Discover more from Future Fossils with Michael Garfield
The Evolution of Surveillance
Beta testing Google Glass was a window into ancient arms races and the future of human-technology symbiosis. Psychoactive memoirs and mind-jazz on cyborgs and the evolution of mind...
Originally composed in four parts from 2013-2020 as part of a larger transmedia project and now available together at one URL for the first time. Regular mailings will resume shortly!
Part 1: Burgess Shale to Google Glass
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“My ten year old comes into my office and he says, ‘Dad, I keep hearing you talk about Big Data. What is this Big Data thing you’re talking about?’ I said to him, ‘Imagine if your whole life you’ve been looking through one eye, and all of a sudden for the first time scientists gave you the ability to open up a second eye. So what you’re getting is not just more data – you’re not just getting more vision, you’re getting a different dimension, a different way of seeing.’ And he said, ‘Dad, could computers open like a third eye, and a fourth – a thousand eyes?’ And I said, ‘That’s exactly what’s going on.’”
— Rick Smolan, author of The Human Face of Big Data
The Burgess Shale in Canada records the most explosive evolutionary moment in our fossil record — the instant when animal life blossomed from sponges, jellyfish, and worms to all contemporary phyla and many more than have since gone extinct. This unusually well-preserved stratum is a revelation of countless bizarre soft-bodied creatures, some so foreign in body plan that paleontologists have argued for decades which end goes “up.” Others turned out to be the hallucinogenic combinations of “organisms” from other fossils — what first appeared to be a shrimp, a jellyfish, and a crab all came together in the superpredator of the Cambrian Seas, Anomalocaris, salmon-sized arthropod death angel. Our own distant ancestors are represented there — the finger-long worm Pikaia, the only creature with something approximating a spine in an age before fish (the Burgess Shale is as far removed in time from the first sharks as we are from Stegosaurus).
Dozens of lineages with no modern equivalents were imaged there in a perfect fossil imprint, appearing overnight by the slow reckoning of sedimentary time, as suddenly novel types went “viral” in a spree of ecological efflorescence. For years, scientists were stumped about what happened here. Did the “Cambrian Explosion” really happen all at once, or — like so many other apparent leaps in complexity — was it a more gradual process that would eventually be filled out by later discoveries? No such revelations were forthcoming. The emergence of complex ecosystems, replete with complete intricate food webs of predators and pretty, seemed to have happened all at once — geologically speaking — in a matter of a million years, or few. What could possibly have caused such a precipitous shift in the ecological complexity of life? It all happened “in the blink of an eye.”
…And that’s exactly it: in a book by the same name, Oxford zoologist Andrew Parker argues it was the eye itself that led to this runaway diversification. Until the eye, animal life either floated aimlessly through primordial ocean or anchored itself to rocks and let currents do the work. Feeding was an entirely passive strategy, no muscles, no chase, none of the “evolutionary arms race” between galloping hunter and hunted that still characterizes most “survival of the fittest” evolutionary imagination today. Surely, there was eating — there were poisons – the barbed tentacles of floating polyps, the engulfing digestion of worms and microscopic amoeboid monsters — but no such thing as ambush, or camouflage, or pursuit. And then at some point, somebody — and it’s hard to say whom, because a good idea spreads fast — came up with the eye. Or rather, an eye — depending on how you define them, eyes have evolved more than forty times, from simple photoreceptive spots in protists to cup eyes in clams, pinhole camera-eyes in squids and octopi to lensed globes in vertebrates, and compound retinas with over a dozen light-sensitive pigments in the unmatched complexity of the mantis shrimp’s visual organs.
Suddenly — so the story goes — the lights came on. In ways that had never been relevant before, there was an “up” and a “down,” an “over here” and “over there,” and potential mates and food and doom began to drift in and out of view. The world of smell and touch — of chemical gradients and immanent knowing, life aligned solely on the axis of more or less — was folded into a new and more dynamic sense-world of instantaneous telecommunication. New dimensions unfurled and into them grew an exponential burst of minds and bodies, urged by necessity into new games of sight. Endowed with the radical new ability to detect at a distance, the naïve ecologies of Earth accelerated into unprecedented combinations of locomotive swimming chasers and chased. Simple musculatures adapted to navigate new axes, to maneuver. Surveillance — literally, “to watch from above” — was born…and animals like Anomalocaris were the black helicopters of the prehistoric ocean.
The ambient life of filter feeding among macroscopic multicellular organisms intensified into a life of active motion — and with it, the mostly-headless world gained vectors, gathered nerve endings, and got smart in response to a faster and more difficult existence. With complex eyes came brains. Almost certainly, it started in the predators — after all, “necessity is the mother of invention,” and many great ideas are army brats. In defense, the new technology of surveillance spread until knowledge-at-a-distance became the rule among animals, not the exception. To this day, perception, intelligence, and locomotion seem inextricably bound, all different facets of a single thing: to know is to do; to do is to move. Complex environments require more complex participants — life rises to the occasion, making more complex environments, and ratcheting the whole game up a notch. (New senses, new dimensions. New dimensions, new motion. New motion, new conflict. New conflict, new cooperation. New cooperation, new senses.)
We stand here today at the millionth iteration of this process, privileged with more senses, reaching into more dimensions, moving faster and farther than life has gone before. The Burgess Shale provides precedent: the modern myth of the origins of the eye gives us a rhetorical lens through which to see ourselves, our story telescoping back to when there was no light as such (for light must be perceived), and forward into the vertiginous depths of the greater world we know exists but as yet lack the capacity to imagine, and so call “Future,” “Possibility.”
Flash forward from the Cambrian Explosion 540 million years, and I am standing in the lofts of Google in New York, trying on their new wearable computer, Glass, for the first time. I’ve been selected for their Explorers Program and am one of the first few thousand people with access to their new device, which combines a heads-up display, video camera, accelerometer, voice control, and bone-conducted audio into a cybernetic interface between human being and Google’s repository of collective intelligence. Although I am already accustomed to most of these components — I can talk to my phone and for years have had even esoteric knowledge only a search away, literally at my fingertips anywhere with an internet connection — there is something magical, intimate, revolutionary, and intimidating in the way they come together in the Glass to feel less like a thing I use, and more a part of me.
I have prepared myself for this moment with years of science fiction and cyborg philosophy; but it is, of course, one thing to imagine and another to experience, and through the prismatic tiny screen now floating in the corner of my vision, I now see what psychedelic thinkers expected just around the millennial bend. In the 1990s, while I was still doodling dinosaurs in grade school, Timothy Leary proclaimed the internet the next LSD, and Terence McKenna foresaw an apocalyptic epoch when each individual person would communicate directly with the sum total of human experience.
On the eighth floor of an unassuming brick building in Chelsea, standing at the brink of this visionary age, I listen to the Google employee as she asks me which of the device’s five colors I’ll choose for my own. It’s no small question: these “smart glasses” are going to change the way I relate to information, bringing the formerly inaccessible into view, disclosing new dimensions, and granting me a sharpened awareness of my place as both predator and prey in a complex ecology of mind.
There is only one smart choice. “Shale,” I tell her.
Part 2: Red Queens & Evil Eyes
”The man discusses a dream he’s had in which his Manhattan neighborhood has been reduced to a series of canals, and he’s been given a kind of flotation device armed with Jet Skis that can skim the top of the water while everyone around him drowns.”
— Gary Shteyngart, “Confessions of a Google Glass Explorer”
“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”
— Red Queen, Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass
With the evolution of the eye came predation, and with predation came herd behaviors. The collective is an adaptive response that confounds a hunter in several ways: beyond the simple benefit to animals moving in the center of the herd (or flock, or troupe, or school) and thus behind a protective wall of flesh, great numbers of creatures moving as a single unit disrupt predator perception (think a swirling mass of fish to sharks trying to isolate an individual herring or sardine; think an ocean of stripes as a thousand zebras pass the hiding lions). Another great advantage comes from multiplying eyes, combining attention, noticing from different places. The herd, tied together in exquisite sensitivity to each members social cues, agitation amplifying through the group by resonance, out-thinks – on average – the tactics of a lone assailant and becomes the new complex environment that compels team hunting behavior by a more sophisticated predator. (Schooling may confuse a shark, but whales with more intricate social brains can see the school as an individual entity and work together to corral it in a tube of bubbles – the school’s own dizzying perceptual hack used against it in what amounts to the behavioral form of destructive interference, or a denial-of-service-attack.)
So began an evolutionary arms race that modern biologists describe with the Red Queen Hypothesis, named for the way that teeth and armor, poisons and immunities, continue to leapfrog each other on a treadmill as generations come and go. Police call it “escalation.” The logic is simple: over numberless generations, offensive and defensive strategies sharpen each other, drawing both into remarkable intricacy and precisely interlocking interdependence.
And so it was with perception: in a geological instant, two distinct, reliable strategies emerged. Prey cognition is ambient, receptive, omni-directional. It evolves as a reaction to the complimentary focused, goal-oriented, stereoscopic cognition of predators — a mind that seeks to find, pattern detection to specific end; and a mind that grew as a response and excels in response, an expert in noticing a difference. Like Yin and Yang, the two contain one another, create one another — a half-billion years of convoluted selfhood as countless generations re-imagine variations on the theme of hide-and-seek. Although, as in chess, the Yang pursuer, White, moves first, so many plays flicker by in deep time that myth and history, reiteration and recursion, become one seamless gesture, Ouroboros, Gaia.
Due to their respective natures as aggressor and evader (and this is of course a gross oversimplification, since even cows engage in a slow arms race with grass, and hyenas have to be on guard for lions), predator and prey either focus their attention on “the business end” — forward-facing, pointed, linear — or on the space, perturbations and peripheral awareness, circular and diffuse.
Human beings are unusual (although far from unique) in our compound nervous systems, benefiting from our multilayered brains that record the ancient shift in niche from forest-dwelling fruit eaters to savannah pack hunters. The kinship we experience with whales and dolphins comes from our similar twist in origin stories: before their aquatic stint as clever social carnivores, Cetaceans were more like deer or horses. Whether or not those ancient Artiodactyls hunted before they took to water, their move to a new environment required an expansion of the senses — a new growth in intelligence, self, and society, combining the chased and chasing minds.
These are basic, archetypal modes, deep structure in the associative embodied metaphorical basis of thought. The linear march of progress, the circular endless now of myth; the angular agendas of masculinity and the curvaceous feeling-being of the feminine, symbolized by sword and chalice, tower and moat; the figure- and individual-focused Occidental seeing, and the ground- and context-Way of the Orient. Marshall McLuhan tied this basic binary distinction to the radical shift from the embedded self of oral cultures to the distanced self of print — the move from the sound of storytellers round a fire to the image of a lone scholar in his study. It is a change reflecting our transition from the huddled tribe attuned to the living acoustic space to “the ivory tower,” the myth of self-authoring agency, the dissociation of academic magisterial and countless lonely suburbs transfixed by their TVs.
“For the basilisk is produced and grows from…the menstrual blood. So, too, from the blood of the semen; if it be placed in a glass receptacle and allowed to putrefy in horse dung, from that putrefaction a basilisk is produced. But who would be so bold and daring as to wish to produce it, even to take it and at once kill it, unless he had first clothed and protected himself with mirrors?”
— Paracelsus The Great
Mesmerism may be a young science, but the hypnotic stare of a lion or cobra goes back millions of years. The charismatic power of gurus, rock stars, and sociopaths lies largely in the “charm” transmitted through eye contact, a power etymologically connected to — “caris,” the ubiquitous suffix of the prehistoric crab-things preserved in the Burgess Shale. “To grab you.” “She stopped me in my tracks.” “A deer in the headlights.” The shock of a mirror you didn’t expect…
Self-discovery takes some getting used to. The invention of the mirror caused a wave of superstition, a body of folklore about evil doppelgangers through the looking glass, vampires without a reflection, the future scryed in mirror pools. Even earlier, Narcissus drowned in his own reflection. To see and thus to know thyself — to face one’s self at least in surface detail, in a surface — is awkward at first, too real. The disillusionment of instant, honest feedback, light scattered back to brighten space imagination’s darkness filled. The mirror’s rude awakening took time to level out, to be mundane, only for its sharp ephemera to be rendered permanent in silver plate daguerreotypes with the invention of photography. It’s little wonder the premodern mind rejected cameras as stealers of the soul.
Mediterranean cultures hang the “evil eye” outside their homes to scare away spirits for the same reason that Indian loggers wear rear-facing masks to ward off tiger attacks. False eyespots abound in the Animal Kingdom. You don’t have to be bird-brained to avoid a fake owl; person-shaped cardboard cutouts in grocery stores discourage shoplifting. As social creatures we may love the attention, but nobody likes being watched.
And I still cannot help but wave at the grainy simulacrum of myself on the security CCTV when entering the department store. By contrast, there is something strangely hollow about watching video I have recorded through Glass — uncanny, not the invisible camera of professional cinema, but intimate, personal, and still somehow anonymous — a Being John Malkovich view of my own hands, the jiggle of my own steps, my self too close to see. As McLuhan was fond of saying, “The sloughed-off environment becomes a work of art in the new invisible environment,” and now in an age of digital surveillance my own point of view becomes an artifact in the transparent ground of a featureless observer, both everyone and no one. In the conservation of momentum, technological evolution into quicker and subtler forms is also the involution of imagination into matter, the externalization and descent of our inner imaginal potentials. By watching my own Glass first-person video, I induce an out-of-self experience, and as digital voyeur of my self displaced in time prepare the Witness — the Great Self beyond egoic mind — to find itself without the snazzy training wheels.
Not simply because of the ways in which it alters my consciousness, donning the Glass makes me an initiate. There is a very real risk of death here, by cancer, and of being compromised by making myself transparent to an ineffable hidden intelligence. But more: the easier I can flow in the empyrean collective, the harder it becomes with normal social interactions. Like Clive Thompson noticed with his own Glass self-experiments," “From my perspective, I was wearing a computer, a tool that gave me the constant, easy ability to access information quickly. To everyone else, I was just a guy with a camera on his head.”
Even though I can’t use Glass to see through clothes, or even recognize a person’s face, strangers fill in the blanks with sci-fi suspicion and regard me as a spy. I had a dream shortly after getting it I was a journalist in love with the leader of The Resistance, and though she loved me too it was only with great effort we could meet, as I posed a threat to her entire operation. I finally interviewed her in the back of an unmarked van, Glass off. (…When did I start dreaming I was wearing them?)
There is a stigma associated with the fear of what we cannot understand, the obscene novelty of it, that sets me as apart from everyone else in, say, the mall as a mage or shaman would be in some pre-modern village. As I pass the queue of people waiting for an iPhone 5S outside the Apple Store, a man glares at me and raises his voice: “Don’t record me, bro!” — as if he’s not, that very moment, not only in a shopping mall bristling with security cameras, but waiting in line to fork over $800 so he can have the new TouchID system scan his fingerprints with transhuman precision.
But that’s the cognitive dissonance I’m growing used to as a Glass Explorer: by wearing this in public I am bringing awkward issues into brutal brilliance, where they can’t be slipped into a pocket and avoided. When it comes to the perverted privacy of social spaces, Glass makes no intrusions that smart phones haven’t made for a decade-plus already; paradoxically, it makes the mess explicit and provides a weird inverted dignity by being rudely obvious. I get the feeling people aren’t so mad at me for my apparent complicity in Google’s New Digital Age as they are offended I insist on bringing the topic up in polite conversation, forcing an unpleasant appraisal of how far we have already come without reflecting on it. If I’m a “Glasshole” it’s not because I violate their privacy — that ship has sailed — but because it’s one thing to know and another thing to feel, and no amount of Edward Snowden in the evening news is as visceral as confronting cameras at eye level.
White, black, or grey (“cotton,” “charcoal,” or “shale”), wizards hold doors open to a mystery unwelcome in the pews, and their appearance in town square is symptom of unwelcome news. Since everyone has skeletons, telling them our hiding flesh is turning clear – it’s something that no body wants to hear.
But its a conversation we must have. Because — just as “a fact requires a theory the way a flame requires an atmosphere” — where there are wizards, here be dragons…
Part 3: Living in the Belly of the Beast
“As soon as surveillance technology is installed, first it produces of course a counter reaction of the desire for privacy…but it [also] produces the fact that there are gaps, and as soon as you put up SOME cameras, you see that there are spots that you can’t see. Surveillance constantly wants more of itself. We constantly debate whether we control technology or technology controls us. Well, when it comes to surveillance technology, it’s not even a debate. Surveillance is an attribute of consciousness…it’s as certain as thermodynamics.”
— Richard Doyle, 2015
(transcribed from the Radio Free Valis webinar)
“We keep saying we have no other course. What we should say is, we were not bright enough to see another course.”
— David Lilienthal of the Atomic Energy Commission circa 1950
(quoted from Hardcore History Podcast #591)
It has been almost four years since I wore Google Glass to make history in a small way by sharing my live POV through a projector while I played a concert. It has been six months since I last even took them out, inspected them, and made sure they still boot. The timing’s wrong.
My first pair — which I consecrated with my friends, ensouled to honor its participation in my newly-constituted cyborg body, reaching past the flesh to count the mineral and vegetable dimensions of my being, leaving not a single influence “outside” — it broke when I took it to Burning Man in 2013. An identical device arrived from warranty replacement but I hadn’t formed a bond with it. I hadn’t come to feel that Glass as a familiar or companion in my wizard’s duties, like that first pair, owl Minerva perched upon Athena’s shoulder, not-quite-me but always seen together: basic to the image; on my business card; a wink and nod in the direction of the high-tech futuristic mystery I peered into with Glass and then reported from.
Initiated, I disturbed my share of future-shocked unwitting passers-by and drew the gaze of those for whom the future is delicious. I attracted fear and curiosity in equal measure, people hiding from the camera or peering into it and asking questions. It seemed right that I should wear and bear this weapon of the vast surveillance state which I had re-appropriated as an instrument of art, and use it to facilitate as many conversations as I could about consent in our society. The catch, of course, is that means walking ‘round with sword drawn — and in light of Edward Snowden’s revelations to the public about just how deeply we’re already watched by unaccountables in clandestine collusion between government and private industry, people you don’t know and can’t know, faceless figures who are privy to your deepest secrets.
So I may as well have made myself a shirt that said, “I Am A Spy.” Wizards and their owl familiars don’t come into town unless there’s trouble brewing — comets en route to fulfill a prophecy, or dragons that demand a sacrifice. No news at all, or even fake news, is preferable to harbingers of some inevitable transformation most of us can only bring ourselves to face when we come up for air between our entertainment binges and attempts to steal our small securities from dying systems.
Only certain kinds of people will return the gaze of futures full of basilisks and tigers, in which we evolve into the unimaginable. Most of us prefer to screen out anything that might forever alter all we claim as “human,” “healthy,” “natural,” and “alive.” A renaissance is threatening; creation means destruction. Smoke, Ergo Fire: Most folks rightly see a wizard as the evidence of dragons.
So, who is this Dragon in whose sleeping shadow we all play?
At least one face of it is Google. Let’s start there. The dragon has as many faces as there are participants in this panopticon. Its body grows with every new node in the Internet of Things. The dragon as an elemental, as a twisting braid of fractal dissipative structures, energy in motion, shows up in the proliferating cameras and advertisements, eyes and scales to hold our gaze and sculpt our actions. Just like stars and galaxies cast everywhere, accelerating from a “Big Bang” out of which all secondary miracles emerge: a billion iPhones, each a microcosm and a monolith (“My God — it’s full of stars!”), our gamified attention in the hypno-grip of some great transtemporal angel-snake.
Learning is an adaptation to anxiety, so neural networks are the creek beds carved by difficulty; and the Internet’s a map of a solution to the existential question posed to us by nuclear technology.
The predecessor to the Internet, or ARPANET, was built to link the bunkers, just in case. We started building digital communication networks in the 1960s as a reflex to new ecological and systems-management philosophies that showed up with the fallout, with the sudden recognition that we’re all downwind of radiation. And in the apocalyptic dread that hasn’t ever really gone away, we made connection our religion.
Surveillance in the modern sense is the inevitable and entropic consequence of atom bombs injecting so much surplus energy into the global system that the planet’s nerves and senses grew like an explosion (literally so when viewed from geologic time).
Detonating individuality, we woke up as the nodes of a 1:1 map of our lives, a fossil of the traces made by our attention since we split the atom: all those lines of influence, those cables and those wireless transactions, linking us in case of an emergency.
A Tree of Bangs, entropic, blooming down to mirror evolutionary history, a chandelier of comets tracing involution, One to Many: Big Bang; nebulae; Suns; bombs; then, next stop, desktop fusion and democratized clean energy. (But as with every prior crisis of emergence, photosynthesis to flowers, it will be a challenge when it comes. How ready are we, really, for the level of sovereignty these new technologies allow? How quickly can we really be expected to adjust to wielding magic?)
We have given birth to our Godzilla — Facebook, Google, and the NSA (at minimum — the loudest, closest faces of the thing ) — asleep for now but listening through all your televisions and your phones, collecting information through each sleeping lens. Radioactive giant lizard breath is mythical but not unlike, in its effects, the heating damage and mutations we receive from bathing constantly in cell phone signals. We have traded dragons on the edges of our maps for dragons front and center, the known-unknown for the unknown-known. We treat phones as organs but it’s almost like we each have our own “pocket monster,” if you will – a spark of the atomic bomb…
The dragon, viewed as habits rather than anatomy, is your own brain’s reptilian base enacting entropy, deciding in an aggregate of semi-conscious actions the converging swarm of small behaviors that determines history. It isn’t not-you…insofar as you identify with what you put online. And even if you don’t, the traces that you leave, your digital exhaust, contributes to the way that our increasingly responsive world responds to you. We can’t avoid that we are more than what we’re conscious of. And yet the dragon’s vector is our curiosity to know that hidden self, to quantify our biometrics, hack our habits, wake the sleeper, reach beyond what we believe is human, what is possible.
To fully know, and thus control, the human being…the SRI & MIT conceit in the transparency of our biology to science, with the omnipresence of the screen in modern life, and with our growing challenges to the idea of privacy, begin to take shape as a case for calling ours “The Glass Age.” We’re transparent, like the model research organism, Caenorhabditis elegans, a worm of 959 cells, fully knowable by humans. Aided with computers, we can know a person. All of them. Or so it goes. The Glass Age. After all, as heirs to Isaac Newton’s pioneering work on optics, we all live within a giant prism: both the growing lattice made of fibre optics, laid by services like Spectrum (formerly Time Warner Cable) or the PRISM program, surreptitiously recording every message that we send to one another.
Then there is the feeling that we live under the microscope – apocalyptic memes that breed when fed with the immense intensity of imminence we sense while fenced in with so many lenses.
Not to mention all the webs of synchronicity infusing daily life with terrifying numinous significance, these days. Are we in Indra’s Net? Yes — and a World Wide Web extending us into a globe-encircling mesh of sensors that contains us all within it and has redefined the human being as primarily a thing of information. Not entirely pleasant. Staring at live video recordings of ourselves across the “fifth wall” of a screen, we’re starting to experience a kind of planetary OBE — like how it was for me to watch my videos #throughglass just over my own shoulder, like I was my owl familiar. Watching our own lives this way, we render the inviolable subject of the modern era something simultaneously more and less, a “quantified self” ripe for hacking. Just like half a billion years ago when eyes inspired the Cambrian Explosion, we have opened new dimensions full of evolutionary brinksmanship, and let in new anxieties. You look through the magic mirror, and it looks back through you, too.
“Evil is the annunciation of the next level of order.”
— William Irwin Thompson, Coming Into Being
That mirror’s black, of course. We see the dragon in the black snake that devoured Standing Rock and in erotic biomech like H.R. Giger’s Alien; in the black goo that shows up in The X-Files, Lucy, Venom, Fern Gully, The Fifth Element, and John Dies at The End. It is the xeno-bioweapon menacing Prometheus; it’s also demon Aku, Samurai Jack’s spaceborne nemesis, “shape-shifting master of darkness.”
Explicitly, it is the formerly-invisible environment of evolution, turning in upon itself to come awake, postvitalist philosophies of bio-engineering turning life into technology as our technology approaches life. It is Promethean — but we experience emergent order as a threat, as an “invasion.” Our own birthing world-soul, impinging into history, is everywhere we look, appearing as the evil other: terrorists and refugees, the plutocrats and oligarchs, the faceless multitudes awake while you’re asleep, or aliens, or AI…
Once again, though: we killed all the predators that used to hunt us; now they haunt us from inside of modern life. We can’t let go of danger. We are prey and predator, together. We’re the dragon, and the dragon’s always in a process of becoming.
This is a runaway reaction, every new surveillance camera showing us a spot the cameras don’t yet cover, and creating the apparent need for yet more cameras. New senses lead to new deceits. Once everyone has eyes, the hiding and the bluffing starts. The dragon doesn’t show its face if it can help it — and if forced into the open, almost any animal puffs up to try and look more dangerous.
As far as camouflage goes, you cannot find better than the military’s (black goo as the radar-scattering black paint on spy planes, culminating in the pigment “vantablack,” from which no light escapes). But hiding is less viable with every new eye, and deterrence works in places camouflage does not: eyespots on butterflies; the warning coloration on the belly of a salamander; padded shoulders on a business suit. We mimic danger when invisibility is not an option.
Then we get the strategies of signaling and risk that come with sight, the strategies of backing up a fierce appearance with sufficient firepower to disguise how much we really do not want to fight. The Cold War stayed that way because we learned to lie about what war is and what living inside war feels like. On every side, we had to simultaneously bluff that we would use the bomb and reassure the public that we wouldn’t.
Both stakes and death anxiety go up with increased nuclear capacity. So too do our attempts to act like nothing is the matter, while simultaneously scanning our environment for “pre-crime” tendencies to validate our fear. Life in The Glass Age is divided by these economics into a performative and public self on one hand, and a withheld, secretive self on the other. It’s the endgame of modernity, so finally divorced from land that death tolls are now estimated by the city: you are the you-0nline and you-offline, two new twigs on tree of entropy, the black and white snake braided all the way back to the seaside shallow pool on early Earth in which our molecules all mixed promiscuously, once upon a time when we were mostly soap and RNA, and not so paranoid.
(Not only in the mirror but across the pond, it is of course a Double Dragon. China’s Baidu is a complementary self-organizing eldritch corporate AI Pokémon to battle Google, only East and West don’t fight head-on — the Cold War’s quiet and implicit rules constrains the clash of titans to their avatars in “Third World” nations. Anyhow, the dragon-tree has many branches — or, more fittingly, a myriad of plumes within the peacock fractal, always finding new ways to look in upon itself…)
At one point we woke up and wrote the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, claiming that we’re sentient enough to not to bomb everything to Kingdom Come, to find a more enjoyable solution to the questions posed by progress. How can we serve entropy with ecosystems that encourage life, not threaten it? How can we surf the wave of exponential change to steer The Glass Age toward a life of peace and beauty? How can we decentralize the Big Bang of the Atom Bomb so it will happen everywhere in small and healthy ways we can contain and channel for a safely powered planetary renaissance?
In lieu of easy answers, it would seem the only way to end war is to end the self that sees war as inevitable. Thus the Internet is both a red and blue pill, liberating and imprisoning. It links us into one ecstatic body at the same time that it offers us an endlessly proliferating bush of sub-realities. It only grows in all directions — and the dragon, made of us, both raises every head and lowers them to gaze at screens, distracted by its own reflection.
— June 2017
Part 4: Augments & Amputees
Beta-testing Google Glass was only the beginning. Uninstalling AR dinosaurs taught me no man’s an island…and that we must be far more careful about who gets administrative access to our minds.
This continues my now-ancient essay series on my experience as a Google Glass Explorer and the lens it offered me on the evolution of intelligence and cognitive/sensory arms races going back half a billion years. Before you dive in you may want to read Parts 1, 2, and 3, but this one was written to stand on its own. (The essay linking this series into my larger body of work is The Future Is Indistinguishable from Magic, which I discussed as a guest on Weird Studies Podcast Episode 26 for those curious about my thoughts on the agency of objects and materials and a nondual philosophy of science.)
Manfred Macx’s exocortex from Charles Stross’ novel Accelerando, Siri Keaton from Peter Watts’ novel Blindsight; The Information Theory of Individuality; Laurence Gonzales’ Surviving Survival, an excruciating and illuminating book about trauma; and William Gibson’s 2010 comment that we have become a coral reef. All of which feel uncomfortably personal.
Emergent individuality exerts a pressure of simplification on the agents of which it’s composed. Diversity and hyper-specialization are encouraged in the stable, niche-rich body of the super-organismal hyperobject. New opportunities arise to sculpt one lineage into both smarter and dumber forms of itself. What are the relative rarities of these outcomes?
Colonizing the imagination: the difference between the dinosaurs I saw like ghosts haunting my childhood and the after-images of AR dinosaurs lingering like phosphenes in the game-rewarded networks of my head meat. Loss of technological prosthesis as an occupational risk of being cyborg — the self a plural, discontinuous, unfixed, emergent, vulnerable.
“Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs, he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on him and they still give him much trouble at times.”
— Sigmund Freud
“We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”
— Marshall McLuhan
On the day I realized Google had killed the MyGlass app, I had pulled my Google Glass out of its satin-finish cardboard box up in my closet in an eager thrush to take a photo of my hands and feet. Sure, you can presumably use a head strap for a GoPro camera to achieve the same effect, but I cannot, because I do not have those tools. What I do have is the slender frame of promise and potential I picked up in Chelsea, New York City, at the Google offices way back in 2013, too weird to live, too rare to die, this thing that started showing up on me in dreams within a week of owning it, a part of me, the cybernetic augment in the photo on my business card for years, with all its complicated baggage.
I am a Glass Explorer, and one day the agency that built this thing decided to turn off the tap, remove the app that pairs it to my phone from the Google Play store, no email sent to the few thousand of us who had coughed up (or in my case, crowd-funded) $1500 to be on the bleeding edge and maybe get punched in the face for being there. No notice that this new and troubled organ that, admittedly, I hadn’t worn in years but nonetheless had made its way into my brain just like a family member, made immortal in the neural engrams constituting what I call a self, would suddenly stop working.
Let me back up a couple years. I am about to be a father. This is having strange effects on me.
Let me back up further…
I grew up loving dinosaurs, I went to school to be a paleontologist, I went to Wyoming seven summers as a teenager to dig up fossils in the legendary Como Bluff, where they found Stegosaurus in the 19th Century, those same pale hills and hawks and hares and sage and antelope. But after college I grew fascinated by big questions that this discipline could not address: the origins of life, the evolution of the mind, of language and intelligence. And my advisors warned me not to go the road of complex systems theory, that no professor in his right mind would take on a student plagued by big ideas like these, that I would have to hide my interests until tenure, work on tiny projects like the tibias of turtles or some such tributary of the ocean I desired to cross.
So I fell out. And in that time the team that I was digging with fell out of grace with the ranch that allowed us to pull Allosaurus families out of Jurassic mudstone, giant lungfish from the first Lakota clays. I’d lost my childhood mentor in the fallout, my access to the land in which my youthful spirit dwelled, the path that I’d been on for twenty-two years, any right to call myself a scientist. I was, in earnest, just another wandering Jew without a home, and started playing concerts, writing essays, painting live at festivals, and then one day my trickster friend Chris Pezza nominates me as a Google Glass Explorer, tells me there’s a kind of contest where you tweet #ifihadglass and tell them what you’d do with it, and I should do this since I have been speaking on the co-evolution of technology and humankind at festivals and also making art at those same festivals, and isn’t that exactly what they’d love to see in a first-person video from a head-mounted camera?
I got the Glass. We’ve covered that already. But it was, rightly, a contentious beta. The timing was so bad it was bizarrely perfect: drop panopticon-enabling technology that forces conversations just as Edward Snowden drops the news that all of us are being watched all of the time by God Knows Who and For What. Yuck. Such a pretty dream died on the wing, but for a moment there I thrilled in the adventure of recording messages to people’s future selves, compiling POV live painting videos galore, projecting my perspective on a screen behind me while I played guitar on stage so people could see what I saw while I was playing…it was a revolution but it was aborted.
MEANWHILE, it went on:
We didn’t magically become opaque. It just got worse. The Cambridge Analytica explosion of 2017 made clear just how transparent all of us were to this predatory social engineering data harvest. The headlines read that Facebook knows you better than your spouse. Head-mounted cameras were, frankly, quaint beside the horrors to which we all grew accustomed.
And anyway, AR had made it onto everyone’s devices. Google Lens, the killer app that never made it to the Glass, allows you to just point your phone at something, take a picture, and receive a plant ID or translate foreign street signs or find out what that weird thing is. The Holy Grail that I had sipped from as a Glass Explorer was now strangely both mundane and still clandestine, something most of us were not aware our phones could do. It was a protean, prophetic literacy skipping on the surface of a wave of change on which most of us were barely surfing.
And AR found a side-door into everyday existence as a toy: McDonald’s Happy Meals came with small plastic figurines that bore QR codes to unlock web-only magic on your parents’ phones; Pokémon Go became a global happening, an avenue by which presumably developers Niantic Labs could, at their leisure, redirect the traffic with the placement of imaginary animals and other in-game objects on real-world maps. (How perfectly would we be sidelined into halting state activity, no pun intended, through the seemingly emergent wandering masses interrupting someone’s Uber-to-an-airport? Espionage via thrown civilians isn’t just stray wondering; it’s easy and it’s obvious and you should be concerned.)
Around the time I found out I was going to be a dad, my inner child reared up delightedly and reasserted dinosaurs as a priority. It just so happened that Jurassic World Alive, another “find ’em, catch ’em, fight ‘em” game like Pokémon Go (extremely dubious in ethical portent: these poor captive creatures!), booted up just then and I became addicted.
In certain ways it was a good addiction. Nothing else could possibly have gotten me up in the dawn hours to go cycling round my neighborhood in Austin, Texas to behold the gorgeous greens and purples of the dewy morning, pumping legs and breathing hard to chase Tyrannosaurus. It exploited my well-worn obsessions to a best effect: I started getting back in shape, perhaps in better shape than I had ever been, excited and exploring.
I remember the first time I crossed the street to tag a dinosaur that wasn’t really there. I got my partner into it, though luckily, she hadn’t the affordances upon which it could clasp its money-grubbing claws… Because the game costs money, ultimately: leveling up dinosaurs you’ve hybridized from wild-caught DNA to jockey your way up the tourney brackets isn’t cheap, since Ludic Labs, the game’s developers, decided they would optimize for income and to hell with user satisfaction. Read the boards: the gamers all were pissed at obvious insouciance, a cavalier indifference to the fact that GPS-spoofing cheaters were destroying the game’s rankings while good, honest, and hard-working players — some of whom had spent more than they should have — got their faces stepped on.
Eventually it soured enough for me that I found other interests.
And then I had a kid!
A child is the most perfectly-attuned attention funnel nature has created, and suddenly it didn’t matter anymore that I was going to ignore the AR dinosaurs that live here on my street. By then I’d moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico and started a new grown-up job, if you can call it that, performing social media for scientists who study complex systems. I was literally in the pocket of the very institution I had sought to work with fifteen years before, Santa Fe Institute, the place where all the biggest questions were encouraged, but they had no place for newly-graduated starry-eyed disciples of the wilderness: post-docs and faculty, or staff. And so when after thirteen years of proper Jewish wandering I roamed in their doors and gave a presentation at my interview that the president insightfully referred to as a “Jeep tour over rugged terrain” (Could he possibly have known I’d driven my own Jeep at Como Bluff while digging dinosaurs, gotten it stuck in Sheep Creek? Was he alluding to the evolutionary fitness landscape that some of them study, the metaphor that has obsessed me for my whole adult life?), I became their “pocket monster,” monk in a science monastery without a PhD, both of us transformed since when I first knocked and they shooed me off.
A lot goes down in fifteen years, if you select the right fifteen: the data science and the algorithmic adjuncts to discovery had blossomed; simulated worlds were playthings now instead of just imagined futures. The hype of SFI back when it made a cameo in Michael Crichton’s The Lost World circa 1995 had anchored in the suddenly mundane technologies of social science made of physics, nourished by mobility data from countless phones. We apes can now train a machine to see the difference between fruitful conversation and a hate speech tragedy on social media by studying the branching trees of comments: that which looks more like a thriving circulatory system in math-space is, oddly, healthy sociality. So that’s a thing…
And as my wife and I raised up our daughter on the hillside just beneath Fort Marcy, where the Americans established dominance over Spanish colonists in 1847, dinosaurs became a phantom limb. The (Google) map of Sunset Street still sprawled with Stegosaurus and Tyrannosaurus (two creatures far enough apart in time to be as far from one another as we are from dinosaurs, but mashed together in the eschatology of AR mirror world remembrance, eidetic but prosthetic memory without release), but I was not connected. I removed Jurassic World Alive to focus on more pressing things, like being Dad. But I still felt the ghosts of dinosaurs in Santa Fe in ways distinctly different from the apparitions I’d imagined as a kid. I knew that they were out there, a traumatic layer amputated consciously and intentionally, but still haunting.
Eventually they faded, thankfully.
I didn’t play the game that long, a year or so, as an adult. I have to try and stretch into the sense that left: that there is still Jurassic World and Pokémon, and radio, and that all kinds of layered information of this place — the history that used to be contained in stories, people’s heads—we keep accumulating layers in a spectral evolution not unlike the sedimentary deposits of Jurassic clays in Como Bluff — or at Valles Caldera, just an hour away, where the montmorillonite, volcanic ash, cracks up as fertile soil for voles and weasels, wildflowers and my daughter.
Here in Santa Fe, as is online, the ancient and the new collide. And this is where I realized that I had been denied, as if it were a circumcision, all the vistas I had seen through Glass when Google shuttered MyGlass app.
The thing about an augment is you are set up for a phantom limb. When I pulled out Glass and realized I could not connect, it was a minor trauma in a life of traumas: moves, divorces, lost loves, and arrests…but I see it for what it is. We have to be so careful when we reference ourselves in hardware and in software, when we make our digital duplicates, the trails we leave online that form a shape we take. We have to be so vigilant about the ways that we design the tools that we allow into our mental models of our bodies. We have to practice care to guarantee that we don’t make imaginary landscapes that drive real-life behaviors but then for narrow profit-driven reasons cease to be.
We have a need to see beyond the street, to hear the songs that people sang to anchor in the land before we came, to move through living history with sleek quicksilver synastry. But we must be relieved: If I am destined to see AR dinosaurs like phosphenes, fine with me. But if we must rely on a subscription fee to see, it will be hard to pull the Jeep of our society out of Shit Creek.
Do you want your prosthetic limb to lift you up into the coral reef that is humanity? Okay, but please! Beware of others who possess your organs. (That has at least two meanings.)
— Santa Fe, June/October 2020 |Written on an iPad in Google Keep.
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