synthetic zero

March 17th, 2011

Saint Cecelia Hotel

I just got back from SXSW. It was truly intense. A bit more crowded than last year but I don’t think it has jumped the shark (yet) as some people have intimated. I met a lot of fascinating people and had a ton of great conversations, not to mention meeting in person a number of people I’ve known virtually for a long time. SXSW is a strange scene, it’s a bunch of nerds getting together, yes, but somehow you end up feeling a little like a rock star. And the people I met were not just the sort of folks you’d think you’d meet at a tech conference; I met Melissa Gira Grant, a feminist intellectual who writes about blogs and diaries and sex and runs the Third Wave Foundation, Katie Pomerantz, an LGBT activist who also runs an art gallery, a music promotion business, and a non-profit for LGBT issues in LA, Joanne McNeil, a brilliant art/culture critic and freelance writer who writes the Tomorrow Museum, Halle Tecco, a social entrepreneur and founder of a seed accelerator for health startups called RockHealth.org, Benjamin Bratton, a sociological/media/design theorist who gave a great panel on the dark side of urban technology with my friend Molly Steenson, Richard Nash, a book publisher with a subtle and deep mind who is now trying to create a new kind of publishing house and who gave a panel on how tech and art can learn from each other, an artist who runs a gallery and makes little magnetized blocks to let people create control circuits with light and sound and switches and logic by just sticking them together, Jen Bekman, who I’ve known virtually in various contexts but had never met in person, who runs 20×200 and the Jen Bekman Gallery, Siva Vaidhyanathan who wrote The Googlization of Everything and gave a great panel on the dangers of Corporate Social Responsibility (another person I’ve known online but never met), and so many other people equally interesting, I can’t even list them all. You have these intense conversations and then go party until midnight or 3am or later (my latest night was 4am). It’s like college except much better, with more interesting people and all the people are actually doing real things in the world.

And I have to say that tech nerds at SXSW kick ass at karaoke (particularly my SXSW friend Michelle Neuringer, who rocked Nirvana hard). Seriously. I’ve never heard so many good singers doing karaoke in my life.

I also managed to see Miranda July’s The Future (it was virtually impossible to get in, but Miranda was very kind to put me on the guest list, thanks so much!), a film about which I have so much to say I cannot even begin to say it. It’s both simple and straightforward and really intricate and multi-layered. I will try to say more about it in a future blog post. It’s also a film which is closer to Miranda’s performance roots, more surreal and I’m very glad to see her injecting some of this into her second film. More fans of hers should check out her earlier work.

In other news…

Libya. I hesitate to write too much about this because the use of military force is always a sensitive topic. I’ve written in the past about my rather unusual position when it comes to military matters: I think a lot about them. My family was samurai in the old days, maybe it’s in my blood but it’s certainly part of my family culture. In the end, for me, it comes down to this: military intervention I believe is warranted to protect your own people or if it is likely to save more lives in the long run than it costs. It’s not an either/or situation, there’s no simple rule, I am neither a dove nor a hawk, but I believe that military force should be used only rarely, but when it should be used it should be done decisively and quickly.

So yes, we shouldn’t intervene in every dictatorship in the world. I strongly opposed the Iraq War, I marched against it, I argued against it everywhere I could. There are many reasons for this, but the primary one was the cost was not worth the benefit. I believed it would not save more lives down the line than it cost, either on our side or on the part of Iraqis, both combatants and the innocent. But in this case, the situation is rather different.

There is an existing rebellion on the ground which controls large amounts of territory (for now). They are begging for our help and it’s pretty clear they have broad popular support in Libya (a bit less clear what their level of support is in every part of the country, but if you’ve been following the news closely you’ll read that in private, anonymously, Libyans in the Qaddafi-controlled western part of the country also secretly opposed to him as well, for the most part). There are widespread, confirmed reports of indiscriminate shelling of civilian neighborhoods. The Arab League has called for air support. We would not be sending in any ground forces.

Furthermore, I believe it is in our strategic interests, as well as the interests of long-term world stability. Intervening now would be a cautionary tale to dictators around the world. It would likely restrain dictators in other countries such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and would give some pause, one hopes, to the leaders of Iran. More importantly it would undermine the argument that Al Qaeda has long used against us, that we are complicit in the support of dictators and oppression in the Arab world, and that they’re the only route to salvation. The Egyptian and Tunisian revolts have already weakened Al Qaeda, but if Qaddafi regains power it will undermine this argument.

We cannot and should not intervene against every dictator in the world. But in this case I believe action is warranted and urgently needed. In fact, had we intervened earlier Qaddafi might have folded. As it is, the longer we wait the larger the cost of inaction in lives. I further believe that while it will cost lives to intervene now, it will save more lives in the long run, not to mention protect us in the long-term future.

As for Japan, I think perhaps partly because I am of Japanese descent and my ancestors were samurai I feel a somewhat different reaction to the disaster there. The tsunami and earthquake were natural disasters and it is a tragedy but I have a feeling the Japanese are doing perhaps the best job one could imagine at trying to recover from it. But the nuclear disaster ongoing there is a different matter. The Japanese government has long been complicit in covering up safety problems at Japanese nuclear facilities (like our own government, frankly). So my main reaction to what is happening there is anger at the arrogance and ineptitude of government regulators in Japan when it comes to nuclear safety. The plant at Fukushima should never have been allowed to operate.

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