I have been a bit slow with the latest newsletter because I had wanted to resume my CYBERDECK project with a chapter on Facebook, except the thing is I think I’m done talking about Facebook directly. It’s boring. I haven’t had an account for years now. I think it’s time to move on. I will resume this project, but I'm trying to reconfigure those ideas into something more long-term. Meanwhile...
1957: "...the nearest thing to heaven on wheels... a highway miracle knifing through the natural beauty that is the heart of New England. More and more the full import of this limited-access-superhighway is being realized."
...The turnpike-authority-engineers laid out the highway with a minimum of displacements. Over great portions of its distance the turnpike runs where no road existed before (obviously some families had to be moved). ...Structures not worth saving were demolished, or burned on the spot."
Facebook, like the federal highway system, blasted across our small communities, re-wrote the economy, closed all the coffee shops and diners, brought us serial killers and late-night jake brakes and an over-proliferation of Sbarros. It has relegated the 90s era communal internet to “Route 66” nostalgia (only German tourists on motorcycles now) and made some people, a few really undeserving and horrible people, extremely rich while increasing the convenience of the suburbs at the expense of vibrant communities which are less affluent, less straight, less white. Fuck your planet while I launch my electric go-kart into orbit.
This isn’t a new story, and at this point it just feels inevitable: the unrelenting boot of capitalism and white-supremacy encoded in the fiber of the economics of the internet marches on, irrevocably changing the way we experience and even talk about community, if indeed it ever worked differently at all.
I will always fall on the side of resistance, but truth be told this doesn’t feel repairable: the ecology has been altered. We cannot roll up the asphalt. What we can do is build more wildlife bridges, and tunnels, and cut holes in the fences, and at a minimum, acknowledge that other ways exist.
A memory I love from the just-before-times: Driving around the Netherlands, there are some very odd looking infrastructure along the highway: tall poles with crossbars at the top. My host tells me they are standardized hawk-perches, part of a government effort to make sure the landscape (which, in the Netherlands, is almost entirely synthetic - "reclaimed" from the sea), also supports non-human traffic. There are also wildlife bridges, and escape-chutes; Berms of earth which lead to openings at the top of a one meter fence which drop off into the grass and then the forest. These are designed to make it easy for small non-humans to get off of the highway and difficult for them to get onto it.
There are issues. The Netherlands doesn’t really get what it means to manage the wild. Nobody does, I think. It's a contradiction of terms. I still love that it’s a thing. I’m from the US, whose individualist fuck-you-I-have-mine culture is on high display this decade to the detriment of everyone and everything still living . To be completely honest, on most days I’m pretty sure I’m one of the last generations of this species that gets to exist, so It’s nice to see something (anything!) representing a group effort to acknowledge a different rhythm, to even notice that the environment is shared.
I suppose I aspire most of all to be wildlife on the Dutch version of the Internet, and I want humans to build more escape-chutes and bridges out of earth and grass. The highway isn’t going anywhere, but maybe we can reclaim a buffer.
Another memory: Circa 2002, traveling across Brazil in a hire car between teaching gigs with my partner Anindita shortly after we'd met. Somewhere between Campinas and São Paulo, where there is almost nothing visible from the road, a town appears. Not an official town, but clearly a town. This effort exists in the shadow of a billboard, and there are dozens of electrical cords spliced into the mains intended to illuminate a sales pitch for a washing machine.
The billboard liberation front is a thing, part of an Adbusters /Yes Men/Shepard Fairey style "protest" movement that early-200s me is in some conflict with. Everyone wants my artwork to be part of their thing - they want my installations and art and tech projects to be Maker(TM) projects, and they want my performance work to be Culturejamming(TM). This protest style is funny but I find it insufficiently weird, it doesn't really sit right with me. Keying someone's Lamborghini on the way to your parent's BMW is a form of protest I guess, but so is constructing an actual future out of discarded shipping containers in the exhaust of Clearchannel. When I get home, I put my Adbusters corporate flag up for sale on eBay. I make a small profit.
I do wonder sometimes about the person who lives in the apartment I saw from the window of a bus, just outside New York City, bathed in the light of a digital billboard, washed with pulses of color changing every three seconds. Freitag wallpaper, RGB gamer style. It reminds me now of the promotional photos of Elon Musk's stupid private-car tunnel project, garish LED wash badly attempting to distract from the obvious imperfections. A sideshow, a shadow. What do you dream about in that room when you sleep? A new Ford Focus or the unrelenting buzz of a transformer?
I think of this billboard I drove past outside of Athens in 2014:
"Tree experts frowned on moving the wood, because in such wastelands and undeveloped areas, the trees had not been cared for and were disease-ridden. So they were burned. But still, unauthorized scavengers in the woods and in the construction areas gave contractors grey hairs and hiked their insurance rates. ...from the air, this initial work appeared as a spectacular scar, from one end of the state to the other." - 1957, Building the Massachusetts Turnpike
All I want to do today is sleep like I once could.
If you could give me that?
That'd be good.
Two essays this week that I found helpful:
1. I Miss It All
I like being healthy, and for some years I identified as a runner, but I am in no way a “sports person.” Everything about the details of this essay: getting up early, running across a state, wanting to run across a state, is foreign and strange, but the core longing for living in world less unrelentingly instrumentalized? That feels just about right. Also: My friends, I miss you terribly:
And yet, there are people who love me. Do you know how hard that was to write? So fucking hard. I deleted it the first time I wrote it because I was scared of saying it, as if those people themselves would walk through the walls of this room where I’m sitting and say no, we don’t and then disappear. I deleted it the second time, too. And the third. But there are people who love me. People willing to walk slow with me as I amble with a cane. People willing to try to run with me across a state. People willing to wait when I am late. People who send me things to read. People who read the things I write. People whose time I’ve wasted. People who ask me how I am, even still, even still. People, though, not products or machines. And there are so many people I love.
2. The Day the Good Internet Died
...“If you think the internet is terrible now,” he wrote on The Awl, in the tone of an ER nurse who has truly seen it all, “just wait a while. The moment you were just in was as good as it got. The stuff you shake your head about now will seem like fucking Shakespeare in 2016.”
Dave Winer, one of the early creators of RSS, has also pushed back on the idea that the end of Google Reader doomed the Good Internet. In early 2020, responding to a piece on the subject in The New Republic, he tweeted that if there really were a Good Internet—and if it were indeed dead—then it would logically follow that “the billion people using Facebook are possessed by demons and nothing is happening there beyond pure evil.” On the one hand: he admit it! On the other hand, it helps to view the idea of the Good Internet less as a literal value judgment and more like a moniker for, say, an architectural style...
...At some point over the years, Google Reader will start asking me whether I want to sort by magic. I do, and I will click yes. Years later, I’ll still chase that magic, even as I wonder whether it ever existed at all.
Here I am still sorting by magic, still here in our Endless Plague Year.
Short Notes from VR:
- Helios, a "Creator Centric" VR world based on the Unreal engine (UE4), rather than Unity, is now in early release on Steam. I'm in as an alpha tester and have spent a grand total of 20 minutes with it :D But it's promising. I'm thrilled to see something besides Unity (check out the lighting from the projector), and so far Helios seems serious about the creator-centric thing.
- Related to my last post which included a documentary about VR dance clubs and their problematic but interesting notions of accessibility (a friend recently pointed out that none of this generation mentions or seems aware of PLUR). Subcultures always feel welcoming to those that vibe with them while also appearing spike-y and off-putting to those that don't. There' s no real mystery there, but it gets complicated when it's tied up in economics. This week I noticed several VRC Clubs advertising that they would police and ban "poor" performance avatars. Superficially I guess this is intended to improve everyone's experience, but by definition this means "those customized avatars not optimized for Facebook hardware." I am still unpacking this, but it feels like being asked to show your Coachella ticket stub to get into the punk club. Or that Paris Hilton meme. Or maybe it's just the goth club open-to-all that won't let you in because your pants aren't black enough.
- Escape Rooms! Eventually I'll write more about this, but there are some really great VR Escape Rooms. I feel like the material really fits the VR medium well, and Escape Rooms can ride the line between theatre and performance nicely. I recommend The Room: A Dark Matter (standalone) and the free self-guided DIY Pop Escape in VRC, which is great with friends (but long! Reserve several hours). There are also guided escape room experiences with performance elements. I haven't tried one of these yet but I'm curious how it feels with an actor.
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