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Everybody Must Get Stoned

Here’s another “pro tip” for the media. They seem to have trouble locating an appropriate frame for the antics of President Donald John Trump. They’re used to finding political and policy strategy when they look for it. This President is purely tactical; he exists from one moment to the next.

Here are two tactics that have been successful for him.

The first tactic is reducing the pressure on yesterday’s outrage with a new outrage today. These rolling outrages overwhelm the capacity of the media. Unable the prioritize or distinguish what’s important from what’s not, the media is rolled on a daily basis. This tactic can be used to set the agenda by driving the outrages into the direction of wedge issues. Since it’s not illegal to lie to the media, that’s the primary tactic. This tactic surprises the media over and over again.



The second tactic is manufacturing targets for his mob. You can find the perfect normalization of this tactic in Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.” In Jackson’s story the target for stoning is chosen by lottery while the whole community dutifully takes part in the event. In Trump’s world, to refrain from throwing stones is to succumb to political correctness.

Stoning is a method of execution during which a group of people, usually peers of the guilty party, throws stones at the condemned person until he or she dies. Death by stoning was prescribed in the Old Testament Law as a punishment for various sins. Both animals and people could be the subjects of stoning (Exodus 21:28), and stoning seems to have been associated with sins that caused irreparable damage to the spiritual or ceremonial purity of a person or an animal.

Hillary Rodham Clinton has been Trump’s target par excellence. Over the years, through an extended campaign, the mob has been given permission to throw stones at her. Anything is allowed in an attack on a person condemned to stoning. The reason Trump can’t let her go, even though the election has long since past, is that he hasn’t found a target that his mobs like as well. The other thing that made it work was that the mainstream media felt that they too had permission to throw stones at Clinton.

Trump’s Twitter attacks are the way he tests new targets. Currently he’s auditioning Colin Kaepernick for the role of scapegoat. The quarterback certainly seemed to fit the mold, although Trump’s run into some unexpected resistance. While initially the media was happy to throw stones at Kaepernick, recently they seem to have discovered the other side of the story.

The social madness of stoning is the primary metaphor of Trump’s political power. In some respects, this is why individual Republican politicians fear him. They understand that they could easily be the next target. It becomes easier to follow what Trump is doing once you realize that all he really wants is another good target for the stones of his mob. His search isn’t restricted by ideology or party loyalty, Trump is simply looking for the freedom to stone some person or group to death.



Someone’s Been Messing with My Feed

It was an experiment in “happier” and “sadder”. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Facebook collaborated with some researchers on a psychological experiment on 700,000 of its users. It went something like this: add 20% more happiness and see what happens; add 20% more sadness and see what happens. The subjects of the study appeared to go with the flow, creating happy posts when fed happiness, and sad ones when fed an extra helping of sadness.

The internet explodes in outrage. How could Facebook abuse its position and add extra emotional shading to the newsfeeds of unsuspecting users? All of the big data merchants have this power. All of them assure us that they would never do such a thing. They are completely neutral, simply a transparent medium. Think of them as the Switzerlands of big-time data technology. (And as long as you don't know too much about the history of Switzerland, that'll seem just fine.)

The newsfeed is an interesting animal. It's the personalized stream of items that has been theorized over for a long time. If only we could give people what they want at the exact moment they need it, it wouldn't be perceived as advertising. Each person's newsfeed is unique, made of of selected interests, social graph and radiating out to a couple degrees of separation. Because of the personal nature of the selections that make up the newsfeed, it has the feel of an internal stream of consciousness. Your stream is unlike the stream of any other person. There are common elements, and there are moments where the streams cross, but each one is unique. As “individuals”, we identify strongly with our own feed; it's like no other.

The violation Facebook is charged with is similar to one we encountered in the 1970s — with subliminal advertising. Someone is airbrushing sex and death images into the ice cubes of liquor ads in magazines. Advertisers are intentionally targeting our unconscious minds, and there's no defense. We become like sleepwalkers, buying products without conscious intent. In our pragmatic, utilitarian society what could be more sinful?

We feel violated, some big corporation is messing with our insides — that feed is ours. It “is” us. All the while we walk through shopping malls filled with positive images designed to flatter and make us feel good. We watch television dramas that reinforce our moral values. We read magazines filled with an extra helping of happiness. The world as a feed that enters our ears and eyes is chock full of extra happiness. We already live inside a world that conditions our desires and provides positive reinforcement when we purchase the correct brands.

Facebook's error was to believe that it was an external feed like all the rest. In Bradley Kaye's book on Zen and Critical Theory called “The Boundless Open Sea” he describes the relationship between the internal newsfeed and the self.

Most Buddhists believe that actions are a direct result of a thought behind the action. Unethical actions are a direct result of untrained and messy thoughts. For the vast majority of people on this planet, thoughts pop up and appear as if they were completely natural. The vast majority of people never reflect on these thoughts. They come into the mind, make a cameo appearance and then leave without ever fully grounding themselves in anything solid or real. These untrained thoughts appear so natural they often unreflectively burst out as a set of spoken words. Habits and conditioning supersede the pathway to enlightenment and there is a way that people identify themselves with these untrained immature thoughts. There is no detachment from the thought process going on in these minds. The mind-images, or the mind-movies that are playing continue on as if they are an unstoppable force.

The streams of thought that Facebook appears to be contaminating with its extra helpings of happiness or sadness are already contaminated. Or rather, they are comprised largely of external memes and entities that make up the flow of thoughts rushing though our minds. The word “contamination” implies that there could be a pure state of cleanliness — as though we could take few squirts of anti-bacterial hand sanitizer and somehow massage our brains to remove the alien thoughts.

Bradley Kaye goes on to discuss how one might separate one's self from the flow of noise. The method does not involve prohibiting Facebook from adding or subtracting emotional shading to our newsfeeds.

The first step to liberating the mind is having an awareness that you are not your thoughts. To be aware that there is a voice in the mind and that this is the ego, not the true self. By sitting quietly, reflecting, and listening to the stammering voices that exist in the mind you diminish the Clamor of Being and can become completely detached from this white noise. It never completely stops because in modern society we are completely saturated with noise.

 

Escape from the Factory of Life

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It’s as though we just looked up and noticed that someone is watching us. It’s that creepy feeling. You know that someone or something sees you, but you can’t see them. The Internet seemed like a place where no one knew whether you were a dog or not. Identity didn’t matter and that’s what created a level playing field, a kind of equality. But then it turned out that you could be identified, that you identified yourself on social networks for fun and profit, that your identity information and preferences could be aggregated and sold without your knowledge. Rather than a casual conversation, the Internet turned into an indexed and searchable permanent record. It’s the equivalent of having everything you type into your network-connected keyboard published to the front page of USA Today in real time. And that’s a very strange context in which to speak.

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Doc Searls recently weighed in on the issue of Privacy in the age of connected digital networks. It’s an issue that he’s been deeply involved with for many years. Much of our current dilemma could be seen coming from a mile away. But here’s why Doc sees this as a pivotal moment:

I see two reasons why privacy is now under extreme threat in the digital world — and the physical one too, as surveillance cameras bloom like flowers in public spaces, and as marketers and spooks together look toward the “Internet of Things” for ways to harvest an infinitude of personal data.

There’s a joke that Marc Maron tells: “Big Brother is watching us. That’s what we pay him for.” Maron gets to the conflict at the heart of our complaint about surveillance. In a sense, this is what we’ve asked for. We want maximum safety and so we authorize and pay for unlimited surveillance in the hopes of preventing catastrophic events. Now that we see how our wishes are being carried out, we’re troubled — isn’t total information awareness just for the bad guys? Be careful of what you wish for…

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Marshal McLuhan called advertising our cave art. It expresses our most basic desires. Some would say that it creates them, but the truth is that the desire needs to be there to start with. Advertising calls that deep desire to the surface. There’s a television ad that’s running now that says a great deal about who and what we’re thinking right now. It’s for a car called the Infiniti Q50.

We see a “Factory of Life”. Men and women, young white professionals are being assembled and outfitted in a factory. A disembodied voice narrates the stages of the process. Industrial robots apply lipstick to the women’s lips. The men’s suit coats and ties are fitted with precision. All the personal style is very high end — but it’s all identical. Industrial capitalism has raised the standard of living to a level of luxury. There are no workers in the factory, there are only the people on the assembly line getting a commodified wealthy lifestyle. Either the people of color are being hidden behind the walls of the factory or the factory has remanufactured their ethnicity to conform to a pre-established standard.

As our hero moves down the assembly line, it becomes clear that this isn’t a socialist utopia where everyone can enjoy the benefits of wealth. It’s a surveillance state where conformity is strictly enforced. Everyone accepts what’s happening to them with a blank stare. There are no emotions — merely impeccably-dressed cogs in the machine. No one loves the artifacts of their wealth, no one enjoys the luxury.

A robot arm puts our protagonist’s necktie into place and he experiences a sudden spark of consciousness. He turns and sees his reflection in some glass. He smiles, thinks “I look pretty good.” As he looks around, suddenly he’s able to see the Matrix. He moves farther down the assembly line to where car keys are being distributed. The keys are to identical C-class cars by Mercedes Benz. Each figure takes a key without complaint. We can see that our hero has begun to question what’s going on. A woman’s face appears on a small screen that only he can see. She’s a human like him and she’s hacked into the Matrix to help get him out. She tells him to check his pants pocket for a set of keys. These are the keys to the Q50 and escape from commodification and conformity. He takes the keys and makes a run for it.

The surveillance system detects his his break from the assembly line and dispatches robots to capture or possibly kill him. He’s not pursued by humans, it’s only technology that enforces its own mechanistic repetition. Making a different choice is clearly a dangerous act. The mechanical forces of commodity chase him as he makes his way to the Q50. He gets in, starts it up and drives out of the factory. The robots engage in the chase, but are left in the dust. The Q50’s acceleration is fantastic and quickly the factory recedes in the distance. The road opens in front of him as he drives out of the darkness and into the light. Freedom.

We easily forget that a commodity with special sauce provides our hero with the means to escape the boring commodities that everyone else accepts. A commodity provides the escape from commodity. It’s an open question how he will make a living outside the machine. No doubt he will live by his wits. The “Factory of Life” that opens the commercial is a good representation of what we’re asking of technology. It’s an expression of our wishes and desires. The machine will supply us with the good life as long as we accept the conformity and don’t get out of line. “Assimilation is beauty.” Individual desires can’t be tolerated. There’s great wealth for everyone in the envelope of a surveillance state. Not unlike the way we trade our personal data for a wealth of free online services.

And predictably, we want to view ourselves as the individual who breaks out of the mold. We’re not part of the machine, we have free will and a need to express our individuality. We wake from a dream anchored to one set of commodities and a mechanized life into another dream level where a revolutionary set of commodities anchor a new and improved fantasy with 30% more freedom. You and I wake up to see that we’re in a surveillance state of cloud computing and the NSA. We see our reflection in the glass and enter Lacan’s mirror stage. We perceive the image of our body and form a mental image of our individual identity. We make a run for it. We’ll live by our wits.

The idea of the “mirror stage” is an important early component in Lacan’s critical reinterpretation of the work of Freud. Drawing on work in physiology and animal psychology, Lacan proposes that human infants pass through a stage in which an external image of the body (reflected in a mirror, or represented to the infant through the mother or primary caregiver) produces a psychic response that gives rise to the mental representation of an “I”. The infant identifies with the image, which serves as a gestalt of the infant’s emerging perceptions of selfhood, but because the image of a unified body does not correspond with the underdeveloped infant’s physical vulnerability and weakness, this imago is established as an Ideal-I toward which the subject will perpetually strive throughout his or her life.

There’s a common political move that allows the complainant to achieve a state of blameless innocence. “Since I completely disagree with what the government is doing; I therefore bear no responsibility for its actions. It’s those people, not me who are doing this terrible surveillance. I am innocent; they are guilty. Me good, world bad. My purity remains as pure as it ever was.”

When things are going well, we’re quite proud of the idea of government by the people, for the people and of the people. In the experiment called the United States, the actions of the government are the actions of the people. The President is President of all of the people, not just those who voted for him or her. Instead of declaring our absolute innocence with regard to the bad acts committed by our government, what if we took personal responsibility for them. Those are our dreams and desires manifesting in the real world. Yes, those bad acts were committed in my name. And that defines my morality and the morality of my fellow citizens. We do that. We asked for, and paid for, a surveillance state. It’s only by owning it that it can be changed.

Discovering a Company of Thieves

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In the age of the connected digital Network, they call it “discovery”. It’s not what you like right now, or what you’ve liked in the past — it might be described as what you’ll like in the future. Mostly it doesn’t work, but on occasion something delightful it discovered. The algorithm usually goes like this: if you like tea, you’d probably also like this weak tea. When a discovery occurs, it usually has nothing to do with tea.

The problem is “discovery” actually works through leaps, gaps and other forms of discontinuities. Algorithms can provide options along a path of logical extension. The further the extension moves from the source, the weaker the connection. The strange thing is that when the connection becomes so weak it’s non-existent, that’s when discovery might happen. Machines that attempt to replicate serendipity have trouble with this last piece. That zone of strangeness feels a bit like chaos to them — there’s no reason at all to take the next step in any particular direction. If you’ve been down this road, you know this point in a process of discovery is different from randomness. The accumulated context makes a difference.

When you’re young and for the first time discovering a lot of new music, there’s always some older figure who turns you on to the music from your future. There are new worlds in front of you — outside your realm of experience. A stack of records can give you a preview into the soundtrack of these alien worlds. This is how young minds are blown. It’s also the kind of peak experience that can stay with you for a lifetime. To some extent, all music going forward will be compared to those transformational sounds.

Once you’ve grown up, figured out what you like and filled up your library with your favorites; discovery becomes a much more difficult process. That transformational process isn’t likely to happen again. You “are” that older figure, and now you’re annoyed that young people today don’t appreciate the music that first turned you on.

If you’re storing your music in the cloud, your music provider probably knows your library better than you do. Every “play” is logged and plotted to determine what you currently like and what you’ll like and purchase next. This is where you’ll find complex genomes of music underlying auto-generated playlists mixing with the quantified self.

I recently discovered a band called “Company of Thieves“. I wasn’t looking for them, or anything like them. I was actually more interested in learning about what Daryl Hall was doing these days. I’d had an interest in him since his first solo album produced by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp — the long delayed “Sacred Songs“. (Check out his vocals on the song “North Star“). I’d seen a few moments of “Live from Daryl’s House” on television and traced it back to the web. YouTube provided a nice selection of the greatest hits from the show. The clips of “Company of Thieves” kept drawing me back. There was something about them. There isn’t an obvious link between Daryl Hall’s music and what Company of Thieves does. There’s no recommendation engine that spit would out “if you like Daryl Hall, you’ll probably like Company of Thieves”.

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Chicago-based Company of Thieves (Genevieve Schatz and Marc Walloch) has released two albums on Wind-Up Records, but despite their best efforts hadn’t broken through on any of the media that I follow. The band’s appearance on “Live from Daryl’s House” was in January of 2009. It’s with these four-year old videos that I started following their story. There’s not much in the mainstream music press. It was really through YouTube that I was able to piece together an idea of the range of the band’s sound.

While I loved The Beatles when I was younger, these days I find it hard to listen to them. I’ve heard the songs too many times. It’s the Beatles Anthology recordings that still have some interest for me. I like hearing the songs in their rough form, it’s there that I can see through to the bones of the song to see if it still works. Company of Thieves has done something similar. Their finished recordings have very complex and compelling arrangements; the band gets a very big sound. But they’ve also released videos of acoustic performances of their songs — and not in an ideal studio environment. Instead, they perform out in the world, without a net. Not only can they actually perform the songs from their recordings, they can put them across in the ordinary world — on a beach, riding in a car, on a moving train, at an amusement park and walking down the street in the rain. To me, that makes a connection that a lot of computer-based music has lost.

When I think about the criteria used in my process of discovery, it doesn’t seem like something that could be wrapped up into an algorithm, scaled up and served out to the masses. I want something that I’ve never heard before. It might even be something that I don’t initially like; something that takes a while to grow on me. It might even take a couple of weeks before I decide that I need to buy this music and support the artists. This kind of discovery is pretty rare, and that’s part of what’s good about it. If I could push button and receive a new discovery every day that was custom-built based on the artifacts of my listening behavior, it would soon grow boring. And what could be worse than a cloud-based networked computer program that effectively caused me to become bored with my own taste.

I understand that Company of Thieves is working on some new music. That makes me smile.

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