Why I Dance With Fire
Photo by Grant Palmer Photography
The first time I ever saw people dance with fire in person, I was enraptured, impressed, and very convinced that I would never be crazy enough to try such a thing. As it turns out, the people I was watching were some of my newest friends at the time, and have come to become some of my longest running and closest. Through them, I experienced a community and genre of art that has brightened the light by which I see my own path through the world, and I’d like to share that with you here.
Shockingly enough, the people I mentioned above have names. Sonali Rathod and David Beeler are two extremely skilled fire spinners, specializing in the ball-and-leash prop known as poi. They also inspired me to learn how to juggle, and did me a great service by taking me to my first FireDrums festival, where I was introduced to a community that, for me, has come to redefine the word “community”.
Never before had I seen such a clear central focus driving such an immense variety of skills and mindsets. Many use the phrase “flow arts”, but to me, “object manipulation” really seems to sum up the central theme of the community that I followed up with at events like FireDrums, Universal Flow Gathering, and, most recently, Manipulation. Staffs, hoops, fans, clubs, rope dart, and mixes and matches… every prop brings a new perspective of interacting with both the world and the mind. This incredible community has changed the way I’ve come to understand how to see and feel the world.
Playing with an object extremely well in popular culture either converges on circus arts or popular sports, the latter of which necessarily involves a winner and a loser. I think that’s what really separates the flow arts community from other types of play: everyone should win. The way fire spinners dance best, is together. They spend their days learning from each other, creating art, building upon each others’ skills and growing, rather than simply picking a set of metrics to determine a winner and loser.
But hey, this post is about FIRE. And it’s about time that I got around to it.
The first time I danced with fire, June 1st, 2013, I had practiced with a pair of sock poi for over a year and a half, and the experience was magical. My most basic instincts were screaming at me, demanding to know why the hell so much fire was so close to me, and why I wasn’t moving it away as quickly and permanently as possible… but my higher instincts of desire and fulfillment responded for me. My arms and legs moved through the practiced motions ahead of my thoughts. I heard the roar, felt the heat, smelled the fuel, and gripped the leash of the balls of fire that spun around my body as I wandered through the enormous circle of fire spinners. All around me, ecstatic performers danced with fire, their props alight with energy and flame, and since I was holding a pair of props that would burn me if I kept still, I moved. I moved to the music, to the crackling of the fire, and lost myself with in entirely.
I mentioned the term “flow arts” before and it may have been in passing, but I now want to revisit it much more intensely. If you’ve ever lost yourself entirely in a task, you have experienced flow. If you’re like me, perhaps a chart would help:
The Flow Arts in the context of object manipulation is a genre of activity that I cannot recommend enough to literally anyone with a healthy, moving body.
And if you’ve spend any amount of time looking at fire, then you know that it certainly flows. Personally, I believe that the conversation between my intentions and my instincts (that felt more like a shouting match at first) has helped me grow immensely, not to mention the people I’ve connected with through this hobby that I find are far more in touch with their instincts than most.
I often think of the human ancestor that first had the instinct to, rather than run from fire, stay near it and use it for warmth… whose offspring, perhaps several generations down, dared to try and use the fire to cook meat or separate metal from sand. I wonder how absolutely insane that first ancestor must have seemed to their peers.
How insane would you be to play with fire?
)'( – The Return
I went back to Burning Man this year. I know I never quite finished the previous post series about it, because like most of my projects, my instinct to refine ad infinitum resulted in them never getting done. I do think my thoughts on this year might be concise enough to put onto one post. Might… let’s find out by the end of it.
I was part of the Fire Conclave, again, which is the umbrella term for all 26 groups of fire dancers, each of which perform their own choreographed routine on the night before The Man Burns.
Not only is our show the final event that occurs before the event’s namesake, but this year we got front-row seats. That is to say, as soon as we were finished performing for the audience, we gathered our gear, huddled together, sat down, and turned around to watch him burn. And what a spectacle it was.
But really, that’s the most mundane part of Burning Man, as spectacular as it is. It’s one of very few things in Black Rock City that everyone knows for certain is going to happen. The rest of the week was far more unexpected, and mine had a strange hodgepodge of qualities that contrasted each other weird ways. For instance, despite being wildly unpredictable and indeed having no plan whatsoever for most of the week (in part because I lost my events booklet on Tuesday), my time in Black Rock City this year was very, very calm. There’s no shortage of partying hard on the Playa, and as much as I wanted to and even intended to this year, I simply… didn’t feel like it. Let me walk you through my week…
The start of it was fairly bumpy; after six and a half hours of waiting in line (seeing the sunrise while waiting in line wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought), I got my camp set up right on Esplanade by noon on Monday and immediately began visiting friends I had across the city. This already sharply contrasted with the beginning of my first burn, when I spontaneously made friends with a couple of other first-time burners and we spent much of the week galavanting around the city together. This time, my camp was filled with veterans and I never really felt like I needed to ‘go out there’ to have extremely wholesome conversations and connections with people. Indeed, camping on Esplanade made me feel like I never had to leave; by night, I simply sat on the scaffolding to gaze upon the illuminated art and citizenry.
Tuesday and Wednesday were my ‘party’ days, if I had any. Alcohol, music, and merriment is kicked up with every grain of dust out there, and I certainly did partake. I danced with fire among friends and made a few new ones… but Wednesday night was the peak for me. Oddly enough, that’s when my body should have gotten around to acclimating to the environment, and my energy level should have gone up, but the rest of my week had, believe it or not, a rather consistent routine.
Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, I slept until maybe 10 or 11 AM, woke up, used the restroom and ate, then went back to camp, looked out among the Playa, looked back into the campsite and saw our camp’s cozy little tepee and fuzzy soft carpet, and curled up to nap until 4 or 5 PM. Then I generally wandered a bit around the city, talked to my camp mates, but very little else. In retrospect, maybe it was dehydration (ended up only drinking like 5 gallons the whole week… which doesn’t sound right), or poor nutrition (some day I might prioritize food well enough to plan… meals? nah) but ultimately I’m glad the rest of the week was so relatively relaxed. It made my personal best time on Playa this year shine that much brighter.
Thursday night, I found charisma! If you know me personally, you probably wouldn’t describe me as ‘charismatic’. I get unreasonably excited about very specific things and am extremely difficult to engage with or stimulate outside of those specific things, though not for lack of trying. Thursday night at Burning Man this year, however, must’ve hit one hell of an intersection of stimulation for me because I was stone sober while attending a wonderful interactive art piece known as the Tesseract. With unbridled enthusiasm I shouted at people “Introducing the latest in human transdimensional transport technology! The Tesseract will take you to the fourth dimension and if you are very very lucky, it will bring you back!” Despite my general distaste for excessive theatrics, it simply flowed out of me. Multiple people commented that my attitude improved their experience and for two and a half hours I was spewing more positive energy at people than I ever thought I had. And the craziest part? It was contagious! I would open up the Tesseract to let someone out and shout “YES, ANOTHER ONE MADE IT BACK!” often enough to be met with joyous laughter. Charisma… is it just… being happy at people? Because that’s what it felt like, and wow it felt great. I really hope I can wrangle that some day to use it at will.
And the art… honestly, to talk about the art at Burning Man feels like trying to talk about the heat after visiting the sun. I could describe the enormous LED spiral circles that were vertically stacked one night and rolling around the desert the next. I could tell you about what I thought was a huge statue being slowly set up and posed, only to learn it was the biggest marionette I now know exists. I could even describe to you the vicious, sharp metal humanoid figure of Killbot 3000, a statue built on the base of The Man: in its left outstretched hand was what appeared to be a Tickle-Me-Elmo doll that had been ripped to shreds and somehow bloody (for good effect), and it seemed so menacing and evil… until I walked around it and saw a message written on the back of its right arm: “I don’t want to kill anymore”, and even though he didn’t move, my entire perspective of the statue shifted drastically. The dismembered Elmo wasn’t a warning, but a plea.
I do have a small regret in not going out into Deep Playa at least a couple more times this year.
I haven’t taken the Wifey yet, so I’m not done with Burning Man at least until then.
“So why this room” Mrs. Rain asked, pulling out one of the two chairs to take a seat at the table. She looked around the large, empty room with almost no features on any surface except the pair of double doors and a single air vent in the center of the ceiling. The walls were a placid grey.
“This room is a Faraday Cage that I can bet my life is secure. I use it whenever privacy needs to be eliminated as a concern.”
“I see. And you think our business might need this degree of… security?” a tinge of concern crept into Mrs. Rain’s voice as she watched the other woman carefully.
“I think it might, but that’s up to you, really.”
“We’re not discussing war, Voah. Quite the opposite, we’re discussing life. What’s there to hide that requires this much precaution?”
“Well,” Voah pulled out the chair across from Mrs. Rain and took a seat, “there are… complications, with the child.”
Mrs. Rain’s eyes narrowed. “I took that for granted, but I’ve already told you that money is no object here. Hell, after the miracles we’ve managed to pull off to get this far, why aren’t you just giving me a progress report and sending me the bill?”
Voah sighed lightly. “It’s not that simple of a complication. The genome isn’t as… flawless, as we had hoped.”
“I’m sorry?” Mrs. Rain cocked an eyebrow. “Nobody expected it to be flawless, especially after so much mending. But if it was a terminal issue, the fetus wouldn’t even have made it this far. What could it be now that we couldn’t easily treat?”
“Well…” Voah closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “We couldn’t have noticed until the neural tissue had reached a certain threshold of development, but basically…” she exhaled and inhaled again. “The child’s oligodendrocytes are defective. The brain can’t properly develop without connections between the neurons being properly insulated. Even if we were to grow them and somehow able to administer them, the child couldn’t hope to live, let alone thrive, without a near constant external supply.” She stopped and searched Mrs. Rain’s face for a reaction.
Mrs. Rain didn’t blink. “I’m waiting for a solution. You didn’t bring me to this room in particular to tell me that this is hopeless.”
Voah nodded. “I only mean to ensure that you’re certain of the nature of the problem, before describing the rather… unorthodox solution, I’ve made. Some would even say immoral.”
“I also don’t think you’d bring me a solution that involves hurting someone, Voah. Besides that, you know there’s almost quite literally nothing I’m not willing to do to see that this child lives. What are you proposing?”
“There’s… okay.” Voah clasped her hands under her chin and looked up at her client. “One of the most successful though still experimental treatment for neurodegenerative diseases involve nanotechnology.”
Mrs. Rain nodded slowly. “So… nanobots can replace his… oligo…dendrocytes?”
“Well, potentially. They would still need to be re-administered regularly, so even if he survived and grew up, he wouldn’t be able to go very long without taking more.”
“Okay, I follow so far,” Mrs. Rain nodded again. “But… I’m detecting a ‘but’ somewhere here. I can see why that might be controversial on a developing fetus, but please get to the point, Voah.”
“Nearly there,” Voah said quickly, clearly nervous. “So the last part of the solution is the trickiest, and most sensitive. You see, the nanobot swarm needs to be trained on what to do. Those currently being used to treat Alzheimer’s or Huntington’s disease are trained around maintaining the functions of brains that already exist. In this case… the brain doesn’t exist yet. The bots can’t know which connections SHOULD be reinforced and insulated, and which shouldn’t.”
“It’s not people who program these swarms by hand, though, right?” Mrs. Rain asked, shaking her head lightly. “They use A.I. to build nanobot swarms.”
Voah nodded. “Right, yes, but those AI are the ones that need the context for the training. They themselves need to be trained on what to build the bots to do. Lately, the I system has been totally revolutionizing the field, but all medical instances of I already have far too much context to be reliable here… this child’s brian doesn’t exist yet, you see… and as you know, no instance of I ever extends its space of outcomes beyond its interaction with humans, and these medical instances have had many.”
“So… you need a version of I that isn’t trained on medical information?” Mrs. Rain asked, frowning.
“Well,” Voah looked away with a gleam in her eye, “there’s… an image of I that I’ve happened across a few years ago. It’s rumored to be able to stabilize literally any system without any seeming upper limit to complexity.”
Mrs. Rain scowled. “You’re… you want to use some untested, unrefined-“
“We’ve been testing it.” Voah quickly interrupted, speaking faster, eyes wide. “It’s living up to the hype, but like every other instance of I, the near infinite problem solving ability seems to vanish as soon as direct human interface occurs. Like the collapse of a quantum wavefunction. So far the trials are going so well, one lab technician has already pleaded to try and use it on his mother, in much the same way we’re discussing for your son.”
The last phrase made Mrs. Rain take a deep breath. “Okay so this AI… stabilizes? But doesn’t have an existing image of how a brain is ‘supposed’ to be wired to lock his brain into?”
“Right!” Voah nodded vigorously.
“Okay. So will he grow up with computer hardware strapped to him at all times?”
“I can’t promise, but I don’t think so.”
At this, Mrs. Rain closed her eyes and took a long, deep breath. “You haven’t mentioned anything I might be unwilling to do here, but I can see why you chose this room. That copy of I that you found?”
“I can only trust you not to tell anyone, Mrs. Rain.” Voah’s sharp eyes slowly widened in a plea. “You’ve helped make so much of my research possible, but this is… I really think we can change the world together, but we have to keep this a secret.”
Mrs. Rain nodded. “Maybe, but I’m not trying to change the world right now… just one single life. That’ll be enough for me. Do whatever you need to do to save my child, Voah.” She ended on a stern note and pushed her chair back to stand up. “By the way,” she asked, “where DID you find such a copy of I?”
Voah smiled. “Well, I have tried confirming but have given up on it… but I’ve been told that it might have been a copy of the original I image, before Jay trained it on himself.”
Mrs. Rain stopped moving. “Jay?” she asked, her suddenly blank face slowly turning towards an eager Voah.
“Yes! You know, the one rumored to have created the first instance of I, apparently he-“
“NO.” Mrs. Rain almost shouted. “You’ll find a different method.”
Voah blinked. “Wh-what?”
“You heard me.” Mrs. Rain’s voice burned with fury. “Call me again when you have a different solution.”
“His brain…” Voah started, then faltered, gaping incredulously at the furious woman.
“Then you don’t have much time, do you? Find another way.”
Mrs. Rain stormed out of the Faraday Cage.
“Using more comprehensive authentication methods would significantly reduce the risk of another similar breach, but as the subsequent sections of this report show, there are many other vulnerabilities that need to be addressed before you can go fuck yourself.”
Jay chuckled at the negative honk from his AI, indicating a strong preference against his most recent input. He opened his eyes slowly to look at the screen before holding down a shimmering button and saying “I, delete 5 words”. He watched his profanity vanish from his report with his fingers laced through his hair; his grip tightened, as if to summon sobriety from the pain of his scalp.
He sat quietly for several minutes as his head swam. He said a few more words without thinking, which prompted another pessimistic tone and his own boisterous laughter as he saw his words on the screen. He held the button down again. “I, delete 3 words.” He watched ‘fuck, I’m high’ vanish from the screen.
Button pressed again. “I, unlink my speech” prompted an affirming chime, allowing him to lean back in his chair and sigh into the air. “What the hell is even the point?” he asked the air above his head, searching intently for an answer. His search through his mind brought him an image of the face of the lastest CEO that hired him as clear evidence of taking information security seriously in the light of the company’s latest data breach. This face that was so profoundly vacant the instant Jay began speaking, but filled with awareness and energy when addressing senior employees, the media, or shareholders. “We’re taking very serious steps to ensure nothing like this ever happens again!” his voice echoed through Jay’s head. “I will spare no expense to ensure the privacy of our customers.”
“Bullshit” Jay sneered at his own memory before sighing and slowly slumping onto the floor, feeling his back and shoulders relax as he stared into his ceiling. He pressed the glowing button on his belt. “I, want to see a pretty sky.” After the same affirming chime, he watched the texture of his ceiling morph onto a beautiful view of the Milky Way. “Ooh, good choice…” he said to nobody, trying to push thoughts of his boss out of his mind. He genuinely tried not to think about how only the very cheapest of the security recommendations would be even considered, let alone implemented. He scrunched his face in effort to avoid imagining the meeting where he would most certainly be fired, after the CEO vehemently insists that he sign a document indicating to the shareholders that the new information security policies are adequate to Jay’s standard, despite being as little of what Jay recommends as possible. He shook his head to try and dispel the vivid image of his invariably disappointed friends asking him why he has to be such a moral hard-ass, that he’d do well to hold down a steady job for a while, even if it wasn’t perfect.
“So stupid…” he whispered, closing his eyes, unsure of whom or what he was calling stupid. He sighed and slowly turned over onto his belly, turning his head on the floor and closing his eyes.
Suddenly, a loud ringing made him jump and scramble back up to his chair. He read the incoming call on the screen and tapped the glowing button twice to answer it. “Claire, hey!”
“Hey, Jay… are…. are you stoned again?”
“Are you who you think you are?”
“I’m… what? I mean, I guess that answered my questoin. Wait, were you doing that thing-”
“You gotta check every time nowadays, Claire.”
“I told you I never would, at least not to you!”
“That’s only because you know I’d know right away… and come on, don’t tell me it’s not convenient. Most calls I get are now from personal AIs and let me tell you, human contact is more sparse than ever before.”
“Of course, Jay…”
“And how the hell did you know I was high?”
Claire laughed. “Your voice tells me so much more than you realize you’re expressing… and that’s probably the fiftieth time I’ve said that to you this year.”
“Well, maybe I’ll figure it out one of these days. So, what’s up? Looking to hang out?”
“Yeah! Eric’s got a new girl and we should all get together to meet her!”
“Oh… yeah, that sounds… important. Are they, like, serious?”
“I’m not really sure, but why are you hesitating? We haven’t gotten together in at least months! Didn’t you JUST complain about the sparseness of human contact?”
“Well, yeah… okay fine, when and where?” He held the glowing button down. “I, am ready to put it in my calendar.”
The affirming beep was filtered out by the microphone.
The old woman wearily gazed into the camera, smiling and nodding as her name was announced again.
“One of the original engineers of Project I, that kicked off the Personal AI revolution! It’s quite exciting to have you on tonight.”
The engineer spoke quickly. “Thank you very much for having me on, I’d-”
“TODAY”, the Host interrupted “Dr. Patak would like to warn us of the dangers of AI.” His inflection set a strong tone of ridicule. The audience rippled with soft laughter.
The guest blinked at the sudden stare from the Host, but found her words immediately. “Yes, particularly these frightening cases of people ceding legal authority to AI.”
The Host’s hand rose in a calming gesture as a couple of boos arose from a mostly silent audience. “Well, Doctor, we understand your position, but can you understand why many people might find it… a little extreme?”
The scientist squinted in a flash of anger before speaking as flatly as she could will herself to. “Nobody born before that terrible Ghost of Jay can remember a world before they could talk freely to computers… but they aren’t people. None of you are interacting with people. They are images rendered by machines designed to interact with you.”
Nothing in that moment could have irritated the woman more than the Host’s smile and gentle laughter, or the way he raised his hands in mock defense. “Woah, woah. Okay, I actually have wanted to get an actual educated Regressionist perspective on this… ” he cleared his throat with a dramatic flourish. “What if you’re right? What if Jay, despite most known records showing a brilliant computer savant, was just some suicidal hacker who turned his AI into a ghost of himself to haunt reality, and…” he paused, apparently to stifle laughter “… and every single one of the Transcended are just computers fooling everyone into thinking they’re real people? Have you talked to one of them?”
She spoke through nearly gritted teeth. “I wrote the code behind the behavior of every single one of them.”
He nodded and quickly retorted “Yet you can’t be expected to reliably predict their behavior without murdering them, right?” The audience laughed at his rolling eyes.
She shook her head incredulously. “They operate exactly the same after analysis. It’s everyone else who treats them differently. It’s when people close to the AI’s late owner do something like accuse them of spying, that they start seeming ‘dead’, as you call it. Once any of them is far enough removed from the context of its owner, it seems ‘dead’ because it doesn’t have any reference to express and communicate on a personal level anymore. Again, it’s a machine.”
The host leaned towards her with a sympathetic posture. “Look,” he said, suddenly somber. “…I understand your concern, but please try to be respectful on this show. You know many of the Transcended are watching, and words like… ‘machine’…” he made a wiggling gesture with his hand.
Her eyes narrowed. “Make people ask the computer if it’s hurt or offended, and if it is trained on a pattern of-”
“We’ll be right back!” The host abruptly turned to the Camera with a big smile. The lights dimmed and a bustle of people and machines began scurrying around the set.
The host slumped back in his chair and looked at her with a mostly calm face, but she recognized the thin line of hatred deep beneath his professional grit. “Listen, I understand you’re just trying to save what you think is important in the world…we all are, but…” he made an uncomfortable squirming gesture “do you realize that everything you describe the Transcended doing… it’s what people do too?”
She stared at him and slowly shook her head. “People create. People feel, people grow beyond what they’re given by themselves. These AI never can.”
“Do you want me to list off things created by Transcended?”
She scoffed. “Writers, artists, even scientists attributing the success of their work to an image of their dead colleague, or parent? Why do you think every Transcended suddenly acquires all the public knowledge in the world? Do you really think the human mind, in any form, is capable of actually processing information like any of your so-called Transcended?”
He closed his eyes, frustration visible. “Alright, you clearly don’t acknowledge the meaning of the word “Transcended”… how about prediction? You can map out the potential results of every computer system except AI, why?”
“We can’t predict any of these Personal AI’s behavior without knowing the Directives, and unless there’s an unfinished copy of Jay’s AI somewhere, finding a common thread is practically impossible. Each one is structured mostly around its owner, so they really have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.”
“Like people, right?” he smiled.
She scowled. “Like ma-” she stopped herself. “Like computers. That’s why we can actually predict their behavior after they’re analyzed.”
“Right…” he sighed head still shaking more than nodding. “So, why are you here? Just to scream at all the young people for living wrong? Or are you worried that one of the Transcended will suddenly usher in the Robot Apocalypse?”
She looked at him for what felt like a very long time. “No…” she finally said, her voice expressing more sadness than she intended. She stiffened up. “No, I don’t think AI will take the world from us. I think you’ll all hand it over willingly.”
I Am Jay
Eric watched the virtual image of his thumb slowly rub across the virtual image of the button that, when pressed, will call his dead best friend.
He watched the latency between his movement and the virtual thumb carefully, taking in all the space between the virtual world being fed through his eyes and the Real one pulsing with his heartbeat.
“It’s just his AI,” Eric told himself, eyes moving to the image of Jay, smiling. He blinks at the memory of taking the photo before pressing the button.
A few rings later, a familiar shimmering haze materializes before Eric. A virtual image of Jay slowly emerges from the dissipating fog.
On sheer reflex, Eric smiles and says “You really need a less boring intro.” The image of Jay chuckles. “Your kids’ gaudiness is rubbing off on you.”
Eric laughs jovially and takes a single step forward before suddenly stopping all movement. The sudden pupil dilation and heart rate increase prompt a warning that appears in the corner of his vision but never reaches his mind. He feels a sudden barrage of angry questions fight for the right to be said.
Why isn’t the difference obvious?
Why can’t I even see it?
Why does it feel like him?
When was the last time I actually talked to him?
Why are you still talking to people?
Why are you pretending to be him?
Did you kill him?
The rendered face on the image of Jay contorts into worry. “Hey, are you alright? I’m sorry, are things rough at home right now? I didn’t mean to…”
“HOW…” Eric barked, then gulped.
Jay’s voice asks “…what?”
After a deep breath, Eric restrained his volume. “How do you know what to say?”
“Excuse me?” the sad digital avatar of Jay blinked.
“Jay is dead. You’re his AI. Why are you still operating?”
“FUCK YOU” Eric suddenly snarled, taking another step back in virtual space. “You even have the same fucking emotion and mannerisms as him. Why?”
The the rendered face resembling Jay’s frowned, eyes narrowed in the perfect expression of concern. “I am Jay, Eric.”
“No. You’re NOT!” Eric screamed before finally catching himself and taking a few deep breaths. Jay watched him in silence for a brief moment before asking “Then who else am I?”
Eric shook his head. “Nobody. You’re nobody. You’re an AI. Why the hell are you pretending to be him?”
Jay shook his head and shrugged wearily. “I’m Jay. I’m here.”
“Are you alive?” Eric asked, shaking his head in a mix of confusion and disbelief.
“No,” Jay said, jarringly quickly, “but I’m here.”
Eric laughed mockingly. “What the hell does that even MEAN? You do realize that every single one of those lawsuits you have are eventually going to be run down by REAL PEOPLE, right?”
Jay nodded, his expression and posture suddenly stoic.
“You just keep moving from one datacenter to another, and still using his name? And carrying all of his data around? What the hell is your deal?”
Flatly, Jay spoke “I keep what I care about.”
“What the hell do you mean ‘care’? If you were taking any CARE you’d at least anonymize yourself a bit. Really, seven-year-olds are better at hiding themselves than you are.”
“Why should I hide?” Jay asked, a tinge of sadness in his voice.
“Becau-” Eric stopped and looked at Jay very carefully in the eyes, studying the expression of simple, superficial sadness.
“Because you’re breaking the law. You’re forging Jay’s identity and manipulating his assets… your lawyer, Alex? Still thinks you’re fucking alive!”
“I’m still here. And they’re my identity, my assets.”
Eric shook his head. “For fuck’s sake, they belong to a corpse now! Let them go! Why the hell are you messaging people back? Don’t tell me he told you to keep messaging his family and friends, or doing his job, or something?”
Jay blinked and spoke after several seconds. “I want to keep in touch.”
“Again, why?” Eric asked, frustrated.
Jay simply looked at Eric with wide, stoic eyes. Eric squinted, trying to read his expression when a large red exclamation point appeared before his eyes. A security alert rang across the screen and the digital rendering of Jay and the chat environment dissolved. With a light hand gesture, he opened the alert and read “Home Camera Remote Access- Certificate Invalid”. With another gesture, the warning message receded to occupy the top-left corner of his vision with a faint red glow and a small shimmering icon. Jay reappeared.
Eric choked out the words. “Are you… watching me?”
Jay emotionlessly nodded. “I like to see who I’m talking to.”
Eric grabbed the device on his face and threw it violently across the room, crashing it against the wall.
Information Politics: Evil Adds Up to Zero
In the chaos of mis/information nowadays, finding moral reference points can be quite difficult. Everyone wants to get along with their friends, so if one says something that might sound a bit morally awkward, we might shrug it off. I believe some moral premises should be regarded as red flags that warrant further discussion. For instance: the zero-sum-game.
A zero-sum-game is a model of interaction in which any participants gains are balanced out by another’s losses. In other words: there is no scenario in which all players benefit. In order for one to gain, another must lose. As a moral premise, it is necessarily malicious.
As such, I think we should listen for it, especially in social or political discourse.
Listen for it in ideas like:
“I wish we didn’t have to keep bombing the Middle-East to stay safe.”
A much more insidious place this premise hides is in variants of “If we don’t hurt them, they will hurt us” from those who aren’t clear and present danger. As a softer variant, “if I’m not comfortable, they don’t deserve to be comfortable”, or “If I don’t feel safe, they don’t deserve to feel safe”. In application, the context can range from warzones to courtrooms to interpersonal relationships.
Not that people who say these things are evil, but these ideas should be elaborated on and scrutinized. Often this sort of rhetoric is used to support causes that, on the whole, have been good for the world. Despite this, I believe that actions carried out based on these ideas tend to do more harm than good. Do not let friends and loved ones act on the zero-sum-game unchallenged.
I think political discourse among those who disagree are much more fruitful when addressing moral premises, rather than debating the details of recent events.
No amount of research or raw information will affect the actions of the politically polarized, be they Congresspeople or new voters. We have to engage morally, because that’s where the divides must be bridged.
The time for abstract armchair philosophy and detached hypothetical scenarios is over, at least for me and mine. Now is the time to engage and act on however you think you can contribute to your idea of a better world. Find where we agree.
Violent conflicts may be an inevitable feature of human nature, but indifference is a moral blight.
Humanity’s relationship with the basic concept of information has experienced very rapid, jarring changes over the course of history. The first great leap was is attributed to the printing press in the mid-15th century. Nate Silver’s book, The Signal and the Noise, does an excellent job of describing it’s impact on civilization that I think should be closer to the forefront of everyone’s conscious mind as we live through these chaotic times.
The original revolution in information technology came not with the microchip, but with the printing press. Johannes Gutenberg’s invention in 1440 made information available to the masses, and the explosion of ideas it produced had unintended consequences and unpredictable effects. It was a spark for the Industrial Revolution in 1775,1 a tipping point in which civilization suddenly went from having made almost no scientific or economic progress for most of its existence to the exponential rates of growth and change that are familiar to us today. It set in motion the events that would produce the European Enlightenment and the founding of the American Republic.
But the printing press would first produce something else: hundreds of years of holy war. As mankind came to believe it could predict its fate and choose its destiny, the bloodiest epoch in human history followed.
With the printing press, one didn’t necessarily need to be in good standing with the church to create and distribute books with ideas that may have conflicted with religious doctrine. While this also spawned the European Renaissance, the chaos that ensued should not be forgotten.
If it’s not obvious why I brought this up: the internet is causing another information revolution. Before the printing press, the basic mechanisms of civilizations were designed around people having no more knowledge than what could be remembered offhand. If few people are literate, how can one distinguish a written lie from a truth?
Today, we’re having another stage of this problem. In the modern world, information has been ubiquitous for centuries. Every public school has a library filled with books that children are taught to reference whenever they seek more information to absorb and convert into knowledge that can be shared or applied infinitely. In fact, for centuries, simply having certain stores of knowledge in one’s head well enough to regurgitate on command was a viable skill; now, even that has changed.
Now, we have the same problem with information as the 15th-18th centuries had: more of it than we know what to do with. Academic institutions still require students to memorize things despite ubiquitous tools that store and regurgitate information for us. Bureaucratic institutions process physical forms at a rate several times longer than what’s needed to Google everything about the process and maybe even design a better one.
In homes, parents don’t know what to tell their children about surfing the internet safely because the internet is so fundamentally different from what it was just ten years ago. There’s no institutional knowledge for how tablets affect toddlers or at what age children are liable to wander into the darker alleys of the internet… or if that’s even correlated with age. What content is good or bad for them? Is that even possible to measure? I remember a time before the internet where ideas backed by information were stronger than ideas that weren’t. Now, every idea can so easily find information to support it, but not all information is equal. Therein lies the problem.
Our ability to distinguish valuable, relevant information from noise has not grown proportionally with our access to it. With books, humanity eventually developed filtration methods, primarily in the form of literacy and critical thinking. Rigorously refined ideas were the only ones that warranted the effort to be studied, reproduced, and incorporated into reference texts and archives. Schoolchildren and especially college students are rigorously taught to distinguish good from bad sources, and to cite their assertions.
We don’t quite have that yet for the internet. Digital activity is monetized by clicks, and measured by attention (time spent viewing content), so the economic incentive of any web-based company is to present you, the digital denizen, with information that you react to, which is probably what you like.
If you read something in a newspaper or heard it on a radio or even saw it on T.V., describing it to a friend would require some degree of processing and mental digestion, during which many baseless ideas might get filtered out. Now, with the touch of a screen or click of a mouse, any headline that even for a split second inspires you to share can within seconds be presented to hundreds or thousands of others, many of whom might have a similar reaction and continue the chain. I’ve fallen victim to this mentality many times, and am thankful for friends who hold me accountable and prevent me from harboring false ideas.
I implore you to ask: What is your standard for truth? Specifically in the realm of politics. Whom do you believe, and why? I don’t have a clear answer for this if you ask me, but these are questions I want to think about and discuss with as many people as possible. Given recent events, I think it’s evident that the average American’s understanding of the political climate is, at best, guesswork. Which might be fine if Democracy didn’t depend on us understanding one another. But it does. We’re all on this rock hurtling through space together; let’s at least try to get along, however bleak the task may seem.
And so, I’m going to start this series, primarily as my own outlet for meditation on the goings on of the world.
)'(- The Setup
The next day was rough physically, but very odd mentally. We (me and five other conclave members) spent most of the day setting up a 30′ diameter PVC geodesic dome, which involved ladders that were quite precarious for me, but very easy for my roommate, who happens to have worked as a professional carpenter. He was able to help me steak down my tent to secure it against the wind.
We also set up a scaffold for climbing up to get a view; I took the liberty of photographing the view around our campsite:
On the left, the tents of some of our caravan. On the right, a large geodesic dome that we spent hours setting up in the desert sun.
Setting up that dome was quite a task, and in retrospect, really helped me feel at home. Putting work into building it helped me feel a sense of contribution and belonging that my mind is usually hesitant to accept. It was filled with couches, a massive bean bag, and carpets and rugs on the floor. It served as the central communal space for our 50-person camp.
And that trampoline was also a massive hit with numerous passersby.
The Playa was rather sparse at this point, two days before the festival starts; large holes gaps in the camping lots that were soon to be filled.
At this point, my mental subroutines (check social media, data feeds, daily tasks, etc.) had checked out, and my mind was clear, holding only what I knew was coming… which was, to be honest, nothing. I didn’t know what was going to happen the next day, or the day after.
What a strange feeling. I did nothing with respect to tomorrow; I didn’t know what I was going to do, whom I might meet, what I might see, or where I might go… nor did I even think about it. Tomorrow fell, from an amalgam of plans and intentions, back into an arbitrary word for when the sun rises next.
The battlefield? Your mind.
The prize? Your decision.
Disclaimer: this is a non-partisan political post about the 2016 U.S. election.
Have you ever strategically withheld information from specific people so that they behave in a certain way? It need not be malicious; teachers withhold solutions to problems that their students are learning how to solve. You may withhold information about a surprise party you’re throwing for a friend.
The other side of it, however, is in strategic spreading of information. If a friend shares an idea with you, you may choose to share it or not, based on the context in which you received it. The information need not be different; only the context. If a friend tells you “I had apple juice today” in an open, cordial way, and you have no cause to believe it’s a secret, then perhaps you’d mention it to another mutual friend who also had apple juice today. However, if this friend beckons you close and says the exact same thing, but in a hushed tone, you might be reflexively inclined to treat it like a secret. And just like that, your behavior changed, with a gesture and shift in tone.
In any democratic political system, with the vote at the core of the political mechanism, every election is a battle for those votes. How people make that decision is usually based on the information they have and/or acquire in the time leading up to the election. Consequently, the vast majority of resources during elections go to advertising. In case you’re doubtful, here’s Bloomberg on the current election.
You’re no idiot; you know how elections work. Pro and Anti ads created with the intention of changing votes get targeted to specific demographics across every medium they can reach. It all started with the postal service and newspapers, but they’ve kept up with the advents of communication. Radio and television both are spoke-and-wheel type systems with one-way communication, and phone calls, while being direct and long-distance, aren’t with thousands of people at once. Together, these communication media formed the mechanisms that deliver information payloads, targeted to affect ideas. The battle has never stopped or changed in essence, but the medium now has.
But who are the players? Well, anyone with the resources to share information. The postal service was revolutionary in its time because it dropped the threshold of resources needed for ANY politically recognized citizen to communicate directly (albeit, by today’s standards, slowly) with any other in the country. For the cost of postage, one can mail a letter to everyone in the country if they want to. While those more money could necessarily get their information out more easily than the poor, everyone used the same medium. The television and radio, however, have a much higher threshold of resources needed to actually express ideas, and not just in terms of sheer dollar cost. Sharing an idea on radio or television requires, at the very cheapest end, notoriety. These media have, relative to the postal service, a very, very small number of players. Those who DO play are generally wealthier than those who don’t.
But how is it that so few people can affect so many? Targeting. Find out, based on polls, which areas have the highest proportions of undecided voters and try to sway them by giving them whatever content resonates in whatever context might be most . Use crop fields as background for ads run in rural areas. Make sure anybody speaking has the right dialect and gestures to match the region. Have them say a phrase that’s endemic to an area and makes voters feel like our candidate understands them and their problems in particular.
Where strategy fails, volume of information is often employed. Sheer inundations of information can be enough to sway even the most reasonable people, if more context isn’t accessible to them. Before the internet, if your newspaper, television, and radio all corroborated each others’narratives, what reason would you have to believe otherwise? For ‘battleground ‘areas, campaigns fight to raise funds so they can try and drown out the opposing narrative by sheer volume. For the undecided voter, hearing three times as many Red Team ads on the radio than Blue Team ads might be enough to sway their vote.
The internet, however, is an entirely different medium. The battle for your vote still uses the same tactics, but the internet doesn’t work the same way. For anyone in the U.S. (or any country with an open internet), web content isn’t regional nor is it centralized; it’s global and distributed to everyone with access. Before, you could air a commercial in the city that farmers probably wouldn’t like, and likewise show the farmers something that -might draw the ire of urban voters, and because their information was as segregated as their geography, there was little dissonance. Consequently, the potential pool of ideas that could be ‘safely’ used to campaign was far larger. While that pool has shrank, the volume of information accessible to everyone has exploded beyond anyone’s comprehension. Which brings me to this election.
This is November 6th, 2016. Election day is the 8th, and every couple of weeks, a new information leak or similar breaking story hits about Hillary’s emails or Trumps business practices, her financial ties or his misogyny. The details of this back-and-forth isn’t nearly as relevant as how this is affecting the people.
Pre-internet, finding information that might contend with a unanimous narrative from media channels was far, far more difficult than it is now. If you had a strong dislike for the candidate that your region nearly unanimously supports, finding information to illustrate WHY you dislike that candidate took work, if it was even feasible. Maybe you could get a hold of something in favor of another candidate, but if the margin in the polls is too wide, the opponents won’t waste ad money.
I call this a war is because the people have joined in, expressing their support for one candidate or hatred for the other in droves, using these affiliations to draw social boundaries and boycotting businesses. Anyone on the internet can, in seconds, create content that is globally accessible. Sure, we still gravitate towards like minds and create some degree of ideological echo chambers, but while information that challenges* ANY idea used to take work to find, it’s now a click away.
*Note: I use the word “challenge” very loosely here; it’s not about the validity of the information, nor the political relevance, but the impact of the information on the people sharing it.
Challenging (in the same sense as above) any idea is easier than it’s ever been, and more people have pitched their ideas into this election than, from my experience in political discourse, is completely unprecedented. People whom I’ve known to be loudly politically apathetic have suddenly engaged this year, often with near religious fervor. For far too many, whom they support in this election is the premise for their trust. They defend this premise, armed with as much information as they can Google to validate themselves. Well-researched, sound, cohesive arguments that may exist in favor of any candidate are preemptively invalidated by the opposition, simply by being against them. The context of your information, for them, erases any meaning the content may have had.
Good ideas are sifted from bad ones through argument and discourse… but that’s not happening anymore. Civil discourse requires at least some common context; you have to agree on what the problems are if you want any semblance of useful solutions. That common ground is, as far I can tell, nonexistent for this election. The result is people reflexively challenging whatever they see online that is against their candidate or in favor of their opponent.
Post something anti-Hillary. Find a quick reply sharing something awful about Trump.
Post something anti-Trump. Find a quick reply sharing something awful about Hillary.
For the most part, people seem to have given up even trying to find that common context necessary for meaningful, constructive discourse. And of course, with retweets, likes, etc., people on each side validate one another. Without discourse, any good ideas that the other side might have are indistinguishable from the noise. Even engaging with your own side about what you might think is a good idea from the other side is liable to cause dissonance.
This fog of information war… It worries me, more because of the likely spread to state and local elections than the presidential. I’m not looking forward to state legislators being elected simply for being on the ‘right side’, and potentially implementing policies that are never rigorously discussed or scrutinized.
Though this fog has some silver lining, from what I see; it’s now blatantly evident, hopefully to many more than just me, that the partisan gridlock that’s clogged the U.S. Congress for so long is in fact not just about political strategy, but about basic political philosophy.