Friday, August 9, 2013

Marijuana, Aliens, and Alzheimer’s

From Contention to Ubiquity

Charlie Behrens –  short film –  Algorithmic Architecture

Start with Marijuana, and that’s Marijuana the idea, not marijuana the substance. It’s been illegal in the United States for a long time. It made its popular culture breakthrough in the 1960’s and was immediately followed by the Reefer Madness campaign, which caused just about every self-respecting parent to steer their kids away from it until about 1990. By this time, a generation passes, and with it the Reefer Madness. Note also that by this time the anti-marijuana campaign has been absorbed by the larger, all-purpose, Anti-Drug campaign where it is grouped together with more dangerous drugs such as cocaine and heroin. In these hospitable conditions, the Legalize It front comes on strong. Yet, it takes more than twenty years for marijuana to begin its descent from criminal-maker to decriminalized.

As we look around, in this year 2013, we see that although the Legalize It force seems to grow stronger, its entire context has shifted. Not only has the timespan of a generation wiped out the memory of Reefer Madness, but in other ways, practically unpredictable in the 1990’s, a resonating reconfiguration of the cultural matrix makes Legalize It almost obsolete.

The first of these coincidences relates to the Back-to-Nature movement (the one responsible for beards, backyard chickens and a resurgence in taxidermy). Part New Age, part WebMD and part Healthcare Reform, people are ready, willing, and able to use natural drugs to cure their ailments. It is readily apparent that the Legalize It dialog has changed drastically, yet somehow imperceptibly according to a general publicpoint-of-view. The dialog is no longer legal-illegal, but recreational-medicinal. The resolution, the conclusion of the Marijuana Dialog Proper is foregone, and in its place a less contentious polarization. Contentious enough, however, to maintain public interest, and related enough to still be identified as part of the Marijuana Dialog.

The outcome of the dialog will take one of two positions: 1. It will become legal for medical use, which isn’t exactly “legal” by definition of the dialog proper, or 2. It will become fully legal, although it will not be called such, because in order to denote legal status within the new context, it must be disambiguated, or referred to instead as ‘legal for recreational use’.

This is not, though it may seem, a semantics game, but an investigation of ideas, and one can’t think about ideas unless they have names, i.e. semantic identities. Over time, however, it seems that either ideas disown their identification, or they never existed in the first place. There are more subtle adjustments in the way an idea, or a debate play out over time. These could be called exogenous because they come from a space close-to but outside-of the dialog proper. They have an effect nonetheless on how we engage in the debate, and it is because of their exogenous quality that we often neglect their impact.

Google Earth Glitch Art, via Vice

Enter, separately, Prescription Drugs and Synthetic Drugs. Today, doctors are being investigated for writing painkiller prescriptions illegally – behaving as drug dealers essentially. All this in light of a statewide drug investigation in New Jersey, due to a marked increase in drug use – prescription drugs, that is, especially the ones analogous to heroin, since that makes it part of the larger drug culture as it is understood. Compared to this portent of pharmaceutical remedies and abuses (what could be considered part of the separate Big Pharma Dialog), marijuana seems benign.

Synthetic THC was sort-of legal for about one year, and not because law enforcement was unaware of it, but because the substance didn't fit under the law – it’s not THC, but the law says “THC”, not “THC-like”, not even one that is so -like that it has only one molecule out of place. Yet, this substance, which was legal by default was sending kids to the hospital, or at least into temporary psychosis, something real, regular THC is not likely to do. If our law can’t keep up with the synthetic drugs, and they are much more damaging than their natural illegal counterparts, why not just make it legal. At this point, another thread of the dialog proper has been frayed and twisted away.

Debates such as this are never fully resolved; they are instead absorbed into the larger cultural matrix, rendered asunder, and redistributed until they can barely be recognized. I do not mean to discount human agency, but to change the way in which we engage with the Dialog, and more importantly, with how we think about the Dialog. At least we must question whether or not we are wasting time and energy articulating dialogs which no longer exist with us.

Google Earth Glitch Art Gallery

Moving on, to higher ground: Aliens
The Aliens Dialog seems fairly simple – do they exist, or do they not. The very concept as we know it today comes from (believe it or not) turn-of-the-century science fiction, which by the 1930’s evolved into the little green men of Welles’ Wells’ War of the Worlds. Ever since, Aliens have been a convenient answer to many of the world’s unsolved mysteries, as well as a source of highly imaginative fantasy. Anyone with an active imagination speculates on the day when we have some in-your-face evidence on the existence of aliens. But, as it turns out, our imagination is apparently no match for the possible expressions of the Aliens Dialog that science has been throwing our way.

What is this; life has been found in a lake, timecapsuled under four miles of ice, experiencing pressures and temperatures that are more Europa-like than Earth. What say you now, Aliens? And this; molecules capable of creating life-building amino acids can themselves be created in a comet in outer-space-like conditions. Or this; exoplanets by the week. Or this; by reverse engineering the rate of acceleration of genetic complexification, the zero-point of origin comes out at 9 billion years, five more than Earth’s existence. And let’s not forget synthetic life. And finally, in developing biosignatures for use in space exploration, some things are forcing us to seriously rethink what life is: Apparently, all that is needed to be called “life” is a particular frequency distribution of essential amino acids. Unless, of course, you would rather import the topics of artificial intelligence and algorithmic automation into the debate, in which case you would be forced to consider their processes of competition, cooperation and evolution that seem to emulate what we might call life.

At this point, the Aliens Dialog has become so faceted and nuanced that by the time we can answer the yes-no question, it won’t even exist with us. All of the above examples are exogenous in that they have come not from within the Aliens Dialog, but from completely unsolicited, relatively unrelated dialogs of their own. The search for exoplanets isn’t looking for aliens, per se, but only Earth-like places in our galaxy. Biosignatures are not to help us discover aliens, but only to expand our definition of what life is, so that we can refine our technical recourse. None of these things help or hinder the resolution of the Aliens debate. What they certainly do, is to distort, to obfuscate the dialog until it settles into a cold, moot state in the memories of a generation that once cared about its outcome. There is no outcome.

Google Earth Glitch Art Gallery

Finally, closer to home: The Body Dialog
It’s really not a dialog as of yet, except for hardcore cyberpunk enthusiasts, blue sky research groups, and anyone working with neural interface systems. But it’s coming, inevitably, and here we will, despite its mind-bogglingly ostentatious preposterousness, attempt to predict its eventual disappearance into ubiquity.

The Body dialog, being that it isn’t fully formed yet, goes something like this: Your body determines who you are to the extent that it has a physical existence which can be located and analyzed objectively, that is to say, consensually. But you are more than just your body; this “more” is your mind. The Mind is non-physical, which makes it harder for people to agree on what it is, where it is, etc. Because we can’t objectively observe, via the hard sciences, the nature of the Mind, any theory of self which incorporates the mind becomes non-falsifiable. This disrupts the intuitive notion that self should be determined by the body at all. Hence, the Body Dialog: Can we continue to exist as individuals without a body to serve as locus for the self?

Advances in neural interfaces, in all manner of prostheses, in any cognitive studies, in machine learning, and in neuroscience in general; are amassing into this meme-set we call here the Body Dialog (conditioned by the more public discourse on virtual identity and digital existence).

To what extent is our self determined by our body, and to what extent can we remove our selves form our bodies while still remaining ourself? It sounds preposterous, as it tends to be at first. Then comes the contentious phase. We are slowly entering that now, in 2013, and will be in full swing within the decade’s end. By 2050, the Body Dialog will no longer exist, and yet some chimerical form of it will keep the illusion continuous for some time after.

We can see its bifurcation from the dialog proper, because it’s already among us: Alzheimer’s is sad, there is no doubt. It dismantles your brain, module by module, if you will, until it becomes questionable as to whether you are still you. The wave of psychological disorders which is slated for the coming generation of aging Americans announces the beginning of a shift in the entire context of the Body Dialog. As a generation interacts with the mental deterioration of their elderly, the concept of self, in relation to the body, becomes so fuzzy that the envelope we use to separate life from death becomes less rigid, and as the means to manipulate it become more accessible, so grows our willingness to use it.

-A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
-Max Plank, Scientific Autobiography, p151

Google Earth Glitch Art Gallery

Ideas change over time, making it difficult to maintain meaningful dialog about popular issues. This disguised metamorphosis, an ontological distortion, seems to happen to the idea itself, but it is better understood as a massive reconfiguration of the entire idea-space.

-The paradigm shift does not change the world …it changes the scientist. (Thomas Kuhn, 1962, p121)

In some instances it becomes readily apparent that it is not the idea itself that remains constant. The idea only exists as a product of the network in which it is embedded. Its entire identification is an illusion, required by consciousness: for how could we debate and discuss, support and deny, prove and disprove an idea throughout time if we didn’t give it a sturdy, solid form?

-Just because it did not involve the introduction of additional objects or concepts, the transition from Newtonian to Einsteinian mechanics illustrates with particular clarity, the scientific revolution as a displacement of the conceptual network through which scientists view the world. (p102)

Newsworthy topics of our time can serve as an example. When we talk about a popular subject, such as marijuana use, we address it as a dialog. In the beginning, when the dialog is “hot”, it polarizes, or in a more imaginative way, it superimposes on two possible expressions. But as the dialog cools down, it bifurcates, seeking out slightly less contentious alternatives for expression.

-Problems are anticipated well in advance, so they come as less of a surprise, until they start to come from everywhere; then you have a crisis, and then paradigm shift, and it doesn’t happen until it has to. (~p75)

The Dialog, clear and guttural at first, becomes nothing but a thousand whispers. At this point, though the Dialog is still unresolved in the explicit sense, its superpositions have all collapsed unnoticeably into benign ubiquity; homeostasis.

Google Earth Glitch Art Gallery

But there is more to the story than thermal equilibrium analogies. Enter the illusion of memetic transmutation. In these so-called Dialogs, two opposing memetic configurations use the same meme-sets but articulate them differently, thus altering their meaning. Both sides of the Marijuana Dialog Proper, for example, use the same memotypes of the mental world, of self-control (or lack thereof), of exploration (and its dangers) but they impart different ~emotional values to each, in a collaboration that makes both sides distinct.

-Since new paradigms are born from old ones, they ordinarily incorporate much of the vocabulary and apparatus…. …Within the new paradigm, old terms, concepts, and experiments fall into new relationships one with the other.” (p149)

Over time, it is not the dialog that changes, per se, it is the opposing configurations that create its distinct expressions, for they become mixed and mangled so thoroughly with outside memes, side conversations and surprises, that even the means by which we might address them will have vanished.

-Although the strategies and techniques may remain the same, it is the world itself which has changed. (p111)

The opposing sides of the dialog are reconfigured to be accessible to the largest number of belief constructs available. Different configurations will be more easily accepted by different people, who all use different belief constructs to filter, organize and engage with the dialog.

It is in these kinds of value modifiers within the different configurations, or narrative cues as we might call them, where the interest lies. The two opposing views on marijuana use may be using the same meme-sets to an extent. But each view has a subset of modifiers whose job it is not to inform content, but to adjust emotional response.

In time, as the Dialog cools down, these seemingly unimportant value modifiers are exposed and become quasi expressions of the Dialog Proper, a distraction, an obfuscation. When enough value modifiers are exploited, the Dialog Proper ceases to exist with us.

-There is never any single argument that can or should persuade them all. Rather than a single group conversion, what occurs is an increasing shift in the distribution of professional allegiances. (p158)

Yet , we may continue to engage in the Dialog, not fully realizing its absorption into the cultural vortex; that which feeds on our contentious debates today, and tomorrow spits out predictive discoveries, benign policy stipulations, and pop-music lyrics.

Google Earth Glitch Art Gallery

In 1962, Thomas Kuhn wrote Structures of Scientific Revolution, wherein he surveyed the paradigm shifts that occur in the scientific discipline: A complex process, no doubt. Though Kuhn’s Structures deals specifically with Science, there are to be found in his work prescient thoughts as they relate to the coding, transmission and distortion of ideas by the general public. The same expressions, explanations, descriptions and observations presented by Kuhn in the arena of Science, remain useful still in the greater mess of the public psyche.

-Thomas S. Kuhn. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 1962.
second edition 1970, International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, volume 2, number2

Google Earth Glitch Art Gallery

Our Blue Marble 3-2013

Google Earth Glitch Art Gallery
Semantics Lugubrious
Cultivorous exploitation of low-density, value modifying narrative agents in the “distortion” of meme-set reconfiguration [via the cultural vortex]

Google Earth Glitch Art, via Vice

Charlie Behrens –  short film –  Algorithmic Architecture

Deep sea 'mushroom' may be new branch of life - BBC News - Sep 2014

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