Pluralistic: 07 Jun 2022

Today's links

The cover for the Farrar, Strauss, Giroux edition of James Bridle's 'Ways of Being.'

James Bridle's "Ways of Being" (permalink)

It's hard to pin down the thesis of James Bridle's Ways of Being, published today in the USA by Farrar, Strauss, Giroux – it's a big, lyrical, strange and inspiring book about the "more than human world" – a world that encompasses the worldview of animals, ecosystems, and software.

A photo of James Bridle's 'Autonomous Trap 001' installation. It depicts a compact car in an empty parking lot, inside two concentric salt circles, the inner circle is a solid line, the outer circle is a dashed line. The photo is taken from a high point overlooking the parking lot, and encompasses rolling green hills and distant snowy mountains in the background.

Bridle, an English artist and technologist who lives in Greece, pulls on so many threads to tell this tale. Some will be familiar to people who encountered some of his viral work, like the homemade self-driving car he "trapped" in a salt-circle that simulated the unbroken lane-markings the car was trained to respect.

A still from the now-deleted Youtube children's animation 'BURIED ALIVE Outdoor Playground Finger Family Song Nursery Rhymes Animation Education Learning Video,' depicting two rows of cartoon characters such as Elsa, Spiderman, Venom, Hulk and the Joker; the forward row has been buried up to its necks.

Or his investigation "Something is wrong on the internet," which revealed a vast web of incredibly disturbing children's animation and programming, much of it automatically produced, that had taken over kids' Youtube and was absorbing billions of hours of viewing time worldwide:

These are two of the threads woven into Ways of Being: that two "inanimate" objects – a homebrew self-driving car and a recommendation algorithm – both have distinct worldviews (Bridle uses the cybernetician's term umwelt) and these worldviews create desires, which impact us.

The impact is bidirectional. Our own umwelt and desires impact these inanimate objects, too; we are inextricably tangled up with them. Their actions result from our actions, and our actions result from theirs.

This dynamic doesn't stop with recommendation systems or autonomous vehicles. The whole world – from microscopic organisms that are neither animals nor plants to birds to primates, to plants and the fungi that interpenetrate and coexist with their root cells – is part of this phenomenon.

Indeed, the interconnectedness of everything is so profound and so undeniable that any close examination of any phenomenon, being, or object leads to the inescapable conclusion that it can't be understood as a separate, standalone thing, separate from everything else.

These abstract claims of interconnectedness aren't new, but Bridle ranges far and wide to find concrete and marvellous ways of illustrating it. Many of his examples come from cybernetics and computer science, describing the ways that computers transcend their limits when they are combined with noncomputers. These examples range from random number generators that use lava lamps as seed values to analog computers that use actual water to model fluid dynamics to computer-human collaborations.

But these technological examples lead smoothly to examples from the natural world, where Bridle finds a wealth of category-confounding phenomena, including things that can only be called "language," "democracy," "negotiation," and even "intelligence." These examples include elephants and tree roots, far-ranging wolves and river watersheds.

Bridle wants us to understand that our convenient categories are not just useful handles that empower us to grab onto abstract concepts – they also limit us, by forcing us into umwelts that are walled off from the most powerful, useful ways of relating to the rest of the world.

One of Bridle's most provocative moves is mixing of the natural and the technological worlds, which he pulls off in a way that is implausibly convincing. Computers are actually a very good way of understanding nature. The models of networks that we built after the emergence of the World Wide Web turn out to shed light on the webs of nature that had been right there all along.

New technological endeavors, such as machine learning systems, likewise illuminate concepts that have been missing from our understanding of the natural world. The fact that we can build systems that we can't interrogate or fully understand – but still find useful – is used to settle the most troubling aspect of the collapse of our categories argued for in the book's first half.

Finding ways to co-exist with systems we can't fully explain or control – finding ways to collaborate with those systems – is an ancient idea, one that connects well with indigenous ways of being and ancient animist practices. It's also the underlying premise of cybernetics – the use of feedback mechanisms and sensors to understand the wider world.

Sometimes cybernetics seeks to steer the world – in the same way that a beaver builds a dam, or a First Nation uses controlled fire to tend to ancient forests, or the way that we build seismic dampers into our tall buildings. But just as often, cybernetics simply seeks to accommodate the world, the way livestock run away from a volcano before it erupts, or the way a First Nation moves from a summer settlement to a winter one, or the way we respond to weather forecasts by changing our weekend plans.

Thus, drawing on cybernetics, Bridle builds a bridge to the "more than human" world, where a kind of personhood can be imputed to machines, the environment, animals, and plants – a personhood, moreover, that can never be separated from our own.

Bridle argues that every time our human societies have expanded their view of personhood – of the right of something to be respected on its own terms, rather than because it is beneficial to "real" people – everyone has benefited. The extension of personhood to enslaved and colonized people, to women, to children, and, in limited ways, to animals, was universally beneficial.

Again, Bridle moves from this abstract idea to a broad swathe of concrete examples. One of my favorites is the story of the Gitmo iguanas. For decades, the people whom the US government has imprisoned and tortured in Guantanamo have been denied access to the US courts. US government lawyers argue that Gitmo is outside of the jurisdiction of US law, and thus a place where humans have no right to legal protections.

That started to change in 2007, when Reuters reporters tipped off detainees' lawyers to the fact that Guantanamo soldiers were prohibited from harming the endangered iguanas on the base, subjected to penalties under the Endangered Species Act. This led the detainees' lawyers successfully arguing to the Supreme Court that Gitmo was within US legal jurisdiction.

Bridle describes this as "the iguanas speaking for the humans," or, more prosaically, the decision to protect iguanas – not because we find them pretty or delicious or useful, but because they deserve rights on their own terms – increased the protections for people, too.

Ways of Being is a book that argues against systems of control and category, and for systems in which everything is understood to be connected to everything else, valuable both on its own terms and because we are part of it and it is part of us.

It's a book that doesn't come to a crisp articulation of this thesis, because it is a book that argues against crisp articulations themselves. It is broad and weird and complicated, delightful and poetic. At one point, Bridle recounts how, during a lecture, he briefly and radiantly understood quantum mechanics. It was a transcendant but fleeting experience.

At many points in Ways of Being, I had similar experiences – moments of illumination and understanding. In retrospect, I find myself struggling to describe these moments. But that is Bridle's point, after all. The inability to define the universe is, in the end, a feature and not a bug.

A theatrical stage with a red-curtained proscenium. On the stage is a set of theatrical flats painted to resemble a row of shops. The shops bear three neon signs: 'Health Insurance,' 'University,' 'Abortion Clinic.' Hanging from the ceiling on ropes of gold is a glittering cross.

Fake Christian health insurance and other big cons (permalink)

The 1973 con-man movie "The Sting," with Paul Newman and Robert Redford is justifiably beloved (seriously, it's a great movie) but few people know that it was based on an academic nonfiction book: The Big Con, published in 1940 by the linguist David Maurer:

Maurer was fascinated by the argot of the con men who had plied the American railroads and streets for decades, pulling off breathtaking hauls with elaborate schemes. He set out to write a glossary of con jargon, and found that in order to explain the meaning of con artists' jargon, he had to write full-blown ethnographies of the con.

Much of the book describes "big store" cons, where a sucker is presented with a seemingly legitimate business – a bank, an off-track betting parlor, a telegraph agency – that is, in fact, a set, filled with dozens of bustling actors, each playing a role in an elaborate play.

The big store never went away. Indeed, it became a staple of cults. When I was a kid, I used to walk down Yonge Street in Toronto and pass the Church of Scientology, with its sidewalk sandwich boards promoting its "free personality tests." One day when I was about 13, a friend and I decided we'd get "tested."

The test was bullshit, of course. For all the soaring promises the Scientologists who roped us and sat us down made about the scientific basis for the test, it was obvious – even to me at 13 – that it was nonsense. After I filled in the multiple-choice form, the Scientologists took the test away and "analyzed" it and came back with a sciency-seeming graph showing my results.

The horizontal axis was labeled with things like "happiness" and "self-confidence," while the vertical axis was marked with a percentile scale going from -100% to +100% (I may be misremembering this part, it's been a while). A jagged line traversed the long axis, crossing the "happiness" and other markers.

"You see," my Scientology recruiter said, "you are only 40% happy. If you take this very expensive course, we can get you to 100%!" My friend was seriously creeped out by this point, but I argued with the guy for a while, demanding that he explain what a "100% happiness" metric meant, and so on.

It was a big store con. The cult pretended to be in the business of scientifically analyzing your happiness and other traits and then sold you "courses" that would improve the random numbers they'd inscribed on their strip of science-adjacent graph paper.

Cults and cons have a lot in common, of course. Take "health care sharing ministries." These are fake health insurance programs run by evangelical cults, like Jericho Share (formerly "House of Prayer and Life Inc"), which is advertised heavily to people searching for health insurance, even though it is definitely not health insurance.

Writing for Kaiser Health News, Bram Sable-Smith describes how these "faith-based" fake health insurance programs nominally function as mutual-aid agreements in which all the members agree to cover one another's bills, but who routinely turn down members' health care claims, leaving them on the hook for bills they can't afford:

Jericho Share labels its program as "not health insurance," and claims that it will fire brokers who sell it as such, but if that's true, the company does a very poor job of policing its brokers, as any search for health insurance can quickly lead you to Jericho Share and other "ministries" that don't sell insurance.

These aren't one-offs. They're systemic. As a 2021 report from Georgetown found, "'misleading marketing practices' were directing consumers to alternative health plans, like ministries, that can cost more than marketplace plans and offer fewer protections."

When we got up to leave the Church of Scientology that day, the ropers and con-artists who'd analyzed our "test" got very aggressive, laying on guilt trips, warning us that we had serious personality defects, and so on. Likewise, when people try to quit Jericho Share, they're met with "a pretty manipulating and very belligerent gantlet of customer service reps and hold times."

Hemani Hughes, who was tricked into buying a Jericho plan, was berated by a customer service rep who warned her that "it was irresponsible to go without insurance" (recall that Jericho is, by its own account, not insurance).

The evangelical movement loves a big store con. Take "Crisis Pregnancy Centers" – fake abortion clinics that use search engine optimization and deceptive tactics to lure people seeking abortions into cult facilities where they are lied to about the risks of abortion and hard-sold on seeing their pregnancies through to term.

Not only do these big store cons get a fortune in donations from enthusiastic supporters of the con, but GOP lawmakers in states like Missouri confer special charitable tax status to Crisis Centers, making it possible for well-off donors to recoup nearly all the money they give to the centers:

The GOP – also a cult – loves a big store con, even when it's not overtly religious. GOP enablers spent years backing for-profit "universities" like Cornithian College (and, of course, Trump University) where students were tricked into taking vast federal loans and funneling them to fake post-secondary universities that took their money and left them uneducated and indebted:

If you need to lie to people to get them through the door, you're in a cult. Famously, Scientology's path to enlightenment starts with a bunch of anodyne self-help talk and aggressive money-siphoning. It's only once a mark has been isolated and bled that they learn that Scientology's core project is ridding you of the spiritual residue of a war against a galactic space tyrant 70 million years ago:

The big store con lives on, through fake health insurance, fake abortion clinics or fake universities. Big stores are fun to read about and it's a hoot to watch Robert Redford and Paul Newman pull one off – but in real life, in the here and now, they are incredibly dangerous, predatory schemes that ruin lives.

(Image: Mary S. Farrell, CC BY-SA 4.0, modified)

Hey look at this (permalink)

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Sony loses "Walkman" trademark in Austria,1283,53040,00.html

#10yrsago Picturesque Austrian town secretly cloned in China

#10yrsago Print your own MAPO stickers, declare your goods to be of bespoke Disney manufacture

#10yrsago Neil Gaiman remembers Ray Bradbury

#10yrsago Russian unlicensed protest fines increased 15,000 percent

#10yrsago Amped: Daniel Wilson’s followup to Robopocalypse is a wild ride through the Singularity’s civil war

#5yrsago Donald Trump and Eric Trump defrauded donors to kids’ cancer charities

#5yrsago Police now routinely crack and extract all phone data from arrestees

#5yrsago A vending machine in a Moscow shopping mall sells Instagram likes

#5yrsago Trump administration allows nursing homes to force abused seniors into binding arbitration

#5yrsago United insisted a passenger check her 17th C violin, then a supervisor got into a “wrestling match” with her

#5yrsago Russian malware communicates by leaving comments in Britney Spears’s Instagram account

#1yrago Competition tames ISPs: How living on the wrong side of the street can cost you thousands of dollars

#1yrago New York to revolutionize voting: The SAFE Act and PAVE Act ride again!

#1yrago New York to revolutionize antitrust: "Consumer Welfare" is bad for your welfare

#1yrago Podcasting "I Quit": My essay on smoking cessation, doubt, denial, and the worst corporations on Earth

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

  • Some Men Rob You With a Fountain Pen, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. Yesterday's progress: 501 words (12435 words total)

  • The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation, a nonfiction book about interoperability for Verso. Yesterday's progress: 500 words (8932 words total)

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. (92849 words total) – ON PAUSE

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, WAITING FOR EXPERT REVIEW

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FINAL DRAFT COMPLETE

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Against Cozy Catastrophies

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Upcoming books:

  • Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press, September 2022

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"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla