You Can't Fuck the System If You've Never Met One
by Casey A. Gollan



My freshman year at Cooper Union I took a class on color theory, and I could never do my laundry the same way again. Stacking shirts became an exercise in color relationships.

A few years later I took a class on System Design, and had no idea what kind of perceptual torment I would be in for.


A heightened experience of color is cool, but

a heightened experience of systems is TERRIFYING.


Cooper Union's financial crisis seemed to come out of nowhere. Partly because the administration had kept it secret, but also because nobody ever bothered to ask how the school afforded free tuition when everything was (thought to be) okay.

We were suddenly faced with a problem that had no discernible cause and no easy solution, wondering: Where did the money ever come from? Where did it all go? What happened?



On the first day of class Kevin, the professor, diagrammed a system — the flow of money at Cooper Union — on the board: its inputs, outputs, and feedback loops.

What a picture of the system made clear is that the problem (and perhaps the solution) is part of something much, much larger. A few boxes and arrows made visible the relationships between the bursting real estate bubble, the collapse of American banks, our school's vanishing endowment, and its endangered 110-year-legacy of free tuition.



Part of the reason systems are hard to see is because they're an abstraction. They don't really exist until you articulate them.

And any two things don't make a system, even where there are strong correlations. Towns with more trees have lower divorce rates, for example, but you'd be hard-pressed to go anywhere with that.

However, if you can manage to divine the secret connections and interdependencies between things, it's like putting on glasses for the first time. Your headache goes away and you can focus on how you want to change things.

I learned that in systems analysis — if you'd like to change the world — there is a sweet spot between low and high level thinking. In this space you are not dumbfoundedly adjusting variables…nor are you contemplating the void.


Places to Intervene in a System (in increasing order of effectiveness)
by Donella Meadows

  1. Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards)
  2. The size of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows
  3. Structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport network, population age structures)
  4. Length of delays, relative to the rate of system changes
  5. Strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the effect they are trying to correct against
  6. Gain around driving positive feedback loops
  7. Structure of information flow (who does and does not have access to what kinds of information)
  8. Rules of the system (such as incentives, punishment, constraints)
  9. Power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure
  10. Goal of the system
  11. Mindset or paradigm that the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters — arises from
  12. Power to transcend paradigms

In the same way that systems don't exist until you point them out, they also won't start to trip you out until you spend some time interrogating them, philosophically.

I remember that, as a class, we fixated on Donella Meadows' practical list of ways in which to transcend systems (above) and sort of glossed over this last page (below).



For how actionably she manages to break down something so esoteric as the nature of systems, the essay ends as if she has slipped off into a daydream. Like she couldn't find equally grounded words to describe the highest order of fucking with systems.

Reading Donella Meadows made me realize that some leverage points are more worthwhile than others for prodding at, but it also accidentally kicked my focus up too many levels into complete abstraction. For the rest of the semester I found myself unable to shake the mad, profound daze that she must've found herself in, too, upon arriving at this step: transcend paradigms.

In fact, I received a D for not turning in work because I couldn't bring myself to make a move all semester.

This is an attempt at coming to terms with the terror of systems awareness in three forms: Binary, Genetics, and The City.



1 Binary


It loves me, it loves Me Not.


Nils Aall Barricelli was an early inventor of digital life. His experiments gave us one of the first examples of cellular automata: algorithms that simulate life. But Nils didn't believe his numbers were a simulation of life, he saw them as life. A numerical species.

In 2011, Alexander Galloway restaged Baricelli's experiments from the 1950's (which were originally black and white print outs) using Processing. Read as a progression of time from top to bottom, "each swatch of textured color within the image indicates a different bionumeric organism. Borders between color fields mean that an organism has perished, been borne, mutated, or otherwise evolved into something new."



In Baricelli's later experiments where the organisms were all "dying out," he attempted cross-pollinating genes from different "universes" to keep the world alive.

While Barricelli's scientific rigor towards creating mathematical models of life stopped him short of emotional projection — (maybe) — looking at the output of his experiments, I couldn't help but be reminded of interpreting ink blots from a Rorschach test.

Projecting meaning onto smatterings of pigment.

On the card below, the last in the set of Psychodiagnostic Plates, 37% of respondents see a crab or spider, 31% see a rabbit head, 28% see caterpillars, worms, or snakes.



Our brains are pattern-matching machines.

It doesn't take much for us to find life in images, whether it is the output of a groundbreaking mathematical model, an ink splatter, or the pixelated face of a Tamagotchi.

Pixels, it turns out, can even date (if you follow the instructions below, on how to activate the cheat) and marry other pixels.



We can fall in love with binary systems too. Sherry Turkle has done extensive research on robots designed not for industrial or practical utility, but to be with humans. Her book Alone Together is full of anecdotes about the bonds between people and machines.



While the advertisement above makes the Furby seem fun and exciting, the Furby in the video below has been diagnosed as "bipolar" by its owner. In trying to make an interactive toy that does not seem indifferent, Furby's makers unintentionally opened the door to one-sided relationships full of anger and tension.



Turkle is ultimately skeptical about binary love. "If these robots belong with people, then what failings in people require robots?" she asks. I agree with Turkle that there is something unsettling about these one-sided human-computer relationships, but I'm also inclined to think that experiments with these tools are for the better. In My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts, N. Katherine Hayles writes, "What resources do we have to understand the world around us? Broadly: mathematical equations, simulation modeling, and discursive explanations." Engaging with the programmed in every possible way is a path towards understanding.



During a five day long kick of playing Will Wright's The Sims 3 earlier this year, my sister Niki and I would take turns, but I found myself complaining about her playing style. Every sim comes with a life wish, such as "become a master chef." While I dilligently worked towards each sim's goal, Niki didn't care less. "They're not just your play-things," I told her, "they have aspirations!"

I was shocked to have said that.

Of this phenomenon, Turkle writes, "People are surprised by how upset they get...and then they get upset that they are upset...you can feel bad about yourself for how you behave with a computer program...[it can put you] on new ethical terrain."



With love comes heartbreak.

What happens when a computer-generated friend is suffering? What happens when they die?

The line blurs further when considering social, multiplayer games. While two avatars may look the same, there is sometimes a human at the other end of the line, at other times there is only an algorithm.



When Google acquired the team who built the social game Super Poke Pets and decided to shut down the website, users filed suit. A feature was promised that would preserve each users' characters in a kind of taxidermied state, but this wasn't good enough.



In the eyes of those who had invested real time, real money, and perhaps real love into the game, Google was essentially plotting to murder their friends and burn down their houses. As of this writing, the lawsuit — new ethical terrain — has yet to be settled.



It was Barricelli's experiments which paved the way for this transition, from numbers that mean things (a quantity of objects) to numbers that do things (the "genetics" of numeric beings).

Julian Dibbell's A Rape in Cyberspace accounts for this change, in a social sense:

Anyone the least bit familiar with the workings of the new era’s definitive technology, the computer, knows that it operates on a principle impracticably difficult to distinguish from the pre-Enlightenment principle of the magic word: the commands you type into a computer are a kind of speech that doesn’t so much communicate as make things happen, directly and ineluctably, the same way pulling a trigger does. They are incantations, in other words, and anyone at all attuned to the technosocial megatrends of the moment — from the growing dependence of economies on the global flow of intensely fetishized words and numbers to the burgeoning ability of bioengineers to speak the spells written in the four-letter text of DNA — knows that the logic of the incantation is rapidly permeating the fabric of our lives.

Simulations derived from Barricelli's research have yet to gain sentience, but the intertwining of narrative has breathed stunning performances of life into numerical beings. We see life where there is only code, code falling for other code, us falling for code. It can't be long until code really does fall for us.



2 Genetics


From the sublime
to the ridiculous.


[To be screamed aloud in protest. Not read quietly in one's head.]


Saying that you don't believe in genetics is like saying that you don't believe in dinosaurs.

But I don't.


Which came first: the chicken or the egg?

It doesn't matter, writes Richard Dawkins, eggs are raw genetic information, genetic information simply wants to multiply, and chickens are a means to make more eggs. Humans, he writes, are also just vessels for genetic information.

You could argue that we're not “just” carriers of genetic information, but I'd say you're being sentimental if you don't reduce his argument down to this "fundamental truth:" the multiplication of genetic information.



How can genetic information want anything?

Where did this growth curve come from?

If Dawkins is correct (and he appears to be), we have uncovered a problem of language: we have no words to describe intention without mind.


In class, we spoke with a consultant who has broken trust down to a science, which she sells to corporations. Trust, she says, is good for business.

And what about business? What's that good for? I asked her. She smiled and said, you have to believe that growing the economy is good for the world.

Consulting is a desired job — maybe the quintessential job — of the hyper-educated.



In between the people who don't believe in dinosaurs and Richard Dawkins there are these interventionists. Those who deduce that the world isn't in God's hands but it also isn't a meaningless void.

To a consultant, the world can be represented by graphs and metaphors. Broken down into science or spun into story.

Generalizations.

If the powers that be can allocate our resources — food, violence, sex, ideas, ego, entertainment — correctly, we may be able to stall the implosion of the human species.

"How can we make tomorrow better for our children!"

I'm inclined to agree with Dawkins that genetic information doesn't give a fuck about the human race. It has no fucks to give.


There's a sick quantification to looking at the world in terms of systems.

And I'm sick and tired of things too big to understand. Genetics. Capitalism. Global politics.

At some point we became sentient blah blah and here we are. Wondering what it all means.

We are going to wipe ourselves out and there was never any reason we had to be sentient to worry about it anyway.


Genius, in an earlier time, was thought to be external. It descended from the heavens and passed through our bodies. We could inhale it and hold it inside of us momentarily at most.

Today genius is internalized, inseparable from a person.

If genetic information wants nothing more than to multiply, then the learned are the scum of the earth.

Unless self-aware DNA is better DNA? Perhaps the metacognizant come more tightly coiled.

The thought leaders!

All I know is that if there is a primal instinct I'm a poor genetic specimen. So far as I have not reproduced.

I would apologize but to whom?


There should just be a fucking school, where people go to learn multiplication in the reproductive sense.

Fucking is comedic on a grand level because it could be represented on a consultant's chart with a multiplication sign.


I want to know the most efficient expression of genetic information.

I want to know the end but I don't think this has one because it's not a story with a plot, it's a system. A line with an arrow indicating up up up up up up up...

I'm against thinking that these abstractions are real.

I want to drop out of the race for power. Blow up the exponential curve.

Not only is it just an idea we invented. We're a blip on the radar. A flash in the pan. A drop in the bucket.

Studying ourselves. Is the stupidest thing.

I can't settle in and stop thinking about this, nor do I don't want to rule the world.

Something sweet and funny about wanting to validate ones existence.

Dedicated to the Advancement of Science and Art!


System design is a hilarious game about adjusting levers that world leaders use to make choices.



3 The City


The social government.


President Zuckerberg was assasinated on Tuesday near his home in Palo Alto. He was out walking his dog, Beast, when he was hit with a single bullet. He will be succeeded in office by Vice President Sheryl Sandberg.



Top Political Figure isn't a job title you expect to hear for a college dropout who founded a website, but Facebook's political presence became undeniable.



In his 2012 State of the Union address, former President Obama spoke, for the first time, of “cyber threats.” He was likely referring to hacking from China or terrorism in the form of disabling network infrastructure, critical to the functioning of today's world. But the biggest cyber threat of all was how the hearts and minds of American citizens (and others around the globe — though less so) were enlisting in a nation called Facebook.


Shortly after their Initial Public Offering in 2012, Facebook updated politics.



The capital was relocated to Palo Alto, with additional political offices at the company's flagship data center in Prineville, Oregon.



Early forms of theocratic government exploited belief in God to gain undisputed control. Secular democracy enforced order with an admittedly shakier trust in government (and punishment by the justice system).

A technocratic government is more insidious because it exists inside your head. Technocrats control you by crafting the interface through which you experience things, not by argument or punishment.



Cities were replaced by information-space, which in the latest Facebook release enabled communication which surpassed the effectiveness of physical face-to-face interaction.



Those who were "born before” seemed to remember something beyond this palette of interactions, though it was a vague feeling. No tagged photos, posts, or pages for this idea could be located. Nobody complained because activism was replaced by liketivism. (Old-timers disparagingly referred to it as “slacktivism.” Though these comments were hidden from Top News via an upgrade to the Edge-Rank algorithm.)


Technological innovation has consistently trickled from the porn industry or the military — technological means for sex or violence. What was only beginning to be predicted was technology's close pairing with political control.

Zuckerberg's role at the center of all this was, perhaps, foreshadowed by investor Warren Buffet, who came closest to Facebook's scope of info-power when he was widely thought to have better, more realtime information than the government itself, thanks to having stakes in nearly every industry. His genius, it was seen, was connecting data from transportation companies with data from energy companies, with data from the financial companies into a throbbing graph of unprecedented accuracy, timeliness, and fidelity.

The map of the world that came closest (in its time) to approaching the size of the world itself.

It was Zuckerberg who applied this same panoptic form of infopower to everyday life, and therefore citizenry. Users became subjects. A social network became the first social government.



Epilogue


In the end, it seems that power has less to do with pushing leverage points than it does with
strategically,
profoundly,
madly
letting
go
.

— Donella Meadows


Colophon:

You Can't Fuck the System If You've Never Met One
Written in the middle of many nights, 2011 - 2012 by Casey A. Gollan.

Set in FF Dagny Web Pro by Örjan Nordling and Göran Söderström and Calluna by Jos Buivenga. The color palette consists of pre-determined, named browser defaults: white, gray, darkgray, magenta, red, yellow, turquoise, blue, and orange.

Media grabbed from all over and used without permission, because this is the internet.

This is probably a built up series of misunderstandings. I look forward to revising these ideas.