Archive for November, 2011

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The Finite Shapes of Growth

We have the capacity to imagine infinity. Or at least, we think we do. One way we do this is to create an imaginary machine, a kind of software that we run in our minds. The program is designed to add one to the current count. We set our imaginary machine in motion and say, “it continues to work like this, adding one, and so on.” The machine creates an infinity. At whatever point we look in on it, it’s in the process of adding one to the set of numbers. The trick of infinity isn’t in making something that’s immeasurably large, but rather it’s in creating an algorithm that doesn’t have a defined stopping point. This process defines our idea of a certain kind of growth.

Geoffrey B. West on Why Cities Keep Growing,
Corporation Always Die, and Life Gets Faster
Why Cities Keep Growing, Corporation Always Die, and Life Gets Faster

Geoffrey B. West, of the Santa Fe Institute, gave a presentation at the Long Now Foundation entitled: “Why Cities Keep on Growing, Corporations Always Die, and Life Gets Faster.” The talk is filled with lots of interesting facts about statistically common features of cities and corporations. But it was the preliminary foundation of the argument that I found most interesting–in particular, the idea of sigmoidal growth patterns. This is the idea that animals begin at their smallest viable size and quickly grow to their optimal size and then stop. Living in an age with an excess of infinities, it’s a startling fact to contemplate. Most things in the universe grow to a certain size and then stop.

Here’s Stewart Brand’s summary of West’s discussion of scale and energy use:

Working with macroecologist James Brown and others, West explored the fact that living systems such as individual organisms show a shocking consistency of scalability. (The theory they elucidated has long been known in biology as Kleiber’s Law.) Animals, for example, range in size over ten orders of magnitude from a shrew to a blue whale. If you plot their metabolic rate against their mass on a log-log graph, you get an absolutely straight line. From mouse to human to elephant, each increase in size requires a proportional increase in energy to maintain it.

But the proportion is not linear. Quadrupling in size does not require a quadrupling in energy use. Only a tripling in energy use is needed. It’s sublinear; the ratio is 3/4 instead of 4/4. Humans enjoy an economy of scale over mice, as elephants do over us.

With each increase in animal size there is a slowing of the pace of life. A shrew’s heart beats 1,000 times a minute, a human’s 70 times, and an elephant heart beats only 28 times a minute. The lifespans are proportional; shrew life is intense but brief, elephant life long and contemplative. Each animal, independent of size, gets about a billion heartbeats per life.

We like to talk about exponential growth, especially when thinking about the Network. It’s as though abstract-thought machines had manifested in a mesh of connected computers growing without limit. Exponential growth is infinite, it doesn’t have an end point. While we like to use biological metaphors when discussing the Network, we seem to ignore the growth pattern of most biology. While it’s highly likely that the growth of the Network is sigmoidal in shape, we love the slightly naughty thought that it will expand geometrically ad infinitum. What we seem to be thinking of is the possibility of ungoverned growth patterns in bacteria and viruses.

“The mathematics of uncontrolled growth are frightening. A single cell of the bacterium E. coli would, under ideal circumstances, divide every twenty minutes. That is not particularly disturbing until you think about it, but the fact is that bacteria multiply geometrically: one becomes two, two become four, four become eight, and so on. In this way it can be shown that in a single day, one cell of E. coli could produce a super-colony equal in size and weight to the entire planet Earth.”

Michael Crichton
The Andromeda Strain

To the best of my knowledge, this hasn’t happened recently. According to Lynn Margulis, the last time was probably around 2.5 Billion years ago, when the earth’s atmosphere lacked sufficient oxygen to sustain humans.

Perhaps 2.5 billion years ago, a new group of photosynthetic bacteria evolved, the ancestors of today’s cyanobacteria. These advanced photosynthesizers split water to produce the hydrogen ions (H+) needed to build sugar molecules. A byproduct of this water-splitting reaction was oxygen gas. This was a catastrophic event in the history of life. Oxygen is such a reactive element that it easily destroys delicate biological structures. As the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere increased, most species of anaerobic bacteria were driven to extinction, victims of the earth’s first case of air pollution. Some survivors retreated to areas of brackish water or other oxygen-depleted habitats, where their anaerobic descendants still flourish today. A few prokaryotes became aerobic by evolving various mechanisms to detoxify oxygen. The most successful of these processes was respiration, which not only converted toxic oxygen back into harmless water molecules, but also generated large quantities of ATP.

According to the SET, the photosynthetic production of oxygen gas and the subsequent evolution of respiration set the stage for the evolution of all eukaryotic cells. This evolutionary process occurred in several separate symbiotic events. The first eukaryotic organelles to evolve were mitochondria–structures found in almost all eukaryotic cells. In Margulis’s theory, small respiring bacteria parasitized larger, anaerobic prokaryotes. Like some bacteria today (Bdellovibrio), these early parasites burrowed through the cell walls of their prey and invaded their cytoplasm. Either the host or the parasite was often killed in the process, but in a few cases the two cells established an uneasy coexistence. The mutual benefits to the partners are obvious. The respiring parasite, which actually required oxygen, would allow its host to survive in previously uninhabitable, oxygen-rich environments. Perhaps the parasite also shared with its host some of the ATP that it produced using oxygen. In exchange, the host provided sugar or other organic molecules to serve as fuel for aerobic respiration. Eventually, as often occurs with parasites, the protomitochondria lost many metabolic functions provided by the host cell. Similarly, as oxygen in the atmosphere continued to increase, the host became more and more dependent upon its pro-tomitochondria to detoxify the gas. What began as a case of opportunistic parasitism evolved into an obligatory partnership. The small respiratory bacteria eventually evolved into the mitochondria of eukaryotic cells.

The growth pattern from which we spend most of our time attempting to escape is the sinusoidal–the one that looks like a sine wave. We like the sine wave as it travels up, feeling as though it could go on forever. When it reaches its peak, we have a feeling of total mastery. And then suddenly, things begin to decay. We fall to earth as quickly as we ascended. The process begins again, but this time for our descendants. It’s this pattern that is expressed through evolution. Once Darwin’s thoughts had diffused through the atmosphere, we began to rebel. We woke from a long slumber to find we were inside a process of natural selection that would not bend to our will. Here we introduce the concept of “the fittest.” And through a simple slight-of-hand, we confuse ideas of physical fitness with the fact of just happening to fit with a particular state of the environment. It’s with this concept of “the fittest” that we stand on the bridge of evolution with our hands on the tiller. With our newly found powers, we design ecosystems that operate in both a perfect steady state and with unlimited growth. The downward slope of the sine wave is for other entities, not us.

Of course, there are many ways to frame the process of natural selection. I particularly like the phrasing of Richerson and Boyd in their 2005 work, “Not By Genes Alone.”

“…All animals are under stringent selection pressure to be as stupid as they can get away with.”

Their inversion of the idea of “fitness” does a nice job of puncturing our illusion of being able to move the odds to our favor. If we’ve only been allocated roughly a billion heart beats arranged in the shape of one oscillation of a sine wave, it’s a clear blow to our sense of self esteem. The infinity inside of us doesn’t seem to jibe with these finite patterns of growth. Of course, infinities are much easier to imagine standing on the shore and gazing toward the horizon. Once we’ve seen the satellite photo of the earth, we begin to understand that our finitude, while very large, still has edges. The earth grew to its optimal size, and then stopped.

Once the earth was within the surround of the satellite, Planet Polluto was in need of the attention of the ecologist…

Marshall McLuhan
On “The Dick Cavett Show”

A Permanent Sense of Asymmetry: Watching the Non-Human Enter

Sitting in the audience at the California College of Arts, listening to Tim Morton’s talk “Enter the Non-Human,” I couldn’t help but think of a comment by Brian Eno. Eno had just finished producing the Talking Heads album “More Songs about Buildings and Food,” and he noted that the new album contained “more ideas per minute” than the first record. It’s my sense that the density of ideas in Morton’s talks is increasing as he pushes towards the “final” formulation of his book on Hyperobjects. As has been noted elsewhere, the ideas were streaming off the stage, washing over the audience. I experienced them like a Proustian sentence, holding an object out for our minds and then sketching it this way, then that way, then another, through a tumbling outpour of sub-clauses.

In the age of the Network, we often want things to be instantly consumable. If I don’t get it right off the bat, my attention moves to the next thing. The real-time stream and rest of the internet is just a click away. Morton traffics in philosophy, aesthetics and ecology; conversations on these topics aren’t easily digested. We have to chew on them a while. Sometimes we need to leave them and come back. Because of their difficulty, outside of the curriculum of an academic program, they tend to have limited circulation. This kind of learning is not achieved in a single transaction. The Book of Common Prayer suggests that as one encounters scripture, one must “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.” Poetry and philosophy require a similar process. Watching Morton give this talk in person, my understanding rested on having heard recordings of other versions of the Hyperobjects talk and read his papers and books. But even with this foundation, I felt compelled to come back to the talk as a recording.

Enter The Non-Human: A New Phase in Aesthetics
Timothy Morton
Enter The Non-Human

Several days later as the recording unfurled through my earbuds, I noticed some interesting differences between the microphone’s experience of the talk and my own. Morton’s voice was much more dynamic and intimate on the recording, in the room it was compelling, but much softer. Perhaps this is due to the earbuds and the recorded audio seeming to manifest inside my head, rather than coming from an outside source. The microphone, sitting in Morton’s shirt pocket, interacted with the fabric containing it while he moved about the stage. In the moment, only the microphone was aware of these subtle sounds of textiles. During the Q&A session after the talk, strange mechanical sounds emanating from the space above the auditorium intruded into the conversation space providing an appropriately non-human perspective. The microphone recorded barely a trace of these intrusions. The recording is there on my iPhone, waiting for me to give it a play and allow these thoughts a chance to sink in further.

A Series of Hyperobjects
Timothy Morton

Hyperobjects 1.0
Hyperobjects 1.0

Hyperobjects 2.0
Hyperobjects 2.0

Hyperobjects 3.0
Hyperobjects 3.0

Hyperobjects 4.0
Hyperobjects 4.0

Something about this experience feels like a new form of pedagogy. Certainly it’s spilled over the walls of the Academy and on to the the Network, but it’s form is the biggest difference. The playing field has fundamentally changed when one can to listen to multiple versions of a lecture, can loop back through the recorded lecture and focus on particular parts, and read versions of the idea as downloadable papers. Certainly nothing like that ever occurred in my years in the academy. Like a hyperobject, the lecture on hyperobjects is massively distributed in time and space.

One of the laugh lines in Morton’s talk is “anything you can do I can do meta.” The idea behind this quip is to characterize the move to “undermine,” or in Graham Harman’s phrase, to “overmine” an opponent’s position. Either some atom is the basic building block to which all things can be reduced; or some system is the foundation from which all things extend. Generally what is taught in the Academy are the particulars around these atoms and systems. In his talk, Morton reviews the historical progression of these “particulars” in an effort to get to the present ecological moment. The strange thing about Morton’s talk is that he’s not trying to lay out a new complex conceptual framework that wraps up everything that precedes it. Instead he brings up a series of examples of the rift between appearance and essence—the remainder that each of these conceptual transactions always generates as it tries to snugly fit around the contours of the real. For students trained in memorizing and recapitulating particulars, the process of discarding conceptual frameworks to see more clearly must seem counter intuitive. In a line of thought that operates in a space without a center or edges, sometimes it’s difficult to know when it’s arrived at it’s topic. And further, once there, what is the listener meant to take away? What kind of transaction is this?

From my perspective, Morton’s set of examples melded with, and transformed threads from my other reading, in particular with David Graeber’s book “Debt.” One of Graeber’s profound observations is on the origin of the exact transaction from which both parties can walk away from free and clear. While it’s the dominant model now, from a historical and anthropological point of view, the desire for “exactness” comes from events in which some harm has occurred and fair reparations must be calculated. The more normal transaction would be to always have some remainder on one side or the other, an ongoing debt–the idea is that there would always be a continuation of the relationship. The desire to walk away from a transaction free and clear with no debts on either side is born from anger.

When trying to imagine a just society, it’s hard not to evoke images of balance and symmetry, of elegant geometries where everything balances out.

David Graeber
From his book “Debt

As Morton points out, in the age of ecology there is no clean transaction you can walk away from. The fact that everything is connected isn’t something you can turn off when it’s inconvenient. There’s always something still owed, a remaining debt. Morton describes this as the viscous quality of the hyperobject, the more you know about it the more it sticks to you. And as Graeber shows, capital fails to capture the full extent of a transaction because it doesn’t fully represent the object. In the social context of the transaction, there’s always a remainder, the market never fully clears. At the level of capital and pricing, the numbers always add up, but the object of the transaction is broadcasting on multiple frequencies. And if you hold the concept of capital in abeyance for just a moment, you’ll find there were many more parties to the transaction than you had assumed, and if you listen closely, you can hear that the non-human has continued its relationship with you.


After the talk I was standing on a street corner in the darkness of the early evening discussing object-oriented ontology and Shelley with Morton. He said he thought the Romantic poets were very modern, that their poetry could have been written today. While I understood what he was saying on a basic level, I could see there was much more to it that was invisible to me. I had the sense of Shelley as a large tree that had grown up inside of Morton over many seasons. While no stranger to poetry, I’d only come to Shelley and his compatriots recently. Within myself, Shelley was no more than a small sapling.

Hymn to Intellectual Beauty
By Percy Bysshe Shelley

The awful shadow of some unseen Power
      Floats though unseen among us; visiting
      This various world with as inconstant wing
As summer winds that creep from flower to flower;
Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,
      It visits with inconstant glance
      Each human heart and countenance;
Like hues and harmonies of evening,
      Like clouds in starlight widely spread,
      Like memory of music fled,
      Like aught that for its grace may be
Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.

Spirit of BEAUTY, that dost consecrate
      With thine own hues all thou dost shine upon
      Of human thought or form, where art thou gone?
Why dost thou pass away and leave our state,
This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate?
      Ask why the sunlight not for ever
      Weaves rainbows o’er yon mountain-river,
Why aught should fail and fade that once is shown,
      Why fear and dream and death and birth
      Cast on the daylight of this earth
      Such gloom, why man has such a scope
For love and hate, despondency and hope?

No voice from some sublimer world hath ever
      To sage or poet these responses given:
      Therefore the names of Demon, Ghost, and Heaven,
Remain the records of their vain endeavour:
Frail spells whose utter’d charm might not avail to sever,
      From all we hear and all we see,
      Doubt, chance and mutability.
Thy light alone like mist o’er mountains driven,
      Or music by the night-wind sent
      Through strings of some still instrument,
      Or moonlight on a midnight stream,
Gives grace and truth to life’s unquiet dream.

Love, Hope, and Self-esteem, like clouds depart
      And come, for some uncertain moments lent.
      Man were immortal and omnipotent,
Didst thou, unknown and awful as thou art,
Keep with thy glorious train firm state within his heart.
      Thou messenger of sympathies,
      That wax and wane in lovers’ eyes;
Thou, that to human thought art nourishment,
      Like darkness to a dying flame!
      Depart not as thy shadow came,
      Depart not—lest the grave should be,
Like life and fear, a dark reality.

While yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped
      Through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin,
      And starlight wood, with fearful steps pursuing
Hopes of high talk with the departed dead.
I call’d on poisonous names with which our youth is fed;
      I was not heard; I saw them not;
      When musing deeply on the lot
Of life, at that sweet time when winds are wooing
      All vital things that wake to bring
      News of birds and blossoming,
      Sudden, thy shadow fell on me;
I shriek’d, and clasp’d my hands in ecstasy!

I vow’d that I would dedicate my powers
      To thee and thine: have I not kept the vow?
      With beating heart and streaming eyes, even now
I call the phantoms of a thousand hours
Each from his voiceless grave: they have in vision’d bowers
      Of studious zeal or love’s delight
      Outwatch’d with me the envious night:
They know that never joy illum’d my brow
      Unlink’d with hope that thou wouldst free
      This world from its dark slavery,
      That thou, O awful LOVELINESS,
Wouldst give whate’er these words cannot express.

The day becomes more solemn and serene
      When noon is past; there is a harmony
      In autumn, and a lustre in its sky,
Which through the summer is not heard or seen,
As if it could not be, as if it had not been!
      Thus let thy power, which like the truth
      Of nature on my passive youth
Descended, to my onward life supply
      Its calm, to one who worships thee,
      And every form containing thee,
      Whom, SPIRIT fair, thy spells did bind
To fear himself, and love all human kind.

News Guy Wept and Told Us…

The news came over the wire, the report says:

If fossil fuel infrastructure is not rapidly changed, the world will ‘lose for ever’ the chance to avoid dangerous climate change

The time frame is five years. Rapid change must occur within five years or dangerous climate change will be irreversibly with us. Perhaps I missed it, but I don’t remember seeing any emotion in the eyes of the news presenters. I’m not even sure many news programs featured the story. For most of us, the dispatch came over the internet–-and the internet rarely abandons its poker face.

Of course when I heard, I thought of the line in the song: “news guy wept and told us, earth was really dying.” For some reason, we received the news flatly. It’s an interesting moment, since we didn’t react to the news that rapid action is required; we automatically accelerated the time frame to this moment. The moment of irreversibility just happened. No tears were shed.

Five Years
David Bowie

Pushing thru the market square, so many mothers sighing
News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in
News guy wept and told us, earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying
I heard telephones, opera house, favourite melodies
I saw boys, toys electric irons and T.V.’s
My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare
I had to cram so many things to store everything in there
And all the fat-skinny people, and all the tall-short people
And all the nobody people, and all the somebody people
I never thought I’d need so many people

A girl my age went off her head, hit some tiny children
If the black hadn’t a-pulled her off, I think she would have killed them
A soldier with a broken arm, fixed his stare to the wheels of a Cadillac
A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest, and a queer threw up at the sight of that

I think I saw you in an ice-cream parlour, drinking milk shakes cold and long
Smiling and waving and looking so fine, don’t think
you knew you were in this song
And it was cold and it rained so I felt like an actor
And I thought of Ma and I wanted to get back there
Your face, your race, the way that you talk
I kiss you, you’re beautiful, I want you to walk

We’ve got five years, stuck on my eyes
Five years, what a surprise
We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot
Five years, that’s all we’ve got
We’ve got five years, what a surprise
Five years, stuck on my eyes
We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot
Five years, that’s all we’ve got
We’ve got five years, stuck on my eyes
Five years, what a surprise
We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot
Five years, that’s all we’ve got
We’ve got five years, what a surprise
We’ve got five years, stuck on my eyes
We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot
Five years, that’s all we’ve got
Five years
Five years
Five years
Five years

Open Windows: Amplifying The Background

Listening to Terry Gross talk with Joe Henry about his new album, Reverie, I was struck by an aspect of his recording technique. As the price of recording technology has plummeted, many musicians have home studios. At one time that meant a custom facility similar in construction to a professional recording studio. Nowadays a recording studio might be an extra room in the house, the basement or the garage.

Even though it’s well known that every room has its own sound, the professional recording studio attempts to isolate musician-produced sound from its surroundings. As much as possible, the room should be invisible to the recording. And of course, we’re referring here to building a digital recording rather than the documentation of a live performance taking place in a particular room.

In the sessions for Reverie, Joe Henry recorded in his home studio. Rather than build a wall between the recording studio and the world outside, Henry decided to literally open the window. The world was invited on to the tracks. Cars might drive by, dogs might bark, perhaps that’s a freeway you can hear off in the distance. The kicker for me was this, Henry didn’t just open the window on to his recording session, he put a microphone at the window so that world would have its own track on the recordings. This also allowed the musicians to hear the world outside the window and respond to it in their playing. Think of it as a kind of playing live without a human audience.

The takeaway is an instruction that can be added to a personal set of oblique strategies: open the window and give it a dedicated microphone. In Joe Henry’s case, the result sounds real good.

Here’s Joe Henry on the thought process:

We set up not only in the same room, but as close together as we could physically manage; the noise we each made spilling heavily into the space of the others, committing us to full performances and blurring the lines between us. Additionally, and perhaps in response to the frequent anxiety I shoulder regarding noise in the ‘hood when producing other artists in my own studio, I left all the windows open –inviting barking dogs, fighting birds and postal deliveries all to stand and be counted, to be heard as part of the fabric of the music –the way I always hear it around here. Though rarely autobiographical in nature, none of these songs, in fact, exist apart from my day-to-day life that allows them; and as such, there is no silence to be found on this record, only the outer world rising to speak as the songs descend.

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