Elevated Transmissions 2

Elevated Transmissions, Volume 2 via San Francisco producer Al Lover & The Reverberation Appreciation Society. A psychedelic mixtape that’ll clean your socks and float your boat. More info and download here.

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Spaun is not “consciousness in a box”

The hype about the “neuron brain model” Spaun made me think of my skeptical FringeWare Review piece about storing or replicating human consciousness, “Consciousness in a Box.” Sci-fi culture has set the assumption that construction of an “artificial brain” is not only possible, but inevitable, but I’ve argued that it’s unlikely, if not impossible to build a machine that replicates human cognition. Context is important: however we came to “think” in the way we do, to be conscious, sentient entities, that won’t be replicated in a bundle of switches, however slick, fast, and capable. SPAUN, in fact, is somewhat less than the hype suggests:

The first thing to point out is that Spaun doesn’t learn anything. It can be arranged to tackle eight pre-defined tasks and it doesn’t learn any new tasks or modify the way it performs existing tasks. The whole system is based on the Neural Engineering Framework – NEF- which can be used to compute the values of the strengths of connections needed to make a neural network do a particular task. If you want a neural net to implement a function of the inputs f(x) then NEF will compute the parameters for a leaky integrate and fire network that will do the job. This is an interesting approach, but it doesn’t show any of the plasticity that the real brain and real neural networks show.

If anything, this approach is more like the original McCulloch and Pitts networks where artificial neurons were hand-crafted to create logic gates. For example. you can put neurons together to create a NAND gate and from here you can use them to implement a complete computer – a PC based on a Pentium, say, using the neuronal NAND gates to implement increasingly complex logic. It would all work but it wouldn’t be a thinking brain or a model of a neuronal computer.

If we ever do build a “thinking machine” that is to any degree autonomous, I’m certain it won’t replicate human consciousness or thought processes – it’ll have its own way of “thinking.”

Go deeper

A couple of @https://weblogsky.com tweets re :

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Revolutions won at a superficial level take us into similar power games because we haven’t addressed fundamental issues that are deeply embedded in our thinking.

“A man will renounce any pleasures you like but will not give up his suffering.”

“Without self knowledge, without understanding the working and functions of his machine, man cannot be free, he cannot govern himself and he will always remain a slave.”

Both quotes from G.I. Gurdjieff

Worldchanging Interview with Jean Russell on Thrivability (2009)

In September 2009, Worldchanging published my interview with thrivability consultant Jean Russell. I’m republishing the interview here in its entirety. Jean and I have had many conversations since, and I’m persistently intrigued by her well-grounded positive vision of a world in which we humans not only survive sustainably, but thrive. (Last February, Jean arranged for Todd Hoskins to interview me – that interview’s at Thrivable.net.)

Technology consultant, entrepreneur and thrivability theorist Jean Russell joined Jerry Michalski’s August 3 Yi-Tan Conference Call for a conversation about thrivability as a conceptual replacement for sustainabilty. After that talk (which you can hear via the above link), I asked Jean to join me in a brief but enlightening Worldchanging interview.

Jon Lebkowsky: Let’s start with the definition of thrivability I found at http://thrivable.wagn.org/wagn/Nurture, that it’s “our path out of unsustainable practices toward a world where all people have a high quality of life, a voice, and a nurturing earth supporting them. Using whole systems approach, it demands that we evolve our way of being together, of collaborating, so that our collective wisdom and action bring forth a flourishing world and thriving life.”

What’s the origin of this definition, and what led you to start thinking about “thrivability” vs sustainability?

Jean Russell: At a Recent Changes Camp in Portland Oregon in 2006 I had a powerful two-hour conversation with Jair. I have not stayed connected to him, but in that conversation he mentioned the word thrivability. And it took hold of me for several reasons. Jair and I share a connection to Tom Munnecke, and I had been engaged in conversations with Tom on the Omidyar.net community. Tom wrote about solution-focus, positive deviance and other ideas that informed my concepts of thrivability. So I chewed and chewed on the idea, starting a blog to track my explorations.

This definition of thrivability evolved from that blog. Because this was so alive for me, I would talk with people about it wherever I went. And so I really feel that the idea is less mine and more the ideas of people who have shared with me. It is also strongly informed by the three years of conversations on Omidyar.net. I came to the Omidyar.net space as a writer focused on philanthropy, but while there I learned about such a wide variety of elements of social benefit work. I let my curiosity lead me, and the great wisdom of many there guide me. So, for me, thrivability is the umbrella that holds all of these efforts — it speaks to the unified whole of our efforts and the world those efforts aspires to.

I have puzzled over the connection between sustainability and thrivability. When I started the thrivability blog, I wondered if it was simply a language shift or if there was something deeper. Thanks to the network of people involved in the conversation, I feel clearer now than I did in ’07. If we drew a Venn diagram of the two, there is significant overlap. A lot of the work done under the umbrella of sustainability totally fits the concept of thrivability too. It is less that the actions are significantly different as much as the approach and aspiration is different. The language of sustainability is about neutralizing. Thrivability is about succeeding.

An example can help. If we ask, when building a home, “what isn’t sustainable here?” then we get a list of what we could do to make the house sustainable: maybe it says something about the materials we use and how the energy flows. If we are innovative, it also includes water flows and a green roof. If we ask instead, “what would make this home thrivable?” I want thrivable materials and thrivable energy. But I also want thrivable design — how do the living creatures of the home move through it? And while putting in a green roof, did we make it something that can be a garden? Did we consider the interior lighting of the house — not only for heating and cooling, but also for seasonal affective disorder? How does the house play together in the ecology of the neighborhood? Who works to build it? Are their lives more thrivable for having created the house? What else is an input/output or otherwise impacted by this house — and how can that be thrivable? Do you see how the shift from problem-focus to solution-focus includes the strategies employed in addressing the problem but also goes further?

JL: I understand the difference between the two, but it seems to me that you could have a ‘thrivability’ that isn’t sustainable, or that diminishes the sustainability of related or dependent systems. Would it make more sense to talk about “sustainable thrivability”?

JR: I think Arthur Brock points to the answer quite well. He recently wrote:

Thrivability builds on itself. It is a cycle of actions which reinvest energy for future use and stretch resources further. It transcends sustainability by creating an upward spiral of greater possibilities and increasing energy. Each cycle builds the foundation for new things to be accomplished.

Thrivability emerges from the persistent intention to create more value than you consume. When practiced over time this builds a world of ever increasing possibilities.

Thrivability already includes what is meant by sustainability. And it goes beyond it. To say sustainable thrivability in some way limits it, in fact. Think of life forming on Earth — to sustain single celled organisms is one thing — to transcend that and create multi-cellular organisms in another. The earth has conspired for life to thrive, creating upward spirals, building resources, and evolving greater complexity.

It was Arthur who first pointed out to me that the last few hundred years of consuming resources might have been just what the earth required for us to transcend this way and move to the next form of interaction, the next level of complexity.

Gil Scot Heron, 1949-2011: “The revolution will be live.”

In my years of drinking beer and talking trash with the late Bill Morton, he seldom wrote letters to me though I wrote many to him. The one letter I did receive was a handwritten transcription of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gil Scot Heron, who got the the revolution isn’t in the streets and isn’t in the institutions or legislatures or meeting halls. It’s in our heads.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip,
Skip out for beer during commercials,
Because the revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be televised.
The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox
In 4 parts without commercial interruptions.
The revolution will not show you pictures of Nixon
blowing a bugle and leading a charge by John
Mitchell, General Abrams and Spiro Agnew to eat
hog maws confiscated from a Harlem sanctuary.
The revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be brought to you by the 
Schaefer Award Theatre and will not star Natalie
Woods and Steve McQueen or Bullwinkle and Julia.
The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal.
The revolution will not get rid of the nubs.
The revolution will not make you look five pounds
thinner, because the revolution will not be televised, Brother.

There will be no pictures of you and Willie May
pushing that shopping cart down the block on the dead run,
or trying to slide that color television into a stolen ambulance.
NBC will not be able predict the winner at 8:32
or report from 29 districts.
The revolution will not be televised.

There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
brothers in the instant replay.
There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
brothers in the instant replay.
There will be no pictures of Whitney Young being
run out of Harlem on a rail with a brand new process.
There will be no slow motion or still life of Roy
Wilkens strolling through Watts in a Red, Black and
Green liberation jumpsuit that he had been saving
For just the proper occasion.

Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville
Junction will no longer be so damned relevant, and
women will not care if Dick finally gets down with
Jane on Search for Tomorrow because Black people
will be in the street looking for a brighter day.
The revolution will not be televised.

There will be no highlights on the eleven o’clock
news and no pictures of hairy armed women
liberationists and Jackie Onassis blowing her nose.
The theme song will not be written by Jim Webb,
Francis Scott Key, nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom
Jones, Johnny Cash, Englebert Humperdink, or the Rare Earth.
The revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be right back after a message
bbout a white tornado, white lightning, or white people.
You will not have to worry about a dove in your
bedroom, a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl.
The revolution will not go better with Coke.
The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath.
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.

The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,
will not be televised, will not be televised.
The revolution will be no re-run brothers;
The revolution will be live.

“That was about the fact that the first change that takes place is in your mind. You have to change your mind before you change the way you live and the way you move… the thing that is going to change people is something that no one will ever be able to capture of film… it will just be something that you see, and all the sudden you realize, I’m on the wrong page, or I’m on the right page but on the wrong note, and I’ve got to get in sync with everyone else to realize what is going on in this country.”

Surf’s Up!

Here’s another older piece, my zany editorrant incroducing from Fringe Ware Review #5, the “Stay Awake” issue.

This issue of Fringe Ware Review was originally called the ‘alien invasion’ issue; our original intention was to create a sometimes serious, sometimes parodic hash of Bill Barker’s schwa, UFO theory, and cultivated paranoia for the 90s. However yer humble editor kept hanging on Barker’s stark sanserif STAY AWAKE! Though components of my alien invasion kit have never flashed red in the phenomenal world, this slogan flashes red, with sirens, every day in my consciousness, a reminder that I’m really not. Awake, that is.

Though something of an attention- deficient dilettante, I’ve focused on and returned to two similar paths throughout my life. One is the Buddhist ‘Middle Way,’ the other is Georges Gurdjieff’s ‘Fourth Way.’ I know abysmally little about either, yet they still resonate within, and I always say that someday I will get wise to these paths and start walking, wide awake. It hasn’t happened yet, and it may never…but the vibe is there, and it struck me while preparing for this issue:

We have to include something about Gurdjieff.

This ain’t easy. Folks who study Gurdjieff’s teachings are a bit reticent, not because they don’t want to tell, but because it’s nearly impossible to explain the Gurdjieff work since an understanding requires a knowledge base that most folks lack. We knew Gnosis had devoted an issue to Gurdjieff, so we asked publisher Jay Kinney for guidance. He referred us to John Shirley, a writer usually associated with cyberpunk sf, and John created the powerful piece included in this issue. And we received other submissions in the same vein. Our contributors seemed to find Gurdjieff and consciousness alternatives more compelling than UFOs, though we did also receive some UFO stuff.

In ye ed’s mind, there was some weirdness brewing. Having just completed work editing the States of Mind section of The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog, we were tuned into current thinking about consciousness and consciousness technologies. We were reading John Mack’s book, Abduction, and we were thinking a lot about Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. Somehow all this stuff worked together.

There are two ways to approach the Beach Boys, the first of which is pretty much dismissive of their smiley-face beach party hotrod music as the crewcut-clean sorta MOR rock that, well, Nancy Reagan might like to hear (she defended their selection to play one 4th of July in Washington when James Watt wanted to put ’em out). This is a response to the Mike Love model of the Beach Boys, and it’s valid. But there’s a whole other thing about the Beach Boys, and it’s really about Brian Wilson and to some extent his brother, the late Dennis Wilson. The Wilsons were sons of Murry Wilson, and for many years they were his meal ticket. Murry was real, and he was crazy: no Father Knows Best model here, this was a guy who could jump naked on the kitchen table, beat his chest, and proclaim his position as king of the house. When you read Brian Wilson’s biography, you find just this bizarre kind of shit…and you learn that, while much of the world saw the Beach Boys as essential pop effervescence, their creative fountain Brian was Losing His Mind. He was eating unimaginable combinations of drugs, living a sort of catatonic existence, his creative powers waning… And his brother Dennis, the one Beach Boy who actually hit the surf with a vengeance, was getting pretty screwed up, too…eventually drowning, evidently while under the influence of god nose what diversity of brain- whacking chemicals. The contrast between the lives of Brian and Dennis on the one hand, and the Beach Boys image on the other, is what interests me most about the Beach Boys. Brian made lush, incredibly beautiful music, yet his life was shit. The average person cruising down the boulevard hearing distant strains of ‘Good Vibrations’ and smiling recognition gets but misses the essence of the music…the essence is to make you smile, yes, but the essence is also anesthetic: it’s that postwar denial that took America in the 50s and never quite went away…it’s like sleeping through painful surgery. Technicolor, stereophonic sound, immersive entertainments like Cinemascope, Cinerama, etc…or television’s soft secure glow from a corner of the room. Better: a transistor radio playing tune after tune & commercial after commercial as you drift to sleep… You are not awake. Someone has your brain locked. Remain where you are. Do not resist. Give or do whatever they ask. Forget everything that happens.

UFO abductions seem real as anything when you read John Mack’s accounts of interviews with abductees, when you see video of abductees talking about their experiences and the impact on their lives…it’s tougher and tougher to deny the reality of these strange invasions. From the descriptions, it appears that we’re living on the farm. That’s the good news; the bad news is that we’re the livestock! Breeding stock, that is. “They” seem to be swiping semen from our males, and implanting our females with hybrid creatures, part alien, part man. Guess they’ve been doing this since the first monkey-man…was he developed? Sheesh. This would blow gaping holes in the anthropocentric philosophical constructs that glue self together, it would be like blowing the foundation of the temple constructed from western materialistic philosophy…we approve! So we’ve been invaded, so we’re chattel: what’s new? Any one whose brain’s been sucked dry by the political and bureaucratic machines of states and corporations in the premillennial world has been invaded, colonized, farmed if only for ox-labor. (John Mack actually theorizes that this ‘hybridization’ project, if it exists, has a different purpose “that serves both of our goals, with difficulties for each.” Though alien invasion/abduction is an effective metaphor for the human practice of brainsuck exploitation, we won’t pretend, assuming that these aliens exist, that we know what they’re up to. We’ll try to stay awake, though, ’til we understand the incomprehensible….)

One of Mack’s abductees, quoted late in the book, sez “Something else is interested in us that we don’t want to know about. This is happening. It’s not just a happy little dream where you can feel like you’re important. This is really a responsibility, and things that you don’t want to see happen are going to happen.” Though abductees seem to bury memories within layers of memory that most of us don’t touch, they’re retrieving them now, and as they retrieve them, they drop the prevalent cultural attitude of denial and begin to WAKE UP. What are they waking to? Mack says “With the opening of consciousness to new domains of being, abductees encounter patterns and a design of life that brings them a profound sense of interconnectedness with the universe.” Does this differ from Buddhist perception, or from the subtext of the Gurdjieff work? Since I’m a dilettante, I can’t really answer from experience, but it seems intuitively right. There’s an evolution now, and it’s happening on the fringes beyond denial. It doesn’t matter whether you believe in alien abduction, UFOs, satori, nirvana, the devil, the deep blue sea, the SubGenius, or the Perfect Wave: it’s not what you believe, but how you exercise your consciousness that’s important.

In Buddhism, and possibly in 4th Way, gnostic Christianity, etc. there’s little debate about god…’god’ is an edifice we’ve built within our collective unconscious to represent the unknowable, and since it’s unknowable, it’s beyond the scope of our concern. Instead we focus on the only reality, that which is here and now, and we see process and change for what they are: uncertain, unfathomable. We find solace not in theistic or materialistic fantasies, but in community. Brian Wilson, damaged, alienated, was trying through his music to create an essential harmony that he’d lost, or possibly never known…though he never surfed he was looking for that perfect wave.

In the 1990s, with the Millennium approaching, so many of us who surf the fringes, within ‘cyberpunk’ or other alternative scenes, are working through a kind of disillusioned cynicism; our heroes have screwed the proverbial pooch and we’ve seen the human failings within everyone and we’ve seen the sleazy corruption at the core of our institutions and we’ve seen exploitation at the heart of our corporate structures and this is our life. In the 60s, when we had an early sense of the contradiction between the American middle-class fantasy of whiter whites and bluer blues and the intense suffering within our own ghettos and the ghetto nations of the world, we built an underground that merged with what we’d once called the death culture, and we acquiesced, hiding within air- conditioned nightmares across spaceship earth as it spun out of control. We were inoculated by daily doses of blandscrew representations of ‘news’ so that we could somehow ignore the content of the suffering described by the anchors and the correspondents and the victims-on-scene. If you read an account of this world in a science fiction novel, you’d say to yourself, I’m glad the world’s not like that, but it is! So what do you do?

If you can’t save the world, save the neighborhood. This is similar to think globally, act locally, but with stronger reference to human interdependence. Ignore geographical constraints and make community wherever and however you can, i.e. plug into a network of folks with whom you have affinity, and support your friends. Ignore the established culture, which creates market blocs where there should be neighborhoods, which creates tightly controlled, highly manipulative mall environments where there should be interactive street markets. Above all, Stay Awake! Don’t allow the most truly alien and dangerous forces (churches, politicians, corporate propagandists) to colonize your mind and steal your soul. It’s helpful to take an inventory that includes you and all your possessions, and consider what they can and can’t take from you. They can’t take your mind, and they can’t take the moment…

As for the aliens and their UFOs, well, we’re still watching and waiting. But meanwhile we’re looking for something else, too, the right kind of surf, the right vibration…

Consciousness in a Box

Stumbled onto this piece I wrote in 1994 for FringeWare Review, triggered by a meeting with Hans Moravec, as I recall.

Robotics has two sides — real-world practical application and
development, and scifi mythopoetic phantasy construction — and like
most real/surreal dichotomies of the Information Age, these two sides
are blurred and indistinct within human consciousness, whatever that
might be….

A good question in this context: What is consciousness? This is hard
to answer because of the obvious blind spot inherent in self-definition
(conscious process defining consciousness), you can’t see the forest for
the trees or the neurons for the nerves, as the case may be. Because
the “conscious” part of me is as deep as I usually go, or as I need to go
in order to play the various survival games, I tend to confuse
consciousness, an interface between the internal me and the external
“thou,” as the totality of my being, as a real thing rather than a
conveniently real-seeming process. (Then again, if consciousness
defines reality, what’s real is what consciousness says is real, but that’s
a digression….)

The sages tell me I’m delusional (attached to the delusion of samsara,
of the world, in the Buddhist view), but I can’t quite figure out what
this means. That’s because “I” am as much the noun, delusion, as the
adjective, delusional. So much of what I am is filtered ouot,
inaccessible to the ego-interface.

But wait. The delusional “I am” is a convenience that facilitates
individual survival-stuff, so I’m not dissin’ it. The purpose of this rant is
to make a point, not about ego or delusion (I’ll let the sages stew in
those juices), but about robotics and AI research and the belief, often
expressed in both scifi and real-world contexts, that you, or more
precisely “your consciousness,” can be stored digitally. In most scifi
depicitons of “consciousness in a box,” the object is immortality: you
store what’s essentially you, and it “lives” forever, or until the plug’s
pulled, whichever comes first (I know where I’m putting my money).
In scifi, this is just another device for exploring the question of
immortality, which has fascinated scifi authors and the mythmakers that
preceded them as a way to come to terms with the death thing. Trying
to rationalize the inescapable. But you find other optimistic folks
(Hans Moravec, the Extropians) who are quite serious about the
potential for immortality and who consider the consciousness-in-a-box
scenario a viable means to that end.

I have a couple of problems with the scenario, myself, the first being
that, even if you digitized your consciousness and stored it in a
psychoelectronic device of some kind, it would not be you. Your
awareness would still fold when you discorporate; the thing that’s
stored might emulate your thinking or even your behavior, but it would
be a simulacrum, like you but not you.

The other problem I have is best expressed in the form of a question:
What are we storing? There seems to be a confusion between process
and object. If consiousness is indeed only a shallow process handling
the various negotiations between what we call subconscious and
external reality, what is the character of the data you’re uploading and
defining as you. Rules, implementations, stored memories —
consciousness is really a hash consisting of no single, store-able entity.
It’s like trying to package a tornado — what do you put in the package?
Do you include all the chaotic elements of weather formation and all
the applied physical rules that are manifest in the tornado’s brief life
span as a process event?

The bottom line here is that you can’t really isolate a single entity
“consciousness” and divorce it from its generative context.

Can you even simulate consciousness? Or intelligence, which
probably has a clearer rule base than the vaguer concept of
consciousness, but is still elusive. An “artificial” intelligence with
sufficient density and complexity to mimic human consciousness is the
very real goal of a particular thread of applied research, but so far no
digital simulacrum has been constructed that “thinks” as we know
thinking. The problem here resonates with the earlier argument about
stored consciousness: we don’t have clarity about the definition and
composition of human consciousness, so how can we copy it? It’s
hard enough to copy something we know.

The mythic representations of scifi robots like Robbie or Gort or
Hal9000 are like consciousness in a black box, deus-ex-machina stuff
that might serve to carry a plot forward but, to those who punch code
into dumb processors day after day, doesn’t ring any more true than a
fairy tale or myth, which is to say that it’s more about wishes and fears
than about any current or projected reality. It’s one thing to load a few
rules, even with algorithms to simulate heuristic process, into the CPUs
of this world, but it’s a real stretch to conceptualize silicon-based
thinking or awareness.

Human and animal consciousness are products of code generations
and modifications that reach `way back, perhaps to the inception of the
universe, and are driven by an unfathomable creative force compared
to which our efforts to construct artificial minds seem comparatively
short-sighted and pitiful. Then again, I suppose in our efforts to mimic
“the gods” we’re channeling that creative force, whatever its true
origins, because it must be inherent in the coce structure of the human
genome. And if that’s so, perhaps we’re destined to coevolve with our
own creations, which have themselves evolved from basic practical
and conceptual tools to today’s ubiquitous computing systems. This
coevolution may produce cyborganic life forms which, though not
created entirely by our hands, may be seen as products of an obsessive
desire to be as we imagine gods to be, creatively self-perpetuating and
therefore, as a race if not individually, immortal.

Time and the brain

Burkhard Bilger in The New Yorker profiles David Eagleman, a brilliant researcher who’s studying the brain, consciousness, and the perception of time. At a personal level I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years studying and trying to comprehend my own degrees and levels of consciousness and perception. We think of our “conscious experience” as a constant, and our unconscious as inaccessible… but through attention we learn that there are gradations in the range of conscious to “un-” or “sub-” conscious experience; that perceptions can vary with context; that memory is selective and undependable; that our perception of the world is generally incomplete though we do a good job of filling the gaps. When David Eagleman was a child he fell from a roof and realized that his perception of time had changed as he was falling. Now he’s doing evidence-based research to determine how people experience the world, what are the variations, how does the brain work and how does the mind work?  Read about it here. If you know about similar studies and writings, please post in comments.

David Brooks: “Social Animal”

David Brooks’ article “Social Animal,” in the New Yorker, piled on more insights about human essence and consciousness: “Our perceptions…are fantasies we construct that correlate with reality.”

“I believe we inherit a great river of knowledge, a flow of patterns coming from many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past we call genetics. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago we call family, and the information offered months ago we call education. But it is all information that flows through us. The brain is adapted to the river of knowledge and exists only as a creature in that river. Our thoughts are profoundly molded by this long historic flow, and none of us exists, self-made, in isolation from it.

“And though history has made us self-conscious in order to enhance our survival prospects, we still have deep impulses to erase the skull lines in our head and become immersed directly in the river. I’ve come to think that flourishing consists of putting yourself in situations in which you lose self-consciousness and become fused with other people, experiences, or tasks. It happens sometimes when you are lost in a hard challenge, or when an artist or a craftsman becomes one with the brush or the tool. It happens sometimes while you’re playing sports, or listening to music or lost in a story, or to some people when they feel enveloped by God’s love. And it happens most when we connect with other people. I’ve come to think that happiness isn’t really produced by conscious accomplishments. Happiness is a measure of how thickly the unconscious parts of our minds are intertwined with other people and with activities. Happiness is determined by how much information and affection flows through us covertly every day and year.”


“Life is as ephemeral as dew.” I think that’s from Rashomon.

The black kitten we found two weeks ago, aka Midnight, died this morning. We thought we were nursing him back to health, but the vet said he probably never had a chance. She said his mother might have abandoned him as the runt of the litter; he was malnourished when we found him and evidently never recovered.

MidnightHe seemed okay last night, but Marsha found him this morning so still she thought he had died. Then we saw he was laboring for breath, and called a local vet, who referred us to a pet emergency clinic, the AMPM Animal Hospital. The vet was sensitive and helpful; said aggressive measures would be costly and unlikely to succeed… and the kitten died as we were holding him and saying our goodbyes.

We rescued the kitten from real misery and gave him a good couple of weeks. We did all that we could for him – food, shelter, love.

I’m thinking our life is just a series of reciprocal rescues like this. We help each other along, give comfort as we can. Some need more than others, some can give more than others. In the end we all meet the same fate, but if we’re lucky someone rescued us, fed us, kept us warm and reasonably content until the end.

(Originally posted on Facebook.)

Pay attention

I ran across A.O. Scott’s video review of Errol Morris’s “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control,” a documentary that weaves together interviews with four men who have an “endless, absorbing facination with what they do.” It’s clear that the four – a lion trainer, a topiary sculptor, a mole rat specialist, and a robot scientist – focus much, probably most of their concentration on their particular endeavor.

As so often happens with me, I was already thinking about attention when I found this particular data point that brought my thinking into focus. I had just been reading an article about Texas Tribune’s recent QRANK Live event, which I sadly missed – sadly because I’m a QRANK addict and was signed up intending to go. QRANK is a game you can play once a day via iPhone, iPad, or Facebook. It’s a quiz where you respond to fifteen out of twenty multiple choice questions that are presented. The questions are categorized (Entertainment, Science and Nature, Literature, History and Place, Life, Business and Government, Sports) but the categories are broad, so they’re all over the map. Successful players are eclectic, have read broadly, have heads full of random inconsistent facts. I’m often surprised at what people know (or know enough to guess correctly). I’m an average player, though a few years ago I would have been much better, but I’ve become more focused lately. I often say that “my head’s too full,” but I expose myself less often to facts I don’t seem to need and more on facts that are relevant to my work in specific areas.

The four guys in the Morris documentary probably would not have done well with QRANK. They’re also very focused on what they do, and that focus makes them very effective. But it also makes it less likely that they’re soaking up trivia.

You may think I’m going to say I think this narrow focus is better, that real genius involves focus and concentration on “just one thing.” But I’m actually concerned that a narrow focus constrains creativity. I find that when I do cast my net more widely, I find connections and synergies that I would miss if I was always narrowly focused. What’s important is balance: be focused on what you do but allow time for exploration.

Related to this is the problem of attention, and I think that’s where we really have an issue. I just spent 3-4 years studying and thinking about social media, which meant that I was also using social media more and more. Much of the activity so categorized is happening on Twitter, which I refer to as “drive by” conversation. Twitter conditions us to share and take small chunks or packets of diverse information. Thought many attempt conversation via Twitter, real conversatons via microblog form are fragmented and constrained. Facebook is similar – in its activity streams longer conversations do break out, and are still more coherent, but they’re still short bursts, all over the map, and we’re in and out of them quickly.

I find value in Twitter and Facebook conversations, and I appreciate the fact that I can sustain so many relationships, ranging from strong to weak connections, in those spaces. I’m a social media advocate and strategist, and I think we’re evolving a rather amazing environment for all sorts of productive communication and organization that were never possible before. I could go on about this at length.

But the point I’m getting to today is that we need balance. We need to work on our sustained attention and have places to go for sustained, coherent conversations. I’m personally working to manage my attention, be disciplined and focused, without losing the value of random online exploration and the power of serendipity.


I’ve been thinking a lot about stewardship as the requisite basis for action in an era of greed and confusion. Stewardship can be defined several ways, but the general sense I get is that it means taking responsibility for something that you don’t “own.” Ownership also needs definition for the sake of clarity, and as a Buddhist I’ve cultivated some depth around the concept of “I” or “self” and the concept of “own.” If the self is an illusion, then ownership is part of that illusion.

But we have to live in the world, and accept consensual hallucinations like the concept of “self.” I can also think of “I” as a bounded awareness, and stewardship as taking responsibility for something beyond that boundary.

The case that came up most recently for me was that of technology stewardship, which I just spent two weeks discussing on the WELL with Nancy White and John D. Smith, authors of Digital Habitats; stewarding technology for communities. We were talking about how people with a community of practice who have relative clue about technology take responsibility for assessing, selecting, and sustaining technology platforms for the community to use, primarily for communication and collaboration. Communities are complex, technology can be complex as well, so there’s much to be discussed in this context. Check out the discussion and the book if you’re interested, but I’m more interested in how the act of stewardship works, especially the attitude behind it.

While stewardship may or may not be through some role that is compensated, it should be inherently unselfish. To effectively take responsibility for something beyond yourself, you have to be prepared to put your “self” aside and think in terms of the best interests relevant to the stewardship role. In technology stewardship for a community, you’re selecting the technology that best serves the interests and capabilities of the community, not necessarily the technologies you would prefer or be most comfortable with.

We also talk about stewardship in the context of The Austin Equation, where I’m involved as a resource on community development, especially online. For that project, a group of volunteers have been defining and mapping scenes local to Austin, with the idea that they will take a stewardship role with the scenes they’ve selected, i.e. help build coherence and effectiveness into a community where the only glue, at the beginning, may be affinity and marginal awareness. How do you step into a community, in a role that the community itself didn’t define or originate, and provide effective stewardship? That’s an issue I keep considering – somehow you have to engage the community and convey the value of your stewardship.

These are some initial thoughts about stewardship; I’d like to have a larger conversation, especially about how to inspire an attitude of stewardship more broadly so that people are generally more focused on helping than “getting.”

Gate, gate, paragate


What we think of as reality is just shadows of shadows, internal reconstructions of sense data fed imperfectly into electrochemical processors within the brain and imperfectly rendered – “imperfectly” depending on your sense of perfection, of course. The point is more that it’s a rendering, and the rendering is no the thing rendered. And all the renderings and things rendered are impermanent – as the Buddhists say, “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” Emptiness is another word for impermanent, and unreal in the vernacular sense of reality. I was thinking about this earlier today, and thinking how computer networks are more of the same – imperfect data imperfectly rendered, but feeling substantial and real despite its (their?) illusory nature. I can’t help you see any of this if you don’t already see it, but it’s rather exploded in my own thinking.