Thursday, May 11, 2017

My Review of The Stack, by Benjamin H. Bratton

This book is incredibly useful. It is so utterly packed with important insights and research results that I read it with the gusto I sometimes have for a good novel. And as carefully, and as slowly.

With a novel, the approach is to enter some brilliant mind just beyond the grasp for the author's own containment, and depart the reading changed. For me, this happens even though or more likely because I can hardly ever remember detail. I hold on to some trust that I actually have changed with the same faith I reserve for the notion that I am me, though I have only a sketched remembering of my own whole life. It now takes halfway through to realize I've already read this book. My shelves shrink. I lose my referents.

As would most of us, I would cringe to see it all reflected back to me - my supposed self - in higher resolution than my narrative-constructing brain can retain. There is no more true authentic me than the one I have created mostly as a fiction from whole cloth. Honor demands that. Varnishing my life, and forgetting the extraneous detail is utterly essential to becoming known at all, not to mention loved.

I see a diminution and not an amplification of whatever "I" am, as the only possible result of the hyper-mirror, promised by the brave new computational reality, layered over the Earth I do still love. (A routine mirror is dispiriting enough!) I see this ony as a trap, and no liberation at all.

When Facebook shows me what I was doing last year or eight years ago, its precision is unsettling since I know that my own distorted timeline - engendered at least in part by news cycles which flatten events to where I have no idea if that significant passage was last month or three years ago - my own timeline is simply not right. It doesn't add up.

So I am no more bothered by my memory issues than I am by the fact that others remember things about me than I have almost entirely forgotten. Calling these up from the cloud-stored records of some other me is a strange combination of touching and excruciating. It takes a lot of practice to watch yourself on TV, and by the time you've become used to it you are no longer an ordinary person. I suppose that can be good or bad, depending, ahem, on your point of view.

I am grateful for Bratton's brilliance; for his illuminations about the actual deep structure of our current "world." I shall have to return often to the book, to check details. I made a lot of highlights on my Kindle version, just to leave a kind of breadcrumb trail for myself. His ability to catalog and retain encyclopedic reading and understanding is my definition for brilliant. In my cosmos, this kind of genius, masculinist though it still is, far outshines the superstars of our hypermediated economy.

I will also want to check my conclusions.

More than any other delineator of the Antropocene, Bratton digs way deep to all sorts of nitty gritty about how transformed our earth has been by a new and extremely recent computational overlay. Most authors, I think, would call what he's unearthed dystopic. Bratton himself seems to find it all inevitable, and like a devout Jehovah's Witness, leaves no choice for mankind but to master the facts and get on top of what's happening. Disaster, in other words, is the inevitable result of failure to understand, failure to get on top of, failure to take charge of, what the fuck is going on.

Were he to have spent much time on the tech support side of software and hardware, he might have a different sense of how fragile is this computational house of cards. How utterly unlikely that its realm for fate and accident could ever achieve the unlikely (and always dynamic [sic]) homeostasis of what we still call natural evolution. Understanding cultural evolution in no way promises mastery. I believe that this is one of Bratton's main points.

But the field for accident in our designed world actually extends through unlikelihood to utter impossibility for homeostasis to endure beyond a terminal blink. We all know this in our guts, which is why we project a genius of godlike proportions onto our tech titans. Virtual holdings far outstrip bricks and mortar and actual tooling in their imputed worth. For the moment we are OK with that, since even fools and knaves might go viral and take over the power slot. Comfort where?

It's hard for me to equate fools and knaves with responsible and deserving accomplishers of something important. Most of these - scientists, artists, honest politicians - remain virtually unknown and invisible almost all of the time.

Bratton is utterly rational, common sensible, reasonable and (therefore) banishes all consideration about how quickly actual living breathing humans might lose their enthusiasm for this computational layer. This new aspect of our Earth has also created what he quite accurately calls digital feudalism (or something like that).

He misses the evident fact that there is no longer any human agency in money, which has become a life-force ensnaring the likes of those we adore as geniuses, to its service. The Zucks, and Jobs and Gates and Schmitt's and Musks and etceteras among the vanishingly few with one-man impact on the planet.

Try though they might to be human, these titans are imprisoned in servitude, approaching the scale of exile normally reserved for the likes of Snowden and Assange who are bit players in this narrative.

Those who are not bit players, but whose economic impact gives them Trump-grade freedom of choice (which he so willingly relinquished, right?), must carefully curate their every word. Must publicly say almost nothing of consequence to public opinion. Must save their honest brokering for a few, trusted by scale of salary, inner confidantes. Mostly, this keeps the world going 'round.

Structurally, Bratton carves out the space typically reserved for God, and places Man the designer there. This is what most of us do most of the time, since we no longer believe in ghosts, holy or otherwise.

And when we do contain in our one self all the contradictions now shouted at by others who have certainty to make them seem literate, we are rendered dumb and mute. I know that I will not dare open my mouth - in a faculty meeting say - when others are so stunningly articulate. It actually hurts to be known a fool. I am almost as careful in my speech as a back male must be, or so I can only imagine. I mostly talk one-on-one or in small groups among friends. In public apart from this infernal cloud space, I am utterly silent.

I cannot know if my betters are entrapped and I liberated by their brilliance, or if it's vice versa. In my own really really hard thinking and reading, I do now discover the reality of what others still call God, right there alongside scientific verisimilitude. This kind of mute represents post-human to me. Death be not proud. A different Benjamin wrote the score, sounding nearly the same as this one.

Presumably all of our technology extends but does not destroy the workings of still so-called nature. We actual humans will finally be decentered from a post-human world, which will be more and better toward what we, at our best, aspire. We will no longer dominate nature, in other words, but will be subsumed in its forces once again.

I also refuse some projection of humanity in the Name of God to the space Bratton hollows out in this book whose precision approaches engineering. Bratton's sort of masculinist rationality which finds the physical body merely useful, still does project the self-same spirit of the God he would banish against the dangerous fundamentalists, who also rule The Stack and might yet overcome the rest of us.

My projection is the love which still appears best and brightest in the embodied human heart. Its cosmic trace the Dao, and not the Western natural law which we still hope to discover while remaining innocent of its invention.

Emotional interactions are, quite naturally, simultaneous. This is what it means. Definitionally.

Emotion doesn't propagate at the speed of information, which is no speed at all, which is infinite. Information is always there for us to discover. Emotion is more quick than dead is all. The beginning and end of everything all about us. Stimulus to be in the first place, response in the end.

Rock on!

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