Jenny Toomey: Fits and Starts

In November 1993, a few months after I first moved to Seattle, I went to see Washington, DC’s Tsunami at the late, legendary RKCNDY. It was a magical time in a magical place, and I was marveling as the names on record sleeves and magazine pages emerged in the flesh. At the merch table, I met Fontaine Toupes of Versus (who signed my Versus 7” “Seattle ain’t shit!”), my friend and collaborator to this day Tae Won Yu, as well as Kristen Thompson and Jenny Toomey of Tsunami and Simple Machine Records.

Toomey is a towering figure in 1990s punk rock, playing in bands, running a record label, and so much more. She and Kristen Thompson, put out The Introductory Mechanic’s Guide to Putting Out Records, Cassettes, and CDs [.pdf link], which was repeatedly updated with new and better resources over four editions throughout the 1990s. After releasing nearly 80 records, Simple Machines ceased operations in 1998.


In the meantime, Toomey has continued quietly trying to figure out how technology can serve music and musicians. She was the founding executive director of the Future of Music Coalition, and she worked in various roles at the Ford Foundation. She’s also working on a book about all of this stuff. In her recent op-ed piece for Fast Company, she recognizes a pattern repeating. Likening generative AI to the file-sharing wave of the early 2000s, she writes,

The potential bait and switch of the tech world today is worryingly reminiscent of the early 2000s. While new technology always promises a flashy quantum leap into utopia, it instead regularly delivers opaque systems that streamline mistakes from the past. Throughout 2023’s frenzied AI debates, my feelings of déjà vu have become undeniable.

After years working behind the scenes, Jenny Toomey is thankfully emerging again.

Roy Christopher: When the impact of the internet started to dismantle the music industry as we knew it, many touted it as a new DIY revolution, returning the means of production to the people. What did you see?

Jenny Toomey: I didn’t see it flatly that way. In the same way that I didn’t feel like punk rock solved the problem of consolidated corporate media. I mean, if you look back at the hippie movements, you can criticize some of the hippies as being sort of just hedonist utopic people in denial about the systems in the world and just rejecting them (drop out), and then you can think of other ones as pragmatic utopian people who say that if we’re going to live a different way, we have to model how to live that different way which is more “drop in” or Whole Earth Catalog or Our Bodies Ourselves or eventually DIY punk.

That’s the element of counter culture and punk that I really liked. Not the flashy nihilism of tearing the old down, but rather the joyful enthusiasm of building the new. Asking that increasingly unasked question, “Why are we consenting to so many things we don’t agree with? And what would it look like if we tried to build different systems to give us more and better choices?” So, putting out your own records is a piece of it. A nice piece… nothing wrong at all with putting out your own records, but it’s not going to solve the problem of highly concentrated corporate media systems in late-stage capitalism. It does offer you a way to not completely condone what you abhor. Simple Machines was very much about that… grasping at, or rebuilding a small patch of agency. 

With Future of Music, it was a little bit more trying to bridge those two things, saying we’re actually at an inflection moment where the systems are going to change, and if we could model more open systems, more transparent systems, systems that artists had more say in the design of and more benefit from, then we might get both things. We might get to avoid the systems we hate while actually contributing to building new systems that we could love.

And for me, there was an idealism to it that came out of coming from DC and a kind of can-do quality, that kids that were my age that grew up in DC felt empowered—to DIY, to make your own thing. But we were also practical and pragmatic, because we’d done some of this before. When we put out The Guide to Putting Out Records, and we saw that it took on both of those problems at the same time. First, the guide let novices get on third base and be in charge of their own punk-rock destiny and put out their own records because we spelled out the recipe. But the advice and guidance in the guide wasn’t neutral, it embodied certain values. It looked across the scene and modeled better behavior and therefore it influenced how the scenes functioned. So, if a pressing plant was using bad vinyl, we wouldn’t recommend them, and if a distributor wasn’t paying independent labels, we would take them out of our recommended list of distributors, and if somebody like Barefoot Press was doing great work, we would enthusiastically promote them. It was a way of putting our thumb on the scale to amplify the kinds of behaviors and values and relationships and systems we wanted built.

RC: That was just the beginning though, right?

JT: Yeah, that’s what we were trying to do initially, before we started the Future of Music Coalition. We were just trying to figure out the best path forward for our own catalog. Kristin Thomson from SMR and Tsunami and I started the work as a project we called “The Machine,” which was basically a blog on Insound’s website that allowed us to share whatever we were learning about the music/tech space in real time. We would just sort of reflect on all of the different music distribution systems that were reaching out to Simple Machines as potential partners because there were like dozens of different companies that were all starting up. They all had different business models. Some would buy your copyright outright, and some would license it, and some would encrypt your music, some would stream, some would download. We had no clear idea which of these options were better or worse. So, a lot of what we were doing was trying to understand the trade-offs and make our best recommendations based on guidance from different experts that we ran into in our travels. Very often, once we’d published something,  other experts would come forward and disagree with some aspects of what we’d written and that back-and-forth would allow us to refine our recommendations and make the information even better. 

We thought, let’s just do this until we can figure out what we want to do with our own catalog. Because we had like 80 releases and we had no idea what to do with them. Ultimately the music tech bubble began to burst, companies began merging and going out of business and getting sued by the major labels and we realized that that the emerging system wasn’t solid enough for us to recommend any of these companies. That’s when we knew we needed to set up an advocacy group. We couldn’t just recommend a good and trustworthy company, because that company would be out of business in a few months. Everything was in flux. Instead we realized we needed to advocate for a set of systems.


RC: That systems mindset is so important, zooming out enough to see the context of the changes you can and can’t influence.

JT: We believed that instead of just waiting around until everything was set in stone according to the desires of the most powerful companies, we could identify more artist-friendly systems we wanted to advocate for. That’s what it was about. And FMC served quite a useful purpose for a number of years, but then the bubble burst and the collapse of the marketplace put a lot of the idealists on their back foot and the concentration of control began to reestablish itself until it turned into the system we live with now.

It’s hard to remember the level of constant polarized propaganda that we live within now was once uncommon. Today controversial issues are sorted into a quick binary, and everybody finds themselves on one team or another in relation to most things. But that didn’t really exist back then. The internet started as a way to let a billion flowers bloom but ultimately played a starring role in fomenting that polarization. Just around the time that I left Future of Music. It felt like the copyright issues had become a total religious war. There was no discussion about the merits of the different opinions, and you were either on the team that were Luddites or you were artist-hating thieves. It was all caricatures, and in many cases the only ones who benefited from the public battles were the companies.

One of the main reasons I went to the Ford Foundation was to work on these questions at a systems level… I felt like we were not going to be able to build better systems if we were just focused on music. Music was the canary… It was the first industry where we could see the tech and society clashes, the trade-offs, the stakes. The systems that we were developing out of the music battles were on a path to impact all the other systems of journalism and publishing and film and democracy and everything else… as we’ve seen.

The systems that we were developing out of the music battles were on a path to impact all the other systems of journalism and publishing and film and democracy and everything else.

We forget that in the time before the internet there were public interest battles that led to rules that regulate newspapers, radio stations, TV…constraining the behavior of those who control the information pipelines. People fought to establish community-input requirements, ownership limits, and regulations to balance thought, constrain bias and propaganda. All sorts of rules and regulations existed for traditional media. But very few of those protections were extended clearly into the internet environment. Or if the rules did theoretically extend into this internet environment, it wasn’t clear how they would be enforced and by whom. So both the legacy media and the emerging tech companies went on the offensive and were able to use this moment of public disagreement and confusion as a fig leaf or fog behind which they successfully advocated for reduced regulation altogether. And that’s the world we’ve been growing accustomed to over the past 20 years. But it didn’t have to be this way.

Actually, the reason I started writing about music recently is because I feel like that same land-grab is happening all over again in the AI space. The optimism that I felt in the 90’s about the potential for the internet to transform society into a better place has disappeared and been subsumed into a kind of overwhelming powerlessness and pragmatic nihilism. An acceptance of how little protection we can expect from these surveillance and consumption systems that have basically threaded themselves through all of society. So, the piece I wrote for Fast Company was just trying to remind people of a time back when it was a smaller set of problems, focused on music. In retrospect it’s clear to me that we didn’t have to make the choices we made, and we shouldn’t have trusted the companies on either side to protect us because it’s now absolutely clear that they exploited us. And maybe we can learn something from that.

RC: Here’s hoping!

JT: I think part of this problem is now everybody is so dependent on the tech systems that validate them with likes and attention we’ve all come to think of ourselves as a brand, and everything’s intermediated in that way. There is so much time spent on navigation and optimization… that somehow if we do everything right, two-factor authentication and just the right amount of self-promotion and other bootstrappy bullshit, we can win the rigged casino game. It’s very strange to me, but we also just assume these bad systems are the best we can possibly have and that they are permanent. They don’t have to be, but we’ve lost the outrage and the imagination that we’d need to remake them.

RC: That’s one of the things you’ve been able to see very clearly, is that none of this is permanent. It’s going to change again.

JT: Right, right.

RC: There seems to be something fundamental about abandoning analog practices for their digital equivalents—or simulations thereof—that puts human authenticity in peril. Do you think that there’s a distinction there that’s meaningful?

JT: Yeah. The vertical integration of everything and the co-mingling and codependence of information, creativity, community, labor and the systems of delivery, commerce and connection all through a self-dealing commercial gateway mostly designed by technologists who never took a humanities class… It’s disgusting and it’s obviously tremendously dangerous. 

You and I are a bit older and technology was perceived in a completely different way when we were growing up. So, to give you a personal example, I very, very reluctantly took a typewriting class in junior high because I believed I was going to be a powerful woman who was never going to work as somebody else’s secretary. The association to typing back then was clerical. There was a status association to whether you did the “thinking work” or whether you did “technical work” supporting the thinkers. And in the 80’s women were still very often seen as the supporters and not the thinkers. So, as a feminist, I felt reluctant to even learn typing because typing was associated with a service role I didn’t see for myself.

When the internet came, that shifted dramatically. If you couldn’t type or understand the value of typing as the gateway into the internet you were gonna seem outdated and square. I remember my mother left a pretty powerful job running a large non-profit. When she was trying to get her next job she had grown fond of saying, “I don’t even know how to type.” It was a badge of honor… a marker of her status as the type of woman who isn’t a secretary but who has a secretary. And I remember saying to her, “If you want to get your next job please don’t ever say that out loud again.” In the space of maybe five years “up” became “down”… and that’s just one example of how dramatic the shift was and how opaque and slow the cultural catch-up was for so many people, particularly my generation and those who were older.

RC: There are all of these invisible boundaries we find each other behind.

JT: When I went to Ford initially, that “othering” of tech was commonplace. Almost every single person who was recruited to run programs came from the academy, organizing, legal advocacy, policy advocacy—respected careers on the humanities side. Many of them carried with them bias-against, or incredulity or aversion-toward, tech as compared to the disciplines they studied and revered. This meant that they were incurious and had a gap in understanding just how thoroughly tech was transforming the landscape where they did their work. So, the smartest people, the ones with the power to stop it, sat back without contesting much of what the tech companies were doing till it was too late.

And it wasn’t until much, much later when I had a different role at Ford that we did research that allowed us to see that even the universities who were best prepared to graduate hybrid tech-experts, were actively siloing the tech away from the humanities. And we can all see how that turned out. So many of the clunky technical systems we are forced to use everyday (and live within) were designed by guys who were solving a technical problem on a deadline in a humanities-less void.

So, I think my major point is this one: We didn’t have to go into an environment where the internet was completely unregulated, because when you scratch the surface of the historic media rules—the rules that we have for telephones and the rules that we have for privacy and the rules that we have for equal opportunity and thousands of others—all of these rules should be enforced within the internet environment. But the advocates and the leaders who ran the nonprofits or the regulatory agencies that advocated for establishing and enforcing those historic rules were scared of tech, or functionally blind to tech. This meant that they functionally ceding enforcement. They back-burnered governance for long enough to normalize a digital world that lacks public protection. And while that was happening the tech companies became more powerful than the robber barons, and we all became complicit and dependent upon the systems they control.

RC: Is there a way out of that?

JT: There have been some moments of protest over the past 20 years, where artists have tried to demonstrate the value of their labor and their agency by saying, “I’m not going to be in your Spotify, or I’m going to build my own internet player that’s going to be artist controlled” or whatever. But in the meantime as the market becomes more streamlined and consolidated the stakes have become existential. The centralization of recommendation through the music players actually determines who can be seen as a legitimate artist and who is invisible. What’s worse, as the markets become integrated, how you are seen or “not seen” in those environments determines other things… whether you get enough attention to be paid any royalties whatsoever from Spotify… whether a venue will book your band without a certain number of likes or followers etc. We couldn’t even get a professional Spotify account for Tsunami if we didn’t have a Tsunami Instagram page to link it to. It’s way worse than I expected where all but the most powerful artists are forced to shop at the company store just to be in the game. And each post those artists reluctantly put out there to try to develop an audience is just more labor and content extracted to sell ads and train large language models, generating profits they will never share. So you go to Bandcamp to keep it real in the indie-sphere and that platform is actually owned by a Video game company and then they sell it… and you have to wait for the other shoe to drop… So, that just another reason to work with the largest companies that might not go away. Yuck.

I also wonder if that desire to be outsider and not self-promoting and secret is going to reestablish itself as a value in the same way that punk rockers said, I’m not going to look normal. I’m not going to sing pretty.


Tsunami: Jenny Toomey, John Pamer, Kristen Thompson, and Andrew Webster.
Kristen Thompson, who ran Simple Machines with me, shared an album where all the song titles were in Morse code, which of course makes it impossible for any of the algorithms to recommend their songs. There’s no way that this was an accidental choice, and that kind of decision does seem a little bit like an art project or as like a way of getting a different kind of attention because it’s so different from a word where constant self-promotion is just a precondition of being a creator or getting a next job or whatever we have at this moment.

So, I really don’t know how we disentangle those things. Maybe you don’t want to be on LinkedIn, but where do you get your next job? That’s where everyone’s looking. Maybe you don’t want to self-promote on social media, but if you’re going to try to do a tour, more and more often the clubs determine who they book based on numbers of followers.

RC: You’re speaking my language now. These are all problems I’ve been having.

JT: It’s that centralization of attention. I don’t think it has to be that way. We could have chosen a different way or built different kinds of technologies that would’ve allowed us to maintain agency, privacy and diversity… lots of smaller pockets of success coexisting… and we would’ve had more competition in those environments, and we would’ve had accountability because they’d be fighting for your business. It sucks that for the last 20 years, the people who were in charge ignored technology, and then—in my book I talk about it like the stages of grief. There was a very long period of denial and then, you know, bargaining and rage and negotiating, but so many of them still haven’t gotten to the place of acceptance. And when you’re in acceptance, you’re like, “Okay, the world we were in before, it’s over. My partner is dead now. I can’t have another vacation with them. It’s over,” you know? And now I’ve accepted this, and I am in my next life and it’s sad… but acceptance means I can begin to build a real life because anyone  that pretends we’re living in the previous world is in denial.

I don’t know if that makes sense, but that’s certainly how I see it.

RC: Oh, it does… When I talked to Ian MacKaye, he mentioned the fact that punk was the last youth movement that used paper, which just struck me as such a brilliant insight that I’d never really thought about. He’s talking about zines and flyers and stuff. What do you think about that idea of paper being punk?

JT: I think paper contains the human gesture in a way that many forms of digital creativity does not. It almost always involves a greater level of scarcity. You could have the gesture of a human image or a human choice in someone who makes digital art, but it’s immediately replicable, you know? So, there’s not that scarcity in the same way—like people trying to create the artificial scarcity through the Bitcoin type stuff and those whatever they were called that everyone was talking about—


JT: Yeah, but there’s something else about the pace of paper. It’s slower. Tsunami’s putting out a box set and Simple Machines putting out a box set with Numero, so I was forced to look at my archives. I have like 50 journals, and I had something like 17 suitcases packed with ephemera and letters—even before punk rock: I have a whole suitcase of all of my junior high school and high school correspondence, and it’s absolutely transformational.

RC: Absolutely.

JT: In almost all of the letters that I received in junior high school and high school people used fake silly names. They drew art on every envelope. They created collages. They were poets. There’s poems in there. There’s pictures in there. We were using every bit of our creativity to communicate with each other. And soooooo much time. These letters took hours. I can barely be bothered to write a full email these days or to listen to a voice message. Our level of attention is so fragile. It’s just destroyed. I had such deep attention, but everything is constantly distracting and pleasing us with little dopamine hits. We’re always jonesing now.

I also think that there was more of a barrier in some ways, too. There’s a privilege barrier. You had to have enough time to write all those letters, or the ability to cobble together a group house and enough part-time jobs that you had enough resources to be able to go on tour. So, when I think of how inexpensive it was to live when I was younger and how expensive it is now, it’s really shocking to me, but aside from that there was also a physical and time barrier to getting things out in the world. There were a lot of great bands that just didn’t have the work ethic to put the 30 to 50 postcards together to send them out to the clubs to try to get shows, because that’s how we got our shows. You wouldn’t waste money on a phone call. You sent a postcard to a club suggesting they might want to book your band without any ability to hear you at all.

RC: This is a whole other world.

JT: Part of what I really liked about working at Ford was we’re funding these brilliant visionaries who are getting the grants. They are the people who do the work, and they should have the platform and the attention to use their brilliant voices and it’s been a privilege to amplify those voices. But it also does mean that except in a few very specific forums, I’ve put my voice away for 16 years, and a part of that op-ed was also about beginning to think about, Well, what does Jenny’s voice sound like,16 years later?

RC: Exactly.

JT: That’s why I’m trying to write a book as well, but it’s really hard to write a book. I don’t know how you wrote nine books.

RC: Well, I’m glad to help in any way that I can.

JT: I mean, what I should be doing is not an interview with you but writing. I’m supposed to be writing every day, and I get to do it a couple days a week.

RC: You and me both!

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.

Official Report on the Intransitionalist Chronotopologies of Kenji Siratori

The Official Report on the Intransitionalist Chronotopologies of Kenji Siratori: Appendix 8.2.3 is a 163 page paperback book, with an accompanying soundtrack! It’s a conceptual collaboration between cult Japanese author, Kenji Siratori, the Canadian electro-acoustic duo Wormwood, and a host of well known academics, writers, and other members of the Ministry of Transrational Research into Anastrophic Manifolds, including me!

The Official Report on the Intransitionalist Chronotopologies of Kenji Siratori: Appendix 8.2.3 is an AI-generated, xenopoetic “glitch novel” of sorts, with a good portion of the book also given over to a randomly written and ordered set of strange and beautiful footnotes that were submitted by the 60+ members of the Ministry. This is a futuristic work on all fronts, and in order to contrast with the digitally obtrusive writing, and to play into our belief in“technological mutualism”, our packaging design and visual aesthetic is of a more analogue and DIY, old school cut and paste nature. What we have here then is a work of art that bridges past and future, but is firmly embedded in the NOW!

Andrew Wenaus explains:

The result is a work of xenopoetic emergence: a beautifully absurd, alien document scintillating with strange potency. Official Report on the Intransitionalist Chronotopologies of Kenji Siratori: Appendix 8.2.3 is a xenopoetic data/dada anthology that documents the activities of the artist collective The Ministry of Transrational Research into Anastrophic Manifolds. The anthology results from an experimental approach to impersonal literary composition. Similar to surrealist definitions, but on the scale of a technical document, members of the Ministry-poets, musicians, novelists, painters, curators, artists, scientists, philosophers, and physicians-were asked to offer a microfiction, poem, essay, fictional citation, or computer code, in the form of a footnote or annotation to a glitch-generated novel by iconoclastic Japanese artist Kenji Siratori; however, each participant wrote their contribution without any access to or knowledge about the nature of Siratori’s source text. After collecting the contributions, the “footnotes” were each algorithmically linked to an arbitrary word from Siratori’s novel. Bringing together algorithmically and Al-generated electronic literature with analogue collage and traditional modes of literary composition, the Ministry refuses to commit solely to digital, automated, or analogue art and instead seeks technological mutualism and a radically alien future for the arts.

Accompanied by a groundbreaking original score by electro-acoustic duo Wormwood, the anthology offers the radical defamiliarization and weird worlds of science fiction, but now the strangeness bites back on the level form. Readers should expect to discover strange portals from which new ways of thinking, feeling, and being emerge. A conceptual and experimental anthology, Official Report on The Intransitionalist Chronotopologies of Kenji Siratori inaugurates collective xenopoetic writing and the conceit that the future of art will consist of impersonal acts of material emergence, not personal expression. Consume with caution.


Book written by Kenji Sartori.

Footnotes by the Ministry of Transrational Research into Anastrophic Manifolds: Rosaire Appel, Louis Armand, David Barrick, Gary Barwin, Steve Beard, Gregory Betts, Christian Bök, Mike Bonsall, Peter Bouscheljong, Maria Chenut, Shane Jesse Christmass, Roy Christopher, Tabasco “Ralph” Contra, Mike Corrao, R.J. Dent, Paul Di Filippo, Zak Ferguson, Colin Herrick, S.C. Hickman, Maxwell Hyett, Justin Isis, Andrew Joron, Chris Kelso, Phillip Klingler, Adam Lovasz, Daniel Lukes, Ania Malinowska, Claudia B. Manley, Ryota Matsumoto, Michael Mc Aloran, Andrew Mcluhan, Jeff Noon, Jim Osman, Suarjan Prasai, Tom Prime, David Leo Rice, Virgilio Rivas, David Roden, B.R. Yeager, Andrej Shakowski, Aaron Schneider, Gary J. Shipley, Kenji Siratori, Sean Smith, Kristine Snodgrass, Sean Sokolov, Alan Sondheim, Simon Spiegel, Henry Adam Svec, Jeff VanderMeer, R.G. Vasicek, Andrew C. Wenaus [Ministry Director], William Wenaus, Eileen Wennekers, Christina Marie Willatt, Saywrane Alfonso Williams, D. Harlan Wilson, and Andrew Wilt.

All music composed by Andrew Wenaus and Christina Marie Willatt.
Performed by Andrew Wenaus, Christina Marie Willatt, and Kenji Siratori.

Packaging design and artwork by Colin Herrick.
Produced by Andrew Wenaus and Time Released Sound.

“Loved ones of those that disappeared reported that prior to their detainment, the victims were sent an unmarked envelope. The envelope contained a letter whose contents consisted exclusively of 317 black rectangular glyphs. Due to the still uncertain nature and status of this Appendix, Time Released Sound would like all readers to be aware of this history!”

Those of you that purchase the Limited Edition version will very possibly be sent one of these envelopes as well, sometime after you have received the book, so please be careful when ordering it!

Get yours today!


Answering Machines

“Welcome to the world of Pinecone Computers,” Miles Harding (played by Lenny Von Dohlen) reads from a computer manual in Electric Dreams (1984). “This model will learn with you, so type your name and press Enter key to begin.”[1] Since the big-screen tales of the 1980s PC-era, the idea of machines merging with humans has been a tenacious trope in popular culture. In Tron (1982) Kevin Flynn (played by Jeff Bridges) was sucked through a laser into the digital realm. Wired to the testosterone, the hormone-driven juvenile geniuses of Weird Science (1985) set to work making the woman of their dreams. WarGames (1983) famously pit suburban whiz-kids against a machine hell-bent on launching global thermonuclear war. In Electric Dreams (1984), which is admittedly as much montage as it is movie, Miles (von Dohlen, who would go on to play the agoraphobic recluse Harold Smith in Twin Peaks, who kept obsessive journals of the towns-folks’ innermost thoughts and dreams) attempts to navigate a bizarre love triangle between him, his comely neighbor, and his new computer.

Theodore Twombly meets Samantha in Spike Jonze’s Her.

From the jealous machine to falling in love with the machine, the theme remains pervasive. As artificial-intelligence researcher Ray Kurzweil writes of Spike Jonze’s 2013 movie Her, “Jonze introduces another idea that I have written about […] namely, AIs creating an avatar of a deceased person based on their writings, other artifacts and people’s memories of that person.”[2] In the near future of Her, Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) writes letters for a living, letters between fathers and daughters, long-distance lovers, husbands, wives, and others. In doing so, he is especially susceptible to the power of narrative himself since his job involves the constant creation of believable, vicarious stories. His ability to immerse himself in the stories of others makes it that much easier for him to get lost in the love of his operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), as she constructs narratives to create her personality, and thereby, their relationship.

Cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter calls our imbuing machines with more intelligence than they have—even when we know better—“The ELIZA Effect,” after Joseph Weizenbaum’s text-based psychoanalytic computer program, ELIZA. Hofstadter writes, “the most superficial of syntactic tricks convinced some people who interacted with ELIZA that the program actually understood everything that they were saying, sympathized with them, even empathized with them.”[3] ELIZA was written at MIT by Weizenbaum in the mid-1960s, but its effects linger on. “Like a tenacious virus that constantly mutates,” Hofstadter continues, “the Eliza effect seems to crop up over and over again in AI in ever-fresh disguises, and in subtler and subtler forms.”[4] In the first chapter of Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, she extends the idea to our amenability to new technologies, including artificial intelligence, embodied or otherwise: “and true to the ELIZA effect, this is not so much because the robots are ready but because we are.”[5]

Virtual Girlfriend: “Knowledge Acquiring and Response Intelligence,” Kari 5.0.

More germane to Jonze’s Her is a program called KARI, which stands for “Knowledge Acquiring and Response Intelligence.” According to Dominic Pettman’s first and only conversation with KARI, as described in his book, Look at the Bunny, there’s a long way to go before any of us are falling in love with our computers. After interacting with a similar bot online, Jonze agrees. “For the first, maybe, twenty seconds of it,” he says, “I had this real buzz—I’d say ‘Hey, hello,’ and it would say ‘Hey, how are you?,’ and it was like whoa… this is trippy. After twenty seconds, it quickly fell apart and you realized how it actually works, and it wasn’t that impressive. But it was still, for twenty seconds, really exciting. The more people that talked to it, the smarter it got.” The author James Gleick comes to the conceit from the other side, writing, “I’d say Her is a movie about (the education of) an interesting woman who falls in love with a man who, though sweet, is mired in biology.” At one point in the movie, Samantha imagines the same fate for herself: “I could feel the weight of my body, and I was even fantasizing that I had an itch on my back—(she laughs) and I imagined that you scratched it for me—this is so embarrassing.” The dual feelings of being duped by technology and mired in biology sit on the cusp of the corporeal conundrum of what it means to be human, to have not only consciousness but also to have a body, as well as what having a body means.[6]

Mechanical Matrimony

Where some see the whole mess of bodies and machines as one, big system. Others picture the airwaves themselves as extensions. “Telepresence,” as envisioned by Pat Gunkel, Marvin Minsky, and others, sets out to achieve a sense of being there, transferring an embodied experience across space via telephone lines, satellites, and sensory feedback loops.[7] It sounds quaint in world where working from home is normal for many and at least an option for others, but Marshall McLuhan was writing about it in the 1960s, and Minsky and his lot were working on it in the 1970s.

Still others imagine a much more deliberate merging of the biological and the mechanical, postulating an uploading of human consciousness into the machines themselves. Known in robotic and artificial intelligence circles as “The Moravec Transfer,” its namesake, the roboticist Hans Moravec, describes a human brain being uploaded, neuron by neuron, until it exists unperturbed inside a machine.[8] But Moravec wasn’t the first to imagine such a transition. The cyberpunk novelist and mathematician Rudy Rucker outlined the process in his 1982 novel, Software. “It took me nearly a year to really figure out the idea,” he writes, “simple as it now seems. I was studying the philosophy of computation at the University of Heidelberg, reading and pondering the essays of Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel.”[9] Turing was an early inventor of computing systems and AI, best known for the Turing test, whereby an AI is considered to be truly thinking like a human if it can fool a human into thinking so. Gödel was a logician and mathematician, best known for his incompleteness theorem. Both were heavily influential on the core concepts of computing and artificial intelligence. “It’s some serious shit,” Rucker writes of the process. “But I chose to present it in cyberpunk format. So, no po-faced serious, analytic-type, high literary mandarins are ever gonna take my work seriously.”[10] In Rucker’s story, a robot saves its creator by uploading his consciousness into a robot.

NASA’s own Robert Jastrow wrote in 1984 that uploading our minds into machines is the be-all of evolution and would make us immortal. He wrote,

at last the human brain, ensconced in a computer, has been liberated from the weakness of the mortal flesh. […] The machine is its body; it is the machine’s mind. […] It seems to me that this must be the mature form of intelligent life in the Universe. Housed in indestructible lattices of silicon, and no longer constrained in the span of its years by the life and death cycle of a biological organism, such a kind of life could live forever.[11]

In the 2014 movie Transcendence, Dr. Will Caster (played by Johnny Depp) and his wife Evelyn (played by Rebecca Hall) do just that. Caster is terminally ill and on the verge of offloading his mortal shell. Once his mind is uploaded into a quantum computer connected to the internet, Caster becomes something less than himself and something more simultaneously. It’s the chronic consciousness question: What is it about you that makes you you? Is it still there once all of your bits are transferred into a new vessel? The Casters’ love was strong enough for them to try and find out.

Escape Philosophy

The essay above is an excerpt from Chapter 3, “MACHINE: Mechanical Reproduction,” of my book Escape Philosophy: Journeys Beyond the Human Body, which is available as an open-access .pdf and beautiful paperback from punctum books. It’s really quite good, but don’t take my word for it…

“An interesting read indeed!” — Aaron Weaver, Wolves in the Throne Room


1 Steve Barron, dir., Electric Dreams, written by Rusty Lemorande (Los Angeles: Virgin Films, 1984).

2 Ray Kurzweil, “A Review of ‘Her’ by Ray Kurzweil,”, February 10, 2014.

3 Douglas Hofstadter, Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 158.

4 Ibid.
5 Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 24–25.

6 As Hayles notes, “when information loses its body, equating humans and computers is especially easy.” N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 2.

7 See Marvin Minsky, “Telepresence,” OMNI Magazine, June 1980, 45–52.

8 See Hans Moravec, Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988). For another early example, see G. Harry Stine, “The Bionic Brain,” OMNI Magazine, July 1979, 84–86, 121–22.

9 Rudy Rucker, “Outer Banks & New York #1,” Rudy’s Blog, August 2, 2015.

10 Ibid.

11 Robert Jastrow, The Enchanted Loom: Mind in the Universe (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), 166–67.