Aeschylus. New Translation by Joel Agee
After the Fire the Fire Still Burns
It is an ancient truism by now that we Westerners must forever return to the classics for spiritual replenishment and cultural rejuvenation. Indeed, such revisits may be the ‘eternal recurrence’ incarnate, the root of Nietzschean amor fati. Some of the classics seem more meet than others at any given time, but since the ‘80s I’ve found myself especially drawn to the phenomenological questions Heraclitus raises with his pre-Socratic fragments, which seem more relevant in our quantum questing age than ever. While we seem to have reached a hiatus with dialectical materialism, Heraclitus continues to reminds us it’s all samsara anyway. Likewise, I’ve been spending some time wondering why Socrates preferred his hemlock to Democracy in the end, with a return to Plato’s Apology paying significant dividends of insight into the inherent flaws and profound fragility of self-governance.
Thus it was with great anticipation that I began my read of Joel Agee’s new translation of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. Of course, thematically the story of Prometheus’ costly gift of fire to mortals has never left us, and, for sure, seems to be the gift that keeps on giving, from the Iron Age, all the way through to our Digital Age, which would not be possible without that original gift. And I’ll get to the obvious thematic significance of the book in a moment, but first a consideration of the production of the book is in order, since that is what Joel Agee is being published for: his new take on the old story.
Even relatively simple translations from one language to another can present significant obstacle and challenges for the writer, including idiomatic and contextual issues, and other assorted interpretive entanglements reading any text can conjure up. I’m no classicist, and speak no Greek, and, like most readers, depend on translations to get me in the ballpark of approximation, where, hopefully, imagination kicks in and interactivity occurs. But it turns out Agee is no Greek scholar either, and he depends on his translation of Prometheus Bound by his association conference with scholars. In a very real sense, then, this edition of the tragedy is a collaborative effort.
It’s evident rather quickly that what Agee is out to achieve is a rendition that eschews the forced accommodation one finds in many old blank verse attempts of the story, as well as the more literal and often less lyrical versions of the play one comes across more recently. In other words, Agee attempts to stage on the page the rhythms and musicality, rather than just a new expression of themes, including the insertion of diacritical marks to direct the reader’s performance of the lines. This reminded me again, and welcomely so, that these classic tragedies come to us from an oral tradition – and emphasize that most poetry and drama comes alive in the ear in a way that cannot be matched by the eye alone.
But Agee’s technique made me long to hear the original language of the text and to see it performed in a classical staging. Luckily, the Internet came through and I found a lovely and brief performance chock full of the original cadences, rhythms and music of the ancients. Nietzsche tells us that tragedy was born “out of the spirit of music,” and that is certainly evident in this staging. I even closed my eyes to avoid the English subtitles. Then I returned to Agee’s text and was reanimated by the performance on the page. I strongly recommend this procedure.
I mentioned that translated texts present interpretive challenges for the writer, which are often multiplied in reading by the ambiguity of common understanding. One good example will serve to highlight this issue, before moving on to the thematic chords of the work. Agee employs the term “tyranny” to describe the reign of Zeus in the time of Prometheus’ demise. But another contemporary translator of the play uses the term “sovereignty” instead. I’ll allow the reader to consider how the difference between these terms can affect an understanding of the overall contingencies of the play.
As Agee points out, ‘tyranny’ has more powerful resonances for a modern readership than ‘sovereignty’, and yet they are resolvable, and flow into each other, such as we know in the case of the Westphalia Treaty, for instance, which, in essence, stopped tyrants from fighting one another in Europe by granting each sovereignty for the first time over fixed borders, within which could do pretty much what they wanted. And you might say that such order and protocols governed the otherwise truculent and selfish gods’ conceits and claims.
To remind the reader, Prometheus helped Zeus overthrow the heavenly sovereignty of Kronos, and things were swell between them until Zeus, in reviewing his assets, decided he didn’t really care for the mortal human race and was prepared to replace it with something more suitable. However, Prometheus favored the mortals and bestowed upon them two gifts: one, was blind hope that essentially prevented humans from seeing their ultimate pitiable fate; second, he gave the gift of fire, which, as we know, has since prehistoric times has led to considerable civilizing processes and functions, and, ultimately made our present age possible. But Zeus is not happy with this treachery and has Prometheus bound to a desolate rock forever.
Throughout Western cultural history Prometheus is regarded by humans as savior/hero figure, and as Agee reminds us he has figured prominently in key moments. Beethoven wrote scores in celebration of Napoleon, for instance, who was popularly regarded as a new Prometheus (until he became Emperor anyway). And Mary Shelley’s now-dystopic-seeming novel about the consequences of playing god with new technology, Frankenstein, is, of course, sub-titled A Modern Prometheus.
It may seem we’ve passed the relevancy of the Prometheus theme. Some would point to Edward Snowden as Promethean figure, but I don’t like the fit. However, just yesterday I was watching the film Interstellar and it prompted the Promethean theme in a surprising way. The ‘hero’ of Interstellar leaves behind his daughter and a nearly-depleted Earth to pilot a NASA ship through a wormhole in search of other life-bearing habitats, and, in the process, unravels the mysteries of time and gravity, and in a sense steals the quantum fire from the gods and redistributes its wealth of meaning to a needy Earth.
But the real Prometheus has not yet arrived – a godlike figure among the technological elites of the near future, who, tired of the limitations of their fellow humans, decide through eugenics and the targetings of the disposition matrix to replace the lot with übermenschen, and this Prometheus balks, and passes the quantum bong among the hoi polloi and pays the ultimate price.
On the other hand, maybe it’s not the consequences of the gifts of Prometheus we should be worried about now, but instead whether our quest for quantum singularitus, the snow leopard of cosmology, is not rather is not another instance of Pandora’s Box.
Author of Chamelio (reviewed here)
Invisibility and the Disappearing Self: An Interview with Robert Guffey
Robert Guffey is the author of Chameleo (OR Books 2015). As the OR book blurb puts it: “A mesmerizing mix of Charles Bukowski, Hunter S. Thompson, and Philip K. Dick, Chameleo is a true account of what happened in a seedy Southern California town when an enthusiastic and unrepentant heroin addict named Dion Fuller sheltered a U.S. Marine who’d stolen night vision goggles and perhaps a few top secret files from a nearby military base.
Dion found himself arrested (under the ostensible auspices of The Patriot Act) for conspiring with international terrorists to smuggle Top Secret military equipment out of Camp Pendleton. The fact that Dion had absolutely nothing to do with international terrorists, smuggling, Top Secret military equipment, or Camp Pendleton didn’t seem to bother the military. He was released from jail after a six-day-long Abu-Ghraib-style interrogation. Subsequently, he believed himself under intense government scrutiny — and, he suspected, the subject of bizarre experimentation involving “cloaking”— electro-optical camouflage so extreme it renders observers practically invisible from a distance of some meters — by the Department of Homeland Security. Hallucination? Perhaps — except Robert Guffey, an English teacher and Dion’s friend, tracked down and interviewed one of the scientists behind the project codenamed “Chameleo,” experimental technology which appears to have been stolen by the U.S. Department of Defense and deployed on American soil. More shocking still, Guffey discovered that the DoD has been experimenting with its newest technologies on a number of American citizens.”
Initial phone interview on March 5, 2015 followed up by email on March 12.
John Hawkins: Chameleo read like it would make for a brilliant screenplay. The whole thing came to life. I felt like I was reading a mash of Hunter S. Thompson, Philip K Dick, but also a bit of Elmore Leonard, with the slick characterizations. The first third is extremely entertaining, but later you bring together a lot of threads – verbatim interviews, emails and phone call transcripts, all of which makes for an interesting combination of humor mixed with striking, frightening stuff.
Robert Guffey: Yes, the first third is very narrative driven and then I get into the transcripts. I can see where the narrative might slow down some at that point. But I was hoping that at that point the reader would be interested enough to get to the end. And I wanted to maintain the transcript just so the reader could see that this was not just something I was making up. I very much didn’t want to be preaching or standing on a soapbox warning people about the coming apocalypse of the surveillance state. People tend no to listen to that and they tune it out.
JH: What influenced the structural choices you made in putting the book together?
RG: When I was 18, I discovered Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And around that same time, I discovered a book called AIDS, Inc by John Rappoport, which is a very hard-hitting investigative journalism look into alternative theories regarding the origin of AIDS. Was AIDS from a government laboratory, etc. It examines all the theories. I remember thinking it would be fascinating if you could combine the serious investigative journalistic tone of AIDS, Inc with this kind of crazy gonzo narrative thing, like in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and I think Chameleo is like a culmination of that interest on my part.
JH: A lot of otherwise open-minded readers might be repelled by your background in conspiracy theories, and yet, in Chameleo that tenuous narrative trope seems to be supported by the raw events unfolding in a kind of hyper reality. How is Chameleo different from other conspiracy-centric narratives?
RG: When conspiracy theorists publish–or, more often than not, self-publish–books, they are frantically attempting to disseminate what they feel is important, life-or-death information. This is not my main concern. I’m coming from a literature background. I’ve been publishing short stories since I was 25. Writers like John Fante, Henry Miller, and Charles Bukowski wrote about the reality around them. I’m engaged in the same process. It just so happens that the reality we live in today is over-brimming with conspiracies. If Mark Twain were alive today, I’m certain he would be writing about conspiracies. He wouldn’t be able to avoid it. I see Chameleo, primarily, as a work of literature. If the book does succeed in disseminating valuable information, it’s simply a byproduct of my desire to write about reality as I see it.
JH: Your book, especially early on, has a Gonzo journalist flavor added to the stir fry approach, which is in keeping with words attributed to Hunter S. Thompson: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” This would seem to apply to the whole concept of your book. Care to elaborate on how?
RG: Actually, it was Joseph Heller who wrote, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” The line is from Catch-22. I don’t have much to add to Heller’s statement except to say that I agree with it. When Chameleo begins, I don’t think Dion is paranoid at all; however, being constantly surveilled and harassed does indeed tend to push people over the edge just a tad. I don’t think Dion has ever been clinically paranoid, but the events that were swirling around him might have induced symptoms that could be interpreted as paranoia by those not familiar with the full details of his dilemma. After all, exhibiting paranoiac symptoms is a perfectly reasonable response to being stalked by an organized group of strangers.
JH: We live in times when government is becoming more opaque in its processes, while, at the same time, the human self seems to be disappearing with the rapid evaporation of privacy and free-thought. It occurred to me that what Dion goes through in Chameleo brought this out with great effect.
RG: This process was predicted by Marshall McLuhan. All of his books, in their own unique way, explore how to maintain one’s private citadel of consciousness in a world ruled by The Machines. McLuhan predicted this situation as early as 1946 or ’47. Here’s a quote from McLuhan: “I once wrote an article, ‘The Southern Quality.’ back in 1946 or 1947 where I explained why there was no human life on this planet. Since then human beings have been grown inside programmed media-environments that are essentially like test tubes. That’s why I say the kids today live mythically.” This “mythic” environment is one of the main subjects of a book I’m finishing now. The book is called Hollywood Haunts the World. The final chapter of this book will explore the “loss of self” you refer to.
JH: You mention that you were inspired by the humorous skepticism of Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo journalism, but also by John Rappoport’s book, AIDS, Inc. Can you say more about ho AIDS, Inc acted as an inspiration – or, in other words, what was Rappaport’s thesis and how did his methods and findings inspire your Chameleo approach?
RG: Rappoport is a Pulitzer-Prize-nominated journalist whose approach to documenting the true nature of the 1980s AIDS epidemic was unlike any other reporter at that time. He asked questions no one else even thought to ask. The field of journalism will always be far too limiting for a searching mind like that. In fact, I think it would be incorrect to refer to Rappoport as strictly a “journalist.” He’s a journalist in the same way that Mark Twain was a journalist. He’s a writer who has his eyes wide open, and he simply reports on what he sees. In a sense, one might say that Rappoport’s style of reporting is a more sophisticated and spiritual version of Hunter S. Thompson’s subjective, drug-fueled reportage. Rappoport’s later book, The Secret Behind Secret Societies, is even better than AIDS, Inc. I consider it to be a vastly underappreciated book, one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read.
JH: How would you sum up Project Chameleo?
RG: Project Chameleo, the brainchild of a scientist named Richard Schowengerdt, resulted in the creation of Electro-Optical Camouflage that could be employed by soldiers in the battlefield. Schowengerdt’s findings were almost certainly stolen by a private corporation working in tandem with the U.S. military.
JH: David Schowengerdt comes across in your book like the fictional nutty scientist in Back to the Future, or the very real Edward Teller, a kind of futuristic genius, but also the stereotypical naïf whose scientific inventions and forward-thinking get co-opted or stolen by government agencies with hidden agendas. I suppose Tim Berners-Lee is another. How do these comparisons work in Chameleo, if at all?
RG: Richard Schowengerdt is not only a brilliant scientist, but also one of the most balanced people I’ve ever met. His ongoing fascination with the intersection between science and metaphysics belies a deep and curious mind, not unlike that of Nikola Tesla. If Schowengerdt is guilty of being a little too trusting of the U.S. military, he certainly would not be the first scientist to find himself in such a situation. A fellow named Albert Einstein comes to mind. In that sense, Richard Schowengerdt is in very good company.
JH: I can’t recall a work that featured cameos by so many secret or covert agencies. There’s NCIS and SAIC and Freemasons and group stalkers and the CIA, all immersed in what you might call the sub-primal juices of the Deep State or the Deep Net. But one also thinks of all the other groups out there – the NSA, KKK, Skull and Bones, the PNAC mob, on and on it goes, until you get the sense that our society, which is supposedly built on late Enlightenment principles, falls back rather readily into the occult, fundamental religiosity, the weird and bizarre. And when you look to science for antidotes, it instead exacerbates the problem with references to quantum theory, multiverses, and the Singularity. This seems to play into a central theme of Chameleo – the contemporary fragility of the self and the reality we collectively construct ourselves within. What do you reckon?
RG: The title Chameleo has multiple layers of meaning. On a literal level, of course, it’s referring to Schowengerdt’s attempts to create invisibility technology. On a higher level, it refers to the fact that Truth itself is often camouflaged–not only in the book, but in contemporary life. Politicians and priests and psychiatrists attempt to camouflage Truth every day. We camouflage Truth from ourselves, as well as from others, just to get through an average afternoon. But because Truth is hidden, we have to try to find it ourselves somehow. Occult organizations have been formed for this exact purpose since civilization began. Secret societies are certainly nothing new. You used the word “occult” in your question, and the word “occult” simply means “hidden.” The Freemasons, the Rosicrucians, and similar organizations have been delving for hidden truths since their inception. It has been argued by Robert Lomas in his book, Freemasonry and the Birth of Modern Science, that “Freemasonry, supported by Charles II, was the guiding force behind the birth of modern science.” In the 1600s many scientists were forced to form secret societies, such as the “Invisible College,” in order to study the secrets of nature in ways that were forbidden by the Church. If one feels the need to form a secret society to pursue Truth, due to the fact that the climate of the day is hostile to Truth, then so be it. All organizations are made up of people. A group of Imagination Vampires will probably end up creating a corrupt organization, while a group of humanitarian free thinkers will probably end up creating a worthwhile organization. It all depends on the intentions of the individuals in the group, not on the group itself. Groups should always be subordinate to the individual.
JH: You mention that Edward Snowden’s breathtaking revelations, which detail the scope and power of the active global surveillance state, actually pale in comparison to some of the claims you make about gangstalking. That seems like a staggering claim, all things considered. Could you say more?
RG: I don’t think it’s that staggering at all. As far as I know, Edward Snowden never mentioned anything about invisible midgets, simian sharpshooters, leapfrogging robots, snooping flying saucers, and swarms of government-funded gangstalkers.
JH: If the Internet and the myriad digital technologies that have followed are like the first touch of the monolith by the apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey, then one might reasonably argue that the awakening process required of human consciousness right now to overcome our profound limitations is akin to entering the Stargate. Would you agree with that?
JH: What is gangstalking? Who gets gangstalked? Who gangstalks? How do you suppose gangstalkers get away with using expressions like “He’s evil,” as they stalk, hile all the time, they are the ones committing the horrible crime of privacy invasion, character assassination, and, in some instances, conspiracy to commit brutal murders?
It’s all explained at http://fightgangstalking.com/what-is-gang-stalking/
JH: In your book you write: “Let’s not be obtuse: we’re dealing with a rule-crazy, Puritanical, hypocritical, Old Testament–style perception of reality that desperately needs to wipe out anything or anyone that is Other. Different. Contrary.” You seem to be arguing that such types are on the rise in America, and probably elsewhere as well. How do you explain such a backward, reactionary phenomenon at a time of so much futurism? If these kinds of humans prevail, what kind of future are we looking at?
RG: Back in 2003, I was fortunate enough to interview Rev. Stephan Hoeller, Bishop of the Gnostic Church in America, and during that conversation Hoeller said the following words to me: “Do you remember The Last Temptation of Christ, Scorcese’s movie? There’s a scene where Jesus is trying to tell Pilate, ‘Look, you know, we want to change the world, but we want to change it with love. I don’t want to start a revolution. I don’t want to hurt anybody. I just want to change it with love.’ And Pilate says, ‘My good man, you don’t understand, we don’t want it to be changed at all. By no means, we don’t want any change!’ [Laughs] So, it’s a little bit that way. People involved in the matrix, they are within the consensus reality, they want reality to stay that way. To poke holes into that reality by one means or the other is very disturbing to such people. Those are the deeper psychological motivations of the dislike for psychedelics, or for that matter for ceremonial magic or Gnosticism, or anything that alters consciousness in any significant way.”
JH: The other thing I wanted to ask you about is some macro pictures. If you could sort of relate all of this to the Snowden revelations.
RG: Well, I guess the over-riding motto is: Never waste a good crisis. It’s quite ironic because I think that some of these people [gangstalkers] are being sold a bill of goods and think that they’re being upright — you know, Neighborhood Watch type citizens are being told: ‘oh, you know, that guy down the street — well, in the book, Dion mentions a part where the cops stopping him and they say that they were told that he talked about ‘doing something’. It’s vague enough, you know, it sounds vaguely manipulative, vaguely ominous. And so you know I think these people are being told that this man down the street, ell, you know, he’s a terrorist, or he’s been talking about doing something, or he’s a pedophile, or whatever, and they believe it, and then they tell them to go and harass him at the local supermarket, go spy on him, and I think they might be actually doing that thinking that they’re protecting, you know, apple pie, and God and country, not realizing that they’re the terrorists.
RG: That’s the irony of it. Well, I know that hen the George Zimmerman – Trayvon Martin tragedy occurred Dion contacted me and wondered: Who’s this George Zimmerman guy? And who’s he actually working for? I mean, no one’s actually looked into that. I mean, George Zimmerman, his personality, is just the perfect gang-stalking personality. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he was trained by one of these organizations. You wouldn’t hear anything about that because no one’s looked into it because of course gang-stalking doesn’t exist. so no journalist has ever looked into it.
I think what’s going to happen is that if the whole gangstalking thing reaches the kind of critical mass at some point, people are going to be surprised at the fact that the Snowden revelations are like just completely mundane compared to what’s actually going on. Just the tip of the iceberg. What Snowden’s talking about pales in comparison to whole neighborhoods being trained — basically being government-sponsored vigilantes, which sounds like a paradox — I mean, how could you be a government-sponsored vigilante — but that’s essentially what it is. I mean they’re taking these people and training them in how to be amateur COINTELPRO agents and the idea that this could happen. I mean, most people are resistant to the whole concept of gangstalking. They don’t want to think gangstalking is possible.
JH: What happened to Dion, the experience he had in his apartment with the invisible bodies bumping against him, and the phantasmagorical hallucinations out his window, that kind of shit, that’s disturbing to the core, really. It’s the kind of thing that if you realized that that was happening on any kind of scale at all, not just single individuals. You’re talking about very serious shift in consciousness, what you could call real. What would be true or real? You make reference to the Boris Vallejo paintings that seem to fill Dion’s apartment window. What do you make of them?
RG: In terms of the paintings that they were using? You know, I think that if they were using the technology that Richard Schowengerdt was describing. He on his own started talking about using the technology to be able to distort what people see, not just making things invisible but changing things into something else. So I think they were testing that aspect of the technology, to see whether they could make a landscape — just totally disappear and turn into something else.
JH: The thing I worry about out of all of this is — as you know there are like 1.5 million people are on some kind of watch list in the States, and that’s just the known lists, the publicized lists. The number of people being watched actively because they’re targets of Obama or DOJ targets. And you know they can’t all be terrorists. .So there have to be people who watch them. Then you realize the number of people out there who have these top secret clearances out there. Last I heard there as something like 450,000 people who have top secret clearance. Then you find out that all these private companies are basically stocked with people who are “retired”, meaning they left the service to go work for these companies and get lucrative awards for it.
RG: Well, there’s a surprising number of these private corporations that are currently involved in those types of operations. Last August, this ad popped up on Craig’s List. And for years I wondered what the people involved, the gangstalkers following Dion, what they called themselves? And this ad popped up, specifically looking for people — this was a corporation that was based in San Diego — and the headline of the ad read: Surveillance Role Players and Practical Exercise Role Player, San Diego. And this was the ad: “The Masy group — M-A-S-Y– is looking for motivated surveillance role players (SRPs) and scenario-driven practical exercise role players (RPs) to support military training activities in the San Diego, California region. Qualified personnel should demonstrate an established track record of conducting surveillance operations at various discretion levels, supporting surveillance training and military practical exercise training. Individuals with previous military intelligence community and la enforcement experience are highly preferred.” And then it says the mandatory prerequisite qualifications for role players is “a minimum of 5 years of counterintelligence and/or human intelligence experience, with at least two operational deployments in a CI unit military occupational specialty, or as a member of a civilian intelligence community organization.”
So surveillance role players is the term they use to describe themselves. The ad quickly disappeared after that, but I saved it. And the MASY group describe themselves as a global provider of high impact national security intelligence and private sector capital management solutions. These organizations — there’s MASY, there’s DSAC, which is the Domestic Security Alliance Council; there’s something called PKS Group, Prescient Edge; ITA International; Whitney Bradley and Brown; all these private companies working in tandem with these ex-military people. In reality, they’re actually working in tandem with people who are currently military as well.
JH: Yes. You put your finger right on it. Because that’s the problem: There’s all of these assumptions about authority, such that the accuser is an authority requiring trust. When what all this Snowden-Surveillance State business should tell us, going all the way back to Nixon especially, all of our experience should tell us totally the opposite.
It’s very Stasi-like in that sense. The Stasi brought people in and would say to people either you’re working for us or you’re going away for a long time. And so some of these people did some sick things. And that’s how the whole thing grew. I think the last figure I had for the Stasi was that their number had grown to 350,000 people working for them, in a population of 17 million.
RG: And also this happened to Gloria Naylor. Do you know who she is? She’s a very famous, well-respected African-American writer. She wrote Mama Day and The Women of Brewster Street, and a lot of other well-respected novels. I mean, she’s a well-respected literary figure. But not a lot of people know that she is also a target of gangstalking. She wrote a whole book about it called 1996, which is ostensibly a novel, but she said it’s actually autobiographical. She sort of slightly fictionalized it. But according to her she moved to an island off the coast of Maine. She was living in this isolated house off in the country somewhere but she had a neighbor, and the neighbor had a dog, and the dog ended up getting accidentally poisoned somehow, and the neighbor blamed her; that they thought she’d killed the dog. And it turned out the neighbor had a brother who worked in the NSA, and suddenly she as getting stalked. And all of the stuff that Dion describes and I described in the book happened to her to a greater or lesser extent. And that’s before 9/11. So I think 9/11 did open the door to — it just widened the door, the door was already open — this stuff was already happening but then it intensified after 9/11.
JH: I did a review of a book about to months ago, Suspicious Minds, written by two psychiatrist brothers, Joel and Ian Gold, and they write about the growing delusional trend in America, where people literally believe that they are actors in a Truman Show. Where everything is being directed by outside forces beyond their control, and that everybody else has a script.
RG: On the surface it sounds like a wonderful way for a psychiatrist to explain someone who claims to being gangstalked.
JH: I am mostly anti-psychiatry because I think they’re mostly full of shit. I think a lot of people forget that they’re not really out there to tend to individual humans; they are out to make you adjust to hat’s out there, society. As R.D. Laing said, “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal.” Or bring in Nietzsche ho said, “Insanity in individuals is rare, but in nations, states and societies it’s the norm.” So it’s that kind of thing going on here you are trying to get people to adjust to a horrible shitty situation. The structure of society can be such that its lies — that individuals pick up on that and it creates a real crisis in their own identity because there are some things you can’t adjust to without losing your mind.
RG: In The Secrets behind Secret Societies, Rappaport tells the story about a hypnotist he knew who worked in Beverly Hills. And the hypnotist’s name was Jack Prue. And the hypnotist told John Rappaport — he was a hypnotherapist — that when he has patients come into his office he often found that in order to put them into a trance he had to first break them out of a trance. That a lot of his patients came in already in a trance and they had been in a trance for like decades. And he had to break them out of that trance to then put them in a trance to do the hypnotherapy on them.
If the book in any way helps to bring some of the targeted individuals together and talking to each other I would be very extremely proud. Even if it succeeded in bringing just a few people together I would be very pleased. You know, maybe things are changing. There was a Washington Post article from last July. The title was “America’s freedom reputation is on the decline a year after NSA revelations,” and the first paragraph of the article read:
“The main selling point of the US brand on international stage has long been summed up with the screech of in one word: Freedom. But in the wake of revelations of US surveillance programs from former national security agency contractor Edward Snowden from last year, the world is less convinced that the US has respect for `personal freedoms, according to new survey results from Pew Research.” It goes on to say:
“The Snowden revelations appeared to have damaged one major element of America’s global image — it’s reputation for protecting individual liberties. In 22 of 36 countries surveyed in 2013 and 2014 people are significantly less likely to believe the US government respects the personal freedoms of its citizens. In six nations the decline was 20 percentage points or more. Pew calls this decline the Snowden Effect. And some of the drops significant, especially in countries where NSA surveillance received major domestic news coverage, like Germany and Brazil.”
So that’s the Snowden Effect. Maybe there’ll be a Chameleo Effect.
JH: The thing about that Pew Poll that is interesting, America is the leader when it comes to democracy, at least symbolically, at least when it comes to freedom, the rule of law, and due process — the kingpins of the Bill of Rights, which is the single most important thing about American democracy — you always have to face your accuser and then you have a process of evidentiary revelations, the cross-examinations, the witnessing, all that kind of stuff. That was the key thing for American justice. That was it. And throwing that out, not only by what the Pew Poll is saying, but also with Obama and his Drone Kill Tuesdays, where he sees himself dealing judicial review as a form of due process. We just made it a lot easier for emerging democracies to ignore any attempt at installing a Bill of Rights, they won’t pursue them any more. If supposedly the greatest nation on earth is suspending its on due process, then there really isn’t much point for any other nation to pursue it any longer.
RG: I teach at California State University at Long Beach, and I assigned the graphic novel V Is for Vendetta by Alan Moore. There’s a wonderful line in the book early on, here the masked anarchist vigilante figure, V, is having a conversation with a statue in London: it’s called Madame Justice. He’s basically talking about the difference between justice and anarchy, and there’s one line that he says to the statue, “Without freedom justice is meaningless.” And the reason why this is in my mind is that a student of mine — I was reading his paper this morning, and basically his paper was all about that sentence. And the student wrote this really interesting introspective essay about how in the United States you hear a lot of talk about justice — the Justice Department, no justice no peace — there’s all these articles about how we need justice for Ferguson or whatever, but his whole point was that need to be focused on freedom.
And you know, this is like an 18 year-old kid; he never read a graphic novel before. And he as really jazzed about this graphic novel and wrote this very thoughtful piece about it, and so that gives me hope when I see my students come in on the first day and they’re kind of like ready to be bored, because that’s hat they’re used to and I’ll just pose questions, or I’ll give them something to read. And you see that they’re not entirely stupid; they’re not entirely sheeple. There’s a kind of a stereotype of teenagers plugged into their videogames or their iPod or Facebook, and their zombies, at least that’s the ay older people might see them, but there’s actually this creativity and this intelligence that’s ready to burst out, but they’re so used to being told not to use their imagination that they’re in a trance. So I kind of try to do what Jack Prue did; I kind of try to break them out of a trance in my own subtle way. I remain optimistic.
I wrote an article called “Concentration Campus,” and it’s an entire history of American education. My thoughts about are really summed up by that title. But I also wrote a follow-up article to that’s not in the book called “The War Against the Imagination.” And basically it’s about the current state of education, and I really see there’s `some people who seem to want to go out of their way to deaden the imagination of the students and its quite distressing to see it. But whatever I can do to kind of counteract that is what makes me want to wake up in the morning.
JH: You are writing a long essay called “Nation of Stalkers.” Can you give a rough outline of what you might be covering?
RG: Basically it’s updating things that have happened since the end of the book, but also I offer other advice on fighting back, other than the sort of more prosaic level that’s being offered by the fight gangstalking website. I’m try to go into using maybe some more esoteric methods to fight back as well.
JH: You mean like playing Bob Dylan songs backwards? That kind of thing?
RG: I know a woman named Melinda Lesley. She’s a very brilliant woman. She’s also very well-versed in remote viewing and she was trained by one of the major proponents of remote viewing. And she’s very good at it. I mean, other remote viewers come to her to ask her advice. The remote viewer could basically remote view these sort of military installations and come back and give him information. And I began to think of how that could be used in the gangstalking problem.
JH: In the book the last word on Dion is in 2013 and I was just wondering if there as any word from him since then — you know, in the last couple of years?
RG: I’m in contact with Dion. He’s living in the Pacific Northwest. At one point he was living in a van. He actually has his on apartment now. He’s painting all the time. And the incidents are now intermittent.
When Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen got together with Julian Assange on June 23, 2011, Assange was staying with a WikiLeaks sponsor in rural England and had just completed his sixth month under house arrest as he fought extradition to Sweden for questioning regarding sexual assault charges. He was also dealing with the aftermath of the funding freeze on WikiLeaks, arranged by the US State Department, in retaliation for his publication of embassy cables and war-related secrets leaked to him by Chelsea Manning, including the now-infamous Collateral Murder video. Though he was the recent recipient of prestigious journalism awards, including the Martha Gellhorn prize and Australia’s premiere journalism award, the Walkley Award, the re-established sexual assault charges (Swedish authorities had dropped them and allowed him to leave the country) cut deeply into his popular appeal and began the intense counter-assault on WikiLeaks and on Assange’s character that continues to this day.
Nevertheless, the meeting was ostensibly a dialogical summit of switched-on minds that would unravel many of the complexities of the new, rapidly unfolding digital age, discussing the impact of this new paradigm on the core values of democracy in a ‘globalized’ world. Assange was led to believe that Schmidt was especially keen to pick the famous hacktivist’s brain on the role of dissidents and the communication tools they would employ to expose acts of governmental tyranny and corruption in this new era. He was led to believe that the un-molested conversational highlights of this meeting would find their way into the book Schmidt and Jared Cohen were working on –The New Digital Age – which they expected to publish about a year later. Just to be sure, Assange posted to the WikiLeaks site the transcript of this secret meeting, and made the audio available as well, so that his words and integrity could not later be twisted a game of They Said / He Said. Joining Schmidt and Jared Cohen at the meeting were Lisa Shields and Scott Malcomson, who Assange later discovered were not merely Schmidt’s buddies but members of the Council on Foreign Relations, with ties to the very State Department that had him under siege.
It turns out, the “productively paranoid” Assange (to cite Joseph Flatley’s wonderful categorization in his review of Schmidt and Cohen’s book) was smart to publish the transcript, because his fears were well-founded – the meeting was, for all intents and purposes, scripted theatre (call it Google Play), and could have been the work of Harold Pinter, for all its subtle signs and hidden agendas. As Assange remarks in the introduction to his new book, When Google Met WikiLeaks, “the delegation was one part Google, three parts US foreign-policy establishment, but I was still none the wiser.” In all likelihood, Schmidt and Cohen already knew what they were going to write about Assange before they met. But the book is not only the transcript of their encounter, it also includes the aforementioned introduction, which acts as an primer on the Schmidt-Cohen political agenda, as well as a reprint of Assange’s New York Times book review of the The New Digital Age, when it finally appeared in early 2013, and, finally, a postscript that details how Assange’s views at the meeting were distorted in the Schmidt-Cohen manifesto and his character further abused. Assange had a right to be livid and he manages to push back with his book.
Perhaps as an indication of his bruised ego, Assange opens his exposition by employing language that is seemingly intended to inflate his value, repeatedly referring to the meeting’s secrecy, as if the meeting were a negotiation between equals; and by nose-tweaking word choices that suggest a Ninja-like revolutionary at war with dark, machine-like authorities. This creates some readerly hurdles and unnecessary obfuscations. “I was intrigued that the mountain would come to Mohammed,” begins Assange, likening the meeting to a profound experience of enlightenment, which it was not. But what does that expression even mean? The best my DuckDuckGo results could do was to inform me that it isn’t derived from the Koran and is not an Islamic saying, and, indeed, that it almost certainly is derived from a distortion of a very similar reference in Francis Bacon’s way-back-in-the-day essay “Of Boldness,” wherein the user of that expression is lampooned as a charlatan. One could certainly see how Bacon could be making fun of the kind of boldness expressed in The New Digital Age, but it isn’t an intuitive connection.
Similarly, Assange writes about evading censorship by “moving across borders like ghosts,” and then employs a series of martial terms: “at Ellingham I became an immovable asset under siege. We could no longer choose our battles. Fronts opened up on all sides. I had to learn to think like a general. We were at war.” While this is somewhat amusing, one wonders what benefits accrue for Assange, and other activists he symbolically represents, by playing into (and consequently affirming) the ‘Internet is a battlefield’ meme, which tends to act as a convenient justification for government crackdowns. Here, even to this sympathetic reader, Assange seems to be hurt and lashing out, and comes across like John Connor, the boy-hero from Terminator, who represents the future of humanity and must stay alive at any cost. Again, while Assange’s position has enormous personal resonance for me, its tetchiness risks giving the bastards what they want. Even the gentle, congenial Yogi Bear, if ‘taken’ and tethered to a chain at a picnic site in Jellystone Park, where adults abuse and threaten him and children are encouraged to pretend to be afraid to provide a pretext for further abuse, even Yogi Bear would eventually turn grizzly, at which time his persecutors would sneer, “See, told you he had poor character.” But Assange must eschew the justifiable impulse to draw blood if he wants to keep tuned-in listeners on message. If you’re going to preach real freedom, expect to be really, really crucified.
Having said that though, one has a sense of proxy rage when, after hearing Jared Cohen stoke Assange’s vanity at the meeting by playing up, despite Assange’s protestations, the role WikiLeaks played in the Tunisian revolution and in the larger Arab Spring (Cohen all but throwing up a high-five), The New Digital Age gives no mention to Assange’s role as the provider of key information that may have tipped the balance. And then early in TNDA, in their chapter on The Future of Identity, Citizenship and Reporting, after many pages devoted to how destructive to reputations online published material can be—to the point that it lead to “virtual honor killing” and can result in a targeted person’s actual murder—they segue to a section on what they refer to as Assange’s “free data movement”, where they wantonly (and arrogantly, given that the meeting was recorded) mischaracterize his position on leaking, on what gets leaked and why, almost likening WikiLeaks to revenge porn videos.
Despite some of the known negative consequences of this movement (threats to individual security, ruined reputations and diplomatic chaos), some free-information activists believe the absence of a delete button ultimately strengthens humanity’s progress toward greater equality, productivity and self-determination. We believe, however, that this is a dangerous model, especially given that there is always going to be someone with bad judgement who releases information that will get people killed. [emphasis added]
Later, in their chapter on the Future of Terrorism, they will directly assert that this is what Julian Assange did with his ‘might-as-well-be-terrorism’ leaks. They never challenged Assange this way to his face, and they ignored all evidence contrary to this assertion. But most importantly, they imply that Assange and any other free-information activists are worthy of being droned. In this way, the seemingly endless, sovereignty-scoffing US military forays that result in literally untold war crimes, including torture, murder, and the catastrophic displacement of huge swathes of various populations, become so normalized that the average citizen regards leaks that reveal this behaviour as the real treason.
They wrongly refer to the false assertion that he is wanted by Swedish police for questioning as “his indictment of sexual assault charges,” another agenda item never brought up to his face. Another slur that does little more than libel Assange by calling into question ‘his real motivations’ is the Schmidt-Cohen assertion that found its way in a Foreign Affairs magazine, the State department’s rah-rah forum, exclaiming that what few redactions Assange did make to documents prior to release were motivated by “money” considerations. He said no such thing, as the transcript plainly shows, and in fact he painstakingly explained to them that his action was a ‘harm minimization / impact maximization’ tactic designed to ward off political “opportunists” looking to make the conversation about the treasonous harm of the publishing rather than the treasonous harm of the content’s revelations about administrative criminality. Schmidt-Cohen have no problems with undermining Assange’s reputation, despite saying to his face that they “sympathized” with his views.
As Assange points out, “it was not until well after Schmidt and his companions had been gone that I came to understand who had really visited me.” He means, of course, that he had essentially received a proxy visit from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. This might seem a wild and egotistical claim, until you realize that Schmidt has a close relationship with Obama, having been on a short list of candidates to head the Commerce Department, while Jared Cohen was regarded as a can-do wunderkind by the State Department, first under Condoleeza Rice and then under Hillary Clinton, before going to Google in 2010. As Assange would come to learn from the subsequent publishing of The New Digital Age, a key concern for Schmidt-Cohen was learning how Assange did what he did and how they could harness that know-how to corral younger generation activists into doing their bidding.
Ironically, the aspect of their meeting where they might truly have had meaningful dialectical exchanges during their meeting was around the subject of information systems management. Assange acknowledges their mutual passion for systems architecture and management, and how it relates to their politics, when he writes,
His questions often skipped to the heart of the matter, betraying a powerful nonverbal structural intelligence… This was a person who understood how to build and maintain systems: systems of information and systems of people. My world was new to him, but it was also a world of unfolding human processes, scale, and information flows.
The problem, of course, is that their politics have entirely different vectors. While Schmidt is correct to refer to assert that Assange is a kind of ‘free information activist,’ at least when it comes to government transparency and shedding a light on executive office criminality, Assange is also spot-on when he says of Schmidt: “[he] fits exactly where he is: the point where the centrist, liberal, and imperialist tendencies meet in American political life.” Given Google’s long-standing cooperation with the Defense Department (indeed the ex-head of their R&D arm, DARPA, recently jumped to an executive position with Google) and the NSA (Google played a key a role in the NSA’s highly-invasive and illegal PRISM program), one could posit that Schmidt-Cohen represent the vanguard of neoliberal policies, enforced by neoconservative martial might. The very governmental constraints and intrusiveness that they seek to end in the “repressive” regimes they cite is equally if not substantially more true of the US surveillance state.
(It is a largely undiscussed fact that well before 9/11 Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney created and implemented a secret Continuation of Government (COG) plan in the event of catastrophic terrorist attack, spectacular natural disaster, or major popular insurrection for any number of reasons, including major opposition to foreign policy actions (see a summary of some details here). This COG operates as emergency principles and supersedes the usual Constitutional chain of command. This COG emergency protocol went into effect on 9/11. Almost no one in Congress was aware that this shadow government existed, let alone that Cheney had triggered the procedure. Many citizens would be amazed to learn that Obama actually inherited this secretive state of emergency. Indeed, the state of emergency rules are still in place, and, technically, the Executive office claims the power to act as if the US were in a state of martial law. Because, according to these protocols, it is. When you apply this knowledge to American military actions in foreign lands, from Europe and the Middle East to Asia, you’re looking at the empire-building conceits that were gifted to the neoconservatives by way of 9/11.)
But back to systems of information and their utilities. Assange and Schmidt-Cohen share a passion for activating the masses to generate momentum and change the status quo. For Assange, the desire is to create a reliable means to affect changes that result in what he calls “just acts.” Using a Fourth Estate model, Assange locates the “bottleneck” to just and progressive change in how information is distributed and presented to the populace. At the meeting, Assange tells Schmidt and his cohorts:
In a Fourth Estate context, the people who acquire information are sources; the people who work on information and distribute it are journalists and publishers; and the people who may act on it includes everyone. That’s a high-level construct, but it then comes down to how you practically engineer a system that solves that problem, and not just a technical system but a total system. WikiLeaks was, and is, an attempt—although still very young—at a total system.
Another way of regarding it is a state of radical transparency for government, which could lead to strict levels of privacy for citizens and considerably more say in democratic governing processes.
This is in contradistinction to the kind of system that Schmidt-Cohen have in mind. The usual astonishing hypocrisy aside, perhaps the most important accomplishment of When Google Met WikiLeaks is the connection Assange establishes between the Google Politic and the ambitions set loose in The New Digital Age. The Schmidt-Cohen tome was originally titled The Empire of the Mind, which is in much closer alignment to their politics than the wonky-sounding New Digital Age, because at work in their book is an idealized vision of the world after neo-con American Exceptionalism has forcibly broken through every global barrier and established its neo-liberal dominion over all people and resources of the earth, with future presidents being the new emperors at the end of history, as Francis Fukuyama has so stupidly and wrongly ordained.
In his introduction to WGMW, Assange cites a 2010 Foreign Affairs piece that Schmidt-Cohen wrote, “The Digital Disruption: Connectivity and the Diffusion of Power,” in which the dynamic duo discuss in detail future “coalitions of the connected” made possible with technologies “overwhelmingly provided by the private sector.” Assange pulls up this telling quote:
Democratic states that have built coalitions of their militaries have the capacity to do the same with their connection technologies…. They offer a new way to exercise the duty to protect citizens around the world who are abused by their governments or barred from voicing their opinions. [Assange’s emphasis in italics; mine in bold.]
Like the justification George W. Bush used to ignore sovereignty and make war in countries “too weak or unable to fight terrorism,” the ‘duty to protect’ principle is a militaristic co-optation and corruption of humanitarian intervention theory, as well as the clearest indication yet that the Internet has already become militarized and that we are now in the normalization phase. As a literal battlefield it is to be controlled by the strongest military, making Obama, as Commander-in-Chief the principle ‘decider’ for future Internet policies. Schmidt-Cohen are the Good Cop face to a long-extant US foreign policy succinctly summed up, unapologetically, by Bad Cops like former Latin American CIA chief Duane Clarridge, who helped arrange for the overthrow of Chile’s Salvador Allende (or “What’s-his-name,” as Clarridge refers to him). Says Clarridge, “We’ll intervene whenever we feel it’s in our interest to so, and if you don’t like it, lump it. Get used to it, world. We’re not going to put up with any nonsense.” There is no functional difference between the political principles espoused by Schmidt-Cohen and that of Clarridge. None.
But if you alloy this political mandate with the technological vision that Schmidt-Cohen reveal in The Empire of the Mind, then you have a profoundly disturbing nightmare scenario. As Assange points out, there is in the Schmidt-Cohen manifestoes a banality that seeks to assuage and seduce, like a 1950s TV ad high on Twilight Zone smack. Schmidt-Cohen tell us how our good buddy Amazon can help solve so many problems with its ever-so-clever algorithms, but they don’t tell us how the two buddies collaborate with intelligence agencies. “For example,” they write, “Amazon is able to take its data on merchants and, using algorithms, develop customized bank loans to offer them—in some cases when traditional banks have completely shut their doors.” Oh, so, kinda like that cool subprime loan thing, right? And, getting stranger than strange:
As for life’s small daily tasks, [Amazon’s] information systems will streamline many of them for people living in those countries, such as integrated clothing machines (washing, drying, folding, pressing and sorting) that keep an inventory of clean clothes and algorithmically suggest outfits based on the user’s daily schedule. [emphasis added]
If it stopped there, that would be sufficient to give pause to a sane person. But the two plow on. Matter-of-factly and without any horror at the implications, Schmidt-Cohen describe a future where identity merchants make a handsome profit in the brave new economy. With a straight face, they offer up this scenario:
Virtual kidnappings, on the other hand—stealing the online identities of wealthy people, anything from their bank details to public social-network profiles, and ransoming the information for real money—will be common. Rather than keep and maintain captives in the jungle, guerrillas in the FARC or similar groups will prefer the reduced risk and responsibility of virtual hostages.
But that’s not the proverbial kicker. We mustn’t underestimate the value of future holograph boxes, they tell us, in which you can find entertainment by immersing yourself in various virtual excursions: “Worried your kids are becoming spoiled? Have them spend some time wandering around the Dharavi slum in Mumbai.” Don’t worry about changing it any, right? (Schmidt brought his teen-aged daughter with him when he visited North Korea, so that she could ‘experience’ a totalitarian state first-hand and blog about it.) This is “transformative”? Visionary? Sane?
But back to leaks and who decides how and when they are published, there is another important difference in how the two systems operate. After setting Assange up as a might-as-well-be terrorist, Schmidt-Cohen toss out a disingenuous question:
Why is it Julian Assange, specifically, who gets to decide what information is relevant to the public interest? [And] what happens if the person who makes such decisions is willing to accept indisputable harm to innocents as a consequence of his disclosures?
As Assange points out, this is both a dishonest and rhetorical question, because soon they answer by saying that all leaks should go to “a central body facilitating the release of information” and that whistleblower publishers need “supervision.”
This gets at the heart of the matter: dissidents need to be accounted for, contained as a subset, and controlled. After all, most of them are just kids (more than half the world’s population is under 30, and growing) and Schmidt-Cohen, along with the State Department, are worried sick about what these youngsters might get up to. As Schmidt-Cohen observe, “the mix of activism and arrogance in young people is universal.” This isn’t the first time they have raised this sentiment. Early on, during the secret meeting with Assange, Scott Malcomson, one of the CFR tools who accompanied Schmidt observed, apropos of Dostoyevsky’s wet snow, “Young people aren’t inherently good. And I say that as a father and with regret.” (Nor are old people and fathers, and I say that in all sincerity.)
The self-described “old people” who met with Assange seem to have had a notion already in motion as to how they would shepherd and influence young people, but they are still looking for shaping mechanisms—triggers they can pull. That was the value of the recent secret Facebook-DoD experiment: to manipulate community emotions toward action, the way it was done in the Joseph Kony saga, where children were rounded up by a Christian evangelical ‘activist’ overnight on Facebook and put to the task of proxy vigiliantism. (Kony is still free today, although the actions of all those manipulated kids did lead to Congress authorizing a military presence in the Central African Republic, where they don’t seem to be looking for Kony much, “but 40 advisers will remain”).
Schmidt-Cohen’s answer, as with leaks, is to shepherd youngsters into central crowdsource pens where they can vent their disaffection and participate in ‘constructive’ dissident campaigns. Their preferred choice, of course, is The Alliance of Youth Movements, or other NGOs (Schmidt loves NGOs the way the Department of Defense loves its sub-contractors) affiliated with the ‘centrist’ doctrines of the day, and their main goal is to knock down “dictators” everywhere, even if freely elected. It’s the American Way. As Hillary Clinton told a gathering of the Alliance by video link not long ago, “You are the vanguard of a rising generation of citizen activists…. And that makes you the kind of leaders we need.” The Alliance and Movements.org are just two more branches of co-optation and control, an exercise in grooming future “responsible” controllers.
Meanwhile, ‘activist’ billionaire philanthropists like Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen and Jeff Bezos and Pierre Omidyar are free to do the adult freedom-fightin’; working with the NSA to drill down to unruly dissidents; creating algorithms that the CIA can use to track anyone; pouring money into coups in places resistant to neo-liberalization; even meeting up with rebels to organize resistance, as Cohen says he’s done with Iranian dissdents. This has not been met with as much approval among the national security types as you might imagine. In a WikiLeaks email leaked from the private security firm Stratfor, the director complained to a colleague:
Google is getting WH [White House] and State Dept support and air cover. In reality they are doing things the CIA cannot do… [Cohen] is going to get himself kidnapped or killed. Might be the best thing to happen to expose Google’s covert role in foaming up-risings, to be blunt. The US Gov’t can then disavow knowledge and Google is left holding the shit-bag.
This is the real face of the “Don’t be evil” meme.
A few weeks ago I re-watched The Illustrated Man, a film based on Ray Bradbury’s short story collection by the same name. Reading The New Digital Age had me seeing those dystopic tattoos again—not on the body of a knowing victim like Steiger, but in the daft Satyricon that is the Schmidt-Cohen premise. In The Illustrated Man, there’s one vignette in which two teens are allowed to play in their favourite holographic room. They conjure up wild lions to play with, and the parents think all is bliss, until bits and pieces of their stuff goes missing, only to be discovered in the holographic room being sniffed over by the lions. Alarmed, the parents call in a shrink, who comes almost immediately, but not before the kids get the lions to maul and eat their parents. In the holography that still lights up my mind, that is how I want to respond to Google’s Dead Souls future – with Schmidt and Cohen (and Bezos and Omidyar and others) taken by the Empire’s lions and devoured by their own megalomaniac fantasies.
Watching Rob Wood and Sam Felton from the Wyss Institute at Harvard explain the power and the glory of origami robots brings on some serious chord changes in one’s lyrical thinking.
On the surface of things, where most of us live, one wants to rejoice at the exquisite beauty of origami robots assembling themselves, white angular sheets rising, like the Sydney opera house now but then transforming into a weird albino stick insect, twerking their little battery packs and walking away, as if nothing just happened.
It was like when I first read about 3D printers, parsing all the gushing wows, here we go high in the saddle cowboy smiles, giddyupping down the light fundongo, gleefully fleeing the Big Bad Bang and horsing along to the mother-of-all-things Singularity. All was blissful thinking.
I’d like to live in a world where I could give a gift to Maybelline, who I so love, a gammy ‘gami bot that folds in and struts up, over and out, and becomes a little whirling dervish of dazzling delight that lights up my lover’s eyes, like a ditzy Dumbledoris with an electric, buzzing wand she knows just what to do with.
I’d like to think that such origami lovelinesses would have an affect akin to the Gay Bomb which, when sprayed over the battlefield turned men from black-and-white thinking warriors, all grim and grimy, to pink sunlit soldiers of love. (Happy kenning fjorder, ja?) Going to war would have a whole new moaning.
Also, I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony…
But the problem is, when these blokes begin discussing potential applications for the little origami robots that could, I got a feeling of déjà vu. To a new agey soundtrack we are treated with images of cute paper origami figures, then insects, then proteins chains, then a flower unfolding, all inspirations for the
robot design, the blokes say, and then Rob goes and spoils it all by saying something stupid like, “We thinks these structures will be deployable in harsh environments, like space and the battlefield,” and suddenly the air goes out of my condom and I’m feeling like I’m a philosophy student back at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on the day the Challenger shuttle exploded, all the engineering shop talk centred on “O” rings, no one talking the lost shuttle crew, although CNN kept flashing a still photo of Christine McAuliffe, the first teacher in space (in staff rooms across America, you could hear colleagues going, “Well, that fackin’ figures. Get a teacher in space and, wouldn’t you know it, her chalk ride snaps against the blackboard firmament.”). Suddenly, I could envision self-assembling colonists on distant planets getting all bolshy with the green gawky inhabos (‘Yo,’ they’d be saying, with digital voices, ‘extra-terra nullius, slimefucker, now cough it up and move along.’) and ironclad dickheads duking it out on endless plastic battlefields like the Rockem Sockem robots of yore.
Worse, because I do too much reading, I could recall that these origami robots actually originated with DARPA, the research and development strong-arm of the US Department of Defence. Of course, DARPA being DARPA, they’ve gone down the road to excess once more (without finding the palace of wisdom – yet again) and created not just origami-flavoured self-assembling bots powered by puffs of air, but what’s more – squishable shape-shifting robots and all manner of morphers.
Well, of course, it’s all part of that new Grand Narrative that says technology will be our Saviour, that climate change, melting ice caps, over-population, dwindling resources, endless war, arseholes in charge, the 1% certifiably insane – all need not be worried over, because DARPA’s on its way. We will all live longer lives, we’ll end poverty as we know it everywhere, world peace is just around the corner, yada-yada-yada. I don’t mean to be the dark side of the moon to this stunning neo-Enlightenment, after all, I’ve been a techie (albeit, not a very competent one) and I have a certain degree of Buddhist geekery in me — I’m not, in principle, even athwart the Singularity and the merging of the digital and the human to some degree. But what reason does the common person have to believe that the coming transformative technologies will make us any better humans than the introduction of the toaster did? (Sheet, the white bread is still in control, y’all.) Why wouldn’t the fat cats of the 1% merely horde and use these technologies they bankroll and control for their own nefarious purposes? Inbreed like Rubik’s cubes of
Oedipussy. Create gene-specific plagues for fun. And shit.
Recently, I read (and reviewed) Technocreep, a book by technologist Thomas Keenan. He paints a pretty grim picture of the future, with all the assorted techno innovations pervading and saturating our culture and humanity quickly, quietly and with potentially catastrophic ramifications. He traces effects of the subtle revolution in about a dozen separate areas of human activity, including one he calls Robot Creep. And again, DARPA plays a key role in how future robots will be used. They have already experimented with weaponized insects, writes Keenan, and in keeping with what Wood and Felton said earlier, Keenan describes how the military sees the use of autonomous robots:
We might even get to the stage anticipated by science fiction
writers where countries in conflict simply duke it out in cyberspace
to see who would win, based on mathematical models, and then the
proper number of citizens on each side are executed in the settling
up. It would be an efficient if chilling way to handle disputes with our
Again, it should be worrisome that the first thought out of the box is how these things can be used to kill more efficiently. It’s hard not to wonder: WTF is wrong with these people?
However, it doesn’t end there. Keenan goes on to describe future bordellos filled with picture-perfect robo-prozzies with the clear advantage of being indefatigable (and so, more cost effective nymphos, as WD-40 stretches farther than Vaseline) and having lovely disposable orifices (imagine ordering a mouth with a Hitler moustache for some kinky sado fun!). Keenan doesn’t mention what the deal might be with male prostitutes. Perhaps they just recycle, like responsible Buddhist geeks.
In a chilling empowerment of kids with magnifying glasses out looking for creatures to fry, Keenan describes new kits that have come to market that allow kids to hack the nervous system of insects with their smartphones. Maybe it won’t seem so unnatural to them when the technique eventually transfers over to hacking ‘terrorists,’ the definition a moveable feast of lingo. (I vote: people who insincerely employ the word ‘empathy’ too much. They must learn to suffer with quiet desperation like the rest of us.).
Most people probably know by now that the planet’s honeybee colonies are collapsing, an event with profound consequences not only for humans but other life forms on the planet as well, and although no one has been able to
absolutely pin the blame on GMO giant Monsanto, they are certainly implicated. But never fear, say techno-cats, no problem, because robo-bees are on the way and they will take over for their live falling comrades. For a price, of course. And lots of contractors want mileage included, so we may need to hire some lay-about bees to keep the costs down.
Origami robots should be viewed as part of the larger frame of referenced things to come, or rather of the coming Internet of Things, where all is sensed and recorded, where privacy is like an endangered species enjoyed only by a small percentage of the Watchers and their cronies, and we become calculable data points stored in a disposition matric in the Cloud, watched over by loving algorithms and controlled by angels of our worser natures. You better not pout, you better not cry. No, really, mofo, you’d better not, if you know what’s good for you.
Yes, one would like to think it could all end with the drop of a Gay Bomb. A magic mooshroom cloud, pink mad terrorists of terrible delight. (Though rosy lips and cheeks within his bending sickle’s compass come, right?)
I’d like to see this end with a 3D printer belonging to General Mayhem, one of the many Masters of War, where I could send to his printer a self-assembling 3D fist, with pronounced knucklature, that would rise up from his desk, like a little five-fingered revolution, and punch the smug self-appointed demi-god right in his double-chinned chops. Or better yet, maybe send him a self-assembling self-replicant, all smeared with pink pheromones, and then General Mayhem could commence to go fuck himself.
We could make a porno.
Imagine: You leave your house for work and the light sensor over your door records the time and snaps a picture. You hop into your car and before it will start a quick substance-abuse check is performed as you hold the steering wheel. Once you’re allowed to drive, your car’s “black box” records your speed and braking habits, and sends a graph to police analysts and your insurance company. Your car and Android pass on your GPS coordinates to some unknown Authority and to Google, who turns around and sells the information to target marketers. At a traffic light your licence plate is recorded, along with a thermal image showing how many passengers are in the car. In addition, an unseen drone overhead zooms in your face and reads its mood and ‘tone’ and matches it up against that day’s ‘known threat types’ in a disposition matrix. Still sitting at the light, you look left to see a teen in the next car wearing Google Glasses and recording your face; indeed, a few moments later, Instagram notifies you that your expression has been entered in a daily polling contest and already has 5 up-thumbs. Your car radio senses your rising anxiety and begins playing some easy listening tunes to calm you. Dread of work begins to envelop you—having to face the eye scanner to enter the building and the finger-print scanner to log on to your PC, and where you’ll be careful of how you answer emails, extra conscious of how you speak on phones, afraid to use the coffee machine, because it counts your cups and sends stats off to a work productivity study with unknown ramifications. And the coworker in the cubicle opposite you keeps flashing you a proud new prosthetic vagina that was extruded from a 3D printer at home. You decide to call in a sickie and turn the car around. Sensors and alarms go off. Your car questions your move. An app pops up on your Android and scans your features. You make it home, the light sensor recording your return, alone. You go into the kitchen and the fridge immediately calls out that ‘milk is low’ and your open laptop has a pop-up list of items needing replenishing that your fridge has passed on. You piss and the toilet tells you how many blue flushes are left. You take to bed and curl up in the foetal position, your blanket warming to an ‘optimal soothe’. Your bedroom lights read your distress and come on and a floating voice asks you over and over if you are okay, while simultaneously passing the moments on to your insurer, which immediately alerts a counsellor, whose voice in the room now says you need to spend more and sends you a scrip for Valium and a set of discount coupons that you hear arrive in your Inbox with a mystical ding…
Once upon a time this vision qualified as dystopic and its message cautionary. But as Thomas P. Keenan makes clear in Technocreep: The Surrender of Privacy and the Capitalization of Intimacy, we have entered a new Kuhnian paradigm that doesn’t necessarily include a future for the human species—at least as we know it. As Keenan puts it, the digitalization of humanity is now as unstoppable as climate change. Its impact can be reduced with certain uncomfortable adjustments, but the lag in any collective action will make it utterly reactionary and useless.
Keenan lays out the evidence calmly, methodically and without polemics: he lets the evidence speak for itself. This is not to say the book is devoid of humour—far from it! But his wit, like his politics, takes a back seat to the civil and civic-minded purpose of his endeavor. In 15 separate but related areas of human activity, Keenan provides examples of the way technology is bleeding over into the very essence of human life. He makes a convincing case that humans’ capitulation to the Machine has been, like the switch of data transmission from analog to digital, welcome, blind and unstoppable. And we have been hurtling along ever faster since.
Thomas Keenan is himself a lifelong technologist, with roots in the birth of modern computing in the 1950s, so his understanding of the current landscape carries the weight of developmental insights. He expresses his thesis more as a set of observations than as a theoretical proposition. He begins by stating his purpose:
So much is happening that is out of our view and beyond our control. Like a network of mushroom spores sending out subterranean tendrils to silently exchange genetic material, our technological systems are increasingly passing information back and forth without bothering to tell us.
Far from warning the reader about the imminent doom, a la Orson Welles’ infamous Martian Invasion radio broadcast, Keenan assumes an intelligent readership and presents his case in a provocative but personal manner. “This book,” he writes, “is about the unseen ways in which technology is already changing our lives.”
Then we come to technology and what is ‘creepy’ about it. The term ‘creepy’ is popularly associated with dark sexual auras that play on one’s fears, but Keenan has a more nuanced take, likening it to what Freud describes as “The “Uncanny.” In his essay by the same name, Freud describes “a quality of feeling” and “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar,” a world of ‘doubles’ shadows and the occult, or what Julia Kristeva calls the magical realm of the ‘semiotic’ that precedes object-relations and the ‘symbolic’; the realm of the infantile. The ‘creepy’ seems to activate the ‘uncanny’ presence of that archaic realm of doubles, of objects brought to life by the mechanisms of desire.
Thomas P. Keenan
What follows in Keenan’s book is a grand parade of creepiness: Intelligence Creep, in which ‘the line between machine and human thinking is blurring’ and we are confronted with the unsettling experience of an object exhibiting realistic human behaviour; Camera Creep—whether thermal imaging that can ‘see’ through buildings and surveillance systems to thwart terrorism is being co-opted by commercial interests; Image Creep, whereby ‘your face is becoming a key that unlocks a vast amount of personal information about you’; Sensor Creep, with its Internet of Things that conspire to anticipate (your) needs and desires; Tracking Creep, with its ubiquitous RFID chips and real time bidding by corporates for ‘access to your eyeballs’; Sensation Creep, with its Pavlovian popcorn piped in to make you desire; Bio Creep, with its DNA profiling and databasing; Body Creep, with its fingerprint scanners and promise of coming-soon ‘software-based humans’; Time Creep, such as the time-lining of one’s everyday existence so that every moment is accounted for; Government Creep, not only with mass surveillance but with the manipulation of collected data for political purposes; Deception Creep, wherein language is drained of meaning and ‘you never really know who or what to believe anymore’; Physible Creep, as with 3D printers which imply that ‘now, within reason, anything can be anything else; Child Creep, where overexposure to the Internet is destroying the privacy of childhood; Pet Creep, where cosmetic testicles help repair the damage done a pet’s spayed ego; and, Robot Creep, whether allowing kids to hack the nervous systems of ants or robotic sex workers replacing human prostitutes.
What is most cause for concern in the area of Intelligence Creep, where quantum and neural network technologies abound, is that despite still requiring human sequential input the “apparent paradox is that many computer programs have already surpassed the comprehension of any one human mind.” It should be clear that such paradoxes represent a real danger, once you get past the euphoria of Geek bliss and narcissism. For such programs are capable of locking us out of key systems we put them in charge of overseeing.
With Image Creep it is as if the predatory male gaze, which has offended and objectified people for millennia, has suddenly run amok—as if, in Freudian terms, the ego had been universally subsumed by the super-ego, leaving no middle ground between the id’s chaos and the super-ego’s authority. It begins with Google Glass, says Keenan, with everyone recording everyone else and all of it stored, tracked and analyzed by forces inimical to freedom and privacy. So advanced is facial recognition software that, when combined with a technology like Google Glass, one can expect “that you will soon be able to point smartphones at someone and learn quite a bit about them in real time.” This likelihood has already spawned a counter-industry in ‘facial weaponization’. One company, Realtime Glamofage, “helps people create masks with weirdly-morphed versions of their actual face, hoping to bedevil the recognition software.” Do we want to live in a world where every day is Halloween and our identities are the treat to be fought over by corporate predators hungry for a taste of your face?
Perhaps the most disturbing Creeps, however, are in Keenan’s Bio and Body categories, where final physical and psychical barriers are breached, and the synthesis of operator stimulant on operant flesh is most fully realized. The celebratory hoo-ha that resulted from the astonishing work of the Genome Project, with its definitive and triumphant production of DNA sequencing knowledge, is also the stuff of totalitarian wet dreams, a yearning eugenicist’s Siegfried moment. This DNA capture begins at birth in a hospital, when samples of blood are drawn from the newborn, put on filter paper and stored. Keenan puts it in all its inglorious perspective: “In fact, newborn screening may actually be the Holy Grail that many governments have been lusting for – a national database of all its citizens.” The NSA revelations of Edward Snowden may be the proverbial tip of a melting iceberg.
Another study under way by technologists delves into the nature of human memories and how they can be manipulated by external stimuli. Keenan cites Steve Ramirez, a researcher from the RIKEN-MIT Centre for Neural Circuit Genetics, who says, “Our data demonstrate that it is possible to generate an internally represented and behaviourally expressed fear memory via artificial means.” That is, it’s possible to make a sensible, rational person suddenly terrified of the Bogey Man. The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is actively working on truly invasive “narrative network” technologies that can essentially hijack a brain, the way remote assistance controllers can now take over the functions of a pre-wired automobile, planting false memories and performing other tricks of the mind.
In perhaps the single most warped example of coming creepiness, Keenan cites contemporary French philosopher Rebecca Roche, who sees a time when, say, a prisoner’s mind can be uploaded to a computer and their mental cycle manipulated. By such means, she notes with only a touch of French jocularity, one could take the mind of a killer sentenced to 1,000 years and provide the equivalent experience of imprisonment in something like eight hours. As Roche puts it, “the eight-and-a-half hour 1,000-year sentence could be followed by a few hours (or, from the point of view of the criminal, several hundred years) of treatment and rehabilitation.” Keenan adds, rather less dryly, “So that vicious serial killer or hardened terrorist could be home in time for supper.” And he doesn’t say it, but presumably a way will be found to reconstitute the victim’s body, their memories downloaded from the cloud.
This, of course, leads to other philosophical considerations. If such memory manipulation, along with the synthetic reconstitution of the body (or a trade-in for a better model), is probable in the middle future, then it raises questions of immortality, and a kind of time travel. But if time travel happens in the future, wouldn’t it already be happening now, our descendants revisiting old stomping grounds, and, if so, what then constitutes the real?
Given the enormous stakes of all this technocreeping, one might expect considerable popular resistance to the current war on privacy. For, whatever else it may be, the War on Terror, with its unleashed global surveillance apparatus, most certainly is, in effect, a war on subjectivity and the private, whereby the government watches all and feeds their corporate sponsors, who turn around and manipulate the desires of the universal gaze. “Aside from the occasional blinking light,” Keenan says of the surveillance apparatus, “they tell us nothing. We tell them everything.” And yet, aside from the usual roundup of leftwing complainers, there seems to be a resounding celebration of the Internet of Things, with its ubiquitous sensors and data recordings, designed to tell us what we need; we don’t seem to mind apps that allow a nosy neighbour to point an iPhone at someone’s home and see what the occupants are doing; most will blithely accept being sprayed with GPS nano chips the way they now shrug at being sprayed with insecticide by flight attendants as they enter highly-restrictive countries, such as Australia. A lot of the acceptance has to do with how the invasiveness is packaged, of course. As Keenan points out, a sensor that casually allows you to monitor your neighbor “would have been greeted much differently if they had called it the ‘Anne Frank Finder.’” Perhaps, but then again, this is the age of irony.
Keenan, a deeply experienced technologist who has worked for both government and private interests, reckons that the deterioration of resistance to digitalization and the consequent dehumanization of personhood, which is summed up in the actions of the computer conquistadors, have been steady and irresistible since the 1950s. Keenan is not the only observer of this trend, of course. French sociologist and theologian Jacques Ellul’s seminal work, The Technological Society(1954), described how the tools and techniques of technology have gone from being an important means to an end (i.e., the betterment of the human condition through the gradual development of civilization) to becoming an end in themselves, and in the process the dialectical activity which has defined humanity and given it breadth and reason has been subsumed into technological activity, from which there is no escape. The system is the solution, Marshall McLuhan once said (a meme Bell Telephone was quick to co-opt and use in its ads of the mid-70s), and the system no longer requires politics, or the staggering inefficiencies of democratic choice.
Perhaps the weakest part of Keenan’s Technocreep comes when he sets up some cursory counterarguments to his thesis. He ventriloquises the optimist dummy who notes only, in so many words, ‘but technology will save and enhance humanity—by curing cancer, replacing body parts, lengthening our lives, keeping us safe and entertained!’ Perhaps Keenan felt that any reader who had gone through his book and reached this late stage of his study and still maintained a blind optimism was probably too delusional to worry with further reasoning. Likewise, he poses the commonly heard pop tart’s lisp, ‘If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.’ And rather than get into a debate about tossing the Bill of Rights, with its guarantees of privacy, to the wind, he merely reminds his lispeners that today’s model citizens could easily be tomorrow’s national security threats.
Keenan closes his book by offering up a chapter meant to lift the spirits, presumably, with a series of steps that techno-citizens can take to reduce their vulnerability to the System: various ways to ward off trackers, digital predators, government snoops, neighbourly eavesdropping, and the whole carnivalesque rompin’ stompin’ of the machine matrix of processed desire. Some of his advice includes living your digital life in a sandbox, using encryption to store data and communicate, and living with multiple identities. But such precautions, such necessary fortressing and deceiving, serve to accentuate the notion that real war is not on terror, but on what ‘terrifies’ the System: the unpredictable spanner-in-the-works known as individuality. Keenan’s remedies hardly inspire confidence. After all, these solutions suggest a fait accompli whereby democracy is finished and future survival depends on how one adjusts to the Machine’s requirements. Perhaps it is as philosopher Donald Verene posits in his essay, “Technological Desire,” (Verene, 1984):
Things in history, like human lives themselves, come to ends. The question is not the reform of technological society; it is the question whether human meaning is possible in its world… The technological society reduces the human spirit to desire, just as an individual life can be reduced to one of its dimensions.
Though one might be inclined to draw a similar conclusion after reading Keenan’s work, the book is clearly written with activists in mind. Indeed, it concludes with an exhaustive reference section that allows the reader to re-trace the author’s steps and access primary materials to study. In that sense, at least, it ends on an upbeat note.