The Curse of the Unseeing i

It’s a great modern fallacy to think that not everyone is a futurist.

Please consider this: if you’re living and breathing, here on this earth, it’s fair to say you need to figure out where you’re sleeping tonight. And beyond that, you ought to know what your going to do for food and water, and what you’ll do for it tomorrow, right? Then the next day. Then the next. There’s mutual funds, 401Ks, mortgages, all the way through burial insurance—and if you have them, you have them on account that you think you know something about the future. If so, you’re a futurist—predicting the unpredictable for your own well-being. Nothing special. The people we might call “futurists” are just the ones who go a little further, who get a little creative, who think up the amazing stuff that makes things seem weird and different.

Futurists like the iPhone (those that think of such things). That new one coming out tomorrow I mean,the one with location-sensing GPS built into it. That’s a wishlist biggie. With an iPhone you can reasonably take the web’s mountain of available knowledge anywhere. Mohammad doesn’t need to go to the mountain; the mountain can come with him (in convenient molehill size). To follow the metaphor… if it shall come to him, the mountain must know where he is. That’s the location-sensing, location-aware internet: it comes to you. Near a grocery store, and one’s grocery list will pop up. Outside a restaurant, the restaurant reviews magically appear. We’re allowed to dream crazy dreams that might happen one day… picture something like network-enabled telepathy: normal people walking down the street, transmitting data of them walking down the street, to others walking just around the corner, and suddenly everybody can see around all the corners and we get something like a real-time GoogleMaps Street View. Techno-clairvoyance, it could be. Someday perhaps a new Transparency will replace the role of stodgy old button-up Security, light shining over dark forever and for good. These are things I have heard dreamt of.

Apparently, I’m the only futurist who rides public transit. It seems odd that few analysts seems to have analyzed thusly, but iPods have always seemed a little… alienating. The earbuds double as earplugs. Have you ever been privileged as captive audience to a stranger’s lengthy phone conversation? Perhaps chose to cloister yourself away from them and escape into your own idiosyncratic cinematic push-button music-video reality? No difference, you and them. You’re each off in your own little world. Personally, I know that if I got an iPhone I’d use it on the bus, I’d read blogs waiting in line, I’d Twitter my daily thought quotient till I’d overthunk it all. I would fill in every idle moment and be wholly absorbed (O, Little world! I claim thee as mine own!). However, the world-at-large doesn’t stop being magical or fascinating or often banal because we’ve stopped participating. When we escape from it we’re usually still aware it exists, but as a goldfish is aware—largely unseeing of its aquarium walls, happily swimming and forgetting. Maybe there’s our Transparency with a capital T: “welcome to the future: your own private fishbowl.”

The Wise Iphone MonkeysSuch mobile devices can complete a triangle: a phone to speak with, music to hear with, and the internet to see with. Somewhere nearby are three wise monkeys avoiding those “evils”. Don’t mistake them as tools of devils, though, as they’re only a human tool—something far more dangerous and wonderful. The problem is that we are neither devils nor angels. Lots of heirloom Utopianism from the 19th century would have us believe otherwise. Ever since the Victorians, there’s been a certain vein running through futurism which is—in a word—vain. The future should be much more *perfect*, says the old saw, than this compromised existence we are forced to live. Too easily, I think, we see technology’s shiny smooth newness and forget how soon it becomes normal, earthly, taken for granted, exploited by some, a boring job to others, and then it’s all old news. That’s why, dear futurists, the iPhone brings us not all that closer to the Singularity. It’s just another thing that we use, that we have, but now it costs only $199.

Which is really what this is all about. It’s about me being tempted to buy the newest and shiniest thing. The iThing. This isn’t about Apple, by the way; it’s about the world. Because here’s the important bit: I don’t mind any of the stranger-alienating, idleness-exterminating, or fishbowl-inhabiting. I don’t find them to be inherently bad. They’re simply facts of life, much as those people on public transit who sometimes happen to be absolutely crazy. I like the idea of choosing whom and what I interact with, instead of just right-place-right-time interactions, and who cares if they take us in the right direction, so long as it’s a step forward. Keep walking to find the way. You’ve heard that all futurists are proven wrong eventually? Enjoy that fact, cause we’re each and every one of us going to be wrong.

Enjoy the renaissance of whatever happens to be momentarily blooming. Daydreams are your friends. Of course, your friends are your friends, too. Remember that the ‘i’ isn’t a pronoun. You’re not alone in life—even if sometimes you want to be. The future is unwritten. At least, that’s what I predict.


Three Ideas

Idle in-brain conversations. Background noise that rambles on and sometimes if we’re lucky goes somewhere. I was sitting eating a burrito the other day. This noise went somewhere; what do yo think?

1st idea: Evolution. Selection. The world of man. A species’ environment determines which genes are favored. It determines what genes stick around. In humans, self-determined environment (society) is usually more important than the natural world. So there’s a feedback loop. People create their environment, which favors people who can better live in it, and have children who continue to live a life to which they are suited. A possible genetic tendency towards cultural aspects. Accelerated specialization. Patterns within a culture and the ensuing sexual selection might explain geographic racial features. How an individual deals with turmoil and struggle is tied with one’s spiritual beliefs. We can have a culture that shapes its gods a certain way, and people within it who adhere to those gods. Feedback. Some concept emerges somewhere, spreads through society, and favors those predisposed to it. Or it might find more fertile minds somewhere else, and the seeds will grow elsewhere. Memetics influencing genetics. For instance, Greece no longer is made of Greeks, but ethnic Turks. Yet in academia, a major in Classics might as well be called “European Studies.” Through the influence of ideas their values live on in a populace both inheriting them and built to inherit them.

2nd idea: Predation. Digestion. Nature’s law. Organisms get better nutrition from sources closest to themselves. Carnivores spend less time eating than herbivores do, because it’s more work digesting plant fibers than animal protein. Go back far enough and all organisms are theoretically related. Life was just self-replicating bacteria. A few billion years later some became Eukaryotes, which are distinguished by their ability to eat other things (like bacteria). Everything that grew from them—animals, plants, fungi—inherited the capacity to derive sustenance from other life. The more alike, the easier that is.

3rd idea: I find those two ideas I just had quite interesting. I wonder if I can link them together. Let’s see.. they’re both centered around evolution and assimilation. Things diverge over countless years and then re-absorb quickly, converging like long-lost puddles. If they were puddles of oil and water they wouldn’t come together so easily. It’s about how easy it is. How easy it is to assimilate something is directly correlated to how similar it is. There’s my topic sentence.

Hm. That was interesting. Those idle thoughts led somewhere. Even if it turns out there’s an existing scientific theory that says about as much, it’s fun to derive these concepts myself. I do recommend trying it sometime.

photos by cwiener08 and rusty shackelfurt


Monica has a Birthday

Fifty strangers meet in a public park. Many have never met before, some have. They are dressed variously in matching outfits, funny wigs or hats, or just colorful sunny day clothing. They have come for a singular purpose. However, what exactly that purpose is none are certain—except one. They have placed their faith in a leader. This leader, a sprightly woman, short, young, with twin feathery poofs emerging from her brunette hair, and dressed in a festive old west leather skirt and cowboy boots, assembles the convivial horde. The mob slowly quiets.

Megaphone in hand, pointed in no particular direction, she announces her name is Monica. She is turning thirty. Cheers. Welcome to her birthday! she says. Cheers. Much commotion and fumbling in pockets and, shortly thereafter, a blast from the megaphone. Even greater commotion. Another signal tone, a pause, much clapping and yet more cheers, then ebbing to silence, as the crowd seems to contemplate their plight. No one knows where to look so everyone looks everywhere. Two minutes pass, and the group is silent. Except for some minor fidgeting, the fifty party-prepped people together on the green grass stay still on this bright, sunny Saturday afternoon in the park. But then, inexplicably, with no cue from Monica or anyone else, the crowd begins to cheer again.

This is when some sort of magic starts to happen. Over the next half hour, with no apparent direction, revelers flap their arms and pretend to fly around in circles, play tag, dance at random intervals, engage in staring contests, hum the theme from Super Mario (more or less), go hide elsewhere in the park, form a spontaneous line to spank their beloved leader as she crawls between their legs, and finally, carry her bodily to her waiting birthday cake, where they summarily deposit her butt-first into it… and of course, must then sing “Happy Birthday.” Maybe just one more dance party, the crowd seems to decide. Much applause follows for super-special birthday-girl Monica who has rightfully earned it by pulling off this ridiculous, puzzling, and joyful spectacle. Then the magical shenanigans are over. One by one, people in the crowd pull out their earbuds.

You knew there was a big reveal, didn’t you? Well, of course—San Francisco is quite a magical place, but not that magical. It does have a lot going for it, though, such as a great many people who are willing to assemble at, say, a pre-determined location at a certain time carrying necessary props, just for the promise of fun. It has a lot of tech-savvy individuals who can coordinate over the internet, a lot creatives amongst them who can think up fun things to do. It has a viral culture that spreads ideas fast. The inevitable combination of qualities like these has been called the Urban Playground movement, although I’d say it’s less of a movement and more like “something humans have wanted to do since *at least* the industrial revolution but have just gotten around to acquiring the technology and inspiration and freedom to do so.” Zombie mobs, sidewalk pie fights, lightsaber duels, riding the subway in one’s underwear, gigantic pillow fights (on Valentine’s Day, no less), all are things that have been a long time coming.

A great heap many other factors made Monica’s awesome birthday party awesomely possible when it happened in Dolores Park this Saturday, February 9th:

  • The ubiquity of MP3 players, to start with. Sure, everybody might’ve had a Walkman in the 80’s but in the past five years it’s become normal for anyone and everyone to be wearing earbuds practically anywhere, all off in their own musical world.
  • On the website set up by Monica and Co. they credit inspiration to fellow, uh, “playgrounders” vis-à-vis Improv Everywhere’s MP3 experiment. Quote: “you’ll be part of a group of people obeying a shared voice in your head.” Coincidentally, Improv Everywhere is affiliated with the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, an improv group with a show on Comedy Central in the 90’s—to my knowledge the first to try this sort of just-for-fun situational public pranking.
  • One can certainly give credit to Maer, Monica’s DJ friend, putting together the MP3 track by such recently available tech-wizardry as having access to editing software and a library of music.
  • I’m sure her boyfriend Jason is owed some due, seeing as how he put together the website and, with her, hosts regular swap meets in San Francisco. The self-taught promotion skills and network of acquaintances they set up couldn’t have hurt either.
  • Quicker now: the shared modern urge to discover entertainment which is participatory, engaging, and/or doesn’t require spending money.
  • A continuing societal obsession with youth and youth culture (since the boomers actually) now manifesting as a growing hole between the walls of childhood and adulthood; call it “kidulthood.”
  • The Victorian invention of the civic public park that preserved spaces of open land in cities for recreation (told you it went back to the industrial revolution).
  • The western traditions that place value on an individual, combined with
  • the near universal superstitions of astrology that place such weight on the stars of an individual’s birth.
  • Also, the many inspiring bands of 1978, all those thirty years ago.

The most important reason, of course, being… hello, party! An oversimplification, surely. Perhaps not an unwelcome one. Hope this has been an educational experience for you all.

And you, Monica… thanks for having us… 😉


City of Cannibals

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Regurgitate. Reappropriate. Reclaim. Reconnoiter. Rectify.

This is a city that eats its old. Set them out on the corner, and they’re gone. See something you want? Take it away—it’s yours. If that microwave, or TV, or refrigerator doesn’t have its cord cut that means it still works. Someone doesn’t want it, but wants it off their front curb. It’s a flea market town. You know about trash and treasure, one man and another man? What if that guy lived next door?

I’ve always had this habit. My favorite art assignment: find a box, find some stuff, put the stuff in that box. I dug in the dumpsters behind Target near my college, found a tea-kettle package and broken mirrors and a whole bunch of wire, shone a light through the whole thing. It was real pretty, and appealed to my natural cheapness frugality, also.

Number BricksLove of the abandoned, the lost, the free-for-the-taking is what got me through college. And when I say “got me through” I of course mean gave me something to do when I became too frustrated or bored with the school on old Fort Ord, and fell back to the Ord itself. My room was furnished with the 10 year-old leavings of a different institution, the Army, while my classes seemed simultaneously filled with different leavings.

I traveled abroad, and the most consistent fun I could find was exploring the drains of another country, finding little secrets and incidental items, dumpster diving with locals despite what other locals might think. Did you know there’s a drain that leads directly from the rainforest in Airlie Beach, past its campsites, underneath the main highway, and emerges directly on the beach? I miss the Cave Clan, even though I was never a member.

No surprise I should be happy in my new town, one might guess. There’s a Cathedral to tagging right on the waterfront. It’s next to the abandoned bus yard. Art cars, stock metal piled and forged onto them, are here and there. At the moment I’m on top of a street-bedframe, typing on a computer which rests on a street-desk, next to another monitor on top of a piano bench begotten from a yard sale, all for free. We got a chair at that same yard sale, then covered it in cool fabric samples glean’d from Craigslist free. We put it in our sitting room which is filled with some free plants; the urban garden down the street supplies them.

Of course there was the one occasion where, wandering down Haight street, finding a nice (different) piano bench and carrying it off, I was accosted several blocks afterward by a wild-eyed guy saying I took his bench. A little bewildered, I figured out that he’d found it earlier that day and had been trying to sell it ever since. I didn’t pay him the $5 he wanted, even if it was decent furniture. Violates the spirit of the thing.

There’s a lot of free culture, which makes that incident so unusual. More than anywhere else I’ve lived people get it. I’m not looked down on if I desire something cool in a dumpster. Even if I’m in the Financial District, businessman don’t get suspicious when I take their discarded office chair with me. These aren’t company secrets, and that’s why you put this thing out to begin with: so someone else would take it away for you. At the dump they weigh you when you get in and when you get out—if you take as much as you brought, you don’t pay anything. Give me a week and a moving van; I’ll give you an apartment another city-dweller in another city would cry over.

It’s recycling. It’s healthy. It means there’s less waste, what with everybody using everything once and twice and thrice. So what if my cabinet is the same as my neighbors’ before they found another one? A little cannibalism, a little creativity, a good city, can go a long way.

Glot Smartglot

Specialized Civilization (and Clowns)

Let me become suddenly, emphatically clear on something: the pervasive specialization of human skills frightens me. Our civilization is endangered. Empirical knowledge compels me to think we have a fascinating, frightening condition called “Whole-Picture Anemia.”

In academia, one can major in increasingly specific subjects. The still-infectious ideal of scientific reductionism makes believe we can split things into smaller and smaller units. Until what? Until they all fit together and we understand how the watch was made. Hey, organizing into more complex forms worked for single-celled organisms, right? I read Future Shock. I’m not so sure it’ll work for us.

Doctors are a great example. Allow me to give an awful example of this example. Say you’re a dermatologist, and discover an unusual skin condition. It seems your patient’s top layer of skin is eroding, producing a mottled pattern over their body. While it doesn’t seem like it’s getting worse (and there’s no apparent bodily irritation), it’s interfering with his work as a children’s party entertainer a.k.a. clown. Let’s call this patient “the Mystery Clown.” Now I’m not a doctor, and I hate clowns. Clowns are scary old men who play with children (most clowns). But—bound by the hippocratic—you’ll treat him anyways. While it could be a lot of things, the only thing that works is having him wear gloves at night. Big polka-dotted clown gloves, let’s say. Problem solved (freaky excema and clown-shame aside, right?). On to the next doctor, his shrink, to whom he reports that he can no longer sleep at night. Hormones? They’re ok. Personal life? Same. No increased stress on the job? Nope, still a clown. Well, here’s some nappy-time pills. That works.sorrk..wko..rkr.wrso….s.k.rokrwossss… What’s this? My fingers are stuck to the keyboard? Hmm, that’s unusual. Seems this whole time the Mystery Clown had been handling children his hands had gotten so perilously and annoyingly sticky that he had to remove the child-goo by unconsciously scraping his skin off in the dead of night. That is one devoted clown—he loves at his work; it’s all he knows. He’d never admit his disgust by washing away all the friendly child-smells. Whoa, Mr. Shrink, you totally should have caught that “reverse OCD” thing. That and all the makeup still caked on, too. And wouldn’t he smell? As I said, this is the worst great example written. Take that, House.

I’ve lost my point. Clowns are still very disconcerting for me. Ah yes… I’d like to express my dislike for the idea of becoming a liver cell by age 30. Wait—lemme try again. The prospect of human beings becoming separated by unbridgeable esoteric chasms of knowledge is an alarming one. It seems to me that this thing called “the internet” could just be serving as a prosthetic to bridge the great divide.

Homo sapiens grew up in tribal groups, divvying roles out to who could do them. And we thrived! But can we really take biology meant for groups of about 200 (maybe) and use it in societies of, say, 300 million plus? It worries me that it doesn’t seem to be anyone’s job to oversee “the Big Picture,” and invigorate this damned anemia. I guess what I’m saying is that I’d like to be something greater than the sum of my part.


The Mating Memes

Suppose you take a few species of apes that lived in Africa about ten million years ago. Think of these species as nearly identical, but seperate populations. Now turn loose on each species the force of runaway sexual selection—an evolutionary positive feedback loop of genetic traits and the mating preference for those traits. One species might develop a runaway preference for large muscles, and turn into gorillas. Another might develop a runaway preference for constant sex, and turn into bonobos. A third species might develop a runaway preference for intelligence, and turn into us.

Hypacrosaurus - no giant tail, but possibly very colorful Intelligence is a fitness indicator, which might be why we have it. Animals use them to judge potential mates. The brain—like a gigantic shiny colorful tail—is a good choice. It’s sensitive to the animal’s condition, it’s hard to fake, and it’s a pretty good show of what sexy genes you have. A mind gets pretty screwed-up if you have a screwed-up existence—and crazy isn’t sexy. Conversely, a good mind is, and it shows. Story-telling, humor, playfulness, creativity, wit, kindness, a broad vocabulary, social savvy, imaginative problem-solving, and refined taste are all mental fitness indicators used by humans. All these sexy personality traits lead to more sexy persons, the better brain genes making minds bigger and better.

That’s the idea behind Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind, in particular the chapter appropriately called “A Mind Fit for Mating.” Pages 77 and 111 are partially (and liberally) paraphrased above. His hypothesis is that our swollen primate cerebellums are the result of a sexual fetish preference our ancestors were lucky enough to stumble upon. Her+Him Stick Figures — now a memeAnd because our courtship (and brain evolution) got so carried away with itself, we very accidentally discovered all these really cool survival mechanisms like agriculture, language, architecture, metal-working, medicine, and the other stuff you can research in Civilization. Even more astounding is that all the quintessentially human self-expressives like literature, art, philosophy, music, dance, and making comic books are for mating purposes just ornamentation to show off our big sexy brains.

So here’s our modern mating problem, as I see it: we’ve got these neat survival strategies that freed up time otherwise spent acquiring food, finding shelter, defending from predators, etc… and so we’re supposed to have more time to develop our courtship skillz = music, art, being a total genius at pinball, etc. But we in modern society also have to work at time-consuming jobs so we can pay for food, shelter, cool new electronic gadgets, etc. And it’s usually the young, the horniest ones with the least developed courting-collections, who have the most time-consuming (and least expressive) jobs. Oh, sweet and hilarious irony! Etc!Not pictured: pinball

Yet, the young are not doomed to unsexiness. Thanks again to our big brains, we don’t have to go through the first several years of courtship feeling dumb and unattractive. We have an excellent prosthetic using the now super-stylish concept of memetics (which you were sure I was gonna get around to eventually). Much the same way we horny youngsters long to transfer our living genes, information can move between the habitable environs of our minds, in discrete packages called memes. Memes move from brain to brain, making possible things like culture, religion, politics, and inside jokes. Just like organisms, the ones good at propagating get propagated more. There are harmful memes and relatively harmless memes, just like organisms. Yet again just like organisms, there’s mutations and migrations and whole populations of them.

This is good news for those of us who don’t have time to write the great American novel. Memes give us the opportunity to communicate, in a less forceful way, all our cultivated artistic tastes we’ve worked so hard on. Even better, they give us references for how good our own could be once we get around to it. Even better, individual memes vary from common to rare, meaning the rarer ones often reveal a deeper connection when they’re shared. Even better wow-I-know-so-awesome, they are a great social activity, entertaining, stimulating, lubricating, moldable, re-usable, bond-on-contact, dishwasher-safe, usually with a decent manufacturer warranty.

Memes seem like the perfect consumer item (and lots are). But the really good ones are also the perfect brainy aphrodisiac—for when we humans do finally get around to mixing those sexy genes. So now, whenever young people just sit around starting their sentences with:

“Hey, do you know about…?”

Well, you’ll understand.


Trousers of Oppression

Men, we must shed the tyranny of pants. We must cast off these shackles and chains, these chains that keep our balls sticky and uncomfortable. Pants that fit wrong, pants with belts to hold us in, pants that cling to our undercarriage like a remora we must unpluck in the “privacy” of a stolen moment—these devices are meant to keep our masculinity in check and our sexuality properly “controlled.” They are an invention made specifically to entrap a man’s crotch. Ask yourself: don’t my man-parts have a right to something as fundamental as breathing? We must dispose of these reprehensible implements. Let it swing free, my brothers! Fig leaves be damned!

(or maybe this pair I’m wearing is just the wrong size)

You see that? See what I did? That’s funny there. It’s funny, cause men need to wear pants in order to work or go outside or really do anything; everyone knows that. And that’s fine. It’s called irony. We accept pants. Pants, even if inconvenient, are a necessary evil of walking upright. Most people agree we shouldn’t be greeting each other with our sexy bits. C’est la vie, fellow pantsmen. But now, out of curiosity, replace every instance of “balls, crotch, etc.” with “breasts,” every “pants” with “bra,” and “man” with “woman” …you get the picture. Suddenly it’s the legitimate grievance of a first-wave feminist. Wha-wha? Dudes, how did that happen!?

Life is full of minor discomfitures. Sticky balls, butt-plucking, wrong-way wood, zipperphobia, testy testes, chode erosion, and *ahem* decreased seminal potency are all included. To the same extent, so are bungee boobs/bound boobs, Robobras, butt floss, the pubic lint-trap, et al. My personal advice to any of the fairer-shake sex who wish to argue their lot in life: learn acceptance. Who wears the pants? We both do, yes, ok. And bras can definitely be uncomfortable, especially if you’re one of the three out of four who wears the wrong size. But I bet your ovaries never get crossed if you sit down wrong.

And that is why we get to pee standing up.