nothing here but a semiotic meltdown
issue 068 - 24th January, 2021
CJW: Welcome to another instalment of the nothing here newsletter.
Our latest bonus was The Secret of the Ancestor Simulation, in which I combine my interests in Simulation Theory and chaos magick (and some politics sneak in there too, because these are the times we live in).
For future bonuses and access the full archive, just go here to become a supporter. Unlocked bonuses are here (and yes, I’m unlocking new posts every couple of weeks, so it’s worth keeping track of). Latest unlock is I Saw Someone Die Tonight, which seems almost like an omen for the rest of 2020 looking back at it now.
Corey J. White (CJW) - Elaborate on that. No.
CJW: In the wake of the US Capitol attack, Australian politics is consumed by a reactionary free speech debate - Ariel Bogle at The Guardian
[...] in many ways, Australia is exposed to the kind of misinformation soup that pushed a significant portion of the US population to believe an election was stolen from them, and an incensed mob to react with violence. We have politicians and public figures who regularly traffic in conspiracies and dog whistles for attention. There are media outlets that are willing to indulge them. And all this processed and amplified by the social media platforms that support an international conspiracy information ecosystem.
I’m thankfully insulated from Australian boomers in my day-to-day life, but our media and online discourse is so fucking poisoned I’m not under any delusions that we’re immune here.
For instance, just read this post by Ketan Joshi.
Though complaints were made to the Australian Press Council, no action was taken to remove the article or punish the media outlet. The reason this article prompted little outcry among the employees of News Corp is because white supremacy, racism and the deadly ideology of the ‘Great Replacement’ belief system are viewed as harmless thought experiments – rather than things that lead to children being murdered by Australians with shotguns.
This is a great piece on Australia’s continued platforming of racists, white supremacists, and Neo-Nazis, and the failures of Australian media over the past few years. A must-read for Aussies, and should be of interest to anyone else interested in media complicity.
MKY: I’ve only had time to skim thru this a bit, but i feel like it goes here: The Oxygen of Amplification - Whitney Phillips at Data & Society.
CJW: Deplatforming Our Way to the Alt-Tech Ecosystem by Ethan Zuckerman and Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci at Knight, Columbia University
Deplatforming bad actors from mainstream social media—whether they are conspiracy theorists like Jones or soon-to-be-ex U.S. presidents—likely limits the spread of their ideas. However, it could also lead to insular echo chambers, filled with only the most devoted extremists, a dynamic that could lead to further radicalization and extremism. [...] Understanding the trade-offs of deplatforming, and looking for ways to combat extremism on alt-tech platforms will be crucial as the space develops.
I think the social media space is going to be very interesting in the coming years as things fracture further and further. Arguably the alt-tech offshoot is the logical conclusion of an all-devouring, monopolistic social media environment. Once upon a time, if you cared enough about something (whether that's a movie, a video game, or an ideology) you could search out a forum dedicated to that thing. But by conglomerating all online discussion to just one or two platforms, we've had virulent racism (etc) mixing in with, well, everything else. Before people had to put effort into being radicalised, but now it happens thanks to sosh ubiquity, outrage-skewed algorithms, and the owners of these new private commons not wishing to moderate their platforms unless absolutely necessary.
We've all been drinking from these poisoned wells, but countless people have now got a taste for the poison. Some of them will stay at the old wells and adjust, but others are going to go deep into darker spaces searching for their next taste.
If any of these alt-tech platforms survives long enough to become a genuine competitor to the mainstream options, that split could have massive repercussions for social and political discourse (or, y'know, life).
CJW: The Great Reset Conspiracy Smoothie - Naomi Klein at The Intercept
But like the WEF’s earlier big themes, the Great Reset is not a serious effort to actually solve the crises it describes. On the contrary, it is an attempt to create a plausible impression that the huge winners in this system are on the verge of voluntarily setting greed aside to get serious about solving the raging crises that are radically destabilizing our world.
Why? [...] Because if our corporate overlords can create this impression, it is less likely that governments will listen to the rising chorus of voices calling on them to do what is required to actually combat spiraling poverty, joblessness, climate breakdown, and informational degeneration: regulate the companies that have created these crises, and tax them, break them up, and, in some cases, put them under public control.
On the Great Reset, Davos, conspiracy, shock doctrine, and related topics.
DCH: Palantir’s God’s-Eye View of Afghanistan - Annie Jacobsen at Wired
Kevin is an expert in what’s called pattern-of-life analysis, an esoteric discipline that involves establishing a person’s identity based on his or her cumulative habits, much of which is captured from overhead surveillance. The man going to the bathroom was deemed a person of interest, and Kevin was working to establish his pattern of life in pursuit of a new methodology called activity-based intelligence, or ABI. The first, fundamental premise of activity-based intelligence: You are what you do.
A great read from Annie Jacobsen about Palantir’s Persistent Ground Surveillance System team. Peter Thiel’s eye’s need to be blinded. Fast.
If established, LA EMPI would create a single view of an individual across all government systems and agencies: all of their interactions with law enforcement, social services, health services, mental health services, and child and family services would be in one place under a single unique ID. Although the explicit motivation behind the EMPI initiative is to improve service delivery, such initiatives extend the governance and social control capacities of the criminal justice system into other institutions.
This book excerpt (from Predict and Surveil: Data, Discretion, and the Future of Policing by Sarah Brayne) goes into a lot of detail about the LAPD’s use of Palantir systems. It’s interesting in how granular it gets, and shows how fucking terrifying the tech can be. It’s probably too early (or those cases haven’t been made public yet), but I would love to see someone reporting on Palantir false positives, because I suspect that to a lot of law enforcement (ACAB) simply showing up in the system would be proof of guilt, and if the judicial system goes that way too, then see above, RE: fucking terrifying.
CJW: Kathleen Stock, OBE by Christa Peterson
Stock often claims to respect trans people, to support their rights, and to merely be concerned to advocate for cis women's supposedly competing rights and interests. This sounds reasonable. In some pieces, she does a decent job of maintaining this guise, especially if you're unfamiliar with these issues. But attention to her activism and the actual things she says paints a very different picture. As I will document, she misrepresents and mocks trans identities. She is at best dismissive of trans people's needs and interests. She belittles and vilifies them.
I hadn’t actually heard of Kathleen Stock before reading this article, but she’s a perfect example of the virulent strain of transphobia in the UK (disguising itself as the “gender critical” movement), so this take-down of Stock and her ideas is important in a broader sense beyond the woman herself.
The article quotes Stock at length, so content warning for transphobia.
Related: TERF Wars: Why Transphobia Has no Place in Feminism - Laurie Penny
Britain is the epicenter of a strange, savage, and specific cultural backlash against trans rights. That backlash is doing real harm to people whose lives should not be up for debate. Its proponents have recruited a great many decent, well-intentioned people to their cause through subterfuge and scaremongering — including mainstream media figures and celebrities like Rowling.
There’s a heady in-group mentality that is very precious to those who are part of [sisterhood]. That, alone, makes it hard for some people to raise objections when sisterhood goes sour and starts spending half its time frothing about trans people who only ever wanted to be able to declare their identity without declaring war.
The problem with essentialist in-groups, however well-meaning, is that they usually end up picking a convenient group of “‘outsiders”’ to punish, preferably a group even more marginalised and vulnerable than themselves.
This piece from June last year is on transphobia, TERFs, feminism, and sisterhood.
First, we review the evidence that future environmental conditions will be far more dangerous than currently believed. The scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its lifeforms—including humanity—is in fact so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts. Second, we ask what political or economic system, or leadership, is prepared to handle the predicted disasters, or even capable of such action.
A research paper looking at… well, exactly what it says on the tin. You can also see a summary here at The Conversation, by three of the paper's authors. The paper collates data from a lot of other papers and draws conclusions based on the gestalt. I think it would take a more knowledgeable sort than me to know if their outlook is accurate, but it matches what my pessimistic streak tells me…
CJW: The milk of human genius - Lesley Hughes at The Monthly
Assuming five years in the faithful if unwitting service of twice-daily milking, Daisy may produce about 30,000 litres of milk in total, a figure that has more than doubled over the past four decades due to selective breeding and advances in feed and pasture management. Over a seven-year lifetime, Daisy will have burped more than 800 kilograms of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. And for every litre of milk Daisy has produced, an astonishing minimum of 500 litres of water (and perhaps as much as 1600) has been needed on the farm to keep her fed and clean.
On the current state, and possible future, of a meat and dairy-free food production.
Movies + TV
CJW: Teenage Bounty Hunters - Netflix
I wish I’d gotten on to Teenage Bounty Hunters earlier. In my defence, I’m in my late 30s, so anything that’s called “Teenage Something Something” is not exactly going to jump out at me as being exactly my jam, but this fucking show is exactly my jam.
Sterling and Blair are twin sisters who are bubbly, weird, caring, smart, funny, selfish, kind, and all the rest. They’re the sorts of girls who believe they can have it all (even if they aren’t always sure exactly what they want), so when they stumble ass-backwards into bounty hunting, they jump in with an earnest excitement that is totally endearing and, at times, a little scary. They were also raised in a conservative Chrstian family in Georgia, and attend a private Christian school, which adds another layer of conflicts they have to navigate as they work out how to live their best lives as normal teen girls (who are also bounty hunters).
The show’s creators also do a great job of presenting an (I assume) accurate portrayal of life for The Youths without ever denigrating the young people or youth culture. In different hands this premise could have easily skewed misogynistic and/or anti-youth (I’m sure there’s a better word for that), but to this old man at least, it’s handled really well.
It has already sadly been axed (fuck you, Netflix), but the first season is some of the most fun TV I’ve ever seen, but there’s real emotional weight to it too.
MKY: second that, super fun show. And I wish they’d stop doing that damnit.
MKY: Run Hide Fight
This is basically Die Hard in school shooting, with a bad ass femme protag vs, basically, a bunch of Jokers. It’s okay (but no Shadow in the Cloud, which I will not stop comparing movies to for the rest of the year/plague/slow apoc). However, the potential for a sequel! Setting up our now veteran protag against an antag of the likes of Brendan Fletcher in the Rampage series… that would be a thing. All of which isn’t a backdoor to me saying, yes I have been thinking about Rampage: President Down (and its ending in particular) lately for some reason.
CJW: The internet didn't kill counterculture—you just won't find it on Instagram - Caroline Busta at Document Journal
And maybe here, we do have an aesthetic counter to the wallflower non-style of Big Tech: a raging messy semiotic meltdown of radicalizing (if absurdist) meme culture where the only ideological no-go zone is the liberal center. Key here is that most of this activity is happening under the guise of avatars, pseudonyms, and collectively run social media accounts where direct lines between IRL subjects and online personas are rarely clear. The “niche personal branding” is gamified—push an account to the extreme, see what happens. If the platform shuts you down, start over.
This piece touches on a few topics and projects we've talked about before, weaving a lot of different threads together to come to a theory about counterculture (being a purely online, politics and theory fueled Gen Z movement), and how it differs go the counterculture of the past because of online culture and how that's affected culture more broadly.
It’s as if, having grown up on a fully networked Earth, Gen Z has bypassed counterculture, finding it futile in the face of a hegemonic system that more clearly resembles a Hydra than the monolithic forces that legacy counterculture was rebelling against. Intuiting that any activity directly opposing the system will only make the system stronger, the next generation is instead opting for radical hyperstition: constructing alternative futures that abandon our current infrastructure entirely (the emergence of blockchain-based currencies, for instance, or calls to not merely reform but fully abolish the police).
CJW: Recommended Writing - Crystal Chokshi at Real Life Mag
Perhaps, instead of offering “Regards” as your sign-off, this algorithm would inform you that you’ve exchanged 26,000 words with your interlocutor over several years, and you could call attention to the care you’ve both put into that. Perhaps it could remind you that you’re writing on the anniversary of his mother’s death, and prompt you to acknowledge it. Maybe this algorithm could flag all the things you hate saying but nonetheless do, and you would take a moment to rethink and rephrase. What word prediction algorithms, in their current form, prompt us to say is not synonymous with what we should.
On autocomplete and similar algorithmic writing recommendation engines and the way they could (will?) flatten and depersonalise our written communications.
MJW: I’m too mentally ill for much more than memes right now, the more bizarre the better, and one that is giving me my recommended dose of weird is Arcane Bullshit. It makes no sense, but my brain has no room for sense, so that’s why I like it.
A long scrolling vertical graphic essay about land, space, war, history, the use and abuse of land, and more. The panel above is particularly relevant with Invasion Day just around the corner.
Come for the pun in the title, stay for the deep discussion of different philosophical ideas. This is a new podcast from Sean Pearce (of the also-excellent Wyrd Signal podcast) and Matt Colquhoun (aka Xenogothic), all about the philosophical work of Gilles Deleuze. I will be the first to admit that a lot of their discussion goes over my head but they are still immensely interesting, particularly the way both of these buddies are able to connect various philosophers and philosophical concepts together as they chat.
Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst have been running this podcast for about a year, and even though I follow them both on twitter, I somehow missed this until now. Interdependence is a series of “conversations with people working on projects at the forefront of 21st century culture, with an emphasis on music, technology and policy,” and if that doesn’t sound interesting, then I don’t know what to tell you. Depending on the guest and the topic, the discussions can get a little complex for the layman, but I’m finding plenty of interest here.
MJW: It’s no secret that 2020 was a bad year for… literally everything. My writing career is no different. I started 2020 with the SF thing going strong, a new novel plan and was poised to start my whole life-writing gig as Mia…
One year, one pandemic, one shitty professional experience, one lockdown, one severe manic episode later, and I’m back at square one. Square zero, but also with a rep for being a nutcase?
I miss writing though. I’d got so far into the whole traditional publishing thing that I forgot how to be a writer without the ‘next book’ fire underneath my ass. I got so far into the Aus Lit ‘scene’ I almost forgot writing is for readers, not for other writers. I just want people to read my shit. I just wanna share my brain-worlds with folks.
So, fuck traditional publication (unless trad pub does want me back, in which case, my tongue is ready, show me the boots.) I’m releasing two things via Patreon over the next year - a space-thriller-ish novella I wrote in 2018 called The Forgetting Navigationsthat was never quite right and needs fixing, and a new memoir/essay thing called Living like a raw nerve: a guide for tender bitches.
I have trouble motivating myself to write when it’s just for me, cause everyone knows how much I hate that guy. I need to be beholden to something. For Orphancorp it was the Viva La Novella competition. Psynode and Prisoncorp followed on so quickly because I’d signed the contracts. Money for Something because my old agent gave me a date that she then promptly forgot but I wrote the entire book towards that date anyway.
I’m not trying to impress any writers or my agent or publishers. I only care about readers, I’m beholden to them.
They are the ones I should have cared about all along.
MJW: Everyone should thank CJW for all his hard work on this issue - sometimes (all the time) I’m not able to engage with how much the world just keeps happening, which means I feel like I’ve got nothing to share (unless you want to hear about the same 5 horrific audiobooks I keep listening to over and over as a soundtrack to my wild dissociation… do you?) He is the fuel that keeps the engine of the newsletter running. He IS the engine. (I think I’m like, a frayed wire in there somewhere, or a slightly askew lid.) I hope that you’re all keeping as safe as you can, keeping as well as you can amidst all this. I wonder what will happen in the two weeks until our next newsletter? In this fucking world, we can never tell.
Cutting Room Floor
The Exciting New Trick That Converts Good Jobs Into Crappy Gig Work - Nick Martin at The New Republic - CJW: This is exactly what I was saying last issue.
Instacart is firing every employee who voted to unionize - Zoe Schiffer at The Verge
Rank and File - Robert Minto at Real Life Mag - CJW: I think this perfectly outlines my reticence to try note taking software; I don't want to get so caught up in taking notes that it becomes the work.
Users of the World, Unite? - Gregory Afinogenov at Public Books
Southern Ocean is warming quickly, threatening ice in Antarctica - Andrew Freedman at Washington Post
A Habitat at Ceres Could be the Gateway to the Outer Solar System - at Bloomberg - MKY: [one for theExpanse fans maybe… if not that, then How we'd really defend Earth from an asteroid attack (by Maddie Stone) lol]
Learning the Star Knowledge of First Australians at Cosmos Magazine
Have We Already Been Visited by Aliens? - Elizabeth Kolbert at The New Yorker
Could We Extract Energy From a Black Hole? Scientists Propose a Wild New Plan - Peter Dockrill at Science Alert