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.

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.

CREDITS:

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.

WARNING!! AS IS STATED ON THE BACK OF THE BOOK:
“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!

 

My Radical Sabbatical

I’m stoked to announce that next week I’ll be joining the teaching faculty in the School of Communication at the University of North Florida, thus ending three years of unemployment. I’ve been calling this my “Radical Sabbatical,” as I spent a lot of time on my BMX bike and my skateboard, but I also did a lot of writing. I really did a lot of writing.

I looked hard for a job when I left my last one in June 2020, but it being the early months of the COVID-19 lockdown, I quickly found that no one was hiring. Fortunately I’d been able to save a lot of what I’d made at my previous position, so I decided to just try to earn it. My dad always says to make sure you accomplish something every day, so I applied a strong reading of that advice and got to work.

I already had a few book projects in various stages of the publishing process, but I dedicated my time to getting them all out there. I also made a new zinedesigned some logosappeared on a few podcastswrote some essays, and had my first solo art show, but finishing books was my main focus.

So, as I start a new phase, what follows is a brief roundup of the results of my Radical Sabbatical. Read on!

A few spines of mine.
Abandoned Accounts

When the lockdown started, I found it difficult to focus on the larger projects. In the months before, I’d started writing silly little poems about odd memories I had, tiny stories that didn’t fit anywhere else. I went back to those when I couldn’t think any larger. I eventually moved on to short stories and finally back to book-length writing, but not before I amassed a small pile of poems.

Abandoned Accounts collects those silly memories I started writing down, including reflections of walks in the woods at my parents’ house in the hinterlands of southeast Alabama, encounters with favorite bands and somewhat famous people, tales of travel and intrigue, and a few stray poems from as far back as 1990. It was an unexpected project, and I’m really proud of the results.

Fender the Fall

Fender the Fall is a short story about Chris Bridges, a lovelorn physics graduate student who goes back in time to return the journal of his high-school crush in order to save her life and his marriage. As you might expect, the plan doesn’t go as planned.

Tagline: You don’t know what you’ve got until you get it back.

It was briefly available as a standalone novella from Alien Buddha Press. I was fortunate enough to get Matthew Revert to design the cover and Mike Corrao to do the typesetting. As a result, it was a sharp-looking little book.

Though the novella is no longer in print, it will be included in my forthcoming short story collection, Different Waves, Different Depths (see below).

discontents

My friends Patrick Barber, Craig Gates, and I put together the pilot issue of a new zine called discontents. The content covers the usual concerns: music, movies, books, and poetry. We reached out to all of our old zine-era friends, so it includes writing by Cynthia Connolly, Peter Relic, Andy Jenkins, Spike Jonze, Fatboi Sharif, Timothy Baker, and Greg Pratt, artwork by Zak Sally and Tae Won You, as well as work by Patrick, Craig, and myself. Subjects include Ceremony, Unwound, Hsi-Chang Lin a.k.a. Still, Charles Yu’s Interior ChinatownCrestone director Marnie Elizabeth Hertzler, Coherence director James Ward Byrkit, and others.

We did this one as a proof of concept (high-end content, lo-fi production) and will be releasing a full debut issue in the near future.

Follow for Now, Vol. 2

My second interview anthology, Follow for Now, Vol. 2, picks up and pushes beyond the first volume with a more diverse set of interviewees and interviews. The intent of the first collection was to bring together voices from across disciplines, to cross-pollinate ideas. At the time, social media wasn’t crisscrossing all of the lines and categories held a bit more sway. Volume 2 aims not only to pick up where Follow for Now left off but also to tighten its approach with deeper subjects and more timely interviews. This one is a bit more focused and goes a bit deeper than the last. It includes several firsts, a few lasts, and is fully illustrated with portraits of every interviewee.

“Relentlessly stimulating and insight-packed, Follow for Now is the kind of book I’d like to see published every decade, and devoured every subsequent decade, from now until the end of humanity.” — Maria PopovaBrain Pickings

There’s an updated version of Follow for Now, Vol. 2 coming soon!

Midnight Diamond by Human Recreational Services.

Human Recreational Services

My old friend Erik Ellington asked me to write some things for his luxury shoe brand, Human Recreational Services. The collection I worked on is called Midnight Diamond, and I have to include it here as it was one of my favorite opportunities from the last few years. Here’s one bit I wrote:

As if trapped in a photograph by Ed Ruscha hanging on the wall in a David Lynch film, a young couple find themselves stranded along the lost highway in the deep desert. At a gas station, they stumble upon a door that leads to unexpected delights, a sudden contrast to their desolation. Figures emerge from the scene promising not safety but salvation, their boots made of distressed leathers studded with jewels, their movements imbued with the gestures of ceremony. Shoes sparkling in the sand, secret messages from parties hidden in back-masked 1980s metal. The flickering signifiers of ritual, dirty glamour marked by the patina of time. Midnight Diamond blends surrealism and serendipity with mystery and metaphor. Mining diamonds in the desert rough, uncertain times demand the discovery of unseen strengths in unexpected places.

Check out the video that goes with the words.

Escape Philosophy

Using extreme examples from heavy metal music and science fiction and horror movies, Escape Philosophy: Journeys Beyond the Human Body is a survey of all the ways we try to shuck off the shackles of our physical forms.

“Too often philosophy gets bogged down in the tedious ‘working-through’ of contingency and finitude. Escape Philosophy takes a different approach, engaging with cultural forms of refusal, denial, and negation in all their glorious ambivalence.”  Eugene Thacker, author, In the Dust of This Planet

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

There’s a new edition of Escape Philosophy forthcoming. More on that soon!

Boogie Down Predictions

While I was writing my book Dead Precedents: How Hip-Hop Defines the Future (Repeater Books, 2019), I gathered up some friends, and we put together an edited collection as sort of a companion to Dead Precedents. Time was one of the aspects of both hip-hop and science fiction that I didn’t get to talk about much in that book, so I started asking around. I found many other writers, scholars, theorists, DJs, and emcees, as interested in the intersection of hip-hop and time as I was. As I continued contacting people and collecting essays, I got more and more excited about the book. Boogie Down Predictions: Hip-Hop, Time, and Afrofuturism is a quest to understand the connections between time, representation, and identity within hip-hop culture, as well as what that means for the culture at large.

Me and Ytasha Womack talking hip-hop and Afrofuturism. Photo by Shannon Keane.

Ytasha Womack, who wrote the Introduction, and I did an event for Boogie Down Predictions this July at Volumes Books in Chicago, and you missed a treat if you weren’t there.

“Roy Christopher’s dedication to the future is bracing. Boogie Down Predictions is a symphony of voices, beats, and bars messing with time, unsettling histories, opening portals.” — Jeff Chang, author, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop

First Friday Art Crawl

I had a collection of illustrations and logo designs up at Reset Mercantile in Dothan, Alabama. The clip above was shot by Ryan Mills for Big as Life Media. If you’re interested, you can see a few pictures of the pieces on the wall or check out my illustration portfolio. Many thanks to Justin April for the opportunity.

Cover illustration by Jeffrey Alan Love.

 

Different Waves, Different Depths

My debut collection of short fiction, Different Waves, Different Depths, takes its name from a comment an old crush made once about her feelings for the author. It also describes these nine stories, varying in style from the literarily weird to the science fiction and in length from the flash to the novella. There’s even a pilot script in here.

Impeller Press will be releasing Different Waves, Different Depths on September 12th, and you can preorder your copy now!

“Working the borderlands between philosophy, sci-fi, and ultra-contemporary social critique, these stories illuminate our strange cusp moment in a deeply humanistic and bracing manner. A sharp, propulsive, and canny collection.” — David Leo Rice, author, Drifter

Dive in deep, ease in the shallows, or just let the tide lap at your toes. Different waves are waiting.

Cover object and image by me.

The Medium Picture

At long last I have finished my post-punk media theory book. Drawing from the disciplines of media ecology and media archaeology, as well as bringing fresh perspectives from music (e.g., Fugazi, Radiohead, Gang of Four, Run the Jewels, Christian Marclay, Laurie Anderson, et al.) and skateboarding, The Medium Picture illuminates aspects of technological mediation that have been overlooked along the way. With a Foreword by Andrew McLuhan, it shows how immersion in unmoored technologies of connectivity finds us in a world of pure media and redefines who we are, how we are, and what we will be.

“Very much looking forward to reading new Christopher, exactly the sort of contemporary cultural analysis to yield unnerving flashes of the future.” — William Gibson

The Medium Picture is forthcoming.

Deborah Harry in 1976 vs. Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in 2016.
The Grand Allusion

I also signed on to write The Grand Allusion for Palgrave Macmillan as a part of their Pivot series. I’m only a few chapters into this one, but it’s shaping up nicely. My dissertation was on the use of allusions in rap lyrics, and I’ve since wanted to expand the analysis to pop cultural references in other media. Our media is so saturated with allusions to other media that we scarcely think about them. Their meaning relies in large part on the catching and interpreting of cultural allusions, on their audiences sharing the same mediated memories, the same mediated experiences.

The Grand Allusion explores these experiences, yielding a new understanding of our media, our culture, and ourselves.

Hope for Boats

Somewhere in there, I decided I wanted to try to write a novel. The seed situation was a funeral and a parade on the same day in a small town, and the story has grown from there. On October 11, 2022, I read the Prologue of “Hope for Boats” to the Rotary Club of Elba, Alabama, on which the fictional town in the story is loosely based. If you’re into it, you can read the excerpt along with me at Malarkey Books

More on this one as it develops.


I don’t know if I quite earned three years “off,” but I definitely tried. With all of that said, I’m looking forward to getting back into the classroom, corrupting young minds. My creative output might return to a somewhat normal pace though. You’ll be the first to know.

Many thanks to everyone who had anything to do with the above projects — writers, designers, editors, contributors, collaborators, even if you just read one of them — I appreciate it. Without you, all of this would just be scribbles in my notebook. Special thanks to my parents for tolerating me for the last year.

All of these projects are up on my websiteCheck ’em out!

New Books Network

I had the pleasure of talking with Alex Kuchma of the New Books Network podcast about my recent edited collection, Boogie Down Predictions, as well as my books Dead Precedents and The Medium Picture. A student of hip-hop culture like me, Alex is steeped in the stuff. He came to the discussion with sharp questions and insight. It was a pleasure.

Check it out here, on Apple, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Many thanks to Alex and the New Books Network for the interest and the opportunity.

 

 

Talk Your Talk

My dumb face.

I’m on Talk Your Talk with my man Alaska this week. I’m the first guest on this spin off from his usual show, Call Out Culture with Curly Castro and Zilla Rocca, on which I was also the first guest. I did the artwork for their Michael Myers/Nas-themed “Killmatic” episode, too.

In this new one, we talk about my books, new, old, and not-out-yet, as well as a few high-minded social-science theories… and the raps, of course.

You can listen to our brief discussion via the podcasting network of your choice.