Friday, June 5, 2009

The Entertainment Engine

Wired has a neat, too-short, interview with Guillermo del Toro (of Pan's - DUDE! that guy smashed that other guy's face in with a wine bottle!-Labrynth).
In the next 10 years, we're going to see all the forms of entertainment—film, television, video, games, and print—melding into a single-platform "story engine." The Model T of this new platform is the PS3. The moment you connect creative output with a public story engine, a narrative can continue over a period of months or years. It's going to rewrite the rules of fiction.
I'm excited at the idea that some really significant change is just on the horizon (and to think that you and I will be get to be responsible for it!) - but then I recognize something a little too familiar: 30 years ago Foucault described something similar.

Foucault pointed out, among other things, that the 20th century has been a period paradigm shift from what he termed disciplinary society to a society of control. From the 17th to the end of the 19th centuries there was a movement in Western Europe to subsume all aspects of the human experience to the principles of rationality. Reason and rationale helped to overcome pernicious problems of sovereignty inherited from the Medieval period and also provided insight and tools as to how to avoid constant death from diseases and famines. The world could be better explained through objective, that is publicly-verifiable, knowledge and the nature of reality could be "discovered" by identifying, through induction and deduction, the principles that maintain order in the universe.

At the center of this rational ordering of the universe is the individual capable of using reason (this is Descarte's cogito; and this is an interesting take on it). The story of the Modern era has been the elucidating of what is reasonable in society - of course there is the obvious problem of what seems quite reasonable form this individual's perspective is entirely unreasonable to the individuals at this vantage point. So the knowledge that should be so publicly verifiable (and so natural and obvious) is actually very strictly policed by the powerful and their institutions. Obviously the rational thing to do when people break the law is imprison them, that is the efficient (efficiency is a primary concern of rationality) way to reduce crime, reducing crime means society is able to funciton smoothly (because the rational society is the stable society that has no turbulence in the form of oder being put out of whack). How do we rationally (efficiently and effectively) build prisons? Build a panopticon, a position in the structure where everyone can be watched, like a tower in the middle (kinda like God watches over Man, how perfect). The prison, the university, etc. these became the technologies that defined disciplinary society.

What those in charge began to realize was that you didn't have to have anyone even in the tower for the prisoners to behave: just the knowledge that they were being watched kept many of them in line. Thus what became the most rational (efficient and effective) thing to do would be to promote in the individuals themselves the belief that they must manage themselves. Think about it: if you are trying to get the world nice and orderly, there really can't be any pockets of non-orderliness. If you're hiring all these guards to patrol the borders of what is acceptable to do (police) or to think (professors) that means you've got at least the number of hired guards not reproducing the orderliness you want (because they're busy making sure the prisoners are doing what they're told). If we got everyone, including the guards, to order themselves around (of course according to the laws of the powerful, working for and toward the desires of the powerful), then we are getting the maximal productivity (the natural result of rationality) from the system. A society that no longer required discipline to run would be, according to Foucault, a society of control.

Of course, promoting a system where everyone can follow their own rules in an orderly manner is the promise of democracy. The democratic process, thus, is a process that seeks to place everyone into the society of control. As we leave the Modern era and enter post-modernity we see that globalized communication and productivity (globalization) requires this kind of control. It's inefficient and perhaps too insipid to believe that only the people in Hollywood would be the people that could best at creating entertainment, what a positively guild-like idea. Let's get everyone producing their own entertainment and really maximize output.

So now everything is entertainment: news (CNN's iReport, Indymedia, Daily Show), cooking (really, food pr0n from the Foodnetwork, etc.), cleaning your house, hurting yourself, spelling wrong, doing anything at all wrong...Hell: let's make a video game where people create simulated people, personas, identities.

I return to the Wired interview to just regesiter the complaint that far too often we are told that it is so revolutionary to Enjoy! (like the Coke logo says) the fact that we are at this dawn of the society of control (in Wired's case it's called Web 2.o): a time when we can be the viral video. But what is the payload of this viral behavior, what does the meme deliver into the host? Clearly, the need to manage ourselves, to produce, to consume as we are directed - I mean how else can I understand Gatorade's new low-calorie sports drink? del Toro's talk about the PS3 being the Model T is not inaccurate, it's just not as interesting an idea as, say Peter Greenaway's conception of cinema without text.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Prologue to "Tank Man"

What follows is a very close reading of the Prologue to Frontline's show "The Tank Man." I'd like to be clear that I am in no way an apologist for the violence that occurred, but I cannot also stand by and allow this kind of violence. What we are experiencing, at least in the U.S. is, I argue a pernicious form of violence that rests on the assertion that some people are allowed to remember, but only can remember what they are told. The simple truth is this: the American public does not understand China's history and there is a very real incentive to capitalize on this ignorance. Not only among the power elite because they cannot achieve their hegemony without their handmaiden: the newscycle. Of course the irony is that here we have a media that decries the erasing of history while simultaneously creating a new history that will reinforce the naturalness of what the power elite want the multitude to think about China.

"Tiananmen Square, Beijing. The largest public space in the world, created on an inhuman scale." (this emphasis is in the original) The monumental public buildings that line the edges and the vast, tree-less edges between speak of the insignificance of the individual before the might of the State."
In this passage, the beginning of the show, the prologue which will orient us so that we can understand what they are trying to persuade us to believe, we are set up with a familiar problem. Familiar to Westerners, at least. Their is an ominousness to the tone in this sequence, in the suggestion that the individual is insignificant in relation to their government - but isn't this what ALL monuments are supposed to do? Is this not the purpose of erecting Gothic cathedrals, to inspire in humanity the sense of the vast mystery of God? That the Chinese have dedicated a vast public space, the largest in the world, should reveal to us that the Chinese are far less concerned with lofty abstractions about the mystery of some transcendental realm and are much more concerned with the mystery of the immanence of being in this world. This public space should be inspiring, the individual should know that there are more than just individuals in the world, but an immense, teeming, ocean of human beings - one should be given pause at this thought. What is the purpose of the individual, in this schema, except to elucidate, articulate, and promote the peaceful coexistence of billions of human beings (the very name of the Chinese government can be translated along these lines, in fact).

"[T]hey have hundreds of [cameras] trained on Tiananmen Square, their cameras, cameras in the hands of others are considered dangerous."
This should be no surprise to anyone in the Western world, look at Britain. They have thousands of cameras set up through out the country and designed to track cars and individuals. But this is also true in North Carolina. And it appears that all Americans are being spied upon now.

"It's absolutely extraordinary. You could look at him as unusually brave; but he probably wasn't. He probably just an ordinary person who was so disgusted at what he had seen for the last few days."
The emphasis in Western media on the individual is necessary because it reinforces what the West believes to be sacrosanct: the individual, the one that is defined as radically particular, and fundamentally different from all others and only able to be related to others through externalized relationships. The ideal form of relationships for this entity is the contract.

"Standing in front of a column of tanks. No one around him - he was all on his own with a shopping bag in his hand. He climbed on top of the tank, banged on the lid, and said, 'Get out of my city you're not wanted here.' We don't know exactly what he said, but it's clear that's what he wanted to say."
Is it so clear? Is this not a classic example of projection? Maybe he said something like, "go on kill me, you shot my girlfriend last night and I drank all the rent money away, again. I'll be homeless and without prospects, just kill me." What if he was schizophrenic and thought he was catching a bus? Why is the journalist (I assume he was there, but I am not told he was) given this priviledged information? Yes, it is compelling to believe that the guy got off work (see 11:15), bought his groceries and on the walk home confronted the People's Liberation Army. It's compelling because that's what I want my action heros to do, it's what I would expect from Bruce Willis or Will Smith. It's my ideal type. But it's not Chinese.

"During this time I'm thinking, 'This guy is gonna be killed at any moment now. And, if he is, I can't just miss this. This is something he is giving his life for.' It's my responsibility to record it as accurately as possible."
Spoken with the great solemnity that we should all be familiar with because this is the same attitude of the apostles at the crucifixion. Of course, we will also all recognize that there are very different accounts of what happened on that cross - there is no accurate depiction in the sense that there is 100% agreeance about what occurred there. This is another great Western preoccupation: the revelation through objectivity, through public epistemological methods. It is a great hiding and revealing game that we play because our worldview. But why is it necessary to watch these moments? Why do we HAVE to watch as the man is executed? Why must we witness, what compels us to watch the gore? Is there not something sadistic and cruel to this voyeurism? Is there not a sense that the man is calling into existence the murder of this man with his bags in front of the tanks?

We are told, then about this magical photograph. The one that publically announces, like that mythic star in the East of the Nativity, that their is a special man in the world that redeems all our sins (our need to create a social order where individuals are subsumed other individuals). Where does he hide this wonderful photo? In the shitter. I wish that I could talk with Zizek about this one! Literally, the object of our political fascination, the stuff of pure excess, is put into the toilet, that place where all real human excess is deposited and where we place all that we cannot bear to view because to have it return from the toilet is a nightmare, just as to confront our unconscious desire to see a man crushed to death under a tank is too nightmarish to admit. Fortunately we have the medium of celluloid to give us the fantasy of these ghoulish desires - and it's stored where? That great symbol of the unconscious: the toilet!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Cyber Insurgency Lulz - Who Is Anonymous?

Thanks to Wired's Danger Room for sharing the link to Counterterrorism Blog where we read, "The Lulz vs. North Korea." From the article:
Would this be seen as western provocation by North Korea? Who knows, but it does raise the question of how uncontrolled or accidental cyber-warfare could have unintended consequences, a new factor in an old dynamic. Unlike nuclear technology the ability to conduct cyber-warfare is not the sole preserve of states. Individuals, or loosely affiliated groups of individuals operating on a trans-national basis can replicate some if not all of a nations capability.
This is probably not the place to discuss 4chan and /b/ but I do recommend looking them up, you'll be surprised (I'll bet).

But I can do you one better and give you a quote from Hardt and Negri's Empire that I think well-anticipates this situation (by nearly 10 years):
In effect, one might say that the sovereignty of Empire itself is realized at the margins, where borders are flexible and identities are hybrid and fluid. It would be difficult to say which is more important to Empire, the center or the margins. In fact, center and margin seem continually to be shifting positions, fleeing any determinate locations. We could even say that the process itself is virtual and that its power resides in the power of the virtual....(39)
Their Empire is not simply imperialism 2.0 - that's what the Cold War was. Our situation is marked now by informational wars: whether one chooses to drink Pepsi or Coke is just as valuable to the world order today as a recently Post-Colonial country's decision to become a democracy or espouse communism. So, if, suddenly "the marketplace" becomes concerned that Pepsi can no longer maintain productivity, things will start happening: the news cycle will grab onto this, the pundocracy will weigh in, the activist investors will be profiled... This is an informational war in the same way that the current financial crisis is an informational war. Today the powers that be are hammering-out how to maintain fluidity within the world economy, they are not meeting to discuss how to prop-up the U.S.'s over-production of farm equipment ("Use USAID! give it to Kenya so that they resist the kalishnikovs the Soviets are sending"); so it's not like the situation at the eve of WWII (I mean the Berlin Conference of 1885). The situation is no longer Westphalian sovereignty vs.

Rather Hardt and Negri are claiming something else:
Our claim... is that we are dealing here with a special sovereignty that should considered liminal or marginal... a sovereignty that locates its only point of reference in the definitive absoluteness of the power it can exercise. Empire thus appears in the form of a very high tech machine: it is virtual, built to control the marginal event, and organized to dominate and when necessary intervene in the breakdowns of the system. (39)
These breakdowns of the system look less like wars liberating people (that phrase used to justify the last invasion of Iraq) and more about the state of emergency. "Order and peace - the eminent values that Empire proposes - can never be achieved but are nonetheless continually reproposed," as Hardt & Negri state (60). Thus it is more likely that any military action in North Korea will likely be justified by promoting the terrible state of affairs in North Korea. Thus, the only way to fight wars will be by marketing them appropriately.

Why do I begin with 4chan griefers and go to these philosophical discussions? Because I think that "Anonymous" is a great, practical, example of what Hardt & Negri call the multitude:
This is another fundamental characteristic of the existence of the multitude today within Empire and against Empire. New figures of struggle and new subjectivities are produced in the conjuncture of events, in the universal nomadism, in the general mixture and miscegenation of individuals and populations, and in the technological metamorphoses of the imperial biopolitical machine. (61)
If we try to understand who Anonymous is, as an ontological group that has formed based on its identity, we will be forever frustrated. If you read the transcript form the build-up to the Lulz you will see that the group are not interested in democracy, they're not complaining about nuclear proliferation. In fact, one "member" (I use scare quotes 'cause membership is open and you can't be Anonymous) even states, "I [doing this] isn't out of moralfaggotry," that is, doing this because one is partisan to an outcome. This is also predicted by Hardt & Negri when they wrote:
These new figures and subjectivities are produced because, although the struggles are indeed antisystemic, they are not posed merely against the imperial system - they are not simply negative forces. They also express, nourish, and develop positively their own constituent projects....The deterritorializing power of the multitude is the productive force that sustains Empire and at the same time the force that calls for and makes necessary its destruction. (61)
Postmodernism FTW!

Oooooo! Super-Computer Church!

I got a link to this on the ARTNEWS listserv and what follows are some thoughts I have about the matter as well as most of the email I sent in reply to the list (I hope they don't mind that I write so much on there sometimes). Thanks Eggtoof and Al Matthews!

Here is the original link that I followed. Little did I suspect what waited for me. I then began watching the video (here).

This has to be one of the best hoaxes I've seen. They spent a lot of time putting all this together, and I think it looks great. I thought that it must be one of those YesMen or RTmark projects, but, sigh, it won't.

I do find it really humorous this idea that the reality of the mind, which maps the reality "out there" has finally been solved (and it was done in 1974!), and they didn't bother to entertain any notion of an epistemology where the knower and the known are mutually transformed by one another.

I think that's what's really crucial for AI: how do we develop code that gives networked machines the same kind of understanding that Olympic diving judges have? What I mean is this, the only way for the judges to know how to judge the olympian is to have learned how to dive and perform the moves that the divers perform every four years. While this is clearly a private knowledge (because it is embodied within the individual), this expert knowledge is actually quite public because (as we see with the Olympics) judges tend to judge fairly consistently, even when they don't consult one another.

If you go to the site you find that this is a nonprofit dedicated to life-extension by downloading your consciousness (which they say is who you really are) into a matrix of computers.

Here's the best part:
"Although the attainment of immortality may be a generation or two away, its plausibility may be made loud and clear in the present. In the meantime, the road to such a goal is ripe with philosophical and even spiritual repercussions. That's why we have claimed the status of a church. Although we have no burning bushes to our credit, we do offer a fairly divine revelation that pure rationality can lead to eternal life, along with the recognition of a cosmic mind based upon the same neural network paradigm that will inevitably free us from the agony of death."

Never mind that the music that this machine makes is simply loops form Apple's GarageBand which comes free with the purchase of a new Mac. I mean, maybe they used some equation to select the loops, but I kinda doubt that.

Oh well. I'm not saying that life-extension is a bad thing, necessarily. I read Neuropolitique when I was a younger man. I am saying, however, that it should be a crime to use the phrase "the zen of ____" in a sales pitch for transcendentalism (in the video explaining the music-making ability of their machine they say the machine understands the zen of music making).

I guess it's just, perhaps in the words of another early hero of mine, Robert Anton Wilson, "uncool" to create a religion out of rationality (although I will make an allowance for those that would create a religion with the purpose of illuminating those that convert) Isn't that the problem in the first place? in the late 19th century Weber was already warning us about the iron cage of irrationality and the fundamental irrationality of rationality.

20 Years of Dischord

(the title refers to a compilation from a favorite D.C.-based record label)

I posted something heavy on the ol' facespace status bar today and I s'pose I should try to clarify a little more what I am saying. Here's what my status read today:

I suspect that all this talk about Tiananmen has little to do with China and really points out that in the new era "revolution" is less about changing material circumstances and more about affirming domination; particularly in the U.S. - where the myths of revolutions and wars of liberation are Disney rides. 成者天之道地。成者, 人之道地。"Creativity is the way of all reality, creating is the proper way of being human."

from 中庸20 (the zhongyong, verse 20; Ames and Hall translation); what I mean is that if we want to change things in this world (like political oppression) then it is incumbent upon us to be that change. At the root of this change is a fundamental receptivity to being changed by what we learn of the world, rather than approaching the world with a strategy for engaging it. Rather than holding the world to an abstract ideal and then changing the world to fit this idea.

I bring this up because I suspect for many Americans (if they think anything about Tiananmen at all) they will look at this incident as simply proof of the blatant disregard for human rights in China, nevermind that most Americans don't really understand what "human rights" means. And it is this lack of understanding that creates the wiggle-room necessary for folks to then begin entertaining notions about liberating the people of China so that they might be free. Probably there are too many economic necessities at work right now for that to happen, but who's to say that this won't happen in the future, especially if the fires of racism and hatred are allowed to simply burn in the open like this.

Henry Rosemont, Jr. and Roger Ames have both dedicated their careers to elucidating the meanings of Confucius as well as promoting a harmonious flourishing between the U.S. and China. I refer you to them:

Rosemont on the "threat" of China
Rosemont's "U.S.-dominated Human Rights Discourse as an Impediment to Reconciliation"
Ames on the benefits of the U.S. and China engaging in this discussion

And there are a number of scholarly works that you can google, hopefully some you'll be able to read for free.