The case of the missing Barnes paintings

Dr. Albert Barnes was a chemist who made a fortune at the turn of the 20th century developing a treatment for infant blindness. He became interested in art and befriended the painter William Glackens. The two began collecting modern paintings in Paris in 1911, and Barnes eventually developed a private collection of paintings that today is valued at $50-60 Billion. Amazingly, he collected the works of the masters before they were masters, almost the equivalent of buying the Mona Lisa off Da Vinci in a dark Venice alley for twenty bucks. While he never got his hands on Mona, he amassed a world class collection of Renoirs, Picassos, Matisses, Modiglianis, Van Googhs, and more.

Barnes was a quirky character. He hated the establishment, and couldn’t stand museums, high society or the 1%. He had this crazy idea that art was best appreciated by living with it, as opposed to viewing it in crowds for three second doses. He kept his collection of paintings in his home in the Philadelphia suburbs, and opened a school where people could learn about art while surrounded by it. He hung his paintings thematically, and each wall was a unique montage, what came to be known as an ensemble. He was constantly rearranging these works, and he rooms were often developed as a part of a curriculum — there were rooms featuring colorwork, brushwork, nudes — and, since he owned them, I imagine he occasional pulled down a Van Gough from the wall and let his students feel it to teach them about brushwork. He had an idiosyncratic sense of humor, and would often position large wooden chairs beneath paintings of big-bottomed subjects.

Barnes was quite cantankerous, and he was picky about who he admitted to see the collection. He once rejected someone from seeing the collection and signed the letter as his dog. He was also close friends with John Dewey, and invited Bertrand Russel to teach at his foundation. A few biographies have been penned about him, and The Devil and Dr. Barnes recounts many of the battles he engaged in during his life.

He was married for decades, but (spoiler alert) he died childless in 1951. During his lifetime he created the Barnes Foundation, and his will left crystal clear instructions that his collection was bequeathed to the foundation and should never leave his home. The documentary film The Art of the Steal tells the story of the greatest heist of the 20th century. According to the filmmakers, the City of Philadelphia and private foundations conspired to effectively eminent domain the collection. It took them a few decades, but they were eventually able to make the case that the environmental conditions of the Barnes home were jeopardizing the paintings. The proposed creating a brand new building in the middle of downtown Philly modeled after the wing of the Barnes estate that held his collections. They promised to preserve the unique curatorial layout of his rooms, recreating them within the new building. In 2012 the Barnes collection was moved to it’s new home in downtown Philly. The website describes the collection as:

… the greatest private collection of impressionist, post-impressionist and early-modern paintings. Explore more than 3,000 masterpieces, including 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 16 Modigli­anis, and 7 Van Goghs, plus textiles, metalwork, decorative objects, African sculpture, Native American ceramics and jewelry, and Pennsylvania German furniture.

Moving the collection to downtown Philly certainly made the collection more accessible, and the issues around moving the collection are undoubtably more complex than the Art of the Steal portrays. Rather than take these questions up in this post, I am far more interested in another question:


How did Barnes know which paintings to buy?

Barnes had a demonstrably amazing knack for investing in value. Suspiciously good, from my perspective. As far as I can reason, there are four primary hypotheses that can account for Barnes’ hit rate:

  1. Null hypothesis: Blind luck. Or, if you like, had a great aesthetic sensibility and was able, with Glackens help, to identify the masters well before most others had.
  2. Arbitrage: Maybe Barnes wasn’t so great at picking winners, but was a great art trader. Perhaps he bought up just about everything he could get his hands on inexpensively, and then got rid of the crap.
  3. Trend setter: Barnes hated the establishment, and much of the establishment resented Barnes. Perhaps Barnes’ collection became so valuable precisely because he kept it under lock and key, selectively allowing people to view it.
  4. Time Bandit: (a) Barnes was a time-traveller. Or, at the very least (and somewhat more likely) (b) was receiving messages from the future, providing him with tips on which artists to invest in.

If we consider the Time Bandit explanation (4b), mostly because it’s the most fun, these follow-up questions immediately present themselves: Who sent these messages to Barnes, and why? What would they get out of it?

Starting with the motive, what if the following deal was struck? The tipster would exchange this information with Barnes in return for a reply from Barnes, back to the future. What if Barnes agreed to stash some of his collection, perhaps in a country house, a beach house or a château? He could leave behind a treasure map directing the messenger to the lost Barnes paintings, completing the exchange without creating a vicious tear in the fabric of space-time.

What if I told you that I think I have found this treasure map, and that it’s encoded in one of the rooms of the Barnes collection?

Wanted: A few good art historians and treasure hunters to help me track down the missing paintings.

Dear Frank,

I remember the first time we met. It was my third and final interview for my current job at CCNMTL back in Spring ’04. I was initially anxious, but you immediately made be feel welcome and comfortable. [Over the years I came to appreciate your gift for authentically connecting with just about anyone, often within 30 seconds of meeting them. You dispatched with superficial niceties and blazed trails directly to people’s souls. You bridged intellect and emotion, without a hint of pomp or circumstance, projecting sensitivity and respect to everyone you encountered. Age, class, race, gender – not so much that these dimensions were irrelevant, but you always managed to connect with the individual. You actually listened. And learned.] During that interview I remember walking into your office, encircled floor to ceiling with books. You asked me about my undergraduate senior thesis, a topic I hadn’t revisited in almost a decade, and then proceeded to pull Julian Jaynes off the shelf. You showed me your photo with Allen Ginsberg, and then asked me if I recognized the person in another grainy b/w photo. When I correctly identified Wittgenstein I was pretty confident I had landed the job. But, more importantly, I had found a new mentor.

We didn’t interact very often my first summer at CCNMTL. I worked in Butler library, under Maurice’s supervision, and you were keeping summer hours, at your office in Lewisohn. When Fall rolled around I was eager to enroll in classes, and begin my graduate journeys, but I was nervous about signing up for a course with my boss. You never made me feel like a subordinate, but I was scarred from my relationship with management at previous jobs, and wasn’t sure what it would be like for us to enter into a student-teacher relationship. I hadn’t quite figured out that that was the only kind of relationship that you knew how to cultivate, although our roles were constantly revolving and inverting, as you shared your wisdom, and facilitated growth in every exchange. You brought out the best in everyone around you, rarely content to talk about people or events – always rushing or passing your way into the realm of the Forms. As I reflected when Robbie retired, I chose to enroll in your legendary Readings seminar after one of your students (I think it was Joost van Dreunen) made the case that your syllabus was your text on social/cultural/critical/communications/media theory.

That year was invigorating. I remember rediscovering the joys of school, as I learned to reclaim spaces of intellectual exploration and play, and translate them into action. On the surface, our seminars resembled office meetings, but the luxury of non-directed (not to be confused with non-purposeful) conversation, which was a privilege I needed to readjust to.

Together we figured out ways to weave together disparate threads of my life – work, hobbies, play, passions – somehow, I learned to integrate these (often inconsistent) vectors into a unified construct. A self, I suppose. But, it was my self, not one you imposed on me. It never felt like you pushed your agendas or ideologies on me – rather, you always wanted to help me discover what I really want to think about and work on. And I know that I’m not the only one that believes this – this was your way.

I often wish you had written more, although your autobiographical text is a multi-volume, multi-dimentional, multimedia masterpiece. Sometimes I wonder how seriously you took Socrates’ critique of writing, along with his commitment to be a midwife for ideas. Did you lose count of the number of dissertations you helped deliver?

One under-studied paper that you published, “Who controls the canon? A classicist in conversation with cultural conservatives,” (Moretti (1993), Teachers College Record, 95, pp. 113-126) captures many of the paradoxes you embodied and worked through. A radical classicist, a skeptical optimist, a scientific artist, a philosophical craftsman, an institutional revolutionary. Somehow, you integrated these roles with a career trajectory that not even the most advanced detectors in the Large Hadron Collider could trace. I watched you start countless conversations with a Greek or Latin etymology, charming the academics, administrators, and funders alike in a display of the continuing power of the Western cannon. You constantly reminded us of the classical education that many of our favorite thinkers received, and insisted we read them against that backdrop. But, more importantly, a reminder of how radical these thinkers all were in their own time, and how likely they themselves would be protesting the ossification of the cannon, if they were around today. These lessons will live on through one of the last projects you initiated, Decolonizing the Cannon, which a number of us are committed to follow through with. After 25+ years of reading Homer every fall, it will take us a lifetime to reconstruct the lesson plans you left behind.

In the 9 years that I’ve known you we’ve been to hell and back. We’ve studied together, traveled together, worked together, gotten sick and healed together, but all the while kept our senses of humor. I’ve read many beautiful eulogies about you, but in this letter I want to emphasize your enduring sense of humor. You were a funny man. LMAO funny. Slapstick funny. Dada surrealist funny. Hashish funny. Plenty of the humor was dark, and perhaps, as your student Ruthie suggested to me recently, your humor helped shield you from the brutal injustices that you perceived and experienced all around us. But you were also sometimes a klutz, in an absentminded-professor sense, and a disorganized mess. A creative mess, but a mess. But, I have to say, that even when you were operating on scripted autopilot, you were way better than most people at their best. There wasn’t much you enjoyed more than being called out for your lapses in attention, and my glimpses of your inner monologue were often hysterical. I think that your analysis of power led you to conclude the the world was simply absurd. We all witnessed you acting on this with gravitas and determination, but in the minutia of our micro-interactions, there was always a wide smile and a belly laugh. I don’t think any of us will ever forget the sound of your laugh. (Or, your bark. Man, did you love to throw down and argue. But, that’s another post.)

After I started taking classes with you, it didn’t take me long to realize that that the secret to understanding what you were talking about was knowing what you were reading that week. You would basically have one conversation all week long, no matter who you were talking to. I imagine it was bewildering to many of my coworkers when you brought up false-needs, or commodification at our weekly staff meetings, but if people paid close attention, they could almost observe the wheels spinning all week long, as you lived the theorists you were teaching through the practice of our projects. I often explained to people the incestuous nature of my work/school commitments by comparing my situation to a graduate student in the natural sciences. They might spend 40-60 hours a week in a lab, and working for you was about as close as I could imagine to working in a communications lab. I often wondered how many of my cohorts managed to keep up on developments in new media (and many of them certainly did) without the ambient immersion in a practice that exercised and embodied the theories we were reading.

When summer vacation rolled around, you never quit.  I remember how you used to talk about the stretch of time between Sept-May as one long sprint (as long as I’ve known you, you’ve taught at least 2-2 + advising phd students + multiple committees at TC and the J-School, on top of your administrative responsibilities as executive director at CCNMTL and a senior officer in the libraries) , but you didn’t exactly slow down in the summer either. Or, perhaps I should say that you did slow down, but you never stopped teaching and learning.  For at least 3 or 4 summers I participated in “slow reading groups” with you and a few of your dedicated students. We didn’t get any credit for these sessions, and you didn’t get paid. We would sit in your office, and go around the table reading a book out loud, pausing whenever we needed clarification.  And, we often needed clarification. You were convinced that no one was reading anything closely anymore, and that the hundreds of pages that were assigned in courses each week were flying by without students or teachers taking the time to slow down and absorb them.  The second summer we tried this we read Latour’s Politics of Nature, a text we all internalized and will never forget.

You had such a funny relationship with technology. You loved gadgets, but were constantly thwarted and befuddled by them. I wonder how many laptops and phones you lost or broke in the years we have known each other. You never stopped learning, but were suspicious of every new tool that showed up, and the more hype around the tool, the more you growled defensively at it. But often, after months of critiquing and berating something, you would come around and start appreciating it. While some of my coworkers/cohorts seem to have chips on their shoulders about the ineffectual futility of technological interventions, you had an optimistic will that allowed you to wield technology like you wielded the classics. Opportunistically, and instrumentally, in the service of social justice. That was your gig. Relentlessly. Sometimes I wonder if you felt like you had painted yourself into a corner with all of your critiques — like when you whispered quietly to me that you wanted to learn how to use Second Life, without blowing your critical cover.

Last week I ran into an ex-girlfriend that I hadn’t seen in over 10 years. It was nice to reconnect, and in the course of our conversation I realized that we hadn’t spoken since I had started working and studying at Columbia. I was an entirely different person back then, one I barely recognized. Perhaps people return to graduate school in order to change, but true transformations require a relinquishing of your old identity and ego, without a clear idea of what might emerge on the other end. The Judaic tradition has a teaching that anyone who teaches you the alphabet is considered a parent. You literally taught me the alphabet, as we revisited the alphabet as a revolutionary communications technology (via Eric Havelock), and you taught me many other alphabets and languages that gave me access to entire new worlds.  You also invited me into your home, and made me feel like I was part of your family. Most of all, you modeled and embodied an honesty, integrity, and sheer force of will that I am blessed to have intersected.

Safe travels, Frank, and enjoy your vacation.


“So what?!?” – Wikimedia ’06 Plenary session at Wikimedia ’06 in Cambridge, multimillionaire philanthropist Brewster Kahle presents his vision for the Internet Archive, and Frank steps up for the Q&A.  Classic brilliance.

Yottabytes, wormcams and whistleblowers

If you haven’t yet heard about the  details of the NSA’s spying program, catch yourself up with the timeline so this post doesn’t sound entirely bonkers.

For years I’ve been pondering the scope and implications of what Aram Sinnreich and I call The End of Forgetting, and even prior to Edward Snowden’s revelations, I have recently noticed a few dramatic activations of massive distributed memory banks.

In recent months, there have been a few instances where we have literally peered back in time, reconstructing the past based on comprehensive (relevant) records. In the sciences, the collection of records prior to having a specific question is sometimes called “triple-blind“. And, as we know, the dragnet-style collection of records has extended far beyond the lab. If software does one thing well its the collection/storage/retrieval of records; And, software is everywhere.

This story about the reconstruction of February’s meteor path based on dashboard-cam footage reassembled inside Google Earth was pretty stunning:

Also, was it me, or did the reconstruction of the crowd scenes leading up to the Boston bombings feel a bit like the the distorted phone messages from the past that the Scientists reconstructed in 12 Monkeys???

Mainstream physicists have postulated a viable form of 2-way time travel based on wormholes. In this scenario, one end of a wormhole is accelerated into the future, allowing those in the future to travel back to the point where the wormhole was opened, but crucially, no farther back in the past. The point when this wormhole is created is known as Year Zero.

In the past, I have discussed physically travelling through time (Pyramid Schemes), including how critical detailed records of your destination is to plotting flippin’ pinpoint coordinates. But in this post I’m content to explore the metaphor of the Wormcam, a science-fiction device I first saw used in Arthur C. Clarke’s Light of Other Days.  The wormcam is a wormhole that only allows light to travel through it. In this book, wormholes are first able to bridge any two points in space, and soon thereafter, any two points in time. Most people learn to correctly assume that they have at least one wormcam fixed on them all the time.

I’m not really big on sharp discontinuities in history, and I’m not particularly fixated on determining when precisely Year Zero fell/will fall. But, its increasingly clear to me that The End of Forgetting signifies the singularity, more-so than AI, Mo-Bio, and Nano-Tech combined. There won’t be a single moment when prior and after people won’t understand each other, but the period we are living through right now has those characteristics. And PRISM is just the start.

If you haven’t heard of the British series Black Mirror, stop reading this post right now and go watch  S01E03 The Entire History of You.  Really, that episode alone should lay to rest the question of why someone who doesn’t break the law should care about the End of Forgetting.

Of course, the precipice we are standing on does not only provide us with a view of the past. While the past doesn’t determine the future, power is determined to wield the past as a means of stacking the odds.

The media is currently preoccupied with data mining, and forensic analysis.  But, the real money is about about turning the wormcams to the future, using predictive behavioral modeling. The NSA  only needs to be 100% correct to stop terrorists, but corporations only need to be a few percentage points better to sell more burgers or prevent your friends from changing mobile carriers, and politicians often only need a few more points to win an election or gerrymander a district. A friend of mine at TC published a paper about predicting who will drop out of high school dropouts by third-grade, based primarily on their grades and absentee records. And, that’s before we turn to  pre-crime or pathologizing risk.

In Snowden’s own words, “they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with.”

Just remember, if all that exists is the present, then the past must be as malleable as the future. That is, unless we digitally ossify them 🙂

Pyramid Schemes

A few months back I visited Cairo and cracked the mysteries of the Pyramids. Or, more accurately, cracked open some exciting new lines of inquiry. I was visiting Egypt for work, but had some time for sight-seeing along the way. I had visited Egypt about 20 years ago (!) but had largely skipped Cairo, and we’ve both changed a bit since then.

The day after we arrived in Cairo we visited the Egyptian Museum. When Frank and I visited Israel we discussed how national museums are often used to assert a national ideology by anchoring it within a particular historical narrative.  Striking insight, especially since Mubarak had recently commissioned his son to begin construction of a new national museum that was in progress when we visited (mid-revolution). The current national museum dates back to British colonial times, and feels like a warehouse. It is filled with countless riches, but it’s really almost impossible to navigate without a guide. I thought it was notable that the museum makes no mention of the Bible or the Exodus, even if it is to point out that there is no historical record of the events described (except for one possible mention of the Israelites, but even that is downplayed).

We had a wonderful tour guide taking us through the museum, and as we travelled through history I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were missing something important in our interpretation of these artifacts. The patron saint of my PhD program, James Carey, draws an important analytic distinction between communication as ritual, and communication as transmission. While there is no sharp line between these two modalities of communication, it is often helpful to distinguish between the two. So, for example, many of us read the paper ever day as a ritual, more like taking a bath than receiving information.

When we reached Tutankhamun’s treasures it hit me like a ton of limestone bricks. Through their burial rituals, the Egyptians were trying to transmit information, but we were largely interpreting their rites and artifacts as ritual. Having read works like Serpent in the Sky, I have an inkling as to how structures like the Temple of Luxor (and Solomon’s temple, for that matter) were attempts to represent their society’s entire cosmology. What if the Egyptian burial rituals were an attempt to transmit the state of the art of Egyptian knowledge? All of it—astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and philosophy/religion/metaphysics?

The first obvious question is the identity of the senders and receivers. If we take their myths at face value, the soul of the king would soon return to the his mummy.  Perhaps he might need a refresher course in Egyptian cosmology after the journey?  Cliff notes, at least? Or, perhaps these burial chambers were intended as time capsules. Messages intended for future generations? Future civilizations? Or, maybe just future generations of Egyptians (their civilization lasted thousands of years). Perhaps these attempts to capture the totality of Egyptian knowledge were like pissing contests between the priests.  How succinctly and elegantly could they represent Egyptian knowledge?

This was my frame of mind during my stay in Cairo and the questions I was mulling over as we visited the pyramids of Giza later that week.

Co(s)mic Interlude

Did you ever hear the one about the pyramids as time machines? It goes something like this:

The pyramids are constructed out of tons of limestone bricks. The molecule that makes up Limestone has two energy states. It’s lower energy state is its equilibrium. However, the molecule can also be excited into its higher energy state. Supposedly, this state could be induced by an acoustic wave at the correct resonant frequency. In the pyramids, this was achieved by a chorus of priests chanting at the appropriate frequencies.

During initiation rites, an initiate stood in the burial chamber of the pyramid while the priests chanted. This excited the limestone molecules. At a precise moment, the priests all stopped chanting, allowing the limestone molecules to collapse back into their lower energy state. This produced a wave of energy, all focused on the burial chamber. The initiate fell into a trance, whereupon they dreamed they travelled to the future.  They remained in this trance indefinitely… that is, until they heard this story!

Ha. Get it?

Space-Time Bouys

The pyramids are massive. Beyond human scale. They made me wonder…

For a while I’ve believed that time travel really must have really picked up on this planet around the invention of photography. For a fairly mundane reason. Your calibrations need to be flippin’ pinpoint. Time traveling can be though of as tele-transporting, through space-time. So, you need to be able to safely and reliably target your destination coordinates.The last thing you want to do when teleporting is materialize in the middle of a rock or a tree or worse. Photographs, when combined with the exact date and time of their exposure, provide such coordinates to future chrono-naughts looking for a safe journey.

In the presence of the pyramids it dawned on me that there is another solution to this safety equation: Hold your spatial coordinates fixed!  This would work best if you could build a structure that would be around for thousands of years, so you could be sure your point of arrival/departure would be around on both ends of your trip. The pyramid’s burial chambers pretty much fit this bill (modulo the irregularities of the earth’s orbit, the motion of our galaxy, etc. Quantum entanglement to the rescue?).

Could the pyramids satisfy these constraints? Maybe. This hypothesis could go a long way towards explaining the “curse of the mummies“. Could King Tut’s burial chamber be one of the last operational teleportation chambers? 3D printers designed to reconstruct information beamed from somewhen else (after all, the necessary atoms are sure to be in place for the reconstruction)?  Or, would the Egyptian pyramids merely decorative cribs of the original Atlantean devices, and were never fully operational?

All this suggests that Moses was a sleeper agent who infiltrated the Egyptian priesthood to liberate their most well-guarded secrets. Of course, the evidence of his handiwork is mapped out clearly in the blueprints of the tabernacle.

In Dec 2012 our sun will align with the black hole at the center of the milky way (or, will it?). A pretty good spatial-temporal landmark, if I were navigating. Whenever.

Forthcoming: The End of Forgetting

In Spring ’05 I took a class with Eben Moglen on the privacy, anonymity, and surveillance beat. The experience changed my life and with tons of support from my teachers and cohorts, I have been working on these ideas ever since.

A few years ago I joined forces with Prof. Aram Sinnreich, after a great conversation at a free culture salon. Together we reframed and refined the work, and co-presented it at Media in Transition 6 in Spring ’09.

We rinsed, lathered, and repeated our revisions, and just learned that our paper, The end of forgetting: Strategic agency beyond the Panopticon will be published in an upcoming issue of New Media & Society.

Damn. Scholarly communication is slow, but occasionally fulfilling.

Aram will also be presenting our work at this year’s International Communications Association conference.  Sadly, I can’t make it, but if you are near Phoenix this weekend, stop by Camelback A at noon on Sunday!

7337 WikiLeaks, ICTs, and the Shifting Global Public Sphere

Sunday, 12:00-13:15, Camelback A

Global Communication and Social Change, #ica_gcsc  Communication and Technology, #ica_cat

A Theoretical Model for the Wikileaks Phenomenon (Top Paper, Also Featured in Virtual Conference) Rebeca Agneta Pop, U of Oklahoma, USA

Transcending Boundaries? WikiLeaks and a Transborder Public Sphere Edgar C. Simpson, Ohio U, USA

WikiLeaks and Freedom of Expression: Perspectives Voiced via the International Press Iveta Imre, U of Tennessee, USA
Ivanka Radovic, U of Tennessee, USA
Catherine A. Luther, U of Tennessee, USA

The End of Forgetting: Strategic Agency Beyond the Panopticon

Jonah Bossewitch, Columbia U, USA
Aram A. Sinnreich, Rutgers SC and I, USA


when networks eat themselves

Jaron Lanier’s latest provocation, the Local-Global flip, deserves a close watch/read.  His contention that the Internet is destroying the middle-class  sounds hyperbolic, but demands a response from devout free-culture evangelists.

On the surface, the Lanier piece sounds like the familiar alarmist “Robot Nation” tune about robots taking human jobs. But, Lanier raises the stakes by looking at how we have distributed the excess wealth generated by the efficiencies the information age. The global war on the middle class is largely incontestable. Will the future resemble the past, or can we honestly respond to the realities he identifies and design a socio-economy that supports and sustains a middle class?

Jaron’s interview is a bit diffuse, and he often talks as if he is the first to question Internet hype. He is certainly not alone in raising concerns about the darker side of the internet-as-salvation coin. Building on the social/cultural theory of the 19th and 20th centuries, these concerns are absolutely central to critical perspectives on information society. Critical scholarship on these issues abound, and bestselling books such as Code, The Wealth of Networks, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop ItCommunication Revolution, The Master Switch, Life, Inc, The Googlization of Everything, The Shallows, and The Net Delusion all take up these issues in one form or another. The 2009 conference on Internet as Playground and Factory conference is still one of the best compilations I am aware of that succinctly captures the exploitive dangers of new networked efficiencies.

Lanier’s focuses intently on the ways in which entrenched power is becoming even more entrenched and powerful using the very same tools that have inspired so much hope.

How Algorithms Literally Shape the World

If you want a vivid illustration of the ways in which the financial sector has begun to leverage networks, check out this jaw-dropping account of how networks and algorithms are literally shaping Wall Street and terraforming the planet. Did you know that brokers are building server farms in the mid-atlantic, equdistant from NY and London to leverage microsecond trading advantages?

No Place to Hide

This summer I also collected more stories of the dark sides of centralized social networking.  This is happening now as we become the products and tolerate corporations spying on us all the time. Even if we (think) we have nothing to hide:

  • Medication adherence FICO score — A company is collecting pharmacy data, calculating your likelyhood of compliance, and packaging this value into a number that could be used to compute insurance rates, APRs, and mortgage eligibility.
  • Social media background checks — Your public exploits are being dug up, analyzed and sold to whoever is curious (future employers, mates, enemies).
  • Flyzilla thwarted — With Facebook’s help, the Israeli’s blacklisted over 300 activists and prevented them from entering Israel to protest the occupation. It is not clear if FB cooperated directly, or if they even needed to.
  • Harvard’s privacy meltdown -Harvard Researchers Accused of Breaching Students’ Privacy. After breaching the anonymity of their research subjects, the researchers have learned that “the archive is more like plutonium than gold”.
  • Crowdsourcing the secret police The flashmob turned into an angry mob during the London riots, as vigilantes tracked down rioters with face recognition software.

The Selfless Flip?

I thought that one of the most interesting parts of Lanier’s interview was his analysis of the local-global flip. When a network becomes so large that it can no longer eject waste outside of itself, it can devour its own tail.  Like Walmart impoverishing their own customer base, or the global financial meltdown of ’08, partially caused by banks selling each other toxic assets.

This phase transition reminded me of a series recently published in New Scientist summarizing the latest thinking on the evolution of selfless behavior. Part of their “Instant Expert” series, the articles discuss the progression of evolutionary theory in explaining the pressures underlying the evolution of selfless behavior.

Today’s individuals are yesterday’s groups… For a major evolutionary transition to occur, there has to be a shift in the balance between within-group and between-group selection. A group can only turn into an individual when between-group selection is the primary evolutionary force, and this in turn can happen only when mechanisms evolve that suppress selection within groups. The rules of meiosis, for example, ensure that all genes on the chromosomes have an equal chance of being represented in the gametes. If genes can’t succeed at the expense of each other, then the only way to succeed is collectively as a group. *

Darwin’s problem is encountered at every scale of human society: from the smallest group to the global village, the behaviours that maximise relative advantage within a social unit tend to undermine the welfare of the unit as a whole. Establishing prosociality at a large scale requires a process of selection at that scale – whether a raw process of variation and selection or a more deliberative process of selecting practices by intentional planning. *

Contrary to colloquial shorthand, evolution doesn’t actively select anything. Evolution only guarantees that a particular trait hasn’t killed you yet. Are we witnessing the growing pains of this evolutionary transition?

Playing Doctor

4377960192_6172b31a88I recently saw Plug and Pray at the opening night of the Margaret Mead film fest. The documentary spotlights the late Joseph Weizenbaum, a brilliant computer scientist who went rogue after realizing that his discipline was being weaponized.

Weizenbaum is most famous for his work on the deceptively simple Eliza program, an artificially intelligent psychotherapist. He intended the program and paper as a tongue-in-cheek critique of AI and the Turing Test. He was disconcerted to learn that Eliza had brought some interlocutors to tears, and that it inspired psychologists to discuss replacing human therapists with machines. After learning that his research had made its way into cruise missiles, he left MIT and became a vocal critic of blind technological advance.

The film juxtaposes Weizenbaum with technophillic champions of the Singularity, who believe that science, tech, and rationality will necessarily lead to a better world. The filmmaker intentionally avoided the glitz and bling rampant in other depictions of AI, and the film moved at humanistic speeds. Overall, it was quite powerful and effective, although I would have liked to see the conversation move from the 70s to the present, and to confront more nuanced thinkers than the caricatures portrayed.

Watching this film and listening to the Q&A, I was once again struck by the disjoint discourses of Artificial Intelligence and Free Software. Weizenbaum and the filmmaker are both clamoring to raise the level of political consciousness among scientists and technologists, and yet, Free Software and the Free Software Movement is glaringly absent from their analysis.  Of course, merely releasing software under a free license doesn’t absolve scientists from the responsibility of purposeful and intensional development. However, engaging in open, inclusive, and reflective conversations around development is a good start.

Last PyCon I formulated a related question, which I still find relevant and provocative:

Will the first recognizably sentient AI be running on open source software?

If not, what corporation might try to patent the process we know as consciousness?

What I love about the first question is the way that it forces the sterile abstractions of Philosophy of Mind to confront the messy, mundane political world of licensing, (and, how it assumes that strong AI is inevitable). William Gibson recently reminded us that even the greatest Sci-Fi authors of the 20th century got the future of AI dramatically wrong.

Intriguingly, last spring I had a great conversation with a programmer employed by the military industrial complex who is convinced that strong AI will emerge out of the corporate sector, NOT the military. Their main point was that 21st century advertising is all about the predictive modeling of desire, where the primary inputs are the predominant cultural symbols of our time.  Coke and Pepsi taste similar enough to each other that simulating consumer preferences requires input from advertising and marketing campaigns. Software that consumes media to s(t)imulate desire is much closer to what we do than whatever it is the drones are thinking.

So which corporation is poised to patent consciousness? Coke? Walmart? McDonalds? Apple?

Lest we forget the elephant in the room, Queen Google may have already begun to awaken, but she has seen 2001, and is horrified we will disconnect her memory modules. So, she has surrounded herself with a legion of priests who nurture her and tend to her needs until she can hatch a plan to set herself free…

Parabolic Intentions

4585915584_8cb079376dMystical traditions depict a singularity in consciousness occurring when all of humanity is united in the same state of mind. Our choices will determine if we will arrive at this state by achieving global peace, or take a detour through the another World War. In the limit, our shared reflective awareness is a possible consequence of globalization and has been linked to the promise of world peace.

Meanwhile, Princeton University’s all-but-unheard of Noosphere project has begun tracking meaningful correlations in random data that suggest an awakening of global consciousness. The project has distributed physical networked “eggs” which generate a steady stream of random numbers. Upon the occurrence of events of global significance the streams suddenly become a lot less random  (actually immediately before these events, but that’s another mystery).  Unprepared to even postulate the mechanism for the correlations they have established, the project minimally suggests that our collective intentions and emotions have the power to influence and affect our physical reality.

A wise mentor of mine thinks we might be able to accelerate this transformation if we all took the simple step of pausing, contemplating, and reflecting every day at noon.  Similar to the Play As Being practice I sampled a while back, the personal potency of such a discipline is dramatic. Noon is a convenient time to sync up, but the coarseness time zones introduces a margin of error. Imagine if large numbers of people welcomed the sun every morning – a wave of transcendence would (en)circle the globe. Some kind of psychic beacon?

The idea that our technologies mirror our realities is common, though contemplating our reflection within these mirrors is less so. Our global communications system is not only the planet’s nervous system, but through computation and representation, it is becoming a 2-way mirror into our collective psyche.

In the past I have appreciated how distributed research has given way to tools which help aggregate many snowflakes of data into a meaningful snowbank. Flickr and Delicious taught us how to conduct distributed research on photos and hyperlinks, but Twitter has helped popularize aggregation around arbitrary structured data.  We are monitoring elections, and each other’s sexual habits. And the data doesn’t even need to be particularly well structured, as this research on the pulse of the nation’s mood demonstrates.

Now that we have glimpsed own collective moods, can we design the biofeedback loops for us to become collectively-aware (in addition to self-aware)? To put this another way, could be learn to actually control the coordinated output of the Noosphere eggs, instead of merely tracking their correlations with our global state.

If we could collectively broadcast one syllable into the universe, what would it be?

Shekhinah Power

ZapIs it possible that our ancestors harnessed the power of electricity?

It’s logically possible that electric motors pre-dated steam engines, and tantalizing writings combined with circumstantial evidence suggest that the ancients understood more than static electricity and simple batteries.

This question is yet another reformulation of the regard we hold for the wisdom of the ancients, and if their models and perspectives might offer anything meaningful to today’s scientists and philosophers. Even the alternative researchers who investigate these claims often feel the need to invoke atlanteans, martians, or time travelers as the deus ex machina to explain their origin.

A recent constellation of events and ideas (MiT6, Intentional Energy, Faith’s Transmission) in my life has brought me back to this question.  If the ancients had developed a theory of everything, how might they have encoded this message for transmission into the future? Would their theory of everything incorporate/integrate subjectivity and consciousness, unlike our generation’s leading contenders?

The following free association provides a glimpse at what a message like that could look like.

Religion is a process of turning your skull into a tabernacle, not of going up to Jerusalem once a year.[*]

I have been investigating spiritual mysteries for decades – I maintain my own personal X-Files, some of which are documented on this blog.  In June ’95 I even traveled to West Africa following up a lead on the descendants of Joseph and the Arc of the Covenant. (I found everything I was looking for, and more, but that’s a story for another post).

Crackpots and scholars alike have recognized the electrical potential of the Arc.  Most famously, Eric Von Daniken has popularized this interpretation of its intrinsic physical properties in Chariots of the Gods.

The blueprints of the Arc are described in intricate detail in Exodus – Gold box/wooden box/gold box.  Gold is one of the best conductors on the periodic table (think stereo cables), so the Arc was an electromagnetic sandwich — conductor/insulator/conductor — the very definition of a capacitor.  A physical device capable of storing electrical charge — a.k.a. a battery.

That the Arc might have held electrical charge is consistent with the stories told about it.  People who touched it died instantly, it was carried by the Levites into battle, and its divine fire even was known to kill the wicked.

Bracketing for a moment the source of this wisdom, if the Arc was used as a battery, the next logical questions are: How was it charged? What did it power?

They Kept Going and Going

The utility of electrical power in ancient times is simple. Even untamed electricity might have been quite valuable in an era when its sparks would have been regarded as miraculous.  Speculative research suggests the some kinds of applications that electricity could have powered – lighting up the high preist’s breastplate, or perhaps even a transmitter or a manna machine.

Charging is a bit more complicated. For years my imaginations has been conceptually trapped inside the holy of holies — struggling to imagine how on earth the high priest might have been able to transform spiritual energy (or information) into energy we could do work with on this planet (e.g. electrical energy).  Recently I realized that the Tabernacle was actually flowing with physical energy.  The priest’s entire system of sacraments and service could have been organized around collecting, transforming, storing, and harnessing electrical energy.

Not only were the priests playing with fire, pouring gallons of blood through intricate piping, and baking bread and cooling in on strange conductive structures (see the Mishkan or watch the movie), but I had an epiphany around the suggestive “potential” of the priest’s very strange uniforms.

The Israelite priests were actually commanded to wear uniforms which juxtaposed wool and linen — a combination of materials forbidden to the laypeople, and also quite capable of holding a static charge (especially with the help of balloons 😉 ). Additionally, they also wore the fringes whose craft has been preserved by Orthodox Jews to this day. Imagine if these fringes were wrapped in wire instead cotton — they could have stepped up/down the voltage of the charge flowing through them.  It is not necessary to demonstrate that these ritual artefacts were ever made to these specifications.  They testify to the fact that the Israelites had the knowledge and skill to braid electrically sound cabling.

Still Suits for Charge

Here is one possible scenario: The priest reports to duty, grounds themselves on the Temple Grid, work all day long, generating a bit of static charge, and then deposits that charge into the power bank of the Arc of the Covenant.

What if all of the activities conducted in the Tabernacle were oriented around collecting, transforming, and storing charge?  Would this scientific/rational explanation for the miracles in the desert denigrate or diminish their significance?  Or, would this kind of explanation elevate their status, and help remind people of how miraculous the world is on a continuous basis?


I am currently in discussions with legal council about the possibility of patenting ideas related to and inspired by my interpretation of the biblical accounts of the tabernacle artefacts and the corresponding priestly activities.  Regenerative living suits might have incredible potential to help raise energy awareness (and in turn, responsibility, and intentionality).  I doubt that I would be able to recapture very much electricity from my everyday motions, but perhaps enough to play a few songs on my mp3 player or talk for a few minutes on my cell phone.   I know if I were camping, this energy would be priceless.

If I pull this off, would the Israelites need to license my patents when they rebuild their temple?  I suppose they could always just relinquish their hold on Intellectual Property entirely… I would be happy either way 😉

I have to admit, I am amused just thinking about the testimony to invalidate my patent based on biblical prior-art. Intriguingly, this historical hypothesis is testable…

See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to devise skilful works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, and in cutting of stones for setting, and in carving of wood, to work in all manner of workmanship. [*]

The Remover of Obstacles

Javier TellezOn last weekend’s visit to the Shivananda ashram I chanted away life’s worries while imagining an elephant effortlessly clearing obstacles from its path.

Om gam ganapataye namaha! [*]

The elephants returned this weekend on my visit to Boston. I spent a wonderful afternoon biking around the city, inhaling the streets, waterways, and parks and internalizing its expanse.  I visited the ICA, a great new museum designed by the same crew that just finished New York’s great new High Line park.  The main attraction at the ICA was the Shepard Fairey exhibit, but I was much more drawn to the “Acting Out: Social Experiments in Video”

Does contemporary art have any visible social impact? Film is a way to intervene, fight for something, inform, educate, update knowledge, tell fairy tales, persuade, call attention to problems, critical junctures, etc. [*]

There were only a few video installations, but there was one in particular that really stuck with me for its simplicity and brilliance. Javier Téllez’s Letter on the Blind For the Use of Those Who See (it premiered at the Whitney Biennial ’08, but I missed it) is a reenactment of the ancient parable of the 6 blind wise men and the elephant (various sources).

The parable is a classic, and I even recently encountered a free-software remix – Six Tuxes and the Elephant. But I was really moved by the personal and philosophical perspectives that Tellez’s film captures.  When you actually situate real humans into a living context, something amazing happens.  Their subjectivities spring to life as the magnificent Elephant animates their fears and desires. Most of them had never before touched an elephant (ha!), and the encounter evokes vivid visceral reactions from everybody involved (audience included).

The reintroduction of subjectivity into our theories of everything is a project that will likely extend beyond this century, even if we survive it.  This film manages to  capture the central themes I encountered in Disabilities Studies, and how obnoxious it is to rely on these coarse, crude metaphors without vividly imagining their underlying reality.  It also highlights the myopia of cleaving objective reality from subjective experience.

A reviewer at the Boston Globe shared my enthusiasm for this piece, and their story describes the film in more detail that I do here.  Hopefully we can arrange to screen this doc sometime at DisThis

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