Paleolithic Punk and the Venus of Marseilles

Venuses of Willendorf (30-27ky) and Marseilles (1882)

To the left, the Venus of Willendorf, a 10.8 cm high stone statuette dating from the Paleolithic era, 30-27 kyr. To the right, the first anthropomorphic design for an atmospheric diving suite built by the Carmagnolle brothers of Marseilles, France in 1882.

The Carmagnolle brothers diving suite is the stuff of steampunk fantasy, but perhaps so situating it is time-out-of-joint in the wrong direction. Instead of designating it as a paleo-future, it is more properly a parachronism: perhaps we should call it the Venus (Ares) of Marseilles (with the Venus of Willendorf as old stone punk).

What Does Technology Lust After?

A Wearable Tech Hackathon sex app for Google Glass

So this was inevitable, right?

First thoughts:

  1. Really? Picture-in-picture?
  2. Seeing what my partner sees might make me never want to have sex again. I am reminded of Steve’s disquisition on “nether freckling” from Coupling s3:e5: “There are … angles. In a relationship you get seen from certain … angles.”
  3. With all the photos being stolen off of hacked mobile devices and posted to revenge porn websites, how could this possibly go wrong?
  4. Wasn’t Strange Days (1995) a great / terrible sci-fi film?

But more seriously, total immersion in the experience of another ranks along with immortality, total recall, omniscience, radical subjectivity, demediation of desire and fulfillment and a few others as ultimate goals of technology.

What I’m saying is that I think technology is teleological. The evolution of technology is not a random walk or a function of reachability or the traversal of a dependency network. Well, it is all those things, but it is not only those things. There are ends or extreme outer limits toward which technology is evolving. I think I listed a few off-the-cuff. Some systematic and dedicated attention to a fuller list is warranted.

But wence do the ends come? As I have framed them, they could be construed as merely the desiderata of the human makers of technology — technology has no end of it’s own: they are bestowed by their makers. But perhaps technology as a continuation of life, as a fourth domain, inherits these ends. Or perhaps these ends admit of a more objective formulation: eternity instead of immortality, idealist anarchy for radical subjectivity. Or perhaps for Kantian cyborgs, they are the transcendental illusions of technology.

Also, as if my digression hasn’t already been far enough, there’s this as a longing to supersede individuation:

An Internet of Creatures

Keanu Reeves in Johnny Mnemonic getting ghost-hacked by Ice-T's cyborg dolphin

Keanu Reeves in Johnny Mnemonic getting ghost-hacked by Ice-T’s cyborg dolphin

Non-human animals are late adopters. In 2009 cats started life logging. In 2012 dogs got into biometrics. Now sharks are getting on twitter. The Western Australia Department of Fisheries has started tagging sharks with radio transmitters. When the tagged sharks are detected within half a mile from beaches, the monitoring system updates the Surf Life Saving WA twitter feed with the shark’s species, size and location (“Roll Out of Tagged Shark Monitors Continues, 14 December 2013). The sharks do not yet post selfies to instagram.

“This kind of innovative thinking is exactly what we need more of when it comes to finding solutions to human-wildlife conflict,” says Alison Kock, research manager of Shark Spotters, apparently a shark social media PR firm in South Africa (Alan Yu, “More Than 300 Sharks In Australia Are Now On Twitter“, NPR, 1 January 2014). This is, of course, the sort of utopian thinking rampant among tech enthusiasts. But it’s only a matter of time before these vital shark voices are shouted down by a bunch of galeophobs, reminding us of Internet Rule 14.1: Don’t chum the trolls.

There is constant talk of the Internet of Things, about how all our devices are getting on-line and being internetworked with one another. But what about an Internet of All Creatures Great and Small? Instead of just us humans getting on-line, living in augmented reality, having brain computer interfaces, being enhanced by cognitive prostheses, we need to get all the other animals on-line too.

And look, we humans can’t stave off the robot apocalypse by ourselves. Presumably SkyNet and the Matrix don’t stop with the humans. Both SkyNet and the Matrix blot out the sun as a tactic. The other animals have a stake in the outcome of this as well. We animals need to pull together. Maybe even the plants too. Already we’re developing thought controlled power suits for monkeys and cockroaches that can interface with your iPhone (there’s an app for that). Raspberry crazy ants can detect electromagnetic fields and already have a vendetta against electronics. Now we just need to upgrade them to Raspberry Pie Ants. Maybe once we get this computation using protein folding and DNA, Craig Venter will engineer protozoa and yeast with wireless access and IP addresses to fight the nanobots.

Addendum, 17 January 2014: I should add that hot on the heels of kittens, a lot of animals are life logging these days — alligators, falcons, halibut, dolphins, sperm whales, eagles, a caracara and turkey vultures, more eagles and penguins. And of course National Geographic is like the BuzzFeed of animal cams.

Addendum II, 17 January 2014: This scientist is fitting honey bees with transponders and is running some sort of bee Aegis radar-type system to monitor their bee flash mobs.

Technology and the Profound, Part II: Apple’s Retort

A certain sector of nostalgic curmudgeons among us is driven to distraction by the fact that many people today are engaged in a significant amount of interpersonal communication and interaction with their environment mediated by their mobile devices and web technologies. This annoyance that the young people today don’t interact in the time-honored ways is expressed in a number of criticisms: that they are anti-social, isolated, rude, sedentary, disengaged, aesthetically foreclosed, temporally scattered, attention deficient and consumed by trite distractions. Sherry Turkle, the dean of cellular woe, was taped just last week by the New York Times to lament the presidential selfie. She goes so far as to suggest “device-free zones” as “sacred spaces” (“The Documented Life“, 16 December 2013, A25).

U.S. President Barack Obama, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron take a selfie at Nelson Mandela's funeral, Johannesburg, South Africa, 10 December 2013, by Steve Harvey

Back in June I wrote about two popular memes expressing this dismay and posed Apple’s then airing ad for the iPhone 5 as a corrective (“Technology and the Profound“, 18 June 2013). Watching the ad again now, it does address a number of these criticisms, but it is unclear whether the creators were thinking of something else and it is merely inadvertent how well the various episodes of the commercial line up with the criticisms; whether they were very subdued in their response; or whether something in between: they were generally aware of some negative perceptions of their product and attempting to show the iPhone in a sentimental, social, generative light without quite explicitly matching their critics.

With their new Christmas advertisement there’s no mistaking it: Apple it using its Madison Avenue genius to directly engage this debate. And for its emotional delicacy, it’s quite a salvo.

We are presented with exactly the teen that critics of our technological mediation obsession portray: bored, disengaged, one hand always unfree, constantly removing himself from important family events to fiddle with his device. But then, a third of the way through the commercial, the reveal: all those moments when he wouldn’t put down his phone, when he dropped out of family events, what he was actually doing was making a very personal video Christmas card to the entire family. We now rewatch all the moments from the first part of the commercial from a new perspective — in both the positioning of the camera, and in our understanding of what’s going on. As the mise en abyme — our protagonist’s video within the video — ends, he signs off with a bit of video of himself, the teenage veneer of boredom now replaced by an unselfconscious, sheepish happiness and pride. The title of the commercial is even “Misunderstood”. Not only is the teenage experience misunderstood by the adults around him, not only are his actions misunderstood, but here is the cutting edge of this soft light and sentimentality play. The title is not just descriptive of the events of the commercial: it is outwardly directed: it is an accusation against the critics of these technologies for which the events of the ad are the argument: you misunderstand what we are doing with these technologies; you mischaracterize the effects they are having on us.

I’ll add a personal story here, lest you write Apple’s commercial off as a contrivance of corporate propaganda. Toward the end of my college years I attended a birthday party. It began, as such things often do, as a late afternoon back yard cookout. But just after sunset one of the organizers brought out a slide projector and for about a half-hour told stories and played music while projecting onto the white wooden siding of the large side of the house photographs from the recent life of our celebree. It was beautiful and sentimental and poignant and really funny and just a wonderful celebration of this person — so much more so than had we just stood around in the yard eating hot dogs and getting slightly buzzed and then going through the heavily scripted song and cake ritual of birthdays. In other words, had we all only lived in the moment, it would have been just another meaningless collegiate afternoon. It was specifically the documentary consciousness and all those interruptions over the years and the need to share and the clever exhibitionism and the devices that created that evening’s sacred space with its deeply focused consciousness, its break from the ordinary, its reflection and appreciation.

This was the late 1990s, so the technologies of this presentation were the old ones: gelatin emulsion film, shoebox archives dug through over the course of weeks, order forms printed on the back of envelopes, photo developing booths isolated in the middle of the shopping plaza parking lots, cardboard mounted diapositives, that beige slide projector with the torus of black slide slots protruding from the top. So the documentary intrusions were fewer, the pace of production and archiving less frenetic, the sharing less ubiquitous. But also less of the life was available, there was no parallax view, the required bravery of the performance was greater (a slideshow!? so hipster).

This is what I really like about Steven Johnson’s response to Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (“Yes, People Still Read, but Now It’s Social“, The New York Times, 20 June 2010, p. BU3): Johnson frankly concedes that yes, we are losing something. But loss is not the entirety of the transformation. We are also gaining something. And neither the loss of the detractor, nor the gain of the enthusiast are to be weighed in isolation. The proper debate is: is what we have gained worth what we have lost?

Flaming December

Annie Leibovitz's December 2013 Vogue cover, Jennifer Chastain as Frederic Leighton's Flaming June

I love pre-Raphaelite women and I love homage, parody, covers, remix, mashup, etc., so I’m crazy for Annie Leibovitz’s photograph of Jennifer Chastain as Frederic Leighton’s Flaming June (1895) for the cover of the December 2013 Vogue. The Vogue website has a slideshow counterpoising the photo shoot with the inspirational source material.

This isn’t the first time I’ve posted about Annie Leibovitz and Vogue spoofing some vintage design. Perhaps the most popular post on this blog (not because anyone is interested in the rambling post; mostly because people are ripping off the image) is “Destroy This Mad Brute“, an analysis of the meaning of LeBron James and Gisele Bündchen mimicking an anti-old Europe First World War U.S. propaganda poster.

Banality Creep

Bradley Manning, If You See Something, Say Something ... Unless It's U.S. War Crimes

The thing to know about Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden is Sir Thomas Gresham’s principle that bad money drives out the good. So long as the government continues to prosecute a secret war beyond the principles on which this country was founded, people of conscience will continue to come forward with these kinds of revelations. We cannot drill into young people the American mythos and require new recruits into government service to take an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic without planting the seeds of the very dissidents we now simultaneous seek to suppress. At some point the government will figure out how to screen out people of conscience, after which time our secret wars abroad and the surveillance state will be administered by scoundrels and unthinking bureaucrats. That power corrupts is as true of institutions as it is of individuals. Bad money drives out the good.

Technology and the Profound

There are two perennial memes, critical of web 2.0, social networking and mobile devices, that keep appearing in my various feeds (Um, kinda ironic that you’re expressing your Luddism through JPEGs). They are these two:

What's the Point of Being Afraid of the Zombie Apocalypse When You're Already a Zombie Yourself

Einstein: I Fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots

Of course as is the case with the web, the second one isn’t even true. Einstein did say something similar to this, but it was with respect to the atomic bomb — the legitimacy of which is beyond reproach — not cellular telephones.

To anyone who’s posted “the real zombie apocalypse” or this purported Einstein quote: nothing is profound or incipient on its own. We are capable of finding and making such experiences where we will. Technology is as capable of beauty and the sublime as any other experience in life.

In this respect, Apple’s recent advertising campaign serves as a wonderful reply:

Of course, this is corporate propaganda, but this is an instance where what makes this such an effective advertisement is just how well it has captured the truth of an experience. One of the things that I love about this commercial is how it is composed of a number of episodes, each of which show a aspect of this particular technological experience: noticing in greater detail textures and objects that would have warranted less attention in the past but that are uniquely beautiful (weathered wood, oil slicks), being the laggard in a group for capturing an image, the foodie thing, handing cameras to and retrieving with gratitude cameras from strangers, selfies, etc.

And before you go dismissing other people’s interests too quickly, I think your children and your pet are boring.

The Zero Effect of Archival Research

Daryl Zero Paper Headache

Now that I’m spending time doing research for my thesis at the Library of Congress Manuscript Division and the National Archive, I’m really wishing that the fictional manual / memoir that serves as Daryl Zero’s voice-over in The Zero Effect were a real book that I could consult:

Now, a few words on looking for things. When you look for something specific your chances of finding it are very bad because of all things in the world, you only want one of them. When you look for anything at all your chances of finding it are very good because of all the things in the world you’re sure to find some of them.

Daryl Zero is for me a guru on par with Yoda, Keisuke Miyagi and Ogami Itto.

The Dormancy of War

There are a number of alternate histories that place the beginnings of globalization much earlier than our current 1970s era pop-sociology conception.1 In these alternate conceptions, rather than a twentieth century phenomenon, a result of air travel or information technology, globalization is a continuous process stretching back hundreds of years, or perhaps running throughout all human history. Or perhaps it is something cyclical, proceeding in fits and starts, but the current bout only the latest in a long series.2

Another indicator here might be found in military history. We are blind to it because of a certain misnomer: only in the twentieth century are wars declared ‘world wars’ right in their titles. Ergo prior wars must have been parochial. But consider an alternate military history, more cyclical than linear. The trend in warfare towards globalization in scope (globalization as a continuation into the strategic of the tactical logic of flanking) and totalization in intensity is also long and runs a number of centuries prior to the twentieth.

Though only a European war, the Thirty Years War is often construed as the first time totalization comes clearly into view. There is a growing recognition that the Seven Years War / French and Indian War is “the first global war”.3

Battle of the Pyramids, 21 July 1798

Battle of the Pyramids, part of France’s Egyptian campaign, fought 21 July 1798, portrayed by François-Louis-Joseph Watteau

There is similarly growing recognition that the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars were also total and if not global, at least on the way to global. They were the impetus for Clausewitz’s idea of absolute war. David Bell has called them “the first total war.” They were fought from Spain to Moscow, in north Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean, Egypt, Syria and the Caribbean. Napoleon briefly considered marching the French army overland to attack the British in India. It was first in 1795 at the Battle of Muizenberg during the French Revolutionary Wars, then again in 1806 at the Battle of Blaauwberg during the Napoleonic Wars that the British acquired the Cape Colony from the Netherlands (at the time a vassal of France). The Mauritius Campaign was a series of naval and marine operations fought between the British and the French in the Indian Ocean from 1809-1811. In the midst of the penultimate example of first-generation warfare, France simultaneously fought a counterinsurgency war in Spain. On a brief hiatus from fighting Napoleon, Britain took on the United States in the War of 1812. The French Revolutionary War entailed the Levée en masse, the sort of mass conscription that would not be seen again until the First World War. Napoleon’s Grande Armée was comprised of 600,000 multi-national soldiers. The British naval blockade of France caused Napoleon to create the Continental System, a continent-wide embargo of Britain.

Imagine what the nineteenth century would have looked like had the Crimean War, the Austro-Prussian War, the Franco-Prussian War, Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, the Boer War or the Spanish-American War continued the trend from the Thirty Years War to the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars to the First World War. But that’s not what happened. Instead, total war, global war went dormant from 1815 until 1914. What transpired during this period were classical wars as a continuation of politics, wars fought for limited objectives, not wars of survival and annihilation. And then, after a century of dormancy, global total war returned.

One theory is progressive. That the wars of the twentieth century were so destructive that humanity looked over the precipice and took a step back, that great power wars came to an end in the cataclysms of the twentieth century, that this is the end of history. After the end of history, there may still be limited wars as a continuation of normal politics, wars of the type of the nineteenth century, but there will never again be the absolute war that we have seen in the past.4

But perhaps war is like solar cycles, with periodic minima and maxima. There does seem to be an alteration between twenty to thirty years of great wars followed by centuries of peace (see graph below). There was the bellum phase of The Thirty Years War from 1618 until 1648, followed by a pax phase of 144 years from 1648 until 1792. The bellum phase of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars lasted the 23 years of 1792 to 1815 followed by the Pax Britannica of 1815-1914.

Pax-Bella Cycle, 1618-2013

This was followed by the thirty year bellum phase of 1914-1945. Some historians — taking as inspiration Marshal Ferdinand Foch’s assessment of the Treaty of Versailles that “This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years” — have begun to unify this period under the title of the “Second Thirty Years War.” This is not an unreasonable thing to do. The first Thirty Years war wasn’t as unified as its modern title would suggest. It had its lulls and different phases involving different constellations of combatants as well.

Since 1945 we have lived in the logic of pax phase named “The American Century,” and rather than seeing it as but the latest iteration of a cycle, under our comfortable conception of progress, we imagine it as eternal: it is the end of history (Francis Fukuyama is but this iteration’s Norman Angell).

How could there be such cycles? Perhaps a century is how long it takes society to unburden itself from a particularly painfully ingrained ‘lesson of history.’ A century is the timeframe of historical forgetting. By the time the July Crisis came around, the peoples of Europe had forgotten the cataclysm of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and once more longed for war. Similarly today the United States is in the process of unlearning the meaninglessness of modern total warfare. Or perhaps a century is the durability of institutions. The Concert of Europe lasted that long. America’s international liberalism (the UN, GATT / WTO, IMF and IBRD, the EEC, NATO) will have a similar life expectancy. Or perhaps there is a relationship (that perhaps we might theorize via a Marxist- Leninist dialectical materialist mechanism) between state power shifts and economic Kondratiev supercycles.

This is perhaps preposterous. A grand narrative positing this level of law-adherence was the sort of thing that a historian of three or four generations ago could expound. But today we recognize that the phenomena under consideration are too complicated to be treated like physics, to be modeled as a variant of a sine wave. With only two and a half cycles — and a little cobbling and fudging to get even that — we certainly don’t have large enough of a sample size to induce any sound laws. Can the First and Second World Wars so easily be considered a continuity? What about the Seven Years War about which so much was made above? What about the American Civil War, often considered a preview of the totalization of war that was to come. In this regard, postmodernism, with its rejection of grand narratives is an attempt to become more scientific, more empirically grounded, is a rejection of grandiose abstractions. Today we are more prone to write off such a periodization of war and peace as merely an artifact of the evolutionary happenstance that primates have ten fingers (hence a base ten number system) rather than anything real.

But my real point here is not this particular theory, but that in our everyday thinking about this matter we’ve already taken a law and chalked it up as a safe operating assumption. Every bit as absurd as a simple cyclical theory of global war is the similarly simplistic theory of progress. I think there is a more limited point to be taken, compatible with modern sensibilities concerning the limits of historical enquiry — namely that rather than progress having safely transported us to the far shore of war, progress is as much a scientifically unsound derivation as is cyclicality and that absent human vigilance, total, global war stands ever ready to make its return.

Why does this matter? Because, again, the progressive, end of history theory is one in which many of us place a great deal of confidence. Uncontrolled escalation is a thing about which politicians no longer trouble themselves. That U.S. involvement in Syria might result in a larger conflict of the United States with Russia, or that a U.S. strike on Iranian nuclear facilities might produce a war engulfing all of Central Asia are scenarios that are beyond consideration owing to our confident, but implicit, knowledge of the laws of history.

But it should be noted how often the logic of history has covertly altered. The inflection points between the pax and bellum phases are subterranean. Its changed circumstances are only uncovered by us creatures of limited perception in out-of-control moments of shock and surprise.

Notes

  1. World Systems Theory, Janet L. Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350 (1989), Andre Gunder Frank’s The World System: Five Hundred Years or Five Thousand? (1993), Kevin O’Rourke and Jeffrey Williamson’s Globalization and History: The Evolution of a Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Economy (1999).

  2. Harold James’s The End of Globalization: Lessons from the Great Depression (2001)

  3. Daniel Baugh’s The Global Seven Years War 1754-1763: Britain and France in a Great Power Contest (2011); William Nester’s The First Global War: Britain, France, and the Fate of North America, 1756-1775 (2000); Tom Pocock’s Battle for Empire: The Very First World War, 1756-1763 (1998).

  4. Another, perhaps less grandiose expression of a similar sentiment would be James J. Sheehan’s Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?: The Transformation of Modern Europe (2008).

International Finance and the First World War in the East

The two things I’m working on right now are:

  1. Non-state actors and the First World War contest over areas of the near eastern empires — Hapsburg, Ottoman and Russian competition over the Balkans, Galicia, the Caucasus, Central Asia (“the Great Game”), the Adriatic Sea, the Black Sea and the Turkish Straits; and
  2. International financial and monetary economics in the late Long Nineteenth Century, namely from the late 1880s to the turn of the century. Specifically I am researching on a Master’s thesis on the classical gold standard, the Goschen Conversion, British international investment, “the economic taproot of imperialism”, the Long Depression of 1873-1896, the Baring Crisis, the U.S. Panic of 1893, the depression of the 1890s and the Morgan-Belmont Syndicate of 1895.

Do these have anything to do with one another beyond chronological adjacency? My interests here have been partly inspired by a few observations made by Samuel R. Williamson, Jr. at a Wilson Center discussion (July 1914: Revisited and Revised—or The End of the German Paradigm, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, D.C., 19 March 2012). In an answer (to a question posed by one of my advisors) during the question and answer period, he said, “The financial thing is one of those subtexts that needs to be studied” (at 1:09:31). Then in his concluding remarks he spent some time looking ahead, assessing what about the origin of the First World War remained understudied, returning to the issue of finance:

As we were talking about the financial thing, I was thinking about an injunction I was given in 1962 on the way to England by Ernest May, Sam Wells and my mentor, which was, “Look for the finance papers. You’ll find that’s what you need to be looking for. Look for the finance papers.” Well, I didn’t find the finance papers, but I found a lot of other good stuff. But the finance papers, there’s some real loads of stuff that are going to change the way people look at this and about the interaction. What’s interesting is, is whether many of the banks will not have destroyed this simply over the course of passage of time. The banks, just like about everybody else, prunes papers. And so this may be one of the things we will never know as much as we want to know about, but it’s an important subtext for the future. (at 1:22:10)

In this regard there are two research projects in progress that I can hardly wait to get my hands on:

  1. The first is that of Jennifer Siegel, an Associate Professor of modern European diplomatic and military history in the Department of History at Ohio State University. Her dissertation, completed at Yale University under the guidance of Paul Kennedy was published as Endgame: Britain, Russia and the Final Struggle for Central Asia (I.B. Tauris, 2002). She is currently working on a book to be titled For Peace and Money: International Finance and the Making and Unmaking of the Triple Entente, which will be “…an exploration of British and French private and government bank loans to Russia in the late imperial period up to the Genoa Conference of 1922…”
  2. The second is history doctoral candidate Hassan Malik’s dissertation, Bankers and Bolsheviks: International Finance and the Russian Revolution, 1880-1930, to be completed this year at Harvard under the supervision of Niall Ferguson. A longer description of what his dissertation will deal with can be found at the Social Science Research Council Dissertation Development Fellow page for his project. His twitter feed is here.

From these two projects, it seems that Professor Williamson’s assessment that finance remains one of the fecund future areas of research on the First World War era is an astute one (presumably it’s based on his finger on the pulse of research underway, not just proscription or surmise).

As long as I’m on the topic, I may also mention a third, related work that I am on watch for. In the new Preface to the 2010 reissue of Feroz Ahmad’s The Young Turks: The Committee of Union and Progress in Turkish Politics, 1908-1914 he writes that he is working on a sequel to cover the war years. His faculty page at T.C. Yeditepe Üniversitesi also lists a work, Turkey and the First World War, 1914-1918 as forthcoming. There have been a few recent books on the role of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, but one by Feroz Ahmad could be the most significant of the crop.

For a student such as myself, the next few years are on a course to be promising ones.

Update, 19 May 2013: And Sean McMeekin’s forthcoming book on the Russian Revolution of 1917 will focus heavily on financial aspects as well.

Update, 26 March 2015: Jennifer Siegel’s For Peace and Money: French and British Finance in the Service of Tsars and Commissars was published by Oxford University Press in December of 2014. According to his page at Harvard, Hassan Malik’s Bankers and Bolsheviks: International Finance and the Russian Revolution, 1892-1922 is under contract to be published by Princeton University Press in 2016.