Lo! An actual newsletter! as in related to current events (Not a chapter from my weird text but equally weird!)
I know you miss me... I miss you. Let's hang out?
Greetings from a seriously sleep-deprived heatwave in that strange gap at the end of an unevenly distributed pandemic. I've been way-too busy lately finishing off a video-based course called Introduction to Digital Skills for my employer, the EPFL Extension School, which is where I've been working as an instructor and content developer for just under a year. The course is a product and it launches Monday, so I can't share it with you here, but I'll tell you it's been fascinating to create basic-skills primers on the history of the Internet, the web, encryption, privacy, fake news and the like.
As with most of you reading this, I've lived this history, and I've also spent plenty of time theorizing and deconstructing it, but there's something different about getting back to the basics: if you had to explain, in 5 minutes, the most cogent facts about how ad-driven internet works and why this matters in 2021, post-Trump, pre-post-pandemic, what would you say?
(An aside: I can share this essay I wrote for the same organization on AI and the Visual Arts. It survived editing fairly well and I really enjoy the illustrations. I'm considering making the dog-licking-his-eyeball my Slack PFP).
Tellingly, this process of boiling down the most important "survival skills for the digital age" has made me look at the numbers and realize how little of the world actually uses social media and... not very often, actually.
Just about 60% of the world population even uses the Internet at all, and about 58% use social media. In Switzerland, the 2020 average duration was under 2 hours a day. In North America, this is closer to 82%, and FAANG (and most users!) would have you believe this represents the world.
As a child, did you ever fill a bucket with water from a hose and hold your finger over the end so it fills faster? It doesn't of course, the flow remains the same, but it's definitely more turbulent, and this feels like progress.
This lie - that turbulence is speed is progress - is a bit like the one about America being the Wealthiest Nation, as opposed to the truth that it's simply the host country to a handful of the biggest wealth-hoarders on the planet (who don't even pay taxes). It's a small-but-loud cadre that amplifies itself constantly around the idea of disruption, and it turns out it's a brand of particularly evil chaos magic.
Many of you have heard me say this, but the moment I took the first Trump administration seriously was the infamous Kellyanne Conway "alternative facts" exchange. I'm obsessed with this moment because while she was openly mocked for what some saw as a gaffe, it sent chills down my spine. If you watch the exchange, Conway clearly surprises herself with the power of the spell she unleashed, but is also delighted. This was one of the earliest clear-headed articulations of intent to deploy the social media golem: to put fiction and non-fiction on equal footing where nothing is true and everything is permitted.
We'll circle back to Burroughs in a minute, but the moment in this exchange where Chuck Todd says "alternative facts are not facts" is the moment the sigil is charged and the demon is manifest. We now have a world in which the word "fact" itself has fractured and can represent untruths, contrary to the very definition of the word.
There's nothing objective reality can do about this. It works. While this newsletter and others will celebrate and urge you to activate subjective reality for good, it turns out that maybe Rick Moranis had it right:
I won't leave you there I promise, but...
- I recently came across this remarkable sentence in relation to Major League Baseball: "Also, before games, every ball is rubbed with mud from the Delaware River." This is how I learned that since the 1930s, every baseball in professional play is baptised with the same earth, harvested by the same family. Sportsball folks are notoriously superstitious but it's still amazing to me when I find these pockets of tradition enshrined in contemporary industry. It might be money-ball, but they still practice earth-magic. If nothing else, it's a reminder that these hulking profit-beasts were once composed of actual people.
- St. Tim Berners-Lee has sold the web on the black market "for charity", which is... disappointing. I guess that's the problem with living saints.
- Surprising no one, Facebook is now injecting advertising into VR headsets. You know, the ones that are too cheap to be true? This demographic data is extremely accurate and valuable, but it's also disappointing to point out that some space is going to be taken over by exploitive industry and then watch it get taken over by exploitive industry.
- Speaking of VR monsters, one of the trio of awful humans who founded Oculus VR, Palmer Lucky, directly invoked chaos magic in announcing his war profiteering venture. "$450M in Series D funding for Andúril. It will be used to turn American and allied warfighters into invincible technomancers who wield the power of autonomous systems." Andúril, like the mercenary weaponized data firm Palantir Technologies, gets its name from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. We're living in Revenge of the Nerds, but the horror movie version.
One last aside: I've recently decided I miss working with electronics and building physical artworks. It's a slow roll and I don't have any space for it, but I ordered a couple of arduinos, I built a mechanical keyboard and a plotter and I've sketched out a bunch of ideas for projects.
I've been interested for a while in voice synthesis, specifically the early forms (once as a child I built my father a resistor-ladder voice DAC which actually worked, I thought it was awesome, nobody else did ¯\_(ツ)_/¯). I also grew up with the SpeakNSpell toys and recently discovered someone has implemented the function of the TI chip in software.
Last week I took a shot at getting this running and joked that I might have summoned an 80s-era demon. One of the projects I've sketched out around this I can't wait to work on: a spirit-box built around the TI voice synthesis chip. I'm tentatively calling it the SpookNSpell. 👻
I learned this week about playback, a technique that William Burroughs developed as a method of revenge to curse his enemies.
"The technique consists of using a portable tape recorder to record audio of the target location, then revisiting the location over a number of days and playing back the audio at low or subliminal levels. Burroughs described the effect as "recording the target’s own base shittiness, and then playing it back to him."
So What’s Going On Here? Well, I don’t really know, but I suspect that a great deal of power is somehow unleashed by the act of recording negative events and their subsequent playback. Bill described the playback effect to me quite simply as “recording the target’s own base shittiness, and then playing it back to him at subliminal levels.” The effect is subtle but profound, cumulative with time, and tends to multiply or magnify the negative aspects of the target far beyond the target’s ability to control. The shittier the target’s acts are, the more pronounced the effect of playback upon the target. Unconscious effects are equally devastating and may last for some time. The primary feature of this method is that it is not immediately recognized as an attack, if it is recognized at all. Most of the time, the target isn’t even aware he has been hit, and that’s the best kind of weapon, isn’t it? “No weapon at all…
Photography appears to greatly heighten the effect when used in conjunction with sound recording/playback. Something about making the photographic record seems to emit a power all its own..."
It occurs to me how: 1. Very much this thesis is like the one laid out on propaganda, military control and the Larsen Effect (feedback) by scholar Friedrich Kittler in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, and also 2. how accurately it describes social media. So I sit with this: Social media as a cursed shittiness-amplifier: playing back to us, subliminally and on a loop, the inherent badness of the world, multiplying or magnifying the negative aspects of the target far beyond the target’s ability to control. ...Unconscious effects are equally devastating and may last for some time.
50 Years of Text Games is a phenomenally good newsletter. If you care at all about the history of interactive fiction, video games or social gaming you should read it. Solid writing, great research, compelling stories. I'd never encountered Aaron Reed before, but I'm a fan now.
My first computer was a VIC 20 and I had a copy of Pirate Cove. I, too played Zork (And especially Planetfall), and I hung out on text MU*s as a kid, but I hadn't heard of Curses before:
It’s a game very much about odd corners and margins: interstitial places. As huge as the game is, it never takes its players into the main parts of Meldrew House proper, always scuttling instead through attics, basements, and secret crawlspaces. If you try to step into the main rooms of the house, or even somewhere you might be spotted from a window or doorway, the game promptly ends with you swept up into your family’s quotidian concerns: “You have missed the point entirely,” it admonishes...
I've been writing my own interactive fiction / MU* engine for a while now. I have a specific idea that I want to try out but crucially, this is the software project that's all mine. I want to finish it but there's no deadline and no real reason for it to exist. I'm taking my time, rewriting chunks of it, thinking slowly about architecture... lots of things you don't normally do with software development but should. I'm not sure this makes it any good (it definitely doesn't tread any new ground) but it is super helpful to me as a kind of zen-mandala exercise, letting my brain wander through the power of text, writing, programming and interface and back.
A couple of years ago I was set to work on a grant on "Interface and Theatre" at ZHdK that fell through. We had one really great summit, and then the support was pulled and I never got back to that work - but recently I've started to consider compiling all the interactive theatre work I've been doing here into a text (a book maybe?) The crux of it has been the simple conceit that there's some overlap between theatre and game design and the performance of self online. I realize this is not particularly original - it's not meant to be - it's more like a statement of fact, and the interesting bits are in the hows and whys this happens now.
I am particularly interested in the moment where computers become fast enough to collapse the idea of model into real-time. That is, where storytelling and reality can exist "at the speed of narrative." I don't pretend to know where the inflection point was, but this has passed... we're there... but I'm delighted when I see echos of these ideas in the foundational texts. I've been reading from Counterculture to Cyberculture, which has been on my "read next" shelf for like... 10 years? >.> I think it was originally recommended to me by Mols Sauter, but either way it's excellent. Related, this 1960 paper from CSAIL on "Man-Computer Symbiosis" (via @bruces), which in spite of the dated title and language about Mankind is remarkably contemporary, in particular the way it describes the issue of speed as pertains to computers as narrative co-authors.
I was also delighted to learn (from the same 50 Years... newsletter) that there was in fact an entire research lab at CMU in the 1990s that began with the conceit that theatre and games and computation had a lot to talk about. This sort of research doesn't sell that well commercially, as Reed points out, because it's unpredictable, but that's also exactly the moment we find ourselves in now, and a good counter-narrative is what we need.
Also from 5o Years... I learned that the title of first branching-paths multimedia game can probably go to The Sumerian Game, developed in 1964 by Mabel Addis, a schoolteacher and writer working in collaboration with IBM.
In the first segment of the game, the player plays a series of rounds in which they are given information about the current population, acres of farmland, number of farmers, grain harvested that round, and stored grain. The rounds start in 3500 BC, and are meant to represent seasons. The player then selects how much grain will be used as food, seed for planting, and storage. After making their selections, the game calculates the effect of the player's choices on the population for the next round. Additionally, after each round, the game selects whether to report several events. The city may be struck with a random disaster, such as a fire or flood, which destroys a percentage of the city's population and harvest.
In the late 1980s I won a science competition by writing a choose-your-own adventure style game about water conservation and pollution on my VIC that was installed at the Andover Town Hall for a few weeks. I wish I had been in Ms. Addis' class.
The first text-based strategy video game developer was a woman from the humanities working almost 60 years ago, and I'd never heard of her, in spite of being fascinated with this material and in spite of having worked at IBM research for many years, including spending time at the research museum/archives in Armonk. Why is her project not on display?
I caught up a bit last week with a good friend who pointed me at this article: I want to live in a baugruppe. I've always loved the phrase intentional community the way I love the concept of chosen family. Baugruppe in particular reminds me of various Scandanavian collective living strategies and lastly one of my favorite projects: The Godsbanen Institue for X. And this is where I want to leave you.
The evil chaos-magic of social media thrives on a vacuum of intentionally - or rather it's driven by will - and its particularly effective because most of the targets of this lack a their own intentionality with regards to the energy being focused. Harm thrives because this collective potential is mostly unused and mostly unguarded. Given this, the best counter-curse is intentionality. In the philosophy of the Institute of X, never say no, but rather "yes and here's how to do it safely." Please participate intentionally, it might be the only time-golem that can save us.
Thanks for reading! This work is independent and un-sponsored. If you enjoyed it, I'd be grateful if you'd share it. If you found it particularly entertaining or useful, I'd love a cup of coffee ☕ 💜