Pirate Utopia: A Quick Review

Just finished Bruce Sterling’s new novel Pirate Utopia and it ended up being more than expected. I went into it naively expecting a post-modern, pre-millennium cyberpunkish politics romp. I instead received an absurdist realism novel, an alternative history constantly balancing romantic ideals, their execution and its evolution. It’s a book rich with surreal exaggeration and fantasy but using that to explore the more realistic and bleak practicalities of anarchism, communism and fascism – and democracy.

Pirate Utopia drops us into the Regency of Carnaro, the spontaneous self-government of the state of Fiume after it rejected Italy’s delivery of Fiume to Yugoslavia after World War I. Largely featuring Pirate Engineer Lorenzo Secondari it also introduces a maniacal manufacturist in the personage of Frau Pfiffer, a combat ace turned second-in-command the Ace of Hearts, all operating under the leadership of poet-statesman Gabriele d’Annunzio – otherwise known as the Prophet.

Secondari’s a fascinating protagonist to be sure. He’s presented as previously dead but now alive and self-charged with the mission of moving ownership from those that possess to those that make. He’s a stubborn, spontaneous anarchist maker of a sort though distinctly different from the type you’d see today. There’s no mention of his distributing either model or means – he doesn’t seem the type to upload notes, designs, schematics etc for the world to create his designs for themselves. His utopia is necessarily personalized and he can’t seem to conceive of one outside himself.

Ideals and actions are presented alongside each other constantly and both shift across the course of the story in interesting ways, as a sad exposition on how these things typically progress when people act as they do. It’s not a gradually sliding progress bar so much as Sterling slipping the characters and their organizations along the slippery, evolving surface of a self-justifying Moebius strip of power and violence. It’s hard to tell how or where one side became the other. A seamless transition in which all eyes are still on dragging the future towards them by way of the gravity of their personalities, but they’ve had time to polish their boots now and they’re the ones in control of the artillery on the hill.

The exception to this is Maria Pfiffer, Frau Pfiffer’s daughter and a favorite of Secondari. She’s an unnatural, shining, extrasystemic object – beautiful and consumptive, unprepared for spectacle, an unconcerned alien amidst clandestine conversations despite her polyglot intelligence.

Sterling also manages to sideline two historical devils in amusing ways. But the Moebius strip politics continue according to the realistic streak in Pirate Utopia: absent those two devils, others rise accordingly.

Pirate Utopia’s a short, fun read that doesn’t alternate between stark and wacky but manages to hold their continuing tension in exquisite and exacting fashion. It also comes with a great and timely introduction by Warren Ellis that came out before the election but seems spot-on after, and some supplemental materials at the end that explored Sterling’s writing of the book. This latter appealed directly to the process voyeur in me and I’d love to see it in more works.

Pirate Utopia: Highly Recommended Reading.

Some Bits and Pieces

via @m1sp,

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via @robertloerzel,

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via @science_hooker, @lornalou92‘s ‘A Scot’s Lament for Americans, Oan their election of a tangerine gabshite walloper.’

via @museumarchive, a 6th century Buddha statue found in a Viking grave in Sweden.

via @valaafshar, what happens when you toss a pot of boiling water in -25 degree air.

and via Bill Tozier, an intriguing question that’s gripped my brain since he asked it:

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And to finish off for the evening: Kate McKinnon opens SNL by singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” That broke me a bit in a lovely and haunting way.

The Explosive Trajectory of Technology

Jon Jeckell tweeted a Popular Mechanics piece showing what appeared to be a Ukrainian prototype shoulder-fired missile with a guidance system powered by the Raspberry Pi microcomputer. The inclusion of the Pi makes it a seeming next-step from the much shared image of Syrian rebels in Jobar in 2013 using an iPad to angle mortar fire. We are using our new off-the-shelf street-level tools to build the complex weapons systems out of most people’s reach for the past half-century or more.

Just as notable as the idea that it uses the hobbyist computer is that it’s apparently guided by sound, making it the first sound-homing ground-based weapon. This dovetails neatly with another trend I’ve been tracking and laid out a bit in The Renewed Importance of Sound – an exploration and exploitation of a much different sensory domain than we’re used to engaging with.

Mortars have been around since the 14th century or so – unsurprisingly (due to the history of gunpowder), first appearing in east/southeast Asia. It took 500 years to go from massive, unwieldy field artillery pieces to the compact Stokes trench mortar in the first World War that could be carried and crewed by a single soldier. Less than fifty years later, engineers successfully managed to link hardware and firing control computers in such a way that they could achieve MRSI or Multiple Round Simultaneous Impact, a devastating deployment of ordnance in which multiple weapons in different places fire in such a way that their rounds reach the target at the same time. With minimal human input, which seems to be the way our weapons trend.

Shoulder-fired missiles have a similar line of development. Traced back to ancient Chinese arrows loaded with black powder and a fuse, they evolved then into multiply-crewed weapons systems that looked like a collection of tubes on a single wheel axle that could be fired in quick succession but not aimed particularly well. Fast forward roughly equivalent to the above and you get to the Panzerfaust of World War II and similar rocket-propelled weapons systems that were much more practical and stable, if not necessarily accurate. And again, in less than 10% of the time between the real inception of the weapon and its 20th century jump, the technology jumped again. As just one example, Britain developed the MBT-LAW shoulder-fired “fire and forget” system that tracks moving targets on its own, making autonomous corrections to its flight path and speed. Also consider MANPAD (man-portable air defense systems) like the Stinger missile.

At first glance the Jobar case and the Ukrainian prototype seem disconnected. After all, the former involves using the accelerometer of a separate, unlinked device whereas the missile integrates the technology. But consider the similar technological trajectories of the weapons systems and the fact that people without access to Pentagon engineers can now not only use computers to deliver ordnance accurately but can relatively easily link them similar to the MRSI concept explained above. Once an abstract concept, ballistic computers are now so natively and immediately understood that in the absence of them we appropriate our own, integrate them how we can, and deploy.

Colour out of space, touch out of type

Fun, fascinating realization while writing about something totally unrelated this morning. So, I’ve known for a long, long time that I have synesthesia – it’s a lifelong neurological mechanism where sensory input in one arena reliably triggers sensation in another. For instance, the most common form is for certain letters or numbers to appear in particular colors. But synesthesia can affect spatial orientation, physical sensation like touch and texture, sound and taste.

In my case, words both written and spoken have an immediately tactile quality – touch, pressure and texture.

I’m now in a work environment where roughly 50% of my patients speak primarily Spanish, and while I have a very basic grasp of Spanish I’ve been hesitant to engage with them and instead rely on coworkers that can translate. Part of that is that my Spanish has atrophied, but another big part I couldn’t put my finger on until this morning as I sat writing about sensation in an entirely differently way.

It’s been so long since I regularly used or was exposed to Spanish that I forgot it has an entirely different tactile quality than English for me – it triggers totally unique physical sensations. And I’ve not felt them regularly for at least a decade and a half. This connection came to me in a split second and fits so perfectly with my physical experience of being in a Spanish-speaking environment again.

I took four years of Spanish in high school, had excellent teachers and enjoyed it very much but even before I knew about synesthesia recognized that it “felt” different than English. My post high-school experience with Spanish consisted mostly of translating Spanish poetry into English for fun and to keep the Spanish fresh in my brain, but also for the pure physical/neurological experience I derived from it. I also watched Spanish-language TV a bit to keep my listening skills sharp but that felt different and I did it less.

I was writing about color and texture in painting this morning and it all just sort of clicked.

Archangel

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I caught up with William Gibson’s new graphic novel Archangel a few days late. Knew it was coming out but missed the Great Unveiling until people were raving about it on twitter. Gibson’s been an interest of mine for roughly two decades now and this new collaboration with Michael St. John Smith, Butch Guice, and Tula Lotay on covers promises to be no less fascinating. This post contains a few images and some storyline from the first issue, of course, so if you haven’t read it yet and want to go in fresh you should stop reading.

My content consumption is almost all digital now, so it struck me somewhat fun that I grabbed Archangel by way of a system that allows me to pay with certain magic numbers and beams the comic to my tablet after innumerable digital handshakes. I love digital platforms and it’s one of the reasons I’m so willing to pay even with a pretty low disposable income level – I want to see creators and digital platforms both thrive like hell.

I grabbed the comic and it immediately struck me as interesting. Tula Lotay’s cover hit high notes across a discordant noir theme, injecting a mass of color into what was about to be an absolutely bleak landscape in both timelines. Archangel’s beginning contrasts interestingly with a lot of Gibson’s literary work; his novels often begin with a coming-together, and Archangel kicks off with several comings-apart, from the material sense to the societal and interpersonal. Gibson’s a trickster of a deep and joyous sort who loves fucking with the baseline, so it’ll be interesting to see how this affects the story. But in typical Gibsonian fashion it also comes into focus in equal parts grit and technology but not a lot of flash.

Watching Gibson collaborate in a visual medium should be fascinating thanks to little visual cues he enjoys, bits of tangential errata accessible only by keen rememberers or re-readers. One of the first of these is a drop pistol in a drawer, trigger guard removed, grip wrapped in tape to prevent fingerprints:

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One wonders in which act it’ll be fired. Another instance of these interesting little artifacts is the mechanized, electronic insects buzzing around in the pilot’s cell – in 1945:

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Gibson also treats the story itself in interesting ways. He performs a thorough split of resources with fun implications: a crashed stealth plane from the future goes to the Brits (how will that affect the timeline?), the pilot and copilot (one alive, one dead) go to the Americans. But both sets are in a passive mode so far – British studying this new plane, Americans studying the mysterious tattooed soldiers with implanted gadgetry. But the only group native to that timeline with any agency so far are the Brits, as their intelligence officer works what lines she can to get access to the future pilots and takes some stuff for testing as the Americans don’t have the capability.

Meanwhile Junior and crew arrive on scene with agency, but they’re very visibly portrayed as alien – a smirking alien face on Junior as he’s flanked by two conspicuously massive guards. The three are imposed on that last scene as if it’s a background, rather than them being a natural part of it.

Gibson’s Peripheral involved some interesting timeline stuff but that was an open system with continuous manipulation of the target timeline. If we take things at face value the target timeline in Archangel is now a closed system. That certainly changes the game.

And to please me even further, the comic includes a damn fair amount of backmatter. I’m a process voyeur and seeing Gibson talk about the process so far, both in writing collaboration and in art, is like manna from heaven. I’d read a whole book that’s just about the process, I think. But luckily we’re getting it for free.

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So far Archangel is Gibson at his best: wrapping multiple plots around objects or visuals and letting things play out in the foreground while you’re still staring at something specific and wondering about it.

I want to know when Givens’ dodgy little revolver fires. I want to know what put Torres in a wheelchair. I want to know how a Montana research facility survived whatever everything else didn’t, and why the hell there’s a copy of the White House on-site.

Intensely looking forward to the next issue.

Thinking Machines Thinking Of Machining Us

(This is the featured meat of this week’s newsletter, which just went out. If you want to subscribe you can find it here.)

 

Thinking about artificial intelligences a lot lately. Our thinking about machine thinking feels like it’s matured significantly over the past six months or year, entered a new phase. Most of the conversation seemed stuck for a while on fears like Bostrom’s paperclip maximizer – the idea that an AI programmed even to a trivial task could be dangerous because it thinks machinistically. That, programmed to create paperclips, an AI would consider humans detrimental to its programming because they might unplug it, and also humans are made up of a lot of atoms that could be better served assembled into more paperclips. The logical issues with overblown fears like the paperclip maximizer are astounding – first and foremost, it pretends we can think non-biologically about how an AI will approach biology, or really any task. The argument invalidates itself by wrapping around the idea that we can in no way conceive of how AI will “think.” But, apparently, we can know enough to be afraid of it. In fact, we can guess enough about its possible thought processes to consider it an existential threat, according to Bostrom!

The idea that non-biological intelligences will “think” in ways totally alien to us is not new, but I’ve seen it explored a lot more lately, and with a lot more depth. It’s entering more conversations about AI in general and our interactions with it in particular. Take AlphaGo, for instance – Google’s deep learning program devoted to playing the board game Go. AlphaGo’s faced four matches with the second best Go player in the world, winning the first three (the fifth has yet to be played). The ability to watch and analyze in detail human-AI interaction can produce some astounding insights, and in this case seems to point to an entirely new way to approach Go gameplay.


Delving into the idea of nonbiological artificial intelligence in a different way is Injection, a comic written by Warren Ellis with stunningly beautiful art by Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire. Injection’s relatively new – issue 8 comes out this week – but quickly becoming a favorite comic of mine thanks both to the art and the wonderful ways in which Ellis intertwines things like technology, philosophy and folklore. It involves a crossdiscipline team of varied experts including Brigid Roth, a hacker and programming phenomenon who, well, had a bit of fun with the Turing Test…


Injection goes much, much deeper into the issue of machine intelligence, in fascinating ways. And I’m excited to see where Ellis takes it, especially given the richer environment. We might be ready for this conversation. We might. Injection approaches it in a great way, though – through a lens not necessarily but not unlike horror. And as Eugene Thacker (who I talked about in the last issue of this newsletter) states, horror is a way to think about the unthinkable, a way to process past what might be the limit of human thought. Using horror to approach nonbiological intelligence – a form and function of “thought” that we cannot comprehend – is nothing short of perfect, a sort of speculative machine intelligence metacognition.

I Blame Zimbardo

People continue to be flabbergasted that the anger behind Donald Trump’s support has not burned itself out yet. It must, they often insist, consume itself and leave former supporters gripped by boredom, lackadaisical, having spent their energy in acts of political catharsis before averaging out and backing a candidate of more substance, closer to the aims of the Republican Party. This is true for observers on both sides of the aisles and they’re both thoroughly wrong. It’s the kind of thinking, oddly enough, that led to the hallucinatory 2008 and 2012 predictions widely circulated within the Republican party (though both parties are guilty of this at random times) that they were about to win the presidency – a disconnect from the ground-level reality behind campaigns.

To offer a more grounded view of Trump’s supporters than I did in my previous post (regarding philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, Trump and Dante’s Inferno) let me turn to one of the most basic parts of any Psychology 101 curriculum for decades.

The support behind Trump is the Stanford Prison Experiment writ large with all the ethical and methodological issues still intact.

In 1971 psychology professor Philip Zimbardo began a two-week experiment in the basement of a Stanford University building in which students were divided up into guards and prisoners. Guards were given uniforms, batons and mirrored sunglasses to avoid eye contact. Prisoners were forced to wear uniforms with their prisoner number on them, and referred from there on as that number. Guards policed the prisoners in their cells and a few other confined areas, ensuring they acted “appropriately” and punishing displays of defiance.

By the second day both groups began to assume their assigned roles in big ways. Guards became much more authoritarian and began to target and torment prisoners in various ways. Prisoners began to defy that authority, act out, block access and respond with anger, hostility and hopelessness. Steps such as the removal of clothing or the refusal to let prisoners empty the “sanitation buckets” in their cells were taken, stripping prisoners of essential dignity. The entire experiment spiraled into a mountain of increasing ethical violations until a graduate student assigned to interview prisoners objected to the conditions.

It took less 6 days for the experiment to go so badly that it had to be terminated. Both prisoners and guards identified so deeply with their roles that they treated each other savagely. Six days.

I spent a few hours looking at the Trump corners of twitter and facebook today (for two good samples, check Mitt Romney’s facebook page and then go search “Mr Trump” on twitter – diehard supporters love using the “mister”). Reviewing the rhetoric of Trump supporters brought me to a conclusion: this is the Stanford Prison Experiment inscribed on presidential politics, graffiti’d like a vulgarity scratched on a lamppost. Trump supporters see themselves as prisoners and want to be the jailers, but in the meantime assume the roles they feel they’ve been forced into.

Zimbardo’s instructions for guards before his experiment began are preserved publically and quite on point here:

“You can create in the prisoners feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree, you can create a notion of arbitrariness that their life is totally controlled by us, by the system, you, me, and they’ll have no privacy … We’re going to take away their individuality in various ways. In general what all this leads to is a sense of powerlessness. That is, in this situation we’ll have all the power and they’ll have none.”

And this is exactly what you see in the complaints of Trump’s political base – they are both bored and fearful, and feel that the world has exacted some terrible price upon their individuality and personal agency. They bemoan the total control that they perceive the government to be exerting and at the same time identify with it, often wanting to exact similar or worse upon their own enemies. To repeat: they’ve assumed the roles of powerless prisoners but fantasize of themselves as the jailers, using sadistic violence, vitriol and privilege manipulation to control and punish those they see as weaker. Shows of force are highly extolled virtues – everything else is met with sneering contempt (I’m again reminded of the Warren Ellis character presidential candidate Bob Heller – you can find a few relevant panels at the bottom of this post).

They have the anger of those who feel their dignity is assaulted every day, and so take on the mantle of the Undignified. No amount of dialogue or statesmanship is going to make a bit of difference in that case – it’s why appeals to presidential dignity like Romney’s today will be met with Trump explicitly saying Romney would’ve given him oral sex for an endorsement in 2012, for instance, to the raucous applause of his supporters and enthusiastic approval from his political base.

The Republican leadership – any leadership, really, but the Republican in particular – has no idea what to do with this. This kind of self-identification isn’t just a sort of fad-anger that can be redirected or tamped. And surely bringing people like Mitt Romney to try and stamp it out only fans the flames – in him they see another captor, an establishment jailer who they nonetheless picture themselves in the role of. They want to be successful capitalist so badly, the Bain Capital executive, the man in the pressed suit. But that desire to be Romney can’t become conscious and so is sublimated back into the unquenchable anger of a population that feels it’s been forced into indignity and barbarism.

They’ve been given a role, and they will play it until the experiment’s over. That they don’t see Trump as another jailer – one that’s bankrupted numerous legitimate business and crushed countless people much closer to the level of the supporters – is an artifact of fantastic marketing on Trump’s part. As long as he feeds the anger he gives them the only sense of agency they have.

Trump in the Inferno

Just sent another newsletter out – the main article’s below, and you can subscribe here.

I’ve just started reading Eugene Thacker’s In the Dust of This Planet, the first in his Horror of Philosophy series and as recommended by Warren Ellis. In the Dust of This Planet considers horror as a vehicle through which to think about the unthinkable, from personal to climatological. Horror as a way to poke and prod at the limit of thought and immediate experience. It’s fantastic and engrossing so far and I was so caught by a particular point that’s stuck ever since.

Thacker proposes a few interpretations for the word black in the phrase “black metal” and in doing so addresses, separately, several ways to process darkness, evil and demons.

“In contrast to what Schopenhauer calls a private nothing (the nihil privativum; dark as the absence of light, death as the absence of life) there is a negative nothing (the nihil negativum; nothingness without any positive value).”

In other words, private nothing is an absence of something defined and has its own character on that basis. Compared to that, negative nothing is without character or definition – it is simply absence without any kind of light-or-matter transition to some positive state. Thacker goes on to discuss demons and typology, including a fantastic point – right on topic – that “Elaine Pagels’s widely-read The Origin of Satan makes the clearest point: the demon is inseparable from a process of demonization, and this process is as much political as it is religious.” And a bit later:

“The demon is not really a supernatural creature, but an anthropological motif through which we human beings project, externalize and represent the darker side of the human to ourselves.”

Mechanism established Thacker moves onto typology of demons in Dante’s Inferno and identifies at least three distinct types: Lucifer himself, personified, giant, brooding counter-sovereign; embodied demons such as the Malebranche that are found instituting various punishments and generally administrating the mundane tasks of hell; and the third type, which is what I’m concerned with here. Dante encounters a demonic atmosphere, a tempestuous and vile black wind driving the spirits back and forth, “eternal in its rage.”

“We soon learn that this tempestuous scene is not the backdrop for some new genre of demons, but that the wind, the rain and the storm itself is the demon. This “black wind” is at once invisible and yet dramatically manifest, coursing through the swarming bodies of the damned.”

Thacker describes this as a demon that is “fully immanent, and yet never fully present,” “at once pure force and flow,” but having no substance of its own “also pure nothingness.”

It occurred to me while reading that this seems a perfect corollary to the Trump Campaign. A fiery, rageful bombast who has yet to articulate any particular strategy or stance. Instead, Trump blows back and forth across what all involved seem to percieve as a doomed and decrepit plain, and they’re taken by the force he shows. He bellows from above about destroying this or that enemy or head of state, bellows about building a wall that he’ll force another country to pay for, bellows frenetically back and forth: he contradicts himself as much as he affirms himself. It isn’t direction Trump is concerned with, only force. He’s a political tempest with rage rather than form; his campaign is “fully immanent, and yet never fully present,” lacking hereness but “dramatically manifest.” Not the counter-divine but rather the political nihil negativum, an absence furiously insisting upon its presence.

I keep expecting Trump to burn out – to blow himself out, really. That at some point his energy has to expire and give place to something else. But there’s no energy to bottom out. Trump’s not the counter-anything, but rather that nothingness without a positive value. He’s that vile storm blowing across a landscape that doesn’t know there’s a positive value on the other side of rage. And he appeals so much to people who seem to view themselves as the damned – angry at being cast into a landscape they find existentially hostile and punishing, a population mad enough at their world that they’ve instead chosen the storm that’s as likely to turn on them as anything.