In his last installment, World to Live, Ian offered a kitchen-sink short story (with interleaved commentary) that took on the challenge of going beyond imagining a specific world to imagining a proper world-of-worlds called New Nature. The story itself is simple: the narrator simply wakes up and takes his two dogs for a walk. But New Nature is a complex enough environment that a great deal of phenomenology can be projected onto this modest narrative canvas.

Ian’s story got me thinking about one of my favorite modeling dichotomies: Eulerian versus Lagrangian microstate models of fluid flow, and how it might apply to modeling a complex world-of-worlds.

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Mazes as Mirrors of Creation

This is a guest post by Dan Schmidt of mazestructure.com. His booklet Maze Structure was distributed as schwag at Refactor Camp 2019.

When I was a child, I drew mazes (like the one below) to “wow” people with complexity. A psychotherapist friend of my parents said I was externalizing my brain on paper. Others liken my maze drawings to intestines. I prefer the brain comparison.


There is a difference between creating for self-expression and creating with a purpose. When you create purely for self-expression, the reward is seeing something from your head outside in the world. The externalization is itself the end, regardless of its effect. When you’re creating with a purpose, in contrast, success depends on the outcome. With each iteration, you try to bend reality one step closer to your vision while adjusting your vision to your evolving understanding of reality.

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The Age of Diffraction

There’s a state of mind that’s been increasingly common for me lately, which I can only describe as a sense of being outdoors in time during inclement temporal weather. I’ve been searching for the right metaphor to describe this feeling, and I think it is the feeling of being diffracted. Like being a hapless, innocent electron being tortured through the famous double-slit experiment. Here’s a cool animation I found on Wikipedia (physics would have been so much more fun if these sorts of animations had been available when I was learning this stuff).

Animation by Jean-Christophe BENOIST at French Wikipedia. [CC BY-SA 3.0]

If your state of mind is normally like that of a particle — you are here and now, thinking about this, doing that, with some uncertainty around it all — being diffracted is feeling like a wave. Like you’re in multiple states at once, with those states interfering with each other in ways that creates subjective dyschronia or timelexia.

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Weirding Diary: 8

This entry is part 8 of 11 in the series Weirding Diary

Elections in India and EU, and the US-China trade war, have sparked a fresh round of prognostications in my feeds, on the expected length of the global reactionary swing. Here’s a thread of representative opining from Yascha Mounk.

Weirding is not the same thing as the global rightward swing, but I believe it is going to be co-extensive in time with a generation of extremist politics, with the initiative sparking back and forth between far right and far left across the horseshoe gap, with far right having the overall advantage. Centrist positions are underwater in terms of viability.

I’ve come up with an estimate of my own: the weirding will last another 21 years, or until 2040. Counting from 2015, that makes it a 25 year half-cycle, which triangulates well with the 25 year neoliberal half cycle that came just before, making for a 50-year full cycle. If I’m right, I’ll be 66 by the time we’re done with the weirding, so I might as well get comfortable.

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Domestic Cozy: 5

This entry is part 5 of 12 in the series Domestic Cozy

Drew Austin devotes the latest issue of his excellent Kneeling Bus newsletter (highly recommended; a weekly short dose of urbanism, infrastructure etc) to “Inner Wear”:

I like the idea of a leather jacket being a form of armor—the notion that the outside world is a harsh wilderness and clothing is the only layer shielding you from its threats. That is something to be nostalgic about in the present condition, where we’re embedded in layer upon layer of additional protection, and only by artificially engineering those man-vs-nature situations (by getting on a motorcycle or going camping) does clothing’s protective role kick in. Marshall McLuhan wrote that “clothing and housing are near twins…housing extends the inner heat-control mechanisms of our organism, while clothing is a more direct extension of the outer surface of the body.” By that definition, cars, too, are a kind of clothing, yet another outer layer, even an exoskeleton…

… Rem Koolhaas observes that “air conditioning has launched the endless building,” and if we’re always effectively indoors, our need for functional outerwear diminishes accordingly.

And his take on what I’ve been calling domestic cozy.

Clothing today is more casual and comfortable than it’s ever been, and the urban environments that once spawned Greenfield’s leather-armor-clad punk rock aesthetic are now the vanguard of Allbirds and athleisure. That shift is easy to gripe about, but it feels like a truer embrace of the clean, safe 21st-century experience, where a climate-controlled escape from the elements is never more than an app-click away.

In other sightings of the domestic cozy idea, Jessica Stillman has a quick mention over at Inc.

Yep. It’s catching on. We’ll make domestic cozy happen and put the darn kids into that box until they work themselves out 😎.

What If We Already Know How to Live?

This is a guest post by Oshan Jarow.

Sometimes, an event seismic enough to rip a fault line through history forever divides time into two equally infinite halves: before said event, and after. Among the previous divisive events in time, I can think of fire, and language. Suggesting the internet did so for society is nothing new, but I suggest the digital age did so for the most basic, insoluble of human questions: how to live. The question is a pure expression of philosophy, distilled and stripped of distractions. I view digitalization on the seismic scale of fire and language, forever changing the landscape of the question, splitting the history of our existential strivings into before and after.

Philosophy is, in part, kept alive by ever-changing sociocultural circumstances that demand new lived responses to its question. But the changes brought by the digital age are of a magnitude beyond the routine vicissitudes of history. The global distribution of knowledge is arming, perhaps overloading us with more information than ever before, and the proliferation of digital interfaces is reprogramming how we experience life itself, our attentive and perceptual faculties.

Annie Dillard asked in 1999: “Given things as they are, how shall one individual live?” Asking the same question now is a new inquiry, for things are no longer as they were. That was all before. Inaugurated by information abundance & global connectivity, philosophy begins a new timeline. The ‘after’ has just begun. How has our inquiry into how to live metamorphosed? What new challenges animate our search for a fullness of being? What is philosophy after the internet?

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