Elegy for the Cathode Ray Tube / by Bryce Hidysmith

  "Pre-Bell Man"  by  Nam June Paik   

"Pre-Bell Man" by Nam June Paik  

< Soundtrack: Killer Mike - Reagan, Edith Piaf - Non, je ne regrette rien, Messer Für Frau Muller - Aiboloid also I just rediscovered the Mummenschanz bit on the Muppet Show and its probably worth sharing isn't it... >

"So, my good Teutons, you are proud of your good poets and artists? You point to them and brag about them to foreign nations? And since it cost you no effort to have them here among you, you spin the delightful theory that there is no reason to take any trouble about them in the future, either? They come all by themselves, isn't that right, my innocent children? They stork brings them! Let's not even talk about midwives!" 

- Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Anti-Education,
(which was published in english at such a fortuitous time that it feels as though it is some ploy by a benevolent Berensteinian actor as it is far more directly coherent than that man's other works.)  

I have a strong memory of the first time that I read I, Pencil, in 2013. The insights seemed obvious in retrospect, but it was good to have a canonical document stating them. I'm going to restate them here, in language that contains the same content but a radically different aesthetic.

Human production systems follow a biomorphic and ecological model. Any given actor models the total space relevant for them to obtain their livelihood—just as the grass does not know what it is like to be the cow that sustains itself from it, the miner does not know what it is like to be the smelter or the forger, though of course the life-cycle of ores is characteristically different than the life-cycle of bodies. The system of production for any given good is mediated through a supply chain of actors. Provided that these systems of production have a degree of non-linearity to the choice of which actions a given actor takes in collaboration with other economic actors, we can term them market structures, which we may contrast with predestined linear command. No given actor ends up understanding the totality of the stack, hence "There is a fact still more astounding: the absence of a master mind, of anyone dictating or forcibly directing these countless actions which bring me into being. No trace of such a person can be found. Instead, we find the Invisible Hand at work." 

Though the aesthetic of the piece falls into the vibe of just-so stories that I can't really take seriously with the amount of black I wear on a daily basis, it has an important and unfashionable point: the stack of technologies that we use cannot be monitored or managed by a single actor with less power than a literal, physical organism that we would rightfully term a deity in comparison to the humans that currently produce and maintain our technologies. Thus, the cultivation of the economy is not something that can be accomplished under the paradigms of traditional engineering where the totality of creation is contained in an individual object, but rather in the paradigms of complex systems similar to something like forestry where the system's inputs must be understood to have second, third, and nth level effects. Such effects ripple through the whole structure, even if that structure contains individual processes that can be charted as predictable linear industrial isolates, roughly analogous to functions or programming methods.

When I, Pencil was written, the zeitgeist of '58 didn't have much room for cascade failures. Even in the ensuing decades, when the Club of Rome was publishing their famous report, the raw velocity of technology was able to overcome the malthusian failure they predicted by simply inventing our way out of another starving time. For that and many other reasons, the necessary 'ecologicalization' of the field of economics never occurred, instead creating a scenario where environmentalism has failed to certify its results strategically, and economics has resulted in a myopic focus on metrics that bear little relation to anything in the physical systems that define whether or not the dollars, riel, yuan, and baht in my pocket are better off as kindling or communication. The money, rather than being a metric technology, has become a target unto itself. 

The Invisible Hand is a god worth invoking, even if the prayer to it is the circulation of a high velocity currency. It lacks all but the mindless joy of emergent, efficient, multi-actor logistics. It is the method by which we have been able to maintain the function of our civilizations, even if the vector of said civilizations has often been determined by more centralized investment, planning, artifice, and aesthetic. Those actions serve as the constants from which the variance of commerce springs up. However, there is a perspective perhaps best championed in a more mild and reasonable form by Kevin Kelly in What Technology Wants that claims there is an inevitability to these systems evolution. This attitude denies the agentic nature of the cultivation of systems of production. It has an almost mystical faith in evolution as something that produces qualitatively better phenomena, rather than phenomena that are fit to their environment. To assume in the hyper-panglossian interpretation of our world that this is the best of all possible worlds, and that it contains the unkillable seeds of an infinite quantity of better ones is simply ridiculous. 

A friend of mine and I passed over the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, and realized that many of our friends had faith in this strawmanning of Kelly's ideas, and would insist that there was no component of human will involved in the creation of said bridge. There would be an assumption that it was somehow a natural evolution, an inevitability by force of market or of fate. Without the will of a plan, the default would have been submission to the costs of the terrain, going the long way around the northern rim of the bay on foot without even domesticating the horse. The Invisible Hand is not the god of progress but the law of ecosystemics, and it is by playing the games of production within that law that we might see progress done. 

So then how can we play that game of production in such a way as to have ascendant levels of capacity? Recently, as an oddly large number of friends have remarked, our civilization has lost the knowledge of the production of the cathode ray tube.  I'm sure quite a few other technologies are gone that just haven't hit my radar yet. Even if the only reason to be able to produce cathode ray tubes was to be able to properly maintain the works of art of artists such as Nam June Paik, the maintenance of that knowledge is entirely justified both for the first order effect of its inherent interest, and secondarily because of the second order effect of how custodial norms of collective memory influence the general culture. How does one manage a scenario where this is the default—where the social realities lead in this direction instead of decline? 

At my estimate, our current best strategy for that game is the strategic superset that contains the ambient market described best by Hayek in The Use of Knowledge in Society. I'm still intrigued by a world where the cross-breeds of Kanterovich and Hayek might be used to still greater effect, where planning-based isolates can exist with defined ontologies of cost and need inside of a larger free market. Now that I think about this again while I'm editing this, it seems as though I'm talking about fulfilling Coase's prophecies by reverse-engineering Soviet economic technology. This hybrid, capitalistic variant on Cybersyn's cosplay might be able to work some wonders. My best bet for where that might be accomplished at the moment is still Numerai

Still, it seems as though we are not going to have terribly easy answers here without actually building such systems of optimal market development, and thus I feel it necessary to specify some of the core criteria for how the process of developing that kind of a system might be accomplished. The core of the idea that I have at this moment was most clearly found in the works of Jane Jacobs, specifically The Economy of Citiesnotion of import replacement in urban cores. Though her historical scholarship in this book is spotty, Jacobs' model of urbanism is I think the right one, casting urbanization as an aggregation of ambient productive capacity, so that a foreign object brought into a given city might be reverse engineered or improved upon by the citizens of said city. Regardless of her conjectures regarding the origin of agriculture, this functionality is at the core of all market-towns, even those the size of London, and was up until the post-industrial period only predominantly deviated from in the form of military or religious citadels, which one may only debatably consider similar to patterns economic urbanization. Thus, we may understand import replacement as a phenomenon to functionally concern the increases in variance of possible skill for an individual intelligence to know through a combination of proximity to other specialists, simultaneously integrated with automation. Through this, the citizens of the city are able to have a profit of choice, so they may find a way of life that is more in line with their inherent virtues and needs, lacking the painful friction of the world we are familiar with at the moment. The various pathologies that cause a society to stray from this meta-path, a path that allows a society to choose which paths it individuals and groups wish to be on, are certainly individual to each society, but each of them must have a counter, even if that is just outlasting them by living better and enjoying a nonviolent and defensible prosperity. 

This is of course an aspirational notion, a description of a potential utopia of playful labor that might one day be, but which would be at the end of a road blocked by complex obstacles. Years ago I read histories of Babbage searching for the right-type of machined parts for the Difference and Analytical Engines while good Ada was working out the programming. In the present, I heard stories of the woodshop where Evessa Olizar, a childhood friend, worked. The woodshop employed the men who once carved the wax-molds to cast steel parts for who knows what, who, in her words, were now tasked with producing "Ikea-grade customs." Perhaps a mile away there must have been tech-boys verbally circle jerking around some new model of 3D printer, the degredation of infrastructure to appliance, then to entertainment. This is an ecological and economic crash, where the non-linear methods of circumvention by way of the symbolic value of products have caused the local capacities of the system to crash. Perhaps this is why Babbage was not able to build the engines to necessary specification; the base technology was there. The reconstructions I saw in the London Science Museum were built with only historically possible prowess and process, but the engine of coordination that might produce the logistical circumstances to create parts for such a device might have been underdeveloped so that Babbage was defeated by inconvenience rather than impossibility. Regardless if it was vestigial-ness or atrophy, that engine of coordination, that body-economic, must be maintained if we are to accomplish anything at all, including the memory that it was worth accomplishing things in the first place.