A couple of programming notes:
NB: I sketched out most of this essay prior to the outbreak of the very real war against Ukraine. I have felt strange about sending it because it's only very lightly related, but everything feels strange lately, and none of this is meant as commentary on the actualities of this week's events. I suppose I just wanted to note this is not a ghoulish attempt at a current-events tie-in, I just didn't actually anticipate WWIII this week.
- If you're mostly here for my VR/AR/Virtual worlds stuff, I've decided there's enough there that is going to get it's own project, website and newsletter: The Intrepid Pixel Society. Please check it out! I'm committed (to myself) to cover this for one year, and then I'll reevaluate, although I also managed to launch that right before the invasion and I confess that's taken a bit of the wind out of my sails in terms of covering alternate realities, but I'm still on it.
- In case you missed it on the socials, Sujata Day, a childhood friend of my partner Anindita has been working for ages on a coming-of-age film about family, mental health and spelling bees which she wrote, directed and starred in. It's a good film (with a cameo by LeVar Burton) and I've (very indirectly, via Anindita) been tracking how hard she's been working at trying to get it produced and into the real world. We were thrilled to learn the film was picked up by Ava DuVernay is available on Netflix! Please go check out Definition Please.
On with the show...
...and the world goes beep beep beep...
Sometime in the mid 1980s, my parents bought a Magnavox boombox. It had a radio and a dual tape players, and I thought of it as high-end audio gear because 1. I wasn't supposed to play with it and 2. The speakers slid off so you could place them around the room. Several years later they would upgrade to a new model which featured a CD player, and I inherited this old one. In truth it wasn't much in terms of audio gear, probably on deep discount at Sears, but it had a killer feature: two mysterious buttons labeled SW1 and SW2; A radio tuner capable of listening in on shortwave.
As a child I remember being deeply fascinated with radio and with signals. What they meant, where they came from. I had no training or guidance in electronics but I disassembled and reassembled countless televisions and radios and toys, looking for the magic. I'm grateful I (somehow) never got killed by a charged CRT capacitor, but I did literally see stars the time a call came in while I was stripping telephone line wire with my teeth: a corporeal reminder that both us and our data are made of the same electrical impulses.
A pair of old toy Radioshack walkie-talkies we had could be tuned-in on the UHF band of our aging Zenith television, and I once was able to pick up my neighbor down the street (a HAM radio operator) by accidentally building an antenna in my room with a massive spool of wire I'd scavenged from behind the cable company. Punching that SW1 button on the Magnavox was a portal to a new dimension. The voices on the shortwave, rife with static and bits of distorted music, speaking in languages I had never heard before, altered by the ether into the idea that outside of my home, but also inside my room at any moment, there were people, ideas, thoughts, intention, moving like ghosts through the air.
My father found me listening one day and told me that a lot of what I was hearing came from outer-space and that if I listened carefully I could probably find Russian spy satellites. As a child of the cold war I found this idea equal parts amazing and terrifying. How could this be? How was this allowed? How could this monstrous enemy planning to nuke the entire planet be permitted to speak, even in beeps, inside my bedroom? Further, the Russia of my imagination was babushkas in bread lines and always in sepia-tones. How did they have the skills? Godless, having lost all wars, hiding behind an iron curtain (was there, actually, a curtain made of iron? How did it feel to move it? The weight of a dental x-ray bib on my chest, a machine that could see inside me. Something that could investigate, help, but not too much, exposure to these radio waves would make you sick.)
In truth my father never really knew what he was talking about (most of the signals were terrestrial and by the time I started listening Sputnik had gone quiet for decades), but it planted a pre-internet idea deep in my head: that all around us is information, work, intention, patterns and movements. This metaphor quickly became a strategy, a survival tactic and a lifelong fascination: quiet observation, looking to see if I could decode the troop movements of the world, of my parents, the message in the morse, the meaning in the streams of numbers.
AT THE SOUND OF THE TONE, THE TIME WILL BE 1:40PM. EXACTLY.
This is the metaphor my brain reached for when I first encountered the internet and, as the eternal-September of the world wide web stretched on into the social media era, became the overriding internal metaphor I still use for networked communications. Never the idea of agora or well organized library, but the soup of a cheap shortwave receiver and a child with his ear pressed to a speaker, desperately attempting to make sense of the intriguing noise of the world from inside a suburban bedroom outside of Boston in the year 1984.
Many years later, in 2011, I was asked to submit an artwork to the Moscow Biennale. Obnoxious I suppose, but I couldn't help channeling my cold-war childhood, and I'd been working a lot with low-tech and analog stuff at the time. I shot some footage with my PXL 2000 camera and created an interactive artwork with clips of the Conet Project. The videos were disembodied hands (my own) performing repetitive actions with lights and shadows and bits of paper and outdated office technology. A pen. An old typewriter. In the statement I wrote:
Work is always being done. But where, and by whom, and to what end?
The Great Undoing
At the height of the first Trump occupation, when we all lived on Twitter and were well into alternative-facts (but still believed social media might contain some encoded truth) I noticed a sharp and significant turn away from the underlying assumption that social media was The Public and that we had a place there. I wasn't alone of course, small internets were everywhere. Locked twitter accounts, secondary accounts, finstas and nymwars. Many people left. Newsletters instead: Medium posts, laments about the web we lost: an attempt to shove the demon we'd collectively summoned back into hell by drawing up our own walls and building our own blanket forts. Filter-bubbles, weaponized; Mostly defensively, sometimes not.
I posted then that I thought the greatest challenge to social media research in the coming years was going to be the move off of platforms like Facebook and Twitter and onto difficult to observe networks like Telegram. I got a fair amount of response to that, but mostly it was about whether or not I really thought the far-right and terrorists (Milo and ISIS at the time) were that significant to warrant study. I realized then that I was understanding Telegram in a fundamentally different way than most people did. When it is mentioned at all, Telegram is typically referred to as an "encrypted messaging app," something like Signal or WhatsApp but, if the press is to believed, entirely populated by right-wing conspiracy nuts. Telegram is where Nazis go when they get de-platformed. Telegram is a cousin to the darknet. Telegram is unsavory and weird and unruly. It's "encrypted," and nobody knows what that means but it certainly implies obfuscation, secrets, criminality.
To dispense swiftly with a myth: Telegram is not a secure messaging service. In fact, if you are relying on Telegram for this purpose, you are likely fucked six ways from Sunday. Telegram does offer, as one of it's features, the ability to initiate a "secret chat" which is end-to-end encrypted, but by default nothing at all is secure. Even the end-to-end encryption itself? That is implemented by private, unaudited algorithms. You are probably better off using WhatsApp, you are definitely better off using Signal. (NB: this is not security and/or legal advice.)
What is Telegram? It's a full-fledged social network. And critically to it's popularity, it's a social network that undoes a decade of Web 2.0 growth-over-growth ideals: it's a social network which doesn't particularly know or care about your real identity, contains no advertising, and allows you to engage socially without linking your birth name to your drugstore purchases to your political views. It is not publicly traded, it does not publish user numbers. It is, in short: A bit of The Old Internet.
We should be deeply suspicious of why this exists (more on that in a moment) but I think it's important to understand the purpose Telegram serves in the current ecosystem and that is largely as an alternative to the clean-well-lit walled-gardens of social media, because I do think that's where we're headed, thoughtful or not: Having had enough of the ravages of life in public, we are turning inwards, gathering our people. For some of this, this means racist memes and planning incel shootings, but for others it is communities of mutual support and care, channels of resistance and organization and a great deal of in-between.
Facebook is an ad farm whose purpose is clear: demographic organization and analysis to optimize the transmission of "content" as a carrier-wave for advertising. The bucketing of people into blocs. Cat Lovers and Fascists and People Who Like To Bake and Boat Owners and Humans Who Own A Honda and Watch Friends And Drink Wine And Make Over 100k Per Year. And it's critical that all of this happen with the appearance of being public, because the law of large numbers cannot work their magic without it. Facebook is reductionist and violent and exceptionally easy to weaponize, but it is a familiar and capitalist kind of evil. Facebook can be studied, it can be subpoenaed and regulated.
Additionally, the chameleon nature of the algorithm causes social media to consists almost entirely of faces that feel familiar (regardless of your demographic, the algorithm will ape your preferences.). Perhaps because of this, the network is often treated by democratic western academics and thought leaders and "users" as if it were a proxy view on the democratic west. We act as if this bucket of noise, different somehow from the noise on other websites and other networks, can foment change in the outside. Surely the Arab Spring was caused by social media? Surely if such a network is valued on the stock market it is worth something in real life? What very American ideas, that performance and truth and value are all intrinsically linked.
So what is Telegram for? What work does it serve and who built it? Outside the walls of the internet-on-training-wheels are hoards of barbarians. My cold-war era heart mumbles "The Russians" and not far off. Telegram is maddeningly mysterious. It was founded by an oligarch, an enemy of Putin, or possibly a friend. It's based in London, or possibly the Virgin Isles, or Dubai, or it moves regularly. It is free, it has no revenue, it makes a lot of money, it costs a lot, it is the worlds largest honeypot or it's a scrappy upstart. The truth is probably a blend of all of this. Telegram is a social network of numbers stations: a platform for broadcasting into the ether, hoping your audience will find you when they're tired of the top 40 hits. Telegram is part of the Great Undoing of the Network. Why this is being done is another question entirely. Work is always being done. But where, and by whom, and to what end?
Do you want Total [Meme] War?
Memes are always, in one way or another, weaponized shibboleths. They are both completely signal and completely noise depending on your status in a very particular community. No matter their content, then, they are the distilled nature of the ad-driven internet, declaring unequivocally your membership in a particular tribe.
This is a big part of why I generally find them deeply unappealing: No matter how weird, extreme, racist or "counter-cultural" the content, memes essentially exist as cultural border patrol, and in the end I'm not a weapons guy and I don't love borders. I can appreciate good engineering and I've been known to enjoy going to a shooting range, but mostly I think guns are both dangerous and boring, and jokes are only funny if we all get to laugh together. I'd rather wander unarmed into unfamiliar territory than snipe at it from a comfortable perch.
Still, occasionally, a signal comes through loud and clear over the network distilling so much of a moment I find it un-ignorable. This is how I felt when an internet friend, who lives the farm he grew up on outside of Riga, slid me a copy of FlexAir by Russian YouTuber Quark Doge. Internet trash? Yeah it is, but also I could not pick a better artifact to distills our current attentional moment. The War in the Ukraine is very, very real, but for most of the planet, we will experience this entirely as an Internet phenomenon the way a generation of American's experienced Vietnam, and later 9/11, via television. It's fair to say that viewing a version of real suffering as meme fodder is callous, but it's equally impossible not to engage this way. We have chosen the form of the Destructor.
There is little I can say about FlexAir other than I think you should go watch it. Grit your teeth (or laugh) your way through this six part epic which mainlines the internet culture wars. Playing the role of the Darger's Vivian Girls are gogo-dancer Ricardo Milos and porn actor/1337 hax0r Steve Rambo, flying their rainbow-wheeled Telegram-branded flying car straight into the eye of Roskomnadzor Sauron in a bid to destroy Putin, Lukashenko and their army of racist meme tropes along a parade route of Potemkin cities.
Putin steals Ricardo's American-flag thong and grows taller. He rolls back history through the power of 5G and Covid, there are so many game and anime references your teeth will hurt. It's very sus, it has all the vibe-shifts.
"Holy Shit... you know there's not too many people around who can develop a sophisticated virus like this one!"
One of the most famous shortwave numbers stations is known as UVB-76, or The Buzzer. Unlike most numbers stations which, as the name implies, often consist of voices reading lists of numbers or sequences of names, the buzzer is simply that: a regular buzzing sound, broadcasting mostly uninterrupted on the same frequency for longer than I have been alive. It comes from Russia and is military. It marks a point in the spectrum. It used to be mechanical. It's probably internal. It is not, as urban legend holds, a doomsday deadman's switch.
I did hear The Buzzer when I was a child, it's unmissable, and I periodically check in via this shortwave radio you can listen to online, courtesy of the University of Twente. Although the mystery of the origin and meaning of the transmission has largely been solved, it still captures the attention with its simplicity and aesthetic. The buzz is a cold-war sound from a cold-war era, the heartbeat of the secret signal underlying world affairs.
Imagine my thrill, then, when I saw a tweet flash by, UBV-76 was being occupied by a pirate signal taking requests over Telegram:
I sat and listed, alone and quiet in the light of my monitor, where I've sat for nearly two years now, listening. I watched the waterfall (a visual representation of the signal that can be manipulated to show text and images if you're skilled and so inclined) scroll by displaying Russian swears, the names of booze, pictures of cats to accompany the relentless sound of the buzzing. There were communist marches and crude pop songs, some hardstyle and a Rickroll and the Swedish Hit Caramelldansen (an actual euro-pop song that became an internet meme song and was subsequently licensed and re-released as a new song in Japan.)
Caramelldansen is known in Japan as "Uma uma dance" (ウマウマダンス), because the chorus's lyrics "u-u-ua-ua" were misheard as ウッーウッーウマウマ ("u- u- umauma"; "uma" has been interpreted as "yummy", "nice" (うまい, umai, slurred: umē (うめぇ) or "horse" (馬, uma) in Japanese). The Japanese title is sometimes written with the symbol (ﾟ∀ﾟ) added to the end. Also, Japanese listeners have interpreted the lyrics, "Dansa med oss, klappa era händer" ("Dance with us, clap your hands"), as "Barusamiko-su Yappa irahen de" ("(I) don't want any Balsamic vinegar after all" in the Kansai dialect). Thus, the song has a different interpretation in Japan than in Sweden.
Thus, the song has a different interpretation in Japan than in Sweden.
Recording of UVB-76, January 21, 3:07AM CEST
What is the network for? Where does it exist? Where are wars fought? What does it mean to be in public, and who is listening when you broadcast? Do you think the president is hot? Can you cancel a country? We seem intent on trying to answer these questions this week but perhaps more important: if we do, will it matter? Will a proxy war via media, fought for money and attention, change who we invite to cross our borders, will the numbers change or will the sequence just read on relentlessly long after we're gone?
Truthfully I have no idea, but like most of us I guess I'll be in my bedroom, ear pressed to the speaker, trying to figure out exactly who and what is speaking to me through the static, across the wires, echoing through with music and noise and number stations counting down... something.
How is this even allowed?
How long will it go on?
AT THE TONE, THE TIME WILL BE 3:26. EXACTLY.
The skyline was beautiful on fire
All twisted metal stretching upwards
Everything washed in a thin orange haze
I said: "kiss me, you're beautiful -
These are truly the last days"
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