synthetic zero


March 15th, 2013

There’s been an increasing brouhaha in blogs and on Twitter over “digital dualism”; Whitney Boesel summarizes it adroitly here (while also pointing out an asymmetry in citations of female theorists in the debates). There seems to be a bit of confusion going on in the debate, however; even Jurgenson, who initiated this discussion with his blog post The IRL Fetish, seems to tacitly admit that there’s a meaningful distinction to be made between the digital and material worlds. But I think even that distinction is severely flawed: in fact, it makes perfect sense to think of the physical world itself in information terms; that is, rather than using a metaphor of billiard balls, so to speak, it is more apropos to think of the so-called physical universe in information theory terms, particularly in light of quantum mechanics. This perspective is sometimes called information physics.

This isn’t to say that the introduction of computers and networks has made no difference in our lives, or doesn’t represent a very important change; obviously it does. The change is not ontological, however. The physical world itself is “made of” information, as I noted above. Furthermore, all of human culture has involved sending and receiving signs using varied media, from speech to graphemes to paintings and poetry; even the human body itself can be seen as flows of information. Now information flow uses new systems which are far faster, which enable much more rapid copying and dissemination across vast physical distances which do not require owning broadcast media towers or printing presses. That is, of course, a change of a very important kind, but it’s not an ontological change, it’s not a creation of a new and separate world.

The world isn’t divided into the “real” and “virtual” any more than the introduction of radio or television divided the world into “real” and “on the air”. It’s introduced new channels for flows of information, and these flows have interesting, even radically new properties, but the existence of new flows doesn’t create a separate reality. We haven’t lived with these patterns of flows for very long, so they feel strange to us, and like every change they induce an instinctive counter-reaction; nostalgia for a past we are more familiar with, and a not entirely irrational fear that the change may introduce social, cultural, or physical phenomena into our lives which negatively impact our lives or destroy cherished features of the world we are replacing.

Bruce Sterling pointed this out quite poignantly in his always-funny and always trenchant SXSW closing talk: even as we change the world, even if in sometimes positive ways, we are simultaneously destroying parts of it. The internet hasn’t created a separate world but it has changed the world. Newspapers and bookstores are on their way out. Even things that came into being with the internet are getting paved over by later iterations of it, as the closing of Google Reader illustrates. The internet has facilitated and accelerated change, and it’s not always just for the better: what comes next rises over the ashes of what we’ve replaced. It’s worth thinking about what we might be losing as we move on, but the world hasn’t bifurcated, and there’s no “going back” to the “real” world — this is already the real world.

This reminds me of a story about my cousin Midori when she was a young girl, maybe 3 years old, visiting with my aunt and uncle. We were hiking in Tecolote canyon in San Diego, and she was throwing rocks into the stream. My aunt said, “don’t throw rocks into the stream, let natural process take care of it!” My cousin said, “But I am part of natural process!” “Natural” doesn’t always mean good or better, however. Denying digital dualism doesn’t foreclose paying attention to the features of change, for the better, the worse, or, as is usually the case, both.

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November 5th, 2012

Buddhism is a peculiar tradition in that, unlike most spiritual or religious traditions, it emphasizes not only the emptiness of objects and things, but even the emptiness of its own teleology, in a certain wonderful self-referential way. That is to say, not only does it say the world of apparent things, events, space, and time, and so on are not what they appear to be and are empty of inherent existence (which isn’t to say they have no existence at all — it just means they’re not solid, self-existing “things” that exist on their own, without relation to perception), but it also denies the simple story that “enlightenment” (which is usually seen to be the “goal” of Buddhism in more simple presentations) is itself not in fact a goal, a result of a process in time that unfolds to reach “Buddhahood” as the final limit.

It’s a peculiar tension, because, despite this, Buddhism does talk a lot about realization, enlightenment, and so on. From one point of view, it appears that they’re referring to a process in time, something you build up to and eventually attain (they even use a word which translates to “attainment”.) Yet, it’s not attainment in the ordinary sense, the result or product of ordinary effort in time, because that would be a self-contradiction. The resolution of this seeming contradiction is a central koan, so to speak.

I’ve been attending a meditation retreat, and I came across this book, “Buddhahood Without Meditation”, and flipped open randomly to two pages which seemed quite poignant to me, related to these topics. In the first passage, a mysterious teacher has appeared, and is giving instruction:

“…all sentient beings… are confused because they become fixated, investing apparent phenomena with truth, even though they are in fact like the unfolding of dream images—they cannot be established to be more than mere appearances, empty and without objective existence.

“If you thus come to a definitive conclusion regarding the apparent phenomena that arise from confusion, realizing that they lack true existence, are empty and do not exist objectively, you will have dredged the pit of cyclic existence from its depths. By arriving at the decision that buddhahood is none other than your own inherent ground of being, and by gaining this confidence within yourself, you will actually attain what is referred to as the ‘natural freedom of the many buddhas.’

“Ah, powerful lord of space, omnipresent vajra, you must come to the definitive conclusion that none of the phenomena of samsara and nirvana exist but that all are empty, and you must realize their inherent nature to be that of nonexistence.”

Saying this, he vanished from sight.

Then I flipped to another page, at random, discussing various points one should master:

1) Collapsing the false cave of investing buddhahood and its attendant pure realms with true existence, as objects of hope

Even ”buddhahood” and the various phenomena associated with it do not have real existence and should not be wished for as something one hopes for in the future, as the future result of an ordinary process in time.

a) Negating fixation on conceiving of buddhahood and its attendant pure realms as some final limit

They warn against thinking of “buddhahood” as a limit case of a process or series.

b) To that end, examining the five senses and their attendant objects and refuting the exaggeration of ascribing true existence to these

To begin to realize this, they recommend starting with understanding the constructed, contingent nature of objects of ordinary perception.

2) Collapsing the false cave of investing the states of cyclic existence and their attendant pleasures and pain with true existence, as objects of fear

At the same time, this could potentially lead to the opposite extreme, i.e., thinking of samsara, apparent “reality”, with its pain and pleasure, as something one ought to be afraid of, avoid, attempt to “escape”. In other words, they’re warning against both problematics: setting up “buddhahood” as the limit case of a process in time, or, alternately, seeing “samsara” as a problematic, something one ought to be afraid of, escape, fear. One of the most famous Mahayana sayings is “samsara = nirvana, nirvana = samsara” — not two distinct realms or modes, but two aspects of one unified reality. Yet at the same time, this doesn’t mean there’s no issue — just that the way to work with this tension isn’t via ordinary effort in ordinary time, but rather via an opening to something which is always already the case.

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November 4th, 2012

From the NonsenseNYC art event email list:

NOTE: There are so many ways to help in the wake of the storm. We’ve collected several that require your actual labor — not your donations or your clicks. The most important thing to understanding what’s going on is to actually go to the areas that need attention. People who need help will not always ask for it, or be able to ask for it. This is a do-it-yourself guide: call or internet if you can, but ultimately just go. Also, we’re running regular event listings below the volunteer opportunities, not because we’re trying to pretend that everything is fine — like certain fucking marathons — but because after you’ve spent the day washing out muck water or running up stairs, dancing feels double good.

* Red Hook: Volunteers needed today at to cook food and coordinate aid. 767 Hicks Street, Brooklyn. Come anytime from 10a-10p and bring something to share. Contact: Paulie Anne Duke: paulieanneduke]at]gmail.com. Also: Norton Records needs helps. This is an indoor job, pulling records out of wet boxes, etc. If anyone has a vehicle of any sort to assist in getting wet boxes from the Red Hook warehouse to HQ in Prospect Heights, please call. No reception in Red Hook. Email is best bet at nortonrec]at]aol.com. Billy’s cell 917 671 7185 and the office landline 718 789 4438. Don’t leave a message. We are working from 11a until 11p every day.

* Coney Island: Coney Island USA’s flooded building needs help. They’re looking for people with dehumidifiers, fans, squeegees, mops, mop buckets, household heavy duty rubber gloves, respirators, paper towels, cleaning cloths, brooms, bleach, disinfectant. They’ll be accepting donations from noon-6p Friday and Saturday. They also need people to help with the clean up. Coney Island USA, 1208 Surf Avenue, corner of West 12th Street, Brooklyn. @ConeyIslandFun

* The Rockaways: Help the clean up effort in Rockaway, where houses were completely devastated by Sandy. Contact: Zack Tucker: 201 320 0226. Today: Veggie Island, 95-19 Rockaway Beach Boulevard, Queens, near Beach 96th Street. Clean and serve food. Contact: Bobby at 718 772 3803. House of Yes is also taking volunteers and supplies: boringincorporated [at] gmail.com

* Williamsburg: Donate blood. 10,000 pints of blood were lost in NYC as a result of cancelled blood drives. Donate blood on Saturday at the Williamsburg Church, 231 Ainslie Street, off the Graham stop on the L train from 10a-4p.

* Lower East Side: Rosie Mendez’s office is doing a check-on-neighborhoods bridged today from 9a-5p. 237 1st Avenue, at 14th Street. Also: The Henry Street Settlement has received an 18-wheeler of meals and donations. They need vehicles, bikes, and humans to help distribute: 265 Henry Street. Also: Some volunteers are going to set up an aid station at ABC No Rio (food and a portable generator for people to charge cell phones) today starting at 10a. 156 Rivington Street between Clinton and Suffolk. Also: GOLES needs help: 169 Avenue B, between 10th and 11th streets, goles.org.

* Chinatown: A strong community effort is happening over at CAAAV, a Chinatown-based community organizing group located at 46 Hester Street, between Essex and Ludlow. They are looking for volunteers. 212 473 6485

* Citywide: The Red Cross needs volunteers who are able to lift 50 pounds and are comfortable working in stressful situations. Contact: staffing (at) nyredcross.org. Also: New York City Public Advocate’s Office needs volunteers. Sign up here to help: bit.ly/nycpaohelp

* More hands-on ways to help:







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October 21st, 2012

My friend Jenny Cool posted this on Facebook yesterday:

Can people be woken up by the same entertain me ideology that has replaced deliberative discourse with all bumper stickers and cutsey memes all the time?

Here’s the new online video from the Jewish Council for Education & Research, a liberal super PAC that has had some success in the viral political ad field befoSee More
She further commented in the discussion that followed:
What you point to as a “humor advantage” I experience as the disadvantage of being earnest. In my experience, earnestness (about anything but especially big, political things) tends to be censured (via informal social means like mockery, ostracism, just being ignored) MORE in lefty circles than in righty. Who has time for democracy? Apparently not the scores of people who rushed to Photoshop before the “debate” (a word that has lost most of it’s literal meaning thanks to US Presidential runs) was over to make ironic little picture to share and click.
Does the prevalence of popular memes in the social and political sphere disadvantage sincere discourse, or cover it over? Or can they coexist? Many people have pointed out that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are among the most trenchant commentators on current events in the culture, yet their popularity rests largely on the fact that they (rather skillfully) dress their commentary in humor. Of course, sincerity has always been either dangerous (if you were sincerely criticizing the wrong — i.e., powerful — people) or marginalized… but in the era of the Internet we have both an increased reach and breadth of the spread of words, ideas, and images and a simultaneous dumbing-down of serious discourse in some ways — the filter bubble making it less necessary to seriously confront ideas at variance with your own, and perhaps the flood of information making it more difficult for anything but popular memes to break through and be noticed.
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September 4th, 2012

The tides of love flow strongest when we remember that there can open, with every thing we learn about the other, an even more vast terrain of mystery, not only of the other but of ourselves. It’s the essence of romance: never thinking we can know everything; instead, with every new thing making it more brilliantly clear: the spaciousness of the unknown expands ever faster.

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August 20th, 2012

Once I was in Los Angeles as a high school kid, looking up at the sky during a tremendous thunderstorm, and you could see the clouds mounting up, a cathedral, with the lights of the downtown buildings illuminating the dramatic, powerful thunderheads. Even with the driving rain the awesome spectacle towered above, an ephemeral architecture, a crashing musical climax frozen in physical form. Tonight the skies are quiet. The clouds reflect the city, spread out underneath it, without drama, at least for now.

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June 4th, 2012

So, walking down 14th Street tonight with my friend River and we notice this crowd surrounding the Duane Reade entrance. There’s some commotion in the entryway vestibule. People have their camera phones out. I decide to walk over and investigate; a big drunk guy is confronting another guy, yelling insults and flailing at him with fists. I walk over and try to talk them down… at first it seems to work, the other guy walks away, but the drunk guy persists and yells insults, causing the other guy to come back, but he sees me and I’m yelling “Hey! Chill!” and he walks away again, etc… but the drunk guy keeps yelling insults and finally the other guy breaks and attacks and they start to get really into it.

Immediately I leap in between them. There’s this whole crowd of people, nobody is doing anything except gawking, and the two men are grabbing each other’s throats and fists are flying and they’re grabbing shirt collars and I’m trying to keep them separated. It’s REALLY tiring doing this, believe me. I get them to stop grabbing each others’ throats. Some of the flying fists glance off my face (not serious, but I can feel it an hour later)… but somehow I manage to push the drunk guy out of the door and I interpose my body between the two of them. The sober guy walks into the store and meanwhile River is talking to the drunk guy and I turn around and we’re telling him to chill, it’s not worth it, it’s not worth it, and he finally calms down and walks away.

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May 21st, 2012

My friend Liz Losh, regarding code literary for those in the humanities:

The central concept of this panel “Program or Be Programmed” might immediately bring up performance anxiety issues for many people in this audience. As Stephen Ramsay put it recently, the very notion of the tech-savvy digital humanities as the newest “hot thing” tends to bring up “terrible, soul-crushing anxiety about peoples’ place in the world.” For those in composition, the anxiety might be even more acutely soul-crushing in light of existing labor politics. Every time the subject of learning code comes up, one can almost see the thought balloons appearing: “How can I learn Python in my spare time when I can’t even see over the top of the stack of first-year papers that I have to grade?”

One needn’t spend years or even months gaining a basic literacy with code — in reality, the basics of most computer languages can be learned relatively quickly, in hours or days. What’s less easy to obtain is a feel for software architecture, the properties of algorithms, the strangely brittle, powerful, frustrating, and liberating qualities of software engineering, the subtle relationship between design, human unpredictability (we build software for human use, in the context of a social, biological, and economic ecosystem), the ways in which people constantly surprise creators of software, the unpredictable nature of the cycle of design-build-observe-redesign… the many techniques people have attempted to employ to get a handle on these dynamics… all of this goes far beyond the confines of learning code, but are actually, I think, if anything more important for a critical engagement with technology. To get a feel for coding, I’d recommend trying something like Processing or, for the more adventurous, trying to build a simple site using one of the many Rails tutorials. However, after that, I’d stop — and go read a book like Design Patterns, which takes its inspiration from the work of the great architect Christopher Alexander. Then go read up on user experience design, starting with user-centered design up to more current iterative development approaches, and research development methodologies such as waterfall and agile approaches. Getting a grip on some of these subjects would, I think, be far more valuable in terms of understanding the nature of how software is built both today and in the past, how it might be built in the future, and the ways in which software development has gone far beyond the confines of a purely mathematical or engineering discipline to being a discipline which by its very nature has to include many other disciplines within it, ranging from visual design to sociology to aesthetics to ethnology to psychology to statistical analysis to economics — a sense for all this has become essential to developing software, yet at the same time there is a strong need for more and better critical understanding of the larger-scale effects of technology on/in the world. Despite all the sophistication of both the technology and many of the methodologies, there remains a curious naivete, in my view, among many who practice in the field, regarding the sociopolitical, economic, and social implications of technology.

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March 28th, 2012

The power of dreams is they make explicit what are usually only vaguely felt or unconscious currents; but they don’t do so by turning them into ordinary thought. They stay elusive and multifaceted. Writing can do this too.

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March 21st, 2012

You lay next to me, pillows on the floor, I gaze at the curve of your waist, your legs disappearing into the distance. We’re both exhausted from days and days of walking and walking. Thirsty, not only for water. I touch your shoulder. The closer I get to you, the larger you appear, the more I know of you, the more there is to know, the more the unknowability of you bursts forth, the ultimate mysteriousness of you. Yet it’s in that very unbridgeable gap that love is possible. Love isn’t possessing the other, it’s in relation to the fundamentally unknowable other, an unknowability which includes ourselves. We cannot possess ourselves, any more than we can possess someone else. But we can be present, intensely, with each other, at every moment, beyond all moments.

Who are you? You sleep in the sky, and I dream of you, and suddenly you laugh and I roll towards you and remember.

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