Wednesday, May 20, 2020

An Ontology of Covid-19

We know it's real, and we know that it probably jumped the bat-human divide, and we know that it's our own immunological response which kills us. We must construct narratives, and they must be but some approximation of true. Truth, in the abstract, is but the old Platonic match of perceived pattern to ideal form. We now must move beyond that.

Far from one single truth, there are as many narratives as there are people in the world, past and present, and imagined future too. We have now been required (oh, passive cosmos, be not taxed) to match our narratives across the globe; to true them. 

Now in retrospect, it feels as though COVID was inevitable, and plenty of people are named for unheeded warnings (What really does go on inside Bill Gate's massive houses? We know what goes on inside his head because he tells us that his brain is a CPU.) 

The pandemic also takes place beside a host of other anxieties of our age. The most relevant linkage among all of them might be absence of trust. We don't really agree about who we want in charge, and how the machinery of power might work if we did agree. This is nothing but the struggle for the right narrative to take us forward.

We are in the final throes of an absurd belief that it is possible to understand everything by way of the scientific method, and to therefore, by agency, make everything alright. For sure, that is as crazy an assumption as are the various ones about some personal God. It's not so hard to imagine the vacuity of a world of perfect understanding. These are the preoccupations of all philosophers down through the ages. If perfect understanding is the end, then we are already finished.

We are confused just now about the differences between happiness and pleasure, when in fact and in deed the two have little to do with one another. Sure the wealthy can enjoy pleasures beyond our imagining, though it is quite apparent that there is nothing of fundamental happiness there. Still, one can endure indefinitely in a state of pleasure. 

Happiness becomes but a distant dream in the throes of addiction, and it's never the right time to go sober.

We can all agree that there is no such thing as a happiness machine. Pleasure machines abound, of course, and it would be trivial to invent an un-happiness machine. There is no cure for the challenges that nature will always pose. 

Happiness may inhere in simple homeostasis, and it may be fleeting. That is a physical fact of physical life.

Me, I find my happiness in the deferred pleasure of after death. No, I don't mean that kind of literal eternity. I mean that my self never did end at my skin, and my mind has always been distributed in the world around me. If happiness is a function only of what you can accomplish before you die, then I'd say you've already pushed happiness off to eternity. You only want pleasure.

The virus doesn't listen to no stongman, it listen to a lady. This is a test of the emergency social agency system. The strongman ain't no use. He talk to hisself and to his bros. They gonna get sick too.

I was young when I babysat Michael Harrington's children (no relation!). He was a good friend of the artist whose children I took care of in return for room and board and a little closet bunk bed in a loft near Washington Square Park. I was introduced to the notion of an artist's loft, art that is challenging, and fine food and wine. It has been my lame attempt at humor to remark that Harrington was an aficionado of fine wine. As though that revealed a contradiction. 

Still, it's hard not to find it a tad ironic, but then irony be my God. George Carlin be my priest. Science knew irony when its workings gave us the Bomb so quickly, and still it has nothing to say about love. Well let me tell you that I am the genius of emotion, and that is likely because I have some handicap in that regard. Sometimes it takes a blind man or an innocent to point out the obvious.

Now Michael Harrington is resurrected all over again. There have always been two Americas from the very start with the Federalists and the anti-Federalists, the slave states and the free. It seems to be how we are built. But we have now moved beyond even 'truths that are self-evident,' and can't share even the bedrock under our feet. Even the New Yorker from New York can not be trusted, if you trust the New York Times.

I cannot be resigned to Trump again, and yet I must be. Diseases are never eradicated, though they may be displaced. Bedrock truth will always be beyond us. That is how the world spins. Trump is but the pustule on the Nation. Popping him will do nothing but gross us out. Love him and we might be immunized. That is really hard to do. You'd have to give up on narrative truth altogether.

My body is a colony. It has a story. My asshole is far from my mouth, and sometimes I just have to jump in the nearby shower when the toilet paper doesn't cut it, or I run out. I live in a sea of memes, and I can't even handle a good story ark [sic}. My curves are all flat. As though that told the story of the virus

I read William S Burroughs as a kid; his Naked Lunch. I had no idea from drugs. I just knew that it described my real world. I only recently learned that he was descended from the wealth of typewriters And now I learn of Iceberg Slim, by way of this Chinese humorist who doesn't know irony, and then back to Bratton, who seems to, but maybe doesn't. And so how could I know that Iceberg Slim articulated the seventies, my formative years.

He was a pimp, and we are all the pimp's whores when our world is so constricted that we need some boss to lord over us with threats so that we do, for our sustenance, what he wants us to, just because his world is somewhat larger. We are all of us wage-slaves and dependent on the water pipes the sewer pipes the pipe dreams of our betters. Better bettors, though they may be.

Why, oh why did I decide to spend so much of my life swimming in sea of Chinese words? It doubles the cosmos that I'm not competent for. This Chinese dude was a technician for the broadcast industry in Beijing and he liked to write. The English version is so much less interesting. He knows how to write fairy-tales, and so do all of our leaders. It's what we need and want to hear. He's my age, but much funnier, and surely easier to read.

They have an entire tab in the Kindle store on Chinese Amazon for the Three Body Problem. Don't they have any other writers? I mean he's good, but not THAT good. He's a nuclear engineer, fer chrissakes. Dharma Bums across the universe. 

Trust is what's required for social agency. Otherwise we have strongman agency, at a time when we can only grab for truth, and when we read only on the surface. 

Half of us neither understand not believe in genetic truths. The virus is defined by genes and pools of genes. Easy to deny. You can't even see them. But there you go!

Science, among other things, is the language of trust.That trust is also broken.

Half of us trust only in what we want to hear. We stop at The Word. And why is it so nearly always halfway always. Can't we write a better story? Our homeostasis is always so ready to explode, held in check by mere balanced anarchy, loosed upon the world. 

Red and Blue, the primary hues, purple and green the story machine.

And yet we use our smartphones, buy our goods on Amazon, and generally know that cities are full of glass and stainless steel and fully automated underground trains, and high speed internet that works, and still half of us believe in creationism. This is just weird! Or is it just Occam's razor? We will do whatever you tell us to, Iceberg Slim.

History has been plagued with plagues, but this is the first time we really know what a virus is. That doesn't seem to have made a difference. Our behaviors haven't changed. Has science jumped the shark now too, Fonzarelli? 


Well, why is there news now about those nasty Chinese trying to steal our valuable intellectual property about vaccines? Shouldn't that be public domain? Do we really want someone to make money by fighting the virus? How can we even think in those kinds of incentives?

The good news and the bad news both is that we do share beliefs. In action, we believe in technology as what brings scientific understanding down to earth. In words, some of us believe in whatever the strong man has to say. But do we really think our high tech guns and shooter games are made by God? Ah, no, those get to be mankind's inventions. Right.

An accident or a rogue player might loose the nukes, and an earthquake could hit at any time - not only along the San Andreas, but farther north where the tsunami might be a lot worse, or inland. 

There are plenty of things we haven't prepared for, but we don't even really believe in agency at the social level. We believe in an invisible hand of capitalism, and we believe in some mystic crowd wisdom for democracy. But undergirding these is a culture of zero-sum gaming, and the politics of adversity borrowed from the adversarial justice we practice in the courtroom.

This all goes on behind the new overlays to our living, which have become so natural. The Stack, as Bratton would call them. The overlays are the overlords at least as much as the virus is. We believe (in?) the virus because we know what it can do. The Stack is as remote as God. We deny what it is doing.

We don't even know whether to thank the fates that so much of our lives had already moved online so that we could isolate without quite being cut off, or to curse them for shrinking the globe so much that we are truly all in the same boat now. Whatever the case, our response seems not much different from that during the flu that ended the First World War, or even the Plague that Daniel Defoe wrote about.

But surely this much is true: we are now one world and we can see what is happening all over. Except that the flood of imagery means we see nearly nothing other from what we want to see. That's how the media makes its messaging now. Is there even the remotest possibility to make sense through all the noise?

I wonder how we can remain so much as we were, given how fundamental we thought the changes have been. 

What is it that hasn't changed? What are we stuck on?

Now that we trade selfies globally, try to emulate the same superstars in looks, money, personality or whatever, or in the other direction to create our most authentic selfie self? What hasn't changed?

We have global time automatically adjusted for any relativistic warpage, linked to the multi-national global positional satellite orbiters. We are about to send a new generation of privatized astronauts out in the direction of those satellites. What is it that hasn't changed, I ask!? 

Well, death for one.

But really, what is a social animal? Do we, collectively, resemble more a beehive? A termite nest? A school of fish. A swarm of bird flu? The best antiseptic for this plague would be a wholesale wiping clean of those in power in these United States. Start with the Republicans, please! And so the question is, how did they get there? Why aren't the proper people in charge? Where are they hiding?

Another thing that clearly hasn't changed is that we believe that each of us individually is special. That's a nice thing too, like our personal God, Lord Jesus, wants us to know. And yet our new notions of how special we are seem highly mediated by our, well, media. Instead of a president, we have a narcissist in chief. I mean, he does channel us as we are, doesn't he?

We are glued to our screens just like Plato's denizens in the cave. So, we haven''t changed at all? We remain at a remove from reality, in our wombs with a view. Now we're stocking our caves with guns. Is this our return to frontier days?  Is there no other story to tell?

The trouble really is that we never quite stopped believing in Plato. We think we have ideas in our heads. We think only humans have them. And we think creativity is ours alone, too. Generating ideas is like getting something from nothing, as though there were no interactions with our media ahead of time. We don't believe in an uncarved block that feeds back as we work on it. We believe in spontaneous generation inside our empty heads. We don't even have a germ theory for consciousness. 

The screens we have are now the real screens - the Dao that can be spoken is the eternal Dao - and they've brought into being what we only thought before. There must be some screen inside our head. We still think that God is out there if only we get the pixels in alignment. Surely they will show us the ideal world as it was meant to be!

I have no license to think, nor certainly to write. I am a handyman. I have fixed some very big and complex things, and many of them remain fixed, though some were beyond my simple means to preserve. A school, a massive distributed computer network, houses, parts of houses, a boat, cars and cycles. I am emotionally attached to my tools, and when I sharpen them, I am attached to the sharpeners. It is like a caress. It makes me happy.

Now, I've given most of them away. I make do.

I maintain that absent belief in God, there is no sense of irony. I mean this in the most ironic way! I've proven this to my own satisfaction by asking an expert in China, where the plague was caused by a routine pun, which got turned into food as medicine. The bat, after all, is an auspicious "sign" in so many ways in Chinese, so why wouldn't they eat it? They have no sense of irony. They only laugh at puns. 

The selfie stick was invented in China, or at least found mass appeal there. The irony is that so was the software which will transform your selfie into something much closer to the ideal look for a black-haired Chinese lass with almond eyes. The miracle is that it will still be recognized as you. Just a better, more ideal, you. Beats makeup!

The other becomes us!

I hold in my hand now the most wonderful tool of all. After my original iPhone 6 - which had as many lives as a cat - started taking me more time waiting than finding, I bought the new one. It's not so much the piece of jewelry the 6 was, but it has the same feeling in my hand. I bought a case as cheap insurance, and it wasn't perfect. I bought another and endured the wait for the Amazon delivery man, wondering if they would go on strike first. Just like Christmas, the new one was a disappointment. I need it to charge wirelessly, to stick to the magnet in my car, and to not add weight. I know I'm asking a lot. But I finally got it!

As if life were going back to normal. As if I even want it to.

I was disappointed that the new case from Canada was also made in China. I was only disappointed because I might have been overcharged. As though I wasn't already overcharged by Apple. 

One is black and military style. It feels confidence-inspiring, It was cheap - no bones about China! But it's magnetic disk interferes with the wireless charging The other feels almost slippery, but it works with the wireless. But when I plug in my cable so that I can stream to a bigger screen, its flaw is revealed. The video plug won't make it through the case.

No problem. I like to fix things right? I shaved the cable plug ever so slightly, and here I am having formed a new cathexis - that magical capitalistic transference of my self onto some object. I've had that so powerfully with motorcycles, bicycles, cars, boats, houses, and most of all with my tools. I look at them and feel warm in the recognition. And still, I've given them all away, or have allowed them to transmogrify. My self is in the process of contraction. Death be not proud.

 Too bad the road is closed to my tiny house.

My old iPhone was drowned and replaced by one identical. Then it was traded for my daughter's, which had more memory. New battery, then full stop. Now I have an entirely new one, but it feels the same. Like the USS Constitution, which is the iconic Ship of Theseus, I don't want it to change. I was among the first to use a smartphone, and I would have kept my first one if it would have carried the burden. It was very cleverly designed - nothing like it since! It had a keyboard and a stylus!

I don't like the world of digital reality. I feel it accelerating our demise as a civilization. I shall continue to try to find the good in it. Plato doesn't have to be all wrong. Philosophy is not a zero-sum game.

The most exciting book that I'm reading just now is called The Spread Mind, which exposes the fallacy of our seemingly ingrained belief that we have a mental life apart from the life we experience as physical bodies out and about in the world. I find the thesis utterly convincing, while strangely hidebound in certain ways. The author, with whom I've communicated a bit, seems dogmatically bound to a kind of physical causality which is manifestly not true. 

I agree with him that cons-truing time or temperature as the metric for real destroys the real experience we have of time and temperature. Sure, we like to true our experience against the shared standard, but we know that there is also a deviant 'subjective' time which feels very different from the scientific 'true.' Indeed, meteorologists have had to invent the 'feels like' temperature to guide us about going outside. That takes into account things like wind and relative humidity, though it still replaces what we feel with a new external standard for what's real.

The thing is that Riccardo Manzotti complains about scientists with instruments getting in the way of our 'real' at the same time that he wants to do away with subjective experience altogether. I mean, I just simply find that ironic. Mainly because he won't entertain my modification of his theory. He's acting like the scientific authorities that he himself complains about, who would rob us of our authentic experience. 

But there is no subjective experience. Our experience is, literally, one with the objects of our perceptual experience. He and I agree about that.

Where I start parting company with Manzotti is when he makes the claim that it is our experience which defines the 'real' time. We experience change and we are embedded in a physical causal universe and therefore we experience the flow of time. 

I want to say first off that it is my emotions which first determine my sense of lived time, and second that my emotions are as much out there in the world as are my physical, perceptual, experiences are. I asked Riccardo if he had come across the work of Mark Solms, who locates consciousness in the affective regions of the brain stem. I think that question is what ended the communication, though I can't be sure. I probably just sounded nuts. By definition, I always do! No, I'm not nuts. I just sound nuts because I'm not writing or talking like everyone else. And still I feel like I'm in good company.

According to Solms, emotion is the inception of agency. The survival value of acting as near instantly as possible in the face of recognized danger is patently obvious to me. That means acting thoughtlessly. Another way to put it is that we must act automatically, in almost the way that we breathe. We don't have that much room in our conscious mind, and so we use the shorthand of 'stored' memories of similar experiences, and match them up to successful actions. The relationship is felt, emotively. That's what emotion means, in my vocabulary.

Riccardo seems afraid of reifying Platonic ideals, and therefore dances around the existence of a lion in our minds which might help us to deal with the one just now in front of us. I don't see the need for any ideal form of a lion. I only see the need for the shorthand of generalization, which must have happened in the animal realm long before and apart from human consciousness. The brain must engage in a game of pattern matching, which would help it to put away perceptions according to category. Else what would a mind be for? What would be its survival value?

That's what pattern recognition does, and that's what narrative is. It's how we get by. The brain trues the world by fantastic approximation of reality. There is no truth, and numerical control is useless for lived life, no matter how wonderfully it might enhance our perception.

I know that I can find my memories in my lived environment, and especially in those things I made and in my tools. Traditional proponents of neurologically-based consciousness would take issue with my location of memory in things outside me, but Manzotti would not. If our senses are stopped, we hallucinate. Of course I must exist in and with some world apart from me.

I look at the world and I find things to be familiar. I find familiar things. That is what generalization means in this context. If you have a proper name, and I know you, then there is only one of you. If you are a type, well then I generalize. This happened long before naming. Reptiles do it. Some things they bite, and some they run away from. Some they screw. (I don't know much about reptiles, but I'm still pretty confident to this extent)

Our sense of what is present in what Manzotti calls the spread NOW, is those perceptual objects that we can interact with. I would go further and locate the now among those perceptual objects on which we can act. It is our ability to act which informs our sense of time, and not just our ability to interact as thoughtless percepts. He seems to want the chicken/egg question about agency to be left open, while I want to preserve some of my own.

In just the sense that my future is constrained, I can know the future in a way similar to how I can know the past. I project onto it a whole host of generalizations to locate where my degrees of freedom lie. If I'm in a building and I have to get out, I'll have to go through the door, unless the catastrophe which meant my exit opens up a wall. If it does and if it's safe I'll take it!

This is no different from the 'reverse' causation of the double slit experiment in particle physics. I disagree with Riccardo Manzotti that time is not a physical dimension like all the others. All of our behaviors are conditioned by realistically available futures. Without agency, evolution goes nowhere and is like the world Riccardo imagines where time stands still. He is right that there would then be nothing; that such a state is not even conceivable. 

For photons, the double slit represents a timeless relation. Manzotti denies relations as real. He's wrong about that.

He seems to miss that boundaries between objects are always fractal. Causation becomes predictable only when objects are rather large in time and space. At the scale of our perception without the enhancement of numerically calibrated instruments, predictions are highly reliable. 

But even billiard balls are subject to the butterfly effect, beyond a certain trajectory. Physically linked levers are subject only to accident, or wear and tear for their reliability. Only a fool would push too hard on a rusty lever. Only a fool would play dice with life. But lived life is reliably predictable up to a point.

On the scale of social agency, meshed time and temperature seem to work. If we could but trust them, Google and Apple could end this pandemic almost instantly, provided that usage of their devices saturates our population to the level of herd immunity, which it probably does. And provided that enough people who have such devices would decide to do the right thing. 

This is what my good friend Benjamin H. Bratton would advocate. He won't correspond with me either. I gotta say it baffles me when the stars diss their most enthusiastic fans. It must be that just like Trump, you can't really disagree with them very much. Maybe being a star goes to your head somehow.

Well, who really would want to be in any position of influence in this fucked up world? Trump, that's who, and if we're honest with ourselves, he's only there because we sure as hell don't want the job. We're the ones asleep at the switch here, waiting for our lovely white lives to come back.

We have to find ways to trust our institutions again, we have to find ways to trust our neighbors (defined by Žižek as those who smell [bad]) and we have to find ways to trust even our enemies. If they demonstrate they can drive a bus and have self-interest in keeping the bus on the road, then we should let them drive the bus. China has demonstrated that it can drive the bus of Covid-19, and we should learn from them rather than to vilify them.

I mean please, this is a pretty mild catastrophe that nature has tossed us. It's a slow pitch, and we should figure out what to do. For trivial starters, how about a $2K universal basic monthly income for the duration. Yay Democrats! 

And if we don't want to institute universal healthcare (which would be so much cheaper than to keep the economy closed because of the chaotic ways that poor people have to access healthcare) we could at least mandate that nobody gets charged (I'm talking money, but you can leave the pun in if you will) in any way for Covid-related testing and illness. 

Ditto immigrants whether with or without papers. Do we really want people hiding from the law now instead of feeling protected by it? Do we want people ducking exposure (more puns) because they need to go to work? Are we nuts? The illegals have always been essential workers. What choice do they have? What choice do we have?

So yes, I don't see Covid-19 as some external menace. I see it as yet another natural challenge in the non-zero-sum game of evolution for our planet. These 'emergencies' will continue to escalate until we get a clue. That's just how the game works. 

Prayer won't help, and science won't help either so long as it's subject to the virus of money. How much trust should we have in science now that funding for research is motivated by profit? How much confidence should we have that the price is right when Wall Street money is deployed to destroy an industry in order to monopolize the business and ultimately set the price however they want. 

Walmart is established on that crime, as are, obviously, Uber, or Doordash. Instead of the public spending money on research that we really need, we now practice sugar daddy science.

Money wasn't viral before the Internet. Who even remembers that now? When big pharma couldn't advertise and neither did lawyers. Being able to afford shelter and rent with whatever lousy job you wanted to do was better than a universal basic income. I've never been happier than I was as a minimum wage bike mechanic! I had a very nice penthouse apartment, furnished with comfy things of my own making!

I do believe that we are at the end of Science as a way to know or to control our lived environment. I don't believe in social agency on the China model, and I've lost my faith in social agency on the model of the United States. But I still recognize the promise at our inception.

I think it's time to reinvent ourselves all over again. This will surely mean getting away from our various screens and engaging with the real real again, not the fake real of represented reality. As Manzotti says (I know, that's even more rude than to use his first name), we cannot have experience of a representation. We experience only the screen. Information defines only the interaction between our bodies and some distant object. It can't inform our minds. And yet we still act on it. 

Get me an alarm on my phone (for proximity to proximity to COVID-19 infection) and I will act. But not until you do too. I'm ready to come out and play. Covid-19 is a natural goad to social agency. We should thank the gods for it. Without it we would already be back to normal, which has long been the most dangerous way to be. Of course that's self-serving of me!

Covid-19 is pure information. It isn't even alive. Viruses have always been with us. They fuck with the plans. There is no plan for our minds, unless and until we start acting like robots. Which we did at about the same time that the robots started acting like people.

It's time to open our eyes and wake up. Hello World! I've been asleep at the switch. Sorry! Knowledge doesn't inhere in information (I love what you can do to mangle English!). Our brains don't store information. Our brains mediate familiarity and agency, and by means of consciousness, to promote the survival of our selfish genes. 

And once we had a written language to turn our words into durable objects for perception, we could think (Jaynes was almost correct). And once we could think we could share our thoughts. And once we started to share our thoughts and science took off, we started up an hyperbolic curve which can never be flattened. 

That sort of narrative is very exciting, but it doesn't end well.

We have to accept that there are limits to what we can know. These are limits in principle and not only practical limits. Our interaction with the cosmos is not only perceptual. It is conceptual and driven by emotion. This things are real and out in the world just the way that percepts are.

In order to go back to living, we have to let go of certain fantasies. We have to be in touch with the world as it actually is and not how we wish it were. There is no ideal world, no utopia, no final understanding. There is only growth and decay, and I am rooting for growth to the whole. Personal decay is always a done deal.

OK, so I have to get back to work. I sure do wish that I had ever learned to write a story.

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