ACCELER8OR

Jan 08 2012

2012 And The Failure Of Imagination

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Advocates of psychedelic drugs often claim that psychedelics expand consciousness and stimulate the imagination. To demonstrate this point a few famous examples are often repeated, such as Francis Crick envisioning the spiral shape of DNA while high on LSD; Kerry Mullis coming up with his Nobel Prize winning PCR DNA replication method while high on LSD; or Steve Jobs seeing a world of people connected by Apple computers while high on LSD. There is some truth to these few examples, enough truth to make hipster comedian Bill Maher exclaim that taking LSD makes you a genius in a rant about how putting LSD in Halloween candy might actually be a good thing. After decades of bad press and public mockery, it seems that psychedelics have finally escaped the fringes and are ready to be embraced by the mainstream as miracle cures. More and more average people are reading about the healing properties of psychedelics, and more public figures are warming to the notion that psychedelics can create powerful and lasting spiritual experiences. Scientific publishing in psychedelic research is at an all time high. And then there is something about Mayans and 2012.

Whatever else you have to say about psychedelics, the meme of 2012 is now inseparable from psychedelic thought. Just like the term “entheogen” has replaced the term “hallucinogen,” the meme of a catastrophic or epic evolution in human culture has now replaced peace, love, and unity. Concepts of freeing your mind and seeking inner peace have morphed over the decades into dramatic tales of impending apocalypse and revolution, ending in a singularity that will engulf and change history forever. And this event may or may not happen on December 21, 2012, which happens to be at the end of the great cycle of the Mayan calendar, which coincides with our sun aligning with the galactic equator during the winter solstice, which only happens once every 26,000 years, or so the mythology goes. But the exact science doesn’t matter. What matters is that instead of eating mushrooms and having a good time, or imagining a cure for cancer, or visualizing a cleaner car engine, you instead get pulled through a singularity and come out thinking your an immortal astral shaman waiting for reality to fold inward on itself at the end of time. And then you think you have discovered the biggest secret in all of human history and you call yourself a genius, and become obnoxious about how prescient you are. And then you think you might be crazy, but then read a dozen trip reports just like yours on Erowid or The Shroomery and you wonder if everyone else has already taken mushrooms and seen this movie. And the answer is yes; we have already seen this movie.

It is easy to point to Terence McKenna as the originator of the modern psychedelic 2012 myth; his Timewave Zero idea was first introduced in “The Invisible Landscape” in 1975. McKenna’s idea came from a mushroom trip in La Chorrera, Columbia, in 1971, and was mostly ignored as insanity for many years. When McKenna’s popularity peaked twenty years later in the mid 1990s, the 2012 meme had already been adopted by Jose Arguelles and John Major Jenkins, and the Mayan connection kicked the meme out of the psychedelic underground and into astrological and New Age subculture. By the time of McKenna’s death in 2000 the 2012 mythology had become so firmly embedded in fringe culture it was even mentioned in the 2002 X-Files TV finale as the date of the impending alien invasion, the hidden secret root of all evil government conspiracies. Even though the details of the 2012 singularity, or the Eschaton, were never well defined, the apocalyptic tinge of the mythology took on a life of its own. The doomsday prophecy is a common theme in human history, and the 2012 myth fit easily into recycled bits from other ancient doomsday prophecies that people are still waiting for. 2012 is a fascinating piece of modern mythology, fascinating enough to be taken seriously by a large group of people. Fascinating enough to become a global meme.

Popular psychedelic mythology may be fun and exciting, but analyzing the worth of the 2012 meme poses some hard problems. For instance, instead of studying physics or biology or computer science and making Nobel prize winning breakthroughs in biochemistry, like the examples mentioned above, many geniuses in the psychedelic underground turned instead to studying Mayan calendars, UFOs, and crop circles, and look everywhere for signs of the end times. This is what I call the first failure of imagination. Instead of following the paths of the few rare individuals who took psychedelics and produced discoveries of great scientific importance, young psychedelic explorers turned instead to tales of stoned apes, machine elves, mushroom aliens, Mayans, 2012, and the transcendent hyperdimensional object at the end of time, as if these were matters of great importance. If taking psychedelics is supposed to turn you into a genius, then all the geniuses taking psychedelics should have been able to distinguish scientific reality from the quasi-spiritual historical fiction comprising the 2012 mythology. It’s not enough that psychedelic imagination starts with the discovery of DNA and ends with everyone connected by iPads — that is not enough. There must also be a global paradigm shift. We won’t be happy unless we get our global paradigm shift. And the global paradigm shift must be so dramatic that it renders all previous human history as obsolete. And we want it to come on an exact date, in an exact year. And it will play out just like revelations with famines and floods and plagues and catastrophic global upheaval.

Which brings us to the second failure of imagination, which can be blamed on the media and popular culture in general. Of all the memes to come out of modern psychedelic thought none has gotten more popular traction than the meme of 2012 and the “end” of the Mayan calendar on December 21st, 2012. Talk shows and news programs run stories on 2012 and the Mayan calendar; conspiracy theorists pick up whatever thread they want and tie it to 2012, and prophets point to 2012 as a time of transcendence, when the impoverished illiterate masses of the world will spontaneously realize we are an enlightened tribe of mushroom children all dancing to the same cosmic drummer. There was a movie about 2012 called 2012 that was horrible, and all the documentaries on History or Discovery channel are so obsessed with apocalypse its hard to tell which end-time prophecy they wish would hit us in the face first. What does this say about the quality of intellectual property coming from the psychedelic meme pool? Of all the progress that has been made in psychedelic research, of all the shamanic exploration through the rainforest, the thing that gets the most imaginative play is how we will destroy ourselves when the big dial on the Mayan calendar clicks over to the next pictogram? Pinning your mythology on an arbitrary, rarely occurring cosmological event seems like a desperate move to me, the kind of thing you pull out of your ass when you’ve run out of good ideas.

If you remember back to the early days of psychedelic experimentation, there was a period of time before McKenna where taking psychedelics was for fun. People turned on, tuned in, dropped out, listened to music, partied, had sex, freaked out, had bummers, got crazy, and found their inner freaky flower child. Now people take psychedelics and get serious; they seek the shamanic cure to every modern malady, or that hole at the end of time where all of history collapses and everything happens all at once. Earnest psychedelic advocates preach about the coming evolution in global consciousness where paradigms shift and the planet transcends into utopia or chaos, or the technological singularity ushers in dystopia or immortality, or something along those lines. For a group of people who used to be so focused on “being here now,” the psychedelic community morphed into a group of New Age future watchers always getting hooked on the next big hype that can never quite live up to its promise. And the biggest hype of them all is 2012. We’ve lived with the promise of 2012 for so many years, how can anything less than elves of chaos erupting out of fractal wormholes possibly satisfy us? Is there any way 2012 can possibly deliver on the outlandish promise of the prophecy?

When McKenna first presented the Timewave Zero meme it was a novelty, it actually came in a package marked “Novelty Theory.” And for many years the 2012 meme was fun and interesting because it was like a thought experiment; it was something you could fiddle with like an algorithm or a piece of software. The 2012 meme allowed all kinds of people to have quibbling discussions over the i Ching and mathematics and Mayan prophecy and Bible prophecy and ancient aliens and so on. The 2012 meme lived on past McKenna’s death and was recycled by New Age writers looking for a new hook into astrology, spirituality, prophecy, movie screenplays, and so on. The 2012 meme was such a convenient hook that people didn’t need to use their imaginations anymore — the screenplay for the future had already been written. That is fine for a thought experiment or for a whim of the popular imagination, but now it is actually the year 2012 and it will be the year 2012 all year long. I was sick of the year 2012 fifteen years ago. I’m not sure how much more 2012 I can take. The closer the December date becomes the more fixated the public consciousness will become on what it all means. The inventory on the shelves of our modern mythology cannot move forward until then, our imaginations are stamped with an expiration date, and we will be forced to eat the same old 2012 apocalypse transformation meme over and over again until it expires at the end of the year. No new memes are allowed until then. There is a singularity in time blocking any planning forward into 2013. It is a blurry space clouded by the dark side of the Force. All we can do is ride out this disaster movie until it’s over, and then its over. When 2012 passes without major incident the public imagination will be bankrupt, our modern mythology will be devoid of meaning, and we will be forced to think about what happens next. And that is scarier than having to deal with any singularity.

Latching on to a science fiction end-times prophecy is not genius. It is not expanded consciousness. And it is not a triumph of imagination. 2012 is lazy thinking and empty ideological fatalism with no hope of delivering on its promise. The 2012 meme represents the most infantile aspect of psychedelic thought; the wish to get something for nothing, believing that major change will happen by doing nothing more than waiting for a date on the calendar. By adopting the 2012 meme the psychedelic community went from being that tie-dyed hippie saying “Peace and Love” to that tattooed burner with a sign reading “The End is Near” in under two decades. That a group so fascinated with love and peace would adopt such a nihilistic and grandiose mythology and that the public consciousness would be attracted to this meme over any other offering from the psychedelic community demonstrates a fundamental failure of public imagination. It is impossible to say how many millions of people have taken psychedelics in the past few decades, but if the 2012 meme is the fittest idea to come of the psychedelic community since 1971 than we are in trouble. The mushroom’s gift to humanity has trapped us in an end-time prophecy awaiting the impending singularity. That is just embarrassing. The mushrooms clearly need new writers. But that’s too bad, because new ideas are embargoed until 2013, when our imaginations can go back to work. We’ll need a bunch of new memes for the rest of the 21st century. Our old memes have expired.

Nov 29 2011

The Impatience (And Genius) Of Jobs: An Interview with Walter Isaacson

I never felt a particularly intense curiosity about the life and personality of Steve Jobs until the night he died.  Oh sure, he was a sort of hip entrepreneur from the baby boom, so there was always a glimmer of interest — somewhat along the same lines as the vague interest I would have in the life of Richard Branson.  But my tastes in favorite biographies would tend to the more extravagant; a Timothy Leary or a Keith Richards or an Antonin Artaud or a Salvador Dali (and I must confess to a taste for the occasional bio of a power mad dictator).   Entrepreneurs, however extravagant or autocratic in their realm, would come up short in terms of satisfying whatever perverse delights in abused privilege, eccentricity, cosmic ambition and/or mighty flame-out I might hope to find in my favorite biographies.

But on the night Jobs passed, I took a look around my home and realized that my world is intimately suffused with the ghost of Jobs’s creativity — all those beautifully designed complex and total-package mechanisms for communication and creation are deeply woven into the proverbial fabric of my life.  Plus, he was one of those successful acidheads whose embrace psychedelic veterans like myself like to wave as a banner against the clichéd assumptions the mainstream has about those who have dipped their psyches in that font of lucid vision and/or sensory overload (depending).

I immediately contacted Walter Isaacson to find out if I could get a copy of his then-upcoming official Steve Jobs biography for Acceler8or and interview him about it.

The bio did not disappoint.  While no one reading Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson would come away comparing Jobs’s excesses and temperament to, say, an original dadaist or a major 1960s rock god, by most lights, he had personality and artistic sensibility to spare — and his visionary sense of self and determined refusal to do anything any other way than his own — makes for a lively and compelling read.

Isaacson lets his own prose sparkle as never before — including a use of playful titles and subtitles.  It’s fun.

I conversed with Walter Isaacson via email.

RU SIRIUS: At the halfway mark in reading the book, my most prominent thought is…. nobody could emulate this guy – his behaviors or even his business strategies and methods — and expect to succeed in business.  More likely, someone else would get punched in the head fairly frequently.  So I guess to formulate this as a question: what do you think about this observation…  and… is Jobs the most unique dude you’ve ever covered as a writer and journalist? Would you compare him to anybody?

WALTER ISAACSON: Steve is by far the most intense person I ever met, and he’s filled with contradictions. Who can I compare him to?  NOBODY! He was more inspiring than anyone I ever met, and also the least filtered. “I’m a black-and-white kind of person,” he told me when urging me not to use a color picture of him on the cover of the book, and he even thought in black and white: You were a hero or a shithead. He could taste two similar avocados and proclaim one to be the best ever grown and the other to be inedible. Most of us have a filter, so that if our first reaction is that something sucks we pause or temper our words. Steve was brutally honest. That made him seem like an asshole at times. But it also ended up making him charismatic and someone who could create a loyal team.

RU. I’ve never seen Jobs’s acidhead hippie aspect foregrounded to this degree, particularly in the early part of the book.  It’s sort of a weird contradictory relationship to counterculture.  I have my own thoughts about this, but let’s start with yours.

WI: Steve represented the fusion of many strands. One was the hippie, counterculture, anti-authority, drugs, rock, rebel spirit of the late Sixties. Another was the hacker, wirehead, phone phreaker, geek hobbyist culture. You melded both of these when you launched Mondo 2000 in the 1980s. To these two cultural strands, Steve also added the entrepreneurial, startup, business mentality that was arising in the 1970s in Silicon Valley, especially after the advent of the microchip. He embodied a lot of contradictions. A seeker of Buddhist enlightenment who becomes a billionaire businessman. A misfit, acid-dropping, counterculture rebel who is a tough businessman. Someone with a new age and alternative spirit who also is a believer in technology and rational science. It all seems a bit weird, but it’s also kind of cool.

RU: Did you see any interest on his part in the political aspects of counterculture… aside from loving Joan Baez?  Did he ever reference the antiwar movement or civil liberties struggles or environmental issues or even the war on drugs, to your knowledge?

WA:  He didn’t seem all that interested in politics. His main interest was education reform. He really thought the school days should be longer; teachers should not have tenure, etc. He wanted to make ads for Obama in 2008, but wasn’t on the same wavelength as David Axelrod.

RU:  One area where he contradicts most countercultural sensibilities was in his making Apple very much the opposite of open source and free software and all that.  What intrigued me in the book was that he seems not to be motivated so much by greed as by artistic sensibility.  He saw himself as an artist and he was the director of these creations — almost like Hitchcock making a movie.  It had to be just so.

WA: He really looked at himself as an artist. And he had the temperament of one. He was demanding, a perfectionist, and sometimes a control freak. He said he cared more about making beautiful products than about making a profit, and I believe him.

RU: For those of us who were around in the early days of digital culture, you could say Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in one breath… sort of like Lennon and McCartney.  So was Wozniak a fluke?  Did Jobs ever imply that he viewed it that way?

WA: Woz was not a fluke. Steve Jobs said he was 50 times better than any engineer he had ever met. He was particularly brilliant at a very specialized thing: designing circuit boards using the minimal number of chips. But the importance of that talent waned, and he did not care about the other aspects of Apple.

RU: Did he have a Sancho Panza… a partner outside of his family who sort of stuck by him?… or at least some career long accomplices about whom you could tell us a bit about their relationships?

WA: One of Steve Jobs’s longtime mentors was Mike Markkula, the first real investor in Apple. He became a mentor. He taught Jobs about focus and marketing and packaging. But he sided with John Sculley in the showdown of 1985, and when Steve returned in 1997 he asked Markkula to leave the Apple board.

RU: You were surprised that Steve asked you to write a biography and gave you free reign over it, given his love of privacy and control.  Did he ever waiver?  Any freak out moments when he tried to shut you down… or where you worried he might do that?

WI: The one thing I could never fully understand was why Steve Jobs did not insist on more control over the book. He kept saying he didn’t want to see it in advance. He said he knew I would write things that would make him mad, but he wanted me to be honest. He said he wanted to avoid any perception that it was an in-house book. He wanted it to feel independent. The only time he interfered was when he saw a proposed cover design and thought it was ugly. He asked for input into the cover. I agreed.

RU: What did you learn that surprised you most about his personal life as you researched the book?

WI: What most surprised me about his personal life was how it was connected to his professional life. He was intense and emotional in both. In both cases, he had a romantic new age side and a sensible, technological, rational, business side. These two sides ended up connecting in both his personal life and business life. In his personal life, the two strands connected in his marriage. It was both a romantic and rational marriage.

RU:  I indicated at the beginning of this interview that Jobs was so unique that no budding entrepreneur could benefit from emulating him.  But I wonder, what lessons are there in this bio for people who want to make world changing art or technology?

WI: The most important lesson is to have a passion for connecting art with technology. It was the lesson of the fusion of the hippie and tech geek of the early 1970s, as reflected in Mondo 2000, and it’s embodied in Steve’s life.

RU:  Have you had any interesting responses to the book — for example, was anyone shocked or dismayed by the LSD references… or anything else?

WI:  Some people responded to the book by focusing on, and being shocked by, his petulance. That misses the point. I tried to make the narrative a tale of how the petulant personality was connected to his passion for perfection — and how eventually he made that inspiring rather than off-putting.

RU: Do you think Apple can keep up the magic without Jobs?

WI:  Apple has been infused with Steve’s belief in connecting art to technology. Tim Cook and Jony Ive get it. So do the other members of his top management team. They can make it work.

Nov 27 2011

My Father Didn’t Have To Die: Transgender Technophile Says Goodbye To Dad

I hope you had a wonderful thanksgiving. I am sad to say that I did not. My day started out with my mother calling and telling me my father had died early thanksgiving morning. I was so utterly shocked that the only thing I could think to say was “I’m sorry to hear that.”  My mother probably hung up the phone thinking I could have cared less.

But that is far from the truth. My father and I may not have seen eye to eye on many things, but if I can be said to value reason and logic over blind faith, it is because of him.

My father was an engineer for the Department of Transportation in Ft Myers, Florida. He was responsible for overseeing many of the large bridge construction projects for the FDOT, including such projects as the rebuilding of the Sanibel Causeway, the Edison Bridge, and the Punta Gorda Bridge. He was mostly a very practical man. He wasn’t into theories or esoteric ideas, he was only ever concerned with making things work. I helped him build several houses over the years, and there was very little that my father could not figure out a way to do. He drilled his own wells, cleared his own land, and laid his own foundations. He was a precise man, a firm believer in measure twice, cut once, and exceeding the minimum safety requirements. He taught me to look at world in terms of problems to be solved, and to find a solution with what you had on hand instead of wishing for something you might never get. He was everything I am not physically, gifted with tools, the high school star athlete, he even rode bulls as a young man. He taught me to shoot, hunt, and dress an animal, to never shoot what you don’t plan to eat, and to appreciate nature.

And I am sad to say he was also very distant, because I was never what he wanted me to be — a carbon copy of him. I hated sports, hated hunting, hated camping. I learned how to do it all, but I could not share his passions. My father was a man of the past, a frontiersman to the core, and would have been perfectly comfortable as a pioneer. I am not. As an artist, a writer, and a technophile, we were almost diametrical opposites, and I am quite sure he still thought of me as a failure. And to a large extent that is probably my fault. I couldn’t be the son he wanted, and I knew he would never accept me as a daughter, no matter how much scientific proof I could have shown him for the genetic mixup between my body and brain that makes me transgender. I could never tell him why I could never be the boy he tried to make me.

But I still loved him, because he was my father, and I am angry that in a day and age in which the technology exists that could have saved him, he instead became just another statistic to mark off of some insurance company’s records. You see, unlike Steve Jobs, my dad couldn’t afford to pay his way to the top of a donors list. He died because he needed a lung, and he didn’t get one in time. I am angry because my father didn’t have to die. I am angry because so few years remain before he wouldn’t have needed to wait for a transplant, nor endure a continuous treatment to ensure the new lung wasn’t rejected. I am angry because he didn’t get the time he needed to become the strong energetic man I knew as a child again. I am angry because I will never have the chance to tell him why I couldn’t be his son, or ever have the chance to be accepted as his daughter. I am angry because there just wasn’t enough time. I am angry because he would never listen to me about cryonics, and all that is left is ashes.

And I am sadder than words can say that I will never again be able to watch him take a random collection of odds and ends and build something functional from them. Because, like me, my father was an artist. Where I use pen and ink, he used steel and stone and wood. He was a maker, a creator, and above all else, an engineer. He taught me to look beyond what was to what could be, to see the David within the slab of rock. I can only dream of what he would have done with the tools I have so often described, and the marvels he will now never create.

And I will never forget everything he gave me, no matter how many years or centuries I may live.

Good Bye, Dad. I love you. And I’m sorry.

Jun 20 2011

Apple, Google, and the Future of the Cloud

A packed house of over 5,000 software developers watched as Apple’s Steve Jobs introduced the latest operating systems for the Mac computer and for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch at the recent Apple World Wide Developers’ Conference 2011. He also talked about a new service, iCloud, which stores content on remote servers and makes synchronization of multiple Apple devices, Macs, and PCs as easy as using Apple’s ubiquitous iTunes.

Here Steve Jobs introduces the concept of iCloud (video courtesy of CNET):

Cloud computing, where documents, data and more are stored remotely so you can access them from a connected machine like an iPad or a computer, is not a new concept.  It was most probably derived from the diagrams of clouds used to represent the Internet in textbooks and resulted when telecommunications companies made a radical shift from point-to-point data circuits to Virtual Private Network (VPN) services in the 1990s. By optimizing computer resource utilization through load balancing, they could get their work done more efficiently and inexpensively.

But leave it to Apple to bring the Cloud to the masses in a big way (although it was Google Docs in 2006 which really brought cloud computing to the forefront of public consciousness). While the jury is still out on whether Google docs is a serious competitor to Microsoft’s Office suite — researchers from Pennsylvania State University recently determined that the cost of running small workloads though may actually be more expensive for larger compute jobs, compared to the costs of running such work in-house — there are still many Google Docs success stories. And Google continues to enhance Google Docs with a recent upgrade including a new feature that lets users discuss shared documents in real-time.

Unlike Google’s cloud-based service, Apple’s iCloud uses the cloud “to orchestrate data streams rather than control them” according to a recent ZDNet article. The cloud is used as a central repository for apps, music, media, documents, messages, photos, backups, settings, and more. Both Apple and Microsoft have been exploring the idea of a “central hub” of our digital life and work for over 10 years, with a variety of devices relying on it to coordinate content.

For Apple, the packaging of the this hub in the form of the iCloud service is also a sound business strategy. The New York Times reports that Apple’s iCloud has the potential to wipe out some existing web services and entire businesses with the integration of iCloud, Mac OS X Lion, and iOS 5. These businesses include: Instapaper, Red Pop hardware iPhone camera button, BlackBerry Messenger and GroupMe, Amazon Cloud Player and Google Music, Google Docs and Google Chromebook, and Dropbox.

While Apple wants your data now, Google’s entire strategy and approach to the cloud is based on a future vision of the Internet with low-cost, ubiquitous Internet access — including fiber connections in offices and homes and super-fast mobile broadband all over the world. Here is a fun video explaining the concepts behind Google’s Chrome OS:

Despite the cloud’s potential for cost savings and “reducing the hassles of running in-house computer servers,” the LA Times reports that  it may not yet be as safe as advertised. Because data from hundreds or thousands of companies can be stored on large cloud servers, hackers can theoretically gain control of huge stores of information through a single attack — a process called “hyperjacking.” Security professionals said the many attacks recently in the news reflect both an increase in hacking activity and new pressure on companies to quickly disclose when they’ve been attacked.

A recent study by Baseline shows that while many organizations are still holding back, fearful of security hacks, lost data, or lost control, a growing number of enterprises are driving their business to the cloud. They interviewed several companies including Kelly Services, Lionsgate Entertainment, HarperCollins Publishers, GWR Medical, Imperial Sugar, WhitePages, Suncorp, and Dubset.  Their  findings reinforce the opinions of the CEO panelists at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, held in Boston in May. The panelists at the keynote address, “Opportunities and Strategies in the Digital Business World,” spoke about the cloud as a way to free up capital so companies could take advantage of new business opportunities.

Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer implicitly acknowledged the importance of the cloud services in a recent interview — Microsoft is set to announce their answer to Google Docs: the Office 365 online service. And Jan Muehlfeit, European chairman of Microsoft Corp., sees the future in cloud computing.

Apple, Google, Microsoft, as well as Facebook (where many people already store the major events and interactions of their lives on the cloud) seem to be betting their billions on a cloud-based future.

What might this future look like?  SF writer Rick Moss poses some fascinating possibilities and questions in his new novel, Ebocloud.  The “ebocloud” is an internet social network subdivided into tribes formed by shared affinities (think Facebook). The cloud addresses, as one character says, “the primordial urge for belonging” and the end of aloneness. The cloud learns from the actions and interactions of each of the members (called cousins) who are connected to the cloud with “digital tattoos” using brain-stimulating and brain-computer interfacing nanotubes.

Moss asks what happens if the interaction with the cloud became two-way? What if the cloud could begin to affect emotions? “The objective of the human-cloud collective is to facilitate a feedback loop whereby human sensory data and biometrics are uploaded to the cloud to be aggregated, analyzed and used in various applications, then redistributed back to the human participants,” says Moss in a recent interview for H+ Magazine.  He sees this interaction resulting in what he calls a “social singularity,” a transhuman superintelligence emerging from “the cloud” network.

While Moss concedes that the technology is not yet in place for such a social singularity, he considers his novel a warning to future application developers: “The likes of Apple, Google and Facebook, with their billions to burn on wild-eyed notions, could very likely spur technological leaps in these areas. It would be nice if these developers were at least aware of the possibility of a social singularity so that they don’t stumble into the phenomenon blindly. That could be tragic.”

Jun 06 2011

All Watched Over By Machines & Ayn Rand’s Face

The opening episode of All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace — the BBC documentary that’s been generating big buzz since its debut on BBC 2 in late March — is a wildly enjoyable and coruscating, but nevertheless flawed dissection of the connections between Randian Actualism, the rise of technoculture, and the accelerating boom/bust cycles of global market capitalism. Adam Curtis (he’s huge in England) is a smart and skilled filmmaker working in the very contemporary rapid fire, cut-up mode.

Nevertheless, I fear that I must quibble with the narrative a bit. Episode One paints (or tars) with broad strokes. Clever as hell… but this is a sketchy and surprisingly simplistic narrative presented as airtight history. It’s also a very European take on U.S. technoculture (“I see libertarian people!”).

The title, of course, comes from a famous poem by hippie writer Richard Brautigan envisioning a cybernetic/ecological/post-scarcity utopia. As I sat down to view it, I expected the usual scalding critique of the illusions of the ‘90s cyber/counterculture and the hippie technotopians who made it all go down, playing right into the hands (as critics would have it, and they are at least partially correct) of the global financial elite.

Imagine my surprise then as I viddied the opening: “It’s a strange story and it begins with a strange woman in the 1950s in New York.” Cut to Mike Wallace interviewing Ayn Rand.

“Well, no.” thought I. “It all started with Lee Felsenstein, veteran of the ultraleft countercultural underground newspaper, Berkeley Barb, who organized the Homebrew Computer Club for computer hobbyists in Berkeley, California in the mid-1970s. (Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were amongst the many attendees who created the “personal computer revolution.”)

But I quickly realized that Curtis was telling an entirely different story — one that is largely valid (in aforementioned broad strokes) — about what happened when boundary defying technologies with global implications collided with market capitalism under the, at best, premature assumption that these combined forces would become a smooth functioning cybernetic (self regulating) system that would never crash.

Ayn Rand’s face, slightly twitchy and sad-eyed, recurs throughout the opening episode, looming over the proceedings, the central conceit being that Rand’s extreme philosophy has guided our political economy for several decades. This is a partial truth. The real story is, of course, more complicated and much messier, having less to do with ideology put into practice than natural opportunism responding to a set of circumstances. I mean, does anybody really believe that we wouldn’t be where we are now technologically without Ayn Rand? And granting that; does anybody believe, given the globalizing nature of that technology, that average Westerners wouldn’t have fallen into competition with people in developing countries and that the leaders of nations and states wouldn’t be reduced to offering tax breaks (If not blow jobs) to corporations if they’ll only bring their business to town (or keep it there)?

A complimentary narrative is interweaved into the episode involving the Clinton Administration, as we follow the Democratic President as he gets swallowed whole by Robert Rubin’s market ideology and Monica Lewinsky and we witness the exciting boom and then bust of the nineties, repeated with less boom and worse bust in the 2000s.

This, then, is not so much the story of the rise of digital enthusiasm as it is the story of the rise of speculative casino global capitalism contextualized by digital enthusiasm.

I would also point out — in fairness to my libertarian friends — that the ethic of the species of Silicon Valley libertarian entrepreneurs who play a starring role in the episode (they’re not as utterly ubiquitous as the documentarian implies) is entrepreneurial capitalism. This ethic honors using capital to actually do something, as opposed to simply making money from money by playing tricky games. Not that there was a great deal of resistance to the speculative booms in those quarters, but you will find some of these entrepreneurs sharpening those distinctions today as they note the damage done.

All these quibbles aside, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace looks to be a promising examination of technological exuberance over the last several decades. By the end of it all, I may be worshipping at Adam Curtis’s feet.

You can find the first two episodes now on YouTube and here’s hoping it makes it to BBC America.