synthetic zero

November 28th, 2008

There’s an interesting tension between structure and freedom; normally, we see these as in opposition but in fact there’s a curious dynamic, which is: leaving things mostly unstructured (that is to say, attempting to design, build, manage, or create something with a minimum of formal process) can, in fact, discourage rather than encourage openness and amplify unconscious habits and allow unexamined assumptions to proliferate and dominate. Of course, process can be stifling, especially if it is overly heavyweight; however, it’s also the case that plunging forward without carefully examining and reexamining one’s prejudices, without explicitly providing space and time to discover the unexpected, can lead to repetition rather than novelty, stasis rather than creativity.

It’s important, therefore, to balance freedom with process; it’s possible to be systematic about deconstructing one’s preconceptions, about carefully observing the results of one’s work, about listening to the world, discovering things about the effect one’s designs and actions are having or might have, on the world.  A concrete example would be doing user testing of a proposed design; rather than simply building something and hoping it is easy to use or understandable, trying it out with potential users and observing what happens. Another would be engaging in a Deming cycle of continuous process improvement: regularly examining and reexamining the way one is managing, building, designing, and updating a process or a product. Another, more personal, example might be sitting meditation: providing a context in which one is not trying to “do” something active, but simply paying attention, providing a space to notice things about one’s situation, habits, or context which might otherwise go unnoticed in the flurry of activity that fills most people’s lives. One can make some effort to regularly examine one’s activity and formulate testable hypotheses about it; i.e., create a theory, a view of a process, one which, being explicit, is open to question and revision, rather than simply plunging forward without forming any provisional views (neglecting to form a view is not the same as having no views; it simply means one’s hidden assumptions and unstated views become the unquestioned set of assumptions under which one operates.)

There are so many assumptions people make, small and large, all the time, which are, in fact, worth examining; everything from how to tie your shoes to the nature of time, space, memory, desire, fear, love, and action. And, it helps to use forms, structures, to aid us in seeing and uncovering these assumptions, so they can be refined and opened up to something larger, more encompassing, more precise, and more practical.  Using a form (a process or practice), in other words, to break down the tyranny of forms (preconceptions and habits of mind and body).

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November 6th, 2008

I was watching the election on NBC, mostly, because they were calling states earlier than the other networks … when they called Ohio I shouted, jumped up and down, and yelled for quite a while.  Still, most people around me, in real life, or virtually, were bracing themselves for some sort of 2000 or 2004 redux… could this really be happening?  I got IM’s and text messages: are you sure he’s won it?  Are you really sure?  Yes, I’m sure, I said, but I couldn’t help feeling just a tiny bit relieved and that much more excited when the networks all, in unison, at precisely 11:00pm, put up the full screen graphics … BARACK OBAMA ELECTED PRESIDENT.

It was and still feels like a surreal moment.  Of course we all shouted and whooped here in the Bronx.  A friend in Malaysia IM’d be they were celebrating there.  Jenny Doussan, in London, added her whoops to ours in New York.  Caroline skype videoed me a scene of Canadians, who had been watching the election on CNN up there, break out into a spontaneous rendition of America the Beautiful.  It was so sweet and touching; an acquaintance of mine was moved to tears, hearing about that.  So many other stories of people crying, shouting, laughing, pumping fists, celebrations into the night in cities all over the country (such as my former hometown of Portland) and even all over the world.  After the speeches I drove Katharine, who’d been watching the elections with us, back to her place, and on the way back, encountered a raucous street party in Harlem; the police had closed off much of 125th Street and were directing traffic.  Strangers looked at me sitting in my car and shouted and pumped their fists in celebration; I honked my horn in return.

By the way: the Oregonian has called the Senate race there for Jeff Merkley; I trust their projection based on what I’ve read, meaning we have at least 57 seats in the new Senate. Quite an election.

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November 3rd, 2008

Just saw Synecdoche, New York — loved it. Tour de force, another Charlie Kaufman masterpiece.  Quite neurotic, of course, but shining through the neurosis is strange wisdom and an odd hopefulness.  I love the existential references; the slowly burning house, the endless simulation and mirroring, the crossing between levels of simulation … there’s something profound about the postmodern interest in simulation.  It’s not just a pomo gimmick … the metaphor of simulation is a way of freeing ourselves from the notion that our constructs cover our reality.  Baudrillard’s idea is that simulation can become its own reality, with the implication that may be no “reality” but only simulation.  I would say that every way of describing reality is in some sense a simulation, yet there can be an endlessly open ground of being that is always beyond every simulation (this is more the Buddhist viewpoint).  This sort of reality can assert itself, however, in the form of what one might call “nature” — it also has its say in violence and in the breakdown of systems (which Kaufman also touches upon near the end of his film).  A simulated world can only survive as long as the substrate (body/being) maintains itself.  But then again, is the “body” itself substantial?  One could suggest that the entire universe is just information, transformations of information.  So then what is the “substrate”?  More information?  I would suggest that our perception/mind co-creates the substrate which supports the mind — it’s a kind of perceptual/matter feedback loop, a la Buddhist codependent arising.  From this point of view, the “substrate” and the simulation aren’t two meta-levels but in some sense can be seen to create each other.  However … the interesting thing is, the information carried in any meta-description of a system can never entirely capture the “underlying” system (the map is not the territory), and thus there will always be an opening for the “unknown” or “unknowable” in any description of the world.  I think Kaufman plays with this fact as he tries to work with the problem of life, death, meaning, etc., in his amazing new film (not explicitly, as I’ve done here, but implicitly, almost intuitively).

I apologize for writing in such an opaque manner; just trying to jot down quick notes before I go to bed.

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