*Enchantment and Exploitation: The Life and Hard Times of a New Mexican Mountain Range
Our lives are made for communication, our bodies bathed in information.
Some information is vague, like a handmade sign in a sagebrush field “Coming Later.”
Sometimes amusing, “Wisdom Way, Dead End.”
Sometimes it is unexpectedly delightful, a poem composed on a typewriter outside a Taos grocery as two young boys look on.
Sometimes cryptic. An unusual painting of a golden “T” or “B” in an abstracted canyon (?) hung on the back wall of the 1772 San Francisco de Asis adobe church in Rancho de Taos.
Some information we don’t notice.
Maybe we’re distracted.
Maybe allowing it into our consciousness would bring unwelcome complications.
Sometimes we absentmindedly notice and are so habituated that we respond without thinking.
Other times information barges in like an unwelcome guest. That was the case this past Saturday when at 2am the piercing din of a gas company jackhammer made an appearance outside my bedroom window. The next morning that audio message swapped to an alarming visual, ants swarming the counter after an empty beer can tipped on the way to the recycle bin. A scout must have found the dribble and left a pheromone trail inviting its nest-mates to join the impromptu party. That was a bit of a stigmergy synchronicity. On Stephers’s recommendation I’d ordered James Kennedy’s and Russell Eberhart’s “Swarm Intelligence,” a 2001 textbook. It had come the previous day.
Our minds and biology deftly sort, curate, and weave streams of information into stories that serve as operating instructions for everything from the chemistry of our metabolisms to the ebb and flow of our emotions. Stories frame our views, giving us places to stand as we position our Archimedes’ levers, project our intentions, and strive to leave an impression upon the world. The archetypes we inhabit as we navigate realms material and immaterial are narrative artifacts of accumulated information that glom onto us over the course of a life well-lived. These constructs are held in our hearts and often fiercely defended, unless you’re the anomaly who’s been pulled into a reinvention phase. Most of us seek stability, harmony, and coherence not disruption. Wrenches in the gears are not the norm.
Programmers of artificial intelligence know this and have developed mathematical models that replicate this homeostatic imperative to train neural networks to become more “human.” The concept is called explanatory coherence and addresses under what circumstances and how people recalibrate fundamentally held beliefs. Our natural tendency is to seek out and uplift information that bolsters and enhances the part of the story arc we occupy. We need a solid place to put our levers after all, before we can get to work; the work we’re meant to do; the work that gives our lives meaning and fills out its contours.
Those fortunate to have a measure of shelter from the storms of social unrest are not inclined to start hacking away at the foundation of their belief system. That’s simple logic. Information that doesn’t conform to familiar patterns is scuttled around back where the threat of cognitive dissonance can be confined to the distant chambers of our collective mental dust bin – out of sight, out of mind. The social engineers make use of that, not just to train lurching mechanical brains, but to orchestrate digital media campaigns fed by real time data flows that influence population-level behavior as if we’d been foisted into a global socially engineered, augmented reality crisis simulation.
Page 254 of “Swarm Intelligence” describes the use of cultural algorithms in adaptive problem-solving environments where the goal is a “fitter population” and belief systems that constrain individual behaviors to fit desired norms.
“In cultural algorithms, individuals interact with one another in population space and are influenced by group-level generalized beliefs in the belief space. In each step of the algorithm, individuals are evaluated using a performance function, and their fitness is determined. An acceptance function determines if the individual should influence the population’s direction, that is, whether the individual will contribute to the belief space. If an individual is accepted, its state is adjusted with those of other individuals to form group beliefs, as information in the belief space is used to guide evolution to the next step.”
And that, my friends, is in a nutshell why I decided to leave Twitter.
If the “fitness” goal is to generate a hivemind human+ open-air digital prison/zoo, people like me will never earn the right to influence “the group” within DARPA’s algorithmically governed “belief space.” Maybe, like in Ira Levin’s “This Perfect Day” there will be a geofenced “Second Life” island for avatars of dissidents where we inhabit the illusion that our fate has not been set by Unicomp, the master computer.
After a close inspection of Theosophist Fritz Kunz’s correspondence with Harvard applied sociologist Piritim Sorokin I see a desire dating back at least to 1949 to create a hyperspace simulation, an Open Source Intelligence playground of social physics, where through ubiquitous tracking and disciplined analysis global technicians aspire to generate a master dataset to quantify core human values. Once they have it in hand, my guess is that they believe they can reverse-engineer sentience, and bestow it, Dr. Frankenstein-like, on humanoid robot contraptions like Sophia, or heaven help us, those Xenobot crumbles. It is truly a misguided attempt to unlock the immense power of Eros in the universe. Although I haven’t firmed up my understanding of programmed morality and biological field theory you can hear my musings in an interview Jason and I did yesterday here, slide deck here.
I’m not sure why, but at this stage of my life my operating system has ended up pretty non-conformist. I am grateful to have found a handful of friends and collaborators who seem to be working in the same zone. We are pattern seekers in search of stories that are emerging just beyond the boundary of our sensory knowing. We sift through piles of information for double-meanings and encoding. Semiotics is our bag. The thrill of the chase as we pull the threads, peel back layers, and bring the past and future into clearer focus.
Since leaving my position at the garden last fall, I have become pretty much a full-time pattern seeker in an age of permanent exception. The result of my wide-ranging curiosity and tendency to chafe at anything with a whiff of groupthink has led me to the edge of the game board. I have empathy for that lone ant who made it past the kitchen sink and now wanders, aimlessly, in circles by the toaster.
There is a story out there that needs to be told. It is vast and hasn’t coalesced into a vision that can be readily communicated, especially to those who don’t desire to be unsettled. Instead of dust-binning new information straightway, our little cadre scrutinizes it. The bits that that seem to be a part of this unfolding drama, we set aside, piles of roughly sorted jigsaw puzzle pieces of various hues. Information waiting to become meaningful once the proper context is found.
I work the edge pieces first, as is my habit – to get the structure laid out. Somedays I fiddle with pieces in a particular pile, and then there are weeks when the jigsaw table of assorted facts sits gathering dust, because life happens. It was that way with my Berggruen series, which is still in the holding pattern. Soon, more to come in a few weeks. I promise. We use bookmarks to organize our informational puzzle tables, emails, and slide shares. I like relationship maps, which are like memory palaces of stories I hope to tell one day – a constellation of loosely connected imaginings that inform my evolving pattern-seeker identity. I am excited Jason has put in the effort to create a new discussion space with a dedicated server, so that we will no longer be held hostage the cultural algorithms. If you want to look over our shoulders to see what we’re up to, visit our Discourse page here.
Communication can be both effortless and supremely challenging. When it functions correctly, we don’t give it a second thought, but hyperspace presents stumbling blocks. The upheaval of the recent past has catalyzed connections across a widely dispersed geography linking people who appear to share common cause. But as months pass, then years, strains of information warfare take a toll. The blockchain crowd peddles tokenized trust, pretending these mechanisms are for human-to-human exchanges, though the unspoken reality is most of the transacting moving forward will be between machines with humans largely out of the loop. Authentic, relational trust is hard to earn with people you’ve never met in a weaponized space designed to make us question our most basic understandings of reality. And that presumes we’re still sharing a single “reality” rather than infinite fractals playing out in segmented simulations.
One of the speakers at the Mormon Transhumanist Association conference in March was Ally Isom, a candidate for US Senate from Utah with deep political connections in the state and LDS affiliations. The theme of her speech was that we are “wired to connect,” which is somewhat ironic since her current position is with a nano-technology firm. The sentiment is accurate, though I suspect we’d disagree on appropriate methods of implementation.
She’s right that connection is vital. We are social animals, and collective intelligence when it is consensual and non-coercive can be profoundly satisfying. I hate having to try and find a new way to communicate across distance that is meaningful and productive. There are so many pitfalls online: cancel culture, ghosting, interference, algorithmic suppression, selective curation. It’s as though nothing can be taken at face value. Yes, I’ve blocked people. None of us are immune to the toxic aspect of these tools. The thing is that none of this is normal, and we are expected to embrace it without question. Deposit your trust token here.
A friend introduced me to the Enderverse series by Orson Scott Card. Card is the great-great grandson Brigham Young, and the world he built seems to have a lot of messages for our times – Children of the Mind and Xenocide in particular. The world he wrote into being is made up of Philotes. Philotes is a minor Greek goddess of friendship (and sex) whose siblings are Nemesis (indignation) and Apate (deceit). Combined they are driving forces, with Nekeia (quarrels), behind creation and human behavior.
In the Enderverse, through quantum entanglement, philotes twine with one another to create ever more complicated networks that eventually attain sentience, the ability to maintain pattern complexity. Beings that attain such a state are said to have an Aiua, the physical site of the soul. At that stage, rays that connect philotes to the core of their planet exchange their individual connections for a collective tether. Through deepened relationality the beings in Card’s books become twined with one another. Connections strengthen or fade over time. Given my recent readings Card’s fictional premise surprisingly seems aligned with Kunz’s view of crystallography, magnetism, and rays.
I’ve spent the past 4-6 weeks diving into radioecology. If you want to poke around my big map, you can find it here. I’d written a few pieces over the years about the financialization of nature through Internet of Things sensor enabled ESG portfolio investments, but I hadn’t dug deeply into the history of the ecology movement in the United States. Having been tipped off by my friends Leo and Jen about the involvement of the Atomic Energy Commission, I thought it was time. We were headed to Taos, New Mexico for a week with a stop at Valles Caldera National Preserve outside Los Alamos planned. Angela Creager’s “Life Atomic: A History of Radioisotopes in Science and Medicine,” was my not-so-light travel reading along with Oliver Reiser’s “Cosmic Humanism,” which is no picnic either.
By the time we passed through the Los Alamos checkpoint and began winding up Cerro Grande and Cerro Medio, the sides of a massive volcano, I’d read enough to be acquainted with Creager’s premise that Atoms for Peace provided a counterpoint of manufactured benevolence to offset the vigor of the Cold War arms race. Through refinement of nuclear waste products and strategic creation of markets around them by the Atomic Energy Commission, scientists were convinced to embark on novel investigations of metabolic processes using newly available radioactive materials. Pre-war capabilities had been limited to researchers within the sphere of Ernest Lawrence’s Berkeley Lab cyclotron isotope “gift economy.”
Oak Ridge National Lab enabled isotope production at an industrial scale. Radioactive molecules were the first generation of tracers, unlocking secrets of life not previously understood. The war on cancer was leveraged to remake modern medicine as a biophysics enterprise landing us at CRISPR, precision medicine, and genomic “longevity enhancements.” The 1950s ushered in an era where the molecule became the dominate frame, though the advent of this age had been long anticipated.
J.D. Bernal’s 1929 book “The World, The Flesh, and the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul,” an influence on Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” published three years later, posited a future where man not only conquered the molecule and used it to fabricate more efficient forms of food and clothing, but pursued a eugenics agenda where human life in its present form was merely a larval stage. It preceded a scientifically mediated metamorphosis where useless parts of the body were replaced with mechanical components. A brain encased in a cylinder would operate multiple specialized appendages modeled on a crustacean. Ears would become wireless transmission receivers, taste an enhanced chemical identification apparatus, and rather than moving we would travel and engage with objects at a distance using tele-acoustic, tele-motor organs.
On page 33, Bernal states the following:
“The new man must appear to those who have not contemplated him before as a strange, monstrous and inhuman creature, but he is only the logical outcome of the type of humanity that exists at present. It may be argued that this tampering with bodily mechanisms is as unnecessary as it is difficult, that all the increase of control needed may be obtained by extremely responsive mechanisms outside the unaltered human body. But though it is possible that in the early stages a surgically transformed man would be at a disadvantage in capacity of performance to a normal, healthy man, he would still be better off than a dead man. Although it is possible that man has far to go before his inherent physiological and psychological make-up becomes the limiting factor to his development, this must happen sooner or later, and it is then that the mechanized man will begin to show definite advantage. Normal man is an evolutionary dead end: mechanical man, apparently a break in organic evolution, is actually more in the true tradition of a further evolution.”
Bernal lived from 1901 to 1971. He was an esteemed molecular biologist who held the first lectureship in structural crystallography at Cambridge later working on sterol compounds, B1, pepsin, D2, and tobacco mosaic virus at University College London’s Birkbeck Bio-molecular Research Center. Bernal was interested in the origins of life from protein structure to meteorites and water. During World War II he, along with Solly Zuckerman, were scientific advisors to Lord Mountbatten and provided input into preparations for D-Day. He was a well-regarded writer of popular science books and a pioneer in x-ray crystallography.
So, as absurd as his assertions may seem at first blush, my gut tells me we should take them to heart. The Manhattan Project didn’t end, in my opinion, it simply morphed into the Human Genome Project. We would do well to keep this in mind in the event that their planned tele-presence mechano-crustacean existence campaign is not as far out on the horizon as we’d like. Biophysics is the most basic form of communication. It is communication that exists at the core of our being. What is being planned is a hijacking of our naturally networked existence into an engineered parody under military control. I fear that the horror unleashed by Fat Man and Little Boy may one day be outstripped by the capacities of bioengineers.
The one interactive part of the Los Alamos Historic District Museum was a small room in the back running video of the atomic explosions. There were small clip boards with sheets that posed a leading question about the importance of governments keeping secrets from the people. That history of secrecy, I believe, extends to bio-nano technology. Even if not overtly hidden, neither the media, nor academia, nor civil society NGOs have the stomach to break the news to the public about the transformations underway – terraforming carbon-based life for nano-machine biocompatibility. The United States government should never have made those bombs, nor should they have dropped them on Japan. They should not have irradiated thousands of people and millions of acres with radioactive fallout. They should not have enriched defense contractors for decades posturing around mutually assured destruction even as behind the scenes top nuclear scientists at Pugwash were setting up the post-Cold War global integration program built on radio-eugenics. I said as much on my submission to the survey way. I also told folks to look up the Moonshot Project Goal One and Ian Akyildiz at Georgia Tech.
We drove for a half hour along the flanks of mountains recovering from devastating fires – 43,000 acres burned in 2000 and 156,000 acres in 2011. As you approach the summit, the edge of the caldera, a glorious meadow of wildflowers and sedge wetlands is visible below – an unusual site for a state where sagebrush is the norm. The crater, which last blew debris over the entire state 1.2 million years ago, measures fourteen miles across. From satellite imagery you can see its clearly defined shape with lava domes now covered with spruce, fir, and aspen – or the remnants of them. The area, which abuts the Santa Clara Pueblo in the northeast, was designated a national preserve in 2000. There are relatively few visitors and supposedly lots of elk, though we didn’t see any that day.
The plan was to spend the morning exploring the caldera and then balance out nature’s magnificence with a visit to Bathtub Row where Oppenheimer oversaw the research that would push humanity to a dark and treacherous place.
I felt the natural abundance of the preserve, built atop energetic forces far more powerful that the MED’s atomic bombs, would be a powerful antidote to biophysics tyranny. I gathered some sticks, yarrow, sage, St. John’s Wort, a mushroom, pinecone, charcoal from a lightning struck pine, and dandelions, of course. There were SO MANY dandelions there that day. I didn’t see them anywhere else in New Mexico, but in the caldera their bright yellow faces greeted me like old friends.
I arranged the offerings in a heart at the feet of statues of Oppenheimer and General Groves located in front of the main building of the Ranch School where the scientific elite drank cocktails and danced after putting in grueling hours trying to figure out how to efficiently destroy the world. That was my communication – information and intention put out into the universe to add a tiny bit to a much-needed rebalancing, a refutation of plans for the full-spectrum domination embodied by Los Alamos from nuclear weapons to DNA sequencing and supercomputing. Entangling and untangling and witnessing and saying I do not consent.
Even the grouchy masked staffer at the Caldera visitor center and the plague warnings posted in the latrines could not dampen the wonder of experiencing the Jara Trail where the composition of the wildflowers changed every fifty feet or so. I so wish I’d had a field guide with me, the intensity of life packed into that mile and a half was astonishing. There was a crazy amount of communication happening from shouts of alarm from the prairie dog town to rainwater cupped in a lichen-covered boulder, dew-covered spiderwebs in the grass, gleaming elk droppings, the deep green shade of conifers, a kestrel diving, and the animated conversation of a raven high above our picnic table. One of the most powerful things I saw was a lone pine tree on the edge of a brook that had been incinerated by a lightning strike. While half of it lay in charred ruin a few boughs held onto green needles. It stood as a reminder that it’s not over until it’s over.
They are attempting to march us into a mechanical world that seeks to sideline Mother Nature. In this world meadows like the one surrounding the Jara Trail would be reduced to lines of code logged in a taxonomy-portal and added to an ongoing tally of life tracked by drones and local sensor networks so that some private interest group can take credit for saving the world, even as they strangle it with technology. These technicians cannot see these communities as relatives or teachers. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s assertion that humans are the youngest siblings and need to have humility and know their place and learn from the elder beings – the stones, plants, and animals – would never cross their mind. Complex ecosystems rich in living interactions are simply digital assets waiting to be turned to profit from the next creative finance scheme.
Let us step away from decentralized networks and reacquaint ourselves with the natural connections that are our birthright as sons and daughters of life. Whether it’s the philotic twining and aiuas of the Enderverse or something else, we exist in a universe of intimate connection whether we can experience them with our limited sensory equipment or not. They are there. The creative force of the universe has not abandoned us. If we are still and listen, we can find our way back.
It is also vital that we figure out how to explain to the climate justice crowd what is happening. We need them to understand the history of atomic ecology, gamification of cellular processes, and that pervasive surveillance where giraffes must wear heart monitors to pay for drone services isn’t care or altruism. All of this is a horror dressed up in do-gooder bedtime stories for naive progressives who don’t have the backbone to face up to what BlackRock, Google, Chainlink, and Blockscience have planned.
Yes, they have the cultural algorithms and targeted nudges, but we have love in our corner – agape, eros, philia, ludus, pragma, and philautia.
Can we find a way to tell the better story, a story where hope lives among the charred embers? Shkitagen – the tinder fungus carrying the sparks onward.
That day I walked a trail of a hill burned by wildfire a decade ago and noticed there were no woody plants growing back, only grasses, which came as a surprise. On the way out I handed the pass to a lovely volunteer and asked her about it – why no shrubs or baby trees? She told me the basin had too many cool nights for the seeds to germinate and that those trees would never come back. Plus, the soil was compacted from eons when the crater was a lake.
Whatever comes next will be different. The only constant is change.
So, what comes later? That’s what the sign said at the beginning of the post. I used to be the kind of person who always had a plan, who knew in general terms what came next, what success looked like. I don’t have that anymore, and I’ve made an uneasy peace with it. What comes later is what the universe offers you if you have the awareness to greet it when it arrives. Sometimes that means bumps in the road. I Ching 39 – There is water on top of the mountain, limping. The noble one reverses his being to cultivate virtue. I’m pulling back and will spend the coming week exploring the Shenandoah – optics, eugenics, land speculation and perhaps even some water on the mountain.
It’s tough pursuing all of these in an era of intentional digital disconnect.
But we cannot give up.
Try, fail, apologize, try again, but do things differently the next time.
Go forward from a place of love, because the robots are never going to have that part. They just won’t.
Meanwhile, so I don’t forget this trip to Taos I am recording a list of communications that engaged me that week.
Lava rock spiral on the bank of the Rio Grande Gorge. I walked it and lay yarrow and dandelion at the center on top of a pile of objects topped by plastic orange dinosaur and student ID card.
Marmots or “whistling pigs” calling across the lichen covered talus slopes on Wheeler Peak.
Monsoon afternoons along the Sangre de Christo range.
Striking cluster of Amanita mushrooms along the trail to Williams Lake.
Rufous hummingbirds in the Russian Sage outside the front door.
Experiencing a traumatic energy field walking the Williams Lake Trail after the downing of 75% of the trees last December by straight line winds. So many fallen trees crossed the trail had been cut, but you could feel the harm as you passed them.
The reflection of the mountain in that lake behind the walking onions.
A coyote trotting across the meadow as we left Valles Caldera.
Chrome Thunderbird window grills on the Los Alamos Post Office built in the late 1940s by the Atomic Energy Commission.
Ginkgo seedlings grown from seeds of survivors of the Hiroshima bombing in pots on the counter of the Hans Bethe House.
Written inside the desk drawer of Stanislaw Ulam’s desk on display on Bathtub Row: “A mathematician writes something on a piece of paper and lo and behold a big explosion may occur.” S.U. 1967 Ulam was a researcher on the hydrogen bomb project, cellular automata, and the Monte Carlo method.
The straw glowing in the sunlight – a fresh coat of adobe on the Rancho de Taos church. Enjarre is the annual restoration of the mud and straw.
The dad wearing a SEL (social emotional learning) conference t-shirt with his daughter who crossed our path no fewer than three times while on the Italianos trail.
An older veteran telling me that I couldn’t sit at the bar because my hair was too big, but then relenting and telling me stories about his time at Fort Dix in the 1980s and being hosted by the Amish.
Another guy, a telecom/internet company owner from Tennessee, pitching me on thorium nuclear reactors. I gave him an earful about it.
A scene playing on the TV as I read my “Life Atomic” book from Stranger Things, where Nancy has a tape of the Department of Energy director admitting that bad people killed Barb, but the Chicago private investigator tells her having proof doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is if people of influence, people on the TV, will believe it. For that you have to water it down. If you don’t, there is no way for them to accept it. The truth is too much – even if you have the smoking gun.
Plus, many frustrating communications regarding a Hertz rental car with a blown-out tire and changed flight arrangements after US Airways couldn’t fix a faulty engine at the Santa Fe Airport.
Super cute airport, but you really don’t want to spend eight hours there.