NYC

It was 1978. I was new to New York. A rich acquaintance had invited me to a housewarming party, and, as my cabdriver wound his way down increasingly potholed and dingy streets, I began wondering whether he'd got the address right. Finally he stopped at the doorway of a gloomy, unwelcoming industrial building. Two winos were crumpled on the steps, oblivious. There was no other sign of life in the whole street.

"I think you may have made a mistake", I ventured.

But he hadn't. My friend's voice called "Top Floor!" when I rang the bell, and I thought - knowing her sense of humour - "Oh this is going to be some kind of joke!" I was all ready to laugh. The elevator creaked and clanked slowly upwards, and I stepped out - into a multi-million dollar palace. The contrast with the rest of the building and the street outside couldn't have been starker.

I just didn't understand. Why would anyone spend so much money building a place like that in a neighbourhood like this? Later I got into conversation with the hostess. "Do you like it here?" I asked. "It's the best place I've ever lived", she replied. "But I mean, you know, is it an interesting neighbourhood?" "Oh, the neighbourhood? Well that's outside!" she laughed.

The incident stuck in my mind. How could you live so blind to your surroundings? How could you not think of where I live as including at least some of the space outside your four walls, some of the bits you couldn't lock up behind you? I felt this was something particular to New York: I called it "The Small Here". I realised that, like most Europeans, I was used to living in a bigger Here.

I noticed that this very local attitude to space in New York paralleled a similarly limited attitude to time. Everything was exciting, fast, current, and temporary. Enormous buildings came and went, careers rose and crashed in weeks. You rarely got the feeling that anyone had the time to think two years ahead, let alone ten or a hundred. Everyone seemed to be passing through. It was undeniably lively, but the downside was that it seemed selfish, irresponsible and randomly dangerous. I came to think of this as "The Short Now", and this suggested the possibility of its opposite - "The Long Now".

"Now" is never just a moment. The Long Now is the recognition that the precise moment you're in grows out of the past and is a seed for the future. The longer your sense of Now, the more past and future it includes. It's ironic that, at a time when humankind is at a peak of its technical powers, able to create huge global changes that will echo down the centuries, most of our social systems seem geared to increasingly short nows. Huge industries feel pressure to plan for the bottom line and the next shareholders meeting. Politicians feel forced to perform for the next election or opinion poll. The media attract bigger audiences by spurring instant and heated reactions to human interest stories while overlooking longer-term issues - the real human interest.

Meanwhile, we struggle to negotiate our way through an atmosphere of Utopian promises and dystopian threats, a minefield studded with pots of treasure. We face a future where almost anything could happen. Will we be crippled by global warming, weapons proliferation and species depletion, or liberated by space travel, world government and molecule-sized computers? We don't even want to start thinking about it. This is our peculiar form of selfishness, a studied disregard of the future. Our astonishing success as a technical civilisation has led us to complacency, to expect that things will probably just keep getting better.

But there is no reason to believe this. We might be living in the last gilded bubble of a great civilisation about to collapse into a new Dark Age, which, given our hugely amplified and widespread destructive powers, could be very dark indeed.

If we want to contribute to some sort of tenable future, we have to reach a frame of mind where it comes to seem unacceptable - gauche, uncivilised - to act in disregard of our descendants. Such changes of social outlook are quite possible - it wasn't so long ago, for example, that we accepted slavery, an idea which most of us now find repellent. We felt no compulsion to regard slaves as fellow-humans and thus placed them outside the circle of our empathy. This changed as we began to realise, perhaps it was partly the glory of their music, that they were real people, and that it was no longer acceptable that we should cripple their lives just so that ours could be freer. It just stopped feeling right.

The same type of change happened when we stopped employing kids to work in mines, or when we began to accept that women had voices too. Today we view as fellow-humans many whom our grandparents may have regarded as savages, and even feel some compulsion to share their difficulties - aid donations by individuals to others they will never meet continue to increase. These extensions of our understanding of who qualifies for our empathy, indicate that culturally, economically and emotionally we live in an increasingly Big Here, unable to lock a door behind us and pretend the rest of the world is just "outside".

We don't yet, however, live in The Long Now. Our empathy doesn't extend far forward in time. We need now to start thinking of our great-grandchildren, and their great-grandchildren, as other fellow-humans who are going to live in a real world which we are incessantly, though only semi-consciously, building. But can we accept that our actions and decisions have distant consequences, and yet still dare do anything? It was an act of complete faith to believe, in the days of slavery, that a way of life which had been materially very successful could be abandoned and replaced by another, as yet unimagined, but somehow it happened. We need to make a similar act of imagination now.

Since this act of imagination concerns our relationship to time, a Millennium is a good moment to articulate it. Can we grasp this sense of ourselves as existing in time, part of the beautiful continuum of life? Can we become inspired by the prospect of contributing to the future? Can we shame ourselves into thinking that we really do owe those who follow us some sort of consideration, just as the people of the nineteenth century shamed themselves out of slavery? Can we extend our empathy to the lives beyond ours?

I think we can. Humans are capable of a unique trick: creating realities by first imagining them, by experiencing them in their minds. When Martin Luther King said "I have a dream", he was inviting others to dream it with him. Once a dream becomes shared in that way, current reality gets measured against it and then modified towards it. As soon as we sense the possibility of a more desirable world, we begin behaving differently, as though that world is starting to come into existence, as though, in our minds at least, we're already there. The dream becomes an invisible force which pulls us forward. By this process it starts to come true. The act of imagining something makes it real.

This imaginative process can be seeded and nurtured by artists and designers, for, since the beginning of the 20th century, artists have been moving away from an idea of art as something finished, perfect, definitive and unchanging towards a view of artworks as processes or the seeds for processes - things that exist and change in time, things that are never finished. Sometimes this is quite explicit - as in Walter de Maria's "Lightning Field", a huge grid of metal poles designed to attract lightning. Many musical compositions don't have one form, but change unrepeatingly over time - many of my own pieces and Jem Finer's Artangel installation "LongPlayer" are like this. Artworks in general are increasingly regarded as seeds - seeds for processes that need a viewer's (or a whole culture's) active mind in which to develop. Increasingly working with time, culture-makers see themselves as people who start things, not finish them.

And what is possible in art becomes thinkable in life. We become our new selves first in simulacrum, through style and fashion and art, our deliberate immersions in virtual worlds. Through them we sense what it would be like to be another kind of person with other kinds of values. We rehearse new feelings and sensitivities. We imagine other ways of thinking about our world and its future.

Danny Hillis's Clock of the Long Now is a project designed to achieve such a result. It is, on the face of it, far-fetched to think that one could make a clock which will survive and work for the next 10,000 years. But the act of even trying is valuable: it puts time and the future on the agenda and encourages thinking about them. As Stewart Brand, a colleague in The Long Now Foundation, says:

“Such a clock, if sufficiently impressive and well engineered, would embody deep time for people. It should be charismatic to visit, interesting to think about, and famous enough to become iconic in the public discourse. Ideally, it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment. Such icons reframe the way people think.

The 20th Century yielded its share of icons, icons like Muhammad Ali and Madonna that inspired our attempts at self-actualisation and self-reinvention. It produced icons to our careless and misdirected power - the mushroom cloud, Auschwitz, and to our capacity for compassion - Live Aid, the Red Cross.

In this, the 21st century, we may need icons more than ever before. Our conversation about time and the future must necessarily be global, so it needs to be inspired and consolidated by images that can transcend language and geography. As artists and culture-makers begin making time, change and continuity their subject-matter, they will legitimise and make emotionally attractive a new and important conversation.

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Prozac blues.

No matter how corrupt, greedy, and heartless our government, our corporations, our media, and our religious & charitable institutions may become, the music will still be wonderful.

If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:

THE ONLY PROOF HE NEEDED
FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
WAS MUSIC

***

Back to music. It makes practically everybody fonder of life than he or she would be without it. Even military bands, although I am a pacifist, always cheer me up. And I really like Strauss and Mozart and all that, but the priceless gift that African Americans gave the whole world when they were still in slavery was a gift so great that it is now almost the only reason many foreigners still like us at least a little bit. That specific remedy for the worldwide epidemic of depression is a gift called the blues. All pop music today—jazz, swing, be-bop, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Stones, rock-and-roll, hip-hop, and on and on—is derived from the blues.
 
A gift to the world? One of the best rhythm-and-blues combos I ever heard was three guys and a girl from Finland playing in a club in Krakow, Poland.
 
The wonderful writer Albert Murray, who is a jazz historian and a friend of mine among other things, told me that during the era of slavery in this country—an atrocity from which we can never fully recover—the suicide rate per capita among slave owners was much higher than the suicide rate among slaves.
 
Murray says he thinks this was because slaves had a way of dealing with depression, which their white owners did not: They could shoo away Old Man Suicide by playing and singing the Blues. He says something else which also sounds right to me. He says the blues can't drive depression clear out of a house, but can drive it into the corners of any room where it's being played. 

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«Ogilvy on advertising», the prequel.

After spending a few weeks getting a solid grounding in opinion research, Ogilvy accompanied Gallup to Hollywood. They pitched their services to the head of RKO studios, pointing out the competitive advantages of measuring the popularity of movie stars, pretesting audience acceptance of movie ideas and titles, and forecasting trends. RKO awarded them a twelve-month contract, and other studios soon followed suit, noting that David Selznick «took to ordering surveys the way other people order groceries.» Ogilvy admired Gallup immensely and gained a deep respect for the value of opinion research as a predictive tool in everything from marketing to politics. He found his time in Hollywood both entertaining and instructive and hobnobbed with some of the most famous movie stars of the day, almost all of whom he considered «repulsive egotists.» As a result of his audience research, Ogilvy discovered that certain marquee names had a negative effect on a picture's earnings, and he assembled a classified list he called «box office poison» that prematurely ended many a career. «There is no great trick to doing research,» Ogilvy later observed. «The problem is to get people to use it—particularly when the research reveals that you have been making mistakes.» Most people, he found, had "a tendency to use research as a drunkard uses a lamppost—for support, not for illumination.»

(…)

Stephenson had sent Fleming there in 1942 and had been impressed with how well he had come through the course, recalling that he was «top of his section,» though he lacked the killer's instinct, and had hesitated—a fatal error—during an exercise in which he was expected to «shoot a man in cold blood.» While the camp schooled secret agents, spies, and guerrilla fighters who went on to carry out BSC missions in enemy-occupied Europe and Asia, most of the people sent on the course with Ogilvy had been recruited to do intelligence or propaganda work, had backgrounds in journalism and foreign relations, and knew little or nothing about spycraft beyond the jobs they were doing at their typewriters. At Camp X, Ogilvy and his fellow trainees donned army fatigues designed to help maintain the facility's cover as a regular army base, and attended lectures on the new high technology of espionage, from the use of codes and ciphers to listening devices, and observed awe-inspiring demonstrations of silent killing and underwater demolitions. They also received some limited practice in how to use a handgun and shoot quickly and accurately without hesitation. «l was taught the tricks of the trade,» recalled Ogilyy. «How do you follow people without arousing their suspicion? Walk in front of them; if you also push a pram this will disarm their suspicions still further. I was taught to use a revolver, to blow up bridges and power lines with plastic, to cripple police dogs by grabbing their front legs and tearing their chests apart, and to kill a man with my bare hands.»

Fully expecting to be parachuted behind enemy lines, he was a little let down when Stephenson assigned him to desk duty.

Google Street View, word edition.

This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country. The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles by the San Bernardino Freeway but is in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal California of the subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves. October is the bad month for the wind, the month when breathing is difficult and the hills blaze up spontaneously. There has been no rain since April. Every voice seems a scream. It is the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows. The Mormons settled this ominous country, and then they abandoned it, but by the time they left the first orange tree had been planted and for the next hundred years the San Bernardino Valley would draw a kind of people who imagined they might live among the talismanic fruit and prosper in the dry air, people who brought with them Midwestern ways of building and cooking and praying and who tried to graft those ways upon the land. The graft took in curious ways. This is the California where it is possible to live and die without ever eating an artichoke, without ever meeting a Catholic or a Jew. This is the California where it is easy to Dial-A-Devotion, but hard to buy a book. This is the country in which a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into a belief in the literal interpretation of Double Indemnity, the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life’s promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or a Sherry or a Debbi and a Tijuana divorce and a return to hairdressers’ school. “We were just crazy kids,” they say without regret, and look to the future. The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past. Here is where the hot wind blows and the old ways do not seem relevant, where the divorce rate is double the national average and where one person in every thirty-eight lives in a trailer. Here is the last stop for all those who come from somewhere else, for all those who drifted away from the cold and the past and the old ways. Here is where they are trying to find a new life style, trying to find it in the only places they know to look: the movies and the newspapers.

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Let's take it outside.

The indigenous resistance to the westering anglos as they punched their way over the Appalachian Crest for the seizure and enclosing of the continent was led by a young Shawnee warrior, Tecumseh. Invited into the governor's mansion to negotiate, Tecumseh refused: "Houses are built for you to hold council in: Indians hold theirs in the open air." He also refused to take a chair when offered one, saying that he would repose on the bosom of the earth. There is a resonance here with the spirit of Occupy, and its mode of inhabiting space.

Popular protest takes to the streets because that is the space that remains. To be sure, most of the major events in history have happened outside, in the sense that the decisions taken inside—in the chancelleries, the boardrooms, the smoke-filled backrooms, etc.—are ultimately conditioned by things that happen, or do not happen, in the open air. Tecumseh's retort to Governor Harrison points up the significance of spatial and political form, and of the different architectonics of societies rooted in common—as opposed to private—property.

The spaces of modernity are shaped and dominated by private and state interests; under modernity public space is a subordinate category, residual even, and confined to what is left once land has been commodified and parceled into private lots. What remains is the open air. Literally. The air itself treated by economists as and "externality" (in the language of the business schools), which are commons of a peculiar capitalist kind. The air becomes a sink for the waste produced during the manufacture of commodities. This amounts to the theft of a common, though it is sometimes hard to see since it doesn't happen all at once, nor everywhere. Like many other things, pollution is very uneven, and has a class geography.

(...)

As more and more of modern life moves away into a representation, as the image-world comes to dominate civil society, and as the spectacular state gets drawn further into the day-to-day management of consumer obedience, internal policing, and the prevention of riposte to its lies, so the problem of image politics and of the very possibility of making spaces for strategic discussion takes on critical importance. (...) Given the de-realization of human collectivity under conditions of spectacle, these brief interruptions—the occupations of the squares and critical mass rides—produce real manifestations of community, albeit fleeting. Yet in each case it's a move beyond the horizon of representational politics, and takes life off the screen for a moment.

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Wor(l)d.

Every universe, our own included, begins in conversation. Every golem in the history of the world, from Rabbi Hanina's delectable goat to the river-clay Frankenstein of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, was summoned into existence through language, through murmuring, recital, and kabbalistic chitchat -- was, literally, talked into life.

Lies: About 1,160,000,000 results (0.51 seconds)

Frankly, the overwhelming majority of academics have ignored the data explosion caused by the digital age. The world’s most famous sex researchers stick with the tried and true. They ask a few hundred subjects about their desires; they don’t ask sites like PornHub for their data. The world’s most famous linguists analyze individual texts; they largely ignore the patterns revealed in billions of books. The methodologies taught to graduate students in psychology, political science, and sociology have been, for the most part, untouched by the digital revolution. The broad, mostly unexplored terrain opened by the data explosion has been left to a small number of forward-thinking professors, rebellious grad students, and hobbyists. That will change.

(...)

Everybody lies. People lie about how many drinks they had on the way home. They lie about how often they go to the gym, how much those new shoes cost, whether they read that book. They call in sick when they’re not. They say they’ll be in touch when they won’t. They say it’s not about you when it is. They say they love you when they don’t. They say they’re happy while in the dumps. They say they like women when they really like men. People lie to friends. They lie to bosses. They lie to kids. They lie to parents. They lie to doctors. They lie to husbands. They lie to wives. They lie to themselves. And they damn sure lie to surveys. Here’s my brief survey for you:

Have you ever cheated in an exam?

Have you ever fantasised about killing someone?

Were you tempted to lie?

Many people underreport embarrassing behaviours and thoughts on surveys. They want to look good, even though most surveys are anonymous. This is called social desirability bias. 

An important paper in 1950 provided powerful evidence of how surveys can fall victim to such bias. Researchers collected data, from official sources, on the residents of Denver: what percentage of them voted, gave to charity, and owned a library card. They then surveyed the residents to see if the percentages would match. The results were, at the time, shocking. What the residents reported to the surveys was very different from the data the researchers had gathered. Even though nobody gave their names, people, in large numbers, exaggerated their voter registration status, voting behaviour, and charitable giving.

Has anything changed in 65 years? In the age of the internet, not owning a library card is no longer embarrassing. But, while what’s embarrassing or desirable may have changed, people’s tendency to deceive pollsters remains strong. A recent survey asked University of Maryland graduates various questions about their college experience. The answers were compared with official records. People consistently gave wrong information, in ways that made them look good. Fewer than 2% reported that they graduated with lower than a 2.5 GPA (grade point average). In reality, about 11% did. And 44% said they had donated to the university in the past year. In reality, about 28% did.

Then there’s that odd habit we sometimes have of lying to ourselves. Lying to oneself may explain why so many people say they are above average. How big is this problem? More than 40% of one company’s engineers said they are in the top 5%. More than 90% of college professors say they do above-average work. One-quarter of high school seniors think they are in the top 1% in their ability to get along with other people. If you are deluding yourself, you can’t be honest in a survey.

The more impersonal the conditions, the more honest people will be. For eliciting truthful answers, internet surveys are better than phone surveys, which are better than in-person surveys. People will admit more if they are alone than if others are in the room with them. However, on sensitive topics, every survey method will elicit substantial misreporting. People have no incentive to tell surveys the truth.

How, therefore, can we learn what our fellow humans are really thinking and doing? Big data. Certain online sources get people to admit things they would not admit anywhere else. They serve as a digital truth serum. Think of Google searches. Remember the conditions that make people more honest. Online? Check. Alone? Check. No person administering a survey? Check.

The power in Google data is that people tell the giant search engine things they might not tell anyone else. Google was invented so that people could learn about the world, not so researchers could learn about people, but it turns out the trails we leave as we seek knowledge on the internet are tremendously revealing.

I have spent the past four years analysing anonymous Google data. The revelations have kept coming. Mental illness, human sexuality, abortion, religion, health. Not exactly small topics, and this dataset, which didn’t exist a couple of decades ago, offered surprising new perspectives on all of them. I am now convinced that Google searches are the most important dataset ever collected on the human psyche.

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The new needs friends.

«In many ways, the work of a critic is easy,» Ego says. «We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.»

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This is the story.

This is the Story

This is the beginning. Here is where the story begins. The character is introduced—we meet the character, her, we’ll call her a her. We begin to learn about her background, or if not so much as that, then her habits. We see her doing what she does every day, in medias res. What she does now foreshadows what will happen to her later. She does the same thing every day, and then something changes. It’s not much, but it’s something, and so it is a story.

This is the middle. The thing that happens, the different thing, happens here. She was safe in her assumptions, but this thing occurs, or something occurs to her, a realization, and she can no longer go on thinking what she thought. Perhaps it has to do with him, someone important to her, someone whom perhaps she loves. And yet he is also her antagonist, the one who stands in the way of what must happen for her to be, if not happy, then consummated, fulfilled. This is when we meet him, when we come to understand the obstacle he presents, when we are allowed to wonder how she will, how she can, proceed.

This is the ending. At this point the situation comes to its crisis. Events build to a climax. We have been expecting this: a conflict, and, through its resolution, change. But then something happens that we had not -expected, a surprise, a twist, which nonetheless feels, now that it has happened, -inevitable. They were at odds in a way that had become familiar, and now we learn that their goals are not so far apart, that perhaps what had seemed a conflict is in fact its own resolution.

Finally there is this, something after the ending, after the climax: the result. It is not at all what we expected. Perhaps one of them—him—is left behind in some way by the events that have transpired. He is lost, and she must suffer a kind of grief, as must he, for he is lost but must go on, as she must, too. So the story comes to its conclusion, open to interpretation, and we find that the only way out, for us as well as for them, is this lyrical finale, a few words, a bit of poetry. This last sentence is beautiful, as though beauty is itself the justification, though it isn’t—not quite.

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