Bourbon Crossing

Late one night, wandering drunk through the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, far from the cell towers and bright lights of Gatlinburg, Karim al-Marin tripped over a root, flailed his arms wildly, and sat down hard.

“Ouch,” the famous qalandar of the Muir tariqat muttered to himself.

It was dark. The sort of intense forest darkness that the unaided drunken eye cannot easily penetrate. Fortunately, Karim had enough juice left in his phone to turn on the flashlight.

He saw at once that though he was still on the trail, it had narrowed sharply at that point. He was deep inside the woods. All around him were trees, the creepily lush, full-of-life kind from horror movies. His ankle was caught in a tangle of hard, crooked roots poking out of the ground. The roots had spread across the trail, forming a sort of low, woody wall across it. As he began to carefully extricate his foot, aided by some minor sawing with his handy Leatherman, a stern grandmotherly voice rang out.

“Ouch!” it said theatrically, but with real anger.

Karim stopped his sawing and looked around warily. To his surprise, the root he’d been sawing at uncurled, slowly and with apparent pain and effort, releasing his foot. He withdrew it at once, and stood up.

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The Winter King of the Internet

On May 23, 1618, in Prague, three Catholics, named Slavata, Borzita, and Fabricius, got themselves thrown out of a window by a bunch of Protestants. That marked the beginning of the Thirty Years War. About eight million died in what was the bloodiest — and arguably most pointless and unnecessary — religious war in European history. It was also, unfortunately, a war that was triggered by a set of conditions that are uncannily similar to those that prevail today, 400 years later, in the Western world of 2017.

Defenestration of Prague, Public Domain photograph from period woodcut.

Curiously, the Thirty Years War, and the events leading up to it, are discussed far less today than the event that ended it: the Peace of Westphalia. Over the last decade, the “Westphalian nation-state” has become the official spherical cow of Internet futurism. To murmur ominously about how the the rise of the internet and the blockchain presage the impending “death of the Westphalian nation-state” is to establish credibility in certain internet thought-leadership circles. In these circles, the Peace of Westphalia has become a notional origin-myth for an equally notional mental model of the modern nation-state.

Yet, it is the Thirty Years War that is the more interesting story for today. In the immediate aftermath of the Defenestration of Prague, for a brief period, an obscure minor noble, Frederick V of the Palatinate, known in the history books as the “Winter King” of Bohemia (and therefore, ex officio, of the Reformation), played a brief but pivotal role in triggering the Thirty Years War. His role bears a remarkable resemblance, with features not captured by other analogies, to the one being currently played in our own time by Donald Trump: The Winter King of the Internet.

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Sanity on the Weird Timeline

A savage girl who eats what she kills. Artwork by Sonya Mann.

Collage and post-processing by the author.

In the months since I wrote “The Cyberpunk Sensibility”, the dystopian flavor in the air has only become more potent. Consider these recent events:

  • An exiled prince from a communist country was felled by a pair of dark-haired ingenues, one wearing an “LOL” shirt.
  • The CIA has been either pwned or framed, or both, their secrets extracted and disseminated via Twitter.
  • One of the richest, most powerful men in The Free World™ released a globalist manifesto, in which he promised to preside over the digital citizens of his monetized belief garden according to his own determination of benevolence.
  • A sovereign nation appointed an ambassador to remonstrate with this rich, powerful man, and his brethren. Private entities that span continents. Hey, maybe it’s just a PR stunt!
  • The predominant meal-replacement brand has an eerie AI mascot. (Which is definitely a PR stunt, but still.)

In “The Cyberpunk Sensibility” I noted that these absurd events can act as triggers, waking people up not unlike the vaunted red pill. But the feeling that we’re living in a parody timeline is starting to wear on me. Many have reflected (at least in the United States) that 2016 was a bizarre year, and 2017 is shaping up to shame its antecedent.

Every single headline this year looks like someone pulled names & scenarios out of a hat

Tweet by @AlannaCoops.

I wrote the cyberpunk bullet points to sound dramatic, but it’s equally possible to make them sound ridiculous. Regardless of which perception I adopt, I find myself marveling at how profoundly strange all of this feels. Paradoxically, what’s normal now is for everything to feel strange. Is that feeling adaptive, I wonder? Is it safe? [Read more…]

“Another Green World”

Graham Johnson is a guest contributor who joins us from Suspended Reason.

ONE

A world transfigured, or a world anew? A world anew, or a new world? And if a new world, in addition, or as alternative?

I.

In September, Elon Musk announced plans to begin the colonization of Mars by 2024. SpaceX’s Interplanetary Transport System will transport up 100 tons of cargo and human passengers per ship; eventually, Musk expects the planet to reach a critical population mass of a few million, at which point the planet will become a self-sufficient colony. What was most striking, to many who watched the announcement’s promotional video, was its closing frames – unaccompanied by explanatory text, and raising only the tantalizing possibility – of a terraformed Mars.

Terraforming is an obvious long-shot (or what Alphabet Inc.’s subsidiary X appropriately refers to in-house as a “moon-shot”) project. But Musk sees it as an essential existential safeguard: should something threaten humanity’s immediate survival, there will be another planet, and eventually other solar systems, available to escape to. Human civilizations elsewhere can continue their expansion of synthesis and sentience across the universe.

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Sulking Through a Subprime Presidency

I’d like to pretend that the long silence since my last proper post — that was November last year — has been due to the long queue of contributions we’ve been briskly working through, but truth be told, I’ve been sulking.

Sulking. Not depressed, fearful, angsty, or anxious. Sulking is really the only word for the tenor of my thoughts after the election of Trump and its aftermath. Not schoolyard sulking directed at jeering victors, but a deeper sort of philosophical sulking directed at the universe. For forcing me to think once more about things I thought I was done thinking about in my twenties. Things that I didn’t particularly enjoy thinking through the first time around, but believe I got roughly right and, more importantly, out of my system. Things that are fundamentally uninteresting to me, despite their importance to others who are less fortunate or more masochistic.

While I am not particularly coy about my political sympathies (or rather, antipathies) elsewhere, I like my politics to be illegible on this blog. When I write about matters societal, I like to tack between conceptual models and narratives a couple of levels of abstraction below politics and ideology.

Unfortunately, we may be headed into a future — a subprime presidency — where maintaining such a healthy creative distance from politics becomes impossible even in the best case. Fortunately, I’m beginning to find that philosophical sulking is not an entirely infertile state of mind.

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The Limits of Epistemic Hygiene

Perhaps the most impressive (and measurable) achievement of technological modernity has been the drastic reduction in infectious disease mortality. It is difficult to exaggerate the magnitude of this victory. It is one thing to say that half, or a third, or a quarter of children used to die before their fifth birthday from infectious disease, and more adults besides. It is another thing (and quite difficult) to imagine what it was like to live under this alien (to us) regime of death. Cholera, diphtheria, smallpox, typhoid, polio, influenza, tuberculosis, pertussis, dysentery, measles, plague, yellow fever, and more besides, claimed the lives of human beings, leaving behind disfigurement, suffering, grief, and fear. There was almost nothing to be done:

The little child of Newton and Etta Riggs Loomis was removed to the home of its grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. J. C. Loomis, after diphtheria was pronounced to be in the home of Mrs. Ann Riggs, in the hopes that it might escape the dread disease. But the monster followed it and the child died Monday, aged 2 years.

Badger State Banner, January 15, 1891, collected in Wisconsin Death Trip, Michael Lesy, 1973.

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A Brief History of Existential Terror

“[M]ental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become.”

–Viktor Frankl

The healthy state of humans is mild existential terror. In Frankl’s words, “a certain degree of tension.”

For 99% of human history, this was true not in the Frankl-meaning-of-life sense, but in the my-environment-is-hostile-and-trying-to-kill-me-holy-shit-is-that-a-lion?-RUN! sense.

Humans lived in a constant state of mild existential terror because death could be on the other side of the rock at any moment.

We evolved in a world with high levels of day-to-day uncertainty and illegibility. Whether or not a hunter was able to kill an antelope wasn’t a sporting concern, but an existential one.

Given this reality, humans worked incredibly hard to reduce uncertainty and volatility. The brain of homo sapiens developed to fulfill a primary role much like a lawyer’s primary role in a corporation: always looking for the worst possible outcome and trying to avoid it. (The analogy holds for its secondary role as well: trying to sleep with everything that walks .)

For the majority of human history, this was adaptive. In the last century, it has become maladaptive.

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The Strategy of No Strategy

Strategy is everywhere in our society. But strategy in practice seems to be a cruel and even silly joke. I learned that the hard way when I went to college long before I ever studied strategy formally. My own “strategy” about how to get through college collapsed virtually the moment I set foot on campus. I was living on my own for the first time and had never been outside of California’s perennial summer weather environment before. I was a poor fit for an East Coast school and didn’t last a full year, getting ill from the cold temperature and transferring out to a California school. At the time, I felt like a failure.

Ensō (c. 2000) by Kanjuro Shibata XX. CC BY-SA 3.0

Like many people of my generation and my socio-economic bracket, my teenage years were eventually consumed by the looming issue of where to go to college. I tried to get the best grades, study hard for the SAT, and make whatever connections I could with alumni to get into colleges I wanted. I applied to many of them, recycling and modifying personal statement letters like the individual payloads and sub-payloads of a MIRV’d nuclear missile. Once I got to college, the clarity and structure that routine provided evaporated. I had to make my own. It was certainly very difficult.

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Prescientific Organizational Theory

Organizational Theory isn’t a science, though it would like to be. Unfortunately, building a scientific approach requires understanding from a number of fields that themselves are still only aspiring to be sciences. Because psychology, economics, and sociology are a mish-mash of rules of thumb and vague, non-predictive, and generally unfalsifiable “theories”, organizations are reduced to ad-hoc rules and guesswork: critical, but prescientific.

For now, to abuse the parable of the blind men and the elephant, organizational theorists are still groping at their respective elephants, unable to figure out that the trunk is next to the tusks, or even that they are part of the same animal. It’s not a science: if anything, it’s a field of engineering, albeit one without a grounding in physics or Asimovian psychohistory to draw from. Precisely because the field isn’t scientific, understanding the engineering rules of thumb that were developed over time is fantastically useful for a practitioner.

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Unbuilding the Wall

This is a guest post by Toby Shorin.

Although symbols are intangible, that doesn’t mean they are inaccessible. On the contrary, we routinely understand and interact with the world by interpreting and intuiting their meanings. Symbols can be created, altered, proliferated, and overthrown.

This essay will discuss one symbol and its meanings: Donald Trump’s Wall. During the ‘15-‘16 election cycle, the Wall became as much of an aspirational motif for the right as it was a corrupt one for the left. In some ways, the Wall usurped Trump himself as the central image of the election. Compared to Trump, whose innumerable controversies make him an ethically difficult figure even for many of his supporters, the Wall makes a simple proposition: in or out. This legerdemain condenses a whole lineup of wicked problems and convoluted realities into a highly condensed ideological meme, representing the entire package of Trump’s policies. Ease of compliance is visible in the rally chants of Trump followers (“build the Wall, build the Wall!”), which acknowledge and perpetuate its myth.

Of course, the Wall is not just a symbol; it is a very real political project with significant implications. But symbols are not just ideas; they are very real concentrations of meaning with political agendas and the potential for momentous adoption. For example, the key symbol of the now-dead Occupy movement, “the 99%,” has been instrumental in spreading awareness of income inequality, and nearly 10 years later remains a crucial tool of global leftist discourse. In the apparently straightforward gesture of the Wall is hidden a similarly nuanced conceptual model. The Wall defines America by drawing its boundaries, producing an exclusionary, misleading, and compelling model nation. As a symbol, it functions on three levels: the geopolitical, the psychological, and the semiotic—it fucks with meaning itself.

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