The Laboratorium
June 2002

Politics As Waste


Politics is the waste product of the ferment of civilization, unavoidable but dangerous if not properly contained.

-- Iain Pears

Bradley On Power


That's when I learned about knowing nothing will get you humiliated and knowing a little bit can get you killed, but knowing all of it will bring you power.

-- David Bradley

Platypus Quote


Some things you can feel coming. You don't fall in love because you fall in love; you fall in love because of the need, desperate, to fall in love. When you feel that need, you have to watch your step: like having drunk a philter, the kind that makes you fall in love with the first things you meet. It could be a duck-billed platypus.

-- UmbertoEco

Wings None Of Us Has


Each time I mentioned Arthur's name I heard him saying, "Don't bother," and felt dizzy; it was like peering over a cliff, and now, as Phlox walked off, the ground on the other side of me split and began to give way. I thought, I fanced, that in a moment, I would be standing on nothing at all, and for the first time in my life, I needed the wings none of us has.

-- Michael Chabon

Welfare Definition


Welfare, n, Health, happiness, and good fortune; well-being. This is what the Constitution means by "the general welfare," and this is the sense in which governments have established "welfare" programs. The ferocious political backlash against these programs has made "welfare" synonymous with them. A word originally used to advertise them has itself become negatively charged; consider the changed meaning of "welfare state" and the coinage of "corporate welfare."

Veblen On Spelling


English orthography satisfies all the repquirements of the canons of reputability under the law of conspicuous waste. It is archaic, cumbrous, and ineffective; its acquisition consumes much time and effort; failure to acquire it is easy of detection. Therefore, it is the first and readiest test of reputability in learning, and conformity to its ritual is indispensible to a blameless scholastic life.

-- ThorsteinVeblen

Veblen On Lawyers


The lawyer is exclusively occupied with the details of predatory fraud, either in achieving or in checkmating chicane, and success in the profession is therefore accepted as marking a large endowment of that barbarian astuteness which has always commanded men's respect and fear.

-- ThorsteinVeblen

To He That Has


In history and in life one sometimes seems to glimpse a ferocious law which states: "to he that has, will be given; from he that has not, will be taken away."

-- Primo Levi

The Standard Of The Beautiful


Surrealists, who aspire to be cultural radicals, even revolutionaries, have often been under the well-intentioned illusion that they could be, indeed should be, Marxists. But Surrealist aestheticism is too suffused with irony to be compatible with the twentieth century's most seductive form of moralism. Marx reproached philosophy for only trying to understand the world, rather than trying to change it. Photographers, operating within the terms of the Surrealist sensibility, suggest the vanity of even trying to understand the world, and instead propose that we collect it.

-- SusanSontag

The Crime Of Sarajevo


So just was the cause of Austria held to be, that it seemed to her people inconceivable that any country should place itself in her path, or that questions of mere policy or prestige should be regarded anywhere as superceding the necessity which had arisen to exact summary vengeance for the crime of Serajevo.

-- Sir Maurice de Bunsen

Tape Definition


Tape, n, A continuous narrow, flexible strip of cloth, metal, paper, or plastic. Conspicuously absent: any mention of stickiness (think of "cassette tape" or "ticker tape"). The sense that tape must be sticky is a back-propagation from "adhesive tape." The original red tape was made of cloth and was used to hold together bundles of legal documents (like we might use packing twine); but since the newer, gluey, meaning of "tape" is plausible in this context, the metaphor that red tape is sticky stuff has stuck.

Surrealists And Marxists


Surrealists, who aspire to be cultural radicals, even revolutionaries, have often been under the well-intentioned illusion that they could be, indeed should be, Marxists. But Surrealist aestheticism is too suffused with irony to be compatible with the twentieth century's most seductive form of moralism. Marx reproached philosophy for only trying to understand the world, rather than trying to change it. Photographers, operating within the terms of the Surrealist sensibility, suggest the vanity of even trying to understand the world, and instead propose that we collect it.

-- SusanSontag

Sic Transit Gloria MTA


This month's issue of Harper's has a profile of Darius McCollum, who, for years, has impersonated an employee of the New York City Transit Authority. Now two years into a five-year sentence, McCollum lives and breathes subways. He has repeatedly been caught driving subways, fixing broken trains, working shifts with repair crews, repainting break rooms, and any number of other activities that would be wholly reasonable, if only they were being performed by an actual NYCTA employee.

The article makes a reasonable case that McCollum suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, a mild form of autism that leads to intense fixations on particular subjects. Compared with typical Asperger's sufferers, McCollum is lucky: his particular obsession corresponds very neatly to a perfectly legitimate profession. He fits in perfectly well with "real" subway workers, many of whom know him, are glad to see him and work with him, and actively collaborate with his infiltration mission -- the professional context, apparently, negates the social awkwardness typically associated with Asperger's.

In another sense, though, McCollum is very unlucky in his fixation, precisely because it leads him out into the world, into a place where he's not technically allowed to be. He doesn't work for the Transit Authority, and when they catch him in one of their vests, carrying one of their badges, and checking the brakes on one of their subway cars, they press charges.


So wait a minute. Why are they pressing charges? Why don't they just give him a job? Nowhere in the Harper's article is this question really addressed. It's not like Darius McCollum is obsessed with the subway; he's obsessed with working on the subway, and he certainly seems to be good at it. Part of the subtext in the article was that many of his "colleagues" are so glad to see him because he's perfectly capable of working alongside them and easing their own workload. If anything, he's the ideal employee: totally selfless, perfectly knowledgeable, and utterly dedicated.

At this point, there's probably a vicious circle at work. He's got a criminal record and a long history of superficially shady involvement with the subway system. Those who know McCollum like and trust him, but the MTA has got to be worrying about what will happen if something ever goes wrong while he's nearby.

If a criminal court is willing to throw him in the slammer (for making a good-faith by-the-book attempt to get a stalled train moving again), maybe a civil court would look skeptically at turning such a man loose on the subway system. If the MTA ever gets sued for an incident he has any connection to, they're going to look pretty bad in the face of questioning from a hostile ambulance-chaser.

I can see it now. "Mrs. Wiggum, when you boarded that train, who did you think would be maintaining the switches on the track? Did you expect that it would be a trained and qualified MTA employee? Or did you think that it would be a mentally ill man off the streets, a man with no training and no certification, a man with an unhealthy obsession with the subway system, who sneaks down into the tunnels wearing a stolen uniform so he can satisfy his obession by playing at being an MTA employee, a man who has been repeatedly arrested and convicted for endangering the safety of passengers with his antics? I see. Thank you. Your witness."

It's a gross distortion to put things like this, but there is a kernel of an important idea in that harangue. The Mrs. Wiggums of this world think about subway maintainance, if they think about it at all, only rarely and distantly. They make a loose assumption that everything is being done according to well-defined procedures by largely interchangeable but more or less competent professionals. They don't want to think about the qualifications of the indviduals doing that maintainance; they don't want to have to evaluate the risks of boarding a subway based on how much they trust Darius McCollum.

And in a division-of-labor capitalist society, they don't have to. That's the idea behind McDonalds. That's the idea behind accounting regulations. That's the idea behind the EPA, the FAA, the FDA, and OSHA. It's the idea behind the assembly line, one-click ordering, Six Sigma quality control, and sweatshop labor. And it's the idea behind throwing people in jail if they impersonate your employees. The product or service must be completely isolable from any possible irregularities in its creation.

That way, people can consume it and forget about it, and they don't need to tie up their social neurons interacting with Pablo, who sewed the seams in their shirt for a nickel an hour, or with Tim, who loaded their books into a box at the Amazon distribution center, or with Darius, who checked the electrical relays on the switches at 40th Street.

That's how large societies generally work. Not everyone knows everyone else. You vouch for the people you know; as for the rest, you set up powerful institutions -- the police, the SEC, Human Resources departments, corporations, whip-bearing overseers, or the MTA -- to keep them in line. That's the choice Mrs. Wiggum made. That's the choice we've all made. We ask society to simplify things for us.

And that's the choice that keeps Darius McCollum behind bars. It may be perfectly true that he poses no threat to others, but it's also equally true that his particular situation is complex, more complex than the NYCTA wants to deal with. They're not in the business of dealing with complex issues; they're in the business of making the trains run on time, of reducing the tangled lives of thousands of trainmen and maintainance workers into an orderly grid of on-time statistics.

From the standpoint of that grid, Darius McCollum is a rounding error. Putting kind, competent, and harmless people in prison is the sort of error that passes for typical in this country.

Sheryl Crow Imitators


Once Sheryl Crow was an established hit, the music business was compelled to offer up an endless number of Sheryl Crow imitators. Then when the Sheryl Crow imitators became a reliable radio genre, Sheryl Crow was compelled to imitate them. (_Entertainment Weekly_, without irony, recently praised the new Moby album for sounding like his last.)

-- Michael Wolff

Rules Of Cool


In this sense, the third rule of cool fits perfectly into the second: the second rule says that cool cannot be manufactured, only observed, and the third says that it can only be observed by those who are themselves cool. And, of course, the first rule says that it cannot accurately be observed at all, because the act of discovering cool causes it to take flight, so if you add all three together they describe a closed loop, the hermenuetic circle of coolhunting, a phenomenon whereby not only can the uncool not see cool but cool cannot be even adequately described to them.

-- Malcolm Gladwell

Raindrop Asterisks


He gets back to the Casino just as big globular raindrops, thick as honey, begin to splat into giant asterisks on the pavement, inviting him to look down at the bottom of the text of the day, where footnotes will explain all. He isn't about to look. Nobody ever said a day has to be juggled into any kind of sense at day's end."

-- ThomasPynchon

Pornography As Pidgin


Lust is a great and inexhaustible literary subject, but writing graphically about what excites one isn't literature. The same stupid things excite everybody. Pornography is a form of pidgin -- a trading tongue without the deep wellspring of nuance that produces clarity.

-- Judith Thurman

Pictures As Objects


. . . we _regard_ the photograph, the picture on our wall, as the object itself (the man, landscape, and so on) depicted there. This need not have been so. We could easily imagine people who did not have this relation to such pictures. Who, for example, would be repelled by photographs, because a face without colour and even perhaps a face in reduced proportions struck them as inhuman.

-- Ludwig Wittgenstein

On The Take


On the Take is the book that groks corruption. That is, it develops a series of interrelated observations until the reader realizes that they are all merely facets of a single subtle, deep, and highly depressing statement about corruption, one that defies reduction to a single sentence.

Legal and illegal businesses are interdependent parts of the same ecology, linked both economically and politically. Self-dealing by governmental officials is a fundamental and intractable problem. Crime afflicts poor communities disproportionately not because they are home to more criminals but because they lack the power to force the crime elsewhere. The exposure of corruption is just as political as the concealing of it: prosecutions for graft are a tool used by a political machine to wrest power from another.

On Melancholy


Melancholy isn't about anything. Melancholy has a style or manner but no subject. Melancholy is a way of thinking, a way of thinking _about thinking_, and it needs to consume the sufferer and thus needs layers and strata and veneers in perpetuity in which to cloak and conceal itself. Melancholy is not a preocupation with death, nor a recoiling from shop interiors or human fellowship, nor is it a lack of interest in things of the world, though these may be characteristics of melancholy. It's more a particular complexion to thinking, a tightening, a spiraling, a funneling, a drilling, an incising, a helixing, the direction of this cogitation being always _down and in_, as when an oral surgeon begins screwing into your molar during root canal. A preocupation with death, a recoiling from society, an anhedonia, an obsession with conscience, these follow with melancholy, but any transient theme will soon give way to something worse, something darker and meaner, something less lucid, because the goal of melancholy is its direction and force and shape. Continuity of the illness. Any meaning of melancholy is vehicular, decorative, like a viny overgrowth on the gates of the crypt where the sufferer is cast down for his or her imprisonment. _All the world is melancholy_, Burton says, _every member of it_.

-- RickMoody

On Familiar Ground


Something bothered me about the latest Star Wars movie. No, not the ethnic stereotypes, the terrible dialogue, or the boring battle scenes. It wasn't even the ridiculous name of the Christopher Lee character (Duke Countu? Count Dooku of Earlu?). No, what stuck in my head was the feeling that I'd _seen this before_.

http://www.laboratorium.net/bushpope.jpg

I clipped this MSNBC graphic a while back, just because the facial expressions and hand gesture are priceless. "Someday son, this will all be yours." Or, maybe, "Do you think the subhead should be a little lower down? Let me adjust it." But that background! That's Lake Como, where the strangely tedious love scenes for Episode II were filmed. Sure, Lucas turned the color saturation all the way up, but that ain't no alien planet.

When you think about it, actually, the Dubya/Pope meeting has some eerie resonances with the Star Wars backstory. A wizened spiritual elder working on an arrogant but easily-influenced youth, passing along his twisted ideology? It strikes me as no more implausible than most of the baloney spouted about the Star Wars movies.

One Market Under God


How did CEOs come to see themselves as revolutionaries? How were markets able to present themselves as more legitmate than democracy? When did skepticism become a sin? And how is it that concern for the downtrodden became "elitist?"

The book, more than any other, that radicalized me, One Market Under God is an impassioned and absurdly well-written all-out indictment of the off-kilter culture of business and how that culture has coopted legitimate political and economic discourse in this country. One Market Under God is a filter, a lexicon, an antidote: it tells you which curtain to look behind.

Nobody Dast Blame This Man


Nobody dast blame this man. You don't understand. Willy was a salesman; and for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don't put a bolt to a nut, he don't tell you the law, or give you medicine. He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine; and when they start not smiling back -- boy, that's an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you're finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy; it comes with the territory."

-- Arthur Miller

New Content


This is some content.

-- JamesGrimmelmann

Moody On Blackness


_For though consciences are unlike as foreheads, every intelligence has one_, upon every forehead the burdensome ornament of the black conscience, and a recognition that the civilization we founded, the civilization of the strip mall and the subdivision and the online cosmetic surgeon, _all built upon the color black_; when I wore the lonely, annihilating veil I felt the blackness of it, as above, but _mostly insinuated_, a howling inside me about history and remorse and loneliness and madness and the need to capture these somehow, and I feel it still; my roots, which are _your roots_, go back to the first syllable of language, my roots are in cave painting, my roots precede the first guilty confessor who attempted to be shriven by a guilty priest, my roots precede the light upon the world, dwelling equally in its darkness; it's a history of honesty, dignity, and courage on the one hand, and _brutality, bloodthirstiness, and murder_ on the other. To be an American, to be a citizen of the West, is to be a murderer. Don't kid yourself. Cover your face.

-- RickMoody

Matrix Defn


Matrix, n, A situation or surrounding substance within which something else originates, develops, or is contained. Most people I talk to think the title of The Matrix refers to those rectangular things with numbers in them, which is superficially reasonable. The true meaning, however, comes a lot closer to the movie's central conceit than the vaguely technical implication of the mathematical sense does.

Marigolds Six Feet Under


There are marigolds six feet
under. They eat the names of the dead.

-- Lorna Dee Cervantes

Love On Purity


Keep talking about brands and you know what you'll get? Bad clothes. Bad hair. Bad books. Bad movies. And bad records. And bankrupt businesses. Rides that were fun for a year with no employee loyalty but everyone got rich fucking you. Who wants that? The answer is purity. We can afford it. Let's go find it again while we can."

-- Courtney Love

Light Of The Star


Since the light of the star which was daguerreotyped took twenty years to traverse the space separating it from the earth, the ray which was fixed on the plate had consequently left the celestial sphere a long time before Daguerre had discovered the process by means of which we have just gained control of that light.

-- Eugene Delacroix

Lapidifying Juice


I was talking to you, I was asking you. Lapidifying juice, petrific seed, volcanic spume, the tears of the moon -- somewhere, wherever you are, do you too look at the world and ask question after question?

-- AndreaBarrett

Kawii Otaku


Every hipster who goes to Tokyo comes back learning two words: kawii, which means 'cute' and otaku, which means 'obsessive.' The thing that's interesting is when you combine those two things. That's what Hello Kitty is.

-- Tom Sachs

Instructed By Photographs


What it once took a very intelligent eye to see, anyone can see now. Instructed by photographs, everyone is able to visualize that once purely literary conceit, the geography of the body: for example, photographing a pregnant woman so that her body looks like a hillock, a hillock so that it looks like the body of a pregnant woman.

-- SusanSontag

Humanity And Photography


Whatever the moral claims made on behalf of photography, its main effect is to convert the world into a department store or museum-without-walls in which every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption, promoted into an item for aesthetic appreciation. Through the camera, people become customers or tourists of reality -- or _Realites_, as the name of the French photo-magazine suggests, for reality is understood as plural, fascinating, and up for grabs. Bringing the exotic near, rendering the familiar and homely exotic, photographs make the entire world available as an object of appraisal. For photographers who are not confined to projecting their own obsessions, there are arresting moments, there are beautiful subjects everywhere. The most heterogenous subjects are then brought together in the fictive unity offered by the ideology of humanism. Thus, according to one critic, the greatness of Paul Strand's pictures from the last period of his life -- when he turned from the brilliant discoveries of the abstracting eye to the touristic world-anthologizing tasks of photography -- consists in the fact that "his people, whether Bowery derilect, Mexican peon, New England farmer, Italian peasant, French artisan, Breton or Hebrides fisherman, Egyptian fellahin, the village idiot or the great Picasso, are all touched by the same heroic quality -- humanity." What is this humanity? It is a quality things have in common when they are viewed as photographs.

-- SusanSontag

Heart Quote


"_The heart_ is an invention of the heartsick, the land is an invention of nationalists, New England is a slogan of commisions on tourism, and family is a commonplace for politicians and religious fundamentalists. Yet, when you are cradled in the lap of these institutions, in the perception of those who came before you, ten or eleven times before you, the length of your earthly insignificance made further insignificant like the heavens hurtling away, you are glutted with sentiment."

-- RickMoody

Happy Sets


"It's not really a card game," Soto said to me from out of this embrace. "It's a social program, a way to redistribute the wealth. I don't understand the rules. Chaco doesn't understand the rules. I'm not sure there are rules. Every so often this fellow here hugs me like a brother and says 'I'm sorry sir, but you lose. My six makes what we call a happy set.' Then he takes as much of our money as he wants." The other man handed me the bottle and I took another drink to celebrate their happy sets.

-- Jay Cantor

Handmade Goods Quote


Commonly, if not invariably, the honorific marks of hand labour are certain imperfections and irregularities in the lines of the hand-wrought article, showing where the workman has fallen short in the execution of the design. The ground of the superiority of hand-wrought goods, therefore, is a certain margin of crudeness. This margin must never be so wide as to show bungling workmanship, since that would be evidence of low cost, nor so narrow as to suggest the ideal precision attained only by the machine, for that would be evidence of low cost.

-- ThorsteinVeblen

Flim-Flam!


Another classic work of debunking, this in the more literal sense. Randi's specific subject matter is the sharp-witted unmasking of fraudulent claims of supernatural powers, but Flim-Flam! is also a field manual for skeptics more broadly. More impressive than anything else, if you think about it, is Randi's ability consistently to figure out how the trick is done; his discussion of good experimental procedure should be required reading for all experimental scientists. Randi's thoughts about psychology and deception (including self-deception!) are central to my thinking about fads, delusions, and frauds of all sorts.

Fear and Trembling


Complex, rich, maddening, and beautiful, Fear and Trembling is probably Kierkegaard's best-known work. I thought it was idiotic the first time I read it, but that was at least five or six readings ago. I've already written about this book elsewhere, but one could spend a lifetime unpacking its subtleties.

My thinking about faith -- in every sense -- is informed by Fear and Trembling; its conceptual progression from stoicism to faith is as applicable to art and to daily life as it is to religion proper. The three pages of the Epilogue are perhaps the most perfect reflection on the nature of "progress" I know.

Dostoyevsky On Prison


It was there that I seemed to hear some mysterious call to go somewhere, and I could not help feeling that if I went straight on and on, and kept going for a long time, I should reach the line where sky and earth met and find the key to the whole mystery there and at once discover a new life, a life a thousand times more tumultuous than ours. I dreamed of a great city as big as Naples, full of palaces, noise, uproar, life. . . . But then, what didn't I dream of? And afterwards I could not help feeling that one might find an immense life in prison too."

-- FyodorDostoyevsky

The Crying of Lot 49


This slender novel takes your ideas about conspiracies and turns them inside-out. Pynchon has the audacity -- or the cheek -- to posit not only the existence of one of the largest and most ominous conspiracies, real or fictional, of all time, but also its complete pointlessness. There's something darkly profound in here, a grimly comic insinuation about the way history's gears keep grinding, long after their original purposes have faded from memory.

Conversations With Susan Sontag


And now that I feel all aware that I name-checked Super-Intellectual Woman, I'll explain a bit that, yes, she's way fucking smarter than me, but she doesn't light my fire because of that (otherwise, there'd be mucho people I refer to in a pinch when, right now, I think, intellectually, it's just the one).

She's great, in part, because, in conversation, she is maddeningly precise about all the things that one should aspire to be precise about. Like modernism. And culture and politics. And what it is to be a writer vs. an intellectual. She shows that most supposed intellectual writers (like that guy who wrote about intellectuals) are actually hand-waving cream puffs.

She is apparently contradictory and yet entirely consistent. She is relativistically concrete. Even if you don't agree with her, you've got to admire her rigor.

Concealment And Identity


Maybe it's simply the case that _concealment is essential to identity_, that, notwithstanding the cultural trends towards reality-based programming, notwithstanding talk shows and talk radio and their confessional opportunities, we need a part of us that will never be known, so that the more we reveal, the more we are enveloped in veils, layers that refuse to be known, additional integuments of guilt and concealment, such that _any memoir is a fiction_, an arranged narrative, a _bildungsroman_, just as many fictions are veiled memoirs; the two identities, the two narrative strategies, concealing and revealing, depending on and excluding each other by turns.

-- RickMoody

Code


I used to think that the Internet was inherently anti-authoritarian and unregulable; Lessig convinced me otherwise. Code is clear and precise; its treatment of the relationship between architecture and behavior is the most useful analytic framework I know of for thinking about the Internet. Many of its ideas are even more broadly applicable. Insights I use regularly:

  • The importance -- and mutability -- of physical architecture in shaping what is considered possible or reasonable.
  • The obvious-in-hindsight observation that cyberspace and meatspace are effectively coextensive: one is "in" both simultaneously.
  • The possibility of "latent ambiguity:" as society and technology change, we shouldn't expect old ideas and metaphors to remain applicable.

City Of The Ruin


In this city of the Ruin, an entire manufacturing run of human beings was completed, Jorge said, and then the molds were all used two, three, maybe four times, to save money on newer molds, and if you are lukcy you never meet your own double. If you're lucky.

-- RickMoody

Bottle Quote


HELP! (Readers living by the sea are requested to cut out this note, translate it into English, fold it nicely, put it inside a sealed bottle, throw it into the sea -- and hope for the best.) TO ALL GOOD PEOPLE WHO FIND THIS NOTE: This message reaches you from men, women, and children stranded on an isolated piece of land in the Middle East. We are a decent people, but as a result of a severe voting accident, we are now at the mercy of a particularly stupid group of leaders: mostly generals, colonels, clergy, and other thugs. These bad people insist that God himself directed them to fight endlessly for a few useless pieces of real estate and sacred totem poles. They are forcing us to participate in their war games, finance, and sometimes take active part in them. If you find this note, please take it to your leaders. This is our last means of communication. TV and radio channels we could have used until recenly are now controlled by the government and its agents. We still have food and water, but only a few drops are left in the supplies of sanity.

-- B. Michael

BarlowInSpace


Six years ago, capitalism's Beautiful People invited John Perry Barlow to their annual get-together at the World Economic Forum. Once in Davos, the cattle-ranching cyber-theorist and Grateful Dead lyricist burst out with A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, a work of cyber-anarchism in such awesomely pure form you can get a contact high just reading it.

A few choice excerpts:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone.

We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.

We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.

We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.

Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.

These increasingly hostile and colonial measures place us in the same position as those previous lovers of freedom and self-determination who had to reject the authorities of distant, uninformed powers. We must declare our virtual selves immune to your sovereignty, even as we continue to consent to your rule over our bodies. We will spread ourselves across the Planet so that no one can arrest our thoughts.

We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.

The Declaration is stirring stuff, and it's little surprise that those who would shake things up, online and offline both, have taken up its demands as rallying cries. The distance from "There is No Matter Here" to "Another World is Possible" is not so great; in fact, Barlow's cyberpsace proclaims itself to be that other world of freedom and fairness, proof by example. An awful lot of the Declaration could have come -- or has since been adopted -- by the folks who march in protests outside of WEF meetings.

Which raises an obvious question: what were they thinking when they invited Barlow to Davos?


Let's start with one of the great shining examples of self-organizing bottom-up online collaboration: The great honking TCP/IP routers and SMTP relays that keep the packets flowing. It's a remarkable form of cooperation, really. I'll carry your packets if you'll carry mine, and we collaborate to get them where they need to go. Multiply this basic agreement by the millions of hosts on the Internet, and you have the dense web of mutual aid that lets users communicate freely and openly worldwide.

Madison said that "if men were angels, no government would be necessary;" but not even cyberspace is populated exclusively by six-winged seraphim. The first real test of the share-and-enjoy philosophy of the Internet Way was its ability to handle the bad seeds. Remember Canter and Siegal's green card lottery? These Arizona lawyers spammed thousands of newsgroups in with an ad for their services.

This was back in 1994, before such things were commonplace, and a couple of vigilantes could take care of any problems that came up. Actually, it was more like 30,000 vigilantes, mailbombing Canter and Siegal and crashing their ISP's server. Each time they switched ISPs and tried again, the irate response drove them off the Internet. Score one for social norms.

The next few years weren't so good for social norms alone, though. It's relatively easy to hunt down a few miscreants, but individualized rough justice only works when it's being meted out to a few individuals. Further, as soon as the bad guys realized the awesome power of mailbombing, they turned to it themselves, unleashing atomic mailbombs on unsuspecting victims. Fake the "From:" header and the crowd with pitchforks will go burn down someone else's castle, but burn down a few too many wrong castles and you get a little shy about picking up your pitchfork.

The next few years were the first golden age of spam, when legends like the great Spamford Wallace bestrode the narrow 'Net like mass-produced collectible Colussus statuettes. Unable to gag the spammers, John Perry's enlightened community stopped listening to them. Figure out who's sending spam and then just refuse connections from their servers. It's a classically anarchist solution: everyone is free to say what they want, and to listen to what they want.

Politically speaking, it gets more remarkable, though. Once the "black-hole lists" started blocking most known spam senders, the spammers started preying on the weak and the infirm. If you had a mail server and you didn't bother to secure it properly, Katie bar the door, because you could -- and typically would -- wake up one morning to find millions of ads for porn flooding through your server. The good folks of the Internet solved this one by blocking email from these "open relays," too. If you weren't with the anti-spam brigade, you were against it, and your own, legitimate, non-spam email would start getting dropped.

Again, no government in sight, but the code of responsible sysadminning starts to look an awful lot like a social contract. Lawful people must uphold the community's standards and help enforce its judgments, on penalty of being excluded from the contract. Not bad for a purely virtual society.

If real governments were seriously to get into the act, they'd probably be pretty upset at the terms of this convention, or at least at some of its consequences. It's a crime to interfere with postal mail; even if it's just mail-order catalogs. There are free-speech issues involved in throwing away Internet datagrams (especially other people's datagrams, as the extended social norms of cyberspace are starting to require).

In fact, meatspace governments, those "weary giants of flesh and steel," might also look askance at the enormous powers the keepers of the canonical lists of spammers enjoy. What if SpamCop decides that Laboratorium.net is hosted on an insecure server and starts rejecting my email? What if the Mail Abuse Prevention System decides it'd also like to prevent Mr. Todd Chalmers of Lincoln. Nebraska from sending email to its subscribers? What if AOL Time Warner decides it won't deliver packets through its cables if those packets originated from disney.go.com?

Well, say the Barlows of the world, that's okay, too. If people are upset with their spam-filtering service -- if they really value Todd Chalmers' thoughts, that is -- they're always free to renegotiate the social contract and take their electrons somewhere else. If enough people care enough, they can reshape the very "constitution" of cyberspace just by voting with their feet; the natural marketplaces of the online world will rapidly converge to their desired solution.

That is, John Perry Barlow stands not so much for cyber-anarchy as for cyber-libertarianism. On his account, everything online is going to be just jolly not because of the purity of cyberspace's social interactions, but because of the purity of its markets. In this view, markets may be no place for governments, but corporations should just stroll right in. Government should just stand back, let the companies and individuals beat each other loody, declare the result to be the best of all possible worlds, and if it turns out that the online social contract is drawn up by those with the most cash, well, that's just the wisdom of the market asserting itself.

Which is probably why the tycoons of the World Economic Forum let Barlow crash their party. The future he claims to represent looks an awful lot like the future they'd like to see.

Armed Banditti


A French bastard landing with an armed banditti, and establishing himself King of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original.

-- Thomas Paine

Angel Of History


This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.

-- Walter Benjamin

All That Is There


While Aunt Jane slept, I leaned out the window, looking up at the cloudless sky and the ring around the moon. All that is there, all that hangs suspended in air, suspended above the air, rain and hail and fire and stone, the mind of God, if there is a God; the stars and planets and comets and our fates. Sleep well, my dear. Wherever you are.

-- AndreaBarrett

Alexander The Great


Alexander the Great either could or could not swim; in this he was typical of the Greeks.

-- Lawrence Norfolk

Final Exam


Directions: All questions count equally towards your final score. When time is called, close your examination booklet and wait for the proctor to collect it. Write your answers using a number 2 pencil or a green crayon ONLY; the use of any other writing implement is strictly prohibited and may invalidate your score. Good luck!

1) For purposes of this question only, you may assume the existence of life on other planets. a) Using words of two syllables or less, give a precise medical definition of "explosive nosebleed." b) Induce one in yourself. c) Take appropriate measures to deal with the situation.

2) Examine your conscience and represent the contents using the tropical hardwood you have been given. Plan ahead: if you run out, you will not be supplied with more.

3) In what senses can Julius Caesar be said not to have existed? List four.

4) You have been provided with the mangled carcass of a lion. a) Locate the head. Count the whiskers. b) Embrace, cuddle, or comfort your lion. Take a picture. c) Determine the sex of your lion. d) Using the tools provided, embalm it. e) Construct a suitable sarcophagus for your lion.

5) You will find before you several pieces from paintings by Rene Magritte. You know what to do.

6) Sketch a design for an escalator or elevator (your choice) for the use of a species lacking opposable thumbs.

7) Trace your hand on the provided piece of paper and carve the provided ham hock to match. Do not forget the blue dye.

8) You will find a box in front of you. a) Open it. b) Describe what you see. c) Close the box. d) (optional, only if you have time) Open the box again.

9) Translate the supplied passage into a language of your choice, with the exception of French, Korean, or Hungarian.

10) Describe how to destroy an ordinary armchair beyond all recognition. Show your work. Do not exceed the space provided.