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.

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.

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.

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.


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)


6 thoughts on “Quilting Resistance: Fabric, Humanity, Serendipity & Cybernetics

  1. leslieleigh – Philadelphia, PA, USA – I'm an educator at the oldest botanical garden in the US, Bartram's Garden.
    Leslie Gale says:

    This was so poignant! Dr. Weiner was really prophetic.

  2. Laura H. Chapman says:

    You have no idea how personal your post is for me.

    First, I work in the visual arts and hence have some knowledge of the meditative and narrative value of quilt making and what your work on this project means as a gift.

    Second. My dear nephew was the last recipient of the Norbert Weiner award issued by Computers for Social Responsibility, an organization for which he served as Executive Director until it folded in 2013.

    Third, as a young scholar I was drawn to the mathematical theory of games and possible outcomes of decision-making under uncertainty. These exercises in thinking were being elaborated by John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener in tandem with theorizing about the possible outcomes of the Cold War.

    I am not a mathematics wizard but have continued to follow developments in artificial intelligence, including but not limited to the marketing of tech in education. You are way out in front of the issues. Thank you for this work.
    http://www.publicsphereproject.org/content/cpsr-dissolution-and-gary-chapman-winner-cpsrs-norbert-wiener-award See also the NYTimes Obituary

    • wrenchinthegears
      wrenchinthegears says:

      You know I think they were so busy thinking about one type of warfare that the idea that computers would be used to wage economic warfare against the people to advance the interests of tech oligarchs did not occur to them. I was just reading up a bit more on the Green Corn Rebellion. I read Dr. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s analysis of the railroads opening up new extractive markets, and believe the same can be said for broadband/5g/smart city deployment. Human capital data is the next oil/diamonds/minerals to be harvested for profit at the expense of people and planet.

      “Wow-it just hit me Dunbar-Ortiz’s analysis of capital and resource extraction tied to railroad construction could be similarly applied to today’s roll out of broadband/5g/”smart” city infrastructure and the development of similarly extractive markets in human capital/life outcomes data (data as the new oil). “That world was not simply “America,” or the world at war in 1917. It was the world in tremendous, globally contentious capitalist development ever since the 1870s, a world building in British, French, German, Russian, Japanese, and U.S. imperialism in the 1890s, exploding in the First World War in 1914, forcing several major revolutions and many local mutinies and rebellions, including Oklahoma’s in 1917. The same sort of high-powered capital that sent railroads from 1870 to 1914 all across Eastern Europe, Russia, India, China, Korea, South Africa, South America, Canada, and Mexico also sent them all across the United States, from the great hubs of Chicago and St. Louis, south to the Texas Gulf, west to the Pacific. It was Wall Street bankers, J.P. Morgan and J. and W. Seligman & Company, who put the first railroad through Indian Territory on the way to Galveston. International finance used railroads everywhere to open new mines, for gold from the Klondike, diamonds from South Africa’s Big Hole, copper from Chile, Mexico, Coeur d’Alène, Idaho, and Bisbee, Arizona, coal from Manchuria and Colorado, silver, zinc, and lead from Mexico and Colorado. Just as finance capital brought oil on line from Russia’s Baku fields, Texas’s Golden Triangle, and Mexico’s Faja de Oro, so it took coal from Krebs, zinc and lead from Picher, and oil from the Glenn Pool, in Indian Territory, USA. By 1914 capital had made rail towns, mine towns, smelter towns, or oil towns like those on the world’s other industrial frontiers, in almost every county in eastern Oklahoma. There too the railroads had raised thousands of new corn and cotton farms. And international finance also promoted great new agribusinesses, above all wheat, in Russia and the United States. The rails across the plains from the Dakotas down into western Oklahoma drew new wheat farms from the land. Meanwhile, all over the world, capital turned peasants, yeomen, and farmers, especially corn, cotton, and wheat farmers in Oklahoma, into renters, tenants, sharecroppers, and hired hands.” Dr. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

      From this article: https://monthlyreview.org/2010/11/01/dreams-of-revolution-oklahoma-1917/?fbclid=IwAR2R8M9e9AECokz02RHHZXeg8zSNVOQ7o3okceVaZOFujpTSRwtZO2OTpK8

  3. patriotmongoose says:

    I know what you mean about trying to protect things from going obsolete. After having problems with my Dell laptop DVD drive, when getting it replaced, the tech remarked that many of the makers aren’t trying as hard as everything was headed toward streaming. Which made me think, with VHS pretty much obsolete and DVD and BlueRay possibly on the way out, as are operating system disks, everything seems to be moving toward the cloud and online and into more control of the corporates and away from the people. This could make it easier to shut off information like old films or documentaries, thus disappearing great films and information of the past. At which point, I realized that we needed to secretly find a way to make VHS and DVD and BlueRay players so that future generations can see that old information.

    I’m also following this. Recently, I’m looking at home visit bills plus mandatory vaccination plus mental health bills. This sounds like a possible grab for not only forced surveillance under the guise of helping the poor and minorities (at least some like the Ohio Medicaid executive order for home visits seem to go that route, while others like Minnesota and Oregon are more invasive than that.)

    Also of concern has been the removal of exemptions for vaccination and the draconian vaccine edicts in Rockland County and NYC, NY. I found out two things lately. One was what I’d increasingly come to wonder after having that vaccines could cause autism, which I have. I’d asked my mother a few weeks ago if I’d gotten autism from a vaccine. She said that she did give me vaccinations around 15 months of age and I’d not quite been the same after that, but that I’d also been hyper in the womb and nearly had to have a cesearean (but came out normal at the last minute before they could do a c-section.) Like a lot of those that suspect vaccine injury, it will be hard to prove. If I was, though, like with many people, it’ll be hard to prove. And, to complicate things, that leads to another thing I recently learned. Back during the Reagan years, they passed some bill that pretty much gave the vaccine companies immunity from having to pay damages for injuries. Now, people go federal vaccine courts, which,of course, use taxpayer money to pay out settlements, which, since this law was passed, have paid out $4 or so billion for vaccine injuries or deaths.

    The CDC was pushing for adult vaccinations through the ACA, HHS, and Healthy People 2020. Interestingly, the push to go for mandatory vaccinations for children has amped up since late 2018 and into 2019, and even the FDA is threatening to implement mandatory vaccinations for children if the states “don’t do enough”. So, my fear is that by the time of the 2020 Presidential election general election, that we could be facing mandatory child vaccinations and adult vaccinations (likely the flu vaccine is a top one for adults) with the threat of being banned from school, daycares, or even taken away by CPS threatening children and possibly being barred from employment (already happening to many hospital employees that don’t get the flu vaccine) for adults that don’t vaccine (I noticed the HHS document mentioned working with stakeholders in the corporate, faith, community, realm to push for adult vaccination rates to increase.) I’ve also found that some of these vaccines actually contain aborted fetal tissue, which is alarming in itself yet they are taking away conscience rights as well on exemptions. Also, considering that since the vaccine manufacturers can just rely on the taxpayers to bail them out for any injuries or deaths they cause, they have little motive to bother to push for safety, and they are also upping the number of shots people get. And I’ve been hearing that doctors actually get bonuses for how many vaccines they refer or get people to vaccinate. I suspect this is a big money grab by Big Pharma. Even worse, I’m finding that places like Amazon, GoFundMe, Pinterest, Facebook, Youtube, Google, and Instagram are trying to silence the vaccine skeptics and also pulling documentaries like “Vaxxed” from Amazon.

    Also alarming is that we’re finding that they’re pulling stuff like old Brady Bunch episodes that talked about the measles that showed that the measles was something normal decades ago and often didn’t kill. (Hence a reference to my comment about needing to preserve old films on some way besides streaming, so places like Amazon cannot pull them and basically erase them from history.) I heard that the last measles death was in 2015 and that it’s possible that more people are actually dying or injured from the measles vaccine than the measles itself. The measles issue is not severe. A couple hundred or so cases out of a country of 300 million is NOT an epidemic. However, fearmongering can lead to people being willing to give away essential liberty for the promise of security. We saw that after 9/11 when we let them pass the PATRIOT Act and spy on us.

    Even worse, as I mentioned earlier, with the rise of mental health bills, they can also label children as “mentally ill” and get them full of pills, also helping Big Pharma. And, of course, I believe the push for more screens will also lead to more mental damage. As are the pushes for increased school testing and all the horrible ways they pressure kids into it.

  4. patriotmongoose says:

    The Swiss model may be newer, but the bigger system we’re fighting is actually Prussian at the roots. I read about it in the books of John Taylor Gatto. That’s where the beginnings of the “school to work” came from. The Prussian society decided after being beaten by Napolean that it was the fault of the people and their system of education, so they took away parental and local control and guided everyone into career paths to help society and the military. Big Business types like that fascist model and so imported it here to the US, where it first took root in Massachusetts, where they made public education compulsory in the 1850’s. From there, this compulsory “factory model” schooling system spread across the country. Things like the rise of coal and the industrial revolution, helped push this system along, according to Gato. The technological advances and other changes in society may have produced a greater increase in material goods and wealth (though that’s debatable considering that the Federal Reserve has devauled the dollar about 96%.) but it came at the cost of our liberty and the stability of our families.

    Of course, the more “modern” system of “21st century schooling” for the Fourth Industrial Revolution was contrived by Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) and Hillary Clinton in 1992. It eventually made its way into Goals 2000, No Child Left Behind, Common Core, and, finally, the Every Student Succeeds Act coupled with the WIOA reauthorization. (I found that WIOA in its earlier forms came out in 1997 or something.)

    As for behavioral conditioning, that goes back to the ideas of B. F. Skinner whom both Gatto and Charlotte Isberyt (in The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America) mention (I think Isberyt mentioned him more, though.) One of Skinner’s ideas was Operant conditioning, or basically a learning process through which the strength of a behavior is modified by reinforcement or punishment. This use of technology to change behavior we’re hearing about is likely based off of that type of psychology.

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