Quilting Resistance: Fabric, Humanity, Serendipity & Cybernetics

It’s been a bit quiet on the blog. I continue to research, to map, to watch talks and prop myself up reading books about resistance. A friend told me I needed to take a break and get some perspective-to MAKE something.

Eventually, I did. I spent a few weeks making a quilt for a colleague who is expecting her first child. I viewed it as a meditation on hope for young people coming up, those who might work together to build a future that acknowledges past harms, rectifies injustice, and creates space to be otherwise.

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As I stood over the cutting mat,

sat at the kitchen table with my foot on the sewing machine pedal,

crouched on the quilt inserting basting pins, and

hand-stitched the binding,

I fought a growing sense of alarm that keeps rising in my chest.

So many stories coming through my social media feed attest to the fact that Big Data, Big Brother, and global finance are on the move.

  • Pearson joining with Tom Vander Ark’s Learn Capital on a $50 million venture fund advancing innovative education enterprises prioritizing augmented reality. Here
  • DataKind and Commit!, Strive’s partner in Dallas, making plans to run the data of the school district’s 500,000 children through machine learning to see what patterns they can discern. Here
  • A story about income sharing agreements funding tuition for higher education. Here
  • Former McKinsey Mayor Pete’s South Bend, Indiana being set up as a pilot cradle to grey “City of Lifelong Learning” via the Drucker Institute-yeah, Peter Drucker the father of management science and mentor to Saddleback Church’s Rick Warren and Bob Buford (deceased), the Institute’s Board Chair Emeritus, Texas television tycoon, and mega-church consultant. Here

We are striding towards a cybernetic reckoning, one that aims to meld people with machines in service of viciously lean efficiencies that profit the global elite. Power players in finance, tech, faith communities, and the government want nothing more than to engineer a future for the masses that allows them to maintain control and preempt insurgency. To them the poor are numbers, 1s and 0s set up to be harvested and poured into algorithms for “impact” data visualization.

Early in my research I stumbled across the work of twin brothers Douglas and David F. “Wrench in the Gears” Noble. Doug’s book “The Classroom Arsenal” gave me a solid grounding in the militarized history of computing and the ways digital systems have been used to structure human behavior. David’s books helped me understand technology and capitalism. Their life choices embody the uncompromising resistance we so desperately need, and I am grateful for their activism and their writings. Lately, I’ve also been mulling over Yasha Levine’s book Surveillance Valley.

Norbert Weiner is featured in Levine’s book and has been on my mind a lot. Weiner was a child prodigy who essentially worked as a human computer, calculating trajectories for anti-aircraft guns during World War II. He spent his career at MIT where he helped develop the fields of cybernetics, cognitive science, and robotics. In addition to being trained in mathematics, Weiner had been a student of philosophy, and as he grew older he came to recognize the dangers of his research, especially its military applications. You sense this in the transcription at the end of this piece. I hope you will read it. In his later years he advocated for organized labor and peace, was labeled a Communist and followed closely by the FBI. Levine’s book states:

“He (Weiner) increasingly hinted at his insider knowledge that a “colossal state machine” was being constructed by government agencies ‘for the purposes of combat and domination,’ a computerized information system that was ‘sufficiently extensive to include all civilian activities during war, before war, and possibly even between wars,’ as he described it in The Human Use of Human Beings.” Surveillance Valley, page 46

Well, here we are-not in a totally new place, but a point further down the continuum of digital surveillance and behavioral conditioning. A year ago I visited the MIT Media Lab, an experience that prompted me to write “Our Future As Social Machines.” I’m not sure how to extricate myself from this mess, but neither am I willing to quietly submit. So, I keep talking and thinking out loud with all who tolerate my musings and are willing to sit with me as I process new information and attempt to place it within the emerging schema I have devised to grapple with the particular brand of evil that is social impact / high-tech human capital financialization.

I talk about this stuff at work. So much so that when the quilt was presented, another colleague shouted from the back of the room that I must have sewn some data-protection armor into it. Sadly, there is no information deflector inside. But I harbor the idea that creating handmade things is a form of resistance, of showing that what society normalizes today doesn’t have to be what is normal tomorrow. I want to believe that future generations can hold onto things that while they may verge on obsolescence, hold space to bring the useful parts of the past into the future. That the things we create and put ourselves into have a meaning that carries forward. Maybe in future years this quilt will be a force field for this baby, a haven, a place to snuggle with a good book. Maybe the patterns of this quilt will spark imaginative daydreams.

I can hope.

My quilts are serendipitous. I lay scraps of fabric out over the kitchen floor to get just the right composition of colors and patterns. I try and choose prints that convey a particular sentiment-that fit the intended recipient. I use little bits of fabric, so a quarter yard can last a long time. I have my favorites. They are like old friends. I have a sense of what I want my quilt to look like when I start, but it evolves. There is no set pattern, no rules other than the size of the blocks-in this case 8 inches across.

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At first I thought this one would be pin wheels, but it didn’t want to be a pinwheel quilt. Instead, the blocks of color fitted themselves into diagonal rows that speak to the furrows of land on the farm where this friend works. The quilt knew what it wanted to be, it just needed time to coalesce.

The back? Well, I ran short on the fabric that I ordered. I ended up piecing together leftover blocks with other bits I had on hand and they looked like farm field, which was just exactly right. And when I handed it to my friend the other farmer said-these blocks are just like our three fields. I didn’t even know that was the lay out of the farm, but something guided that placement. It wasn’t planned in advance. It happened as it was meant to.

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That serendipity, that human error, miscalculation and redemption is what I want to hold fast to. If we had put this quilt on a “pathway” according to a some “Swiss” model, as some are trying to do with middle school children, it would not have the life and vitality it has. Sure, it might be functional, but it wouldn’t be fully developed.

Perhaps it is a stretch to compare the creation of a quilt with the evolution of a life. But I think there is merit in contesting pre-set patterns and plans, especially when such plans are imposed by powerful forces to serve their own ends. For the time we have left and for this coming generation. I want to stave off the cybernetic battalions Dr. Weiner came to fear. I want to deploy force fields of quilts imbued with solidarity and create sheltered spaces where predictive equations and human systems engineering may not enter.

What follows is a transcript I made of a portion of a talk Norbert Weiner gave in 1950 to the New York Academy of Medicine. I don’t know if the genie is out of the bottle yet. Let us try to keep the machine in the bottle as long as we can. Resist and regroup as needed, preferably under a quilt with a good book.

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Linsley R. Williams Memorial Lecture

“Men, Machines, and the World About”

WYNC, New York Academy of Medicine, Dr. Norbert Weiner, Timestamp 42:36

The Galbraiths had the idea that man was not working anywhere like full efficiency in its ordinary operations. They thought that families of a dozen were had by people (referencing the movie Cheaper By the Dozen), simply because of the stupidity of people in running their daily tasks, which could be avoided by a better order of their tasks. That was the motive behind the large family. That was the motive behind the systematic bringing up of all those children. Now, however, when you have simplified a task by reducing it to a routine of consecutive processes, you have done the same sort of thing that you need to do to put the task on a machine, and run that process completely on an automatic machine.

The problem of industrial management and order, which was handled by Taylor by the Galbraiths and so on, is almost the same problem as that of the taping of a control machine. So that instead of actually improving the conditions of the worker, it has telescoped the worker out of the picture.

That is a very important thing, because it is taking place now (1950).

I want to say that we are facing a new industrial revolution. The first industrial revolution represented the replacement of the energy of man and of animals, and the power, with the energy and power of the machine. The steam engine was it-simple. Well that has gone so far that there’s nothing that a man with a pick and shovel can do but glean after a bulldozer. There is no rate at which pure pick and shovel work can be paid in this country, which will guarantee the man doing it a living. It is simply economically impossible to compete with a bulldozer for bulldozer work.

The NEW industrial revolution, which is taking place now, consists primarily in replacing human judgment and discrimination at low levels by the discrimination of the machine. The machine appears now, not as a source of power, but as a source of control and a source of communication. We communicate with the machine, and the machine communicates with us. Machines communicate with one another.

Energy and power are not the proper terms to measure. Well, if we in a small way make human tasks easier by replacing them with a machine execution of the task and in a large way eliminate the human element in these human tasks, we may find that we have essentially burnt incense before the machine god.

There’s a very real danger in this country in bowing down before the brazen calf. The idol is a gadget. I know very great engineers who never think further than the construction of the gadget and never think of the question of the integration between the gadget and human beings in society.

If we allow things a reasonably slow development, then the introduction of the gadget as it comes in may hurt us enough to provoke a salutary response. So that we realize that we cannot worship the gadget and sacrifice the human being to it. But a situation is easily possible in which we may have a disastrous result.

Let us suppose we go to war tomorrow with Russia. Now I think that Korea, if they have shown us anything, they have shown us that modern war means nothing (undecipherable). The problem with occupying Korea is serious enough. The problem of occupying China and Russia staggers imagination. But we shall have to prepare to do that if we do go to war. At the same time we have to keep up an industrial production to feed the army. I mean feed it with munitions as well as ordinary food and ordinary equipment, second to none in history.

Second, we shall have to do a maximum production job with a labor market simply scraped to the bottom, and that means with the automatic machine. A world of that sort will mean the machines will be putting a large part of our best engineering ability in developing the machines within the next two months, probably.

Now, it happens that the people to do this sort of a job are there. They’re the people who have been trained in electronic work. In the last war they worked with radar. We’re further on with the automatic machine than we were with radar at the beginning, at Pearl Harbor. Therefore, the situation is that probably in two or three years we’ll see the automatic factory well understood and beginning to be in self-introduction, and in five years or so would see it-something of which we possess the complete know how and of which we possess a vast backlog of parts.

Also, in war, social reforms do not get made. At the end of such a war we’ll find ourselves with a tremendous backlog of parts and know how, which is extremely tempting to anybody who wants to make a quickie fortune and get out from under and leave the rest of the community to pick up the pieces. That may very well happen. If that DOES happen, heaven help us, because we’ll have an unemployment compared with which the Great Depression was a nice little joke.

Well, you see the picture drawing together. Now I suppose one of the things that you people would like will be consolation.

Gentleman, there is no Santa Claus.

If we want to live with the machine, we must understand the machine. We must not worship the machine. We must make a great many changes in the way we live with other people. We must revalue leisure. We must turn the great administers of business, of industry of politics into a state of mind where they will consider that the leisure of people is their business and is not none of their business. We shall have to do this unhampered by slogans, which fit a previous state of society and don’t fit the present.

We shall have to do this unhampered for the creeping paralysis of secrecy, which is engulfing our government, because secrecy simply means we are unable to face situations as they are. The people who have to control situations are in no position to handle them. We shall have to realize that while we may make the machines our gods and sacrifice men to machines, we do not have to do so. And if we do so, we deserve the punishment of idolaters.

It’s going to be a difficult time. If we can live through it and keep our head, and if we do not get annihilated by war itself and our other problems, there is a great chance of turning the machine to human advantage. But the machine itself has not particular favor for humanity.

It is possible to make two kinds of machines. I will not go into detail. The machines whose taping is determined once and for all and the machines whose taping is continually being modified by their experience. The second sort of machines can in some sense “learn.”

Now gentleman, the moral problem of the machine differs in no way from the old moral problem of magic. The fact that the machines follow laws of nature, and magic was supposed to be outside of nature is not even an interesting (undecipherable). Sorcery was condemned in the middle ages. A certain type of modern gadgeteer would have been burned as a sorcerer under the ethics of the middle ages. And the interesting thing is that the middle ages, to a certain extent and I don’t mean in the favor for the flame, but it was disfavor for the gadgeteer, as a point of being right. Namely, sorcery was not supernatural. It was the use of human power for other purposes than the greater glory of god.

Now, I am not a theist when I say the greater glory of god. I mean it for some end to which we give a justified moral value. I say that the medieval attitude is the attitude of the fairy tale and many things. But the attitude of the fairy tale is very wise in many things that are relevant to modern life.

If you have the machine, which grants you your wish, then you must pay attention to the old fairy tale of the three wishes, which tells you that if you do make a wish that is likely to be granted you’d better be VERY sure that it is what you want and not what you think you want.

If you know the story of the monkey’s paw, Jacob’s story, the talisman grants the couple three wishes. The first is for 200 pounds. Immediately a man appears from the factory saying their boy has been crushed in the machinery, and although the factory recognizes no responsibility, they will give a solace of 200 pounds. Then the next wish is they wish the boy back again, and his ghost appears, and they wish the ghost away. That finishes that story. That is common in folklore and it is quite significant in regard to the machine as it is with regards to any other magic.

The other thing is that the machine that can “learn” is essentially a genie, and you all know the story of the fisherman and the bottle. He opened the bottle, and the djinn appears, the genie appears, and tells him that. It tells him it has decided to kill the man that opened the bottle. The fisherman talks the genie back into the bottle.

Gentleman, when we get into trouble with the machine, we cannot talk the machine back into the bottle. (applause)