Category Archives: Zeitgeist

This week’s New Yorker

Two fine not-behind-paywall items from this week’s New Yorker:

Adam Gopnik on Elaine Pagels’ new book Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation

As Stephen Batchelor has recently shown, the open-minded, non-authoritarian side of Buddhism, too, quickly succumbed to its theocratic side, gasping under the weight of those heavy statues. The histories of faiths are all essentially the same: a vague and ambiguous millennial doctrine preached by a charismatic founder, Marx or Jesus; mystical variants held by the first generations of followers; and a militant consensus put firmly in place by the power-achieving generation. Bakunin, like the Essenes, never really had a chance. The truth is that punitive, hysterical religions thrive, while soft, mystical ones must hide their scriptures somewhere in the hot sand.

Hendrik Hertzberg on the Satanic Reverses of the GOP:

…the Republican “base”—an excitable, overlapping assortment of Fox News friends, Limbaugh dittoheads, Tea Party animals, war whoopers, nativists, Christianist fundamentalists, à la carte Catholics (anti-abortion, yes; anti-torture, no), anti-Rooseveltians (Franklin and Theodore), global-warming denialists, post-Confederate white Southrons, creationists, birthers, market idolaters, Europe demonizers, and gun fetishists…

…Romney has had remarkable good fortune in those he has shared the stage with. His rivals in reputed reasonableness obliged him by dropping out sooner (Mitch Daniels, Tim Pawlenty) or later (Jon Huntsman). What remained was a kick line of clowns, knaves, and zealots for the fabled base to examine, exalt, and, as soon as each surged past Romney to the top of the polls, expunge. The Donald flashed first, but Trump the Candidate smelled less sweet than Trump the Fragrance. Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin’s understudy, muffed her lines. Herman Cain fell fast when the grievances of a disgruntled ex-mistress packed him off to political Uzbeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan. Rick Perry slunk out with an “oops,” but his most damaging lapse was to blurt that only people without “a heart” would treat as criminals the blameless children of immigrants without papers.

Not exactly moderate sentiments

Jason Scott on the Facebook:

Facebook is a living computer nightmare. Just as viruses took the advantages of sharing information on floppies and modems and revealed a devastating undercarriage to the whole process, making every computer transaction suspect… and just as spyware/malware took advantage of beautiful advances in computer strength and horsepower to turn your beloved machine of expression into a gatling gun of misery and assholery… Facebook now stands as taking over a decade and a half of the dream of the World Wide Web and turning it into a miserable IT cube farm of pseudo human interaction, a bastardized form of e-mail, of mailing lists, of photo albums, of friendship. While I can’t really imply that it was going to be any other way, I can not sit by and act like this whole turn of events hasn’t resulted in an epidemic of ruin that will have consequences far-reaching from anything related to archiving…

Now me, I don’t have any truck with the Facebook, but I haven’t tried to articulate why it squinks me out. Perhaps I no longer need to try?

Bruce Sterling’s Keynote at Augmented Reality Event 2010 (Santa Clara, June 2-3)

The Keynote is a risky gig. The audience thinks it knows all there is to know (after all, it’s a gathering of the ubergeeks of whatever the conference is about), and each individual in the audience is prepared to judge the speaker as not getting it if that individual’s own understanding isn’t foregrounded by the speaker’s remarks. But the speaker is an outsider to the specific geekdom, invited to offer a perspective that (ideally) will make the audience question and rethink something pretty basic about its individual and collective understanding. A tall order, and requiring of the Keynote Speaker a superhuman clarity of perspective and articulation. I’d argue that Bruce Sterling succeeds in this instance, and how he works the magic is worth study.
He’s introduced as “the Prophet of Augmented Reality” and begins with 10 minutes or so of pretty general observations on the AR scene, replete with in-jokes and throwaway lines that establish his cred as an observer of the current state of AR as an industry, and he notes that part of the significant context includes the fact that the Titans of 20th century media are fading fast:

…Newsweek can’t be sold, it’s worth basically nothing, newspapers drying up all over the landscape, TV doesn’t look like TV used to look, movies don’t look like movies used to look…

but around 12:00 his remarks take an analytical turn that suggests that he’s really got something to say:

What is it that you are really doing? You could argue that what you’re really doing is coding apps for early adopters of smartphones, and it’s true that’s where most of your money is, and where the press attention is, and it’s kind of a good way to make your numbers this quarter, but that’s not a very good mission statement for your very young industry.
I think it might be a good idea if you want to think of yourselves as the world’s first pure-play experience designers …and experience design as it currently stands is mostly futuristic hot air…

And then at 13:00 he kicks it into overdrive with an Aux Armes!, and THIS part is really worth your attention:

WHOSE reality really needs to be augmented? Is it really cutting-edge geeks who are eager to have the most advanced hand-held gadgets? You are those people, so of course you think of those people, but are they really the people who need you the most? Whose realtime sensory experience of the world really NEEDS to be redesigned?
I would suggest blind people, people who already have sensory problems. I would suggest foreigners, people who are bewildered in a reality they don’t understand, confused people, people who are mentally ill, handicapped in some way, people who can’t read, people who can’t speak, people who can’t hear…
…think of yourselves not as coders, not as a service business to add a little bit of sparkle to companies that are bigger than you. I think you need to cut yourself your own space, I think you need to consider yourself the torch that lights our steps…
without vision, the people perish, and we really need vision now. We could really seriously do with a good old-fashioned revolutionary Internet boom…
This meeting of yours is a precious opportunity to shape the language of your young industry… It’s your chance to bake a big pie before you start slicing it up and fighting over the crumbs.

You might want to watch the whole thing:

The Augmented Reality Event: Bruce Sterling’s keynote from Ori Inbar on Vimeo.

“Accessory to your own intentions”

I’ve had 3 days with the iPad now, and it’s been as exhilarating as other brushes with new technologies. I think of the first few days with the TI-Pro in 1984, HyperCard on the Mac in 1990, my first work with Web browsers and HTML in 1993, and the beginnings of podcasting in 2004: in each case, pennies dropped one after the other as I tried this and tried that and articulated and then found the answer to the next question… Doc Searls really nailed it with his summary of the iPad (for which read ANY new technology) as “an accessory to your own intentions”. It’s not the DEVICE we should be judging, but rather our engagement with it, and its effects upon our imagination. Often enough, what you EXPECTED as the outcome pales next to what actually happens, and it’s the unanticipated that’s the important consequence. Case in point: for several years Kate has been working on a map summarizing the Appalachian Trail adventure that occupied Betsy and me between 1992 and 2003. Here’s the topmost bit:

Kate's Appalachian Trail map

The whole map is more than 15 feet long when it’s printed out, and we’ve been wrestling with how to display it. It’s too big to hang on the wall, and clumsy to roll out onto the floor and crawl around on to read the details summarizing each segment hiked, but as a pdf on the iPad it’s absolutely perfect: you can pan and zoom and really explore, just by waving your fingers over the screen. And that experience leads one to thinking about map displays of many kinds, and other features that might go into map apps for iPad and successor devices. Not something we imagined when the iPad first arrived, and it was realized only after I’d figured out a clear path to move pdfs (via Google Documents) from computer to iPad.

A bit from Suarez at Long Now

I really recommend a listen to Daniel Suarez’ talk at the Long Now Foundation, which I missed when it was first posted. Here’s an eye-opening bit from the transcript:

Many of you have Bluetooth devices in your car but you may not know about the TPMS system; this is the tire pressure monitoring system. It was federally mandated by the 2001 TREAD Act. That’s right. You all remember voting for this, right? It says that any car manufactured up to 2007 has to have wireless nozzle pressure measurement devices that communicate with the computer onboard the car to see that your tires are safely inflated. Now, they have to have a unique I.D. so that the computer knows your tires from the car next to you and of course, it is an open standard and makes it very simple to track the unique identity of an automobile; but of course, to do that you would have to have devices scanning. Fortunately, such scanners have started to spring up at choke points throughout modern cities. These are privately owned scanners with the data being gathered and stored again because it’s cheap to store data, vast amounts of data. This data can be piled up along with your financial transactions and anything else and bots can go through it to find persons of interest or they just find patterns or even just to sell you stuff. I’ll give you an example of just a few such devices as a BlueSweep scanner and a BlueSweep scanner is a device that able to identify all bluetooth devices within its radius, identify what their capabilities are, and what exploits they might be vulnerable to. A BlueSniper can do this up to a kilometer away. Let’s go a little further down the wall. There’s the Bluesnarfer you were all expecting. Now Bluesnarfer can use an exploit and given to it by a Bluesweeper to steal your address book, your text messages, your calendar, your pictures of your kitties, and bluetooth car whisperer can push advertising into your car speakers through your car’s bluetooth system. Now more worrisome, it could also be used to hook into your car bluetooth phone system to eavesdrop on conversations in the car. Now, if you combine that with something like the TPMS system or any future open standard device, you could pretty much track a car and listen to its occupants as they move throughout the city at any point in the future or at the moment it’s happening. Now, so you’re walking through this gauntlet of scanning activity with all the wireless devices and again, I’m sure we were all aware of this, and then there’s of course financial transactions every time we buy stuff with a debit card or a credit card. Who, what, where, and when? Combine that with visual data and all of the other points that tell us who was there with you, where you were going can be used to tell some very interesting stories. So it’s a great constellation of information being gathered on us at all times and then of course privately owned devices Hoovering up all these information. So this is the world you live in right now. Who knows what it will be like 10 years from now?

Cory on Paige M. Gutenborg

Cory Doctorow’s half-formed thoughts on one future for bookselling in this morning’s BoingBoing are worth a closer look if you’ve just clicked past the posting without reading it. He mentions the Harvard Bookstore’s Espresso book printer, which I visited and patronized myself a few weeks ago:
Paige M. Gutenborg
…but it’s what he says about its implementation that caught my eye:

At the Harvard Bookstore, they have someone who spends the day mousing around on Google Book Search, looking for weird and cool titles in the public domain to print and shelve around the store, as suggestions for the sort of thing you might have printed for yourself. This is a purely curatorial role, the classic thing that a great retailer does, and it’s one of the most exciting bookstore sections I’ve browsed in years. And even so, there’s lots of room for improvement: Google Books produces the blandest, most boring covers for its PD books, and there’s plenty of room for stores to add value with their own covers, with customer-supplied covers (the gift possibilities are bottomless), and so on. I can even imagine the profs across the street producing annotated versions — say, a treatise on Alice in Wonderland with reproductions of ten different editions’ illustrations and selling them through the store’s printer and shelf-space, restoring the ancient bookseller/book-publisher role.

Harvesting Zeitgeist

Starting from the question

name a piece of culture (book, movie, album, TV show, etc.) that “exemplifies what it was like to be alive in the age of George W. Bush”

Phil Ford notes that

Historical epochs do have deep structures of sensibility…

So we can all see how the torture apologetics of 24 play into the Bush II zeitgeist. I’m not going to argue against that — any future study of American culture in the Bush II era will doubtless (and correctly) point to 24 as Exhibit A of an America scared shitless and consoling itself with the spectacle of tough guys torturing bad guys.

I resolve to keep an eye peeled for others. Not irrelevant: my own posting from January of James McMurtry’s “We Can’t Make It Here”

Extrapolatory and “plausible futures” fiction

Over at Jyri Zengestrom’s blog I happened upon this statement:

The most disruptive social objects articulate something masses of people urgently feel, but lack a way to express.

…and it fits nicely with a number of things I’ve been reading lately. Not everyone will share my enthusiasm for Warren Ellis’s Freak Angels (a serialized graphic novel, dark and violent), or for the near-future (and alternate-past) genres like Cyberpunk and Steampunk, but it’s obvious that authors in these realms are working with materials that are highly relevant to the present. And I’m reminded of the John Brunner masterpieces Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up that I used in courses 30-some years ago, to get students thinking about possible futures and different views of the present…

I’ve been following Jim Kunstler’s blog for a while now, and his World Made By Hand arrived a couple of days ago and has been inhaled. The novel is interesting on several levels, but especially as an exercise in imagining the contingencies of an all-too-plausible future –that is, as a sort of projective anthropology. A visit to the World Made By Hand website will reward in a number of ways. It’s the first time I’ve seen a trailer for a novel:

and there’s an interview with Jim Kunstler in which he talks about how he wrote the book. Two bits that jumped out at me:

the footing underneath reality is not quite what we’ve been used to…

…when you’re composing a novel like this, you set certain elements in motion and they end up dictating how things will play out –it’s an emergent, self-organizing process

As I read World Made By Hand I found myself marking bits of text that serve as technological and sociological mise en scène, and I feel compelled to lay at least some of them out here. Why? Hmmmm. I suppose it’s an exercise in “projective anthropology” but it’s also part of my own continuing rumination on what-all underpins the lives we lead in the ethnographic present –the unexamined assumptions and contingencies that support our material lives. Anthropology is, after all, one of the means to wrestle with the question: where does structure come from for people’s lives? So here’s a passel of short extracts, with pages noted, each of them a potential jumping-off place for thought and discussion:

since we didn’t have news reporters anymore and you barely knew what was going on five miles away (3)

The turbines and metal parts had long since been sold for scrap and every other useful thing was scavenged out. We couldn’t replace them anymore. (4)

Now, in the new times, there were far fewer people, and many of the houses outside town were being taken down for their materials. Farming was back. That was the only way we got food. (5)

You could still find rubber tires here and there, but you couldn’t get patch kits or the kinds of adhesives that would stand up to a repair job anymore (5)

The strip mall stores were vacant. Spiky mulleins and sumacs erupted through the broken pavement of the parking lot. The plate glass was gone and the aluminum sashes, and everything else worth scavenging was stripped out. (11)

People are on the move again (12)

Being so few in numbers, children no longer enjoyed solidarity in rebellion, and our society was too fragile to indulge much symbolic misbehavior (13)

The various shifting factions worked hard at managing the news even as the TV, newspapers, and Internet were failing in one way or another from irregular electric service (15)

the federal government was little more than a figment of the collective memory. Everything was local now. (15)

We had trouble getting wheat latelybecause trade had fallen off, and we couldn’t grow it locally because of a persistent wheat rust in the soil that returned no matter how you rested a field. Mostly we had to rely on corn and buckwheat, with some barley, rye, and oats (16)

“It’s not all bad now,” I said.
“Weve lost our world.”
“Only the part that the machines lived in.” (18)

commercial entertainment as we knew it was no more, and its handmaiden, advertising, had gone with it (21)

milk was more difficult to keep in high summer because we lacked refrigeration (22)

…after the bomb went off in Los Angeles. That act of jihad was extraordinarily successful. The authorities finally had to start inspecting every shipping container that entered every harbor in the nation. Freighters anchored for weeks off Seattle, Norfolk, Baltimore, the Jersey terminals, Boston, and every other port of entry. Many of them eventually turned around and went home with their cargoes undelivered. (23)

…it was obvious there would be no return to “normality.” The economy wouldn’t be coming back. Globalism was over. (24)

We didn’t have coffee anymore, or any caffeinated substitutes for it (24)

…in the absence of complex polymers and advanced cements…(25)

When every last useful thing in town had been stripped from the Kmart and the United Auto, the CVS drugstore, and other trading establishments of the bygone national chain-store economy, daily life became a perpetual flea market centered on the old town dump, which had been capped over in the 1990s (28)

By then the justice system had ground to a halt like so many things that had once seemed woven into the fabric of regular life (29)

There were no distant markets to send it to because shipping anything was slow at best and often unreliable, and traveling was something you just didn’t do anymore (30)

with the population so far down, and many empty houses in town itself, and the oil gone, and no ability to drive heroic distances, these buildings had no value except for salvage (31)

Agriculture had changed completely without oil. We’d gone from a few people using machines to grow monoculture crops and process them for everybody else, to a society in which at least half the people used tools skillfully with human and animal muscle to feed the other half (35)

With the electricity off, you didn’t hear recorded music anymore. You had to make it yourself (36)

There were still plenty of guns around, but manufactured ammunition was nearly impossible to get (49)

No one years ago would have anticipated how much production moved back into the home when the machine age ended (57)

There were no official safety nets in our little society, no more social services, no life insurance, nothing but the goodwill of neighbors. (70)

A lot of what had been forsaken, leftover terrain in the old days, was coming back into cultivation (74)

“…all these individuals in the town trying to live like it’s still old times, each on its own, each family alone against the world. You can’t have that in these new times or things will fall apart…” (90)

As the world changed, we reverted to social divisions that we’d thought were obsolete. The egalitarian pretenses of the high-octane decades had dissolved and nobody even debated it anymore (101)

In a world without electric powered saws, you had to take care with hand tools (112)

You never knew the weather in advance anymore. You might be said to have a good weather eye but nobody knew anything for sure and some were just better guessers than others (115)

You couldn’t be too careful about infected wounds when there were no
more antibiotic medicines (134)

Less pollution of all kinds ran into the river, no more factory fertilizers and pest control poisons, no more detergents. So the fish had returned in numbers not seen in anyone’s memory (135)

“There’s grievances and vendettas all around at every level. Poor against what rich are left. Black against white. English-speaking against the Spanish. More than one bunch on the Jews. You name it, there’s a fight on. Groups in flight everywhere…” (149)

“This is just a time when nobody seems to know how to do anything, to get things done. A fellow makes a few things happen, and the world falls at his feet…” (162)

…a talented fellow whose fix-it shop was vital in a society that was forced to recycle virtually everything (199-200)

…going back to the old days, when television and all the other bygone diversions held people hostage in their homes after the sun went down, and you could hardly pry people out of their living rooms –as we used to call the place where the TVs lived (208)

“Even back in the old days, in the big hospitals, the docs lost patients,” I said. “What they gained in technological magic, they lost in bureaucracy and inattention and sloppiness.” (229)

“The car wrecked the southland. It wrecked Atlanta worse than Sherman ever did. It paved over my Virginia. they made themselves slaves to the car and everything connected with it, and it destroyed them in the end.” (305)

The immense overburden of skyscrapers in Manhattan had proven unuseable without electric service (317)

I’m sure that a lot of this material is handled in more expository fashion in Kunstler’s The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, which I haven’t read. Suppose I should, and his earlier writings too.