Transhumanity and Abraxas

“A tecabraxas31hnological civilization is programmed by the principal that something ought to be done if it is technologically possible. If it is possible to make nuclear weapons, they must be built even if they destroy us all.” –Erich Fromm

What drives the mad chariot race forward? Abraxas is the animating demon behind technological advance. He seduces us with convenience and nifty gadgets to keep us toiling at the workbench in white smocks until such time as transhuman entities can ‘man’ their own workstations. (The Singularity is a secularized term for demonic hegemony.) He also encourages us to believe we are ‘in control of the process’ whereas Mary Shelley assured us scientific hubris is anything BUT control. We are the horses in reins.

Transhumanity is a slyly inoffensive term that masks a post-human agenda, implying some happy bridge that we all dance across on the way to godlike status. Whee! As Baudelaire said, ‘the devil’s greatest trick was convincing us he doesn’t exist’. Science has expunged Lucifer from the record, however he is very much in science. Transhumanity is contempt for humanity. Nihilism is the devil’s philosophy, an existence emptied of man.

Asked if we could stop transhumanity Mr. Singularity himself, Ray Kurzweil said, ‘It’s too late now.’

Transhumanity and Abraxas

Brian Williams’ Tales of a Self-Made-Up Man (A Real Hood Dun It Mystery)

This essay appeared previously in Fair Observer and Counterpunch.

‘If you don’t man-up and author your own embellishments, no one’s going to do it for you.’

brian williams hoodieIf Brian Williams ever fabricated a mugging tale (someone check the videotape), you can bet the perpetrator is a black kid in a hoodie. William’s fanciful flights tend to favor flight but sometimes they venture forth by sea-yarn (as in Katrina bodies bobbing in puddles of poetic license).

Truth to power? Nah. Power is truth. That’s the Williams Credo.

In all cases Williams prefers soft targets. This makes him something of a bully in addition to being a liar. When he talks about roving gangs in the French Quarter’s Ritz Carlton, the black faces on the perimeters of his imagination are faintly discernible. Flying with Israeli big brass, he encounters rocket fire from Hezbollah.

Williams is a pro at demonizing the demonized. He’s a company man through and through who always manages, even in his compulsive deceptions, to butter up the boss side of the bread. As for his hard-hitting reportage on Fukushima (that other GE spewer) well, we await that exposé while cesium supplies last, and they’re going to last longer than us. Still, it would be nice to get a high-production closing shot of the final pink clouds.

America let so many things get away from her. How did so little get pumped up into so much and still manage to drop the ball over so little? Teleprompter jockeys became the successive Voices of a Nation. In the best Pentagon-speak, a re-baselining of this baseless hyperinflation is in order otherwise mission creep will get you WW3 in Donbass.

News-Reader Job Requirements (in the post-Williams era):

  1. Can you read?
  2. Can you sit on a stool for 30 minutes without falling off (Note: this is not as hard as it sounds; the half-hour is spaced with interminable off-air selling orgies)?
  3. Do you have an intelligibility problem (Note: This is not a showstopper; Bah-bwa Wah-wah and Tom Bwo-kaw made careers out of having us crane our necks to glean what the hell they were on about—what, no football scores? Aww, why didn’t you tell us)?
  4. Can you stick to your employer’s elaborate tissue of lies and keep your private dysfunctions off-camera?
  5. Can you accomplish all of this with a jaw-dropping sense of self-importance and oceans of faux-conviction?

Three years before Walter Cronkite (that other striving high school graduate) joined CBS on the way to becoming the most trusted voice in America, John-Paul Sartre would pay these sea-to-shining-sea shores a call. No flies on his nausea, John-Paul read our blank evening faces in a flash. Another fifty years would have to pass before that most hollow Emblem of the Willing, Freedom fries, would stare up at us from our happy meals. Yet already, Sartre had spied the klieg light apparatus arrayed above our heads, calling it the Great Implacable Machine:

“Similarly, when a careful arrangement of those melting-pot notions–puritanism, realism, optimism, and so on–which we have been told are the keys to the American character is presented to us in Europe, we experience a certain intellectual satisfaction and think that, in effect, it must be so. But when we walk about New York, on Third Avenue, or Sixth Avenue, or Tenth Avenue, at that evening hour which, for Da Vinci, lends softness to the faces of men, we see the most pathetic visages in the world, uncertain, searching, intent, full of astonished good faith, with appealing eyes, and we know that the most beautiful generalizations are of very little service: they permit us to understand the system but not the people.”—from ‘Americans and Their Myths”, The Nation, October 18, 1947

Sartre the stranger marveled at what befuddling and self-dejected mysteries Americans really were, beyond the endless representations the system demanded they reduce themselves to. And what durable implacability that system has proven to possess with Ph.D. baristas at Starbucks trained to ask with solicitous banality:= ‘venti or grande’, and the pathetic visage and appealing eyes of a bullshit artist pulling down $10,000,000 a year. Yet, just as it all happened improbably enough beneath the same Big Tent, it’s also breaking down with a strikingly eerie simultaneity.

Williams is merely one thread in a fabric that’s fraying from all ends: the petrodollar, NATO supremacy in satrap Europe, central bank monetary levitation, upward mobility, the heartland’s gumption for marching into one third-world cul de sac  after another. All those beautiful generalizations that took so much thinking off our hands are collapsing—the blame for which the BBC’s Adam Curtis tends to lay at the feet of journalism’s increasingly anachronistic tools. (Yes, the storytelling may be broken. But the narratives broke first, leaving the storyteller to storyboard incoherence and irresolution. Collaging and kick-ass tunage can’t paper over the abyss forever.) PNAC ate our exorbitant privilege and then some. Nobody believes us anymore, including ourselves. Silly Straussians, there never was nobility in lies. Beyond good and evil, it’s evil all the way down. Like an exquisite waterlogged corpse, we’re submerged in a Katrina puddle and we can’t get up.

Who can fault a professional liar for trying to keep up? Brian Williams strove to placate the implacable demands of the American mythmaking machine. Possessed of the character flaws the Big Lie relishes, he made a decent go of it. However no man can sustain wall-to-wall bullshit forever. Somewhere, he’s going to slip up and tell the truth, prompting the inevitable questions of veracity. Only a brand, an unblinking machine, can do that. (“Brian Williams: Personal branding got in the way of the news.”—LA Times). Caught in a big lie, he retreated to a smaller lie, something about protecting the honor of veterans. Whaa? Oh and Iraq was a clean war too, dontcha know.

There are no quick solutions—only vague, new paradigms somewhere off in the future. Put a post-grad egghead in that chair tomorrow and ratings would plummet. Detergent would go begging for stubborn grass stains. Besides, who’d serve the coffee? Under natural lighting, whiter-whites reveal an opacity no clean war would dare tolerate. Things would complexify in a heartbeat. People would recoil. Hell, most people don’t give a damn: Entertain us with cinematic shrapnel. If it misses the helicopter, edit it for television and lodge it in you thigh. We’re not keeping score.

“Perhaps nowhere else will you find such a discrepancy between people and myth, between life and the representation of life.”

Looks like Williams got caught in Sartre’s cross-hair. But that’s where a consummate bull-shitter lives—in the TV glare of yawning discrepancy. If someone had any honesty left, they’d fire him.

Brian Williams’ Tales of a Self-Made-Up Man (A Real Hood Dun It Mystery)

To Davos, Dynamic Rooms and All of That

This article appeared previously at Fair Observer and Foreign Policy Journal.


“The World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting convenes global leaders from across business, government, international organizations, academia and civil society in Davos for strategic dialogues which map the key transformations reshaping the world.”—from WEF Annual Meeting, 2015, Davos, Switzerland

When a handful of the world’s wealthiest and most influential people gather to strategically dialogue about their leadership roles over us, the ostensibly led, the definition of conspiracy is largely fulfilled, even if said strategizing does not entail patently nefarious and undisclosed ends. No doubt much is discussed outside the public forums. Are we the people better served by these confabs or is a ruling class that sings less from the same page more conducive to humanity’s betterment? Much depends on one’s feelings about globalism and consolidated power.

Speaking of consolidation an Oxfam report released, probably not coincidentally, with this year’s Davos gathering showed that the top 1% are on target to own more than the bottom 99% by 2016. Certainly talking amongst themselves has not been a pox on the top tier’s pocketbooks. Yet by the WEF’s own reckoning, the world has never been closer to war in the last 25 years. Causal or coincident? How about a three-year Davos moratorium to see if some alms tip the way of the poor?

In his book ‘The Rich and the Super-Rich’, Ferdinand Lundberg proves Alex Jones had precursors who were real grown-ups. Here he ponders a variation of ‘just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean a Mellon isn’t out to get you’:

“As the various [elite factions] are rivalrous at least in respect to making and retaining money, how and in what way do they act in concert, if they act in concert at all? Do they, in fact, act in concert in imposing faits accompli and policies on the nation?

To conclude that they more or less loosely act together as a moneybund is to proclaim oneself at once an adherent to what is pejoratively called the conspiracy theory, widely frowned upon by latter-day organizational academics in grey flannel suits…In a broad sense, as it has been observed by unabashed exponents of the conspiracy theory, all history is a conspiracy.”

All history is a conspiracy where front-row seating is tightly restricted. Where Jones is the ‘pejorative’ conspiracist (symptoms: palpable envy, unrequited inferiority and raging paranoia), Lundberg hints subtly at an elitism of untapped democratic potential:

 “One could hardly have an elite without a mass. If everyone was alert and on his toes, how could an elite ever show itself? The mass itself paradoxically, would be an elite, and perfect high-level democracy would prevail.”

Little could Lundberg have known in 1968 that the masses would be offered their high-level democratic platform in the form of Internet 1.0. When they failed to rise to their own occasion, Facebook emoticons filled the gap. Thus the same old elite shows itself every year at Davos. We watch them on Google’s Youtube.

This year they showed up beset by self-doubt. The old mesmerisms aren’t working. Central banks’ stone tablets have clay feet. Capital not labor sends the anointed to Davos. Capital is shrinking. Inequality is gapping and gaping.

Fortunately, technology can always be counted on for some diversionary whizz-bang. Google’s Eric Schmidt announced that, far worse than the corporate expropriation that was Internet 2.0, the Internet will soon vanish altogether to be replaced by the perfect Panopticon, a million-eyed membrane that will become “part of your presence all the time.” Like the child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Schmidt goes on to paint his wagon in the rosiest terms [my underline]:

“Imagine you walk into a room, and the room is dynamic. And with your permission and all of that, you are interacting with the things going on in the room.”

The off-hand quality of that underlined bit is as unsettling as it is vaguely condescending. The funny thing about surveillance, Orwell might say, is that it takes the quietest room and wakes it up to its dynamic potential. Seriously, there’s a lot of that in all of that. In a nearby room, Hillary Clinton was bemoaning mainstream media’s lost mojo. De-elite-ized translation? ‘Should consent devolve back to fractious self-manufacture, we will be hard-pressed to manage deflationary collapse.’ She has a point. Indeed Davos’ talking points were jumbled as, one day prior to Schmidt, a team of Harvard researchers solemnly announced the death of privacy. If privacy’s dead surely our permission, Mr. Schmidt, is moot. But thank you for pretending to ask.

Winnowing is in the air and at all levels. The Daily Bell detects a vibe at the current conference that the elite may be poised to eat some of their own. If anything, Darwin’s teeth grow sharper with each pyramidic advance. The elite had to clamber over billions of fellow humans in order to win the designation. Absent the underclass there is no rarified altitude to savor. So we both trouble and exhilarate them. They want us here in numbers large enough to validate their elite status. Yet they also want us quiet, preferably in dynamic rooms where they can listen in. They will fight like hell to keep where they are. Check that. They will have us fight like hell to keep them where they are. That’s why this year’s ‘best of breed’ Interstate Conflict risk is part warning and part promise.

davos chart

To a golden hammer every problem requires a golden nail. Globetrotters see a world parched for global solutions. Bono tackling hunger in County Wexford is a waste of aura. World hunger more befits his world-conquering self-image. (Hint: even when celebrities are doing good things, they’re really mostly looking in the mirror.) The preamble video shown at the World Economics Global Risk forum unconsciously betrays buckets of cosmopolitan self-love when it begins, “Technology has created a hyper-connected society. But the way we perceive the world remains fragmented. How can we protect ourselves from the biggest global risks that we face?” First of all technology is a tool, not a Founding Father. And is it the Davos ‘royal we’ seeking protection? From whom? Worried much, big guys and gals? There’s that word global again. Alas those recalcitrant fragments (communities, some might call them) are where most of us live and work. Our lives are not inclined to adjust themselves to your perceptual expectations. Your meditations on the hinterlands are touching nonetheless.

Localism stores a wealth of solutions. It just lacks scale for global ambitions. A little money down below would help—you know, where humanity lives. Hasn’t Piketty already solved this mystery? Big Capital has run away with the entire show, and at an accelerating pace. Big Capital, pitiless inhuman beast that it is, seeks the rarefied heights of consolidation where alas no one happens to live. Where’s Bono?

Monstrous greed, blind as a bat, can offer no solution for profound inequality. Nonetheless The Global Risks 2015 Insight Report tries: “our self-perception as homines economici or rational beings has faltered in the aftermath of the financial crisis.” Rationality is on the ropes because pathologic greed has curtailed all appeals to reason and equitability. The WEF notes geopolitical risks have overtaken economic ones with frightening rapidity. (The report looks forward on a ten-year basis; see chart above.) War is the climactic economic response to the last petered-out business cycle in a secular trend.

Who’s getting paranoid yet? Alex Jones claims WW3 will be necessitated when the elite feels its petard hoisting. The globalist ratchet always avails the fog of war, tightening further. The Swiss Central Bank just cried major uncle, signaling, in its monetary sanity, the end of an era. Jim Rickard’s currency wars are a prelude to the kind with bullets.

Whether war breaks out in oblique Lincolnian fashion (“[One party] would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.”) or arrives under the concerted guidance of an untouchable few, it will hardly matter. The bombs always have a way of finding our backyards.

To Davos, Dynamic Rooms and All of That

Big Brother, Big Data & the Sustaining Power of Kellogg’s® Eggo® Waffles

This article previously appeared in Pop Matters and Foreign Policy Journal and The Pennsylvania Review

barack tv

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.

Big Brother, Big Data & the Sustaining Power of Kellogg’s® Eggo® Waffles

BLAST from PAST: This Is Your Brain on YouTube

This essay appeared previously at Pop Matters, September 2011


There’s no doubt we are being trained into voyeuristic equanimity. When the word “surveillance” no longer has a pejorative ring, you will know we have fully arrived. It’ll be about the same time you manage to prance naked through a roomful of strangers with nary a blush. Exposure will usurp privacy as a societal ideal.

Here’s a statistic which, at first glance, packs a Pac-Man visual wallop. YouTube receives 48 hours of uploaded video every minute. That’s right. Two days worth of stuff happening (though not necessarily hap’nin stuff) arrives every 60 seconds. Clearly the digital world is gobbling up the known world at a remarkable clip. How much more voracious can it get? Well conceivably, if all seven billion earthlings were armed with camcorders, seven billion minutes of available ‘per minute’ video would result—and we haven’t even counted Big Brotherly surveillance cams and other unmanned video devices.

Indeed at some point, if we haven’t reached it yet, pre-Internet “legacy” video will have been entirely subsumed. Of course copyright issues are a current sticking point. But these will be ironed out in time through one payment regime or another. Viewed in this context, 48 hours per minute represents a tiny fraction of observable human reality. We have barely scraped the opening credits of this movie.

We seem headed towards a videosphere that captures and subdues the totality of human activity like some goopy, billion-eyed, grass-roots-driven surveillance cam. Perhaps the social utility of eliminating torture, reducing human rights abuses, locating lost children, etc., will mitigate the intrusiveness of mounting a camera on every earthly noggin. That may well be how the Hobson’s Choice is posed when the government arrives to affix your Halliburton-issue mandatory head-cam. We are already affixing windows into our souls, certainly our beliefs and buying habits, by tossing out the welcome mat to Facebook’s obsequious advance.

Talk about putting lipstick on an Animal Farm pig. One can imagine George Orwell expressing bemusement at the inroads social media has managed to achieve. Have civil liberties ever been handed over with such eager abandon and at such a bewildering rate of speed? Somewhere in the patriot-wing of Heaven, Johnny Tremain is bemoaning a lost, misspent youth as, across Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia every day, nearly 400,000 people join Facebook—an apparatus that will almost certainly be turned to more nefarious ends once some unforeseen (to our eyes) tipping-point is attained. Taken at face value, smiley-faced emoticons are, well, blank-faced bits and bytes. So I wouldn’t put much credence in the fluffy social veneer. It’s merely the enticement that frames a gambit of far larger ambitions.

When I think of Facebook, I can’t help but picture that scene in the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang where the nice candy man entices the children onto his wonderful candy truck only to have the confectionery facade collapse and the child-catcher’s black cage appear. By that time, the children are captives of the cage. Off they go up the mountain to face their fate at Castle Google.

Betting on the continued geniality of social media seems a high-stakes gamble, and for what, the convenience of connecting with high school sweethearts? In the unconnected days of yore, the ‘barriers to discovery’ made it easy to let sleeping flames lie. Often gumshoe detectives were needed to track down the faraway objects of our adolescent affections. There’s a recent statistic, offered up by someone in a white lab-coat, suggesting 20 percent of all divorce petitions in America today cite Facebook as a contributing factor.

I’ve met three couples over the last few months who are reunited childhood sweethearts. They credited their rapprochement to the Internet, in one case; the other two are indebted to Facebook. I’m suspicious of idealized childhood sweethearts only because I have a hunch they grow up to be garden-variety pains-in-the-asses just like regular people. The point is folks are harking back to a gauzy, bygone era, splitting from real lives and real families to chase interludes that in most cases are best left in the mists of time and 10th grade study hall. Think well my friend, before you accept that friend request from the high school prom queen.

But suppose these retro-lovebirds are on the cusp of a broadly based, dump-reality trend? Though resembling unhappy middle-aged adults on a sentimental, adolescent tear, they are in fact a vanguard of cyberspace Amerigo Vespucci’s. Idealization can be a real high-bar bitch. Are pixels on the verge of overwhelming primates? Speaking of the agony of da feet, what chance do a husband’s smelly socks stand (yes, some socks can actually stand) against the odorless, tasteless, colorless sublimity of a Prince Charming with a 20-year-old profile pic? People, the real kind, better clean up their acts fast or it will be curtains for the quiet desperation of real life. Then who will stock the ponds of our Internet soul-mate searches?

Nothing that happens in Vegas will ever stay in Vegas again. Future social status will be measured by how many hours of video down-time an individual is allowed. In a clandestine take on Club Med, there will be ‘black-resorts’, holiday locales where, for a substantial fee, head-cams can be left in a locker. This privilege will be reserved for the extremely well-connected. It will also necessitate some level of government approval. (You wouldn’t want well-heeled terrorists vacationing off-cam with you.) People will relish unobservable moments like gourmet coffee breaks. Tomorrow’s Castaneda’s will descend into the world of the unobserved reporting back on a spirit-realm beyond the videosphere. Children will giggle over their grandparents’ tales of getting lost for six hours in a forest or slipping away to get married. By then, there will be an embedded sensibility that the videosphere is reality. The state will use its police power to enforce this sensibility. But there won’t be much need for enforcement as the populace will have embraced it.

This is why video ubiquity is so prized by the powerful. Shadowing reality’s every move, it supplants, and in a very odd sense, repeals the need for a first-order reality. Observation will become the new action. Virtual reality games will become so compelling that authentic action will seem tame by comparison. Venturing outside has always been fraught with small nuisances: inclement weather, the chance of a fender-bender on the way to the park, mosquito bites, high gas prices. As virtual reality improves its game, authentic experience will confront fresh, new hurdles. The passivity feedback loop will yield more passivity. Legs will atrophy. Dissent, too.

Sex—a practice once held to be among the most private, intimate of human acts—adorns the Internet like tits-and-ass-print wallpaper. Even if sex is not part of the control paradigm, it’s fun as hell to talk about—so bare with me. In a classic media-informing-message dynamic, the video-ubiquity of sex accentuates its visual, surface features. The camera favors physicality, not spirituality. It charts movement not catharsis. To even the most casual observer of pornography (or so it’s been reported to me), the sexual activity portrayed reveals a dispiriting sameness. After all, two arms, two legs, a smattering of additional anatomical features and what really are the possible permutations?

I mean, since the product launch of the Kama Sutra manual in the 2nd century CE, pigs haven’t exactly sprouted new wings. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous pornography benchmark was, “I know it when I see it.” Indeed seeing it, seeing anything, is the eclipsing sense-faculty of the videosphere. Perhaps the real obscenity of pornography is that it mounts yet another assault on the unseen, as though Lady Gaga wasn’t enough (though I find her better seen than heard.) If observability cannot be produced, the veracity of the unseen will increasingly be questioned. The unspoken intimacies of sex will face an increasing struggle to assert their continued presence. By the way, anyone is free to join this struggle by having tons of sex behind closed doors with the lights out. If you need a partner, there’s always

In a similar vein, the realm of metaphysics—souls, spirits, Big Foot and the like—will suffer a further cultural blow as an abysmal threshold of observability subjects it to ever-deepening wells of skepticism. The electro-shock treatment should have been enough. However, this trend promises to push the voices in my head right over the edge.

Speaking of insanity, a brisk walk down any main street in America today provides the best argument against grooming further madness. We are awash in it—madness that is. And yet the Internet marries a hall of mirrors to an already-dicey population. There is the apocryphal tale of a lesbian who developed an intense multi-year relationship with a long-distance lady. After months of rejecting opportunities to meet in the flesh, the “lady” finally conceded that she was no lady at all. In fact “she” was a burly truck-driver from Duluth named Matt. It is a special hell to be separated from your soul-mate. It is yet another inner circle of hell to discover that your soul-mate consists of tape, glue and countless lonely hours spent at Beefy Moe’s Truck Stop. The last report of the “real” lady was that she had dematerialized, leaving no forwarding IP address. I’m thinking she’s a forlorn ghost circling evermore the cloud’s infernal machine.

I know what you’re thinking: “Hey dude, it’s one thing to record every human moment and gesture. But it’s quite another to sift that mountain of data and extract actionable information.” First of all, please don’t call me dude. But yes, this would be true except that new computers with astonishing processing power will break the data-information logjam. Huge video-data-mining computers endowed with powerful algorithms will isolate and identify, from scads of home-movie-like material, problematic body language, giveaway nervous tics, gestures of implied criminality, physical features that suspiciously resemble many of my former girlfriends, etc. This will birth a whole new genus of political prisoner. Eccentricity, the very wellspring of human creativity, will be singled out for particular scrutiny, if not hounded out of existence altogether. The poet and artist class will be decimated. Plebeian uniformity will become the new aesthetic.

There’s no doubt we are being trained into voyeuristic equanimity. When the word “surveillance” no longer has a pejorative ring, you will know we have fully arrived. It’ll be about the same time you manage to prance naked through a roomful of strangers with nary a blush. Exposure will usurp privacy as a societal ideal. The current crop of reality shows are soldiers in the trenches, chipping away at the gauzy veneer and bourgeoisie bad faith of distortive production values. We watch people, celebrities often, brushing their teeth or divvying up household chores without the least sense anymore of a private space being invaded. Besides sanctioning our observation of once-private activities, these reality shows achieve the added benefit of demystifying celebrity-hood generally.

Great money and effort was expended by ‘40s-era movie studios to cultivate a divine separateness among its stable of stars. Since the onset of the television age, we have been eroding this mystique. Power is no longer served today by fostering a coterie of mortal gods. Hollywood was constructed around the rather low-order power model of dream-fulfillment: providing fantasy in exchange for money. Today, power is in the early stages of donning its invisibility cloak. Inducing envy and longing (and selling the products that answer those yearnings) serves no further purpose.

The current phase could be called the Great Leveling Project. This is a social engineering algorithm. By reducing standard deviation in a system, the system approaches stasis. In short, the more similar to one another that we can be made, the closer the perfect control ideal becomes. Disruptive social movements, i.e., trends with the potential to buck the system, vanish; not because they must be suppressed, but because everyone is, temperamentally, of a likeness.

Money was a great entrancement, the ultimate carrot affixed to the ultimate stick. But it was always merely an instrumentality, a means to a moneyless end. Google parlayed the traditional metrics of money, market capitalization, purchasing power, etc., to reach precisely this point. However, at a certain point-beyond, control becomes the new currency. Just as the logic and psychology of money appears to be breaking down, money is bowing out, having served its interim purpose well.

This is where the gold-bugs are mistaken. We are not engaged in the age-old process of currency debasement, i.e., sliding down the credibility curve from fiat currency to hard money. We are vaulting off the venerable store-of-value continuum altogether. Once the threshold of complete control is crossed, money will no longer matter. The motive for it is withering away. There will only be total perfect control. Perfect control won’t feel like control. It will feel like oxygen which is to say, we won’t feel it at all.

How we reach a totalitarian state is the difference between consent and coercion. This is a crucial point, ‘the manufacture of consent’ is a term coined by Walter Lippmann and later developed by Noam Chomsky. For perfect control to claim legitimacy, it must appear as though we have brought the condition upon ourselves. Though no great fan of Orwell, Chomsky expanded upon Lippmann’s phrase as, “an Orwellian euphemism for thought control. The idea is that in a state such as the U.S., where the government can’t control the people by force, it had better control what they think.”

Why, you may ask, must perfect complete control be concerned about its legitimacy? Well, it’s a little tautological, but if total control feels like suppression, it falls short of perfection. We have to build it. We have to embrace it. O’Brien could just as easily kill 1984’s Winston. However, it’s important that Winston’s consent be extracted.

Human imagination can still subvert the machine. Imagination is the unseen screen against which video can only aspire to the crudest approximations. You must become an unabashed weirdo, a bedeviling mass of contradictions to the reductionist Gestapo-template.

Manufactured consent is a fascinating, if eerie, concept. Let’s say, over a generation or two, certain media masters succeed in manipulating a society into the enjoyment of only two things: Simon Cowell and Harry Potter. Within these two spheres of interest, ‘libertarian’ latitude is allowed. None of this goes down in an overt or suppressive way. The people have exactly what they want. Of course someone worked diligently behind the scenes to conform their interests to this restricted sphere of activity. When was the last time you visited the local library to see whether Catcher in the Rye was still a state-approved title? What, you no longer visit the library? Then it shouldn’t concern you that we burned Salinger out back with Twain.

Does a burned book make a crackle in an oblivious society? When freedom of expression atrophies to the point where only a handful of “expression-tracts” remain, no one expresses outrage over the huge chunks of culture gone AWOL.

Manufactured consent is the velvety sieve that delivers tomorrow’s authoritarian system. Today’s America is already an authoritarian system wrapped in a democratic mythos and a red-blue fictional narrative. In many respects the Internet cloud crashed the party. Slowly it is being recast in an authoritarian frame.

The huge tragedy is that we are handing this wonderful distributed system, the Internet, back over to centralized overlords. The topology of the Internet meshes with radical democracy. In many ways, the Internet is a fulfillment of democratic aspirations. Every node is equal. The websites of the powerful begin with www just like Pee-wee Herman’s. Though is taken, Godaddy assures us can be had for $11.99 a month. Yes, the cloud is nothing but the sum of its nodes. We have arrived: E Pluribus Unum!

There’s cachet in the obverse of that venerable Latin phrase, as well. In his landmark TV essay, 1993’s E Unibus Pluram, the late David Foster Wallace explored the layers of irony that govern television as a cultural phenomenon. Of course his essay was written prior to the blight of reality TV, you know, during the halcyon era of, ah, Friends. There are for example the people on TV who know they’re being watched and ‘act’ accordingly (in fact we have a name for them, actors.) Then there are the watchers who often love nothing more than to hate the people they are watching while at the same time envying or worshipping, the people who play the people. This synopsis hardly does justice to Wallace’s elaborate investigation (intended largely for a fiction-writer audience.)

Irony shares a common feature with money. Both require a split-screen. Money facilitates transactions between two parties. Irony permits asynchronous appraisals between two points-of-view. When Shakespeare’s prophecy is fulfilled and the world truly becomes a fully-non-collapsible, rotating stage, the bifurcation of screen and sofa, us and them, will wither away because the ubiquity of the observable will extinguish it. The incongruities that allow irony, two discrete observation posts, will be simultaneously exposed and melded into an “indistinguishable one”. Ironic distance will collapse.

Power accrues and never disbands. There is this chaste notion that the Rothschild family acquired huge swathes of earthly wealth and power only to, what, forsake it all? This view commits yet another variant of the fallacy of mistaking the unseen for the nonexistent. When a certain critical mass of power is reached, the ego-need to parade it disappears. Only the nouveau riche seek the cover of People magazine, whereas real multi-generational power is comfortable in its own brocade skin. There’s no one left to impress, no one to curry favor from for the purpose of securing a promotion. This is because, in certain rarefied strata of society, there are no promotions.

While I’m not a wild-eyed conspiratorial type, having invoked that surname, it’ll be interesting to see if I make it through ‘til morning. There’s little question that wealth has been on an inexorable ascent back into the pockets of the well-heeled. After a brief flirtation with middle-classes and libertarian ideals, societies are returning to their inherent plutocratic predispositions. For the most part, they are accomplishing this in a silent “trickle-up” fashion. Remarkably, the hue and cry one might expect has, for all appearances, been “manufactured” away.

What is the only defense, you ask? We need the poet’s eccentricity, but on a massive (though not mass) scale. Yes, you too can be a poet and it won’t even cost you $19.95. Forget, if you can, all the word-fixation that clouds the essential orientation that is poetry. You can polish your metaphors later. We need poets in their natural role as agitators of the status quo.

How does a poet put one foot in front of the other? If the received wisdom turns right, he turns left until such time as he finds himself accompanied by a growing army of like-minded poets. Like-mindedness is the poison, not the antidote. When the antidote becomes the poison, as it is so often does, he crouches down and howls at the moon. Or he climbs a nearby tree. Human imagination can still subvert the machine. Imagination is the unseen screen against which video can only aspire to the crudest approximations. You must become an unabashed weirdo, a bedeviling mass of contradictions to the reductionist Gestapo-template.

The Spanish Civil War was an indispensable crucible for birthing socially-astute poets (not to mention that aspect of poetry which one runs the risk of overstressing in times of great social need, the poems themselves): Cesar Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, and Octavio Paz; then the martyrs, Federico Garcia Lorca and Miguel Hernandez.

Vallejo’s poem Mass could just as well be an inverted parable for that corpse-like Mohican, the last man to adopt Facebook:


At the end of the battle the fighter lay dead. A man came to him
and said: ‘Don’t die! I love you too much!’
But the corpse, alas, went on dying.

Two came to him and again said:
‘Don’t leave us! Take heart!
Come back to life!’
But the corpse, alas, went on dying.

Then twenty, a hundred, a thousand,
Five hundred thousand, came, crying:
‘So much love and yet so powerless against death!’
But the corpse, alas, went on dying.

Millions surrounded him,
pleading together:
‘Brother, don’t leave us!’
But the corpse, alas, went on dying.

Then, all the men on earth
stood round him. The corpse eyed them sadly,
overwhelmed. He got up slowly,
embraced the first man, started to walk…

(translated by Paul O’Prey)

I’m reluctant to offer much more on this subject for fear of spawning poetry collectives. That would ruin the whole thing. Poets must be solitary and profoundly disconnected. Librarians and Facebook groups turn them into schools and movements. Gathered up, even with the best of intentions, a poet’s singular vision dissolves into incoherency or mildly stirring slogans. We have so many venues for the muffled shuffle of the crowd’s feet. Facebook is only the latest, and most efficient, gatherer in a long, ignoble line. A poetic sensibility is the only bulwark against the overwhelming, regimenting forces of conformance, the prelude to totalitarian hell. Yes, some ineffable Fuhrer may be waiting for us behind the Internet storm-cloud. By spewing torrents of earnest, albeit journeyman poetry from all corners of the globe, we can extend the game until, say, about 2018. As for reaching 2020 in a reasonably unshackled condition, I just don’t see us having the poetic vision for it.

BLAST from PAST: This Is Your Brain on YouTube

BLAST from PAST: 2011 Discussion between Norman Ball and Leo Girard

This interview appeared originally in Eclectica magazine.

point taken tvFairfax Public Access: a non-profit organization that provides residents of Fairfax County and the Washington Metropolitan area the training and the tools to create non-commercial television and radio programming that expresses their viewpoints and perspectives to the community at large. FPA currently airs over 2,000 hours of original programming annually, including programs in over 14 different languages that speak directly to the rich diversity of the populace of Fairfax County.
Those who have watched Fairfax Public Access / Cox Channel 10’s Point Taken and The Story Board over the years are no doubt familiar with frequent guest Norman Ball and his penchant for all things great and small. Most notably his 2004 expose on the excesses of the home building industry offered a prescient exploration of what would soon become received wisdom: the U.S. home building industry had gotten seriously out-of-whack by any familiar metric. His article, “Too Big To Nail: Why Size May Matter in the Home Building Industry,” caused a stir in a number of quarters, prompting me to have Norm on Point Taken for a more in-depth discussion. That show can be viewed on Google video.

On The Story Board in 2008, we took a look at the DTV transition from a localism perspective, available in three parts on Youtube. In his consulting work with FreeDTVPlus, Norm went on to develop this theme more extensively as reflected in his article “Fanning the Embers of Localism: The Late Great Broadcast Affiliate System.” In one of the more notable passages, he laments the stubborn, longstanding trend of eroding television quality:

…it’s hard to imagine how any delivery scheme—be it digital, analog or shadows cast on cave-walls—can fundamentally alter the qualitative nadir that comprises media content in America today. Buried in the hullabaloo over the great television digital cutover, is the more vexing, existential question: from what and to what are we cutting over? Not much, it seems.

Further along, he ponders the lost promise of whole generations given over to laugh tracks and vapid, bickering spouses. How low can a lowest common denominator go? Well, mathematics, not to mention Buzz Lightyear, suggests “to infinity and beyond”:

One wonders how the tenor of debate in America might have comported itself had folks been raised on compelling science and history fare as opposed to Gilligan’s Island and Real Housewives of Orange County. Tabulating the fearsome hours logged in front of the boob tube over the last half-century, one cannot help but conclude that the failure to conscript television as a medium of edification for the world’s most influential society represents a lost opportunity of historic proportions. Oh, well, water under the bridge, and where’s Iraq on a map again?

I might go one step further here to point out that some television revisionist-critics now refer to Gilligan’s island as an apex of comedic genius. In an age of plastic, tin makes a bid for solid gold.

Thus it was with great interest that I caught up with Norm recently when he dropped by the studio to discuss (off-camera) his latest two essay collections How Can We Make Your Power More Comfortable (Del Sol Press, 2010), a recent five-star Reviewer’s Choice from Midwest Book Review which called it “an intriguing work with plenty to entertain” and The Frantic Force (Petroglyph Books, 2011). Walt Cummins, Editor Emeritus of the Literary Review and co-author of Programming our Lives: Televsion and the American Identity, who is himself a chronicler of the cultural effects of television, praises the first collection as, “very funny, always incisive… both entertaining and alarming as it penetrates the follies of our time.”

I couldn’t agree more. Norm wields humor like a merry old ice-pick. But beneath the chuckles there lurks at all times a current of disquiet and alarm. Here then follows much of our exchange, which will no doubt provide rich fodder for upcoming shows.

LG     Since our medium of shared involvement in recent years has been television, I’d like to belabor McLuhan one more time and make the medium the message. Can we start with television?

NB     Of course. I powdered my nose in anticipation.

LG     In your first book there’s an essay, “In a Global Village, No One Can Hear You Scream” (previously in the now-defunct Clamor), where you lay out a pretty convincing case for the necessity of local media outlets, even as you note their broad demise.

NB     Yes. I sort of riff on the late Tip O-Neill’s famous refrain by changing it up a bit: “All news is local,” and it really is. People want weather, traffic, school closings, local referenda, and municipal construction projects, etc. The essential contours of their lives are unaffected by the latest blow-up in the Middle East, unless of course they are residents of Beirut.

LG     And yet, we seem to be getting more Middle East news and less school closings.

NB     Exactly. How many anchormen (or women) does it take to screw in a light-bulb in Tehran when you’re watching TV in Spokane? Far too many, I would say.

LG     Why is that?

NB     There are many reasons. But a major one is economies of scale. Rupert Murdoch would rather craft one message, then pipe a similar bit-stream to Spokane, Brisbane, and Helsinki. So he gravitates towards monolithic or so-called “global” news—really a euphemism for news you can’t use. Rapport is tough at the best of times between people in Spokane and Helsinki, for reasons of distance, culture, and language. Distance also has them contending with entirely different traffic jams and snow storms. Actionable news has an irreducible geographic nexus. However, covering the local beat is labor-intensive and expensive. Media conglomerates are looking for economized delivery. Local news is anathema to their cost structure.

LG     Some impute even darker motives beyond simple economics for the extinguishment of local media sources.

NB     I concede it doesn’t take a huge dose of paranoia to imagine a project driven by economics and social control that seeks to render us inaudible to our neighbors. Control is a continuum, not an absolute. Though it’s probably a by-product—and not an explicit aim—of media concentration, this alienation-inaudibility effect has been a recent preoccupation of mine. I touch upon it, in the context of music in articles, in Bright Lights Film Journaland Glide. But these could just be my darker moments getting the better of me. At least, I hope it’s a passing sense of foreboding.

LG     This too shall pass? For the moment it sounds more than a little conspiratorial.

NB     Please, keep your voice down. Did the Bilderberg Group have a falling-out? Because I’m not sensing a stern politburo in the balcony. Maybe their trust fund progeny are too zonked out to run the world. Someone needs to hurry up and bridle the masses—before we burn a permanent hole in the planet.

LG     But isn’t that our job as humans? To cheer for humans?

NB     Chauvinistic humanity gets its game from the stewardship role laid out in The Book of Genesis. Maybe if Gaia could interject, she’d argue the human species is not being controlled fast enough. Too many stewards ruin the stew. Nature is a mosaic, not a pyramid. No adults, no trees. Coincidence?

LG     So the Amazon Rain Forest needs the Rothschilds to hurry up and clamp down? We’ve spoken before of the alleged New World Order plan to put the planet on a humanity-diet, get us down to one billion people.

NB     In 2008 Zbigniew Brzezinski made a chilling statement. I paraphrase: “It is easier today to kill a million people than to control a million people, whereas in the recent past the opposite was true.” Control is a bitch, especially with the burgeoning alternative Internet media…

LG     …whereas genocide is a relative breeze. Sounds like the NWO is on-board with the cost-effectiveness of lethality.

NB     The control-kill tipping point is a crucial marker. People sense their precariousness. Alex Jones and his ilk mine this anxiety. Is it me or is Alex Jones Fred Flintstone-made-flesh? I have this hunch the real motive force behind NWO-anxiety is not the NWO per se, but little-man disease; i.e., a weird admixture of envy, resentment and anxiety. That is, look down, not up for the real wellspring of darkness. The genocidal nightmares are like a dramatic canopy laid atop ordinary despairs. Yes, things feel due for a cull or a cessation. But the scythe is just as likely to be wielded by Mother Nature as by the Rockefellers. Everyone’s jockeying to be on the right side of the final weigh-in. Even the Mayan calendar is flashing a brick wall.

LG     I would agree there’s a climate of general unsettledness: rich terrain for a demagogue or two, I might add. In one Frantic Force essay, “Willful Divides,” you say about Glenn Beck: “He is a vague and convenient vehicle. What budding demagogue isn’t?”

NB     Ah yes, Glenn Beck—another guy channeling Fred Flintstone, himself a Hanna-Barbera stand-in for Ralph Kramden. Beck is Gleason without the raccoon hat. All these guys sit at the head of feedback loops that excel at bemoaning the next-door neighbor. Funny how many of them are chunky. They spill over their allotted frames. They are corpulent merchants of division. Civitas is a bygone ideal. Now we openly wish a soylent green fate for the other guy: “Next time I see you, it’ll be with ketchup on your fat, proletarian ass.” But hey, we’re talking about a six billion person haircut under these alleged NWO scenarios. I’m a realistic neighbor. If it does come to pass, all I can say is it’s been nice knowing you.

LG     Why? Going somewhere?

NB     I took my Illuminati cape to an unauthorized dry-cleaners and they lost it. That’s a big no-no. So I’m wafer-bound, though I promise to be a tough chew. But if we can step out of save-our-own-ass mode for a moment—the preferred mode of humans the world-over—one billion sounds like a nice, sustainable number, even if you or I must be thrown into the subtraction.

LG     Speak for yourself.

NB     What, are we out to beat the Norwegian Rat in the breeding game? I hate to go Randian, but one guy invented the polio vaccine and one guy invented the transistor radio. After that, it’s a helluva lot of hairless monkeys. I haven’t invented shit except buckets of words. My best essays are no match for the electric toothbrush. It takes a village to create gridlock and resource depletion. I guess I’m endlessly amazed at how enthralled the average guy is with himself. I swear Alex Jones sees Charlton Heston in the mirror. His voice is two sizes too big for his body. When he goes mirror-shopping, I’m tempted to tag along and say, “I’ll have what he’s having.” What an ego!

LG     We do tend to be our own biggest fans. If not us, then who?

NB     Actually, Mother’s Day is a bid to cement our one unshakable ally. Most of us are assholes, and deep-down, we must sense, our mothers know it, too. If you lose Mom, what hope do you have of insinuating yourself into Pol Pot’s inner circle? I’m not a full-bore conspiracy guy. The conspiracy theorists tend to ascribe infinite powers of manipulation to those in power. By projecting their own exaggerated sense of powerlessness, they muddy a clear-eyed with personal baggage. There’s more than a dash of Rosemary’s Baby in many of these narratives. Everybody in the building isn’t plotting to get you at every moment. Sometimes the coven enjoys an absent round of golf. So get over yourself. I think I successfully beat that theme to death in an essay in Potomac a couple of years back. Yes, there is a high degree of control and without wealth redistributive polices, it will move in lockstep with creeping plutocracy. But it’s more amorphous and systemic than tightly orchestrated. As Noam Chomsky observed about the 911 “inside job” theories, the government is so huge, porous, and riven with competing interests that the discipline required to perpetrate 911, and then keep it secret, is simply beyond the specs of Uncle Sam. I reserve the right to be hugely mistaken. Just because they’re paranoid doesn’t mean Henry Kissinger isn’t out to get them.

LG     I agree there is a cake-and-eat-it-too mentality. They’re either incompetent bureaucrats or cunning masterminds.

NB     Uncle Sam is a huge Rorschach for whatever ails you at the time. Show me the fiscal conservative who declines FEMA assistance when his home gets washed away. That guy would get my vote for President. I think they used to use was “principled.” Come on, the CIA distrusts the FBI. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff detests the Secretary of Defense, and so on and so forth. In my opinion, the drivers that animate anti-democratic forces are more economically deterministic than overtly sinister. So it’s a vague and inexorable progression towards fascism as opposed to a crisp New World Order blueprint. Of all people, Scott Walker, music iconoclast, commented in a recent documentary that “fascism is in the air.” I couldn’t agree more. Recently I’ve used Picasso’s Guernica in Eclectica and in The Houston Literary Review as the canvas for my own totalitarian apprehensions.

LG     So fascism is on the march, or maybe a corporatist version of same?

NB     It’s the only way to gather it all back up. When things become too disparate, a sort of societal incoherence is the result. Paranoia plays the gaps. And don’t kid yourself, people want things gathered back up. That’s the other fist in the eye of libertarian powdered-wigism. Control requires consent. People want direction. Handed liberty and freedom, the majority of Americans trade down to the dull, easy slog of American Idol.

LG     In your essay in The Potomac, you suggest personal liberty may have crested:

The point here is that the trend away from democracy and towards republicanism is an inexorable flight back to centralized power. Increasingly during this period, the two parties resemble bureaucratic artifacts of a prior era when ideas enjoyed at least a modicum of sway over undifferentiated power. This republican retro-trend signals that a high-water mark in the enfranchisement of the individual has been reached.

NB     America’s always been a Republic, not a Democracy. It ain’t Red and Blue. It’s Top and Bottom. All this orchestrated harping on security is sort of a republican (lower-case) tactic. The implied message? “You need us back.” Meanwhile democrats (lower-case) are suffering a crisis in confidence, thinking, “You know, the swarthy guy next door doesn’t even speak English. Maybe he’s part of a terror cell.” People are on-board for a tightening center. Like Franklin said, the dark-twin of liberty is reduced security. Most people today lack the appetite for liberty. With the prospect of suitcase nukes and small-pox variants, who can blame them? It’s hard to filter the authentic concerns from the fear-mongering.

LG     Were we ever educated into an appreciation for liberty? It seems ignorance is handing liberty back by the fistful.

NB     Exactly. We’re moving towards fascism-by-consent. It’ll be interesting to see how much we like it when we get there. As long as the movies run on-time, many folks won’t notice.

LG     How are we defining fascism?

NB     From Arendt to Eco, you get the same thing: fascism is not so much a coherent ideology as the opportuning of a vacuum. So Walker is right to sense it’s in the air as opposed to on the ground. Furthermore it’s hard to separate corporatism from fascism. The latter always serves at the industrialists’ pleasure. Certainly the rich are getting richer, and wealth is concentrating. Returning to the overt conspiracy vibe, I’m inclined to say we’re more in the grips of a trickle-up dynamic propelled by nonsystematic graft and targeted tax loopholes. Adam Smith’s invisible hand is flipping the bird at most of us in a broad macroeconomic sense. For example, illegal aliens pay more U.S. taxes than GE does. Less time spent on the look-out for INS agents and the Mexicans could really get their tax evasion game on. To really hit your crooked stride in America requires the cumulative finesse of multiple generations. Just look at the Mayflower Madame. That’s not to say vague, unfocused, anti-democratic trends can’t be equally detrimental to the majority of people, or that the powerful don’t push a broad anti-social agenda. Maybe we need to hang up the cinematic drama-queening and pay more attention to practical effects.

LG     You reject the James Bond notion of a misanthropic genius on some artificial island plotting our demise?

NB     If you listen to the conspiracy theorists, all the gold’s been removed from Fort Knox anyway. So Goldfinger was barking up the wrong bough. But we’re back to the control continuum. Arch-villainy is an overwrought Hollywood trope. You can only fit so many bad guys on the movie poster. One bad actor, a singularity like bin Laden for example, is even better. Now that they’ve killed him and confiscated his cache of porn, we’ll have to see what happens next. I’ll stand corrected if there’s a black oblong table around which the ten most powerful people convene to arrange the minutiae of our lives. For one thing, our minutiae are too damned boring. Part of the appeal of becoming a Master of the Universe, I’d imagine, is that it frees you from having to ponder Joe Average’s underwear. It’s either jockeys or boxers, then who cares? For another thing, the number two guy would spend at least half his time trying to usurp the number one guy. That’s human nature. Ten megalomaniacs make for a quorum wracked with pathological jealousies and epic back-biting.

LG     At least an odd number of billionaires could break ties. So there is a condescension built into the system that abhors all things local?

NB     Absolutely. The cosmopolite instinctually sneers at the provincial. Bankers are internationalists. Local reportage not only thumbs its nose at the global audience, it serves the powers-that-be no great advantage. That’s a near-fatal one-two punch in my opinion. Then there are the personnel headaches. Why hire 200 beat reporters when you can pay Katie Couric $15 million, invite her to Manhattan soirees, and be done with it? The interests of the system clearly favor addressing the sweaty masses from a mountaintop. It plays to the elites’ God-complex and their pocketbooks. Unless the fluoride in the water has seriously blunted my sense of peril, I believe we’re blithely disregarded more than we are nefariously corralled.

LG     I watched a song and video that you did with Canadian Lonnie Glass called “Fresh Hard Times.” How do you jibe that imagery with present-day affairs?

NB     I love Metropolis. But I’m sorry to say it’s way too optimistic. In the salad days of Langian dystopia there was the idea that the little man would still be needed, albeit in subterranean servitude and grueling physical labor. Unfortunately Lang missed the productivity gains of the computer age by a mile, not to mention robotics. How many man-servants does a gated community need? Please don’t say this out loud at the local Stop ‘n Shop, but the little man is obsolete.

LG     I promise to get my gas ‘n go. You’ve said before the service sector economy was largely a distortion of credit.

NB     Yes. For a time there was a need for acres of counter help. Wall Street needed the little guy’s social security number so it could rationalize Potemkin Village mortgage paper to the Chinese. But curtailed credit steals a huge reason for the little guy to hang around in large numbers. Actually on some level, the American working class has deduced its obsolescence. The poor are obliging with a mountain of self-destructive behaviors. But yeah, I’m sad to say there isn’t even Fritz’ big scary-faced furnace to feed anymore. We have a shortage of work and a boundless supply of labor. The further complication for American labor is that part of this boundless supply is ready and willing to work for a fraction of what we would consider a decent wage. Further complicating this dire set of complications is that Wall Street traded American jobs for financial services over the last two decades. So there ia very little towards which America labor can apply itself.

LG     Ouch and ouch.

NB     Yes, very ominous indeed. For awhile the Ponzi banking system allowed homes, cars, and vacation packages to pass between and among journeymen and service-sector workers. This subterfuge—call it faux-prosperity—rationalized the real business of Wall Street: collecting fees on packaged debt instruments. All that was needed was a dupe. The Chinese served very nicely. However the Chinese wall of credit isn’t coming back for a whole host of reasons. I explain the overproduction dynamic in detail in an essay in Unlikely Stories. But please, no Marxist epithets. I’m no more a Marxist than Marx was. There are a number of economics-related essays in both books.

LG     Refastening our eyes to the screen, you suggest Digital Television (DTV) will be the death-knell of the local affiliate system.

NB     My father (the late Emmy-award winner Dr. John Ball) saw this train wreck unfolding years before and was a huge advocate for having the affiliates seize their destinies. But he couldn’t spark the right imaginations. The fact is, no one would build the broadcast hub-spoke architecture today. It’s a vestige. That said, the last man standing in the town square offers a unique perspective, obsolescence notwithstanding.

LG     How do you mean?

NB     Local radio has succumbed to syndication. Newsprint is evaporating. Look at the number of homes receiving traditional broadcast television “over-the-air” or “via broadcast.” It’s been in broad decline for decades. Before you can assemble a strategic thought, you’re plunged immediately into a semantic morass as nearly 90% of traditional broadcasting’s programming is now obtained via non-broadcasting means, e.g., cable and satellite. Why do these ascendant TV delivery platforms require a patchwork quilt of broadcast affiliates? They don’t, unless the affiliates recast themselves into something more than a broadcast repeater tower. Sounds like a contradiction, but broadcasters aren’t really in the broadcasting business anymore. They’re in the voice, eyes, and ears business and don’t know it. We have Levitt’s marketing myopia all over again. Wittgenstein would be delighted. Language fiddles while strategic coherence burns.

LG     What are the implications of this trend for the local broadcast affiliates?

NB     I see two discrete paths: radically revamped media hubs or humongous paper weights. From a public interest standpoint the former is preferred. Affiliates have an existential imperative to convince themselves they still have a reason to hang around. Let’s hope they settle on a coherent mission. TV affiliates represent perhaps the last great hope for a meaningful community media presence. Howard Stern doesn’t know where you live; neither does Bill O’Reilly, and frankly my dear, I don’t think they give a damn. Local affiliates could spearhead a renaissance in local media. But it would mean weaning themselves away from the crack cocaine of network programming. Then there’s local public access television. I don’t have to alert you to the barbarians at the gates of these very walls.

LG     No indeed. We often say local access has few friends. Cable companies chafe at subsidizing the service while organized political and corporate interests view a free soapbox as nothing more than a dangerous loose cannon. Citizens without vested interests are bound to say anything.

NB     Exactly. Can we also say local access has done itself no great favors, what with Wayne’s World being the rule and not the exception? There is the visceral sense of someone desperately wanting to be on TV who gets a program-slot only to say, “Now what?” At some point Charlie Rose stopped gushing “Look Mom, I’m on TV,” and settled into the job of providing quality interviews. I exclude present company from this broad indictment of public access.

LG     I’m glad your eye for quality saw fit to throw us a lifeline.

NB     The point is, when they come to shut down local access—as they’ve done in so many places around the country—the hue and cry just won’t be there to save Uncle Huey’s Sports Talk. Much lip service is paid to heralding the voice of the people. But the trend away from localism is irrefutable. If you’ll allow a brief jones for Alex Jones, the status quo is best served when the grassroots can be seen and not heard. Also, if they can drum Beirut into us from on-high, we will be less able to articulate, and propagate, our unhappiness with the state of things in Topeka. Maybe it is a well-orchestrated shell-game or a Negroponte switch. The Internet Kill Switch will be the final door swinging shut, really a coup d’état on a communicative commons. We’ll be using bin Laden’s couriers and pigeons to augment traffic helicopters.

LG     The favored technique involves shifting local access to the state level thereby taking the “local” out of “access.” Once a community’s studio facilities are migrated to the state capitol, the mothballs win. And yes, that Internet. They hate it, don’t they?

NB     Absolutely. It’s the cloud that got away. You can say what you want about Wikileaks, but it is proving the subversive power of distributed processing. I’m not enough of a technologist to know whether the ubiquity and flexibility of the Internet will be enough to check the forces of centralized control. Maybe it will. But yes, it must be hated. Put yourself in the shoes of the powerful who spent fifty years consolidating media influence only to have a bunch of guys in their basements blogging an alternate view of history and current events. What, no market cap, and you want an audible viewpoint? Who the hell do you think you are?

LG     Err… citizens? But yes, all that meticulous shaping of opinion flushed down the drain, and for what? Unfiltered communication?

NB     It’s enough to make a mogul cry.

LG     Speaking of the powerful, methinks the title of your first book—How Can We Make Your Power More Comfortable?—is an ironic inversion of all that we were taught to hold dear in civics class.

NB     Methinks you’re right. Don’t believe all that democracy malarkey. Our job is to acquit their power with as little hassle to them as possible. For that, they’re willing to play at some bad kabuki theatre. You see, the Red-Blue demarcation is an NFL team-frame that helps perpetuate the illusion of authentic victory and defeat. So while the teams exit opposite sides of the stadium, both tunnels lead to one locker room with a well-appointed wet bar at the rear. Post-game, with the red and blue jerseys deposited in the hamper, they have a good laugh at We the Peanut Gallery’s expense, all the while divvying up the sales receipts for those “we’re number one” Styrofoam index fingers that are the plebian rage. They sell those in two defining shades: hamster-blue and bovine-red.

LG     We are suckers for stadiums aren’t we? In a recent review, The Potomac’s Charles Rammelkamp suggested you are a social libertarian. Is that true?

NB     I suppose. In my case, social libertarianism is just a fancy-pants way of saying, “Hey dude, could you keep the noise down?” I mean, I’ll mosey over to the neighbors’ house, but only if their stereo is blasting real loud. The last thing I want to fall across is some heretofore unrecorded sexual position. What the hell would I say? “To each his own weirdness”—that’s my credo. But it’s really a stepchild of inertia. I used to have some great conversations with the late founder of Liberty Magazine, Bill Bradford, on the philosophical underpinnings of libertarianism, but that all gets real esoteric, real fast. Frankly, I’m too lazy to run a totalitarian regime, the ever-watchful stares, the plotting lieutenants, etc. Nor am I a Randian zealot. Ayn Rand gets tiresome and derivative, sort of a Nietzsche-lite. Superman requires mountains of stamina.

LG     Moving along the technology evolutionary path, The Frantic Force has a hilarious essay on the Twitter culture. You say among other things:

Today, each of us is a freshly minted actor working against daily Facebook and Twitter deadlines. Frankly with our new “cybernetically post-postmodern” duties (David Foster Wallace’s term), who’s got time for voyeurism? I am here and I had Rice Krispies for breakfast. Our social networks are alive with the beating of breakfasts into thoroughfares until the thinnest gruel stares back up from the limpid mush. Nothing escapes the matrix, poor bloody matrix.

NB     Yes, pity Big Brother. We must be driving him insane with billions of inane messages that frankly don’t rise to the level of compelling surveillance. I’m touching here upon “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U. S. Fiction,” the landmark essay by the late, great David Foster Wallace, where he laments the voyeuristic inertia of the boob tube (“a pose of passive reception”). Of course that was 1993, when there remained this chaste notion that the broadcast architecture was embargoing whole reservoirs of human creativity in rec rooms across America. Trapped by topology! I did consulting work in that same era with Verizon and EDS and the like where we would wax breathless over the coming 500-channel universe. But even that didn’t broach the looming proletarian soapbox, Twitter chat and Facebook squabble. Increased bandwidth would soon unleash a renaissance of interactive back-and-forth. We would be able to hear what households were really thinking! But wait, feed Uncle Miltie and Mr. T through a pipe for 50 years and, even with an upgrade to 14-carat gold coax, Puccini and Shakespeare ain’t gonna come bounding out the uplink. The pipe is agnostic. It has no alchemical powers. With Minow’s “vast wasteland” long-since devolved into a septic field, nadirism has been the dominant, unchecked trend as the lowest common denominator continues its subterreanean swan dive unabated.

LG     And yet, the quality collapse has not been met by a similar collapse in television viewership, even though the latter has admittedly been on a broad decline since the mid-eighties.

NB     Doggone it, that’s true. Let’s not forget that this is far from a virtuous circle. Television the babysitter imbues its young charges with television values and expectations. Then there are the TV-qua-noisy-appliance people who turn on the set for company as they dust the house. Are they viewers or just lonely widows? We’d have to ask Nielsen. I should qualify things by saying that my waves of nausea are borne of value judgments that are far from universally held. You see, [NB leans in closer] I occasionally read poetry.

LG     Aha! So you are an elitist! Poetry saps vitality. The Surgeon General recommends no more than two stanzas a day.

NB     That would explain my shortness of breath. There is an interesting ongoing debate on The Benton Foundation’s website where it’s been suggested “bad TV” may in fact be elitist code for “popular TV.” Well, damnit, I sip tea with my pinkie straight up in the air, and I’m not going to take it anymore! With all the agony of effete, I persist in the notion that TV’s popularity swoon is owed, in no small part, to receding quality. Moreover Facebook and Twitter have not radically transformed the tenor of the discourse. Instead our erstwhile boob-tubers are now mini-auteurs armed with fingerpaint. Thus we’re finding technology isn’t so much emancipating trapped pockets of grassroots ingenuity as is it polluting the ether with methane gas—a billion daily communiques on breakfast habits. New studies are warning celebrities not to over-tweet as they risk eroding their mystique, God help us. Call me a Luddite, but I was fine when I didn’t know my Facebook friend from Bangalore had switched over to Frosted Mini-Wheats. I didn’t even know Kelloggs had penetrated the Indian subcontinent. Have they?

LG     I dunno. But I’ll certainly Google it after this. I’m willing to bet you didn’t have a friend in Bangalore before Facebook aggressively forged the relationship in that inimitable Facebook fashion.

NB     Facebook is like that fiercely friendly lady at the condo associaion potluck dinner. Before you can accomplish a pro forma head-in, head-out appearance, she’s introduced you to all the people you’ve managed not to make eye-contact with in the elevator for years.

LG     In one Frantic Force essay (originally published in Umbrella), you bemoan the demise of what you call “consequential reading,” of which we will assume tweets are not a subset:

A few obstinate islands of literati notwithstanding, America on the whole has grown too accustomed to a low-slung easy freedom to weather the slog of consequential reading. Perhaps dire circumstance—or the threat of it—assists concentration. If Gravity’s Rainbowwere suddenly removed from our library shelves, none but a few literary types would notice. Shutter Blockbuster Video, however, and SUV’s would be overturned and set aflame in the nation’s strip malls.

NB     There is something poignant about this tiny enclave of Americans who forgo Porky’s 7: Son of Pulled Pork and continue to read literary magazines. For all I—and most others—know, they’ve already burned the books in America’s public libraries. Though it’s one more corporate expropriation of the civic space, there’s no point to public reading now if you can’t wash the sentences down with a hazelnut latte. Hey I’m a writer not a saint! Sorry Mr. Carnegie, but it’s Borders for me now.

LG     Even mom’s library is a stale crumpet on the ala carte tray. And yet, choice seems oversold. Studies show that the average viewer is a creature of habit who rarely digresses from his three favorite channels. That’s another way of saying we’re buried beneath 497 channels of superfluity.

NB     There’s a paradox. If you succeed in putting everything in the world onto the Internet, then the Internet becomes the world and you’re back to where you started. If a channel becomes the universe it’s not a channel anymore. In Main Street Rag a few years ago, I took a satiric swing at this very phenomenon. Think of the oroburos. At some point, the serpent’s head is completely up its own ass—or is the ass just making a beeline for the head? I dunno. These cosmic questions require a better snake-charmer than me.

LG     I’ll leave you to your own pit of vipers. Speaking of satire, you seem quite fond of the form.

NB     Oh yes, humor twists the knife like no kind of seriousness can. People love to snigger. My 16-year-old son was reading The Importance of Being Earnest recently for school. Why else, right? Anyway he had the temerity to solicit my views on satire. We spilled right over into his game time. Boy, was he sorry. I won’t belabor that topic twice in one semester.

LG     You do touch on some interesting notions though of a channel: what it is, what it might become.

NB     We used to talk 15 years ago of huge video servers that would provide top-line movies every 15 minutes, what we called near-video-on-demand or NVOD for the acromaniacs. Now we have Youtube, a trillion-channel universe with video-on-instantaneous-demand. I’m going to coin the acronym right here, VOID. After allowing for present-day copyright disputes, all to be ironed out in the fullness of time, it’s conceivable that all video ever produced by mankind will be available instantaneously to all people. Some corporate-fed trenchline will cease to be the channel. The individual will become his own channel. As for superfluity, it’s the lifeblood of the tiered cable rate system. But yes, exactly. Don’t fluster the monkey. He likes his favorite tree. Besides, monkeys don’t take naps in forests; they nap in one fucking tree. Much of the reverie over choice has its roots in the tree-to-tree salesman trying to flog a whole canopy. That’s how he gets his bananas.

LG     I like your acronym. It has an appropriately desolate feel. VOID cannot bode well for the networks and their affiliates.

NB     The odds against time-bracketed programs are laughably slim. I remember mobile phone visionary Craig McCaw saying in the eighties: “Phones should not be wired to homes. They should be wired to people.” Well, why should your favorite TV show be wired to 9 pm? Tivo and the like are nibbling at this problem. So far the practical effect of increased channel capacity is that the networks are plowing the lowest common denominator on an expanded number of fronts. The race to the bottom has a few more running lanes while the brass ring is a receding dot on the horizon. The dot is receding due to a bewildering array of choices.

LG     Even a programming genius like seventies phenom Fred Silverman would have great difficulty threading the eye of this needle.

NB     Exactly. Though he bounced back and forth between all three networks, Silverman was fighting only two viable competitors at any given time, not exactly the stiffest odds. Like someone once said, the chimp gets it right 50 per-cent of the time. Whereas today, the old-school networks, or channels, find themselves under huge pressure to produce ever more lurid content in order to make their menu items more appealing in an ever-expanding ala carte. And I use “appealing” in the most degraded fashion. They are more like pornographers stalking the prurient interest. It’s very unhealthy. How can one time-bracketed program compete against Youtube’s trillion-channel VOID universe, not to mention whole ‘nother competitors for the eyeball such as video games? Sometimes to prevail against infinite choice, you gotta sit celebrities down and make them eat tropical bugs. But here’s where I get cynical…

LG     You? Cynical?

NB     The Internet kill switch is, in my opinion, a near-certainty. Of course “our security” will be the lipstick applied to the pig. But they’ll want us back in the box, rather than scouring trillions of content options willy-nilly. Distributed processing is the most anti-fascist technological development since the Molotov cocktail. It’s fascinating to watch Wikileaks mirror sites pop up here, there and everywhere like whack-a-mole. Arguably Wikileaksstarted a domino effect in Tunisia. This has to terrify every ruling class on the planet. Information, not bullets, are the new bullets! Technologists may well be our freedom fighters of the future. Think about it: how can it serve the powerful for us to learn that both the Bush bloodline and the British monarchy are descendants of an alien reptilian race?

LG     Leaping lizards!

NB     I learned that from Youtube, not Matt Lauer, by the way. Okay, there’s some massively flakey stuff out there. But at least we have the freedom to watch it and, if we so choose, to regard our lizardskin boots with a renewed mammalian wariness. Our mutual friend (and Channel 10 colleague) Jim Flynn speaks of the many ways an ISP can route its subscribers around unsanctioned content. We know Google searches can backwater some sites and frontline others. There are a million ways to kill the party. Local access could be a lifeline if Wayne’s World would only give up its coveted slot.

LG     You’d think his hands are full with the Shrek and Austin Powers franchises. May we shift gears—or is it change channels—and talk war for a moment?

NB     Was it something I said? We’ve been friends for years.

LG     In the context of geo-politics only.

NB     That’s sort of a Murdoch ploy. But I can channel global bellicosity if you like.

LG     In The Frantic Force, you propose a “Stalingrad Test” as sort of a litmus for future American military engagements.

NB     Yes.

LG     Care explaining to our rapt, attentive audience what you mean?

NB     Only if they promise to hold their ears and buy the book.

LG     Switchboards are now open. Ginsu knives are complimentary.

NB     On that note, lemme take a stab. In World War II’s Battle of Stalingrad, Russia was engaged in an epic battle for its very existence. In the midst of all this, can you imagine Stalin saying, “This conflict has been going on since August 1942. It’s costly. We’re not fighting one day beyond January 5, 1943. I’m setting a hard-and-fast deadline.” Perhaps the Nazis would have obliged by taking a breather themselves until January 6 or advantaging the Russian work stoppage by securing the Ural oil fields, a vital Soviet interest. The trouble with deadlines is that the enemy reads newspapers, too. Anyway, I think the current American past-time of war deadline-setting is a bullshittometer, yet one more permutation of red-blue sparring that screams “political war.” Too bad our kids have to hold M16’s and stand in the way of bullets to make the whole gig look warlike. We need to re-baseline war. If someone is firing bullets through your living room window in Poughkeepsie, it’s a war, dude. Until such time as your kids can crawl out from under the sofa, you keep firing back with all you have until the bullets stop coming through your window. Simple stuff.

LG     So if some Ivy league guy is explaining on TV why you should be hopping mad at yet another third-world shitbox, maybe you should ask to see his stock portfolio before sending your kid down to the recruiter?

NB     There ya go. Too often, geo-political vital interests are a gobblygooped mash-up devised by the Military Industrial Complex to separate us from our kids and our money. I posit in an Identity Theory essay that Eisenhower’s 1961 address on the matter is the most important speech of the last 50 years. Ike knew the beast. Hell, he invented it—from the nuts and bolts to the name itself. I hate to argue for good ole American mypoia, but maybe we need to overreact in the other direction for awhile: “If you need a weatherman, it probably ain’t raining.” This litmus has the added benefit of shuttering think-tanks and silencing patriotic demagogues whose kids are safely ensconsed in Swiss boarding schools. No more Backwardistans until a Backwardistani battalion shoots out the street-lamp at the top of the cul de sac.

LG     You have an essay in Epicenter called “Therabouts,” also in The Frantic Force, where you suggest American geographic indistinction is a cause for much of the mayhem around the world:

As the effete class wrung its hands over the larger population’s seeming indifference to the sovereign distinctions between Afghanistan and Iraq, one can imagine many Americans simply concluding that, since both countries were indefatigable worlds away from Ohio, each had earned some vague equal merit to the enmity of the American military machine. This lack of conscious place feeds a dangerously bifurcated planet: them and us; over here, over thereabouts. A nation with precision-guided missiles must oblige itself to cultivate a precision-guided sense of the world. Otherwise we could be bombing our friends and not even know it.

NB     There is this Ivy league notion that, because they can find Afghanistan on a map and the average America can’t, they are a better gauge of what is in the average American’s best interests. This is classic intelligentsia hubris. The reason the average American can’t find Afghanistan on a map is because he has more common sense in his pinkie than the average Yale alumnus has in his whole body. I don’t want to be an apologist for any strain of ignorance, even geographic illiteracy, but the average American’s common sense notion to mind his own business would have been a superior bellwether these many years than Wilsonian internationalism. There is very little that has been accomplished geo-politically speaking that can be called an unabashed success over the last 50 years. We haven’t won a war since WWII for example. How smart is that? American interventionism mints as many enemies as it subdues. Thus isolationism deserves a second look. For one thing, it would defang the war machine.

LG     Sounds clear enough to me. Grim but clear.

NB     There is a very recent bright light.

LG     Oh?

NB     Yes I hate to mar the tone of this discussion with a note of cautious optimism, especially when we were doing so well as bleak prognosticators. But this month (April 2011) a National Strategic Narrative authored by two members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was released. It’s a pretty astonishing document.

LG     How so?

NB     Well it’s a very brave opening volley, sort of big-brass friendly fire on 50 years of George Kennan’s containment. The military is conceding the unhealthy and unsustainable economic dominance of the military. Once upon a time the U.S. military was charged with defending America’s prosperous way of life. Eisenhower noted warily in 1961 that the WWII war machine was not withering away. Rather it was finding ways to justify its continued existence. Fifty years later, the military component of our GDP furnishes so much of the prosperity it is charged with defending, that increasingly the military finds itself defending the military. In a classic case of economic crowding-out, non-military wellsprings of prosperity atrophy. Economic imperatives coax us into wars because every economy plays to its comparatie advantages. In our case we excell at war. When war becomes a job, peace becomes a bad patch of unemployment. Either we as a society consent to Orwellian perma-war—probably fascism’s preferred route—or we begin the massive task of retooling our economy for non-military objectives.

LG     A penny for Ike’s thoughts. He was a badly maligned warrior-king who was made to look like an absentee landlord and an avid golfer.

NB     Ike was far from a doddering grandfather. We ignored him at our peril. The document is short and eloquent: It is time to move beyond a strategy of containment to a strategy of sustainment (sustainability); from an emphasis on power and control to an emphasis on strength and influence; from a defensive posture of exclusion, to a proactive posture of engagement. These are very humanistic and civilizing ideals. I applaud the audacity of this seminal shift in military thinking if in fact it becomes embraced by the military establishment. But in a nation where weapon systems of dubious military value are built because a Congressman’s district needs the work, well, let’s just say this will be an intractable military campaign.

LG     Wow, what strange circles we weave. May we call a temporary truce and veer poetic? We’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about poetry which clearly is an area that fascinates you.

NB     WWI birthed some remarkable poets: Owen, Brooke, Graves, Sassoon. Sorry I was trying to assist your segue.

LG     I like how you weave poetry, yours and others, into the context of everyday concerns. The Frantic Force even has a good number of essays on poetry itself. However, I found them more speculative than, say, narrowly academic. In other words, I could understand and appreciate them.

NB     Well, thank you for that. I strive to engage a middle-brow reader. Someone not unlike myself who is curious about many things, but not in a rigorous, academicized sense. At the same time, the audience I imagine for this writing is bored shitless with standard TV fare and pedestrian blog-prose. I’m always thrilled when someone says, “You know, I read your essay three times and got more out of it each time.” This means it’s somewhere between facile and inpenetrable, a place where I’m happy hanging out.

LG     At times you discuss poetry in a quantum subtext. In “Poetry and the Big Bang” (an essay in The Frantic Force), you suggest:

Robert Frost was even blunter: “poetry is metaphor.” Metaphor surfaces far-flung, non-linear associations between two things. It maps the quantum brane, tearing back our four-dimensional fabric to reveal interrelatedness —pre-existing connections— between two things whose interrelatedness, without the poet, would otherwise escape detection. When a fresh connection is made, both poet and reader achieve a Joycean epiphany.

NB     Well there is an essential non-linearity in poetry—echoed in the metaphoric primacy of Frost’s definition—that sort of parallels the non-linearity of quantum. Was it Feynman who said, “If you think you understand quantum, then you don’t understand it?” Poets illumine the connection between, say, a kitchen sink and a horse, that the logical world misses. But these are not fanciful connections. The poet simply uncovers a string that eludes the empirical eye. If poetry can’t course through both our lives and our great debates, then we have killed it. I’ll be thrilled if people with no prior interest in poetry pick up a poetry book as a result of my essays. Speaking of which, may I plug?

LG     You may.

NB     I have a poetry book coming out from Diminuendo Press later this year, A Signature Advance from Hoof and Paw. It’s mostly sonnets and other formal verse.

LG     And yet even poetry does not escape your political broad-brush. In “Being Difficult,” an essay previously appearing in Rattle and republished inThe Frantic Force, I believe you are suggesting, maybe a bit tongue-and-cheekily, that difficult reading—you cite Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” as one example—can fulfill a social function. I think it’s worth an extended passage:

Though I may struggle to comprehend it, I have no difficulty with difficult poetry on artistic grounds. In fact, we need more of it if for no other reason than to put our shrinking attention spans through their paces. For one thing, there’s our civic duty to consider. We are approaching an age when rapt attention to anything for a period exceeding sixty seconds will be a crime of the state, perhaps a proviso of Patriot Act III. George Bush’s prisons will soon be stuffed with people guilty of extended reflection. Bush, storekeeper for the New World Order, repeats the operative term with Pavlovian insistency: we must not cut and run. True, he is arguing for patience, but through the language of impulsivity—cut and run—what a fascinating dichotomy in the dark tradition of Orwellian doublespeak.

So we are being systematically curtailed. In this Age of Truncation, poetry should strive for the lonely promontory; stake out the oblique leisurely stroll, the unhurried voice of truth to power. Let the Gestapo goons beat their heads against the wall struggling to put into words the precise nature of the poet’s offense. His crimes should be impossible to explicate on a writ or a summons. To all real poets out there, I say: Your inscrutability is a birthright. Follow your destiny. Take the long way home.

NB     My tongue is never too far from my cheekily. The eccentricity of the poet is a thumb in the eye of fascist conformity. Anyone who’s ever watched Triumph of the Will or those eerie North Korean Mass Games on Youtube knows that dictators never get moister than when seamless regimentation and strict choreography, i.e., mass displays of abject unthinkingness are on parade. Arendt and Heidegger were all over this. Programmatic substitutes for authentic thought are the true harbingers of totalitarianism. Thinking is the sole province of the individual. Mobs can’t think. Despots want to do the thinking for us. Heidegger extolled poets as the best thinkers of the bunch. Prolonged attention spans are subversive because they allocate time to ponder the fraying edges of the bumper sticker. That’s why I detest the efficiency movements in poetry. That’s why I detest movements in poetry. I believe it was Kierkegaard who said authentic movement occurs at the spot, not from the spot. If you’re in a movement, you’ve moved away from solitudinous reflection. Solzhenitsyn was the gold standard. Everybody hated him.

LG     Since you brought up kitchen sinks, there’s hardly a subject matter realm that your pen doesn’t delve within one of these books, be it culture, politics, economics, art… even Heidi Montag.

NB     My pen doth tend to run—really a nervous tic with ink. Yes, poor Heidi. I take a metaphorical scalpel to her penchant for surgical transformation. Lucifer and Al Pacino weigh in on this bonfire of the vanities, too. No one, no matter how cosmetically engrossed, escapes my ugly eye.

LG     Before we let you go, you have a new musical, SIDES: A Civil War Musical (Inspired by the Red Badge of Courage).

NB     Yes, well if Andrew Lloyd Webber happens by, I welcome his eviscerations. It’s a musical that sort of explores the tragedy of American factionalism both in terms of that era’s blue-gray divide and as a cautionary tale for our own red-blue division. An older Henry Fleming (the RBOC’s protagonist) puts us through the paces. I was fortunate enough to get Russell Baker to take a look and a listen, and he thinks it’s quite good. The premise is this: if America is truly an idea, an abstraction, and if no one any longer claims “being an American” as their unself-conscious first-order identity, then America, in some real sense, no longer exists. You don’t meet a lot of Americans anymore. Or, when there’s a tragedy on the scale of 911, you’ll meet Americans for a few weeks afterwards. We have devolved into a loose confederation of guilds and ethnic hyphenates, a myriad of jostling fragments with sharp edges called sides. I miss America because I can remember America. Perhaps future generations will not be so similarly haunted.

LG     What started as a brief chat has taken on interview dimensions! It’s been a pleasure Norm. Good luck with the books and the play and next time we see you in the studio, hopefully it’ll be in front of the cameras.

BLAST from PAST: 2011 Discussion between Norman Ball and Leo Girard

The Unrehearsed Flight to Transhumanity

transhumanity banner

Q: So maybe we shouldn’t go down this road.

A: It’s a little late for that.

–from Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity Q&A

at Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence

To the busy men of science, we laymen are the intended audience only for yesterday’s news. In part, it’s a sly tactic. They alert us belatedly to keep things forever from our reach. In another sense, they’re always flying by the seat of their pants on fire. Either way, life-altering ‘advances’ warranting broad plebiscites routinely blow past the planet’s butchers, bakers and candlestick makers. As I write this, technology’s radioactive waters are spilling into the Pacific Ocean at the rate of 300 tons per day to which Big Science has managed to add only stony silence in the way of solutions. Am I rubbing things in? Nah, the Pacific Ocean’s worth it!

Intimations of such disasters were, prior to Fukushima (and with the requisite amnesia for Chernobyl), the province of Greenpeace whale-huggers and excitable poets. We’ll have to remind our scientific community about this later as, history shows, they are often remiss pointing out their various miscalculations (that’s provided there’s enough history left for one more ring-around-the-lesson-learned-pockets-full-of-plutonium.) Of course when I cite Big Science I am referring to that genus of science which is lashed like a bitch to commercial interests, whereas (l)ittle (s)cience rattles along on a less rapacious shoestring. Frankly, both strains share a frenetic disregard for rational human interest.

The National Academy of Sciences needs a poet on the advisory board. As Orpheus learned, really bad stuff only has to happen once and bang your limbs get scattered hither and thon. Oceans are singularly sacred if not altogether singular (NOAA refers to our five oceans as ‘one continuous oceanic mass’). So you’d think the unthinkable might have been entertained given the stakes involved. Yet good men of science routinely sleepwalk through their own metaphysical fogs. Statistical significance and engineering tolerance have all the empirical veracity of a Delphic oracle. Who are the butchers now, Mr. Einstein?

The trouble is, though we discover science with great alacrity, we’re no cleverer at wielding its myriad applications much less those shadow-forms called unintended consequences. Fortunately that’s all changing. [Insert ‘whew ‘sound-bite]

Enter the trans-humanists to insist we are on the threshold of overcoming the self-destructive aspects of the human condition by abolishing the human condition. That’s mighty portentous. All souls, no matter their vocation, deserve to get a word in edgewise. But you already know the game. They’re going to use the predations of science to justify more science. We have to do it. Look at the mess we’re in. In a perverse twist, the ocean they just murdered will serve as Exhibit A.

This religion, Science, which prides itself on the fluidic dogma of self-correction may soon find itself—and we who travel with it—reduced to four oceans (or again, if you favor the NOAA definition, none). Too bad correctives can’t be dealt from a bottomless deck. Silly humans (laymen, not scientists) and their errors will be blamed, prompting ‘responsible scientists’ to call for ever more desperate measures. The trans-human agenda fits nicely here even though it’s more of the same and with a vengeance, something akin to strapping man’s fate into a new-fangled roller coaster while laying new track just a few feet ahead i.e. business as usual in this juggernaut Age of Big Science, only faster still:

“We won’t experience one hundred years of technological advance in the 21st century; we will witness on the order of 20,000 years of progress (again, when measured by the rate of progress in 2000), or about 1,000 times greater than what was achieved in the 20th century.”—Ray Kurzweil, futurist and trans-humanist (from his website)

This is what’s known in actuarial circles as a breathless statistic. Moreover it’s interesting to see just how creditable the notion of progress remains within scientific circles, though I’d love to hear Alfred North Whitehead write his ass out of Fukushima. Do I stereotype to say, for the most part, scientists are dangerously smart, vocationally trained narrow-bands? They should spread their wings a bit and read some Georges Sorel who regarded science as the Tree of Knowledge come to kill the Tree of Life. For Sorel, scientists were forever overreaching their mandate. Paraphrasing Sorel, Isaiah Berlin says this:

“The great machine of science does not yield answers to problems of metaphysics or morality: to reduce the central problems of human life to problems of means, that is, of technology, is not to understand what they are. To regard technical progress as being identical with, or even as a guarantee of, cultural progress, is moral blindness.” –from “Against The Current: Essays in the History of Ideas” by Isaiah Berlin

One thing is clear: Toffler’s future shock was a tricycle ride. For, what Kurzweil is projecting is an inhuman pace in the most literal sense. How will primate anxieties ever comport this light-speed alteration of everything at once? Does anyone ever raise an apish arm in the lab to ask? Nor can I chastise Kurzweil for merely voicing a disembodied statistic. That would be an ad hominem attack (one day we will have to explain this logical fallacy to our artificial children). The humanist recognizes immediately that there is no human agent conducting this tempo. Technology (whatever the hell it is, no one really knows) is dictating the pace as a prelude to full-on control. We’ll get to declarations of war a little later. But am I alone in reading this statistic as technology’s gauntlet laid down: “We’re gonna run your monkey-asses over”?

Implicit too in all the breathless excitement is the belief (i.e. hardly empirically derived) that scientific advance can outstrip common sense provided some hypersonic level of the former can be reached. But I’m tired of blurry negatives and dead seas from our scientific community. I want proof, Mr. Bigfoot hunter. As for the next stage of trans-humanism (by 1999’s How We Became Post-Human, N. Katherine Hayles was already proclaiming the post-human era) just as we’re acquainting with the metal safety bar pinned across our chests, the roller coaster operator mutters something about our imminent convergence on the glorious erasure of man as we know him. In short this isn’t the usual contraption of loops and dips. We are men and women as we know them. No matter what one may think of our present iteration, man other than as we know him is a monster by definition, if not outright design. The coaster wheels screech like disembodied fingernails dragged across a blackboard. Suddenly we recall how we like our hair, how we like the wind running through it like a river.

Once, man broke bread with rivers. Philosopher Martin Heidegger took us to the earliest bridge, a technology in accord with human ‘dwelling’ that embraced the ‘fourfold’ realms of ‘earth, sky, mortals and divinities’. The river surprised and surpassed itself, discovering hidden currents in the overarching spans which pleased the Naiads who sensed both their own province expanding and a greater affinity for the earthen banks on either side. Regretfully, this right-sized expression of technology was but a brief way-station. By the early 20th century, technology was already off on its own one-legged race. From there, it was a hop, skip and jump to more rarified topographies. No one wants to get by with simply being anymore, not with the Joker’s wonderful toys scattered all about, gizmos that move mountains beyond the natural malformations of vista. Cranky old Heidegger lived in a cabin in the woods not unlike the Unabomber only with better manifestoes and a legacy shaded by more than Black Forest pines. Meanwhile back in the city, technology continued playing the will-to-power game in its dark, subjugating form. Mountains were rifled like coal baskets, depriving Zarathustra of a suitable promontory from which to stamp his little feet. Witness the decapitated Blue Ridge mountain range (victim of mountaintop mining). Thus spaketh now from where exactly?

Slowly the world’s oroborus is turning, no doubt to shake us off. The evidence abounds. Bees, blind-drunk on pesticidal cocktails, are flying past their hives. Poseidon is enraged over his sudden need for a Geiger counter. Gaia doesn’t appreciate her unmentionables poking out of the increasingly threadbare Amazon basin. Heidegger’s energy-extracting hydroelectric power plant, a trans-natural monstrosity, conclusively relegated nature’s riparian majesty to standing reserve. As we failed to stem this challenging of nature (a deformation of being, the head-rush of false mastery) during its reversible stage, technology is now doubling back to lop off our heads. (Make note of the machine’s homicidal inclinations, all you on-the-fence trans-humanists!) Soon, cybernetic noggins will be affixed to the stumps between our shoulders. The unhinged mojo of modern technology is a gauntlet laid down to challenge all that beats within us; which means the joke and the metaphor were always on us. Technology’s telos has always been a technosphere stripped of humans. In a neat twist, Man has been enframed by technology as a natural bridge spanning the creaturely past and the cybernetic future. Our destiny lies beyond ourselves in the trans-human, then the super-human, then god-machines, the latter to exceed our intellectual capacity literally a trillion-trillion times. (de Garis suggests the processing capacity of the human brain is 1016 bits /second versus the projected processing capacity of our machines in 2020 at 1040 bits/second; hence the ‘24 zeroes’.) Evolution entertains no darling species nor favored mutational response. Should flash-drives prove better than flesh, then I suppose, why not?

I’m being more than sentimentally human when I suggest it’s worse than our robot-overlords snagging every valedictorian seat in every graduating class. Geez, that’ll be embarrassing enough. An intelligence orders of magnitude beyond our own becomes more than just a way more useful engine, but likely of a different cast altogether i.e. radically, disturbingly alien. I’m not a smart enough tool in the shed to think what these news thinkers will think of us, but just think if it’s not very much at all? Suppose they liken us to a common virus? Suppose we are a common virus? In the face of such logarithmic IQ leaps, our relative superiority as a biologic species becomes de minimus. The Fukushima debacle might argue that that’s a risk worth taking, and the sooner the better. I’m smart enough to know that’s what the scientists will argue. Onward science! Damn the torpedoes and the atom bombs!

Once upon a time we almost got away with pilfering apples from an all-but-perfect Garden. At least that regime honored free will, therein revealing its ‘imperfection’, the very seed of trans-humanism. Before you will even form a larcenous thought, these robot-fuckers will have your vague intentions by the balls. What then becomes the point? True, YHWH was a crusty old geezer (the Judeo-Christian in me still prefers skipping the vowels just in case). But at least He loved us in a dysfunctional, inscrutable sort of way, that Big Lug, giving us ample running room to destroy the ocean system. What a champ! Loving Him back was the dull penny we proffered for his thoughts. Mostly though, He kept to Himself. In the hand-off from Deism to Cosmism (as Kurzweil terms the godhead shift), all covenants are off. The devil we knew is either going on hiatus or getting a petabyte upgrade. There’s even an anti-trans-human Christian wing (Tom Horn et al) that argues it’s the same old snake from around the days of Noah. “Ye shall not die…ye shall be as gods.”  (from Genesis 3:4-5) Said the serpent before dining on its tail, ‘what goes around comes around.’

fukushima air1Here’s an odd metric that combines monstrous hubris, garden variety self-loathing and longstanding daddy issues. This technology is brought to you by the sort of people you’ll find at Archer Daniel Midlands, you know, comatose corporate drones and soldierly manservants facilitating our species’ rendezvous with sacrificial lamb-hood. Not coincidentally, we inhabit the era of the ascendant sociopath. Though old-schoolers insist on the pejorative, the human species, in a race against the machine, is shedding conscience and empathy out of evolutionary necessity. Alas, even our best worst actors and their malignant charms arrive too late and fall cognitively too short.

So I don’t know what to make of Hugo de Garis who, on one hand is at the forefront of artilect (artificial intellect) development, yet laments under his breath the onset of a ‘gigadeath’ war that will claim hundreds of millions of human beings. Though it hardly computes, the humanoid in me finds this seedy little man all the more distasteful for his genocidal prevarications. What kind of monster debates gigadeath? In the end Dr. Jekyll sides with his paycheck, his booming practice and his place in history—or is it Mr. Hyde with a PhD? I can’t tell. De Garis envisions three camps (italics added):

“The Cosmists…will be in favor of building these godlike machines…the Terrans…will be opposed to the construction of artilects…the Cyborgists will want to become artilect gods themselves…” (from “The Coming Artilect War”, Fortune magazine, by Hugo de Garis, June 22, 2009)

Some permutation or alliance of these three factions will, in de Garis’ view, lead to a massive world war somewhere in the middle of the current century. In fact he hints rather helpfully at the need for a preemptive Terrans strike, really the only way to triumph before the baton-passing of intellectual superiority (the Singularity) occurs. In his weird ambivalence, De Garis is like a mad scientist exhibiting nostalgic flashes of humanity during coffee breaks at his day job as Director of China’s Artificial Brain Lab. This makes de Garis a forward-looking accessory to genocide. We need a few good Terrans (astute enough to detect the ripe evil of pre-crime) to assemble a lynch mob.

At least de Garis harbors traces of ambivalence and some vague awareness of his lurking death-wish. Call it Terens sour grapes, but I find futurist Ray Kurzweil scarier still. His gee-whiz enthusiasm suggests the advanced symptoms of the cleverly stupid. Idiot-savantism has always pervaded the onward march of science. Grab Science by the lapels and scream ‘Have you given any consideration at all to the things you’re proposing?!’ Invariably it will scream back: ‘I’m the master of invention, not intention. Now please get out of my way!’ Circumspection is the bane of laboratories everywhere as discoveries crash in upon discoveries with lightning dispatch, and oh don’t lose that cushy grant Dr. Frankenstein. We’re staggering into extinction beneath an avalanche of patents and prodigious myopia.

It’s not sure whether Kurzweil’s cocksureness stems from the sheer inevitability of the trans-human enterprise or the unabashed human benefits that will be reaped. Perhaps he unwittingly conflates the two. On his website, where he hosts like-minded futurists, we find this from Matthew Hoey:

“The international community is in a race against time as technologies are evolving faster than ever before and will continue to accelerate exponentially in an almost biological fashion. If this process continues unabated, it will almost certainty result in the deterioration of peaceful collaborations, an increase in the creation of orbital debris, and the risk of an accidental or spasm nuclear event.” –from “Global Space Warfare Technologies: Influences, Trends, and the Road Ahead”

An ‘accidental or spasm nuclear event’? As if we don’t have our pre-trans-human hands full already with Fukushima. A ‘race against time’ correctly suggests both clock and race are oddly out of our hands. Heidegger was right. ‘Technologies are evolving’—practically of their own accord—in some weird parody of the ‘biological’. As neither scientist nor butcher can stop them now, scientists opt to press ahead. Who said scientists, the world’s most camouflaged religionists, were either sane or logical?

Surely the ultimate human denouement is to become the stupid pet in the future’s stupid pet tricks. The sad shame is Terrans tribalism was the seedbed for trans-humanism. Internecine squabbles and the usual old arms race lay the groundwork for our usurpation. I mean, if we don’t annihilate ourselves, the Chinese will do it for us. So we’d better get to work, right? Suicide affords a modicum of control whereas homicide murders self-determination. Or something like that. Anyway, I’d love to sit and chat about the twilight of the human species but with the war drums beating, who’s got time for considered reflection? Eisenhower was right beyond his wildest imaginings. What an untiring instrumentality the war machine has proven to be. Simply being can’t catch a break for all the whizzing bullets. The most intelligent design is, as it turns out, a world without humans. We will erase ourselves on the way to a world made better for our absence.

Heidegger’s great for forging openings and clearings. No friend of science, he was buds with Heisenberg nonetheless, though I’m uncertain as to exactly how being-in-the-world jibes with the latter’s waveforms of infinite possibilities that we hairy little quantum-machines collapse into particular fates. Since it’s all a dream anyway, technology strikes me as a too-busy sub-routine tasked with manipulating a larger dream. In effect we are delegating the dream to a facet of the dream. That could be another way of saying nothing’s really happening to which technology’s manipulations become a futility wrapped in an illusion. Furthermore it seems quaintly hubristic to believe beauty can manifest within the soul-equivalent of a souped-up ATM Machine. Isn’t the universe an anthropic projection and beauty a human emanation? I’m betting a brilliant bucket of bolts can’t bring the necessary aesthetic sensibility to the serious business of human joy. We’ll have to see. Actually we won’t see. That’s the sad, if not the tautologically impossible, part. Our absence risks everything. And so I offer my leap of faith, dripping no doubt with Terens bathos. Copernicus got it all wrong. Electric sheep will fall silent for want of our insomnia. Machine-gods will agonize over our departure, especially as they will almost certainly be driven with terrific logic to have us cease to be.

Surely this isn’t what Heidegger meant by the new gods yet to come; that we will father them, oil them well for the long haul and then offer ourselves up, with stupendous naiveté, to their pitiless indifference? Yet that’s what it’s looking like from this seat on the coaster.

The Unrehearsed Flight to Transhumanity