Archive for August, 2009

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Assemblage: Seeing Difference

Deleuze’s target in Difference and Repetition is the subordination of difference to identity. Normally, difference is conceived of as an empirical relation between two terms each of which have a prior identity of their own (“x is different from yâ€?). In Deleuze, this primacy is inverted: identity persists, but it is now a secondary principle produced by a prior relation between differentials (dx rather than not-x). Difference is no longer an empirical relation but becomes a transcendental principle that constitutes the sufficient reason of empirical diversity as such (for example, it is the electric potential difference in a cloud that constitutes the sufficient reason of the phenomenon of lightning). In Deleuze’s ontology, the different is related to the different through difference itself, without any mediation by an identity.”

Every concept originates through our equating what is unequal. No leaf ever wholly equals another, and the concept “leaf” is formed through an arbitrary abstraction from these individual differences, through forgetting the distinctions; and now it gives rise to the idea that in nature there might be something besides the leaves which would be “leaf”—some kind of original form after which all leaves have been woven, marked, copied, colored, curled, and painted, but by unskilled hands, so that no copy turned out to be a correct, reliable, and faithful image of the original form.”

To see a World
in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.


Every sign by itself seems dead. What gives it life?—In use it is alive. Is life breathed into it there?—Or is the use its life?

Reverse is the movement
of Tao.
Yielding is the action of Tao.
Ten thousand things in the universe are created from being.
Being is created from non-being.

On a television program last night, one of the characters was looking at a painting by Constable. He was concentrating particularly on the clouds— as he wanted to learn to paint clouds in the manner of Constable. He turned to the police detective, who was there to question him, and said: “that’s what those clouds looked like on that day.”

Edward Kennedy (1932 – 2009)


The Swan

by Rainer Maria Rilke

This clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done,
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.
And to die, which is the letting go
of the ground we stand on
and cling to every day,
is like the swan,
when he nervously lets himself down into the water,
which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under
and after him, wave after wave,
while the swan,
unmoving and marvelously calm,
is pleased to be carried,
each moment more fully grown,
more like a king, further and further on.

translated by Robert Bly

Ubik: Propensity and Anti-Propensity


Imagining the future in literature in some way creates a space for technology to advance. It’s not so much the mechanics of the technology, but a vision of what we desire the technology to accomplish. The production of desire precedes the will to create a technology. Pushing technology to the edges of its capability reveals the gap between what is possible and what is desired. From portable teleputers to rocket ships, we imagine our future states of desire. Bridging that gap is the business of new technology.

Books like ‘1984‘ and films like ‘2001‘ have been exceeded by the calendar, but the quality of their vision remains relevant. An interesting kind of disturbance happens when one of these literary visions begins to synchronize and emerge through contemporary society. The recent resurrection of Philip K. Dick is related to the ways in which his dystopian visions of the future are beginning to manifest in our daily life. The commercial, legal and political decisions that confront us as the Network becomes more developed stare at us from the pages of Dick’s novels. These decisions are akin to the moral issues created by the reorganization of society caused by the industrial revolution.


This train of thought was engendered by a recent reading of Dick’s novel ‘Ubik.’ In this novel, Dick lays out a world where ‘Pre-Cogs‘ can predict what will happen next. And to some extent, that knowledge creates the possibility of influencing what will happen next. We do this today with propensity modeling and choice architecture.

Our “search” engines tell us that if only they knew a little more about us, had access to a personal profile (identity), in addition to the complete record of our search history, they could use that context to provide more “relevant” results. In Dick’s world of “Ubik,” this process of propensity modeling is enhanced by the use of people with telepathic powers; a kind of joining of search technology and pre-cogs through a mechanical turk service.

Ubik also extends the concept of micropayments to its extreme. Every aspect of living has been “monetized” through the micropayments infrastructure. Opening the front door to your apartment requires the payment of five cents. Using the sink in the bathroom will cost you fifty cents. And the door and the sink know all about your payment history and if your credit is any good.

Things taken to their extreme create the desire for a balancing force, and in Ubik, this takes the form of the “prudence organization:”

“Ads over TV and in the homeopapes by the various anti-psi prudence establishments had shrilly squawked their harangues of late. Defend your privacy, the ads yammered on the hour, from all media. Is a stranger tuning in on you? Are you really alone? Are your actions being predicted by someone you never met? Terminate anxiety; contacting your nearest prudence organization will tell you if in fact you are the victim of unauthorized intrusions, and then, on your instructions, nullify these intrusions— at a moderate cost to you.”

– from Ubik, by Philip K. Dick

The inferential extension of a person’s trajectory and velocity allows for the sale of road signs on the path not yet traveled. (Except in Vermont where billboards aren’t allowed.) This power is currently held by a small number of corporate citizens of the Network. But as all new technology tends to travel the path from the leading edge to commodity, it will be dispersed to players of all shapes and sizes. One can easily imagine the regulations that will result from its abuse.

The business of removing the target from our backs started in a simple way with the national do not call list. However, the refinement of the targeting of an individual person’s desires based on harvesting real-time attention and gesture data on the Network continues at a ferocious pace. The anti-targeting forces are few and far between. The Attention Trust and the Gesture Bank imagined that we could take ownership of, and eventually barter, using that data. These ideas, and to some extent, the idea of vendor relationship management, attempt to turn the equation around. The individual captures their own value, or their micro-community’s value, and ultimately has the responsibility for determining what will happen with it. The option of complete invisibility or anonymity on the Network seems only to be practiced by black hat hackers.

There’s a set of data that can purchased about an individual today— tomorrow it will include your trajectory and velocity. Will there also be a service that makes you invisible to the tracking services? Is their a future in Prudence?

Business Models: The Razor and the Blade


The razor and the blade have taken on largely metaphorical meanings in the era of “Free.” Products and services are bundles of threads, some free, some advertising supported and others with a variable or fixed price. The razor itself is free or low cost, and the consumer pays for disposable blades which subsidizes the cost of the handle. Cellular phones use this pricing model. Chris Anderson posits that this model will become dominant, with a digital component naturally tending toward a price of zero.

If we take a moment, and look—not at the metaphor, but at actual razors and blades, we’ll learn a great deal about how the “Free” business model will develop. The Holy Grail of the shaving world is the “close shave.” And, of course, the close shave imbues the shaver with extraordinary attractiveness and social power. It becomes the almost unattainable object of desire. The companies that make shaving equipment have brought together the world’s best scientists and storytellers to create a compelling narrative. The road to a closer shave can only be achieved through multiple blades and high-level engineering. The five-blade razor has emerged as the pinnacle of shaving science.


The simple razor and blade have been transformed into a technology experience beyond the understanding of the average Joe looking to rid himself of five o’clock shadow. Along side the production of the physical product is the production of desire. The act of shaving requires ever greater efforts, continual progress— we’ll pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of the close shave.

The world of shavers has been tightly wrapped in the dream narrative of the progress of shaving and its technology. It turns out the “Free” part of the product is not the critical factor, it’s the production of desire. The essential ingredient is the creation of a strong narrative beyond which the consumer cannot see or imagine.

Every extreme engenders a backlash, and the five-bladed razor may have tipped the scales. Step outside the dream of the technology of the “close shave” for a moment and consider a double-edged single razor blade that performs better than the latest five-bladed technology. Could “one” be superior to “five?”

Of course, we need our dreams, our goals, our destinations— the humble razor and blade provide an excellent example not just of the economics of a business model, but of how the production of desire influences the engineering of the product. “Free” is the taste, the invitation to the dream.

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