American Cyborg
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47. Anthrotechnomisnomia

by Finch & Bluebird, November 2018

 

In product marketing, sometimes the human labor that goes into a product is emphasized, and sometimes the machine labor is emphasized. In mass production, it’s easy and common to disguise one type of labor for the other. In the technology sector, machine intelligence has attracted consumer attention and become marketing lingo: products are billed as using machine intelligence while actually relying on the labor of workers. AI is becoming an aprochpycal advertising message, used to erase the work of underpaid, undervalued men and women. The great Astra Taylor has named this phenomenon fauxtomation, combining the words “faux” (French for fake) and “automation,” a popular term for the computerization of tasks and work:

One recent afternoon I stood waiting at a restaurant for a to-go meal that I had ordered the old-fashioned way—by talking to a woman behind the counter and giving her paper money. As I waited for my lunch to be prepared, the man in front of me appeared astonished to receive his food. “How did the app know my order would be ready twenty minutes early?” he marveled, clutching his phone. “Because that was actually me,” the server said. “I sent you a message when it was done.

The information-science scholar Bonnie Nardi has similarly coined heteromation referring to the combination of humans and non-humans in the completion of work. We think these terms too opaque and humbly suggest instead anthrotechnomisnomia. Both “fauxtomation” and “heteromation” ignore the larger geopolitical economy in which such messaging takes place. While Silicon Valley in one sector of consumption (apps and services) erases human labor to valorize machine intelligence, in a different sector (crafts and gifts) they go the opposite direction. Online markets for “hand-made” products have exploded. Etsy pulls in yearly revenue nearing 200 million dollars. Amazon, one of the largest abusers of human labor in history,  this year introduced the Etsy-like market “Handmade.” Both espouse the value of human-made products. Yet, journalists report that Etsy appears to be host to rampant misleading labeling, with factory-made products being sold as “hand crafted”:

... a problem that pops up in real life art markets across the globe plagues Etsy as well: mass-produced goods sold under the guise of being handmade. … According to a report from Wedbush Securities, which was the focal point of this Forbes article from May, as many as two million items for sale on Etsy might be trademark violations or blatant counterfeit.

A pattern emerges. “Fauxtomation” takes place within a thread of capitalist activity, not only mislabeling goods produced by humans as being made by machines, but also its inverse, mislabeling goods produced by machines as being made by humans. Erasure goes both ways. Thus, anthrotechnomisnomia, combining “anthro” (human), “techno” (machine), and “misnomia” (misnaming).

Which leaves us with the question, what’s the underlying motive? Why are humans valorized in some sectors, and machines in others?

At American Cyborg, we ground our interpretations of the interplay between humans and machines in humans’ long standing relationships with, and constructions of, animals and the ‘natural’ world. We nurture a product market where animals, humans, and machines each get to perform the tasks they are uniquely qualified for. From this might emerge a truthful marketing economy, where products can rightfully boast about their workers being happy and fulfilled in their roles.

 
 
 

 46. Cyborg Symbiosis

by Cardinal, October 2018

 

We have much to learn from plants.

We humans are always raging against forces of contingency, the forces of nature that seem to conspire against our will; plants, on the other hand, go with the flow, and thrive and abide within these forces. I think this has a lot to do with their relative lack of physical agency—they can’t move. They must remain in place, and see what they can make of their given conditions.

Plants represent an eternal otherness that becomes a stage for us to project upon and to consume. Their strategies for survival are long-term. Their will is expressed across deep scales of time and is an inherently multispecies affair. Plants have branched in psychedelic profusion to co-exist with species radically different from themselves.

Plants cannot run away from their predators.  They are the stalwart stoics of complex life, the baseline of survival on an improbable world.

And the world continues to become more improbable.

*

The following is meant to compare how symbiotic, cross-species relations amongst plants can inform our relations to the devices and tech we have become intertwined with. This exercise can, if nothing else, teach us that our tech-relationships are just as complicated and mysterious as the intertwined relations of living and non-living beings in the world’s ecosystems. We can use them, their mechanisms, their behaviors, their material, as tools to think through abstract concepts.

Let's consider the thynnine wasp and the spider orchid.  

(Or the movie version, which is beautiful.)

The spider orchid has, through the drift and flow of evolutionary progress, developed a strategy for pollination that involves a creature entirely alien to it. The orchid's flowering body mimics in form, smell, and even light-refraction that of a female wasp.  The male wasp eagerly tries to mate with the flowering form and, in his flight to another potential mate (another spider orchid), he becomes an unwitting participant in the sexual life of a plant.

A bold, but logical, case can be made that the orchid knows more about the wasp than the wasp knows about the orchid.

What is clear in this relationship between wasp and orchid is a relationship forged over many thousands of years.  Debating the levels of cognition that each actor may or may not have is to get lost in the weeds of the fundamental relationship; two radically different organisms with similar goals (sex) are dependant upon each other to operate in a dynamic, responsive ecosystem.

As humans, we are able to see this relationship as a kind of co-evolutionary process that highlights the complex bio-social plays that are being endlessly reenacted around us so we see this relationship in evolutionary terms. The wasp and the orchid are, it's safe to assume, largely ignorant of their respective lives and drives. This form of blindness does not hinder the investment that each has for one another.  In fact, it may be their lack of "understanding" that allows their relationship to continue for another several millennia.

If the true motives of the wasp and orchid were known to each other, they would become competitors.  The wasp would opt out of that deal, a waste of his energy and sperm.

The orchid does not explicitly provide anything for the wasp, but is utterly dependant upon this sexual script to be played out just so with it's alien lover. The plant needs the insect. It doesn't need to know why. It doesn’t need to understand the relationship in evolutionary terms.

Drawing our focus to the orchid and the wasp, we can expand our lens to encompass many more multispecies relations.


*

The lens we look at these relations through most readily is through companion species relations.

In opening the aperture we find a legion of relations that extend into the non-human almost immediately.  Open just a little bit wider and the definitions of non-living relations between humans and our environment become simultaneously undeniable and difficult to define.

To quote from the previous link, a companion species framework that embraces and expands broader definitions of human (living) interactions with the tech (non-living) can be understand as follows:

“Cell phones, for example, could be considered a companion species. They cry, and must be picked up. They must be plugged into a wall at night to be fed. They must be upgraded, protected, and cared for. In return, they provide information, connectivity and entertainment. They grow alongside humans and adapt to fit their needs, as humans adapt to fit the needs of the device.”

All of this sounds pretty benign; we are re-enacting the multispecies cooperative project via our technological tools.  This take is not wrong and holds a measure of glass-half-full optimism within it. The line of reasoning being that we exert a measure of agency and meaning-making within our sub-sentient contemporary tools.  Rather than a brutal, Hobbesian framing of the natural world, our tools and the attendant information networks provide a web (or tubes) of relations that place the needs and desires of the human baked in to the forefront of its purpose.  Instead of the allocating resources for more and diverse procreation--the most popular story in the living world--we view our devices as motivated by higher moral purposes that promise to alleviate the troubles of the present and anticipate a better future.

And that’s the crucial difference between human-tech symbiosis and animal-plant; unlike the wasp and the orchid, who evolved together in the mutual blindness or ignorance, we created our tech-tools in our image of agency and usefulness. Our common language already cross-pollinates between the conditions of digital and meatspace ecologies. Viruses, corruption, and decay overlap as persistent conditions of both.

In his framing of the mycorrhizal, Paul Stamets describes the intertwined nature of below ground fungi (myco) and plant roots (rhizol) as "the Earth's natural internet". A feature of his talks is to draw aesthetic, if not scientific, correlations between mycelial structures of fungi, human neuronal pathways, and visualizations of the Internet. This kind of explaining and overlaying complex systems of relations as of-a-kind does a great deal towards promoting a general sentiment of a universal oneness (good), but does the subtle slight of hand by absolving a critical difference between the tubes of mycelium and those of the Internets.

We must not conflate the infrastructure investment and surveillance-driven business models of software/apps. The physical cables of the internet were laid for military/defense purposes, largely designed for decentralization. This was a defensive mechanism meant to ensure continued operation in the event of an attack. In this regard, the infrastructure of the internet mirrors fungal growth: to reproduce in order to ensure survival of a species in case of the loss of individuals.

We have intimate relations to our phones and the networks that it connects us to and generates culture, but the driving force behind it all is extractive in nature.  We are caught in a complex set of relations to these digital ecologies, but it is not a mutualistic symbiosis. There are exchanges taking place — data for dopamine — but they cannot be taken at face value.  Instead of the companion species dynamic in which we rise together as a result of these tools, we are confronted with an obscure set of relations that have a vested interest in keeping their architecture opaque, atomized, and specialized.

We are not relating to an ecology of things that want or need on their own. The military is itself a tool to concentrate and protect capital ownership and is a key element to understandings how these non-living systems have a baked in ideology. Which is to say, predatory humans leverage the models of natural systems to camouflage the intent to expand markets. Symbiosis is at play, but comes at the expense of not just the human, but non-human actors as well.

So what do we do in this growing ecology?

*

Extending the tendrils of meaning across species — plants, fungi, humans — is a vital conversation that deserves critical thought and humor. But we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that our networks and tools exert will.

At least, not yet.

If the visions of tech entrepreneurs keep apace, then we must grow the capacity to determine the distinctions between co-evolutionary processes of multispecies association and the masking of opportunistic, parasitic, designed codependence. How we relate to these networks and their physical manifestations will become more and more like that of mycelial tubes searching for optimal resources and running at the bleeding edge of built cognition.

With sufficient complexity, how would we distinguish these relations as different from another living thing?

Everything that lives wants to keep living.

Be you made of cells with walls or not, the imperative to go on against the odds seems to be a universal.  In this way, instances of 'life" may be much more common than we are able to currently countenance.

Turning back to the world of plants, a chilly question is ghosting around in their behavior and relations:

Is making meaning a good thing?

Plants and their protective allies have endured with a minimum of interpretation between them over the millennia.  Which is not to say that it is always an equitable or consenting exchange (remember that poor, foolish wasp?). The plants, fungi, and the animals that intersect in mutual survival do so absent morality, ethics, and story. Their protective web is not one of secret domination or exploitation at the exclusive expense of the other. This web is a living example of how a dynamic system composed of actors unaware of their deep-time re-enactments can endure in the endless permutations of environmental disruptions known and unknown.

 Plants hold memories that are collective, species memories, not the precious mind-thoughts of an individual. They exhibit their collective memory through their complex behavior, which they have learned over time. There is no individual, they are a continuum of being.

Our capacity for meaning-making is too often manipulated by predators and parasites within our own species.  

We want to live.

We want to believe.

We want to live a good life.

There may come a time when it is revealed to us that, like the wasp, we are unwitting participants in a dance beyond our comprehension. The alien other may be of our own construction or beyond the influence of our solar system.  

Time will tell.

The truth of the matter is that we are already complexly embroiled in these ecosystems, whether we understand them or not.

Only questions remain.

Are we the orchid or the wasp?

 
 

Bluebird’s Birthday

by Albatross, September 2018

 

The birds rise up in celebration
It is Bluebird’s birthday
They ruffle and preen
Open their variegated beaks
Sing songs and gather seeds
Even the raptor’s dives
Are not with talons out
But with wings spread
They twirl and dance for Bluebird

I see you in the walled garden, Laura
Tending and nurturing
Encouraging growth from dead soils
Up they wriggle toward the light
And you guide them all along the way
Caring, showering them with happy rain
That even lands among the neighbors
We are those wisteria shoots, Love
Wrangling each other on our knitted paths

I believe that we were two albatrosses once
Dancing with each other over rocky shores
Slipping our beaks over wings long missed
Smoothing out love feathers
For epic flights of yearning
But always returning home
To nestle the breast of the other
While arctic winds batter grassy nests
And rocks howl all around us

I believe that we were starlings once
Entangled in our murmurations
Above the grassy rolling hills
Creating beauty with collective flights
That whirl through twilight  
Like galaxies in the village
And topple into symbols
A cacophonous smiling flock
Laying waste to countrysides of jazz

I see you in the walled garden, Laura
And the clouds are charged and change like your eyes
If rain will fall then I will become drenched in the rain
When lightning strikes then I will howl the thunder
If a twister crashes down then I will Dorothy up
When all is calm then I will lie in the fields
And blow kisses up at those skies
Run fingers over the smooth grass
Soak in the slipping sunrise

The birds rise up in celebration
Their nests are soggy with Dibon
I hear your steps along our halls
You understand all the signs and symbols
That reside in frames upon our walls
Laura, I love you, Miffy, Bluebird, mein Schatz
When we sit sipping coffee under the wisteria
We are those wisteria shoots, Love
Wrangling each other on our knitted paths

 
 

44. You Go Out Searching for Poems

by Albatross, August 2018

 

You go out searching for poems at the gray of evening Ireland.
Along the River Shannon and through Limerick
with its little two window breadbox houses and colored doors.
Wonder at what it’s like sipping Tetley’s with milk,
delicate china, teapot sun,
in that contained Celtic solar system,
with knitted blanket sofas and ancient corners.
What smells of peated chimney still orbit?
Watching your feet past juice box litter on cobblestones and looking up
to a bit of music pushed shopping cart who says, “Alright Boyo?”
below the battered shell of a two story skeleton
and flower baskets from light posts.
The sky, she’s a palette of fresh bruises
whispering nearby fields through your hair
and there
at Castle street and the Sally Port Walls
two children clomp by in a miniature chariot pulled by a pony.
The fluorescent orange rimmed wheels clatter the cobbles
and though at a marked distance
you see them trot toward St Mary’s Park.

“Sure the weather is desperate.
Wouldn’t put the dog out in it,” chirps a pubbird,
but you must capture the chariot,
an image treasure.
So past the canister castle
with its reptilian rock skin flecked with moss green
and shadowed slits of arrow shot,
past the harsh crown of church
from which death knells toll and echo for centuries.
Bong they gong and the town shudders under the sound,
the heavenly shackles of Erin go bragh.
Along the river and down verdant into the fields of St Mary.
Far and away the clouds bend down and massage the hills with ghostly hands and you think, ‘Those spooky Irish skies, so haunted they are,’
as the trail turns to dirt.
By the buildings apiece,
those dripping guinness or uisce beatha since seventeen fifty nine,
and he’s there taking the piss from a lad
with those fists raised always
like the reptilian castle always and have you yet?
Ya raise ‘em skirts yet Boyo?
Always, don’ cry lad. Don’ cry.
We men we kill it with the Crayture.
And he just wants to be
to somebody,
to mean something,
a human being feeling!
But sock em!
Fists up ya gobshite!
Are ya leakin? Ya nance!
And he goes home to abuse the heavens.
A cloud full of the lightning strike.
Upon the trail,
aside river brush,
a burnt out mattress,
a landscape of ash forms squarely and deathly
with zombie hands springs rise up from the grief.

She, the wee one,
she leaves her mothers weeping to climb the monkey bars in an empty field. He, at the wheel, doing donuts before the horses,
rainbows of mud and grass arching from his hatchback,
tearing that field up as she hangs by her knees,
watching upside down maniacs rally the muddy ceiling,
they orbit her,
orbit that Celtic solar system.

And as that car chased horses upon the field,
you notice the sky reaching down,
falling down,
an ominous wall coming like that car on the horses upon the field.
Move!
Quick!
Back the dirt path.
It’s coming from out of the hills!
Phantom invader from speír dorcha!
Hooves upon the earth, charging back and the skies release their tears.
Those bruised and battered overhead,
they weep a deluge.
All the tears of Ireland fall upon your head.
Those weeping at the green,
those weeping at the orange,
weeping at inebriated,
at starving,
at sad cold without proper coal,
and gone off to war,
and talking to the crown,
those sunday bloody sundays,
bards shot by snipers,
parades under banners of frowning men.
You become soaked of it,
the island pouring from the brim of the flat cap and through the downpour and across the muddy field you see them,
the children on the chariot,
hollering,
a-spray the streets,
pony glistening,
laughing through their streaking faces,
galloping over poverty puddles with oil rainbows,
there goes your image treasure,
little leprechauns.
And wet with tears you drip to your bed,
not of straw but memory foam,
made in Sealy Texas

 

Salt & Vinegar

by Albatross & Bluebird, July 2018

manatee.jpg

Hotel California faded out, and his hand reached for the tuner as the radio station’s call sign faded in. He hated the commercials. He scanned past “collusion” this, “stock market” that, and a DJ snarling “TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP” in a way that was surely a joke, but made him grit his teeth and shut off the radio all the same. With a long exhale, he settled into the sound of his new sand-friendly tires on the soft gray asphalt.

Chuck Petrel loved his truck. He loved his dog too, but she died two winters ago and he hated the thought of replacing her. His third love was Hemingway, and that’s why he’d moved to the Florida Keys the Thanksgiving after the last election. He’d stood up in the middle of dinner with his extended family, got in his truck, drove down the coast until the road ended, and hadn’t spoken to any of them since.

The roads are especially dark in Florida and in the post-radio silence, he concentrated on his vision, and tried to take in every detail visible in the headlights. He was on his way home through the Everglades and made a game of spotting every animal he could. The alligators were his favorite, so ancient and powerful. He was not a violent or cruel man but he did not hate reading about the occasional gator bite in the news. They try to keep to themselves, he’d think.

The string of bridges between the Keys softened his face, and he eventually turned the radio back on, and was singing along to Lynard Skynard by the time he pulled into the driveway. He cooked his nightly dinner of rice and beans on the electric stove, with shrimp and pineapple on the charcoal grill. He slept fitfully in the cot that was a little too small, in the shack that was a little too hot.

At sunrise, he was up and unhitching the new boat from the back of his truck. It was a one person catamaran, but he hated all the colors it came in, so he’d been waiting on his custom order for several months. The boat that now sat in his driveway was beautiful, and he took a step back to admire it. The hulls were a dark, deep blue, and a fine hammock net to match stretched between them. The sails were a bright sky blue with gold embroidery of the constellation Sirrus, to match the name of the vessel. Seeing it next to his dark blue truck with single bright blue side-stripe, he felt the pang of love in his chest one more time.

In the weeks that followed, Chuck learned to sail. He didn’t bother with books or instructors, just pushed himself a bit further every day. He learned to feel the wind on his face, carefully studying how it filled the sails. He trained his body to the lean of the hull, the impact of the waves. Once he was comfortable with the boat, he went to work on his lungs. He started with fins and goggles, tethered to the boat, staying underwater a little longer every day, searching for lobster antennae poking out of small holes in the reef. Slowly he phased out the fins, then the goggles, then the tether.

One muggy evening, he set anchor and slept on the water. He hadn’t found any lobsters that day so he sailed home for rice and beans in the morning, but he couldn’t stop thinking about how restful the sleep had been. There were no fits, no sweaty sheets, no dreams. He decided to do it again, and again, and after a fight with the grocer who special ordered his preferred brands of oversized rice sacks and dried beans every month, he decided he was done coming home at all.

After mourning the loss of his boat’s vehicular twin, he was truly free. Gone was his phone, his truck radio, any vestige of his family. He did not know or care what became of his shack and its modest bills. Sure, he appreciated the times those things had made him happy, but he knew they were not worth the suffering. He could now read the wind, commune with the animals, and sleep. He’d even rigged a very clever tarp tent to fend off sun and rain.

He dove so expertly. Any time he was hungry, he could pluck a lobster from the sea and find some seaweed to wrap its meat, all in a single breath. He cracked its shell and extracted the flesh in a gesture of impossible grace. He was able to swim from and return to his boat with full confidence it’d be where he expected.

It was the truck radio he came to miss first, to his surprise. He told himself he hadn’t heard a surprising thing on the radio in a decade, and for a while he could entertain himself with impressions of scanning the dial. He’d laugh over his versions of Adele and Coldplay, of all the idiot DJs. He’d sing heartfelt renditions of Neil Young, always. He even incorporated snowy radio static into his repertoire. Sometimes at night, he’d hear that sound and be unsure if it was in his head, coming out of his mouth, or if his ears had attuned to the universal background radiation for the first time.

He did not account for the New Moon. He was just swimming for pleasure, not searching for food, though he hadn’t seen so much as a minnow lately. The water was still and lovely, and he was floating on his back with a gentle flutter kick, looking at the stars and pondering the vast emptiness. He remembered his childhood longing for the discovery of alien life. He always hated the thought we were alone in the universe. He let his mind wander, he let himself feel the sadness, just for a while. He thought of lonesomeness, and as he sat up, he saw his sky- and water-colored boat had disappeared into the horizon, which itself was blurred in the calm mirror of the dark ocean.

A panic seized him. “I am alone! A speck in the vast ocean!” He thrashed and spun, searching the darkness, but neither the mast nor hull of his boat blocked the mass of stars hanging like sky’s eyes that watched him with indifference. The panic had tired him and he flipped onto his back, floating in the night. Tears rolled over his cheeks and into space. The drift from here to there washed over him.

The sun reached down a fiery hand and smacked him awake. He sunk for a moment and burbled up out of the saltwater. Buildings and trees were a haze at first, but he realized slowly that he was floating just off of the land. In a burst of energy he made for the shore, paddling with technique learned in his youth: one, two, three, breathe, one, two, three, breathe. The surf lurched beneath him and he was nearly there. He saw bathers on a crowded beach milling about on the sand. He could make out traffic creeping along the A1A, and the sounds of engines firing, barking, the loud radios bumping a "THUMP THUMP THUMP" and suddenly, he was no longer swimming toward the shore.

The sway of the surf rolled him in and out, and he felt a disturbance in the water. An aggregate of manatees slowly rolled around him, their shining billowy forms surfacing and sinking. His trained lungs pulled the air and he dove down into their company. The hefty tea party swirled sluggishly toward an estuary, and he moved among them.

“Why hello there my stout sir. Mind if I join you?”

“A landlover! How wonderful! Of course you may. We are on our way to freshwater teatime. You may join us if you can keep up with those silly legs,” one of the manatees replied. He danced a slow dance through their plump forms. These manatees need the air and water just as I do, but they live awash in the seas! Why couldn’t I simply float as they do, just away from that sandy time warp? Here, time is thick, the motion is slow and life waves in fluid ways, and everything sways with the other. There is a weightlessness and a quiet that will become heavier and louder with each sandy step into the air.

“Yea, I think I’ll try to keep up,” he bubbled out, and they chatted up a whirlpool of manatee gossip.

He did manage to keep up and he thought to himself, how impressed the manatees must be. The group bobbed forward through the currents, under bridges and past boats at dock, moving ever farther away from the salty shore. He chatted up a storm.

“I don’t need these awful humans! Look at them, eh?” he said, nudging a manatee with his elbow. “How ridiculous, their wasteful lives. I was like that once — driving, working, wasting, arguing, listening to the nonsense day after day. But I’m done with all of that now. I’ll live like you do. Who needs them? All that noise! Who needs it? You sure don’t. Look at this joyous crew. You all move with the oceans, with the tides. You pay no attention to those people and what they’re doing. What a life I’ll lead! A sea mammal! I’ll eat the sea creatures. I’ll dive and haul in food. I’ll find a piece of wood to support me while I float and sleep. The first of the humans to move back into the sea just as your ancestors did ages ago. Why not!?”

“Wow! Do all humans talk as much as you do? No wonder you want to get away from them,” replied a nearby manatee. “If I could get a word in, we’re at our freshwater spot now.”

The manatees surfaced gleefully and with large open mouthed gulps they drank from the freshwater source. The hose outside of a bayside home created an arching stream that poured into the brackish water next to a boat-filled dock. A veritable umbilical cord. Chuck could see people with cameras flashing, taking pictures of the manatees as they crowded around the hose.

“What is this?” he cried. “This is your freshwater teatime!? A hose!”

“The people in Florida set up hoses for us. A little freshwater for us and they get to take photos. It all works out for everybody. And we love our teatime. At least there’s no motor boats taking our backs off. You should’ve seen what happened to Tim last week. Poor guy.” said a manatee, jostling toward the hose.

“You’re manatees! How do you know what Florida is? Or photos for that matter?” asked Chuck despondently. He sunk down sadly to the sand bed. Of course, he thought. You aren’t talking to me.

A few moments later the guests of the Greig house were incredibly surprised as a bearded, chapped, and very surley salty man arose from the waters where they had been taking photographs of the manatees. He had been lost at sea, he said, shockingly, and asked if anybody had a phone he could use.

 

manatee.jpg
 

42. The Tortoise & the Gun

by Finch & Bluebird, July 2018

 

For a Cyborg, a Dragon (see our last post) is especially important. For, temple, too, a Dragon is important. Protecting a physical space requires a physical body, protecting an online space requires a data body.” But these faces of security are not entirely separate; we used to think about cybersecurity as a problem for computers, but it’s much closer to the front door than that. Cybersecurity is a human gesture: it has human weaknesses. And can use ingenuity to exploit human weakness as it’s sewn into computational structures, into walls and gates. The wall, the gate, the garden all do their part to protect, to surround, to insulate using blind resistance, but the dragon does what those cannot: adapt.  The Dragon can move, can communicate, and can anticipate.

In the past two years, we have been given a new glimpse into everything cybersecurity can mean. It’s not just hackers opening our bank accounts, it’s trolls twisting our information. It’s not just a thieves breaking into an email account, it’s propaganda factories producing manipulated video of heads-of-state. Security is not a machine’s perimeter but a human value, of safety, of vulnerability, of exploitation. The sovereignty of our presidential election was attacked on every front: voting machines, campaign servers, social media platforms. Some of these attacks are human-vs-human, some are human-vs-machine, some are machine-vs-machine.

Machines, as it happens, have the problem of selective attention. If they’re not told that attention is a nimble thing, capable of being re-allocated and re-focused, then a machine knows not when to shift its gaze, or when its gaze is being fooled. Facebook thought security meant preventing criminals from breaking into individual accounts. They didn’t know it meant an army of trolls flooding an information ecosystem with messages meant to exploit human terrors, fears, and gnawing anxieties.

Some have cried out for machines to fix this human problem. Engineers have responded in kind, saying they’ve trained a new sort of dragon -- Artificial Intelligence that can detect artificial bots spreading disinformation, watch for spam, and even detect harassment in online forums. Some AI can be connected to a camera, and can watch out for guns.

This new dragon protecting the temple, however, has inevitably not been left alone to carry out its tasks. Another, newer dragon has been built to counteract its protections. This new animal is called Adversarial Machine Learning (AML), and it works by subverting the Dragon’s carefully engineered attention.

An especially enigmatic thread works by generating “optical illusions for machines.”

Last year, researchers described a turtle they had 3D printed. Human eyes would tell us that the object looks like a turtle or tortoise, head and tail and everything in between. An artificial intelligence algorithm, however, saw it differently: Most of the time, the AI thought the turtle looked like a rifle.

Our AI security dragon, carefully trained to see and to interpret the world, was fooled into thinking it saw a gun where in fact there was only a tortoise, in a pattern invisible to human eyes. Or, in a flipped “real,” humans are fooled into thinking there is a tortoise, when a computer dragon can see the hidden truth of the gun.

The shaded trickery used against our own AI dragons extends well past the tortoise and the gun: reading like so many maps telling of “here by dragons,” AI can be coaxed into seeing what isn’t there. In short AI can be induced to hallucinate. In one researcher’s tests of an AI that would guide self-driving cars,  Hello Kitty loomed in the machine's view of street scenes. Other cars disappeared.

Dragons of protection and of conquest are spirited into the world, with human weakness, ingenuity, values, and stories twisting and weaving in a new arms race in the design of systems and machines.

 

The Temple Dragon

by Albatross, Bluebird & Finch, April 2018

 
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“Thou-shalt,” lieth in its path, sparkling with gold—a scale-covered beast; and on every scale glittereth golden, “Thou shalt!”

The values of a thousand years glitter on those scales, and thus speaketh the mightiest of all dragons: “All the values of things—glitter on me.

All values have already been created, and all created values—do I represent. Verily, there shall be no ‘I will’ any more.” Thus speaketh the dragon.

- Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883)

 

 

In our last post, The Temple Threshold, we covered some of the terminology Joseph Campbell uses to describe the hero’s journey, and reapplied it to the American Cyborg universe. Today we extend that gesture to the concept of the dragon, and in particular, the dragon as Temple Guardian.

Our Temple Guardian is Hector the Shiba Inu. Greeting Hector at the door, and earning his trust, is part of the initiation ritual into American Cyborg team. Those who fail this test do not get to join the inner sanctum.

Dragons are not just beasties; they serve a particular role. As with Nietzsche’s dragon, they are hoarders and guarders of sparkling treasures. They are fearsome to intruders, but familial with insiders. Bypassing them is not necessarily an act of violence, but rather, an act of supersedence. The lion that confronts Nietzsche’s dragon does not need “Thou Shalt,” and insists upon “I Will.”

As a cybersecurity measure, dragons make the perfect metaphor. To insiders, the dragon is loyal, friendly, and effective. To outsiders it is intimidating and other-worldly. The Walled Garden is the first line of defense, The Dragon is the second. Adversarial Machine Learning is the third, and is the topic of next month’s post.

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The Temple Threshold

by Albatross, Bluebird & Finch, March 2018

Gate of a Himalayan Mountain Pass, Tibet, Laura B. Greig 2008

Gate of a Himalayan Mountain Pass, Tibet, Laura B. Greig 2008

 

Introduction

“Prince Five-weapons answered without fear, but with great confidence in the arts and crafts that he had learned. ‘Ogre,’ said he, ‘I knew what I was about when I entered this forest. You would do well to be careful about attacking me.’”
- Joseph Campbell, Hero of 1000 Faces (1949)

American Cyborg spent the past year crossing The Threshold between being an artist collective and being a company. It’s been a challenging journey that is just the start of a much larger and more challenging journey; many of the battles we fought will serve as lessons we can apply to new battles as the stakes get higher. Thankfully, Albatross has been reading Joseph Campbell’s Hero of 1000 Faces, and finding frameworks through which we can understand this journey and its challenges. And in the American Cyborg tradition, we’ve reapplied Campbell’s ideas to how we think about and use the technology that comprises our arsenal.

Hero of 1000 Faces describes the story cycle of a Hero’s Journey as seen in cultures around the world, emphasizing the many shared themes. The Threshold is where The Hero crosses from the known to the unknown, which can only happen when she is ready. There are five aspects to The Threshold: The Wilderness, The Gate, The Guardian, The Abyss, and The Temple.


The Wilderness

“The experience of entering a building influences the way you feel inside the building. If the transition is too abrupt, there is no feeling of arrival, and the inside of the building fails to be an inner sanctum.”

- Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language (1977)

Adventures start in the wild: a dark forest, a rocky mountain, a deep ocean. The Hero has left home on a quest for a special knowledge or ability that will make her uniquely valuable in the world. Everything learned in childhood is important for surviving The Wilderness. The Hero must find food and shelter alone for the first time, without a family or community to help or protect her.

In The Wilderness, The Hero must face the universal fears of childhood — of darkness and the unknown — but her personal childhood fear is embodied by The Guardian.


The Guardian

“The heights of the spirit can only be climbed by passing through the portals of humility.”

- Rudolf Steiner, How to Know Higher Worlds (1904)

Dragons and whales are common Guardians, and their belly is often The Temple itself. (This is why beasties make such beautiful door knockers.) These are familiar but other-worldly creatures, uniquely suited to the harsh environs of their particular Wilderness. Their bellies often hold treasures, signifying the good inside scary things.

The Guardian wards off intruders, and those that choose to engage with it must pass a special test. That test is a key — entering The Temple without passing The Guardian and The Gate is pointless, because their treasure will remain encoded.

A successful confrontation with The Guardian will give The Hero special information she can use to unlock The Gate, and decode the logic of The Temple.


The Gate

“Even if you live in an apartment and your front door is labeled 3-C, you can still make it talk your language. I have painted apartment doors to suit myself and the landlords have not minded too much. And you can still use a big, decorative knocker, or hang an ornament on the outside of the door.”

- Dorothy Draper, Decorating is Fun! (1939)

The Temple is surrounded by a protective wall, and The Gate is the break in that wall — an inviting light in the darkness of The Wilderness. It is secure and steadfast when locked, warm and welcoming when open.

The construction of The Gate and its wall establish the pattern language of The Temple, providing the second clue to decoding its interior logic. Its form and materiality work like a frame for a painting — not the art itself, but also not the wall. Deep understanding requires full attention, so The Hero has to make room for this new logic and language. She has to put childhood knowledge in the back of her mind.

Memory is bicameral. Human brains and our computers both use two kinds of memory: brains have a hippocampus (short-term storage) and cortex (long-term storage); computers have RAM (Random Access Memory) and ROM (Read-Only Memory). We use the former to store information we need immediate access to, and the latter for information we might need in the future. Moving memories from the front to the back is a kind of forgetting.

Unlocking The Gate, forgetting childhood knowledge, is an annihilation of the self. A profound change requires making this new space; The Abyss must be entered wholly.


The Abyss

“In bonsai you often plant the tree off center in the pot to make space for the divine.”

- Maggie Nelson, Argonauts (2015)

Have you ever walked through a doorway, and forgot where you were going? This is a byproduct of having a physical, embodied brain. The environment is not just a space for thinking, but tool for thinking. Sociologists call this distributed cognition: that humans think not just with but through the spaces they’re in. Crossing a boundary, entering into a new space, is passing into a new mind. A new mind puts new demands on the brain, so the brain throws out what it’s already carrying. It forgets.

The Abyss is not a scary darkness like The Wilderness, it’s just a nothingness. It’s the River Lethe that dead souls drink of to forget their mortal life. This forgetting is not a permanent erasure, but a relocation from conscious to subconscious understanding. The Abyss is the space between Thinking Fast and Slow.

Once she has cleared The Abyss, The Hero can enter The Temple.


The Temple

“Walls and fences are used to enclose a garden, thereby ensuring privacy and keeping out unwanted intruders. They also are frames that allow a garden to be viewed as a work of art, somewhat detached from its surroundings. The importance of paths is that they guide visitors through a garden in such a way that the composition unfolds as intended by the designer.”

- David and Michiko Young, The Japanese Garden (2005)

The pattern language established at The Gate extends to pathmaking inside The Temple. If the wall is the frame, The Temple is the painting. As a painting guides your eye across its composition to reveal its story, The Temple’s forking paths are a guide to attaining its secret knowledge.

The Temple’s forking paths allow The Hero to wander at her own pace, and explore the walled garden and its logic. She can enter a nested set of precincts through a series of rituals, and in the innermost sanctum find the treasure — that new knowledge or ability that she can carry forward on her journey, and back to her community.

Once she has experienced The Temple, The Hero has crossed The Threshold.


Conclusion

A passage into a new mind constitutes a rebirth. The childhood self is destroyed and the adult self emerges. The Hero must be brave enough to face her fears, but humble enough to be dismantled by them as well.

American Cyborg acknowledges our position at The Gate. We made the decision to brave the journey, and we’ve crossed The Wilderness of former workplaces to get here. We are now in the process of collectively constructing a Temple for ourselves — finding our aesthetic and pattern language, and securing our perimeter. Within this sanctuary, we can construct our tools and strategies for rebirth, and face the world anew.

So thank you to Joseph Campbell for his work, and to my legendary high school English teacher Greg Baker to introducing me to him. Campbell is hard to pull short quotes from, so we chose this long passage to include these ideas in his own words:

“This [belly of the whale] motif gives emphasis to the lesson that the passage of the threshold is a form of self-annihilation. Its resemblance to the adventure of the Symplegades [from Greek mythology: a pair of rocks that crushes ships passing between them] is obvious. But here, instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward, to be born again. The disappearance corresponds to the passing of a worshipper into the temple — where he is to be quickened by the recollection of who and what he is, namely dust and ashes unless immortal. The temple interior, the belly of the whale, and the heavenly land beyond, above, and below the confines of the world, are one and the same. That is why the approaches and the entrances to temples are flanked and defended by colossal gargoyles: dragons, lions, devil-slayers with drawn swords, resentful dwarves, winged bulls. These are the threshold guardians to ward away all incapable of encountering the higher silence within. They are preliminary embodiments of the dangerous aspect of the presence, corresponding to the mythological ogres that bound the conventional world, or to the two rows of teeth of the whale. They illustrate the fact that the devotee at the moment of the of the entry into the temple undergoes a metamorphosis. His secular character remains without; he sheds it as a snake to its slough. Once inside he may be said to have died to time and returned to the World Womb, the World Navel, the Earthly Paradise. The mere fact that anyone can physically walk past the temple guardians does not invalidate their significance; for if the intruder is incapable of encompassing the sanctuary, he has effectually remained without. Anyone unable to understand a god sees it as a devil and is defended from the approach. Allegorically, then, the passage into a temple and the hero-dive through the jaws of the whale are identical adventures, both denoting, in the picture language, the life-centering, life-renewing act.”

- Joseph Campbell, Hero of 1000 Faces (1949)

 
 
 

Address to the Incline

by Albatross, January 2018

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Joi,
Imma tell yinz a tale and go by way of Altoona doinit,
‘Abaht some kids dahn nair by the Mon.
An befir yinz go bawlin, ‘It don cut no ice,’
I swears by da Stillers, an this here Arn,
Ever ding Heinzes, an dem progies so nice,
An aw dats holy in da Burgh, dat i ain’t fibbin.

Asides,
Wuhn cha rather scootch over der an da caach
An loaf a bit while I yak bout dees lil river rats,
Rather dan sittin der jaw waggin, jaggin round ennat?
Yinz gotcher bawdles a beer? Airyago.
Awright, itsa good ‘en an yinz‘ll need a cupple.
So bring it dahn a thahsnd an listen up.

Yesee,
Paul an Jon, dey grew up dahntahn
Jus past da point an o’er Mahnt Worshington
Close in proximidy to da Iggle o’er dare
An dem kids weren’t jaggy er nebby er nuttin
An fact dair prahbly da best nippers fir mahles.
But as yinz know, even da rain ‘ill end up in da soor sumtimes.

Morrenat,
Jon an Paul, Paul an Jon, dare brudders dahn nair.
Jon’s da older by cuppla years, but Pauls da wile en.
An dey dare an dis an dey dare an dat.
Bo fem kids love a good dare.
Dey’ve been in da rivers in da freezin cauld ennat.
I mean, git aht! Gitdahellaht! In dat icy wahter ahn a dare!

Jisabaht,
Rahn dat time when the two-a-vum were jist tenish,
Paul, anna dare from Jon, run his bike wit no hands
Alla way dahn Allentahn street. Ha-baht-dat?
Is wheel went aw wobbly annie scraped ‘is belly up aw o’er.
But dat’s an whole nother story, an I tell yinz what,
Dis is way better n’at.

So’s,
Cause a da Allentahn incident, Jon’s dahn a point er two ahn da dares
An Pauls waitin fir da biggin, da big dare ta rilly get ‘im good.
Bo fem had been aht an abaht an’ed clumb Mahnt Worshington.
So dare up air at lookaht point, ways up o’er dahntahn,
(Even da Still buildin looks itty bitty up air)
An Paul starts grinnin like Hines Ward.

Chawt,
Da next time any yinz is up air, look close at the Incline ennat.
Yinz’ill see azit goes awda way up an dahn da maahntin
Dat der’s a black boxy kinda ding an the bahtum.
Well, ya lunchheads, I’z shocked as yinz ta tell ya, air’s a door in’air!
‘An wahtsat gotta do wit anyding?’ Yinz axst me.
Yinz’ll see ennat.

Ovaderr,
Ahn toppa da maahntin, Paul pointed ta tops a some trees
Aw hangin unner where da Incline tracks slope dahn steep
An goes, ‘I dares ya ta take a Lynn Swann onta that tree der,’
‘Ah c’mahn! Dey’d send me ta Dixmont!’ bawled Jon.
‘Yabbut ya gotsta!’ goes Paul back at’em.
‘I did Allentahn hill no hands! Yir turn ya jag!’

I’ztellinya,
John looked o’er the rail, and could see aw the Norside, da Sawside
Where da Stillers an Buccos play, da hills, da point a sprayin,
Aw da bridges, Erberto Clemente, da igloo, da barges floatin coal,
Practally aw da way to Gibbo, way out da road!
An da branches looked close ennat. Rilly close, an big ennuff.
An Paul awways got him, but ‘chanowaht! I’m gettin’im dis time!’ goes Jon.

Yainga bleevis,
He jumped! I swears by da Immaculate Reception!
Right onta dat tree hangin by root fingertips ta da side-a da maahntin.
Ow-no wha Pauls thinkin but I know he ain’t believin Jon’ed dooit.
Jon grabbed dem branches an held ahn swayin side a side ahn top,
Allawhile smilin like a butchers dog. Coulda bin a kite up air o’er da tahn.
But alla sudden he members’at he’s gotta get dahn...sumhahs.

Yinzever,
Seen an dem nature shows when da baby bird gets chucked aht da nest?
Air’s awways one dat’s hangin ‘air by its toenails an don wanna dooit
An dat’s haw Jon looked aht dare. Lil tweeter barely hangin ahn.
Jeez-o-man! howlered Paul, asie run aw along da railing looking aht at Jon.
Anna tree looks aw slippy ennat. Paul goes aw nutso, ya know?
Ah mean, atsis brudder aht dare! So’see does wha any brudder’d do. He jumped too

‘S’goinon!?’
Allanem’s waitin fer da Incline starts yellin; aller runnin round raisin stink.
Oh mah Gersh! Der’s kids innat tree dahnair! Can you reachum? Nah, stoofar.

What-r yinzdoin dahnair, ya loopy kids? Fer Petes sake! Summon call da Fahrmen.
Inna meanwhiles, Jon an Paul’d clumb dahnna tree but nah dey’stuck in da rocks unnerdare

So summon caw’d da Fire Partment thinkin dey’d use da ladder an whatnot,
But ladders go up ennat, not dahn! Howinda world dey gonna get’em offinat cliff?

S’yinzmember
When Ize tellin yinz baht da Incline, right? Don‘cha jus love dat ding?
Awma life da Incline is gahn up an dahn da maahntin,
Takin Burghers o’er ta work like Sissy fuss, in regards ta’is boulder.
I member holdin onta Ma’s skirt asit creaked an clumb up when I’za kid,
Watchin da Burgh get aw smaw dahnair. I’z awways scared but loved it.
But I’ll be damned if I ever thunk a springin onta tree der! Crazy kids!

Likeizesayin,
Fire Partment shows up, anna kids‘ er hangin onta da rocks ahn da cliff.
Howinahell dey get dahnair? yelled da chief. Ow-no chief, but how we gonna get to’em?
Da chief der, he takes a look at dat lovely red box an goes,
‘Ole Mister Diescher never-a known what we’z abaht ta do wit his invention.’
After yakkin wit da Incline operator, an a lil plannin, allem Fahrmen hopped ahn.
Dahney went, da creekin tracks an lines aw a grindin an groanin above dem kids.

Well Whaddyagittinat?
Ahm sure your askin abaht nah. Point’is, dem Fahrmen
Dey clumb aht da bahtum a da Incline an hauled dem kids in!
Gutsy dem guys! An Hoorah fer da Incline! Da lovely red boxy!
Right thru dat door I’ze tellin yinz abaht earlier.
Dey pulled ‘em ahnboard an offadem rocks hangin ahn Worshington.
Paul an Jon, dey hada clean Fahrtrucks da whole summer causa dat.

So’atsat,
Jon an Paul, Paul an Jon got saved, high up o’er dahntahn
Saved by da Fahrmen an by ma favorite hero, da Incline.
Since ‘em coal days a darkness ta da days a da Superbowls
An in clahdy rainy days, freezin days, sumtimes sunny days,
Days ‘em Pens raisin da Cup, an days a bright new colors reflectin’at
Aw dat time da Incline been upair o’er da city ah love ennat

Wellumawlouttabeer,
Is been nice yakkin wicha
Yinz keep safe or whatever ennat, you know?
Eez my keys? Oradems yours? Atsit boys! Awright den.
Whatsa difference between da Stillers dis season an a buck?
You can still get four quarters outta a buck.
Awright, seeyinzawdahntahn.