Deep, dark happenings afoot in the new Bowie song, Blackstar. Most likely, we’re all doomed. Click the earnest priest but be warned…
Deep, dark happenings afoot in the new Bowie song, Blackstar. Most likely, we’re all doomed. Click the earnest priest but be warned…
(This appeared previously in Witness magazine a few moons back. For those just joining this circus, I’ll be kicking up BLAST from PAST blog entries just to gather all my loose change floating around out there. My Dad used to make us spell this on long car rides. Such was the price of driving south to Marineland. It’s since been superseded by longer words such as, oh, pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, which you really don’t want to be catching as it’s a bitch to explain around the water cooler.)
“Properly, opposition to the disestablishment of the Church of England, but popularly cited as an example of a long word.” – Oxford English Dictionary
To define this word on record-breaking length
makes of fixes -pre and suf- the stuff of strength.
Might this word, in short, be rooted in a mission
of uprooting (short of length) true definition?
Anti-dis? It’s clear some cagey cleric-scribe,
bent on dictionary fame through diatribe,
chose a perfectly benign church-state dispute
to exceed both he and it in ill-repute.
Let’s establish, sitting down, a standing rule:
not to stand prosthetic words on gimpy stools.
Too much infrastructure, at the cost of grace,
is a shortfall words alone are loath to trace.
Author’s Note: This poem would not have been possible without the renowned 19th century dispute involving the Church of England and the British government. Of course, this church/state tension continues into the present day, and probably will always be with us.
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I have a new eBook out from Eye Am Eye books (green cover, left) entitled ‘East-West Dialectics, Currency Resets and the Convergent Power of One’ ($2.99). The subject matter is topical, urgent and pursues avenues I’ve not seen discussed elsewhere. It’s on the following e-retail shelves. I’ll plug in links as more outlets appear:
I myself do not have a Kindle or any eBook device. However I find the ePub reads well in the freely downloadable Adobe Digital Editions which you can get here in Mac or Windows
A $5.50 paperback version is out from Giant Steps Press (white cover, below). Given the size (almost 22,000 words) and after talking to a few bloggers, I figured book form would serve best. As is apparent from the prices, I’m just trying to get it out there. It’s HERE on Createspace and I will update this blog entry with a link when it reaches the Amazon bookshelf.
I also urge folks to check out the new combined service offerings of Eye Am Eye and Giant Steps Press for cradle-to-grave book offerings, including promotion and video. That can be found HERE.
Shout-outs and references draw from a number of cutting edge bloggers and current thinkers, among them, The Vineyard of the Saker, Philosophy of Metrics, Pepe Escobar, Brandon Smith, Club Orlov, Damon Vrabel, Jeremy Hammond, Satyajit Das, Jim Rickards, Martin Armstrong, Henry C. K. Liu, Ellen Brown, Warren Mosler, Peter Dale Scott, Alastair Crooke, William Engdahl, Sheikh Imran Hosein, Orville Schell, Byung-Chul Han, Zbigniew Brzezinski, The FOFOA blog, Henry Makow, Edwin Truman, Joel Skousen, Zero Hedge, Redefining God blog and transhumanist Hugo de Garis.
Christine Lagarde declined to appear on camera as did the BIS. Apparently, the Greece debacle has their schedules in a kerfuffle. Maybe they can share some herring bones after the revolution. Across the mortal coil’s sublime divide, shout-outs to Orwell, Huxley, Ferdinand Lundberg and Hegel, hardly in that order.
There’s a lot of talk out there about ‘false’ and ‘East-West’ dialectics and where Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China fit within Brzezinski’s Grand Upended Chessboard. So I brush (bruise?) a little bit of Hegel and a teaspoonful of Marx. More important, until we understand the transcendent role International Capital plays, the horizontal maneuverings of nation-state and empire players are largely indecipherable. The truth is we’re operating within a tripartite class system reminiscent of Ferdinand Lundberg’s Finpols, Pubpols and We, the Underlings taking up the butt-end of the Dancing Vaudeville Horse.
The book title is eponymous with the new three-part essay (16,000 words) and includes some prior economics writings from circa 2008 — Bright Lights Film Journal, Potomac Journal, The Wall Street Poet and iTulip.
eBook Cover design: Paul Toth of Eye Am Eye. Thanks go to Paul for accepting the book in his maiden venture Eye Am Eye. I’m flattered to be one of the first eBooks out in the catalog.
There’s also a music video in there (eBook only) of a Depression-era song I penned with Reverbnation’s #1 Canada’s blues singer-songwriter Lonnie Glass. So, the whole enchilada and a poem or two just to drive the austerity home to the streets where many of us will be taking up post-reset residency.
I hope folks pick up a copy. I put a decent amount of time and thought into it and I wouldn’t belabor the electrons if I felt it didn’t advance the conversation.
Here is the Preface:
This three-part series attempts a vaguely Christian read of the so-called ‘East-West dialectic’ first by exploring the overarching engine of historical advance (usury and debt-money creation); then onto Russia and China’s expanding and consensual roles in global power consolidation before reviewing how the impending currency reset levers power away from the Anglo-American empire (the last empire) towards an ostensible ‘multi-lateral system’ which, as it turns out, is the penultimate phase of New World Order consolidation.
Some related essays are included from ‘the last great financial crisis of 2008’ era just to stir the pot further.
I thank Carlo Parcelli too for penning a very thoughtful introduction which I’m including here:
The poet, Ezra Pound, opens his Canto XLV
With usura hath no man a house of good stone”
His wretched anti-Semitism and pro-Fascist sympathies aside, there can be little doubt that Pound was not wrong about the deleterious effects of usury, its ability to create wealth without commensurate production. Besides, as Norman Ball points out in this short but extraordinarily ambitious volume, the kind of production that would be required to de facto reduce derivatives debt alone would in turn accelerate global ecological devastation. Thus prudent prescriptions at this late stage would precipitate an apocalyptic tailspin far swifter than today’s slide toward a secular end-times.
The moral and religious condemnations of usury aside, Mr. Ball’s book is no theological screed. No matter how dark, ‘East-West Dialectics’ is a sober appraisal of the current state of the world economy and the institutions that run it by one who is thoroughly versed in its many facets. There’s no evocation of Christ among the money changers here. Facet by facet and with great concision, Ball convincingly argues that the world economy is coming apart at the seams and that the planet’s long history of usury, creating wealth from nothing, is the culprit.
In the first part of ‘East-West Dialectics’, Mr. Ball clearly lays out the connection between ‘usury’ and the collateral damage of population and planetary dissolution. In the latter part of the book’s first section and into the second and third sections , Mr. Ball deftly moves from the eschatological dimension of ‘usury’ to international jockeying between the US and Britain, Russia and China over which nation-state, or multipolar confluence, will wear the ultimate garland of ‘Destroyer of Worlds’. He writes convincingly that the US as unipolar power has already exported itself out of contention, and is in all likelihood, the last empire on the way to the fabled New World Order.
Mr. Ball’s writing even about a subject as dry as world economics is vibrant, often brilliant and occasionally dazzling. He brings wit and Swiftian irony to a very grim and difficult topic. All this plus a profound and convincing argument for why we are faced with a modern secular end-times in the age that promised to be a scientific/technological Utopia.
–Carlo Parcelli, Editor of FlashPoint Magazine and Author, The Canaanite Gospel, A Meditation on Empire: 88 Monologues
From years past, these two poems, Poisonous Relations and Gene Supreme, were nominated for the ever-elusive Pushcart Prize by Trinacria and The Raintown Review, respectively. Both of these poems appear in my poetry book ‘Serpentrope’ available here.
White Violet Press, 2013
If I told you that most of the poems in Norman Ball’s Serpentrope are metered and rhymed, with four-fifths of them sonnets, you’d probably get the wrong idea. So we’ll consider that a bit later. Instead, let’s begin with the eclectic nature of the book.
I believe Serpentrope is the only poetry book published to date that contains poems on the topics of: Civil War battle fatigue; formal poetry in its relation to a famous wardrobe malfunction; and Aleister Crowley’s Cult of Lam. The poems often display a love of detail—historic and current—as in this excerpt from ‘Observations of a Civil War Surgeon As Night Falls’:
Cattail and catgut duel within the marsh
that clads the Susquehanna east of York.
Two minstrels, facing off, interpret harsh
conditions with guitars. The river’s fork
accompanies with stiff, percussive reeds.
Ball’s poems stem from an obvious intelligence, and that seems appropriate. Often they mimic the way that neurophysiologists characterize our thinking process: as the firing up of nodes of meaning that excite other nodes in a sort of spreading activation, until a whole pattern of nodes—perhaps previously unconnected—fires together, leading to new connections and novel insights. None of this, according to the theory, is sentential. Sentences come later. This mental commotion underlying conscious thought is echoed in Ball’s poetry in passages such as this from the poem ‘Formal Spat ‘:
… One dares
not ride a colleague’s time-worn rhyme. Left-hand feet
may dangle. Diction may rankle, stubborn
with vague intent. Relax. Sonnets can’t meet
the rent with a metered stick…
Or this, from ‘It Was A Totter From The Start’:
The duty steeped itself in stand-up time,
a rope to drag the day upon itself
with busying to coax the febrile mind
from thought, to book, to browse, to empty shelf.
Many of Ball’s poems employ puns, allusions, and apparently unrelated content. The result is that they often excite neurons in our minds that, at least for me, are firing together for the first time. This type of mental fireworks can be fatiguing, and it may be that the best way to read Serpentrope is to limit oneself to two or three poems a day.
I may have mentioned that Ball’s poems take on a wide variety of subjects. Serpentrope includes poems centered on: the cartoon character Dilbert rendered in a Hilbertian sonnet; dropping poems by airplane on Afghan villagers in wartime; and ballerinas with bulimia. And often the poems render their subjects in witty, punning, allusive lines. Like these in an excerpt from the poem about Dilbert, the cartoon engineer working in a cubicle in a large corporation:
… Dilbert stirs this pot with lead
balloons. His poker-face is barely drawn
by nine. Outside the box, Big Bosses rake
trapped miners over coals while overhead
a phosphor-fingered entity has sawn
animal spirits squarely down to size —
three taut frames. Dilbert’s zeppelin subsides.
Of course, like real-world explosions, explosions of meaning can do damage if not controlled, and Ball is an explosives expert. These poems are nearly all contained in meter and rhyme, and now that you have a feel for the content, it can more fully be revealed that most of them are in sonnet form. The interplay between the subject matter, the allusions, and the forms adds another dimension to the experience of reading Ball’s work — a dimension that I believe elevates the wild content by the mere fact of being under such control.
Given the eclectic nature of Serpentrope (I should mention that it contains poems on the subjects of: belly fat; the fate of a member of the band REO Speedwagon; and the turbulent life of the prophet Isaiah), it should be noted that the book also contains some recurring themes.
The most explicit is that of the snake Ouroboros, a topic treated in several of the poems and the subject of an essay included as an appendix to the book. The image of the snake with its tail in its mouth, sometimes curled protectively around the earth and sometimes a part of it, has, according to Ball’s essay, fascinated him for years. In the poem ‘Ouroboros,’ Ball portrays the snake in a menacing way:
…The proper name’s Hell-
that cool, wrapped bitch— trite circle. Let her clasp
sweet tail in teeth. All gray divides sell
foot-in-mouth diversions. I will have
my foe just-so. Discrete obsession. Damn
all demons who arrive. The golden calf,
zirconia stalking horse, is lamb
I dressed for slaughter…
But it is not always so. Sometimes the snake is a hoop snake rolling along, and sometimes it is a snake completing a cosmic circle.
Another theme in the book is that of human relations. Serpentrope does not contain a love poem as I understand them, but there are multiple renderings of soured or difficult relations between couples. The concluding lines from the poem ‘Endure’ are one example:
… We gratify
what synapses are lit. Hullabaloo
is all that floats above—mere atmosphere.
What anchors? That’s a fixity less clear.
The reader of Serpentrope will soon see that Ball is no sentimentalist.
Poetry itself forms another theme in the book. There are multiple poems on the topic of poetry, a theme that first appears in the inscription that begins the book:
Teach a man to write poetry
and he will starve forever.
Ball begins the poem ‘Twickenham Stadium’ by stating ‘I’m not so much a poet as a wit,’ and then proceeds to compare himself and his work to the career of the American baseball player Harmon Killebrew, a Hall of Famer who, nonetheless, had some years with low numbers of runs batted in. Poets writing poems about poetry can be trying, but Ball pulls it off—in this case, with extended comparisons between his work and baseball. Let’s consider two techniques that I particularly admire in Ball’s work. The first is the clever enjambment, and the second is the killer concluding couplet. One of my favorite poems in the book is the sonnet ‘At the Funeral of a Former High School Crush,’ which begins with the wonderful enjambment
I memorized her purple halter top
The poem then describes time shared together in physics class, and concludes with this couplet that brings us back to the funeral of the title:
They found her with her head arrayed in glass
flung forward like a weightless, prescient gas.
I love that couplet. And many others in Ball’s book. One more example. In the poem ‘Slither,’ that begins with a quote from Coleridge referencing Ouroboros, the narrator learns that a walk with his lover is actually her way of finding a suitable place to terminate their relationship. She has chosen the bookstore where they met to end things in Ouroboran fashion, and the poem itself concludes:
… All along,
this princess had availed a serpent-guide.
I was the frog to her formaldehyde.
Serpentrope is a book of formal poems that really doesn’t feel like one. It treats a wide variety of topics (I should mention that Serpentrope contains poems on: the antediluvian apostasies of G. H. Pember; the difficulties in Ireland; and the nature of testimony in the aftermath of the mortgage meltdowns). There are wonderful gems, couplets, and full poems that sparkle and explode. Serpentrope is a virtuoso performance by a poet of wide-ranging intelligence whose careful use of form adds considerable impact to his work.
“There is a new Ukraine. This is a civil society that became very much engaged in politics, it has almost the unique exercise of participatory democracy, and the volunteer spirit that was born on Maidan…They are now engaging in nation-building.” –George Soros, February 7, 2015
Nobody is listening to your telephone calls… But by sifting through this so-called ‘metadata’, [the intelligence community] may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism.”
—President Obama, 7 June 2013
One of the blind spots of the digitized form derives, paradoxically, from its ravenous, undiscerning and all-seeing eye. Raw data has no introspective mechanism and affixes no value-coefficient to its own informational content. This evaluative process is left to external entities; sentient, sifting human beings—or their algorithm-proxies—who realize that within oceans of data, trophy catches are few and sea garbage is the norm. Actionable or useful data thus swims against near-insurmountable odds of detection. The ‘promotion’ from data to information requires human agency and recognition. How can humans accomplish this crucial anointing when information must be dredged from a great dismal data swamp that retraces God’s infinitude a little more each day?
The statistics are suitably staggering: According to a recent CSC study, data production will be 44 times greater in 2020 than it was in 2009. A July 2012 BT survey reported,
“…a quarter of the decision-makers surveyed predict that data volumes in their companies will rise by more than 60 percent by the end of 2014, with the average of all respondents anticipating a growth of no less than 42 percent.”
This fantastic upsurge in digital effluence is commonly known as Big Data.
Faced with towering silos of bric-a-brac, poets tend toward metaphysical swoons, certainly one technique for navigating the meta-morass. So consider this fair warning.
That said, I can’t help but think of Carl Jung’s Answer to Job. God is a stalking horse for today’s Big Data in the sense that His infinity induces a moral blindness that only Job, a human agent of particular discernment, can instruct Him through. Seeing everything is not unlike seeing nothing at all. Human insight, by contrast, is a narrowed gaze. Vision demands a focal point, a seeing-eye dog, a discrete POV. Poets are the woofers amidst the tweeters, our first-order data miners. They name things and in so doing give form to chaos.
Database administration is a degraded form of poetry, really a meta-poetry whose administrators play in a sandbox beside the legislators of the world. This latter poetic function Sven Birkerts, channeling Ranier Rilke, identifies as the human being’s seminal role—raising the world into consciousness, not just, “collectively, into a noosphere, and not digitally, into a cloud of data, but subjectively, inwardly, into language.” (“The Room and the Elephant”, Los Angeles Review of Books, 7 June 2011)
All that has first been named can be data tagged but only after our fervency—Rilke’s word—has expended itself. Thus, those who prioritize the Cloud have it backwards. Technologists are the post facto manipulators, the illusionists in our midst whereas poets keep it real. That’s why the latter can’t find jobs in a Big Data world. Birkerts quotes the following lines from Rilke’s “Ninth Elegy”:
Are we here perhaps just to say:
house, bridge, well, gate, jug, fruit tree, window—
at most, column, tower… but to say, understand this, to say it
as the Things themselves never fervently thought to be.
—(C. F. MacIntyre, Translator)
Birkerts and Rilke invite us back to Jung’s subjective self whose universe exists only because we have the eyes to (data) mine it. God recognizes Himself through our cognition. We suspect this pleases Him immensely. The Book of Job becomes a pre-Mosaic prototype for the Anthropic Principle. Data, by contrast, is a retrospective, a cataloguing of prior ‘authenticities’.
Far and away most data, if not much of life itself, is hardly worth our powers of recollection. Yet in the Digital Age, every traversal of Sisyphus’ hill becomes a discrete negotiation, an indexable transaction. By now Sisyphus’ travelogue would require a supercomputer. There is no human act or gesture so beneath our retrospective radar that it can anymore slip, blithely undetected, into the veils of time. The NSA and its commercial doppelganger, Facebook, are committed to the eternality of the less-than-mundane. Interestingly, Sisyphus’ punishment derived in part from chaining Thanatos, a ploy aimed literally at cheating death. Life seizes the moment. The life force doesn’t look back. Data storage makes its bones with the dead. All these data-dependent claims on our past help to encourage a retro-reptilian-hoarding reflex.
There’s existential philosophy; then there’s existential practicality. We compound Big Data’s overhang by adding to it daily. However, it’s in the here-and-now where the potential for comprehension is greatest. A host of nimble and proactive analytics tools loom on the horizon which will better prepare us for what Anukool Lakhina of Big Data company Guavus calls ‘knowing the now’ (“We Need to Prevent Insights from Dying in the Big Data Avalanche” Gigaom; 6 October 2012). Humanity’s accumulated now‘s form Big Data’s past. The future must be seized knowingly. We can ill-afford to dither and let it just happen.
The past will not be relinquished lightly as the bankers have our coupon books to keep track of. Old Power and Money cements its power on the backs of our deeply regretted past transactions. Usura’s how they make their game in the present and promise the future to the image of the past. They are the celebrants of stasis. Under their rubric, we are going nowhere fast. All these data-dependent claims on our past help to encourage a retro-reptilian-hoarding reflex. IBM Global Business Service’s Teresa Pritchard in a recent exchange called it Dino’s Albatross:
“…we now see the head looking behind at an enormous tail, a tail so heavy that the creature can hardly move forward. It is a tail comprised of hoarded information, kept without any measure of true value.”
Big Media casts its own Big Data footprint. We desecrate the up-close and sacred naming task with what novelist Don DeLillo calls white noise, that is, the make-work routine of papering over the hard work of consciousness-raising with a dust-layer of bytes and suspect media coordinates (or as DeLillo terms it, that “dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside the range of human apprehension.’‘— White Noise). Mediation is a diversionary campaign that traffics in the propagandistic terms of clarification and distillation; or, if you prefer the Fox News coordinates, fair and balanced.
Big Media’s Big Data diverts us from the task of Big Apprehension. We are kept to the realm of the observable. All that can be measured is pored over as though nothing else exists while Keats’ infamous Vale toils at the crucial work of soul-making at the subjective ‘unobserved’ level. Yes of course, the poets’ by-product, poems, are in evidence on the web. But the process of manufacturing soul through suffering evades the artifactual record. This flattening of poetry into bytes abets a shadow-project to equate poetry with food recipes and baseball scores. Suddenly at the time they are needed most, poets are marginalized further.
Fortunately, regular folks are more than taking up the slack. In the social media realm, we have the power to avert much of the Big Data landslide if only we could stop chattering amongst ourselves, continually giving up banal lives and journeyman repasts that surely drive our overlords to an ever rising contempt. Frankly, who could blame the Illuminati for its machinations as, handed the mic, all we could think to tweet was what we had for breakfast? My point Mr. Everyman, is that your grating ignorance and predilection for Eggo’s may have bought you a dystopia that’ll hang around well past the dinner hour. I told you to brush up on your Adorno and Marcuse. But nooo, you wouldn’t leggo.
The real little man disease is well-earned envy as the floodgates of Facebook fly open only to reveal oceans of drivel. How oceanic, you ask? “Just two days of the current global data production, from all sources — five quintillion bytes (a letter of text equals one byte) — is about equal to the amount of information created by all the world’s conversations, ever, according to research at the University of California, Berkeley.” (“Sizing Up Big Data, Broadening Beyond the Internet”, by Steve Lohr, The New York Times, 19 June 2013)
One could be forgiven for wanting to head some of this yadda-yadda off at the pass before the Word becomes flesh to make its dwellings among us. I mean, I gotta be me, you gotta be you. But must our Eggo’s leave behind minable contrails? The collapse in embedded processor pricing will soon allow for smart toasters. Every appliance will have a snappy retort. Every briefcase will carry an airtight alibi. The world is irrevocably data and sensor-rich and there’s no going back.
Going forward then, how can we vouchsafe an authentic human sphere within this sea of data? or is ‘soul’ ripe for a digitized deconstruction? The trans-humanists suggest Job v.2 will be a robot sent to teach the machine the ineffable nature of soul. That’s provided the ineffable (that transcendent, ‘extra-data’ realm which literature purports to stalk) is indeed antithetical to data and not subsumable within a Big Data skein. Stephen Marche suggests as much:
“Literature cannot meaningfully be treated as data. The problem is essential rather than superficial: literature is not data. Literature is the opposite of data.” (“Literature is not Data: Against Digital Humanities”, Los Angeles Review of Books, 28 October 2012)
Marche’s essay title hat-tips a vast field of endeavor known as Digital Humanities to which he (and I) probably give shamefully short shrift. Some of the mandates emanating from this new academic wing are tantalizingly terrifying. Here, Bruno Latour is discussing nothing less than Big Data’s potential for cataloging the ‘inner workings’ of the soul:
“The precise forces that mould our subjectivities and the precise characters that furnish our imaginations are all open to inquiries by the social sciences. It is as if the inner workings of private worlds have been pried open because their inputs and outputs have become thoroughly traceable.”
— “Beware, Your Imagination Leaves Digital Traces”, Times Higher Education Literary Supplement, 6 April 2007
Wikileaks’ Julian Assange pointed out recently that the East German secret police employed ten percent of the population at one time or another as informants. That sort of high overhead will cripple any enterprise. No wonder the Soviet bloc collapsed. Fortunately, the fascio-corporatists have our backs. The genius of Facebook is that it is an emoticon-besotted surveillance apparatus through which friends rat out friends routinely, unwittingly and for free. Hey, if I’m sending my buds to the Gulag, I want beer money to help subsidize my tears.
Big Thinker Jaron Lanier proposes an even starker equivalence in his latest book Who Owns the Future?:
“Information is people in disguise, and people ought to be paid for the value they contribute that can be steered or stored on a digital network.”
Despite his defense of regular folks, Lanier seems oddly acquiescent to our object status as though we are in fact mere data warehouses, albeit with a propped-open backdoor that encourages shoplifting and prevents equitable compensation. Nonetheless Lanier is onto something when he suggests the value-exchange is poorly understood by the average Facebook consumer-supplier.
In a nation of rip-offs, the thief is king, so it pays to study his M.O. Facebook aggressively runs all of its employees, regardless of formal function, through Big Data boot-camps in an effort to “promote a culture in which everyone uses data to test and ultimately roll out new products, design changes, and other improvements.” (“What I Learned at Facebook’s Big Data Boot-Camp”; CNN-Money-Fortune, by Michal Lev-Ram, 13 June 2013)
The Facebook micro-culture may augur the macro-culture, or is a nation of thieves unsustainable? Clearly, Facebook knows the trove over which it presides and the extractive capacity for all nearby hands to just dig in. Good for Facebook. Apply the distributive computing model over a massive pro bono user base, paint a solicitous happy face above the front door and the cost of data collection suddenly vanishes into the ether. Where the East Germans insisted on payment, we give ourselves and our loved ones up without a fight, without a nickel.
Alright, so everyone gets a shovel and we’ll dig ourselves to a collective nirvana. On the other hand (said one equivocating economist to another), might what Big Data pioneer Jeffrey Hammerbacher calls the impending renaissance of the ‘numerical imagination’ yield up the metrics of what poets have insisted on calling since time immemorial, soul? Perhaps there is no ghost in the machine. Perhaps it’s all machine. Perish the thought.
Poets notwithstanding, all that glistens on human lips has never been gold, anyway. That our fingers excel at capturing every demiurge now with dispatch on one PDA or another does nothing to burnish the archival value of the utterance. Would Zeus have been less cruel, more circumspect in his meting out of punishment, had it also fallen within his purview to store the repetitions of his wrath?
Perhaps human data generation should consist of a finite annual allotment of bytes per year, per capita much like a carbon tax. No doubt Al Gore can invent the apt paradigm. Perhaps we are discovering the darker side of near-universal literacy, you know, those same seven billion souls who can’t wait to share what they had for breakfast on Facebook.
Are we being incorrigible elitists even to suggest such things? The carbon analogy is not as facetious as it sounds. In some sense, data is an exhalation. Of course there’s money in the quotidian. Facebook makes a fortune monetizing our errant chatter. But is there transformative meaning? Surely we’re not here only to make money (an imaginal exercise itself) only to have them listen to us very closely so that they can take it all back again—echoes of Sisyphus in his green-eyeshade permutation? Studies have shown three-quarters of all data has the retention value of an empty gum wrapper.
No, the human race didn’t wait for the Digital Age to dawn so that it could suddenly exhale en masse. What has changed is that we are all now affixed with carbon dioxide monitoring devices, low-cost handheld appliances that record our every hiccup. Our heart beats. Our data emits. Barely audible, off-hand remarks—veritable verbal tics—that our own spouses have the good sense not to query for clarification are being cataloged by digital devices.
Nor am I deaf to the durable idealistic notion that all human musings (nothing less than the murmuring of souls) are inherently valuable, certainly of a higher order than, say, other excretions, e.g., perspiration, waste product and the like. Indeed the democratic impulse is offended by the notion that quotidian effusions do not merit attention. This was not always the case.
In his 1994 essay, “The Future of the Book”, Umberto Eco reminds us that broadly prevalent literacy is a relative blip on the human culture timeline. All the hand-wringing over our TV-besotted age (a phenomenon Eco refers to sardonically as “mass media criticism of mass media”) forgets the profound illiteracy that preceded it for many centuries: “We can complain that a lot of people spend their day watching TV and never read a book or a newspaper, and this is certainly a social and educational problem, but frequently we forget that the same people, a few centuries ago, were watching at most a few standard images and were totally illiterate.”
Eco delineates further between publishing and communicating. With the advent of handheld devices, many of us have migrated unwittingly into the realm of publishing (fossilized entrails) versus ephemeral (sound wave-dissipating) communications. Indeed the NSA has conscripted all of us into the publishing game without so much as a referendum. Police states are funny that way. Every hiccup has a shelf-life. Long live the permanent record.
For the moment, Moore’s Law is still finding cupboard space for our personal effusions. But even that venerable efficiency curve is flashing the fault-lines of fatigue. (Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku predicts its collapse in ten years.) Only Uncle Sam has the real estate and the mindless profligacy to even try and keep abreast of the tsunami. In a Russia Today interview (4 December 2012), whistleblower and former NSA crypto-mathematician William Binney suggested well before the Snowden revelations that the NSA is collecting everything from everybody (what a shrewd discerning beast, that Uncle Sam!), thus the need for the 1.5 million square foot, $2 billion data storage facility in Bluffdale, Utah:
“I don’t think they are filtering [the totality of society’s data]. They are just storing it. I think it’s just a matter of selecting when they want it. So, if they want to target you, they would take your attributes, go into that database and pull out all your data.” (William Binney, “Everyone in U.S. Under Virtual Surveillance”)
On one level, the NSA’s strategic plan seems to have stepped out of a French existentialist novel. It collects the data because, well, it and the data are there. Of course, part of the plotline involves forgetting that the Constitution is there, too—or once was, anyway. For the moment, storage capability and analytics techniques are evolving briskly and the government is flush enough to afford them. The day has arrived when, if the government decides it doesn’t like you, it will simply data-mine you to backstop all the reasons why it doesn’t like you.
Alas, profit-making entities do not enjoy the same boundless access to acres of Utah desert and public largesse. Big Brother enjoys scalability whereas profit centers cannot forgo front-end data analytics techniques. Capitalists have to take out the trash because data warehousing is a huge and growing expense. In a perverse twist on the crowding-out effect, the private sector could ultimately contract under the onerous burden of data storage costs (even as the business value of the stored data is known to be de minimus), while the public sector sits smug atop your paramour’s pet name. You call that fair, Mr. Orwell?
Studies have shown three-quarters of all data has the retention value of an empty gum wrapper. This is one way of saying the legal profession has zero interest in its liability value (and don’t think for a minute that defense against potential lawsuits isn’t a big part of the anal retention bias). IBM’s Pritchard, again:
A large part of the inability to push a delete button is the result of legislation requiring businesses to maintain certain identifiable information to ensure transparency when ostensibly working on behalf of stockholders. In addition, a business of any size being sued, or suing to protect its rights, better be able to produce evidence to prove its case. Court sanctions have been swift and harsh in the evidentiary arena. Attorneys have responded to keep it all. Attorneys are focused on risk. They look in one direction, strictly adhering to the law, torpedoes be damned.
Fortunately, there are countervailing forces within the enterprise. IT departments, threatened by the predations of data storage costs on their budgets (and the resultant brakes on innovation and development) are as eager to take out the trash as in-house general counsel are to let the refuse just pile up. Nor did enterprising CIO’s climb the corporate ladder for the purpose of becoming graveyard caretakers. And yet a recent McKinsey & Company report (“Big Data: The Next Frontier for Innovation, Competition, and Productivity, May 2011) projects 40 percent growth in global data generation per annum versus five percent growth in global IT spending. With fewer allocable dollars contending with explosive and unabated data generation, Big Data risks becoming the dumpster that ate The Next Big Thing.
How will innovation maintain a place at the IT table? Slowly, senior management is coming to realize that the security blanket is really an anvil in disguise. The fact, is Big Data threatens to be a major job and productivity killer. With more bytes and less people, the machine wins again. Frankly, how many more battles can We the People afford to lose?
Even today, only two percent of all existent human data is on the Internet. Oh good, only 98 percent more to plow through! Rilke would be struck by the frivolity of the task, indexing the totality of (ever-expanding) human data, tantamount, one suspects, to moving every grain of sand on every beach from the left side of the beach to the right side and vice versa.
Suppose Sisyphus managed just once to tip his boulder over the crest of the hill. Would it not just careen into a meta-valley on the other side? How is our wisdom, our knowledge enhanced by the reptilian impulse to catalog everything under the sun or, as Sven Birkerts characterizes, the replicative meaninglessness of the so-called ‘digital path’, to invent:
“…a parallel realm… [that] would move us away by building a new world, with new human rules, and placing it squarely atop the old.” (“The Room and the Elephant”, Sven Birkerts, Los Angeles Review of Books, 7 June 2011)
Should the day ever arrive (it would have to be at the end of history) when the universe becomes fully indexed on the Internet, does the Internet not become the universe? or at the least a parallel meta-universe? What will we do then? Re-roll our boulders to their originating valleys? Admit the inevitable and collapse our souls into avatars? Who will conduct the first-order, up-close reconnoiter, what Emerson, anticipating Rilke describes as, “…the poet nam[ing] the thing because he sees it, or comes one step nearer to it than any other”? Metadata names names, making it at least one step removed from the poet’s sacred project. Our transformative energies are wasted on filing chores, relegating us to glorified machine-language adjuncts. Steve Lohr looks ahead to this very prospect:
“Decisions of all kinds, [Big Data experts] say, will increasingly be made on the basis of data and analysis rather than experience and intuition — more science and less gut feel…what psychologists call ‘anchoring bias.’” (“Sizing Up Big Data, Broadening Beyond the Internet”, The New York Times, 19 June 2013)
Anchoring bias sounds a lot like poetic voice, that woefully inadequate yet durable nemesis of analytics everywhere, the human soul. The impending Big Data train-wreck cries out for a deeper reckoning to which we must rally our poet-technologists, all five of them. If we would only self-listen with proper gnostic intensity our data footprints would collapse like the nervous babel they mostly are. Big Data is the shadow-form of all we could not bring ourselves to reflect upon. Intuition will not be indexed.
Therein lies its value. Intuitives risk being hunted to extinction by the NSA State. If you cannot tweet it, it will not exist, an assault on Rilkean consciousness Patriot Act IV will surely codify. The apotheosis of P. K. Dick’s black iron prison (and Bentham’s Panopticon) is the Internet in its late-stage authoritarian form. Even Hammerbacher asks rhetorically if belatedly, “What does it mean to live in an era where things and people are infinitely observed?” Thank you, Mr. Hammerbacher, for tossing circumspection on the pyre of scientific advance.
But then, scientists are famous for plunging ahead and leaving others to look like ridiculously out-of-step Luddites. Allow me to dig my heels in first: If the wonders of Hiroshima have taught us anything, it is that the huge potential of Big Data will be met with a mushroom cloud of compensatory magnitude. Thus, it is precisely the breathless claims of Big Data analytics that have me shaking in my boots. We must relight the early Christian catacombs somewhere off the grid as the soul is being driven underground, once again.
I’m also prompted to offer an updated definition of that cagey yet ineradicable word ‘soul’ as being the human region which proves resistant to data collection and surveillance, not because we erect a killer (and thus someday, ‘with the right technology’, surmountable) firewall; but because there is something within the very fabric of soul that is antithetical to data collection and looms one step beyond Hammerbacher’s ‘infinite’ field of observation. The proof for soul? That Sisyphus’ punishment is so incomprehensible in magnitude and scale that no data silo can ever hope to contain it in the shuttered language of binaries. Capture is impossible. Only poetry can evoke it.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. If the soul proves to be but a billion points of convergent data, we will brush through the trans-human era on the way to machine-hegemony and human extinction. There’s a whole human movement working earnestly towards this capitulation called Singularitarianism —how traitorous, how charming. Absent this forever vouchsafed realm, the poetic project collapses like a metaphysical hoax perpetrated against the centuries. As goes poetry, so goes the soul. Historic man cannot be so far behind.
In the meantime, we are high-tech beasts of burden dragging stones towards a Great Collective Pyramid of Cyber. Had we realized the Digital Revolution would enlist us in a massive water-carrying project instead of emancipating us to pursue a Greater Meaning (the manna-headstone of information), we might never have picked up those damned Blackberry’s in the first place. Now we’re hooked. But please, just hold that thought. Don’t type it.