ACTLab 2019: Making Community Real

A talk presented by Jon Lebkowsky and Kevin Welch at ACTLab 2019.

Online communities preceded social media as a way to participate meaningfully online – truly social spaces like the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), supporting sustained interaction over time. This was an important aspect of community: a consistent set of members building history together, hanging out together, and potentially taking action together. This has not been replicated in what we call “social media,” a label produced as marketing professionals grappled with the increasing shift in attention from traditional media to interactive environments on the Internet. Their challenge: how to leverage the new interactive media environments as contexts for marketing and advertising. Money changes everything: when marketing engines were integrated with social spaces, online environments became less like neighborhoods and more like marketplaces – primarily for selling attention in social contexts to corporations. Given that intention, it was better to have “drive by posting,” dynamically shifting objects of attention, maximizing opportunities for exposure to marketing and advertising messages. This kind of context is not friendly to consistent focused interaction, or support for affinity and social history. However it is still possible to leverage the Internet as a platform for community. For instance, the WELL still exists, though it isn’t thriving. Some communities may exist within Facebook groups, and some email lists might still work as loose, somewhat unfocused communities. We want to consider community developments that have worked, and experiment with the creation of a new community, starting here and now, at ACTLab 2019.

On the Radar, 2018

I created the list below for the State of the World 2018 conversation (which is something I do every year with Bruce Sterling).

2017 was a nervous year of overwrought blustery political cultures, a year of normalized psychosis amplified by media distortion, a year in which we all learned to live in the upside-down, losing our hats in the process of flipping.

Wary though I am of year-end top-ten lists, I couldn’t help assembling such a beast as a way to organize my thoughts and generally keep track. These were the blips on my radar…

1. The normalization of deceit in US politics, melting reality into surreality, a postmodern politics constructing “alternative facts” and liquid narrative. Donald Trump is in the lead here (, and Russian propaganda engines have contributed many bits of misinformation and disinformation. Reliable, accountable news sources have been labeled “fake news,” undermining the credibility of accurate news reporting vs false narratives polluting the information ecosystem. Don’t get me started about Fox News (and a shout out to Shepard Smith, still trying to practice real journalism in that difficult context.)

2. Mainstreaming of fringe whack, dismissal of evidence-based research and science, resulting potential for institutional rupture. Alex Jones at Infowars accurately says “there’s a war on for your mind!” Hopefully Jones and his ilk aren’t winning.

3. Climate change kicks into higher gear while we argue whether the scientific consensus is just another shaggy apocalypse story, or whether economic interests have priority over human sustainability. Meanwhile ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising, and extreme weather events probably related to climate change are wreaking havoc. (I say “probably related”: always important to note that weather and climate are different but related things.)

4. The blockchain, still confusing, with use cases unclear, has become more of an established phenomenon, even as Bitcoin seems imperiled by the expansion of an apocalyptic bubble. Related: hard currency is increasingly replaced by plastic cards and electronic transactions (electronic fiat), but not so far by cryptocurrency. Will there be meaningful and sustainable alternatives to fiat money? See the infographic at

5. Platform Cooperativism. Emerging interest in egalitarian worker co-operatives meets platform-based business structure (as in gig economy platform-based powerhouses Uber and Freelancer.) Platform co-ops have multistakeholder governance that is, as with worker co-ops in general, more democratic and inclusive. See – “Platform cooperativism is a growing international movement that builds a fairer future of work. It’s about social justice and the bottom line. Rooted in democratic ownership,co-op members, technologists, unionists, and freelancers create a concrete near-future alternative to the extractive sharing economy.”

6. #MeToo: Sexual misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein triggered an avalanche of similar reports by women and some men, shining a light on a whole, previously hidden, culture of misogyny.

7. Net neutrality interpreted as damage, and routed around by the Trump/Pai FCC, arguing that net neutrality rules are heavy-handed, stifling the Internet. In fact, net neutrality was a support for digital freecom and equality. It’s not clear yeat how this will play out: most likely result is that the Internet will be more expensive. (See

8. UFOs get real, Oumuamua suggests a rendezvous with Rama scenario. As the supposed asteroid Oumuamua shot through the solar system, its odd properties caused speculation that it might be an alien ship or artifact. Meanwhile the government revealed a secret UFO study program and two F-18 gun-camera UFO videos. A boon for the credibility of UFO research, at least, though Scientific American says “The world already knew that plenty of smart folks believe in alien visitors, and that pilots sometimes encounter strange phenomena in the upper atmosphere – phenomena explained by entities other than space aliens, such as a weather balloon, a rocket launch or even a solar eruption.” (

9. Transportation meltdown, probable ascendance of autonomous vehicles and mass transit. The transportation infrastructure in many parts of the world isn’t up to managing the increasing load, and individually-owned vehicles burning fossil fuels, as primary contributors to the climate change problem, seem less sensible (unless you’re a climate change skeptic and/or fossil fuels enthusiast). Some cities are adjusting urban infrastructure away from support for individual vehicle traffic, and all sorts of transportation alternatives are under consideration – even gondolas, which do a great job of moving people up and down mountains. Something’s gotta give… I suspect a combo of increasing use of mass transit, more “transportation on the fly” services like Car2Go, ascendance of autonomous vehicles, and – of course – more bicycles on the thoroughfares.

10. Psychedelics reconsidered for therapy, especially the treatment of depression and PTSD. When I first heard about LSD in the sixties, it was through and account of Cary Grant’s therapeutic use of psychedelics, before hippies took it to the streets. (Grant’s use was recently documented in a Guardian article, LSD and other psychedelics became class 1 drugs (i.e. illegal) via the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. This means that, in the eyes of the government, they have no accepted medical use – so your physician or psychiatrist can’t prescribe LSD for therapy. However there’s a renewed interest in therapeutic use: see Will psychedelics be legal to prescribe in the near future?

Fiction that Bleeds Truth: Lenny Bruce

We were watching the excellent new Amazon series, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which featured Lenny Bruce as a catalyst for Mrs. Maisel’s decision to do standup comedy: “Do you love it?” she asks him, and he shrugs. The first episode in the series shows how the best standup depends on authenticity, and maybe on love. I was reminded of this piece I wrote over two decades ago, republishing here…


Why should the average cyberdawg have any interest in Lenny Bruce?

One of the young turks of cyberpunkdom was finding my interest in Lenny hard to understand: wasn’t he just a junkie who spiked himself to death? Would I have wanted to live next door to this guy, have him shooting up in my bathroom while my kids peered through the crack in the door, wondering why Uncle Lenny wants to give himself a shot in the vein?

Drugs. It’s obvious that cyberpunk fictionoids are packed with references to drugs, and to somatic technologies mimetic of drugs, so the junkie thing might be Lenny’s link to today’s world, but oddly enough I seldom think about drugs when I think of Lenny. It’s not a drug thing, but a fringe thing. When I think of Lenny, and when I think of the sixties, I see grainy b&w Alphaville visions of urban and academic fringes, my first exposure to an alternative culture where, at the time, Lenny Bruce was as fringe as you could get…along with his compadre Paul Krassner of The Realist, who’d been a standup comic himself and was writing a column called “The Naked Emperor.” And there was Thomas Pynchon, who’s since become a course of study unto himself, but at the time was a surreal sponge slopping over with reams of drug-stained prose…and Bob Dylan, Philip Dick, William Burroughs, Maurice Girodias (of Olympia books and Evergreen Review), Charles Bukowski, Tuli Kupferberg, Tim Leary, etc. Tech wasn’t central to this picture. It was an evolving concern, especially in the context of McLuhanesque media study (though nobody’d quite envisioned the PC, since we were still using punch cards to feed data to monolithic flea-brained CPUs). Tech was the subject of a few crazy sf novels and, of course, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (“They put the control inside!”)

What these guys and obvious others had in common was that they were on and of the fringes, living the truth of the street, alienated from the bourgeois world of calculated denial. It would have been easier to deny the immorality of a culture whose subsistence depended on oppression, repression, the exploitation of hidden masses; to go along, buy into denial, live with the war machine hidden in the basement and the hate generators buried beneath tv whitenoise. But denial can be tough for some who’re so sensitive that Truth is like a thorn in the side, a nagging concern that won’t go away.

Lenny was like that, he couldn’t go along, couldn’t buy into the denial of a world that included motherfuckers, cocksuckers, queers, perverts, and hidden demons. The police busted him for obscenity something like three or four times, they hauled him into court where, he said, he had to defend somebody else’s interpretation of his act. Yet he kept performing the same kind of act, in fact evolved a meta-act which included commentary on the court’s interpretation of his various bits. The cops and the court simply didn’t understand, they were ignorant of the street and ignorant of the voices of the street, including Lenny’s, which had transcended the street and threatened to become public record.

Compare this to what Bruce Sterling calls the “hacker crackdown,” where cops raid bbs nodes the contents of which they can’t begin to understand. It’s the same principle, and Lenny did a bit about it, about police mentality. The simple origins of law are in tribal customs that set a social contract to protect everybody, so that we literally don’t dump on each other. As the laws grow more complex and diffuse, we hire enforcers, i.e. cops, and we create courts to ensure balance. At the same time, it’s harder and harder to interpret what constitutes a crime. It’s tough for the cops to know who to bust. If a concerned, apparently upstanding, citizen reports a crime, and the cop doesn’t know enough about the context to determine whether a crime’s actually been committed, he’ll make the bust and leave it to the courts to decide…meanwhile, the bustee is out megabucks for legal defense. Ruined, perhaps, financially and psychically. That’s what happened to Lenny: is it any wonder that he spiked himself? The courts were breathing down his neck, he was broke and dependent on others for his legal defense. Drugs made him feel better, and the ultimate injection took his pain away for good.


Okay, this is the bit. Steve Martin said “comedy is not pretty,” and he was right. Not pretty, and often not funny, at least not anymore. How much standup can you take, vs how much you can actually see if you watch the stuff on all the cable channels, HBO and MTV and Arts & Entertainment, and you go to your local comedy clubs, all of ’em, and you watch some late night stuff, too, Jay Leno plus Arsenio times about three comix per week, that’s six more routines, however many bits per routine…how funny can all these folx be?

But that’s not really the subject of my rant, we’re talking about Lenny. He often gets the credit (blame) for the evolution of the kind confessional comedy that standups perform today, comedy that doesn’t know the restrictions on language and thematic content that Lenny fought.

The best standup routines are a form of storytelling…maybe there’s something of the epic poet in there, if you can imagine Homer standing on a rock doing ‘bits,’ and stringing these routines together so that the form the epic poems we know today, which were refined by retelling and further refined by recording…maybe someday Lenny Bruce’s bits will have evolved through bastardization into a kind of epic poetry, told originally by the master, then retold by one neurotic exhibitionist after another, a web woven from all the standup routines that ever were….(Okay, okay, epic form has dignity and heroism, the antithesis of mud dawg neurosis…it was just a thought…..)


Lenny Bruce was different from today’s average standup in a couple ways: first, he was truly funny, and second, he told the truth. When lamebrain psycholiterates rave about Lenny’s contribution to the free speech movement, they convey the twisted impression that Lenny suffered the slings and errors of the judicial circus so that Eddie Murphy could fuck-you- motherfucker all over the stage. Well, if you believe that, then fuck you, motherfucker! Lenny Bruce wasn’t busted because of his language, and it wasn’t for free speech that he continued to stand and fall, one bust after another. It was for Truth. Lenny made it clear, if you read his stuff, that he really wanted to respect authority, that he didn’t want to fight the establishment or any of that crap. What he wanted to do was tell the Truth, as he saw it. Actually this was more than what he wanted to do, it was what he *had to* do. He saw the world pretty much as it was, the emperor’d left his stuff at the laundromat and, as Lenny once said, we’re all the same schmuck. And in his world there were people who wanted to fuck and would play any kind of twisted game to make it happen, and there were perversions of power on every streetcorner, and there was such amazing denial…big problem in the 50s, denial, not much better now. These were the subjects of his monologues, the realities of everyday life, told in a language he heard every waking street moment, but that respectable society, whatever the fuck that might mean, chose to suppress and ignore.

Think about how weird it would be (is?) to see the “real” world of midclass establishment America totally ignoring the facts of your life! When they busted Lenny, it was like they were trying to tell him that his life, his reality, had no existence. This word, cocksucker, that got him into such trouble, was an Evil Word representing a closet reality. Amazing repression in 1950s America, and as I said, it’s not much better today. Do you think it’s better because these words are no longer taboo? Do you think it’s a better world where Eddie Murphy and Andrew Dice Clay can appear right there on television and talk gutterphile blue streaks?

Naw, man, we’re still in denial. We still lie about the essential barriers that stand between us, pretend they’re not there, avoid community, avoid heart, avoid real love… Lenny Bruce loved the characters he described, you could tell. He loved his audience. Could you say that about Eddie Murphy or any of the ten dozen standups that parade across the teevee screen every week of the year?

We’re still in denial, yes. Maybe not about the mechanics of sex, but about the gestalt of Love.

“My concept? You can’t do anything with anybody’s body to make it dirty to me. Six people, eight people, one person — you can only do one thing to make it dirty: kill it. Hiroshima was dirty. Chessman was dirty.”

“…this lady here is not obscene to me at all. And I damn anyone who will say that my mother’s body or my daughter’s body or my sister’s body is dirty. No.

“You tell me about this god of yours that made this body – but then you qualify it. You tell little children to cover up. You make it dirty. The dirty body. Well, I’m going to tell you something: this is the most decent-looking chick I’ve seen since I’ve been in town.”

Lessig Blog, v2: On the emptiness in the concept of “neutrality”

Lessig Blog, v2: On the emptiness in the concept of “neutrality”

Consider the Lobster: 2000s Archive :

Consider the Lobster: 2000s Archive :

First Democracy

Here’s what I posted:

“Paul, I appreciated this summary of Woodruff’s book, which I hope to read. I’ve often argued that we shouldn’t use the word “democracy” because it is so poorly understood in this era and context, so commonly thought to be a simple majoritarianism. It’s far more complex than that, as you know, and calls for a more complex and nuanced rendering than that one word would allow – unless there’s a body of real learning behind it. By “real” learning, I mean learning that leads to understanding, and includes the kind of critical thinking skills that we’ve been discussing recently. In the U.S. we’re failing as a democracy, and there is no one tyrant, but a tyranny of system and players. It’s a huge problem and I don’t know how to fix it. These kinds of discussions should help.”

Brave new world

Take this with a grain of salt, I heard it on MSNBC just after Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured. There was a gunfight in a neighborhood, and obviously everyone in the neighborhood was tense and attentive. At some point after a volley of shots, the police *posted* (I suppose they had a Twitter account?) that the suspect was in custody. The reporter said that you could hear applause coming from various parts of the neighborhood. (No tweets from Dzokhar, he was bleeding).

This was the most social-mediated manhunt ever.