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“May all beings have happy minds”*…

But then it’s important to be careful as to how we look for that happiness…

– Games where players either remove pieces from a pile or add pieces to it, with the loser being the one who causes the heap to shake (similar to the modern game pick-up sticks)

– Games of throwing dice

– Ball games

– Guessing a friend’s thoughts

Just a few of the entries in “List of games that Buddha would not play,” from the T. W. Rhys Davids‘ translation of the Brahmajāla Sutta (though the list is duplicated in a number of other early Buddhist texts, including the Vinaya Pitaka).

(TotH to Scott Alexander; image above: source)

* the Buddha

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As we endeavor for enlightenment, we might recall that it was on this date in 2001 that Wikipedia was born. A free online encyclopedia that is collaboratively edited by volunteers, it has grown to be the world’s largest reference website, attracting 1.7 billion unique-device visitors monthly as of November 2021. As of January 9, 2022, it has more than fifty-eight million articles in more than 300 languages, including 6,436,030 articles in English (serving 42,848,899 active users of English Wikipedia), with 118,074 active contributors in the past month.

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“Speed is carrying us along, but we have yet to master it”*…

Kitchen #26 (2021) by Samuel Richardson

A call to contemplate the potential negative effects of internet technology along with its promise…

Conversations about technology tend to be dominated by an optimistic faith in technological progress, and headlines about new technologies tend to be peppered with deterministic language assuring readers of all the wonderful things these nascent technologies “will” do once they arrive. There is endless encouragement to think about all of the exciting benefits to be enjoyed if everything goes right, but significantly less attention is usually paid to the ways things might go spectacularly wrong.

In the estimation of philosopher Paul Virilio, the refusal to seriously contemplate the chance of failure can have calamitous effects. As he evocatively put it in 1997’s Open Sky, “Unless we are deliberately forgetting the invention of the shipwreck in the invention of the ship or the rail accident in the advent of the train, we need to examine the hidden face of new technologies, before that face reveals itself in spite of us.” Virilio’s formulation is a reminder that along with new technologies come new types of dangerous technological failures. It may seem obvious today that there had never been a car crash before the car was invented, but what future wrecks are being overlooked today amidst the excited chatter about AI, the metaverse, and all things crypto?

Virilio’s attention to accidents is a provocation to look at technology differently. To foreground the dangers instead of the benefits, and to see ourselves as the potential victims instead of as the smiling beneficiaries. As he put it in Pure War, first published in 1983, “Every technology produces, provokes, programs a specific accident.” Thus, the challenge becomes looking for the “accident” behind the technophilic light show — and what’s more, to find it before the wreckage starts to pile up. 

Undoubtedly, this is not the most enjoyable way to look at technology. It is far more fun to envision yourself enjoying the perfect meal prepared for you by your AI butler than to imagine yourself caught up in a Kafkaesque nightmare after the AI system denies your loan application. Nevertheless, if Virilio was right to observe that “the invention of the highway was the invention of 300 cars colliding in five minutes,” it would be wise to start thinking seriously about the crashes that await us as we accelerate down the information superhighway… 

The work of Paul Virilio urges us to ask: What future disasters inhere in today’s technologies? “Inventing the Shipwreck” from Zachary Loeb (@libshipwreck) in @_reallifemag. Eminently worth reading in full.

For a look at those who don’t just brush aside Virilio’s caution, but actively embrace speed and the chaos that it can cause:

Accelerationism holds that the modern, Western democratic state is so mired in corruption and ineptitude that true patriots should instigate a violent insurrection to hasten its destruction to allow a new, white-dominated order to emerge. Indeed, some of the foremost exponents of accelerationism today were at the U.S. Capitol on January 6. They included: the Oath Keepers, whose grab-bag ideology states that “paranoid anti-federalism envision[s] a restoration of ‘self-government’ and ‘natural rights’;” QAnon adherents, who remain convinced that the 2020 presidential election was stolen and that former President Donald Trump was thwarted from saving the world from a Satan-worshipping pedophilia ring run by Democrats, Jews, and other agents of the deep state; and, of course, Trump’s own die-hard “Stop the Steal” minions, who, against all reason and legal proof, seek to restore the former president to office.

The objective of accelerationism is to foment divisiveness and polarization that will induce the collapse of the existing order and spark a second civil war…

Read the full piece: “A Year After January 6, Is Accelerationism the New Terrorist Threat?

* Paul Virilio

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As we practice prudence, we might recall that it was on this date in 1854 that Anthony Fass, a Philadelphia piano maker, was awarded the first U.S. patent (#11062) for an accordion.  (An older patent existed in Europe, issued in Vienna in 1829 to Cyrill Demian.)

“Music helps set a romantic mood. Imagine her surprise when you say, ‘We don’t need a stereo – I have an accordion’.”  – Martin Mull

“A gentleman is someone who can play the accordion, but doesn’t.”  – Tom Waits

accordion_patent

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“Create more value than you capture”*…

A thoughtful consideration of Web 3.0 from the always-insightful Tim O’Reilly

There’s been a lot of talk about Web3 lately, and as the person who defined “Web 2.0” 17 years ago, I’m often asked to comment. I’ve generally avoided doing so because most prognostications about the future turn out to be wrong. What we can do, though, is to ask ourselves questions that help us see more deeply into the present, the soil in which the future is rooted. As William Gibson famously said, “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” We can also look at economic and social patterns and cycles, using as a lens the observation ascribed to Mark Twain that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”

Using those filters, what can we say about Web3?…

There follows a fascinating– and educational– analysis of the state of play and the issues that we face.

Tim concludes…

Let’s focus on the parts of the Web3 vision that aren’t about easy riches, on solving hard problems in trust, identity, and decentralized finance. And above all, let’s focus on the interface between crypto and the real world that people live in, where, as  Matthew Yglesias put it when talking about housing inequality, “a society becomes wealthy over time by accumulating a stock of long-lasting capital goods.” If, as Sal Delle Palme argues, Web3 heralds the birth of a new economic system, let’s make it one that increases true wealth—not just paper wealth for those lucky enough to get in early but actual life-changing goods and services that make life better for everyone.

Why it’s too early to get excited about Web3,” from @timoreilly.

See also: “My first impressions of web3” from Matthew Rosenfeld (AKA Moxie Marlinspike, @moxie, founder of @signalapp).

* Tim O’Reilly

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As we focus on first principles, we might recall that it was on this date in 2007 that Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone at MacWorld. The phone wasn’t available for sale until June 29th, occasioning one of the most heavily anticipated sales launches in the history of technology. Apple sold 1.4 million iPhones in 2007, steadily increasing each year; estimated sales in 2021 are 240-250 million.

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“In the lingo, this imaginary place is known as the Metaverse”*…

Ethan Zuckerman on the history of enthusiastically working to make a dystopian vision real…

In a booth at Ted’s Fish Fry, in Troy, New York, my friend Daniel Beck and I sketched out our plans for the metaverse. It was November 1994, just as the graphical web was becoming a thing, and we thought that the 3-D web could be just a few tweaks down the road. In our version of the metaverse, a server would track the identity of objects and their location in virtual space, but you’d render the objects locally, loaded to your hard drive off of a CD-ROM. It made a certain sense: Most users were on sub-56k modems, and AOL was shipping out enough CD-ROMs to pave Los Angeles each week.

To be very clear, Daniel and I were in no way being original. We were hoping to re-create the vision that Neal Stephenson had outlined in his 1992 book, Snow Crash. We were both (barely) self-conscious enough to understand that Snow Crash took place in a dystopia, and that Stephenson was positing a beautiful virtual world because the outside world had become so shitty that no one wanted to live in it. But we were young and naive and believed that our metaverse would rock. (Stephenson, of course, wasn’t being entirely original either. His vision of the metaverse owed a debt to Vernor Vinge’s 1981 True Names and to a series of William Gibson novels from the ’80s. Both of those authors owed a debt to Morton Heilig’s 1962 Sensorama machine, and on and on we go, back in time to Plato’s shadows on a cave wall.)

Daniel and I got a chance to actually build our metaverse about six months later, after we both joined Tripod as graphic designers and “webkeepers.” This was well before Tripod became a competitor to GeoCities, offering free webpages to all. (It was also before I accidentally invented pop-up ads. Sorry again about that.) Instead, we were a lifestyle magazine for recent graduates, providing smart, edgy, but practical content—“tools for life”—while hawking mutual funds to 20-somethings. When that business model didn’t take off (can’t imagine why), the half-dozen folks in the “tech cave” revived the metaverse idea…

We sold our CEO on the idea by telling him that the MOO could be a simulation of life in the big city postcollege, bringing onto the site new users who wanted to experience New York City while still in Ann Arbor or State College. And remember, this was 1995: The photos we used to represent this metaverse of ours were taken on chemical film! Which we then developed at a photo-processing lab! And then scanned on a flatbed scanner!

The MOO was really cool, in theory. Most people weren’t building HTML-enabled multiplayer spaces in 1995. It got us our first round of venture-capital funding, demonstrating to our investors that we weren’t just kids translating mutual-fund propaganda into HTML. We were technology innovators. We were building things no one had ever seen before.

But here’s the thing: The MOO was garbage. On a good day, I could give a demo that made it look smooth, slick, and fun to use. But our CEO couldn’t. And that was a problem. It wasn’t his fault. The MOO was buggy and quirky and demanded that you think of the world as a set of six-sided cubes made up of webpages. Our boss pulled the plug on the project, telling us, “I know it’s the future, but if I can’t use it, I can’t sell it to investors.”

I watched other metaverses rise and fall. An Icelandic firm, OZ Virtual, introduced a metaverse with 3-D avatars in sexy streetwear dancing on an infinite dance floor, which felt like the future for a few days. OZ Virtual used VRML, a format for specifying 3-D objects in an HTML-like language that was all the rage for a few months in 1996. Netscape supported it via a plug-in, and Blaxxun built a 3-D chat space. Don’t remember these moments of web history? Neither does the web, for the most part. Wikipedia’s thorough, but not comprehensive, timeline of virtual environments misses our MOO, the Icelandic dance club, and half a dozen other early virtual experiments. (By the way: “Blaxxun”? That’s another Stephenson reference, to Black Sun Systems, the fictional company that created Stephenson’s fictional metaverse. Very creative, guys.)

And then there was Second Life. When Linden Lab launched this metaverse in 2003, there was a brief burst of enthusiasm where otherwise serious entities, such as businesses and universities, bought and built out their own islands in Linden’s proprietary world. (Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, now the Berkman Klein Center, had its own island.) The learning curve to build objects in Second Life was steep, the universe was populated haphazardly, and the Second Life client demanded a very fast computer and a very patient user…

So, after watching metaverses spring up and crumble for 27 years, and after building one myself, I feel fairly well equipped to offer context for what Mark Zuckerberg is trying to do with his firm’s pivot to “Meta.” In his heavily produced keynote video for Facebook Reality Labs, Zuckerberg starts by acknowledging that this is a bizarre time for the company to be launching a new product line—Facebook is under more scrutiny than ever for its ill effects on individuals and societies, and for the company’s utter unwillingness to address these issues.

But why bother with that mess? Or, as Zuckerberg put it: “Now, I know that some people will say that this isn’t a time to focus on the future. And I want to acknowledge that there are important issues to work on in the present. There always will be. So for many people, I’m just not sure there ever will be a good time to focus on the future.” Allow me to translate: Fuck you, haters.

Let’s be frank about this: Facebook’s metaverse sucks. From the first images in which legless torsos sit around a conference room, staring at a Zoom-like videoconferencing screen, to Zuckerberg’s tour of his virtual closet, filled with identical black outfits (see, he’s got a sense of humor!), Zuck’s metaverse looks pretty much like we imagined one would look like in 1994. Look, I’m playing cards with my friends and we’re in zero gravity! And one of my friends is a robot! You could do this in Second Life 10 years ago, and in somewhat angular vectors in VRML 20 years ago…

The metaverse Zuckerberg shows off [is] promising future technologies that are five to 10 years off. But it still looks like junk. The fire in his fireplace is a roughly rendered glow. His superhero secret lair looks out over a paradise island that’s almost entirely static. There’s the nominal motion of waves, but none of the foliage moves. It’s tropical wallpaper pasted to virtual windows. The sun is setting behind Zuckerberg’s left shoulder, but he’s being lit from the right front. Even with a bajillion dollars to invest in a video to relaunch and rename his company, Zuckerberg’s team is showing just how difficult it is to create a visually believable virtual world.

But that’s not the problem with Zuckerberg’s metaverse. The problem is that it’s boring. The futures it imagines have been imagined a thousand times before, and usually better. Two old men chat over a chessboard, one in Barcelona, one in New York, much as they did on Minitel in the 1980s. There’s virtual Ping-Pong and surfing, you know, like on a Wii. You can watch David Attenborough nature documentaries, like you do on Netflix. You can videoconference with your workmates … you know, like you do every single day.

Zuckerberg isn’t building the metaverse because he has a remarkable new vision of how things could be. There’s not an original thought in his video, including the business model. Thirty-eight minutes in, Zuckerberg gets serious, talking about how humbling the past few years have been for him and his business. Remember, he’s not humbled by the problem of Russian disinformation, or the spread of anti-vax misinformation, or the challenge of how Instagram affects teen body image. No, he’s humbled by how hard it is to fight against Apple and Google.

Faced with the question of whether Facebook’s core products are eroding the foundations of a democratic society, Zuckerberg takes on a more pressing problem: Apple’s 30 percent cut on digital goods sold in its App Store. Never fear, though: With a Facebook ecosystem, Facebook developer tools, and Facebook marketplaces, the custom skin you buy in one video game will be wearable in another video game, just like Mark’s black T-shirt. Just as long as that video game is in Facebook’s metaverse. (Meta’s metaverse? Meta’s verse?) And if you want Mark’s actual digital shirt, it will almost certainly be available as an NFT, which the launch video promises will be supported. Did I mention how dystopian this all is?

Facebook can claim originality in at least one thing. Its combination of scale and irresponsibility has unleashed a set of diverse and fascinating sociopolitical challenges that it will take lawmakers, scholars, and activists at least a generation to fix. If Facebook has learned anything from 17 years of avoiding mediating those conflicts, it’s not apparent from the vision for the metaverse, where the power of human connection is celebrated as uncritically as it was before Macedonian fake-news brokers worked to sway the 2016 election…

Neal Stephenson’s metaverse has been a lasting creation because it’s fictional. It doesn’t have to solve all the intricate problems of content moderation and extremism and interpersonal interaction to raise questions about what virtual worlds can give us and what our real world lacks. Today’s metaverse creators are missing the point, just like I missed the point back at Ted’s Fish Fry in 1994. The metaverse isn’t about building perfect virtual escape hatches—it’s about holding a mirror to our own broken, shared world. Facebook’s promised metaverse is about distracting us from the world it’s helped break.

It was terrible then, and it’s terrible now: “Hey, Facebook, I Made a Metaverse 27 Years Ago,” from @EthanZ.

For a nuanced (and provocatively-“optimistic”) look at what a metaverse like Facebook’s could yield if in fact it worked (and then morphed), see Corey J. Whites‘s (@cjwhite) Repo Virtual.

And as (and for the reasons) noted in an earlier post, see “The Metaverse Is Bad,” from Ian Bogost (@ibogost)

* Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

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As we think twice, we might send adventurous birthday greetings to Giovanni Battista Belzoni; he was born on this date in 1778.  The 14th child of a poor barber in Padua, he was a barber, a Capuchin monk, a magician, and a circus strongman before finding his true calling– explorer (and plunderer) of Egyptian antiquities.

Belzoni’s call to action came when he met a British Consul-General named Henry Salt who persuaded him to gather Egyptian treasures to send back to the British Museum.  Under extremely adverse conditions he transported the colossal granite head of Rameses II from Thebes to England, where it is now one of the treasures of the British Museum. Later, he discovered six major royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, including that of Seti I, and brought to the British Museum a spectacular collection of Egyptian antiquities. He was the first person to penetrate the heart of the second pyramid at Giza and the first European to visit the oasis of Siwah and discover the ruined city of Berenice on the Red Sea. He stumbled into the tomb of King Ay, but only noted a wall painting of 12 baboons, leading him to name the chamber ‘Tomb of the 12 Monkeys” (because hieroglyphs had not yet been deciphered, he usually had no idea who or what he had actually found).

Belzoni had two habits that have contributed to his legacy:  he was a lover of graffiti signatures, and inscribed “Belzoni” on many of Egypt’s antique treasures, where the carvings survive to this day.  And he carried a whip: which, given that he was one of the models for Indiana Jones, became one of that character’s hallmarks.

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“Some folks look for answers, others look for fights”*…

Grateful Dead plays Red Rocks for the final time, August 13, 1987 [source]

Max Abelson takes a break from his (essential) coverage of money and power at Bloomberg News and Businessweek to appreciate the community that’s grown up around the Internet Archive’s Grateful Dead Archive (where one can find– among the over 15,000 concert recordings– not one, but two full takes of the show pictured above)…

On the Archive, the writing about the Dead’s live music often transcends the personal mode and approaches something closer to the galactic. Nothing brings out that cosmic style like “Dark Star,” a song that the band stretched from a three-minute studio single into its own solar system. Ginosega left a flight log for the same forty-three-minute 1973 version that played in the friend’s basement: “About 12 minutes in, Phil fires the engines and turns the ship out of orbit, until at 17 minutes we have arrived in the deepest, darkest part of the galaxy.” The trip isn’t half over. “Only at 21 minutes into the song do they actually start playing the song.” The post, which has a kind of sci-fi internal logic, describes interstellar wind and multicolored ooze, before, “at about 36 minutes, we start the return trip, passing through more familiar systems on our way back home.”

One of the magical things about how high the Dead flew is that they managed to do it without, say, Sly Stone’s rhythm, Joni Mitchell’s poetry, or Brian Wilson’s voice. The allure of this band—whatever it is that keeps sparking so much cosmic wonder and nostalgia—is foggy and mysterious. Paumgarten, in his New Yorker piece, identified a sprawling combination of factors, including Garcia’s soulful charisma and Appalachian gloom, the band’s 26,000-watt sound system, an ethos of group improvisation, and the “particular note of decay” in each cassette swapped from hand to hand. You can think about the Archive as not just the best tape rack of all, but as a collection of thousands of swings at saying the inexplicable. A user named Scottie78 was so moved by a half-hour version of “Dark Star” at the Spectrum in Philadelphia in 1972 that he not only came close to leaving a bullet point for each minute, but more or less created an identification system to differentiate the micro-micro-genres he heard, from “Space Jazz” and “Acid Jazz” to “Acid Jazzgrass.” It’s embarrassing and magnetic at the same time.

Others tip over from starry-eyed to freaked out. “So cacophonous, atonal and scary that it could potentially traumatize animals when played loud,” Phleshy said in 2004 about a version from Rotterdam in 1972. “If this explanation sounds stupid in words, then listen to the last half-hour of ‘Dark Star’ in a darkened room and see if you feel remotely secure.”

The line between the personal and astronomical is thin. Boboboy’s recollection of the 1989 show at JFK Stadium is what Didion might have described if she had witnessed more people sway: “I clearly remember seeing the swirling masses of thousands on the floor from my perch all the way back.” The dancers below looked like birds up above, “a flock of starlings cruising the sky, but in slow motion.”

Some of the writing aims even higher. “When you want to know what it is like being in heaven, cue up the second set,” Seedanrun wrote about the band’s beloved 1977 show at Cornell. “When you want to feel what it is like to be face to face with God, dim the lights and really focus on the ‘Morning Dew.’”

The glory of that show, performed inside the university’s Barton Hall on a snowy night in May, is perhaps the nearest the Dead Archives come to consensus. The thought of sullying it with a rating scale offended a user named GruUbic: “If this is five stars, is heaven a 4.5?” In 2004, BillDP went further, calling the show “the single best live performance I have ever heard from any group at any time.” His authoritativeness is only outdone by the dumbstruck. “Mere words cannot do justice,” Grateful Hillbilly posted in 2015. “Words like amazing and unbelievable and incomparable don’t capture the immensity of awe.”

[Brewster] Kahle, the Internet Archive’s founder, tells me that he wishes more of the web was shaped like the Dead Archive. “What you’re looking at,” he said, “is from an era of the Internet that I think is best typified by what Tim Berners-Lee called ‘pages.’” Today, he said, instead, what dominates is the “feed.” (“Horrible word,” he added.) Facebook and Twitter scroll by endlessly, unaccountably, and unpleasantly, but “it wasn’t always that way, and it was a choice.” Each Dead show, he said, is “something you can anchor to, it’s something you can revolve around.” He went on: “By making things endure, we can have people cherish them, use them, and invest in them. So the writing is fundamentally different. I think we should go back to it—or forward to it.”…

The way the internet was… and should be? “In the Dead Archives,” from @maxabelson.

* The Grateful Dead, “Playing In The Band” (written by Bob Weir, Robert Hunter, and Mickey Hart)

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As we go hear Uncle John’s Band, we might send bluesy birthday greetings to Ronald Charles McKernan; he was born on this date in 1945. Better known by his stage name, Pigpen,” he was a founding member of The Warlocks… which became the Grateful Dead. He was the band’s original frontman, playing harmonica and electric organ; but Jerry Garcia’s and Phil Lesh’s influences on the band became increasingly stronger as they embraced psychedelic rock. Pigpen’s contributions receded to vocals, harmonica, and percussion (though he continued to be a frontman in concert for some numbers, including his interpretations of Bobby Bland’s “Turn On Your Love Light” and the Rascals’ “Good Lovin'”).

Pigpen was unique among his bandmates in preferring alcohol to psychedelics, and sadly succumbed to alcoholism– from complications of which he died in 1973.

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