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

Faith’s Transmission

Message in a BottleWell, its been 2 months since I participated in MIT’s Media in Transition (MiT6), but the event is still vividly fresh in my mind.

The conference was really amazing. It attracted a really diverse mix of theorists and practitioners, academics and professionals, and folks from many walks of life. This conference I tried to go to talks where I “didn’t belong” – hoping to learn from disciplines I don’t regularly encounter. It was a great strategy, as I often gravitate towards talks that I know something about, wanting to hear the presenter’s take on it, but venturing beyond my usual horizons was much more fun.

Aram Sinnreich and I presented a paper on Strategic Agency in an Age of Limitless Information (abstract, slides), and I am really happy with how things turned out. Hopefully, we’ll work on polishing this paper up to submit to a journal soon, though I don’t really know where we should submit yet.

The videos for the main plenary events are now up and I am looking forward to clipping the little hand grenades I remember throwing during Q&A.

This panel on Archives and History (my question starts @ 1:35:15) wasn’t the only conversation about archiving, but it was fairly representative of the perspectives. It’s too bad MIT World does not provide me with a mechanism to address a point of time in their videos (like our recently liberated VITAL tool allows), so you’ll have to advance the playhead manually to hear me out. It’s basically a riff on – Why Archive? – The beauty of the Sand Mandala and the effort required to actually delete something….

The conversations were very similar to some that we had back in May ’07 at the Open Content conference, but not I think I can finally articulate what’s been bugging me about these conversations. With the help of Ben and John Durham Peters (we shared a bus ride to/from the conf), I realized that archiving can be thought about as a transmission, for anyone, into the future.

I also realized that ordinarily, when we look to the past, we use history to help us understand ourselves better. The presumption that future generations will actually care about us for our own sake, strikes me as narcissistic (narcissism and new media has surfaced on this blog before).  I imagine they will want to use the messages that we send them to help themselves, understand themselves better.  So, to archive purposefully the question becomes – how can we best help the future?

To the archivists who claim we don’t have any idea what questions the future will be asking, so we better save it all – I think I know what the future will be trying to understand about us.  They will likely be trying to figure out what on earth was distracting us while we let the planet die!  We were busy devoting our resources to saving every last copy of American Idol and Big Brother while Gia screamed in agony for help.

So, how can we increase the signal-to-noise ration of the messages we send into the future?  Without somehow reducing the message to the critically problematic golden record on the voyager spaceship, or its successors?  I guess the Long Now Foundation is thinking along these lines, and I have always envied David Vakoch’s job title (Director of Interstellar Message Composition)…  The conference helped me realize that Vakoch and the Long Now have a really similar task – but I don’t know how many archivists conceive of their task as Intergenerational Message Composition.

Perhaps we need to spend even more time curating?  Indicating in our archives why we think they were worth saving? And what’s the most important message we can send into the future? Not like it matters much longer, as I really do believe we are embarking on The End of Forgetting (see our conf paper for more details).

Shifting frames for a moment, what if the ancients had a really important message to send us? Their Theory of Everything, or the equivalent of E=MC^2.  How would they have attempted to transmit it?

When I discussed these ideas w/ my friend Rasmus he recommended I start up a consulting firm specializing in Future Relations. 😉

Intentional Energy

Seed of Life ActivatorThis past weekend I took part in an exciting panel on internet labor at the Left Forum, but the highlight of the weekend was serendipitous. I attended a salon hosted by Reality Sandwich:

Electrical energy is political energy is personal energy is metaphysical energy: A discussion on technological tools and political policy for opportunities of human freedom and evolution.

While I am usually open to edgy ideas, and am quite comfortable entertaining (and sometimes visiting) alternate realities, I certainly wasn’t expecting the treat I encountered. Ryan Wartana orchestrated an amazing experience, successfully interweaving the metaphors of energy and power through the lenses of the physical, personal, political, and metaphysical.

Ryan has PhD in chemical engineering and has been researching and working with nanotechnology and batteries for over a decade.  Professionally, he is the CTO for the alternative energy startup iCel Systems and is quite committed to alternative renewable energy solutions. He was on the East Coast participating in conference in DC on Advanced Battery Manufacturing, and swung through NYC to connect with other segments of his network.

To give you a sense of the atmosphere, Ryan spoke against the backdrop of a revolving slideshow of sacred geometry (which I have studied also), whose forms and principles have inspired many of his artistic/scientific inquiries and designs. He has worked with researchers growing self-repeating and self-replicating nanostructures, and it soon became clear how inhabiting this domain influenced his thinking. Some large problems can be effectively broken into tiny parts, but it can be difficult to imagine how to practice this w/out radically adjusting our perspective.

I left the lecture with a much clearer vision of what an intelligent energy grid, or an “internet of energy” is all about.  Basically, the current energy grid is unidirectional, and on-demand.  It is a centralized distribution system, much like last century’s mass broadcast media. If we distribute a dollop of storage and intelligence to the network, many amazing possibilities emerge. The analogy with integrated circuits was quite provocative – our current grid is like a circuit board w/out any capacitors on it. iCel and companies like them are trying to become the Cisco of the Energy platform, and create integrated energy systems. So, individuals could draw power when its inexpensive (at night) and produce power and return it to the grid, or even to their peers – bittorrent style.

The power of distributed networks to improve redundancy and resilience, and reclaim lost bandwidth and capacity is well known in information technology and network theory. Google has even been distributing their physical power storage in their servers. But the possibilities Ryan illuminated intuitively clicked for me – and I trusted his vision, even though he is in the battery business 😉

These distributed energy systems are vital, and starting to happen. I wondered about connections with the electric car venture – Beter Place. Their system is immensely promising, but riddled with uncertainty. Will their hardware interoperate with other power providers, or will people be locked in? Will their customers be better off relying on a centralized transportation provider, instead of remaining independent and relatively autonomous?  What there be provisions to mitigate the surveillance threats their network poses?  When you mash good batteries up with Better Place (with a bit of peer-to-peer pressure), many of these problems melt away.

We also talked alot about the importance of energy awareness, giving way to energy responsibility, leading to energy intentionality.  These ideas actually had alot to do with my presentation at the Left Forum, which are hinted at in my take on Free Energy.

The talk left me invigorated and hopeful. NYU’s ITP has had some great projects on energy awareness, and there is even a prof at Columbia who wants to rig up a dorm with energy monitoring.  And, some of our work at CCNMTL with the Earth Institute and the Millenium Villages might benefit from these insights and connections as well.

I attended the Reality Sandwich event hoping that a dose of creative consciousness expansion would offset the heaviness of struggle at the Left Forum. What a refreshing contrast to feeling trapped inside an inescapable system. We can imagine our way free.

Banish the word struggle from your attitude and your vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration. “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” — Hopi Elder

Herding Anarchists

Anarchy in the UKThere is a fascinating culture emerging around distributed version control systems (DVCS), facilitated by software, but responding to (and suggesting) shifts in collaboration styles. It is very easy to imagine these practices percolating through other areas of information production.

I am still a bit new to distributed versioning, but a primary difference between distributed versioning and traditional centralized versioning is how easy/hard it is for an outsider to contribute ideas/expressions/work back to the project. Part of what makes this all work smoothly are very good tools to help merge disparate branches of work – it sounds chaotic and unmanageable, but so did concurrent version control when it first became popular (that is, allowing multiple people to check out the same file at the same time, instead of locking it for others while one person was working on it).

This post, Sharing Code, for What its Worth, does a great job explaining some of the advantages of distributed version control systems. Sometimes you just want to share/publish your work, not start a social movement. Sometimes you want to contribute back to a project w/out going through masonic hazing rituals. DVCS facilitates these interactions, far more easily than traditional centralized/hierarchical version control systems.

Wikipedia runs on a centralized version control system, but the Linux Kernel is developed on DVCS (as Linus Trovalds explains/insists himself here). We are just starting to use github at work, and I have watched it increase the joy of sharing – reducing the disciplined overhead of perfecting software for an imagined speculative use and coordinating networks of trusted contributors. The practice really emphasizes the efficient laziness of agile programming, and helps you concentrate on what you need now, not what you think you might need later.

In some ways, this style of collaboration is more free-loving than an anonymously editable wiki, since all versions of the code can simultaneously exist – almost in a state of superposition. However, there is a hidden accumulation of technical debt that accrues the longer you put of combining different branches of work. And, sometimes you may actually want to start a community or social movement around your software, which is still possible, but is now decoupled and needs to be managed carefully.

I think we can start to see hints of this approach breaking free from the software development world in this recent piece of intention-ware described in Crowdsourcing the Filter.  (I met some of the Ushahidi team earlier this year –  -and was impressed by how competent and grounded they seemed – tempering both the hype and nostalgia). As Benkler has argued, ranking and filtering is itself just another information good, and amenable to peer production, but the best ways of organizing and coordinating – distributing and then reassebling – this production, still need to be worked out.

Two more flakes

6 credits and another season later, I have two more essays to show for the time indentured to my phd program. One of these years I might even save up enough flakes for a snow bank.

I had fun with this one, which I wrote for a class on the History of the Theory of Architecture – the assignment was to analyze a piece of architectural theory, so naturally I chose an information architect…

Possibility Spaces: Architecture and the Builders of Information Societies

This other paper was for my seminar with Michael Schudson on Transparency and Democracy. It packages up some thinking I have been doing for a while on the politics of memory, surveillance, and transparency, and opens up some serious ground for future research.

The End of Forgetting: Transparent Identities and Permanent Records

Next stop is a week in Vermont – off the grid (honestly, its almost off the map), but am already looking forward to next Spring’s semester, kicking off with this conference on The Changing Dynamics of Public Controversies.

Bruno vs. The Cavemen

This summer I was part of an amazing reading group where we slowed to a crawl and closely read Bruno Latour’s Politics of Nature. When I say we read the book, I mean we literally went around the table and read the book out loud, stopping to discuss difficult passages until we were confident we understood them.

I haven’t taken to the time to read a book this closely in ages, and the experience reinforced the age old addage about finding the universe in a grain of sand. Reading a book that deals with such deep eternal themes, written by a brilliant theoretician who has himself synthesized and integrated an incredible amount of history, philosophy, and literature, was like glimpsing the entire cannon through Latour’s eyes, and well worth the effort.

In this work, Latour performs a root canal on a form of conceptual dualism that has haunted Western thought for millennium. The book revolves around a perplexing circumstance in world we have constructed for ourselves – How did we end up in a world where one set of propositions (usually known as facts) are authoritative, unassailable, and incontrovertible and another set of propositions (usually known as values) are the kinds things we are allowed to argue about?

Apart from the challenge of figuring out which of these flawed categories a particular proposition belongs to, the artificial separation between the tasks of constructing the common world and constructing the common good shuts down all possibility of discourse – before we even get a chance to try to arrive at consensus! The institutionalization of facts and values are so inextricably intertwined that it is folly to erect barriers between these two enterprises.

Latour illustrates his perspective with examples from controversies in the sciences (especially Environmentalism and Political Ecology), but it is trivial to transpose his argument to the great debates between objectivity and subjectivity in Journalism, and the ways that certain kinds of propositions (‘data’ in many conversations about technology, and ‘revelation’ in conversations about religion) are invoked as trump cards to shut down all debate. Medical “science”, especially psychiatry and brain science are horrendous perpetrators of these offenses right now, and the consequences are anything but theoretical. The Onion provides my favorite example illustrating the confusion between facts and values.

Latour’s proposed strategy for re-imagining the mexican standoff between nature/culture, science/democracy, facts/values, objectivity/subjectivity, necessity/freedom, etc is to re-tie a metaphysical Gordian knot as an epistemological one. He would like us to consider an dynamically expanding collective of players/concepts, composed of humans and non-humans (the non-humans have spokespeople, whose assertions are speech acts – qualified by the same kinds of language we use to indicate our confidence in any speech act).

Revisiting and reinterpreting Plato’s metaphor of Cave, Latour traces the West’s tendency to cleanly divide smooth facts from messy values to the flawed idea of aspiring to leave the Cave to grasp/glimpse/experience the Truth. Even if this were attainable, the sojourners would still need to return back into the cave, to mediate and relate their experience to those still trapped within. Instead of aspiring to leave the cave, we need to transcend the entire Cave system.

It isn’t completely fair to criticize a book for what it’s missing (no single book can be all things), but it would be great to expand this line of analysis in the future and elaborate on the role of mediation in the current and imagined collective. It seems pretty clear to me that for Latour, the ‘Sciences’ encompass the entire enterprise of Science, including the scientists, the funders, the corporations, the educators, and the scientific journalists. But, there is little in the book that unpacks these relations.

A broader criticism sets an argument that John Durham Peter’s advanced in Speaking into the Air, against Latour’s conception of the Collective. Peter’s argues that we often view communication as salvation, when in fact alot of discourse never leads to consensus, and there are perspectives that are mutually incommensurate and irreconcilable. I may be naive to think the Collective that Latour dreams of is a realistic aspiration, though I sure would love to live to participate in it.

I also want to explore the connections between this work and the Death of Environmentalism essay I encountered last year. I think Shellenberger and Nordhaus’ argument is a vivid and direct application of the theory Latour argues in The Politics of Nature.

Ulises Mejias’ work on Networked Proximity is another work which might be fascinating to juxtapose with the dynamically expanding collective (which, can be thought about as a network).  Ulises’ notions of the para-nodal might be crucial to consider when the collective invokes the power to take things into account.

Passing Virtual Cars

I’ve got a wonderful summer backlog of posts piling up, but I really want to try to keep these posts short(er) and sweet, so I’ll try to compose staccato.

My explorations into virtual worlds have taken a turn for the surreal lately, as I have made a few new close friends who have been graciously teaching me how they play. I feel like I might be coming ridiculously late to the conversation (I don’t often play video games), but my experiences have given me new pause about the raging debate over the potential influence of sex and violence in games/media on people (not just youth).

I have learned first-hand how Second Life encourages people to articulate their fantasies in intricate detail – trying on new fashions, tattoos, piercings, behaviours, and lifestyles. From a few conversations, I am also pretty sure that much of this identity-play sometimes sticks, and often crosses back over into real life.

The whole process is spookily reminiscent of the “manifesting principle,” described in magickal/mystical systems like Chaos Magick (e.g. Carol’s Liber Kaos) and even Kabballah (The Three Abrahamic Covenants and The Car Passing Trick):

  1. Know what you want. Clearly and precisely understand what you want by doing the intellectual work needed to really know what you want and how much it costs (or how impossible it is.)
  2. Sacrifice your(ego)self to the task. Put your heart and soul into your endeavour. Do real work in the physical world towards your goal. Care deeply about the work you are doing. Work (and pray) well beyond your normal point of giving up. Do the work and show your caring anyway, even if it seems that [God] is not listening.
  3. Return your personal will to [God]. Give up, be infinitely patient, and pay attention.

The manifesting principle only works when a person has made a real sacrifice and has continued to work even while they have let go of their expectations of the outcome they desire. When a person short-circuits the full process, nothing happens. When there has been no sacrifice, there is nothing for [God] to respond to. (Stan Tenen, The Purpose of Prayer).

So, while Halo or even Grand Theft Auto might not cross some yet unknown threshold, I am mildly concerned about the World of Warcraft players. Sure, many of them are just playing, but some might be inflicting real emotional harm on other real people. Something to ponder.

I haven’t really worked this out in detail yet, but I also wonder if Geertz’s notion of “deep play” (introduced in Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cock Fight) might be useful and relevant here. The deep play he describes shares many characteristics with these mystical formulas and the magical substrate that Second Life has clearly become for some people. Something the Stanford lab is trying to systematically measure and observe, though I don’t think they have floating this particular hypothesis yet 😉

In many ways my conversations and immersion in the wonderful Play as Being project and community have helped me think about these relationships (especially ‘letting go’, the final step in manifesting), but I will save some of the direct connections for a future post.

Jingles, Mantras, and Catch Phrases

play as beingWell, I’m on day four of our experiment with Play as Being, and have noticed subtle changes in my mood, disposition, and preoccupations. I really like the rhythm of this discipline – in Piet/Parma‘s words, this practice is an experiment in trading off duration for frequency.

Between work and school I haven’t managed to carve out significant stretches of meditative duration the past few years, but the gentle, persistent redirection of my attention is somehow more manageable, and showing positive traces. I am more confident in my decision making, better at recognizing and balancing desire and self-control, and spending more time thinking about abstract concepts and questions.

I have been very excited about this adventure, though I have self-censored and tempered my enthusiasm since I continue to be wary of the seductive siren’s song in the aesthetics of an unfamiliar media. I love learning and experiencing new things, but I sometimes have a tendency to go overboard, so I am trying to take things slow (I put myself in a lower tax bracket than my 1% cohorts – I only pause hourly, and drop by the tea house once every day or two).

With the help of a new friend that I met at PyCon, who coincidentally works at Second Life, I am appreciating the value of this type of practice in the interest of cultivating a non-judgemental awareness. Could the mainstreaming of experiences like these become the catalyst for a widespread shift in consciousness?

On the cognitive/phenomenal front, I crossed a threshold yesterday and actually experienced some SL memories. Unlike the afterimages (like after a day of playing tetris or picking mellons), these memories had a different quality. And, unlike trying to remember which page I read a story on the 2D web, these memories were vivid and real. I am realizing the ways in which an environment like this hacks my perceptual system, tuned over millennia of evolution to respond to faces and places.

This riff has me thinking alot about neural hacking, and the ways in which we all can begin to deliberately program and alter our habits and patterns of perception and interpretation (errr, I guess some people probably just call that learning 😉 ... however, the metaphor of software has perhaps pushed our understanding of flexibility and malleability farther than ever: e.g. Mind Hacks and Your Brain: The Missing Manual). I think I can make a good argument that the safest and most effective way to reprogram our consciousness is through the natural interfaces that our mind provides – namely, our natural senses.

Contrast this approach with the crude and barbaric attempts to modify mood and behaviour through pharmaceuticals. And compare this approach to the Mind Habbits “game”, which begins with the design question “Can we design an interactive multimedia experience designed to make people feel better?”

My work and studies have been conditioning me to be more deliberate and purposeful in my use and design of technology. Second Life continues to present affordances and opportunities for learning and growth, but I still haven’t heard that many stories of this kind of targeted exploration, which specifically leverage’s the unique advantages of an immersive experience. There must be conversations like this happening in serious gaming circles, though in many ways, this project demonstrates that it isn’t the game that needs to be serious, rather the attitude, approach, and context that the participants bring to the table.

Finally, here is an enumeration of some of the networks of concepts that this project has activated for me:

Quite a fun web of ideas to be snared in.

/play as being

The Zen of Life^2

cgon370l.jpgI suppose it was only a matter of time before I experienced something within Second Life that caught my interest. Though I work on and study social software, I haven’t been particularly giddy about metaverses (multiplayer, persistent, 3D immersive environments) for a variety of reasons – perhaps tracing back to the fact that I haven’t really enjoyed playing too many computer games.

As a free software developer I have participated in quite a few post-geographic projects where communication is managed quite effictively in 2D. While I recognize the value of ‘presence’ and synchronous communications, I doubted that an avatar added much additional value to a communicative experience.

This semester I am personally participating in a digital studio, where we have held some meetings inside Adobe’s Connect, but have found the experience cumbersome, adding little value over irc (or, at least, VOIP + text, like in skype). I usually dread video conferenced meetings, though its sometimes worthwhile to share a browser. At work, we helped set up a Global Classroom for the Earth Institute, which has been receiving rave reviews, but is mostly just a shared video experience (with a few live events). Prior to this week, I have visited second life on a handful of occasions as a guest, but mostly just been reading about it, watching videos, and hovering over other people’s shoulders while they play.

All this changed this week, after a chance encounter with a professor, Piet Hut, whose work I encountered years ago as an undergrad. His dialogue with Bas Van Fraassen on The Elements of Reality really helped me crystallize my thinking on a range of philosophical questions, and the perspective explored in this conversation may serve as an effective bridge between ancient and modern metaphysics.

Prof. Hut is an astrophysicist at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study (which now, more than ever, reminds me of the village) , and he takes phenomenology and mysticism pretty seriously. His interdisciplinary research is really all over the map and I dig his philosophies of science. His writing is usually clear and free of jargon.

I have not been keeping up with his work, but when I saw his name on the schedule at the CSSR Neuroscience and Free Will conference, I decided to crash his talk (and I figured there would be coffee and snacks).

In his talk he mentioned some of his latest work inside of virtual worlds, including new ways of conceptualizing (scientific) simulations and research. I was quite receptive to this topic, since I have been thinking a whole lot about how Technology is transforming Epistemology, which I have started writing about here, and hope to expand upon at the end of this semester (um… that’s in a few weeks!).

His latest project though is another trip entirely – (or, perhaps identical, from the inside-out ;-)). The project, Play As Being is described and tracked on that blog, and is a bit tough to explain in words – you sorta have to try it to understand/believe it.

So, I kinda had an enlightening experience inside of SL. I learned about the potentialities of virtual worlds as phenomenological laboratories. While I was there last night I was attentive to my minds restlessness (how weird is it that after 45 minutes I was compelled to stand my avatar up and stretch my “legs”?) and learned a few new RL practices. I brought the lessons back to meatspace today, and was much more mindful of my body and breathing. I’m not on the full 1% time-tax rhythm, but I am working on picking out mnemonic bells so I can introduce a bit more discipline into the flow of my experience.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been that surprised at the cognitive value of a 3D experience. I mean, I’ve read about The Loci Method in books like The Art of Memory. But the idea of using the environment as a Zen training studio really blew me away. I imagine you really need the right group for the experience to work, but I am quite impressed by this particular purposeful use of this instrument. It took a really good teacher(s), but I have a much better appreciation for effectively using SL as a space to practice mindfulness and contemplate Being.

Has anyone else heard of things like this happening w/in SL?

Supervillains, Systemic Corruption, and the Children

were_not_candy.jpgI’ve been drafting this post on Frontline’s provocative investigative piece The Medicated Child since it aired, and the longer I put off finishing this the more connections pile up.

Since this has aired, we have learned that anti-depressants are no more effective than placebos (although more expensive placebos bring more relief than the generics ;-), there really is prozac in the drinking water, and the $15.9 billion ’07 market for anti-psychotics is expected to grow to $17.8 billion by ’11.

But the Frontline doc is a must watch for lots of reasons. The piece profiles three children who have been mis-diagnosed as bipolar. While the plausibility of a bipolar diagnosis in children is still being hotly debated, diagnoses are up 4000% between ’98-’03. In this piece we meet the lazy, obese, depressed parents who impose their sick worlds on their unsuspecting children who show glimmers of imagination and life, even as they are being chemically swaddled.

In one scene we watch a mother feeding her son corndogs, gatorade, goldfish, and cookies, and wondering why his behaviour becomes hyperactive sometimes. In another, a young girl is setup and goaded by her psychiatrist to share her violent fantasies, which she likely learned from here father, an Iraqi war veteran. In another, a mother is told by the psychiatrist that drugs are the only therapeutic option, and she leaves the office with an additional prescription for Xanax for her son’s first day-of-school anxiety. And the images of the poor boy who developed a neck tick on Risperidol were so disturbing I almost couldn’t bring myself to write this post.

The extent of the systemic corruption that these profiles reveal is mind boggling. Not only must we be concerned with conspiracies within the pharmaceutical industry, but now Big Food is getting in on the action. So, get out your tin-foil hat and lets start constructing a few narratives to help our feeble minds comprehend this complex, emergent phenomenon. The high-fructose corn syrup in our nations food supply, is modifying our children’s behaviour so they are diagnosed with a condition that is treated with a drug which makes them insatiably hungry! These drugs also cause obesity and diabetes, but that’s OK, because Big Pharma is investing heavily in diabetes treatments as well.

I don’t actually believe that the world has been overrun by super-villains. But these narratives do beg the question (which I have written about here before) – are conspiracy theories ever a useful heuristic for teasing out the emergent correlations from complex systems. Are these causal? Who would you charge with the crime? With corruption this systemic, the responsibility is distributed, accountability nil, and momentum virtually unstoppable.

An entirely alternative perspective which skirts the ideologically loaded value judgement of designating these behaviors “illnesses” is suggested by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness
(watch his 18 minute TED talk here). Perhaps the conditions that the pharma funded psychiatric establishment brands as illnesses are actually the normal responses of our psychological immune systems. The world is currently a very traumatic environment, and I think we need to seriously reconsider ways we can, in the words of The Icarus Project “inspire hope and transformation in an oppressive and damaged world.”

I recently learned about ridiculously simple casual game called mind habbits, which seems rather superficial at first blush, but indicates just how malleable and programmable the 3lb lump of neurons on our shoulders can be. The researches behind the game began with the question “Can we purposefully design a game that helps people feel good about themselves?” Their initial amazing results suggest alternate approaches to scaling up talking therapy, other than miracle pills.

So, learn more about psych-pharmacological harm reduction, ignore those frowns, and think good thoughts – positivity takes practice.

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