Life and Death …

The idea of being forgotten is terrifying. I fear not just that I, personally, will be forgotten, but that we are all doomed to being forgotten—that the sum of life is ultimately nothing; that we experience joy and disappointment and aches and delights and loss, make our little mark on the world, and then we vanish, and the mark is erased, and it is as if we never existed. If you gaze into that bleakness even for a moment, the sum of life becomes null and void, because if nothing lasts, nothing matters. It means that everything we experience unfolds without a pattern, and life is just a wild, random, baffling occurrence, a scattering of notes with no melody. But if something you learn or observe or imagine can be set down and saved, and if you can see your life reflected in previous lives, and can imagine it reflected in subsequent ones, you can begin to discover order and harmony. You know that you are a part of a larger story that has shape and purpose—a tangible, familiar past and a constantly refreshed future. We are all whispering in a tin can on a string, but we are heard, so we whisper the message into the next tin can and the next string. Writing a book, just like building a library, is an act of sheer defiance. It is a declaration that you believe in the persistence of memory. —Susan Orlean, The Library Book, 2018

During this past year I have been slowly dropping off of Facebook. I still go on a couple of times a week for a quick perusal, but the experience has lost much interest for me. I can keep track of a lot of people I know around the world there, and occasionally it’s still a good way to connect with distant friends or events. But that kind of semi-urgent checking, the repetitive reloading, compulsive posting, all that is far in my rear-view mirror. I am more often on Instagram these days, mostly because I like photography, but it too is beginning to lose my interest. Twitter I never got, and have never regularly checked, same for LinkedIn, and I never even got accounts at other social media platforms. So if you’re trying to get me to notice an event, an invitation, or just have a conversation with me, please write me at my email (proof that I’m an old fogie I suppose).

Ruminating on my own diminishing involvement with the Internet as a social space, I have as usual been reading voraciously. I have devoured a couple of dozen books since the summer, and spend at least 2-3 hours a day reading books. That alone ensures that I spend a lot more time in my head than I do in the manufactured circuits of “connectivity” that claim to be intensifying or deepening our relationships to each other—a patently false claim.

My skepticism of course goes back forty years at this point. When we started Processed World in 1981 I’d already been ridiculing the modern office and the accoutrements of the dawning Information Age from the cubicles in which I was temping in 1979-1980. Living through the ensuing decades of digitization hasn’t really given me any reason to alter my fundamental disdain, even though I’ve been involved in so many projects that depend on the Internet, from our archive at foundsf.org to my blog here at nowtopians.com, and all the many online links that connected dissenting bicyclists, gardeners, and programmers, to anti-war activists, anti-racism projects, and to flourishing expressions of human diversity and beyond.

I used to depend on photocopiers where I worked or in copy shops to get my ideas onto paper and then I’d spend hours stapling and taping flyers to poles all over town. After we started publishing a 48-64 page underground magazine three times a year, I’d rush to the Processed World mailbox almost every day in the hope of finding another wonderful or complicated or angry letter from a reader far away. I was craving communication and recognition long before blogs and websites and social media accounts codified that pursuit into the commercial channels that force all that attention into generating profits for someone several steps removed. I look back on the pages of Processed World with a weird combination of pride and embarrassment—we were definitely way ahead of the curve in terms of what we were experiencing and writing about and the way we responded to it at the time. But we missed so much! Our analysis was so primitive! How much are we missing now as we try to grasp how life is changing around us? It’s incredibly difficult to see the forest for the trees while you’re in the middle of it.

Logic Magazine has been publishing for a few years now, and I look forward to each issue. It’s gotten better as it has gone along, and I’m happy to see a descendant of Processed World in them (albeit, one that has far surpassed the quality of analysis we were doing in the 1980s). Donna Haraway was interviewed in Logic Magazine #09 “Nature” called “A Giant Bumptious Litter: Donna Haraway on Truth, Technology, and Resisting Extinction” where she ricocheted across some of the themes I think about all the time:

If the public-private dichotomy was old-fashioned in 1980, by 2019 I don’t even know what to call it. We have to try to rebuild some sense of a public. But how can you rebuild a public in the face of nearly total surveillance? And this surveillance doesn’t even have a single center. There is no eye in the sky.
Then we have the ongoing enclosure of the commons. Capitalism produces new forms of value and then encloses those forms of value—the digital is an especially good example of that. This involves the monetization of practically everything we do. And it’s not like we are ignorant of this dynamic. We know what’s going on. We just don’t have a clue how to get a grip on it…
The kinds of conversations around technology that I think we need are those among folks who know how to write law and policy, folks who know how to do material science, folks who are interested in architecture and park design, and folks who are involved in land struggles and solidarity movements. I want to see us do much savvier scientific, technological, and political thinking with each other, and I want to see it get press. The Stewart Brand types are never going there.

View of Twin Peaks from my back window, late afternoon, October 1, 2020.
Downtown from the Bay Bridge, Sept. 11, 2020

A new book, Subprime Attention Crisis, by Tim Hwang (former head of global public policy on artificial intelligence for Google), also from the folks at Logic Magazine, offers a framework to understand the Emperor-Has-No-Clothes reality of the Internet economy, which is based overwhelmingly on advertising. How can multiple multi-billion dollar corporations all keep growing and consolidating their power based on advertising—especially when you think about how much you and I and everyone we know either A) ignores said advertising and/or B) have taken steps to block it online, to fast forward through it on TV, and generally do whatever we can to avoid it?

During the last decade of web 2.0 in San Francisco, with its attendant influx of tech bro’s, tens of thousands of private app-based taxis clogging our streets, the shocking explosion of high rise luxury apartments, and the general draining away of whatever was interesting about this city, I have wondered how long this pyramid scheme would keep going. The money, the money, where is it coming from? Advertising! How is that possible? Even though Shoshanna Zuboff and other sharp critics have brilliantly unveiled “surveillance capitalism,” even that concept gives the corporations too much credit. Her analysis leans heavily on her experience with and rejection of B.F. Skinner at Harvard in the early 1970s (as does a number of other analysts), but behaviorism is a weak reed and only works some of the time and in specific and limited contexts (imho). We are not programmable robots after all, even if the business model and sales pitch of the advertising behemoths like Google and Facebook depend on convincing advertisers that we are.

Hwang has studied the economics of online advertising and pushed aside all the hype to focus on the various bits of truth buried in the cacophony:

The full economic impact of ad blocking worldwide is huge. Adobe estimated in 2015 that $21.8 billion in global ad revenue is lost each year to ad blockers… more than all the revenue generated by Facebook that year … On mobile devices, close to 50 percent of all click-throughs are not users signaling interest in an advertisement, but instead accidental “fat finger” clicks—users unintentionally clicking on content while using a touch-screen device. In 2009, one study estimated that 8 percent of internet users were responsible for 85 percent of all advertisement click-throughs online… In 2014, Google released a report suggesting that 56.1 percent of all ads displayed on the internet are never seen by a human. One 2017 report by Comscore found that this problem is particularly pronounced for ads purchased through the programmatic ecosystem. A staggering number of those ads are never seen by anyone at all. (pp. 79-82)

He shows the remarkable parallels between the “programmatic ecosystem” of automated advertising markets and the high-speed trading of stockbrokers and the relationship of such automated markets with a degradation of information available to actual humans. The eventual result is a disconnect between prices and the worthless items being sold (in this case “attention”). That’s all bad enough, and unfortunately Hwang is a typical libertarian from Silicon Valley insofar as he proposes that this system be allowed to implode in order to replace it with better, more honest markets for online life. But before he capitulates to that logic he almost lets himself think about the social implications of the kinds of relationships we’ve been channeled into by the dictatorship of online advertising imperatives.

The need to create a liquid market in human attention influences the architecture of the social spaces of the web. Commodification requires attention to be legible: in other words, the internet must structure “engagement” in a way that is easy and accurate to measure.
Social interaction between people is mediated by structured tags such as “like” and “favorite” because these render sentiments easy to measure. Even features that we take for granted, such as requiring user registration to create a profile, are building blocks designed to support the delivery of advertising online… This is more than simply enforcing a certain kind of product design. We have been taught to interact with other people online by platforms built to buy and sell attention. One wonders if that will constrain the social possibilities of the future. (p. 116-117)

A number of writers have gone well beyond wondering about that and are trying to analyze what we are living through. One of my favorite, albeit seriously depressive, intellectuals is Italian autonomist Franco “Bifo” Berardi. I’ve read a number of his works and blogged about some of them in the past. The last time I got into Green Apple Books in San Francisco’s Richmond District I came upon a dense philosophical 2015 book by him called AND: On the Phenomenology of the End: Sensibility and Connective Mutation (Semiotexte: Foreign Agents Series). Given my own upswelling forebodings about the state of the world, the title called out to me, and after a quick glance I bought it. It turns out to be hard going, a dense philosophical treatise that lacks focus and swims around and may have been poorly translated. Still, there are so many insightful moments that I still think this is an important book.

Bifo makes a number of penetrating observations to argue that humans are undergoing a social mutation induced by widespread trauma. As I consider the PTSD-like symptoms of so many friends and acquaintances that seem largely Trump-induced (and the broader fears of violent racists and sexual predators being given carte blanche to pursue their barbaric goals), trauma does seem to be a central experience of our time. The trauma of watching the climate collapse slowly but surely is also impossible to fully digest or hold. As Bifo argues “Only those events and bodies that are neither too large or too small, nor too fast or too slow to escape the human grasp can be objects of historical action and political will. What is too large or too small, too fast or too slow to be visible, perceivable, and manageable belongs to the sphere of evolution, not of history.” (p. 276) In other words, he doesn’t really think we can organize ourselves to deal with something like climate change, given its multi-generational time span; nor can we address the steady alteration of a sense of self that has been imposed by the simultaneous speed-up imposed by the firehose of online information, combined with the social isolation imposed by the reduction of our interactions to the code and needs of an advertising-driven social media world.

The establishment of a connective format of interaction between humans reframes social composition. It is true that dissident thought is possible, and that dissident enunication is also possible. But those uttering such dissident enunciations are in effect renouncing communication, because the format that makes communication possible is inept at conveying messages that are not compatible with the code. (p. 246)

Having already surpassed 3000 words, I’m going to pause here. I will pick it up in the following post in the next days, adding in a number of other books to the discussion. The hope is that to begin to sketch out the enormity of the transformation underway, in terms that go well beyond the tired clichés of leftist polemics or the hateful absurdities spewed from the traditionalist (now neo-fascist) right… The embedded role of technologies in our psychic universe, and how they are rewiring our thinking and expectations, goes hand in hand with a larger process of redesigning global capitalism during this fraught moment of crisis, bringing forward years-long efforts to replace humans with machines, and increasingly, to replace human life with machine life in a way that challenges Marx’s theory of surplus-value as much as it potentially vacates the role of the working class in its own liberation.. More to come.

Spinoza and mom
Slippin’ and slidin’ with L’il Richard and Adriana!
Costco line, dead asleep
Scooter and suitcase.. no problem!

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29 comments to Life and Death …

  • Glenn Bachmann

    Chris, I had no idea you were going through this, until I saw your Instagram post yesterday. (I guess that’s what I get for avoiding Facebook, as well as just being hunkered down in the day-to-day.) On this day of Thanksgiving, I’m very thankful that you didn’t discorporate! This world would be a much poorer place without you! Anyway, I hope you get your voice back—so glad you’re on the mend! I always love it when our paths cross!

  • Hi Chris, Guess I have been a bit slow to learn of your health problems, but I am wishing you the best recovery in the shortest possible time! Abrazos, Jim Fleming

  • David Gallagher

    Just reading this now, and my thoughts are with you for a full recovery. One thing i do know for sure though, Chris Carlsson’s voice will never be silenced.

  • Phil

    Sending you and the entirety of your growing family so much love from here in Barcelona. Thanks for writing so much and sharing photos of F and these amazing new humans of hers. Glad to hear you are on the mend and hoping the voice box recovers soon. Hope to be able to run into you by bike again soon as we always seem to have done.

  • tom wetzel

    Hey Cris, I have not talked with you in person in a long time. Hopefully we will get that opportunity.

    My brother also had a similar escape from skin cancer — those of us of the northern Euro very light complected sort here in sunny California — including me — are at risk of this.

    I’m sort of envious of your grandpa status, as your grandkids seem a blessing. I do make it into the city regularly and would like to connect up with you at some point. I haven’t really had a good opportunity for an in depth discussion with you in ages.

    My book which I’ve been working on for 11 years is almost done. so this should make me more available and maybe coming to some of your events.

    tom wetzel

  • Hola hermano, felicidades por tus nietas! Los nietos y las nietas son un faro que nos da impulso nuevo para seguir adelante a ritmo de pedaleo o caminata, suave y seguro, pero adelante.
    Me ilusiona mucho saber que tu salud después de la cirugía mejora, haremos fuerza desde todos los rincones de nuestra nave espacial (planeta) para tu recuperación plena.
    Tenemos pendiente un encuentro en S.Fco o Córdoba, sea donde sea vamos a celebrar la vida y brindar por supuesto.
    Un abrazo y seguimos en contacto

  • Jocelyn

    Thank you for sharing this… wow! Sending love and hugs, and am SO glad we got to have that awesome tour on the boat this summer! Looking forward to your next chapter.

  • Chris, so sorry you went through that but so glad you got through it ok. Such a relief to read that you are back enjoying life as you should be. We need you brother, such a great thing to have you maintaining the spirit of what is still great, though diminished about San Francisco. Keep doing all that you do! You’re an important factor in me still being glad to live here.

  • Lisa Feldstein

    Chris,
    I’m distressed to hear of your cancer diagnosis, and genuinely happy and grateful for the outcome of your surgery as well as your prognosis. Your incision will make for a monumentally awesome scar. (For a long time I was distressed about my cancer surgery scars, but more recently I’ve recognized them as as reminders to feel gratitude for my access to fantastic medical care, and for my life.)
    Let your beloved family and friends take care of you. Remember that the exhaustion you feel is because your body is allocating its resources to healing. Eat lots of nourishing foods – and don’t forget to count ice cream as one of them. We are all grateful to have you amongst us for a long time to come.

  • Tod Booth

    Chris! So glad you are doing well after such a scare! All my love to you and your ever-extending family, old pal! And those are some cool scars!

  • David Kupfer

    Thank you for this good news!
    Please stay healthy!
    We need your wise understated cultural leadership in the present and coming transition!
    Thank you for all you have contributed to San Francisco history and culture!
    You have made a profound difference!!!

  • Nina Serrano

    Bravo to you! beautiful grandchildren. A new book! You are amaving and wonderful. i send yu love and admirstion and enjoyed reading your post . i found a lot of comforting wisdom in them Love, nina.

  • Magick Altman

    Blessed by the little ones and served by the medical world! Good news!

  • Hang in there, Chris, The world needs your influence!

  • Tomás

    I’m so happy to hear of the expansion of your family and your success beating cancer. You’re a gift to this world we live in. I’m glad we get to have you longer.

  • Thanks Miguel! I love Annalee’s books, and her partner Charlie Jane Anders’s too!… they’re brilliant sci-fi writers… look forward to seeing you here again when you get a chance to pop over… sorry about all the cancer and health dramas… it’s a worldwide epidemic hand-in-hand with the pandemic so I guess we shouldn’t be surprised… yay on the Nuke treaty… I’ll feel a whole lot better when they actually dismantle them all!

  • Thanks Gary! yes, my parents did make it to EVERY fuckin’ county in the 48 contiguous states, finishing up about the year my dad retired (23 years ago!)… Hope all is well with you!

  • Gary Roush

    Wow, Chris, I knew about your new granddaughter but had not heard about your cancer. Congrats on beating it, my od friend,, that is beyond Fantastic! And hey, with those tubes you can goes as a character from the Matrix this Halloween: definitely take the blue pill, dude… So ery sorry to hear about your Mom, but yes good that she was spared a Covid death. Did she and your Dad evervget to complete their goal of driving through every county? Hope to see you next time I am our, but may be a while, given the virus. Hope you continue to recover rapidly!

  • Dear Chris,

    Congratulations on the spectacular granddaughters and your amazing cancer treatment and recovery. Weirdly, I too, was diagnosed with cancer just about a year after my octogenarian mother’s death. Also am now healthy with three grandchildren. Take good care of yourself. Positive vibes and self-care are key. Abrazos para ti y Adriana, y toda la familia.

    Juana Alicia

  • Lisa Schiff

    Wow, I had no idea you were battling cancer! I’m so glad you were so successful and are still spreading great ideas!

  • Adam Cornford

    Wow–Chris, I feel really bad that we’ve been so out of touch and I hadn’t known of your cancer. My recent total hip replacement feels like a small thing in comparison, because there was no illness and certainly nothing life-threatening, just pain. I’m really relieved to learn that the therapy and surgery were so successful. I think of you often and am glad you’ve come through this in your usual indomitable way.

  • Dennis Hayes

    Congratulations, Chris, on beating cancer. Add Mari, Bailey and me to the fan club; may love and life get us through the light-less times. Hope to see you soon!

  • Kathleen Coll

    Thank you for sharing this. So glad you are on the mend and cancer free. There’s no silencing you, Chris!

  • Deirdre

    Thank you so much for this update! Congratulations to the new addition to your family, Spinoza! And although my heart goes out to you about the cancer diagnosis, I am happy to read about your optimistic attitude and the successful treatment! May your voice recover soon! Wishing you and your family all the best and sending you love!

  • Karen

    So much going on with you Chris! Congrats and the babies! They’re beautiful and the latest good news with your health. I’m sorry to hear about your mom however. Hopefully she was able to hold off at least see her great granddaughter.

    I’m living alone in soma. Going thru my own challenges and successes now that Jon and I have finally split up.

    Off love to see you again sometime.

    Best wishes to you and your beautiful family.
    Karen

  • Julie Trachtenberg

    Oh Chris. So good to hear of the outcome. What a force of nature you are and how the great body of science is keeping you here with us. Our last boat ride with you along the bay remains and continues to impact my footing as to why living here resonates. Be well dear friend.

  • Anna

    Chris, I’m so happy that you are improving! I didn’t know. I’m sure your heart dropped with the diagnosis. I’m glad that you had the immunotherapy. They thought to try that on my mom, but decided that she wasn’t a good candidate. I think about all of you often and it’s so nice to see photos of the babies, although I’m sure Halloul doesn’t consider herself one! I loved seeing the picture with the three of you. One of my mom’s quilts is in the background. It was like a little “hello” from her. I miss her terribly as I’m sure you do your mom. Love all you guys and stay safe!

  • Todd

    Hooray! And you’re no android!

  • MiguelO

    Looking forward to your next instalment. Glad to see your still threading together strands of thought from the different books you read. Glad you’re a survivor. Who knows – Maybe I’ll phone or write you at some point? Do you do Zoom? Do you ever read fiction these days? Fascinating writer in San Francisco: Analee Newitz. 2 novels getting attention Autonomous and The Future of Another Timeline. First my favourite but second getting much attention.
    I’m still addicted to fb and now twitter. Would love to talk to you about it. Try to look at them as campaigning tools but know you’re correct what you were saying about them. We’re in Dublin since March. Family non Covid health crisis w Mel’s brother’s cancer. I’ve had health hills and valleys. Hoping to get back Edinburgh mid November. Good news after 50th country ratification last week the Treaty for Abolition Nuclear Weapons TPNW entry into force 22January 2021. Could prove to be a game changer. Best M

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