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May 28, 2000

Via the resurrected Bovine Inversus: an amusing article by Douglas Adams on the impact of the Internet on our lives. He argues that most human activity prior to the twentieth century was interactive; it is broadcast media which is the strange anomaly, not interactive activity. He feels that the reintroduction of interactivity in our lives will restore things to something closer to a more natural state for human life:

Because the Internet is so new we ... mistake it for a type of publishing or broadcasting, because thats what were used to. So people complain that theres a lot of rubbish online, or that its dominated by Americans, or that you cant necessarily trust what you read on the web. Imagine trying to apply any of those criticisms to what you hear on the telephone. Of course you cant trust what people tell you on the web anymore than you can trust what people tell you on megaphones, postcards or in restaurants. Working out the social politics of who you can trust and why is, quite literally, what a very large part of our brain has evolved to do. For some batty reason we turn off this natural scepticism when we see things in any medium which require a lot of work or resources to work in, or in which we cant easily answer back --- like newspapers, television or granite. Hence carved in stone. What should concern us is not that we cant take what we read on the internet on trust --- of course you cant, its just people talking --- but that we ever got into the dangerous habit of believing what we read in the newspapers or saw on the TV --- a mistake that no one who has met an actual journalist would ever make.

Back to Dörner's Logic of Failure, which I mentioned yesterday: there are two common classes of mistakes that people make when confronted with a complex situation:

The two modes of behavior are opposite sides of the same coin. We combat our uncertainty either by acting hastily on the basis of minimal information or by gathering excessive information, which inhibits action and may even increase our uncertainty. Which of these patterns we follow depends on time pressure or the lack of it.
Both excess information and not enough information lead to failure. Too much information, and we are paralyzed by the fact that we know so much:
Once we gather a little information, however, we run into trouble. We realize how much we still don't know, and we feel a strong desire to learn more. And so we gather information only to become more acutely aware of how little we know... the self-reinforcing feeling of uncertainty and insecurity that results probably accounts for many an unfinished dissertation or book....the more we know, the more clearly we realize what we don't know....anyone who is fully informed will see much more than the bare outlines and will therefore find it extremely difficult to reach a clear decision.
Too little, however, and decisions are made in a panic without any clear guidelines. These two tendencies can even be combined: a refusal to act because of an awareness of the enormity of the task, combined with sudden, panic-induced frenzies of action when prolonged inaction generates crises.

May 26, 2000

Been re-reading the fascinating The Logic of Failure by Dietrich Dörner, a book about the difficulty of dealing with complexity, and many of the common mistakes we tend to make in doing so. One of many interesting quotes:

What happened in Chernobyl? ..... the reactor was due for its annual maintenance..... The engineers began to bring it down to 25 percent of capacity so they could run their planned tests. But instead of dropping to the desired 25 percent of capacity, the reactor had fallen to 1 percent by 12:30am. The operator had shut off the automatic controls and had tried to hit the 25 percent mark using manual controls. He did not make adequate allowance for the reactor's self-damping behavior, however, and so the reactor ultimately slowed down to 1 instead of 25 percent of capacity.

This tendency to "oversteer" is characteristic of human interaction with dynamic systems. We let ourselves be guided not by development within the system, that is, by time differentials between sequential stages, but by the situation at each stage. We regulate the situation and not the process, with the result that the inherent behavior of the system and our attempts at steering it combine to carry it beyond the desired mark...

The operators proceeded to violate a series of other safety rules (operating the reactor at low capacity is unstable and dangerous) and made a variety of other systematic mistakes. However, what interests me here is the difference between managing a situation and managing a process. We tend to get caught up in looking at our current situation and worrying about that. We may even spend a lot of time going over our past mistakes and regretting them. But we tend to spend less time actually looking at the process by which we make decisions. Instead, the tendency is to manage our situation by reacting to what is visible now, rather than trying to understand the complexities and properties of the system as a whole; the way the system responds to change.

May 22, 2000

My father once mentioned to me that one of his teachers had told him that the ideal job for an artist (while s/he's not making art) would be something like digging ditches: a simple, physical, repetitive task --- were it not for the shit you'd have to put up with from your boss. I suppose the basic idea is that it is more important to live fully than to worry about every little choice; that is to say, it doesn't matter so much what you choose to do with your life than how completely you live it.

Of course, it's not that choices don't matter at all; it's just that worrying doesn't help much. We tend to live with the fiction that we make choices based on some sort of semi-logical deliberation, when in reality our choices come from a much broader, larger context. In fact, if we're really living in our lives, fully present, the decisions that we need to make I think can become a lot more clear. But if we spend our time and energy worrying, we can become so disconnected from our lives that we either end up making no decision at all, or we make disembodied decisions that do not really relate to the actual context of our being.

Jen put on an incredible African themed party at the house this past weekend; almost fifty people showed up, including many Africans, many of whom were from Cameroon. The date of the party was set to coincide with the Cameroonian Independence Day celebrations, which is a big holiday there. There was tons of great food from Africa; fried plantains, couscous (aka foufou), Cameroonian Koki (a spiced white bean dish that takes a LOT of time to make -- but they make it regularly there!), and lots of other stuff. Music and African-style dancing and conversation --- the Africans were in particular very enthusiastic and many of them projected a special intensity and energy at the party which Jen says is very widespread there.

Jen is recently returned from the Peace Corps in Cameroon, where she was stationed for two years. She came back greatly energized and with a deep respect and admiration of the culture and spirit of the people there; she misses it a great deal. She's really been experiencing reverse culture shock: a relatively common phenomenon where people find returning home to be even more difficult an adjustment than the initial primary culture shock of relocating to a foreign land. The problem I think is made worse by the fact that foreign cultures are not merely different in terms of customs and language, but they are entire systems or webs of common understanding, feeling, thought, implication, and so forth: systems not always entirely commensurable with each other. I have some understanding of this because I was born and raised in the United States, but I have Japanese parents and I have grown to realize that many of my inner attitudes and thoughts come from a Japanese perspective: so I have some feeling for what it is like to live in two worlds at once. It is important to find ways to cope with the incommensurability of the worlds, however, because it is not a real solution to abandon one or the other, nor does it really work to try to live "in between"; one has to work to build, on a daily basis almost, an alternative to any of those inadequate choices: something bigger, in a sense, than either of the two cultures to begin with.

May 18, 2000

Tiffany Lee Brown sends me a link to the new address for her webzine, Signum, which focuses on "exploring media, method, and meaning." Contributions welcome.

May 15, 2000

Heather Anne sends me this incredibly beautiful link today: an unwordprocessor, WordPerhect.

I have been thinking a lot about meaning, the unknown, and the unknowable. It is not that I think there are specific "things" that can never be known; it is more that I believe that it is impossible for everything to be known at once. Understanding and meaning inherently involve leaving things out; leaving out most of the Universe, in fact, for things to have a chance of making any sense at all. But of course, this presumes that meaning and knowledge are a sort of description of the universe; however, even the terms that we use to describe the universe are themselves dependent upon a framework, a paradigm, which itself is embedded in a societal structure, which is itself embedded in a physical context, a sort of embodied presence (and I do not mean by this to imply a correspondence theory of truth, but rather to refer to the fact that paradigms need be more than merely self-consistent, or consistent within their own abstract world, but in some sense they are embedded in a larger context which operates somewhat differently from the abstract rules of the system of thought or paradigm itself.) I propose the metaphor that a proposition within a paradigm is deemed valid insofar as it maintains its coherence under the assault of the operation of a feedback system: i.e., a society, a world, which allows us to have some intersubjective agreement. So I think of propositions, statements, works of art, etc., as operating within and inside this network of feedback connections, that is to say: we allow a statement to be true insofar as it appears to survive intersubjective tests, which include both verification within the abstract structure of the paradigm (i.e., we think about the statements within the propositional system, thought experiments, etc.) and within an embodied context (for example, observations). But even here we cannot escape the paradigm: an observation is made with reference to a context; i.e., we interpret our observations within a paradigmatic context as well. And we're not getting at the truth, but only survival for the time being (a la the pragmatic notion of empirical adequacy); more operation of the system might well wipe it out or change it, or supercede it or obsolete it. The entire paradigm itself might change, for example.

Which is to propose a picture of meanings as resonance states: if they can survive they are deemed valid (as long as they survive). But it goes beyond this: art is a form of communication which does not so much assert propositional truths as create or modify or filter experience. So there are many ways to play in this system. But no matter how you slice it, the area of the universe covered by the known is always very tiny, very small, almost infinitesimally small; because you have to consider not only every possible description, but every possible paradigm, and every possible paradigm in every possible embodied context (since paradigms always exist in a context), and so forth. In some sense, therefore, art and poetry can be more powerful forms of communication that propositions, because they can inherently refer to the concrete unknown, they can bring in that which is not under our reductive gaze.

But. Although these resonance states (propositions, i.e., the "known") can never encompass it all, the universe itself doesn't actually require that our ideas and concepts and assertions be complete in order for us to exist. In other words, although we always leave something out, the universe does not, in a sense. So it is very limiting to totally buy into your conceptions, your ideas, your pictures, your theories --- they can be useful, but the universe is always laughing at you, as it were. We can avoid unnecessary struggle as long as we remain open to the way things actually are, the unknown, because the universe doesn't require us to have a perfect picture for it to go ahead and operate just fine. It is only when we arrogantly try to impose our small picture of the world on ourselves, on reality, on the people around us, that we get into trouble: we end up fighting with the universe in the places where our pictures fail us. It is replacing the vast with the tiny, the infinite with the finite, the unknowable with the apparently known. This is a familiar mistake that we all make, easily, usually without even realizing it.

May 8, 2000

I came across the following today:

These days... we are apt to seek out a therapist to... help us get the dragon back into its cave. Therapists of many schools will oblige in this, and we will thus be returned to what Freud called "ordinary unhappiness". Zen, by contrast, offers dragon-riding lessons.
-David Brazier

Yes! The idea here is not to go to some other place, where we don't have problems, but to find out what is going on right here and now, including the dragon, and to find a way to ride it, to flow with it, be it. It's not about finding a happy place insulated from the concerns of the world, but to realize that everything, including our neuroses and thoughts and issues and concepts, are part of the fundamental reality, but they don't determine or define what is happening. We aren't threatened by the dragon: we are the dragon.

Kim sends me an excellent link to First Monday, a peer reviewed journal "about the Internet, on the Internet." Some of the articles include "Creating Virtual Learning Communities in Africa" and "The Binary Proletariat", about class divisions in the digital age.

I need a way to project sound in a tightly focused column for use in an art installation where we would like to keep the audio restricted to a specific small area (so people can only hear the audio while standing in front of a display, but not hear it elsewhere). I am looking into using Audio Spotlight speakers developed at the Media Lab that use the nonlinearity of air vibrations to produce audible sound in a tight column from ultrasonic sound waves. However, these are still somewhat experimental, and are quite expensive right now. It occurred to me that I could get a similar effect from a parabolic speaker. If anyone happens to know any other companies that make parabolic speakers, I'd love to hear about it.

Watching some old Busta Rhymes videos this afternoon. If I were to make rap videos, they'd probably be something like his in energy. I tend to move my body somewhat like he does when I'm in that mood; and I really like his use of unusual melodic patterns. But I'd probably use different subjects for my rhymes.

May 7, 2000

Sorry for the lack of updates for the week --- been doing a lot of travelling. Helped Miranda July drive her car from the Bay Area to Portland. Had some interesting conversations along the way about obsession with the past, living in a direct, natural, present way without getting too bogged down in analytical conceptualizations, male versus female styles of communication, her new performance piece, The Swan Tool, thinking about art as analogous to doing detective work (i.e., rather than creating it self-consciously or in a contrived way, discovering what is already inherent in the mysterious thing that comes out of the process of creating), and listened to an old mix tape she made in high school (and then some Sonic Youth and Fugazi, the latter tape reminding her of a story about a stalker of the band, and a story about how the lead singer, a friend of hers, interprets his lyrics.)

Later in the week, I went up to Olympia to meet with Khaela Maricich again, who bought me a slice of pizza. Khaela is setting up a group weblog with her friends, to be unveiled at a later date, a project I am helping her with. Their previous attempt to create an organization of collaborative communication, which they called ACE Investigations, ended up folding in the end; but they have new hope for reviving the effort via the Web.

Finally, Susan and I drove down to San Rafael for a weekend meditation retreat. I want to mention that some people tend to think of meditation as a sort of way to attain a kind of peace; in actuality, though, it has something much more to do with noticing a tendency that we have to literally believe in our apparent perceptions, our apparent situation as beings with a past, framed in the context of a certain kind of time. But this picture is much smaller than the actual situation. It's not that you meditate to bring about a change in your actual situation; if anything, it's more to simply help you notice and relax this tendency, and instead to realize that the situation we're already in is a hell of a lot more spacious than it might seem. We usually think of ourselves as constrained and imprisoned by our thoughts, feelings, and other conceptions about our situation (we identify our ideas and reactions as defining who and what and where we are), but in reality things are already much, much more than they appear to be. There is always that which goes beyond the dream, the picture, that which is outside what we think of as "reality," or "our problems," etc. But we're not talking about escaping to some other place, outside of where we are: it is more like realizing the place we already are is much bigger than it seems.