When we last left Matteo Borri and his company,Robots Everywhere LLC, he had built a chlorophyll spectroscope for NASA and the Mars Society, for the next Mars Rover. It uses a laser beam to zap the surface and then detect the reactive chlorophyll from other complex molecules. It was tested successfully over the last few months by the Mars Society, and will fly to Mars in 2020 on the next Mars Rover.
I checked back in with Matteo to see what new and exciting projects he is working on, and to help us better understand the science behind his laser-driven life-detecting inventions.
Lisa Rein: Hey Matteo how’s it going? What’s the latest on your NASA Mars Rover experimental research?
Matteo Borri: Well, if you remember, I had managed to figure out how to make a Chlorophyll detector that did not require cutting up a leaf and putting it in a little box. This is significant because we wanted to be able to mount the laser on a rover and have it scanning the surface as the rover moves along the surface of mars, and notifying the rover to stop when it detects something worth stopping for, like, the presence of Chlorophyll.
So, that worked so well, NASA decided to give me another hard problem to solve; could I develop a spectroscope that would cause a reaction to Tryptophan the way I got the chlorophyll to react to the other spectroscope?
LR: Why Tryptophan? I think of that being in turkey and making you tired on Thanksgiving. When my grandpa played professional baseball, they wouldn’t let them eat turkey on the day of a game.
MB: The sleepiness is an urban legend. We now know that Tryptophan doesn’t make you tired. But it is the same ingredient known to be in turkey.
But just as Chlorophyll exists in every piece of plant life on earth, tryptophan exists in not all but almost all pieces of animal life on earth.
So, if we had one laser spectroscope detecting Chlorophyll molecules, and the other detecting Tryptophan molecules, we will always be able to detect the existence of life (as we know it) there.
LR: We can only look for molecules that we already know to exist in “life” here on planet Earth?
MB: Correct. But we also have good reason to believe that any “life” found on other planets would still actually be composed of the same kinds of molecules found in “life” here.
LR: So the idea is to look for the most basic molecular substances that would have to be there along with anything else that was plant or animal living there.
Songs & Lyrics from the Trump Era for your weekend dance party and horrorshow
Brag (I Fucked Ted Nugent With His Own Gun)
I walk 47 miles of barbed wire
I drink ayahuasca just to watch the news
I drank Jagger & Richards under the table
And late at night I dress like Betty Grable
Who do you want me to be
Who do you want me to be
Who do you want me to be
I’m not too blind to see
My voodoo remote gets all 12 channels
I stuck with leather when Seattle did flannel
My boy named Sue is scary to you
And if you cry I’ll be flingin’ poo
Who do you want me to be
Who do you want me to be
Who do you want me to be
I’m not too blind to see
I eat the living dead for fun
I fucked Ted Nugent with his own gun
I midnight rambled with Joseph Campbell
His hero trip was a croc of shit
Who do you want me to be
Who do you want me to be
Who do you want me to be
I’m not too blind to see
by R.U. Sirius & Phriendz w. Cussed Varmint
R.U. Sirius – Cussed Varmint
Produced by Daddy Phriday
Video by Daddy Phriday
Subterranean Heartsick Blues (with apologies to Bob Dylan) Unrecorded
Donnies in the White House mixing up the masses
We’re on the pavement showing cops our passes
You might need a guillotine to stop the Ruling Crass, yes
You might need a weatherwoman to fight against the fascists
You might want some mescaline to rid you of your stasis
You might need some kerosene to Molotov the bastids
Look out kid it’s nothing you did
You’re not yet ten but you’re doing it again
They got tweens and toddlers held up in a big pen
You don’t need a MAGA hat to make you any new friends
Get born see porn don’t scorn Ms. Dohrn
Learn to tango Eat a Mango Dylanesque-ish fandango
You might need a guillotine to stop the Ruling Crass, yes
You might need a weatherwoman to fight against the fascists
Jesus Was A Zombie
Jesus was a zombie
He rose up from the dead
It was a virgin rebirth
Still Mary gave him head
He walked the streets naked
Gorged on Roman flesh
Decided he would hitchhike
His way to Marrakesh
Jesus was a hippie
He listened to The Dead
He panhandled the Pharisees
Saved up all his bread
Went to see his father
Way up in the sky
Holy fuck Jesus said
I must be way high
Jesus was a vampire
He rose up from the dead
He had so much to offer
His body blood and dread
He started up a little cult
It grew … metasticized
Jesus was a cancer
That thought it knew the answer
An interview with Douglas Rushkoff, David Pescovitz & Jake Dunagan
Back in 1990, when MONDO 2000 magazine promised Screaming Memes on its cover, it was more or less a secret argot winking at our technohip Mondoid readers. I mean, sure there was that Dawkins book in which he invented the concept, but it seemed to be a bunch of playful, subversive freaks who were using them to blow open some heads (and maybe sell a few magazines).
We’ve come a long way baby. Now, the world appears to be defined by memetic warfare and the damage done is real world crisis and horror.
thanks to Satori D for his assistance and participation
R.U. Sirius: In a sense, you’re offering a different model than the one most of us usually think in, as regards memetics. Instead of fighting bad memes with good, or their memes with ours, are you suggesting that we look at memes themselves as viruses attacking us? Is that right?
Douglas Rushkoff: Yeah, that’s the simplest way of looking at it. That’s why I called memes in media “media viruses.” Even if they end up forcing important ideas into the cultural conversation, and even if they ultimately lead to good things, they do infect us from the outside. They attack our weak code, and continue to replicate until we repair it, or until we come to recognize the “shell” of the virus itself.
I think what makes our analysis unique, compared with a lot of what’s out there, is that we’re not proposing yet another technosolutionist fix. Mark Zuckerberg wants to fight fake news with artificial intelligence. Great. He’s already over his head in a media environment he doesn’t understand. He doesn’t know why his platform has led to so many unintended effects. So what’s his solution? Build yet another technology he understands even less to solve the problem with yet another black box.
Even those with the best intentions see all this as a technological problem, when it’s really more a cultural or biological one. The difference in our approach is that we still have faith in the human organism and human society to rise to the occasion and increase their resiliency. So we’re writing for people, not tech companies.
David Pescovitz: I’m also interested in how our networked media environment has evolved to allow this nastiness to occur and, in fact, reward it. During the early days of Twitter and Facebook it was exciting that people were using the platforms to share ideas and “find the others.” But I was also annoyed and later alarmed by the rise in narcissism, emphasis on “personal brands,” and mob mentality. Maybe those people were always like that and social media just amplified those traits. Either way, to me it quickly felt like antisocial media.
Since then, it’s become increasingly clear that the only real way to fix our social media experiences is by fixing ourselves. This is true when it comes to how we interact with other people online but also our own vulnerability to propaganda, disinformation, and coercion. Of course reconnecting with our own humanity is much harder than just giving in to the algorithmically addictive dopamine rush of another retweet or “like.”
Jake Dunagan: There was an old Zuck who swallowed a virus, I don’t know why he swallowed the virus. He swallowed AI to fight the virus…
I was struck by the psychologist Dannagal Young’s point that we quoted in the article: “blaming readers for spreading fake news from a cognitive perspective …somewhat equivalent to blaming a baby for soiling itself. They can’t help it. ”
This is what Doug is calling our weak code, our vulnerabilities we’ve inherited from evolution and extended by culture. Humor, satire, memes, are exploiting our cognitive weaknesses, and lowering our defenses. I’ve always loved the Mad Magazine, SNL, and Yes Men ways of showing us how the messages we’re hearing are full of shit. Read more “Memes Are For Tricksters: The Biology of Disinformation”
In 1985 I swallowed a tiny fleck of gelatin containing a medium dose of LSD, and I spent most of the night sitting on a concrete park bench outside my home in Los Gatos, California.
I gazed up at a hundred billion galaxies each with a hundred billion stars, and each star a giant thermonuclear fusion reaction as powerful as our Sun. And for the first time in my life I knew deep down inside that we are not alone.
I knew that life on planet Earth is not the only pocket of consciousness in the universe, and likely not the most advanced. But we still have a role to play in the unfolding drama of creation.
It seemed to me the universe is in a process of coming alive. Consciousness is blossoming and propagating to colonize the universe, and life on Earth is one of many bright spots in the cosmic birth of consciousness.
But the stars are separated by enormous distances of darkness and vacuum, which may hinder communication between them. I lowered my gaze and saw the street lamps below glowing brightly, each casting a pool of light but surrounded by darkness before the next lamp. As above, so below.
The street lamps reminded me of bodies of knowledge, gems of discovery and understanding, but separated from each other by distance and different languages. Poets, artists, musicians, physicists, chemists, biologists, mathmeticians, and economists all have separate pools of knowledge, but are hindered from sharing and finding the deeper connections.
My vision distorted by thick eyeglasses, I witnessed the curvature of the Earth’s horizon, and I felt the pull of gravity toward its center, such that every one of us is standing at the very apex. Each of us stands at the top of planet Earth, and each of us is a leader or captain of the “Blue Marble” team.
How could I help? By focusing on the weak link. If I were captain of a soccer team, I would look for the weak link and work on it. If the goalie was letting too many through, I would spend extra practice time with him, and the whole team would prosper.
It occurred to me the weak link for the Blue Marble team is wisdom. Humanity has achieved sufficient technological power to change the course of life and the entire global ecosystem, but we seem to lack the perspective to choose wisely between alternative futures. But I was young, without much life experience or wisdom myself.
Knowledge, it seemed to me, consists of the “How” connections between pieces of information, the cause and effect relationships. How does this action bring about that result. Science is a systematic attempt to discover the “How” connections.
Wisdom, it seemed to me, was a step further removed, the bigger perspective of the “Why” connections between pieces of knowledge. Why, for reasons ethical and aesthetic, should we choose one future over another?
I thought if we could encourage sharing of ideas between different areas of knowledge, perhaps more of the bigger picture would emerge, and eventually more wisdom might develop. Sort of a trickle-up theory of information leading to knowledge leading to wisdom.
This was the underlying inspiration for HyperCard, a multimedia authoring environment that empowered non-programmers to share ideas using new interactive media called HyperCard stacks.
Each card in a HyperCard stack included graphics, text, interactive buttons, and links that took you to another card or stack. Built-in painting tools, drag-and-drop authoring with a library of pre-fab buttons and fields, and simple event based scripting made HyperCard flexible and easy to use.
It took a lot of hard work and a dedicated team to complete this mission. Apple shipped HyperCard in August 1987, and included it free with every Mac so any user could create and share HyperCard stacks. Many creative people expressed their ideas and passions, and several million interactive HyperCard stacks were created.
HyperCard was a precurser to the first web browser, except chained to a hard drive before the worldwide web. Six years later Mosaic was introduced, influenced by some of the ideas in HyperCard, and indirectly by an inspiring LSD experience.
Leo Laporte did a great interview with me in April 2016. You can watch it here — with the part about hypercard inspiration starting at 22:43
There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!
DJ Spooky’s new album “Phantom Dancehall” is a Jamaican Dancehall Mashup album available now on Jamaica’s VP Records. Greensleeves, their reggae sublabel, is the catalogue he explored and sampled on the album. The digital version of the album is available for purchase here, and you can here it on SoundCloud here. There is also a limited edition vinyl version that is currently available in record stores and online.
Phantom Dancehall debuted at #3 on Billboard Reggae and has settled in comfortably in the top five for the foreseeable future.
Phantom Dancehall combines sampled reggae tracks, woven in to a finely detailed tapestry of chill electronic beats and melodies. This sample track we are including below is a collaboration of DJ Spooky and Stephen Levitin a.k.a. Apple Juice Kid. Other tracks include the keyboard work of Alex Thompson aka Fourth Shift. Walshy Fire (Major Lazer) on vocals and dancehall new comer Sanjay added to vocal samples of Busy Signal, Lady Saw and Garnett Silk. Everything is blended to give the project an eclectic, modern dancehall flavor.
I caught up with DJ Spooky while he was in San Francisco, before he hopped back over to Brooklyn for Wednesday night’s record release party.
Lisa Rein: What’s going on at Wednesday night’s record release party?
DJ Spooky: It’s just a straight up party so people can hear these songs. Most of these were recorded in Jamaica at VP Records’ Fun Studio. VP records is legendary; They are the biggest record label in Jamaica. “VP” stands for “Vincent and Patricia Chin” – so “VP.” They are Chinese-Jamaican, which I have always loved. The fact that they are just quirky, kind of at the heart of Jamaican culture; Chinese and Indian. Jamaica is very multicultural. So the idea was to represent a little bit of an update on Dancehall with a downtown New York flavor. Ya know, there are so many classics you could look at that show how reggae influenced Rock n Roll, Jazz, Hip Hop; you name it.
You could say the beginning of Hip Hop was all about sound systems. When I say “sound systems,” I’m talking like ya know Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Kool Herc, and so on…Those are legendary figures who began Hip Hop as we know it. So, it’s sort of looking at that synthesis between Hip Hop, Dancehall, and that sort of New York/Kingston connection.
LR: So you’ll be blending the new songs into the mix?
DJS: Right. Turntables, scratching. Ya know, doing crazy fun party stuff.
LR: Francois K. is opening, right?
DJS: Yes. It’s a famous party for New York for people who are really into dancing, and who just really want to hear good music that’s got a kind of a Dub & Jamaica connection. So people go there ready to dance. You can just hang out and get a good vibe and it’s fun. Simple stuff. Like the simple pleasure of dancing to good music. There’s no pretension. There’s no extra annoying stuff. You just go ready to party and have a good time. The music’s great and they’ve chosen a really good sound system, and it’s clear. It’s a good party with a clear vision of how electronic music and dance hall music connect.
LR: The other night, when we were walking in the Mission, you noticed that the clubs were playing Jamaican Dancehall. It was such a vibrant scene.
DJS: Yeah. Right in the middle of San Francisco. Every single bar we walked by.
LR: Right. Even the Indian restaurant we tried to go to (Bissap Baobab) was totally packed, with everyone dancing, and Jamaican Dancehall blaring out the windows. So, why do you think this is happening now? It seems like something’s happening, doesn’t it?
DJS: Yeah it’s a retro-future thing. Dancehall was at the beginning of a lot of electronic music, and I think that anybody that goes out to a party and hears it; It’s catchy. It’s immersive, and it pulls you in. That 80s and 90s catchiness, while a lot of the music now is very cold. I try as much as possible to build a bridge between the older styles and some of the contemporary styles.
LR: Yes it was interesting looking these people up, as there is a lot of history there. You went through VP Records’ back catalog, right? What was that process like?
DJS: The idea was to go through some of those memories that those songs triggered, and then update. So, some of it’s old school stuff, mashup-wise. I would go through Dancehall classics, basically.
LR: Is this vinyl that you are going through?
LR: So this is Jamaican Dancehall vinyl from the 80s and 90s?
DJS: And older, yes, from Greensleeves Records. I’ve done projects before with Greensleeves Records.
LR: Greensleeves is a sub-label of VP Records?
DJS: Yes. Exactly. They are both legendary for different reasons. Let’s put it this way. Dancehall is more of a digital approach, and Dub is more analog. What I wanted to do was build a bridge between those two, analog and digital. Some of the producers of VP records influenced my thinking. Digital B a.k.a. Digital Bobby, and there’s also another gentleman, Bobby Konders, who did a whole bunch of projects mixing Hip Hop, Dancehall, and House Music in the 90s. I’ve listened to their styles for a long time. I wanted to make a statement about it and keep it fun; a party vibe.
If you go through old records, you realize, you know, 40 years is a long time for music, but that stuff is still fresh. It’s incredible. The 80s was just incredible. That’s when I was a kid. Ya know Shabba Ranks and so many others.
LR: So we have a song included here in this article, “Buju Banton.” It’s a track you collaborated on with Stephen Levitin a.k.a. Apple Juice Kid. How’d you guys meet and start working together?
DJS: He’s a younger producer who’s getting on the scene, and he’s been working hard on a project with PBS where he goes to different countries and teaches younger kids how to work with beats. I really enjoyed the educational aspect of what he’s up to. So, we had a conversation, and, generally, I’m crazy busy, so I thought I’d give him a shot to help with the project, and it just went from there.
LR: So what’s your creative process like when you collaborate with someone on a track?
DJS: The idea is, you make beats, and then you tweak, edit, combine. I’ll come up with a first draft. He’ll come up with a different draft. And we send files back and forth until the track is done.
LR: You are the producer though, technically?
DJS: Yes. I suppose. But I don’t look at it like that. It’s a DJ Spooky “album project” where I have invited others to share in the conversation. I really think of it as an “album project.”
For this project, I was going through VP Records’ releases, and listening to all the Dancehall records, and then editing beats and samples I select from their material.
LR: So, how did you hook up with VP Records?
DJS: They had heard a project I did with Trojan Records a long time ago, and then asked me to do a mixtape. They had asked Diplo to do one. Then they asked me to do the second one. They are legendary. They put out Bob Marley and stuff from the sixties. They’re huge.
LR: You mentioned that you recorded this project at VP Records’ Fun Studio, had you ever been to Jamaica before this project?
DJS: Yes. I’ve been to Jamaica. My mom was an art critic for the Kingston Daily Gleaner in Jamaica. It’s like the New York Times in Jamaica. We knew people there and I would go there every summer.
LR: Ah. Ok. Tell me more about your mom.
DJS: My mom was a Historian of Design, and she wrote for the Kingston Daily Gleaner as an art critic covering Caribbean Art. And we would go every summer because we had “god cousins” there. (People that are like family at an abstract level.) My mother had been room mates with several Jamaicans in college. Everybody stayed in touch. For many years, we visited. And they visited us.
LR: You would go there every summer?
DJS: Oh yes. Constantly. And that’s what left that kind of vibe in my head space.
DJS: Yes. A Historian of Design. Her main book is called The Threads Of Time:The Fabric Of History: Profiles Of African American Dressmakers And Designers From 1850 To The Present.
LR: So you totally grew up living in the art world, with yourart critic mom taking you to art openings? No wonder the two of you have a lot in common.
DJS: Yes, we do. And we really both have had a deep relationship with Jamaica. Because there is both a literary component and an art component there, there was always something that felt like a powerful connection for us.
LR: So this is going back to your roots a little bit. I didn’t realize you grew up there. Even though it was only in the summer; doing that every year can strong cultural influence.
DJS: Absolutely. It just was fun and really life affirming. Jamaica’s got this whole really vivid, flavorful kind of colorful sensibility.
LR: Well I wish I was closer to Brooklyn. It sounds like it’s going to be an incredible show.
If you are in New York, remember to go to the show Wednesday night at the Output. (Tickets)
Limited edition vinyl is available at your local record store & online. The digital version of the album is available for purchase here. You can hear it on SoundCloud here.
Soon, we will be publishing the documents that we received from our first city (Sacramento).
I asked Tracy Rosenberg if she would explain the history and origin of Oakland Privacy, which she had mentioned to me actually started out as the “Occupy Oakland Privacy Working Group.” I enjoyed learning that the organization that has been so pivotal in helping put Oakland’s current surveillance policy framework in place had its roots in Occupy Oakland. (We will be talking to Tracy more about that framework, and how it can be used as a model for every city across the country.)
But I had no idea what a relevant slice of history I had unearthed, and it seems like we could all benefit from learning more about it.
This is the first of two interviews with Oakland Privacy’s Tracy Rosenberg. (Second Interview here.)
Lisa Rein: Okay so it’s January 2012. Occupy Oakland is still alive, but waning.
Tracy Rosenberg: Right. So, Occupy Oakland, as you know, had a reputation as one of the more militant occupy encampments. It was one of the later ones. One of the last ones. After about two weeks of occupation in the plaza it was forceably busted by police, with tear gas and multiple injuries. Veteran Scott Olsen had his head basically split open by the police.
LR: With a tear gas grenade, correct?
TR: Yes. There were a bunch of re-occupations and episodes that continued up through January 28, 2012 or so, which was one of the last confrontations between Occupy Oakland and the police happened.
Occupy Oakland’s January 28 event was an attempted occupation of an abandoned building. An abandoned, county-owned building in the City of Oakland. The idea was that spaces that weren’t being used by the government needed to be available as public spaces or common spaces for people who were economically disenfranchised. (Economically disenfranchised = The homeless and people who were just displaced.)
So, the #J28 “occupation” of this government building was militant and controversial. Essentially, it sort of drew a line in the sand for a lot of people. There were people who sort of identified with the general idea of Occupy, but weren’t super duper comfortable with militant activism and the physical occupation of public property that was increasingly appening with Oakland Occupy. And, ultimately, a lot of people walked away after #J28.
Occupy Wall Street starts
September 17, 2011
Occupy Oakland starts
October 10, 2011
Occupy Oakland Privacy Working Group starts
July 2, 2013
Oakland Privacy starts
July 15, 2016
LR: I heard that there were a lot of problems with the businesses in that area during Occupy. What was going on there?
TR: Well, there were a lot of business in the downtown area, which, at that time, were struggling somewhat. These last seven years, we have had a lot of gentrification in downtown Oakland, but back then, in 2011, Downtown Oakland was a hard place to have a business. So, there were a lot of small businesses – a lot of “mom and pop” stores – that were just beside themselves.
LR: Wait I’m sorry. I don’t understand. How was the occupation affecting them negatively? I would have thought it would have brought in more business for them, by drawing more people out in mass numbers for so many weeks in a row. (I know in San Francisco, after a protest, all the restaurants are packed.) So why were they “beside themselves?”
TR: They said that their customers were too frightened of the Plaza to come down and patronize their business.
LR: Oh. So, it gave downtown a bad reputation for a bit because people didn’t know what to expect? But that wasn’t really the protesters’ fault was it. Wasn’t it more because people were afraid of possible police confrontations, often unprovoked, in that area?
TR: Yeah, it was a combination of things. Occupy Oakland kind of wrapped itself up with the “Fuck the Police” ethos. Especially towards the end. Many folks who had been involved with it started to think about the fact that they’d seen a lot of police ammunition and equipment driving around the encampments. There seemed to be a lot of federal agencies participating.
These folks weren’t really sure what had been used on them, or how. So they started to do a little bit of research on these issues. What equipment had been used? What police tactics were being used? What were some of these other agencies? People started taking pictures of the federal trucks. “What was all of this?” They wondered. “What exactly were they using against us?”
See Tracy Rosenberg at this year’s event! She will be on a panel with Lisa Rein and Daniel Rigmaiden on Saturday at this year’s San Francisco hackathon!
TICKETS ($50) – (Can’t afford it? Okay no problem. Just use the code “hackathoner” for 1/2 off! (Perhaps you can buy one at full price and then discount the rest? Or just use the discount for all of them! It’s up to you 🙂 – Yep – It’s on the honor system folks <3
This is the second of two interviews with Tracy. Here is the first interview, which is about how Oakland Privacy’s roots are based in the “Occupy Oakland Privacy Working Group”.
By Lisa Rein.
The Aaron Swartz Day Police Surveillance Project is all about developing a larger strategy for determining what police and sheriff departments have already purchased, and putting “surveillance policy frameworks” in place to monitor and regulate the use of that equipment against their residents.
The project first started during Aaron Swartz Day 2017’s Sunday hackathon. Before that event was even over, it was clear that it had been really successful and we were all very pumped and decided to just keep going on our projects, through till next year’s event.
Aaron Swartz filed a lot of FOIA requests, and it made me want to start a project at the hackathon that would continue the tradition. (Note: FOIAs are “Freedom of Information Act Requests – and are Federal. This article discusses “public records requests” at the local, or municipal level.)
Tracy has been teaching me about how powerful the information obtained from public records requests can be, because it is literally the police or sheriff department saying, themselves, “Yup. We have this piece of equipment. Here is our purchase receipt.” (For example.)
However, writing the letters and filing the requests can be time consuming, even with systems like Muckrock, that vastly improve the process. So, our first idea was to automate the process of using Muckrock, so someone could fill out a form that would connect to Muckrock seamlessly. It turned out though, that except for the automation, Muckrock already had everything we needed. So, we decided to use Muckrock, and focus on saving folks time by providing all of the letters ahead of time for every single piece of equipment (including requesting details about how the data from these devices was collected and stored).
Tracy wrote up all the letters ahead of time, turning the job of writing and submitting 18 public records requests into a quick cut and paste job. Together, we filed together 18 public records requests; 9 to the City of Sacramento and 9 to the county of Sacramento, in just under over two hours, but it was our first time. (Here’s what we found in Sacramento.) – Here are our letter templates.)
In the meantime, I took a few moments to talk to Tracy about the implications of filing public records requests, and how the information obtained from them eventually led to a first of its kind Privacy Commission and surveillance policy framework, in Oakland, California.
Lisa Rein: First, let’s talk about the kinds of information we can uncover with public records requests
Tracy Rosenberg: We get a pretty clear example of the kinds of things that we can find out using this latest find about license plate readers as an example.
Jamie Curcio is a brilliant artist and cultural theorist or something like that… but even, thankfully, harder to pin down.
In any case, he is one hell of a writer and thinker, mixing together all kinds of favorite MONDOid memes — the ups and downs of post-whatever philosophies, the over-the-edges of avant cultural works, media narratives and quasi-apocalyptic hysterias and — perhaps most charmingly — he is obsessed with David Bowie.
I interviewed Curcio mainly about Narrative Machines and the upcoming Bowie book.
R.U. SIRIUS: Your book Narrative Machines provides a discourse about the distorting effects of a sort of mediated hall of mirrors and decentering of identity. This sort of thing has been active for a very long time, even before the internet made its growth “exponential.” From whence comes the recognition that the contingency of our narratives is more useful to the “right” than the “left”… if true?
Also, there was a ‘90s idea that a sufficiently advanced technology would sort-of blow through the rupturing aspect of it all — that the dissipating structures would eventually cohere as a higher evolutionary order. Is there any use for that sort of hopeful perspective today?
JAMIE CURCIO: Pessimism and realism have a complicated relationship. That’s one of the things I was trying to come to terms with in working on Narrative Machines. So let me say, if being pessimistic is going to shut people down, then I’m not going to say it’s a virtue.
But it’s also hard to really take an account of the problems on the horizon for our civilization, and our collective inability or unwillingness to deal with it, and not recognize how blinding optimism about the “revelatory power of the new” can be. Accelerationists often forget just how dumb the perpetual rush toward the new can be.
People can read that statement in a Right or a Left way — they’ll differ in terms of looking for a solution, or in what “our civilization” means. Everyone seems to think the barbarians are at the gates, whether it’s the Fascists and Russian oligarchs, or the immigrants and cultural Marxists brainwashing the children. It’s clear which I think is more absurd, but in either case, it’s a war of myth. We can joke about memewar, but I think we need to recognize the ways that it isn’t a joke, or at least, the way that it’s a continuation of propagandist methods that are hardly new.
There’s a kind of messianism and eschatology that runs through both the “Right” and “Left,” the idea that a political ideology itself can fix anything. Robert Anton Wilson wrote about this plenty. I think he was ahead of the curve in many ways, for all that it’s worth. And he was adamant about remaining optimistic.
To me, the silver lining is that if the analogy of the effect on culture the printing press had, and now with the internet, then there’s reason to believe the end isn’t nigh in that regard. Things are looking dark, but if we’re talking about bot armies and the Russian use of postmodern methods in their propaganda — all is not lost. It just emphasizes the importance of studying “useless” things like philosophy and art.
On the other hand, the way that unfettered capitalism is likely to consume the planet, or at least its habitability for a great number of species including, ultimately, ourselves… that’s another story. For all we know, that ship has already sailed. The only way out, if there is one, is through. We’re committed to carry the experiments of the past into the future — just look at how the problems and solutions of a century ago continue to get resurrected. Fascism, Communism, Liberalism. The three ideologies that arose from the ashes of WW 1.
I should add, I happen to think compassion should guide our actions toward others as much as we can manage, and much Right wing ideology seems a veneer for various forms of cruelty, and I believe cruelty should be reserved for art. So my sympathies tend to run Left, but that’s different from an ideological commitment.
RUS: You take on the statistical based optimism that seems to be well-loved particularly by neoliberal sorts like Pinker. The idea is that statistics show us that human beings are improving their lot in life and becoming more well-behaved. Can you explicate your view a bit?
JC: I was taken by John Grey’s argument on this subject in The Soul of the Marionette, and so while I didn’t just reproduce it, I would say it helped me put a pre-existing line of thought in order. In short, I investigate the Progressive certainty that everything is improving all the time is very much based both on our selective interpretation of the facts, and our situation in terms of a particular narrative we have constructed about our place in history. There have been undeniable benefits per capita in the past 100 years regarding the marriage of technology and capitalism. Will that read the same in 100 years? I’m not so sure.
RUS: I think underlying the technotopian hope of the late 20th Century was the idea that this mostly white and American eruption at the end of the 20th century could use tech to deliver an awesomely improving world and you could elide the blowback from centuries of colonialism and racism. It’s not an entirely bad idea… to avoid conflict.
JC: It definitely tends to overlook the role of inertia in a culture, or of a true reckoning with the past, why that keeps repeating itself through us. Time may be accumulative but the behavior of complex systems is generally not linear.
RUS: You deal in Narrative Machines with questions of revolution… and how it doesn’t tend to deliver on its hopes. Looking at the Arab Spring, would you say that any movement now just accelerates confusion. There’s no interregnum of hope?
The broader question about revolution usually not improving things… does this leave us with neoliberalism with its economic domination, total surveillance and constant war… or nationalism?
JC: I use the Arab Spring as an example. What struck me about it was how clearly it supports the idea of “revolution” as very literal — going around and around, forever. There is a sense of Frazier’s Golden Bough here, each King deposed by the King who will one day be deposed. Though that’s a bit reductive, it is hard to find examples of revolution going well for “the people” long term. It’s generally good for some people, and not others. To the extent that revolutions are a power play, they just reshuffle the cards. There’s a lot in Marxist thought about getting beyond that problem… which we definitely haven’t see play out in reality. The day of the revolution is one thing, but there’s always the day after. But that doesn’t necessarily mean everything is hopeless — we still affect one another, things do actually change.
The long-term goal of the MarsVR program is to enable you to explore Mars in VR using the same ground breaking VR platform that will be used to train the crew members at the Mars Desert Research Station, an analog simulation of Mars in the Utah desert, organized by the Mars Society. the entire VR environment, including all 3-D models and terrain around the MDRS, will be released under open source licenses to be made available to researchers and the general public.
MarsVR will be a fully immersive VR Experience that allows you to explore a simulated Mars environment. The Mars Society is pioneering the use of virtual reality for pre-mission crew training, as well as expanding Mars advocacy and outreach among the global community. Training and documentation will also be provided in the hopes that a whole ecosystem can be built around the project.
MarsVR is one of the first projects of its kind, but I believe it is the kind of system that everyone will be building in the years to come. A VR-enabled datasharing platform has implications for just about every area of scientific research, and may just “change everything” by accelerating breakthroughs at an exponential rate (due to everything being open-sourced and shared with the public).
Meet James Burk, the IT Director of the Mars Society and the one leading the organization into its first foray of “CrowdExploration“ (an emerging field of collaboration between the first astronauts on Mars and VR experts and enthusiasts back on Earth).
James and his team have a few different phases of the project planned. “Phase 1” will focus on designing training simulations for the Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station in Utah. The simulations that take place there help to provide crucial information and situation preparedness to the participating MDRS crew members, via analog research and testing. These help prepare future astronauts to learn what they can in a simulated environment and make the most of their time on Mars.
The first phase of MarsVR will be focused on the MDRS (Mars Desert Research Station), providing a virtual reality platform for serious research to support the exploration of the “real” Mars in the future. But since it is virtual, we can all come along for the ride.
The Phase 1 goal is to build a complete high-resolution simulation of the entire MDRS habitat, both inside and out. This will ship in October, but there should be a beta finished as early as September 2018.