Bruce Schneier: Liars and Outliers

Bruce Schneier
Bruce Schneier

Check out our conversation on the WELL with security expert Bruce Schneier, who among other things is responsible for the Crypto-gram Newsletter. In this conversation, he’s discussing his book Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive. Because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the value and erosion of trust, this book and the conversation on the WELL are especially resonant with my own focus and thinking.

In the book, I wander through a dizzying array of academic disciplines: experimental psychology, evolutionary psychology, sociology, economics, behavioral economics, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, game theory, systems dynamics, anthropology, archeology, history, political science, law, philosophy, theology, cognitive science, and computer security. It sometimes felt as if I were blundering through a university, kicking down doors and demanding answers. “You anthropologists: what can you tell me about early human transgressions and punishments?” “Okay neuroscientists, what’s the brain chemistry of cooperation? And you evolutionary psychologists, how can you explain that?” “Hey philosophers, what have you got?” I downloaded thousands — literally ­­ of academic papers. In pre-Internet days I would have had to move into an academic library.

What’s really interesting to me is what this all means for the future. We’ve never been able to eliminate defections. No matter how much societal pressure we bring to bear, we can’t bring the murder rate in society to zero. We’ll never see the end of bad corporate behavior, or embezzlement, or rude people who make cell phone calls in movie theaters. That’s fine, but it starts getting interesting when technology makes each individual defection more dangerous. That is, fishermen will survive even if a few of them defect and overfish — until defectors can deploy driftnets and single-handedly collapse the fishing stock. The occasional terrorist with a machine gun isn’t a problem for society in the overall scheme of things; but a terrorist with a nuclear weapon could be.

Doc Searls discussion: The Intention Economy

Doc Searls

I’m leading a discussion on the WELL with Doc Searls about his new book, The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge, which explores new thinking about the power relationship between customers/consumers and vendors. Doc has been rethinking those relationships through Project VRM (via his fellowship at the Berkman Center at Harvard), which has recently led to the creation of a “customer commons.”

It’s an old saw to say that listening to customers is a way to improve and gain new market advantages. But the difference with VRM will be adapting to standards and practices set on the customers’ side — ones that work the same for all companies. There will be less and less leverage in communicating only within a company’s on communication silo. IMHO, “social” services like Twitter and Facebook are not going to provide those standard ways, because they too are privately owned silos.

Scale will only happen when everybody uses the same stuff in the same way. The Internet and its core protocols scaled because they were essentially NEA: Nobody owned them, Everybody Used them and Anybody could improve them. (Yes, some were owned in a legal sense, but in a practical sense they were ownerless. This is why, for example, Ethernet beat Token Ring. Intel, Xerox and Digital essentially released Ethernet into the public domain while IBM wanted to keep Token Ring fully private and charge or it. This bitter lesson had leverage later when IBM embraced Linux.) Email as we know it won because it scaled in exactly that way.

Transformation of (or by) comic culture

Prince Robotiv

Mainstream superheroes with decades of history (Superman, Batman, SpiderMan, the various Avengers) are flying off comic book pages onto the big screen, in an increasing number of blockbuster comic-films enabled by advances in CGI. Interesting to consider how the concept of the superhero has seeped more deeply into our culture as a result of this and other manifestations of comic book culture – to the extent that we probably wouldn’t be surprised to see all manner of people wearing capes, bending steel, leaping tall buildings in a single bound. The line between fantasy and reality is blurry as hell these days.

As comic culture evolves, so does the entrepreneurial culture of superhero development. The New York Times has a piece about the a creative renaissance at Image Comics, a smaller comic publisher with 5% of market share vs Marvel’s 37%. Image is getting a lot of buzz, though, and has one major success, “The Walking Dead,” basis for AMC’s zombie series (no superheroes there, only frail humans vs ravenous zombies).

Also noting how big a deal Comic-Con’s become, no longer a comic book convention but an increasingly important convergence event. A swirl of comic geek and sci-fi geek subcultures mediated by new technologies is emerging. I’m not quite sure how to reconcile this accelerating fantasy culture with the very real dysfunctions and failures of puny humans – will a commitment to a culture of comic book heroes save us by inspiring a real sense of superhumanity? Or distract us from our state of collapse until it’s too late to go home?

“…the heroic myth helps counter feelings of powerlessness within the family structure. Which is why little boys can’t get enough of superheroes. It lets them imagine themselves as instruments of their own will — instead of subjugated weaklings, in tiny bodies, who lack all agency.” ~ “Meeting Our Cultural Overlords at Comic-Con”

Higgs Culture

Whether it was the Higgs Boson, or just a reference to the actual particle, the CERN discovery is already generating cultural waves and memes.

Whether it was the Higgs Boson, or just a reference to the actual particle, the CERN discovery is already generating cultural waves and memes.

“Shame” and transformation

Michael Fassbender

Just saw the grim but enlightening film “Shame,” wherein Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a bland, disarmingly handsome thirtysomething obsessed with pornography and vicarious sex. The film lit up a few insights inspired by Buddhist and 4th Way practices; I saw Brandon’s sex addiction as an extreme form of attachment in the Buddhist sense, or what 4th Way practitioners might call identification…sex addiction in the 21st century, well fed by prolific sources of pornographic media, being an extreme form. Brandon’s stuck inside his obsession, attached to completely subjective and interior experience. The sex act, for him, is always a form of masturbation, even when he’s with someone else. He’s managed to hide it and remain “shameless”; the film shows a transformation as his obsession is revealed to and challenged by external forces. Most powerful of these is the arrival of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who invades the privacy that is fundamental to the persistence of his cycle of craving and release. She challenges him to connect with a reality outside his own. She’s damaged, and she desparately needs him as a constant in her life. She needs his compassion to feel complete, but compassion is foreign to him. He explicitly denies any responsibility for her.

He has no sense of humor.

Drawn to a relationship with coworker Marianne (Nicole Beharie) that could be more intimate, not just masturbatory, he can’t take this potentially more authentic connection to any meaningful level – he snorts a line of coke and attempts sex, but for once, he can’t get it up. He rejects her and she leaves, but he quickly finds another girl and finds that he can “perform” in a context where there is no emotional connection or demand.

He makes this connection with Marianne after Sissy walks in while he’s masturbating, and triggering what might be his first instance of shame and a dawning sense of awareness. He plows through his flat digging out all his pornography and sex paraphernalia, and trashing it. Interesting that this is followed by a failed attempt to be real. This is followed by more rejection, self-destructive behavior, a desperate cry for help from Sissy, more wanton sex, and Sissy’s attempted suicide. As I said earlier, this is grim stuff.

Sissy’s suicide attempt shocks him in to reality – as John Shirley writes, in a piece about the Gurdjieff work, “it is only shocks that can lead a man out of the state in which he lives, that is, waken him.”

At the beginning of the film, there was a scene where he sees a beautiful girl on the subway, flirts with her, attempting seduction. We see that she’s wearing an wedding ring and an engagement ring. She flirts back, but quickly disappears, he’s unable to find her. At the end of the film, the last scene, he sees the same girl. Her makeup is less soft, and she’s not wearing her wedding ring. She flirts with him more overtly, but he doesn’t respond. The film ends here, and it seemed clear to me that we were seeing a person transformed, that he was choosing not to pursue his former obsession. Maybe we’ve seen at least a partial awakening?

Mark Dery dances the apocalypso

Mark Dery

I’m leading a two-week asynchronous discussion with erudite author and culture critic Mark Dery, whose provocative essay collection I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts has been turning my head on its axle. At the moment, we’re discussing apocalypse:

I *do* think we live in times of chaos and complexity, when society is “far from equilibrium,” as
scientists who study dynamical systems like to say. Steven Pinker’s claim, in _The Better Angels of Our Nature_, that violence is on the decline notwithstanding, most peoples’ experience of the wider world—which is to say, as a funhouse-mirror reflection in the media—seems to be as a growingly out-of-control place. Ideological extremism and lockstep partisanship are monkeywrenching the American political system—an article by Ezra Klein in the March 19 _New Yorker_ notes that ideological “rigidity has made American democracy much more difficult to manage”; the culture wars are reaching a boiling point, ginned up by backroom dealmakers like the Koch brothers, whose real agenda is simply to create the most deregulated, tax-free landscape in which to Do the Lord’s Work; and Angry White Guys are stockpiling guns and training their crosshairs on scapegoats, post-traumatically stressed by a black man in the Oval Office, the demographic rise of the nonwhite population, the sea change in households where women earn more than men, and the econopocalypse.

But if you’re shopping for apocalypses, the rough beast right around the bend is Envirogeddon. Come of the middle of the 21st century, we—at least, those of us who can’t afford a climate-controlled biosphere lush with hydroponic greenery and an artesian well guarded by a private army—are going to be living in one of Ballard’s disaster novels. Global Weirding, as climate scientists call it, is *the* pressing issue of the near future, and I have every confidence my friends on the right will bury their heads in the sand, on that issue, until the sand superheats and turns to glass.

If you’re not a member of the WELL but want to submit a comment or question, just scroll to the bottom of the page and look for: Nonmember: Submit a comment or question. That links to a form that, when submitted, will send your comment or question to someone at the WELL who can add it to this discussion.

The Abolition of War, suggested by Krzysztof Wodiczko

War Vehicle

We recently watched all episodes of HBO’s intense, realistic miniseries about the brutal and devastating war in The Pacific; it was a jaw-dropping experience – watching human beings blow each other apart, a real nightmare of violence. I was realizing how transformative that experience would be – you can’t go home again after that kind of experience.

Artist Krzysztof Wodiczko has an exhibit in London currently that is dedicated to war veterans who “might have a roof over their head but it doesn’t feel like home anymore. They are traumatized to various degrees and feel like they’ve become strangers to the place where they used to live. They don’t function like they used to. They have been conditioned to be constantly on alert, to react on the spot to any unexpected light, move, noise, etc. It is difficult for them to turn off that aggressive instinct once they are back to civilian life.” This resonates with the thoughts I was having as I watched the miniseries. We should wonder about the role of post-traumatic stress disorder in shaping postwar culture.

Shown above: “His War Veteran Vehicle is a ex-military vehicle complete with missile launcher converted into a mobile video projector with loudspeakers. Words, coming from interviews with homeless veterans were magnified and projected from the vehicle in buildings and monuments in Liverpool two years ago (a year before, a military Humvee had screened the words of American veterans on the facade of a homeless shelter and of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts during the Democratic National Convention.)”

Roger Ebert: “a first-rate second-rate memoirist”

Maureen Dowd writes about Roger Ebert’s memoir, and about the disfiguring surgical failures that have rendered him unable to speak, eat, or drink – the lower half of his face is pretty much gone. Despite this, Ebert is “effervescent” but overly detailed in accounts of his early life. However he has great stories to tell, and he nails the movie industry:

“Hollywood dialogue was once witty, intelligent, ironic, poetic, musical,” he says. “Today it is flat.” He mourns that “it sometimes seems as if the movies are more mediocre than ever, more craven and cowardly, more skillfully manufactured to pander to the lowest tastes instead of educating them.”


The Tree of Life

Brain Shaped Tree, image by Bill Booth

The Tree of Life may be the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (or not); in his film called “The Tree of Life,” Terence Malick plays with the universals – grace and nature parallel good and evil. Nature is will, ego; grace is nurturing. The film’s narrative plays out in Waco, Texas and in the vast cosmos, infinite space and time, surrounding it; it places one very human story in a vast transhuman context.  In one primeval scene, one dinosaur, a predator, chooses not to kill and consume another… this establishes grace as something that precedes the human; I think the point is that nature and grace always coexisted, and always will, and grace seeps into nature. “Good” and “evil” are complex and intertwingled.

I thought the film was magnificent; in it I saw scenes familiar from my own life growing up in a Texas town in the 50s and 60s, though I wasn’t in that family, and I was far more innocent. And Malick’s family has no television set in the living room… imagine what a difference that would make.

The vision of the “tree of life” represents a sense that all life on earth is related… and there’s a tree of life web project that shows that connectedness. The planet is teeming with life, but all species are endangered by the actions and operations of one – is this nature acting without grace? Last night Oliver Markley spoke to the Central Texas World Future Society on the subject of risk and resilience – is civilization at a tipping point toward collapse?

Some issues seem to exceed even the management skills of the more advanced countries, however. When countries first detected falling underground water tables, it was logical to expect that governments in affected countries would quickly raise water use efficiency and stabilize population in order to stabilize aquifers. Unfortunately, not one country—industrial or developing—has done so. Two failing states where overpumping water and security-threatening water shortages loom large are Pakistan and Yemen.

Although the need to cut carbon emissions has been evident for some time, not one country has succeeded in becoming carbon-neutral. Thus far this has proved too difficult politically for even the most technologically advanced societies. Could rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere prove to be as unmanageable for our early twenty-first century civilization as rising salt levels in the soil were for the Sumerians in 4000 BC?

Another potentially severe stress on governments is the coming decline in oil production. Although world oil production has exceeded new oil discoveries by a wide margin for more than 20 years, only Sweden and Iceland actually have anything that remotely resembles a plan to effectively cope with a shrinking supply of oil.

This is not an exhaustive inventory of unresolved problems, but it does give a sense of how their number is growing as we fail to solve existing problems even as new ones are being added to the list. Analytically, the challenge is to assess the effects of mounting stresses on the global system. These stresses are perhaps most evident in their effect on food security, which was the weak point of many earlier civilizations that collapsed.

I think it’s time to pay attention.

Photo by Bill Booth, licensed via Creative Commons

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…

The Social Network

The David Fincher/Aaron Sorkin film collaboration called “The Social Network” is not about technology, though there are scenes that suggest how code is produced through focused work (which actually looks boring when you’re watching it “IRL” (in real life), without Fincher’s hyperactive perspective – but is so engaging you can lose yourself totally in the process when you’re the one actually producing the code).  The film is more about the entrepreneurial spirit, what it takes to have a vision and see it through. The real visionary in the film, Mark Zuckerberg, appears far less intense IRL than Jesse Eisenberg’s interpretation would suggest, but his drive and work ethic are undeniable. It’s not an accident that a guy in his twenties produced a billion-dollar platform; he could have been derailed if he’d lacked the persistence of vision and intent that the film shows so clearly. And, of course, he was kind of a jerk, probably without meaning to be. That kind of focus and drive tends to override comfortable social graces, kind of ironic when you’re building a social platform.

Larry Lessig complains that Sorkin’s ignorance of Internet technology caused him to miss the real story here, that Facebook exists because the Internet is free and open and presents few barriers to innovation. But I don’t think Sorkin wanted to write that story – he found drama in the Zuckerberg vs world conflict and wrote the story he had to write, acknowledging that he made no attempt to be true-to-fact.  He does pick up on the IP issue, and the fact that Zuckerberg shouldn’t have been forced to pay the Winkelvoss twins (there’s a line in the film where Zuckerberg says a guy who builds a better chair shouldn’t have to share his profits with anybody else who’s thought about building a chair before he got to it). In the film, he’s clearly having to pay because his grating personality and arrogance make him unattractive, not on the merit of the facts of the case. Eduardo Saverin seems in the film to have been screwed over, though one could argue that dilution of his shares was justifiable owing to a lack of commitment to the enterprise. More here.

After seeing the film, and reading and thinking some more about the creation and evolution of Facebook, I find that I have more respect for Zuckerberg’s genius and his drive… but like many I’m concerned about his apparent lack of social and ethical depth, especially since Facebook is how so many people today experience the Internet. Working on a talk about the future of the Internet, I’m finding that one plausible scenario is that Facebook replaces the web as a kind of operating system/interface. What are the implications?