That Which Rolls

I’ve been riding bicycles—what the pataphysician, playwright, and avid cyclist Alfred Jarry called “That Which Rolls”—almost as long as I’ve been walking. I haven’t had a car since 1998, so bicycles have been my primary mode of transportation as an adult. Just after I built a new Big-Boy Bike a few years ago, a young friend asked me for some bike-building advice. I found myself qualifying my advice more than actually giving him any. I was trying to explain that I grew up riding BMX bikes, so I approach other builds from that background.

Me and my Big-Boy Bike at Forsyth Park in Savannah, Georgia. [photo by my friend Peter Relic]
The friend in question was in his early twenties, and as I started explaining my involvement in BMX in the 1980s, I noticed his brow crinkling. He didn’t get it. The further I went, the more I realized that I was attempting to bridge a generation gap.

My bike-curious friend didn’t seem to believe that BMX could’ve been that big in my youth. During my competitive Freestyle (as BMX trick riding was called back then) days, I lived in Southeast Alabama. We had bike-shop-sponsored local contests every other weekend and regional ones monthly, as well as shows to do and the occasional national event thanks to the AFA (American Freestyle Association). From the early-to-mid-1980s to the early 1990s BMX was hectic: My age class in those national contests often boasted well over a hundred entrants. One thing I tried to explain to my friend was that though we played video games (e.g., Atari, Nintendo, arcade games, etc.), riding one’s bike was still way more exciting. Our hands were far more likely to be found on BMX grips than joysticks.

The author kicking a blurry backwards infinity roll sometime in the late 1980s.

Therein lies the first major difference: The experience of a BMXer today is much more likely to be mediated by technology than it was during any previous era. Given the proliferation of technology into every aspect of our lives, that’s not much of an insight, but in addition to the lack of distractingly immersive video games, the riders of thirty years ago were also missing out on the parks. There were like three ride-able skate parks in the whole country. Now there are at least that many in every city of any size whatsoever. Where the past was spent riding curb cuts, banks, walls, streets, and backyard ramps, today the terrain consists of those as well as many human-made options. It makes for different bikes, different riding, different tricks, and different values.

Flatland used to be one-half of Freestyle BMX. Now it is obscured out-of-sight in parking structures and flat driveways. Its intricate moves and flowing connections do not translate to television coverage. The pedestrian spectator nor the beginning rider are able to tell the difference between difficult and impossible (I covered this more thoroughly years ago in a story for ESPN). The same can be said for other kinds of riding: flow and style are less valued than the big trick. One huge trick at the X-Games can make a career.

Riders still go looking for street spots and terrain to tackle, but back in the day—aside from backyard raps and plywood propped up on bricks—that’s all there was. The spread of skateparks changed not only the scarcity of spots, but the spread of information about those spots. Having a central place to meet and exchange ideas changes the dynamics of a local scene thereby affecting overall progression of the sport.

With that said, nothing has changed the collective knowledge of BMXers more than mobile technologies. Before cellphones, cameraphones, iPhones, smaller and smaller digital cameras and video cameras, and even the web, riders relied on a handful of magazines and zines to keep up on what was happening: new companies and products, who was riding for whom, and—more importantly—who was doing what new tricks. An individual or crew in some remote enclave could be light years ahead of the overall curve of the sport and no one would know. For example, when Kevin Jones burst onto the flatland scene in the late 1980s, it was due in part to his appearances at national AFA contests which were covered by the major magazines, but knowledge of Kevin’s progression was largely spread through the mail by zines and videotapes. Hiding such talent is much more difficult now—even if you try. Can you imagine Mat Hoffman’s Highest Air Ever happening in total obscurity today?

Mat Hoffman high in the haze, 1991.

Mobile media can make one famous. Like the X-Games, one huge trick—or one huge crash—captured on camera and immediately distributed online might not make a career, but it can make someone an instant star.

John Oakes: The Fast and the Curious

Constraints—self-imposed or otherwise—can be a powerful tool. I have argued in the past the merits of pulling back, but John Oakes’ new book, The Fast: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Promise of Doing Without (Avid Reader Press, 2024), digs deeper into the history of abstinence of all kinds than I’ve ever dared. It’s erudite and well researched yet highly readable, historical and thorough without being unnecessarily verbose, and instructional and inspiring without the inherent condescension of a self-help manual.

John has been a friend and a supporter of my work for years now, so it’s an honor to turn it around and talk about his here.

John Oakes reading from The Fast. [photo by Gordon A. Gilbert Jr.]

Roy Christopher: You found an angle that cuts across so many other concerns. How did you arrive at fasting as the topic for this book?

John Oakes: It was something I fell into. Post-Trump—or what I thought was post-Trump—I decided to do an intense fast as a curative. A long shower wasn’t enough, celebrating wasn’t enough, meditation didn’t work… I needed to purge myself. A long fast seemed just the ticket, and it more or less was. And during a long fast (this was a week) you find you have a lot of free time, not buying/not preparing/not cooking food. I became curious about what was happening to my body—around Day Three or so you begin to feel a bit stoned, because of the various chemicals coursing through your body—and I searched for details. And then I started thinking about the role of fasting in religions, philosophy, and politics. The entire concept of pulling back appeals to me—and there wasn’t a book out there that combines these concepts. There are precisely a zillion how-to books on fasting that tell you it will cure everything from depression to old age, and a handful of academic books that look at aspects of the practice, but nothing that brought it all together. Plus, I like the idea of bringing a political perspective (the hunger strike and boycotts) to the discussion. Fasting has been integral to various political movements, from Russian civil rights activists in the 19th century, to suffragists and suffragettes, Irish and Indian patriots in the 20th century, to eco-activists in the 21st. Africans in the Middle Passage went on hunger strikes on such a regular basis that an instrument known as the speculum oris came into use by slavers to ensure force-feeding.

RC: Is there an underlying statement or message in The Fast that fasting is the path to?

JO: I would prefer to think I am simply reporting on the phenomenon and its spinoffs. BUT if pressed, I would say that fasting has so many applications beyond the religious or body-centric themes with which we are familiar. Judicious fasting can empower even those of us who are areligious and not body-obsessed. And it has been around a long, long time. It is for me a path to self-acceptance, to better understanding my place in the world, and it is a path that never ends. It is an important practice and it seems to me an effective one from a political standpoint. Even if hunger strikers don’t win their cause, they almost invariably force a dialogue—authorities may brutalize hunger strikers (thereby revealing their corruption), media may report on the situation, bringing outside attention to bear.

RC: I’ve found a lot of personal growth in going without things. I haven’t eaten meat since 1994, haven’t owned a car since 1998, haven’t had any alcohol since 2017, never owned a television… What is it about going without that is so powerful yet untapped by so many people?

JO: Good for you, Roy! That succession of “going withouts” is going against the grain for sure, and I find that admirable. I think we give ourselves a sub-conscious pat on the back when we refrain from doing certain somethings that we know we could do, that we know we have the right to do. (Of course, that doesn’t apply to all obligations; if, for example, we are supposed to pick up a child from school and decide not to do that, we are going to feel guilty.) Going without (to a limited degree) gives us strength because we suddenly realize we are stronger than we realize–whether it’s something as profound as resisting making a cutting remark or as trivial as eating an extra slice of pizza that we don’t really need. And yes, the nature of social media, with its lightning-quick responses, is anti-fasting. On social media, we’re swept along by our reactions (even if we don’t post) or our desire for reactions, and (with the help of corporations) we deceive ourselves into thinking we’re expressing individuality.

RC: Fasting in particular and doing without in general are not always seen as rebellious or revolutionary, yet they are the simplest means of undermining oppressors, manipulators, and the system at large.

JO: To me, abstention can indeed be revolutionary, but I am not sure how simple that act is. The act of withdrawal threatens the system—any system—which depends on participation. If, for example, you are a prisoner, you are expected to play the role of a prisoner; a businessperson or consumer, the role of a businessperson or consumer, etc. If you undertake a hunger strike (in the case of a prisoner) or a boycott (in the case of a businessperson or consumer) the act of withdrawal—fasting from food in one case and fasting from contact in another—becomes a powerful tool, even a weapon. The ancient Irish weren’t wrong to respect the power of fasting—“illegal fasting” even merited a fine in pre-Christian Ireland. Nothing terrifies Israel as much as BDS. But it is very hard to force people not to fast, or to boycott.

RC: You fasted yourself while writing this book. Have you done any form of fasting since finishing it?

JO: Indeed I have—in fact, at this moment I am on Day Five of a weeklong liquid-only fast. I fast for at least a week, twice a year, once in spring and once in the fall. It is my own personal ritual to assure the change of seasons!

The Fast is available wherever you buy books.

Photocopy and Find Out

Skateboard and BMX zines defined my formative years. Those handmade, photocopied publications were our network of news, stories, interviews, events, art, and pictures. It’s very difficult to describe how an outmoded phenomena like that worked once such epochal technological change, one that uproots and supplants its cultural practices (i.e., the internet), has occurred. FREESTYLIN’ Magazine’s reunion book, Generation F (Endo Publishing, 2008; flip through it at the link), has a chapter called “The Xerox was Our X-Box,” and that title gets at the import of these things. As I said in that very chapter, “Making a zine was always having something to send someone that showed them what you could do, what you were up to, and what you were into. Ours was the pre-web BMX network.”

A small sample of my zines over the years.

At best, zines represent a hidden circuit of media, a grassroots exchange of information and ideas that slips through the cracks of popular culture. Zines are power in the hands of the fans. As Mark Lewman, editor of FREESTYLIN’ Magazine and head of Club Homeboy, as well as “Chariot of the Ninja” zine, points out, “The first zine I did once I moved to California was called ‘Homeboy’. I did one issue and some stickers, and it ballooned into a mail-order lifestyle company with 15,000 members, and became one of the first youth culture magazines, a pastiche of art and sport and randomness. So, the power of zines is pretty unlimited as far as I can tell.”

In spite of the proliferation of the internet, zines are not entirely a thing of the past. Every time we do something on our own instead of just taking what’s given to us, we strike a blow to the massive media machine that constantly shoves products and personality down our throats. Making your own zine is not only immeasurably rewarding (ask anyone who’s ever done one), but it gets your point of view out there and incites dialog between readers, riders and other zine-makers that wouldn’t necessarily take place.

Independent journalists wield the power to expose local underground talent as well. There were always obscure riders in sporadic locales ripping like top pros. There are always great bands no one has heard. The way to get them noticed was not to bug out about major magazines’ lack of attention, but to give the magazines a reason to pay attention. As ex-editor of Faction BMX Magazine John Paul Rogers puts it, “Quit bitching and get off your ass and do something about it.”

So, though they’re as much a part of the process anymore, I cannot overstate the importance of the experience of trading and making zines. There’s something to the physicality of the pages in your hand and the focus on those pages that pixels on screens don’t afford. As I said in FREESTYLIN’ Generation F, “Those first issues were the first steps on a path I still follow.”

Still true.

Portable Document Formats:

My Daniel Menche interview from wow&flutter.

If you’re interested, I scanned and uploaded a couple of my later zines as .pdfs. wow&flutter (1997) was an attempt to bring together experimental noise of all kinds and featured interviews with Daniel Menche, John Duncan, and a cover story about turntablism. It was intended as part of a series, but the second issue, attack&decay, featuring interviews with Jack Dangers of Meat Beat Manifesto and Warren Defever of His Name is Alive, among others, never made it to press. I still love the idea of noise and hip-hop coming together, and there are others who’ve merged them in the meantime better than I could have imagined (e.g., dälek, clipping., Ho99o9, Death Grips, Cloaks, Justin Broadrick and Kevin Martin, et al.)

A spread from HEADTUBE featuring Leif Valin. [layout by me.]

HEADTUBE (2001) was my attempt to return to BMX zine-making while maintaining my other, newfound interests in the early 00s. Though I maintained the website for years after, the zine ended up as another one-off print publication. It features interviews with Seattle ripper Steve Machuga, flatland guru Leif Valin, and the band Milemarker, as well as reviews of books, records, and other media. I still have a few copies of the print version. Let me know if you’re interested.

The pilot issue of discontents and the long-arm stapler: a zine-making essential.
Oh, and if you missed the pilot issue of discontents, the latest zine I worked on with my friends Patrick Barber and Craig Gates, we’re working on a proper debut issue. More on that soon!

The Long Bright Dark: Allusions in True Detective

During the last episode of season four of True Detective, some cheered and others groaned when Raymond Clark said “time is a flat circle,” repeating Reggie Ledoux and Rustin Cohle’s line from season one. OG creator and showrunner Nic Pizzolato himself did not appreciate the homage to the original. Allusions as such can go either way.

At their best, allusions add layers of meaning to our stories, connecting them to the larger context of a series, genre, or literature at large. At worst, they’re lazy storytelling or fumbling fan service. It feels good to recognize an obscure allusion and feel like a participant in the story. It feels cheap to recognize one and feel manipulated by the writer. They are contrivances after all: legacy characters, echoed dialog, recurring locations or props—all of these can work either way, to cohere or alienate, to enrich the meaning or pull you right out of the story.

[WARNING: Spoilers abound below for all seasons of HBO’s True Detective.]

The spiral as seen in season four of True Detective: a motif smuggled out of the mythology of season one.

Our experience with a story is always informed by our past experience—lived or mediated—but when that experience is directly referenced with an allusion, we feel closer to the story. Allusions are where we share notes with other fans, and they form associative paths, connecting them to other artifacts. So, if you recognized Ledoux or Cohle’s words coming out of Clark’s mouth, or if you recognized all of them as Friedrich Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, you probably felt a closer tie to the story. As he wrote in The Gay Science (1882), “Do you want this again and innumerable times again?” For Nietzsche, this is all there was, and to embrace this recurrence was to embrace human life just as it is: the same thing over and over.

Rust Cohle and Marty Hart in season three.

Moreover, in season four we got the ghost of Rust Cohle’s father, Travis Cohle, a connection to the vast empire of the Tuttle family, and the goofy gag of recurring spirals. Season three had its passing connections to season one as well, as seen in the newspaper article in the image above. Given the pervasive references to it, season one may have been the show’s peak, but my favorite is still the beleaguered second season, the only one so far that stands free of allusions to the other seasons of the anthology. Perhaps it is the most hated season of the series because of its refusal to connect to and coexist with the others, yet—riding the word-of-mouth wave from season one—it’s also the most watched.

It should be noted that in addition to its lack of allusions to season one and any semblance of interiority, season two also lacks any sense of the spiritual. There is only the world you see and feel in front of you, no inner world, no adjacent beyond, no Carcosa. As Raymond Velcoro says grimly, “My strong suspicion is we get the world we deserve.”

Bezzerides and Velcoro share a moment of quiet contemplation.

Season two continues the gloom of the first season, moving it from the swamps of Louisiana to the sprawl of Los Angeles. Like its suburban setting, season two stretches out in good and bad ways, leaving us by turns enlightened and lost. Though, as Ian Bogost points out, where Cohle got lost in his own head, the characters in season two—Ani Bezzerides, Paul Woodrugh, Frank Semyon, and Velcoro—get lost in their world. The physician and psychoanalyst Dr. John C. Lilly distinguished between what he called insanity and outsanity. Insanity is “your life inside yourself”; outsanity is the chaos of the world, the cruelty of other people. Sometimes we get lost in our heads. Sometimes we get lost in the world.

Rust Cohle in his storage shed in season one.

To be fair, season one isn’t without its references to existing texts. Much of the material in Cohle’s monologues is straight out of Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (Hippocampus Press, 2010), where he quotes the Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe (even using the word “thresher” to describe the pain of human existence), and the dark-hearted philosophy of Nietzsche, of course. The writings of Ambrose Bierce (“An Inhabitant of Carcosa”), H.P. Lovecraft (Cthulhu Mythos), and Robert W. Chambers (“The Yellow King”) also make appearances. Daniel Fitzpatrick writes in his essay in the book True Detection (Schism, 2014), “Through these references, engaged viewers are offered a means to unlock the show’s secrets, granting a more active involvement, and while these references are often essential and enrich our experience of the show, in its weaker moments they can make it seem like a grab-bag of half thought-through allusions.”

“One of the things that I loved most about that first season of True Detective was the cosmic horror angle of it,” says season four writer, director, and showrunner Issa López. “It had a Carcosa, and it had a Yellow King, which are references to the Cthulhu Mythos with Lovecraft and the idea of ancient gods that live beyond human perception.” The hints of something beyond this world, “the war going on behind things,” as Reverend Billy Lee Tuttle put it, pulled us all in. “That sense of something sinister playing behind the scenes, and watching from the shadows,” she continues, “is something that I very much loved.”

In his book on suicide, The Savage God (1970), Al Álvarez writes, “For the great rationalists, a sense of absurdity—the absurdity of superstition, self-importance, and unreason—was as natural and illuminating as sunlight.” By the end of season one, Rustin Cohle seems to embrace the eternal recurrence of his life, the spiral of light and the dark—including his own daughter’s death. At the end of Night Country, Evangeline Navarro seems to do the same, walking blindly into extinction, one last midnight, a lone sister, fragile and numinous, opting out of a raw deal, lost both in her head and in the world.

 


Further Reading:

David Benatar, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Ambrose Bierce, Ghost and Horror Stories of Ambrose Bierce, New York: Dover, 1964.
Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow, Knoxville, TN: Wordsworth Editions, 2010.
Roy Christopher, Escape Philosophy: Journeys Beyond the Human Body, Brooklyn, NY: punctum books, 2021.
Edia Connole, Paul J. Ennis, & Nicola Masciandaro (eds.), 
True Detection, Schism, 2014.
Jacob Graham & Tom Sparrow (eds.), True Detective and Philosophy: A Deeper Kind of Darkness, Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2018.
Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, New York: Hippocampus Press, 2010.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, New York: Dover, 1882.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, New York: Macmillan. 1896.
Nic Pizzolatto, Between Here and the Yellow Sea, Ann Arbor, MI: Dzanc Books, 2015.
Eugene Thacker, In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy, Vol. 1, London: Zer0 Books, 2011.
Eugene Thacker, Infinite Resignation, London: Repeater Books, 2018.

2024 vs 1984

After looking back at the unified election map from 1984 and griping about advertising again, I arrived this week on their intersection: Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl commercial introducing the Macintosh. It launched not only the home-computer revolution but also the Super Bowl advertising frenzy and phenomenon.

The commercial burned itself right into my brain and everyone else’s who saw it. It was something truly different during something completely routine, stark innovation cutting through the middle of tightly-held tradition. I wasn’t old enough to understand the Orwell references, including the concept of Big Brother, but I got the meaning immediately: The underdog was now armed with something more powerful than the establishment. Apple was going to help us win.

Apple has of course become the biggest company in the world in the past 40 years, but reclaiming the dominant metaphors of a given time is an act of magical resistance. Feigning immunity from advertising isn’t a solution, it provides a deeper diagnosis of the problem. Appropriating language, mining affordances, misusing technology and other cultural artifacts create the space for resistance not only to exist but to thrive. Aggressively defying the metaphors of control, the anarchist poet Hakim Bey termed the extreme version of these appropriations “poetic terrorism.” He wrote,

The audience reaction or aesthetic-shock produced by [poetic terrorism] ought to be at least as strong as the emotion of terror—powerful disgust, sexual arousal, superstitious awe, sudden intuitive breakthrough, dada-esque angst—no matter whether the [poetic terrorism] is aimed at one person or many, no matter whether it is “signed” or anonymous, if it does not change someone’s life (aside from the artist) it fails.

Echoing Bey, the artist Konrad Becker suggests that dominant metaphors are in place to maintain control, writing,

The development in electronic communication and digital media allows for a global telepresence of values and behavioral norms and provides increasing possibilities of controlling public opinion by accelerating the flow of persuasive communication. Information is increasingly indistinguishable from propaganda, defined as “the manipulation of symbols as a means of influencing attitudes.” Whoever controls the metaphors controls thought.

In a much broader sense, so-called “culture jamming,” is any attempt to reclaim the dominant metaphors from the media. Gareth Branwyn writes, “In our wired age, the media has become a great amplifier for acts of poetic terrorism and culture jamming. A well-crafted media hoax or report of a prank uploaded to the Internet can quickly gain a life of its own.” Culture jammers, using tactics as simple as modifying phrases on billboards and as extensive as impersonating leaders of industry on major media outlets, expose the ways in which corporate and political interests manipulate the masses via the media. In the spirit of the Situationists International, culture jammers employ any creative crime that can disrupt the dominant narrative of the spectacle and devalue its currency.

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”
— George Orwell, 1984

“It’s clearly an allegory. Most commercials aren’t allegorical,” OG Macintosh engineer Andy Hertzfeld says of Apple’s “1984” commercial. “I’ve always looked at each commercial as a film, as a little filmlet,” says the director Ridley Scott. Fresh off of directing Blade Runner, which is based on a book he infamously claims never to have read, he adds, “From a filmic point of view, it was terrific, and I knew exactly how to do a kind of pastiche on what 1984 maybe was like in dramatic terms rather than factual terms.”

David Hoffman once summarized Orwell’s 1984, writing that “during times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” As the surveillance has expanded from mounted cameras to wireless taps (what Scott calls, “good dramatic bullshit”; cf. Orwell’s “Big Brother”), hackers have evolved from phone phreaking to secret leaking. It’s a ratcheting up of tactics and attacks on both sides. Andy Greenberg quotes Hunter S. Thompson, saying that the weird are turning pro. It’s a thought that evokes the last line of Bruce Sterling’s The Hacker Crackdown which, after deftly chronicling the early history of computer hacker activity, investigation, and incarceration, states ominously, “It is the End of the Amateurs.”

These quips could be applied to either side.

The Hacker Ethic—as popularized by Steven Levy’s Hackers (Anchor, 1984)—states that access to computers “and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works should be unlimited and total” (p. 40). Hackers seek to understand, not to undermine. And they tolerate no constraints. Tactical media, so-called to avoid the semiotic baggage of related labels, exploits the asymmetry of knowledge gained via hacking. In a passage that reads like recent events, purveyor of the term, Geert Lovink writes, “Tactical networks are all about an imaginary exchange of concepts outbidding and overlaying each other. Necessary illusions. What circulates are models and rumors, arguments and experiences of how to organize cultural and political activities, get projects financed, infrastructure up and running and create informal networks of trust which make living in Babylon bearable.”

If you want a picture of the future now, imagine a sledgehammer shattering a screen—forever.

Following Matt Blaze, Neal Stephenson states “it’s best in the long run, for all concerned, if vulnerabilities are exposed in public.” Informal groups of information insurgents like the crews behind Wikileaks and Anonymous keep open tabs on the powers that would be. Again, hackers are easy to defend when they’re on your side. Wires may be wormholes, as Stephenson says, but that can be dangerous when they flow both ways. Once you get locked out of all your accounts and the contents of your hard drive end up on the wrong screen, hackers aren’t your friends anymore, academic or otherwise.

Hackers of every kind behave as if they understand that “[p]ostmodernity is no longer a strategy or style, it is the natural condition of today’s network society,” as Lovink puts it. In a hyper-connected world, disconnection is power. The ability to become untraceable is the ability to become invisible. We need to unite and become hackers ourselves now more than ever against what Kevin DeLuca calls the acronyms of the apocalypse (e.g., WTO, NAFTA, GATT, etc.). The original Hacker Ethic isn’t enough. We need more of those nameless nerds, nodes in undulating networks of cyber disobedience. “Information moves, or we move to it,” writes Stephenson, like a hacker motto of “digital micro-politics.” Hackers need to appear, swarm, attack, and then disappear again into the dark fiber of the Deep Web.

Who was it that said Orwell was 40 years off? Lovink continues: “The world is crazy enough. There is not much reason to opt for the illusion.” It only takes a generation for the underdog to become the overlord. Sledgehammers and screens notwithstanding, we still need to watch the ones watching us.

 

The Gardening

Growing up watching cartoons and slapstick comedies made it seem like rare one-off events like getting stuck in quicksand, slipping on banana peels, and anvils falling from the sky were persistent problems in the world. Not only that, but primetime dramas made it seem like adults could get arrested for anything, and they might never even know the reason! The world seemed dangerous in ways that it really wasn’t.

Posited by George Gerbner in the early 1970s, cultivation theory states that among heavy television viewers, there is a tendency to view the world outside as similar to the world the way the television depicts it. That is, heavy media consumption tends to skew the general views of the media consumer.

Around the turn of the millennium there was a major push in certain underground circles to subvert consensus reality. The internet had connected people according to their esoteric interests (“find the others” as one popular site put it at the time), and it had evolved to a place where they could launch campaigns against the larger culture. Rabble-rousers came together in temporary autonomous zones to jam culture and pull pranks on the squares.

Josh Keyes, “Drift” (2020).

Since December 4, 2009, Google has been personalized for everyone. So when I had two friends this spring Google “BP,” one of them got a set of links that was about investment opportunities in BP. The other one got information about the oil spill. Presumably that was based on the kinds of searches that they had done in the past.

Combine Gerbner’s cultivation theory and Parser’s filter bubble, and you’ve got a simple recipe for media-enabled solipsism. “Participatory fiction. Choose your own adventure,” the conspiracy theory chronicler Robert Guffey writes. “Virtual reality, but with no goggles necessary.” False microrealities like the Deep State, PizzaGate, and QAnon come alive in this environment. A limited ecosystem produces limited results.

It’s not farming and it’s not agriculture, it’s gardening: each of us hoeing a row, working a plot to grow only the food we want, regardless of what everyone else is eating.

This fragmentation in the United States has never been more evident than during the last few presidential elections. Above is the electoral map from the last one. As the nightly network news spread out into 24-hour cable coverage, so did its audience and its intentions. In his book, After the Mass-Age, Chris Riley writes that instead of trying to get the majority to watch, each network preferred a dedicated minority: “Now you didn’t win the ratings war by being objective; you won by being subjective, by segmenting the audience, not uniting them.” And we met them in the middle, seeking out the news that presented the world more the way we wanted to see it than the way it really was. With the further splintering of social media, we choose the news that fits us best. If we’re all watching broadcast network news, we’re all seeing the same story. If we’re all on the same social network, no two of us are seeing the same thing.

Rewind: Above is the electoral map from the 1984 US presidential election. Republican incumbent Ronald Reagan carried 49 of the 50 states, while Walter Mondale pulled only his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia. The year 1984 stands as the most united these states have ever been behind a president.

This map is the product of broadcast and print media: one-to-many, mass media like television, radio, newspapers, and magazines. Over the past 40 years those platforms have divided and splintered further and further into unique, individual experiences. The 2020 map above is a product of the internet and social media: many-to-many, multiple sources and viewpoints, and fewer shared mediated experiences.

The medium is only the message at a certain scale, and that scale is diminished.

Reality doesn’t scale in the way that our media depicts it. Nietzsche once called any truth a “useful fiction.” Now that’s all we have, but a lot of them aren’t useful, and none of them are sustainable. A temporary autonomous zone is just that — temporary. There is no longer a consensus to subvert, but we need to know what everyone else is eating if we’re ever going to eat together again.

This is only one of the results of our media gardening. If we share fewer and fewer mediated experiences, some of those disconnections are going to have consequences. Tucked away in the alleys and valleys of our own interests, we stay entrenched in our own tribes, utterly outraged at any other tribe’s dis, disdain, or destruction of one of our own’s preciously held beliefs. The internet has exacerbated these conditions. Instead of more connection, there is a sense of more dis-connection. Where we are promised diversity, we get division. We burrow so deep in our own dirt that we can’t see the world as it really is: a spinning blue ball covered with tiny cells, passive plants, and dumb meat, each just trying to make its own way. Starting from such focus, we can find ourselves in a place. We can belong at a certain level. It just feels like now we never seem to zoom out far enough to see the whole. Instead of giving us the tools to see the bigger picture, the algorithmic biases of our media feed our own individual biases.

Retreat is not the answer, retreat is the problem. We need more connection, not less — real connection. We need to eat at the same table once in a while. We need to engage more with those who aren’t like us. Lift the little ones, help the ones who need it, and learn as much about each other as we can.

Understanding Mediocre

A new year typically brings renewal and hope. I will admit to struggling to find it in these first couple of weeks of 2024. There are too many things we need to get out from under first. Satisficing, the resigning oneself to the first workable option as sufficient (the word itself a workable but unwieldy portmanteau of “satisfy” and “suffice”), is often considered a good thing, saving one from the needless pursuit of an elusive better or optimal solution. Too much of this good thing leads to the same old thing.

After writing about unintended outcomes and technology not solving problems a few weeks ago, I seem to have closed something else off. Now those unintended outcomes are all I see. Greatness is never achieved through satisficing. The road to mediocrity is paved with just good enough. Now more than ever, we need more than that.

There’s a story under there somewhere, I think.
When you watch a video clip on YouTube, it is typically preceded (and often interrupted) by some sort of advertising. They give you a countdown clock to when the ad is over or to when you can click “skip” and get on with your initial purpose. The very existence of this click-clock indicates that the people at YouTube know that you don’t want to see the ad(s) on their site! They’ve been cracking down on plug-ins to block such ads, and they along with other such “services” offer premium packages where you can eschew all ads for an additional monthly fee (Gee, thanks!).

I mentioned direct mail in the preamble to my previous list, writing that a successful direct-mail advertising campaign has a response rate of 2% and what a waste that is for all involved (98%!). How much mail do you recycle compared to actual mail and written correspondence? Mail seems like an antiquated example, until you go online.

It’s global, yet it’s local.
It’s the next thing in Social.
Hip-hop, rockin’, or microbloggin’ —
You get updates every time you log in.
So, come on in, we’re open,
And we’re hopin’ to rope in
All your Facebook friends and Twitter memories.
There’s a brand-new place for all of your frenemies.
You don’t really care about piracy or privacy.
You just want music and friends as far as the eye can see.
So, sign up, sign in, put in your information.
It’s the new online destination for a bored, boring nation.
Tell your friends, your sister, and your mom.
It’s time for justgoodenough.com

When you log into Instagram and check your notifications (or your other accounts or even your email), how many of them are from people you follow and how many are from spam accounts? Mine are fairly even. That is, I spend as much time on these platforms deleting junk as I do “interacting” with friends and colleagues. I’m sure you have similar experiences.

Where is the break boundary? Where is the point when enough of us have had enough to actually ditch these platforms? I abandon my accounts every other month. None of them are essential after all. YouTube and Instagram are toys at best, amusements for brains trained to seek such tiny nuggets of validation and entertainment, but these same inconvenient priorities spill over into things that do matter. All noise and very little signal. All soggy vegetables and very little pudding.

We’re starving, but… Everything is okay.

Everything is just okay. And it won’t get better until we all demand something else. It won’t get better until we stop satisficing and give each other more of what we want and less of what they want us to have.

Idea, Reality, Lesson: A Year-End List

Unintended outcomes are the furniture of our uncertain age. Decades of short-term thinking, election cycles, and bottom lines assessed quarterly have wound us into a loop we can’t unwind. In addition, our technologies have coopted our desires in ways we didn’t foresee. The internet promised us diversity and gave us division. Social media promised to bring us together, instead it fomented frustration and rage between friends and among family. We know the net result is bad, but we won’t abandon these poisonous platforms.

As straw-person an argument as it might be, direct mail is my favorite example. Successful direct-mail advertising has a return rate of 2%. That means that in a successful campaign, 98% of the effort is wasted. In any other field, if 98% of what you’re doing is ineffective, you would scrap it and start over.

I’ve been thinking about case studies of ineffective efforts and unintended outcomes, and I came up with five for your consideration — IRL: Idea, Reality, Lesson.

“Shadow Play,” Sharpie on paper, 2005.

Idea: AI as a tool for creativity.
Reality: Training large-language models (and the other software that currently pass as artificial intelligence) to be “creative” requires the unpaid labor of many writers and artists, potentially violating copyright laws, relegating the creative class to the service of the machines and the people who use them.
Lesson: Every leap in technology’s evolution has winners and losers.

Idea: Self-driving cars will solve our transportation problems.
Reality: Now you can be stuck in traffic without even having to drive.
Lesson: We don’t need more cars with fewer drivers. We need fewer cars with more people in them.

Idea: Put unused resources to use.
Reality: The underlying concept of companies like Uber and AirBnB—taking unused resources (e.g., vehicles, rooms, houses, etc.) and redistributing them to others in need—is brilliant and needed in our age of abundance and disparity. Instead of using what’s there, a boutique industry of rental car partnerships for ride-share drivers and homes bought specifically for use as AirBnB rentals sprung up around these app-enabled services. Those are fine, but they don’t solve the problem the original idea set out to leverage.
Lesson: You cannot disrupt capitalism. Ultimately, it eats everything.

Idea: Content is King.
Reality: When you can call yourself a “Digital Content Creator” just because you have a front-facing camera on your phone, then content is the lowest form. To stay with the analogy, Content is a peasant at best. Getting it out there is King. Getting and maintaining people’s attention is Queen.
Lesson: Distribution and Attention are the real monarchy.

Idea: Print is dead.
Reality: People have been claiming the death of print since the dawn of the web—over 30 years now—and it’s still patently untrue. Print is different, but it’s far from dead. Books abound! People who say this don’t read them anyway. Just because they want synopses and summaries instead of leisurely long reads doesn’t mean that everyone wants that.
Lesson: Never underestimate people’s appetite for excuses.

If more of what you’re doing is wasteful rather than effective, then you should rethink what you’re doing. Attitudes about technology are often incongruent with their realities, and the way we talk about its evolution matters. Moreover, while many recent innovations seem to be helping, there are adjacent problems they’re not solving. Don’t be dazzled by stopgap technologies that don’t actually solve real problems.

Artificial Articulation

No one reads. People say this all the time, and as a writer, it’s very hard to hear. If I’m ever forced to start a podcast, that will be the reason, and it might be the name. If no one reads, why are we outsourcing writing? According to a recent article on Futurism, sports magazine Sports Illustrated allegedly published reviews generated by artificial intelligence. Not only that, but the bylines on those articles belonged to writers who weren’t real either.

Drew Ortiz, a “Product Reviews Team Member” for Sports Illustrated.
Meet Drew Ortiz, a “neutral white young-adult male with short brown hair and blue eyes” (likely on purpose), and a “Product Reviews Team Member” for Sports Illustrated. One of Drew’s many articles for SI claims that volleyball “can be a little tricky to get into, especially without an actual ball to practice with.” True enough, Drew, but it’s also tricky to get into if you don’t have an actual body to practice with either.
Look, Drew is just like you and me.
Drew was eventually replaced briefly by Sora Tanaka, a “joyful asian young-adult female with long brown hair and brown eyes.” Futurism also notes Jim Cramer’s TheStreet hosting articles by Domino Abrams, Nicole Merrifield, and Denise McNamera — all pseudonyms for AI-generated pseudoscribes.
Sora Tanaka, a “joyful asian young-adult female with long brown hair and brown eyes.”
Given that this path was paved when we first outsourced our thinking to written language, it’s perhaps most fitting that what passes for artificial intelligence these days are large language models, none of which can play volleyball but can write about it. The computer scientists Allen Newell and Herbert A. Simon defined thinking in just such terms, writing, “A physical symbol system has the necessary and sufficient means for general intelligent action.” The externalization of human knowledge has largely been achieved through text — a physical symbol system. Cave paintings, scrolls, books, the internet. Even with the broadening of bandwidth enabling sound and video, all of these media are still heavily text-based.

In a paper from 1936 titled “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem,” the mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing posited that humans compute by manipulating symbols that are external to the human brain and that computers do the same. The paper serves as the basis for his own Universal Turing Machine, algorithms, and the fields of computer science and AI.

I am admittedly a lapsed student of AI, having dropped out of the University of Georgia’s Artificial Intelligence masters program midway through my first semester there in the late 1990s. My interest in AI lies in the weird ways that consciousness and creation butt heads in the midst of such advanced technologies. As Al Burian sings on the Milemarker song “Frigid Forms Sell You Warmth,” “We keep waiting for the robots to crush us from the sky. They sneak in through our fingertips and bleed our fingers dry.” If humans have indeed always been part technology, where do the machines end and we begin? As the literary critic N. Katherine Hayles told me years ago,

In the twenty-first century, text and materiality will be seen as inextricably entwined. Materiality and text, words and their physical embodiments, are always already a unity rather than a duality. Appreciating the complexities of that unity is the important task that lies before us.

“Manufacturing Dissent” multimedia on canvas by me, c. 2003.

A medium is anything that extends the senses or the body of humans according to Marshall McLuhan in his classic Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). More specifically, McLuhan saw the “electronic media” of the time — radio, telephone, television — as extensions of our nervous system. Jussi Parikka writes that we must stop thinking about bodies as closed systems and realize that they are open and constituted by their environment, what Humberto Maturana and Francisco J. Varela call “structural coupling.” Our skin is not a boundary; it is a periphery: permeable, vulnerable, and fallibly open to external flows and forces through our senses. Parikka adds, “[W]e do not so much have media as we are media and of media; media are brains that contract forces of the cosmos, cast a plane over the chaos.” We can no longer do without, if we ever could.

Our extensions have coerced our attentions and intentions.
We are now the pathological appendages of our technological assemblages.

Desire is where our media and our bodies meet. It’s where our human wants blur with our technologies. It is the inertia of their meeting and their melding, whether that is inside our outside our bodies is less relevant than whether or not we want to involve ourselves in the first place. Think about the behaviors that our communication technology affords and the ones we find appropriate. They’re not the same. Access is the medium. Desire is the message.

Crash-testing intelligence [Sharpies and Photoshop by me, 2023].

The Turing Test, which is among Alan Turing’s other top contributions to the fields of computer science and artificial intelligence, is more accurately a test of the human who’s interacting with the machine. The test, as outlined in Turing’s 1950 article “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” states that a machine is considered to be truly thinking like a human if it can fool a human into thinking it is (a.k.a. “The Imitation Game”). So, according to the language and the lore, artificial intelligence doesn’t have to be real, it just has to be convincing. Now that Drew Ortiz, Sora Tanaka, and the other machines can do these symbol-manipulation tasks for us, we’ve outsourced not only our knowledge via text but now the writing of that knowledge, not quite the thoughts themselves but the articulation thereof.

Weak Ties Gone Wild

One of the since-faded early concerns of the internet was “information overload.” The worry was that given the onset of abundant connectivity and content, we were being inundated with so much information that we’d never be able to process it all. Now we limit the flow in our feeds and find just what we need. The real danger of filter bubbles and echo chambers is a cultivated myopia: a limited view of a world of sameness and an inability to see beyond the barriers we’ve erected for ourselves. As Jay Ogilvy once said, “If it’s not different, it’s not information.”

My rendition of “The Strength of Weak Ties” by Mark Granovetter, (1973).

In the late 1960s, Mark Granovetter was studying how people found jobs. His 1973 article in the American Journal of Sociology, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” states that each person in a close social network is likely to have the same information as everyone else in that network. It’s the weak ties to other networks that lead to the new stuff. That is, weak ties are a more likely source of novel ideas and information—regarding jobs, mates, and other opportunities—than strong ones.

Granovetter says, “I put the theory of weak ties together from a number of things. I learned about hydrogen bonding in AP Chemistry in high school and that image always stuck with me—these weak hydrogen bonds were holding together huge molecules precisely because they were so weak. That was still in my head when I started thinking about networks.”

Like most of my research interests, I first noticed these thresholds in music. I was looking at the CDs I had on hand one day, and I noticed that most of my favorite bands didn’t fit into established genres. They tended to straddle the lines between genres. In nature, these interstitial spaces are called edge realms. In her book When Plants Dream (Watkins Media, 2019), Sophia Rokhlin describes them as follows:

The edge describes the place where two distinct ecosystems meet. These are places of tension and unfamiliarity, territories of confrontation, where different ecosystems overlap and merge. The edge is found where a grassland meets a forest, where oceans reach the shore, where wetlands mediate between river basins and fields. Edges are hot spots of biodiversity that invite innovation, intermingling, and new forms of cooperation from various species. Edge realms are thresholds of potential and fecundity.

Mutations inside Area X as seen in Alex Garland’s ‘Annihilation’ (2018).

An edge realm is a wilderness, a mutant space ripe for new forms. In Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, the mysterious Area X is just such a space. Its pollinations crossing well established boundaries, mixing into ever-new breeds and combinations. In his book about VanderMeer’s work, None of This is Normal (University of Minnesota Press, 2018), Ben Robertson writes,

Area X is something else, what has always already disrupted the processes by which by which borders are established between that and this, between one space or time and another space or time, between the human and whatever its other happens to be.

My pencil portrait of Brian Eno from ‘Follow for Now, Vol. 2’.

The fertile ground is in between the established crops of others. The new stuff happens at the edges, in between the codified categories. Any old boring story from history can be made more interesting by varying viewpoints. In his 1996 memoir, A Year with Swollen Appendices (faber & faber), Brian Eno proposes the idea of edge culture, which is based on the premise that

If you abandon the idea that culture has a single center, and imagine that there is instead a network of active nodes, which may or may not be included in a particular journey across the field, you also abandon the idea that those nodes have absolute value. Their value changes according to which story they’re included in, and how prominently.

Each of us tell our own stories, including the cultural artifacts relevant to the narrative we’ve chosen. The long tail is an ironic attempt to depict a big picture that no longer exists. With its emphasis on the individual narrative, edge culture more accurately illustrates the current, fragmented state of mediated culture, subcultures, and the way that edge realms and social networks define them.

My Sharpie sketch of a Boundary Object in use among 3 communities of practice.

The members and fans of subcultures—groups united by similar goals, practices, and vocabularies—represent what Etienne Wenger calls communities of practice. To translate differences and aid communication between these communities, they use what Susan Leigh Star and James Griesemer (1989) called boundary objects. A boundary object can be a word, concept, metaphor, allusion, artifact, map, or other node around which communities organize their overlaps and interconnections. These connective terms emphasize groups’ similarities rather than their differences. Boundary objects between different communities of practice open borders once inaccessible, circulating ideas into new territories.

Allusions, references, quotations, metaphors, and other figurative expressions provide the points at which multiple texts, genres, and groups connect and collaborate. They are where textual communities compare notes. “What I see instead of there being one line, many lines,” Eno explains in a lecture from 1992, “lots of ways of looking at this field of objects that we call culture. Lines that we may individually choose to change every day.” Hunting and gathering, picking and choosing, we can each make our own individual mongrel culture.

Mark Granovetter conceived the edge realms of these cultural networks way before we were all connected online, but his insight is all the more relevant today. With our personal media, ubiquitous screens, and invisible, wireless networks, we live in a world of weak ties. You just have to reach out to find the new stuff.

Bibliography:

Brian Eno, A Year with Swollen Appendices, London: faber & faber, 1996, 328.
Brian Eno, “Perfume, Defense, and David Bowie’s Wedding,” in Christopher Scoates (ed.), Brian Eno: Visual Music (221-233), San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2013, 223.
Mark S. Granovetter, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 6 (May 1973), pp. 1360-1380.
Benjamin J. Robertson, None of This is Normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2018, 116.
Sophia Rokhlin & Daniel Pinchbeck, When Plants Dream, London: Watkins Media, 2019, 32.
Susan Leigh Star & James R. Griesemer, “Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39,” Social Studies of Science, Vol. 19, No. 3 (August 1989), pp. 387-420.
Etienne Wenger, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.