Twice in the late winter and early spring of 2018, I climbed the stairs to the fourth floor of the Fisher Fine Arts Library, a Venetian-Gothic jewel box designed by Frank Furness as the main library of the University of Pennsylvania’s West Philadelphia campus in 1890. It had been years since I’d been inside the building whose open stacks of books I haunted in the early 1990s as a graduate student in the historic preservation program. It is there, for better or worse, that I learned about decoding symbols and interpreting diverse landscapes of industrialization and predatory finance.
I hold a crisp memory of my thesis advisor, a striking German woman with long white hair tucked into a tidy bun originally from the Palatinate who relocated to Oley, PA. We were walking down Walnut Street when she paused to look at me, put her hand on my shoulder, and tell me that one day I would see it; that my family would be protected because I could see it. Thirty years later the ability to sense worrisome artifacts lurking behind consensus reality is a burden I’d like to abandon, but I can’t. I’m still waiting for the upside. I don’t feel protected at all, and my family doesn’t understand me.
The account that follows isn’t about placing blame. I recognize we’re all caught in a terrible machine. Some of us are enmeshed more deeply than others. Some of us are more vulnerable than others. My ability to keep a roof over my head is intimately intertwined with the fate of Philadelphia’s largest private employer. If you believe the press releases, it is one of the best big employers in the nation. I am doing my best to complicate their contrived narratives. My lot is being a gad fly for Ben Franklin’s big project, the University of Pennsylvania.
I consider myself fortunate to have the stability to witness and tell the stories I tell. I harbor some guilt, because many people I care about don’t have that luxury. Still, there is nothing to do but forge ahead honing our skills, learning from our missteps, being human. Hanging back because we are afraid to fail is not an option. So, I choose to chip away at the foundation upon which my world rests with stories and felt dolls and dandelions. This anti-life egregore is nothing you can disarm by military force. Fritz Kunz and Piritim Sorokin were searching for the power of eros, the creative force of the universe. I’ll settle for a tonic of philia, affectionate love, appropriate to Philadelphia.
My significant other regularly points out this institution, one from which we both hold degrees, is not a monolithic presence. Rather it is more like a fractious collection of feuding fiefdoms. The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, which is exactly how systems of power like it. University culture is a civilizing force that rewards deep, narrow, often polarizing inquiry. Academic pecking orders are determined by books published, conference papers given, grants secured, patents filed, the robustness of one’s network. Virtuosos of cultivated ignorance are lauded; plausible deniability abounds. Behind ivy-covered walls chosen ones are conditioned to look to experts to define the contours of their character even as the system guts them and hollows their minds to make room for infusions of submission coding.
Look everywhere but inside your heart where you might unearth your moral compass. Ignore the elephants in the room as the acrid odor of dung fills your nostrils. The war on consciousness and natural life is well underway, but few retain sufficient clarity of thought or a firm enough backbone to call a spade a spade. Their boning knives are so sharp, and the cuts so deft, many victims never realize they’ve been gutted. That was me for decades – the good student, the good mom, the good co-worker, plowing ahead until a lattice of fine cracks began to widen revealing socially conditioned “goodness” to be a flimsy veneer under which a deep psychic wound festered.
And it wasn’t one wound, but many wounds. It was a pervasive network of woundedness, riddled with rot, and papered over with progressive social policy. The prognosis is not good. There’s not yet a cure for chronic domination disorder though symptoms may temporarily be alleviated through superficial social justice performances enacted even as most participants know deep inside nothing is actually meant to change. Cycles of harm run on repeat with increasing intensity, a perpetual gas-lit charade.
On that day, February 20, 2018, Neil Kleiman, NYU professor of “what works” government would be presenting on “A New City O/S.” At the time I was new to Twitter, and I distinctly remember tweeting the question, who decided to put behaviorists in charge of our cities? Who had ordered up this new operating system, which I now understand will be blockchain vending machine e-government tied to digital ID and smart sensor networks?
I grabbed a chair up front to record the presentation and got several pointed questions in at the end about social impact finance. As usual, the self-proclaimed experts seemed to know nothing about what was actually going on, upholding the ruse for an audience who would leave thinking they’d learned something when they were simply being managed through fanciful stories.
Two months later, on April 26, I walked past the coffee service set up in the hall outside that same room and chose a seat at one of a dozen or so white table-clothed round tables set up by the event hosts – the Fels Policy Research Initiative. It was a half-day conference, Breakthroughs – New Ideas for Social Policy, to discuss the relationship of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania to city government and social programs. I was there primarily to hear Claire Robertson-Kraft speak on data-driven education. Other speakers included John Kromer, Philadelphia’s former housing director; Dirk Krueger, Wharton professor of econometrics and household risk relating to labor; Cheryl Bettigole, Philadelphia Health Commissioner; Vincent Reina, professor of regional planning and housing policy; Bethany Wiggin, Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities (married to David Helgerson, an ESG / sustainability fund manager) ; Vivian Gadsden, professor of child development and educational psychology ; and keynote Eric Klinenberg of NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge. Klinenberg’s talk focused on climate change, urban heat crises, and anticipated growth in global populations of displaced people – all impact markets.
I was probably one of the only people attending who wasn’t already part of the game. Most of the participants, both the presenters and attendees, had bought into the idea that research partnerships between university and city could only be a plus for Philadelphia’s residents. They would not reflect on the fact that the largest private employer in the city, a non-profit, is not required to pay property taxes, a fact that hobbles our public schools. They would not consider how private funders, from philanthropists to the military, skew the research programs at institutions like Penn. They didn’t have any understanding of how housing, labor, education, and ecology were being woven into data-driven debt products through ubiquitous computing networks.
I recall that during one question and answer session someone made a statement, within the context of environmentalism, that Black people in North Philadelphia drank too much bottled water. That shows the degree of liberal entitlement in which these folks swim, four years after the people of Flint were intentionally poisoned by government officials. The person continued; I think maybe the social impact investors over at the Cira Center will figure out how to fix that; they’re meeting there today. And that was my introduction to Total Impact, which I wrote about later in relationship to Sister Mary Scullion, Project Home, and data-driven housing services here and here.
That day on the top floor of Frank Furness’s jewel box no one was thinking about ENIAC or the Singh Nanotechnology Center two blocks east or the Wistar Institute on the other side of college green past Franklin’s broken button, created in 1892 as the nation’s first private biomedical research institute. Just like the young man who had sat next to me who was there to learn about skill development in human capital, their focus was narrow, not expansive. To look beyond is to risk being ostracized. Most don’t. Instead, they drink the coffee and nibble fruit salad cups and oversize muffins and pretend everything’s just fine. The wounds continue to fester.
To get to the room where those two social policy gatherings were held you had to pass the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, part of the Stuart Weitzman School of Design. The program was founded to promote innovation in energy policy with a $10 million gift from Scott Kleinman, a Wharton alumnus and co-president of Apollo Global Management. Two reports stood out to me as being of particular interest:
Nuclear Energy Meets Climate Change: Revitalizing Nuclear Energy to Decarbonized Electricity in the United States – 2021
Energy and the Blockchain: Opportunities and Challenges for Climate Energy Governance – 2018
Apollo emerged from the wreckage of the Drexel Burnham Lambert collapse in 1990 resulting from Michael Milken’s junk bond exploits. Kleinman maintains an affiliation with the Milken Institute. Apollo’s early strategy, led by Leon Black, was to acquire distressed companies and then gain a controlling interest in them through managed bankruptcy proceedings. Black left the firm, which has $500 billion in assets under management, in 2021 after an internal investigation revealed he’d made $158 million in payments to Jeffrey Epstein over five years. Black remains the firm’s largest individual stockholder. Last fall Apollo hired its first Chief Sustainability Officer, Dave Stangis, to lead ESG (Environmental Social Governance) efforts in its portfolio management. Last summer Kleinman published a 120-page document, “The Apollo ESG Effect, Volume 12 Annual Report” from which the excerpt below is taken.
“For over a decade, we have built a successful ESG program that has set the standard for ESG reporting within our industry, helping to drive sustainability, climate action, employee engagement, and responsible citizenship across our companies. However, as we look to further integrate ESG principles throughout our business, our goal is to engage all 1,700 of our employees and those of our funds’ reporting companies and relationships. ESG principles need to be fully embedded into our culture and permeate our entire organization. This is when we will truly make a difference and expand the opportunity and the impact.
Reflecting on the past 12 months, we are proud of the progress we have made toward achieving this goal. Apollo has taken steps to move to a best-in-class, transparent governance structure; we have redefined our purpose and values; and expanded the opportunity for diverse talent with industry-leading initiatives. Within private equity, we launched a dedicated Impact platform, which will invest in later-stage companies that align with specific UN Sustainable Development Goals. And within credit, we have developed a proprietary rating system to further incorporate ESG into our investment process. ESG integration across our entire firm has proven to not only be the right thing to do, but simply, better business.”
The impact measurement platforms described above will have to become automated and scalable. What will make that possible is the development of blockchain and Web 3.0 cyber-physical systems. The evolution of the internet from Individual Communication Technology into pervasive computing will demand intensive resource extraction to construct and power the sensor networks that will kill natural life on Earth to generate a counterfeit, controllable simulation. Research into bio-nano engineering will be leveraged to parasitize and redesign carbon and water-based life as armatures for the collective consciousness envisioned for a century by Teilhard de Chardin, Vladimir Vernadsky, Julian Huxley, Oliver Reiser, and Fritz Kunz.
Dangerous weather events will reinforce the need for intensive risk assessment and new insurance products like the automated claims management of parametric insurance policies governed by IoT data analytics. A division of Wharton’s new ESG initiative is a Risk Management and Decisions Process Center, which is one of the Kleinman Center’s on-campus partners. At this point most of the public is unwilling to engage seriously with the degree to which natural atmospheric forces can be influenced by technology and have been since the 1950s. All of this will require sensors, edge computing, and quantum AI.
The Quakers, UPenn’s mascot, described themselves as “children of the light.” Is this what they meant? Photonics? Optics? Iris, the rainbow, sending data to Olympus, the GIIN, of sustainable social impact compliance? Will the fire taken by Prometheus be tamed by Apollo and remade as biological photovoltaics? Will human flesh through the use of PiezoMEMs (Piezo Micro Electrical Mechanical Systems) become a novel computational substrate?
Material scientists associated with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Maxwell Murialdo and Jon Belof, have been theorizing a new type of stablecoin that would employ quantum thermodynamics to create “free” energy from information with responsibility for erasing “waste data” transferred on blockchain to outlying network participants. Fellow researcher Leo Saraceno, alerted me to their paper, “Can Stablecoins by Collateralized by a fully Decentralized Digital Asset,” published in the June 2022 issue of the Cryptoeconomics Systems journal which is housed within the MIT Digital Currency Initiative. Click here for related discussion on the Wrench in the Gears Discourse Working Group. It’s not a stretch to imagine wearable or implanted piezo-electric energy harvesters used for that purpose.
Picture people on prescribed pre-diabetic fitness pathways linked to social impact deals with smart uniforms even as their sweat, body heat, or blood flow is used to offset the energetic costs of information erasure. In a conversation I had recently about Quakers being filled with the holy spirit to the point of physically “quaking” I can’t help but contemplate the possibility of an ultimate perversion of sacred practice through the intentional harvest of spiritual energetics using novel “climate-tech” materials. There are so many faith communities operating in the social impact space, would it be a stretch to imagine the dark forces wanting to capture the “inner light” of “pay for success” program participants to advance their misguided plans for liberal-minded decarbonizaton?
SBTs (soul bound tokens) anyone?
As fellows associated with the Kleinman Center work on energy policy infrastructure, professors and students who are part of the VIPER program work on the developing the technology that underpins the faux “greening” of biomolecular design. The primary benefactors of Penn’s energy research division are P. Roy Vagelos and his wife Diana. Vagelos, an alumnus who serves on the university’s board, trained as a physician and held positions with the National Institutes of Health early in his career. From 1966 to 1975 he worked at the Washington University St. Louis School of Medicine and Massachusetts General Hospital. Prior to his arrival both institutions maintained close relationships with the Atomic Energy Commission and conducted radiation experiments on civilian populations.
Vagelos took the reins of pharmaceutical giant Merck, and later Regeneron. During his time at Merck, the firm developed the anti-parasitic drug Ivermectin, which the company arranged in coordination with the World Bank and the World Health Organization, to donate the drug African countries as a treatment for river blindness. Control of the disease, starting in the mid 1970s, was the World Bank’s first public health project. By the 1980s Vagelos was being lauded as an early pharmaceutical philanthropist.
The VIPER (Vagelos Integrated Program in Energy Research) dual degree (School of Arts and Sciences / School of Engineering) program was initiated in 2012 with the goal of creating a cadre of alternative energy researchers who’d have the opportunity to conduct extensive laboratory research at the undergraduate level. Among them was William Deo, class of 2021, who studied physics, earned a MS in engineering, and augmented his science studies with summer internships in investment banking. During his time in the program, William prepared a policy study for the Kleinman Energy Institute that highlighted the potential for rural African communities to skip fossil fuels and move directly to modular nuclear power.
Seven years after their initial gift the Vagelos family made the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Arts and Sciences largest donation to date as part of the 2019 “Power of Penn” campaign. Fifty million dollars was pledged for the construction of a 110,000 square foot laboratory complex that would have high performance optics labs and a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer suite with helium recovery. The building will house the VIPER program and support interdisciplinary investigations into the creation of new energy science technologies. Vagelos previously endowed four chairs at Penn, funded the creation of a 100,000 square foot advanced chemistry lab in 1997, and established numerous scholarships in molecular life sciences and biophysics. The Vagelos Laboratory for Energy Science and Technology, now under construction is anticipated to be finished 2024 at a cost $173 million. In a press release, Dean of Engineering and specialist in multi-agent robotics (drone swarms) Vijay Kumar stated:
“This transformative gift will supercharge Penn Engineering’s interdisciplinary and innovative culture, while nucleating new collaborations with Penn Arts & Sciences. There is no bigger challenge for our planet than the creation, storage, and conversion of energy in a clean, efficient and cost-effective way. Penn engineers and scientists are partners in working toward a sustainable future.”
Kumar’s choice of words, “nucleating,” for the gift seems significant. Nucleation is the appearance of a new thermodynamic phase, a daughter phase, that emerges and grows within the parent. Nucleation Capital is among the first venture capital funds organized around the promotion of fourth phase nuclear power, which they characterize as decentralized, modular, and designed for rapid deployment to remote locations. The fund is being managed in partnership with Rod Adams, creator of the long-running blog “Atomic Insights.” In advance of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow last year, the International Atomic Energy Agency, a United Nations partner based in Vienna and established in 1957 as part of Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” initiative, released a report extolling the importance of nuclear power for a net-zero future.
As I see it, decarbonization and crypto/data center energy consumption seem to be issues meant to drive unquestioning adoption of the “green” nuclear power and blockchain energy grids that are intended to manifest Web 3, augmented reality life in the CIA’s mind games.
Frederick Soddy, the English chemist who discovered the transmutation of elements through radiation and coined the term “isotope” devoted the second half of his life from 1921-34 to theorizing an economy based on energy, embedded in an ecological frame and writing books about it. Nuclear energy was central, and we see that making a comeback with many public figures, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen among them. There is much discussion of thorium reactors being an option not only for decentralized “green,” “safe” power, but with the potential to generate radioisotopes, too. Perfect for the human+ campaign of mutagenesis. There seems to be increased interest in saltational evolutionary theory, substantial changes made to genes with multiple mutations showing up over a short period of time. This theory is counter to Darwin’s gradualist outlook and has been debated since the mid nineteenth century. Now, however, with bio-nano technology, and even radiation hormesis, I sense that scientists are positioning themselves as technicians for God, bent on tweaking our bodies into “hopeful monsters.”
In recent years cryptocurrency companies have been actively seeking arrangements to source nuclear power for their mining, because reactors don’t release greenhouse gases and are therefore considered “sustainable,” and can be factored into net-zero efforts. A recent deal was executed between Terawulf crypto-mining and Talen Energy that manages a reactor near Berwick, PA on the Susquehanna River.
While uranium has a bad name within the public sphere, thorium is emerging as a compelling alternative to power a new generation of reactors drawing on molten salt research carried out but then set aside in the 1950s as the arms race heated up. The Atomic Energy Commission opted for technologies that could generate plutonium for weapons. Thorium requires additional processing, but is more abundant than uranium with India, Brazil, Australia, and the United States believed to have the largest deposits. Beyond the nuclear option other alternatives are being floated in Pennsylvania, including burning waste coal from decades-old detritus. The claim made for it being beneficial is that even though it releases emissions when burned, that harm is offset by the removal of toxic waste piles.
Once you understand the problem, reaction, solution paradigm, it is hard to listen to this Penn Energy Week presentation by Lawrence Baxter, professor of government regulation at Duke Law, and not imagine they are actively setting up impact markets for a future of “green” crypto.
The logic of social impact finance requires a terrible baseline, so that any improvement moving forward would count as an easy win. I believe that is the reason that the folks at Cambridge are collecting data in such granular detail now when energy requirements are so high. Anyone who understands the game properly would plan ahead so they could leverage those numbers later. None of the players are preparing to jettison Web 3 due to the fact that it’s an abomination to natural life. Rather, they’re crafting data narratives that can be used to legitimize the creation of markets in alternative energy, acceptance of novel, engineered biomaterials that open the door to new forms of quantum computation.
My gut tells me that mineral mining whether for energy or technology fabrication, which is truly horrible, is being strategically positioned to make bio-mass engineering appear a more palatable option to the public. The problem, in my opinion, is that the public does not have a sufficient grasp on the capabilities of synthetic biology and its consequences or an awareness of our histories of eugenics and social engineering. Before we can have an informed discussion about the ethics of the alternatives that will be proposed by the scientists and the military and ESG money behind them there’s a lot of catching up to do. Given the rise of solutions journalism, the incorporation of digital media as verticals in the social impact finance space, and the creation of compliance-based online education systems, that’s seems very unlikely.
The next phase of “mining” will be detailed analyses of molecular components of living organisms in ecosystems. Inventories will be carried out in excruciating detail not only to provide the false pretense of accountability and gather data required to build climate finance deals, but to literally map life on the planet for machine learning and re-engineering. I believe the unspoken dual use behind such efforts is bioprospecting at the molecular level enabled by chemo-taxonomy and software like SistematX that automates chemo-informatic annotation of organic compounds. From the microbe to megafauna, the agents of impact seek full spectrum domination.
It is vital that the public begin to grasp that the sustainability narrative as advanced by the United Nations, the Global Impact Investment Network, the Impact Management Project, Scott Kleinman’s Apollo Group, and other ESG promoters is not about saving the planet but rather entangling all facets of existence into mechanical systems to quantify nature, monitor the value of each individual piece (down to the microbe) to the larger system, engineer life from the position of full spectrum dominance, and using risk analytics gamble on innumerable combinations of possible outcomes beyond anything the human mind could ever hold. This is a dark, dark art masquerading as salvation. We must be strong of heart and clear of head so as not to wander into the wrong story. If we unthinkingly follow the crumbs being dropped it will be game over for natural life.
The University of Pennsylvania knows this game well. Wharton began accepting cryptocurrency for tuition payment last year as well as accepting a $5 million anonymous gift of cryptocurrency for its Stevens Center for Financial Innovation. The center is named after Ross Stevens, an alumnus who started at Goldman Sachs before founding Stone Ridge Holding Group where he currently manages $20 million in alternative investments. Stevens is well-connected in the Bitcoin space presenting with Michael Saylor of MicroStrategy last February.
As founder and board chair of the New York Digital Investment Group (NYDIG) Stevens held $6 billion in Bitcoin early last year and, even with losses, those holdings are now around $7 billion with new infusions of capital continuously flowing into the organization. NYDIG facilitates Bitcoin transactions, including Penn’s anonymous cryptocurrency gift, and hopes to pave the way for BTC adoption in hundreds of US banks and credit unions. Through partnerships with sports franchises like the Houston Rockets and the New York Yankees Stevens has begun to target payroll and employee benefit systems. NYDIG provides technical support for employees to direct a portion of their salary into BTC acquisition with dollar-cost-averaging “smoothing the bumps along the way.”
The Stevens Financial Innovation Center hosts a blockchain laboratory and incubators for both blockchain start-ups and digital assets. There is a Penn-affiliated Discord community to connect students and alumni with jobs and opportunities in the blockchain/crypto space. Among the advisors to their Cypher accelerator are Jeff Amico of Andreessen Horowitz, Charles Birnbaum of Bessemer Venture Partners, Stefan Cohen of Bain Capital, Tim Draper of Draper Associates, Mark Cuban of Cuban Companies, and Chris Giancarlo former chair of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission. Sponsored projects include software to scale blockchain smart contracts in housing, healthcare, gaming, and financial sectors; assess risk; promote ubiquitous AI and enable investments in celebrity athletes.
I have a great deal of frustration with people, especially people who identify themselves as experts in blockchain, who are not yet drawing obvious connections between digital money, decentralized ledgers, and Web 3 augmented reality and social impact finance. In my opinion, we are having all the wrong conversations around blockchain. Those pushing cybernetics and bio-nano engineering as a “just transition” continue manage digital conversations and channel attention in ways that allow the power structure to program public acceptance of “solutions” to problems they’ve manufactured for just that purpose. I saw it first in the education space. Eventually, I realized most of the activist “leaders” of the faux movement against standardized testing and predatory data collection were there to sound the alarm about children’s hacked personal information and drive us all onto blockchain where transcripts integrated with community school medical records and social support services would jumpstart a future of remote haptic labor based on ruthless competition among competency-based skills badge holders around the globe. Very few were willing to point to people like Diane Ravitch whose son Joe invested in that technology through Raine Group, or Leonie Haimson whose husband is a prominent climate scientist at Princeton and say their actions didn’t add up – their cultivated ignorance of what was really happening after years of evidence was presented showed what side they were really on.
Wharton’s social impact initiatives began with a social entrepreneurship MBA in 2011 and morphed into an integrated ESG initiative that includes a Climate Center, Impact Investing Research Lab, Political Risk and Identity Lab, and a Center for Governance and Business Ethics in the summer of 2022. For the past decade, future leaders in data-driven impact have been groomed through academic coursework and hands-on projects like the Wharton Impact Investment Partners Fund and Training Network run in coordination with representatives from Ronald Cohen’s Bridges Ventures, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, and Merrill Lynch.
Years after having completed my MA at Penn and immersing myself in independent research, it started to dawn on me that many departments, particularly graduate programs and affiliated research institutes, seem to knowingly or not be upholding the interests of the Wharton business school. I saw that with the graduate school of education and its emphasis on educational technology. I saw it in the positive psychology program where Martin Seligman and Angela Duckworth would feed into markets around mental health and wellbeing. I saw it in the approach to public policy at the Fels Institute of Government and Actional Intelligence for Social Policy.
The alignment with impact investing was on full display September 13, 2019 in the Irvine Auditorium when I attended a day-long conference, “Designing A Green New Deal,” that featured Naomi Klein as the keynote. That’s how I knew what she was about before our face off in 2020. The first panel presentation that day was literally “Mining the New Deal Legacy.” See Tim Scott’s “Disrupting the Myth of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Age of Trump, Sanders, and Clinton,” if you don’t understand how problematic that is.
The event was co-hosted by the McHarg Center of the Weitzman School of Design / PennPraxis, the UPenn Population Studies Center, the Social-Spatial Climate Collaborative, the Buell Center for American Architecture, and the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. Sure, at the time I didn’t understand the way in which blockchain would interface with cyber-physical systems to train machines in the finer points of being human, but I understood the game and UPenn’s place in it and I spent that day chasing down as many speakers as I could to try and get the point across that “data-driven” “sustainability” would not be a “just transition” or a digital utopia, but rather an open air prison where all the worst aspects of militarized finance would be amplified beyond our ability to comprehend it.
None of these experts had any interest in hearing from a person in the lobby who clearly wasn’t there to help them up the career ladder. Even the co-eds tabling environmental causes and progressive books from small publishing houses were too jaded or distracted to listen to me. After that conference I wrote “Sustainability for Financiers: What Climate Marchers Need to Know About the UN Sustainable Development Goals,” followed by “Two Paths Diverge, Follow the Red One.” At that point I still thought an indigenous centered approach could be authentic, but over time I understood that Nick Estes, as wonderful as his book “Our History is the Future” is was in no position to face off against GIIN and the Impact Management Project. Those stories are needed to maintain polarization as we spin into the vortex of molten salt reactor promises of radioisotope, anti-aging protocols.
We need the stories. We need the spectacle. We need the performances to reassure us that we have what it takes to get through one more day, week, year in a world of crumbling foundations that threaten to topple us into the digital abyss. I saw it that day in all the faces. They were acting their parts even as I was acting mine, the gad fly to Franklin’s legacy in city that wraps itself in brotherly love even as it kicks the most vulnerable to the curb.
Story is one of Zane Griffin Talley Cooper skills. Described in a recent Silicon Icarus article as “a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication,” Cooper is a consulting researcher at the McHarg Center, one of the hosts of the 2019 Green New Deal event. His Annenberg Center bio notes that he’s one of seven contributors working on a “thematic development of the Internationalist Green New Deal Atlas.”
The group says it is interested redesigning the built environment to “fight historical injustices” and “drive quality of life improvements.” They anticipate massive transformations of how and where people will live. Their lens, they say, is one of racial capitalism. They acknowledge infrastructure as an embodiment of hegemonic power at all levels, a contested space. They pay lip service to the harm caused by the extractive practices in mining and energy, but there is no acknowledgement that their planned smart environments will exponentially increase the harm, and the end result will be an open air, personalized prison. They naively speak of a future of abundance where resources are redistributed, but refuse to discuss social impact finance, smart contract layers of e-governance, globalization 4.0, platformed labor, interspecies currency, giraffes in heart monitors to pay for their drone surveillance, which not coincidentally will encompass surveillance of communities in the rainforest, too. They are chosen for their roles, because they are happy to play dumb.
People like Zane take funding from the Iceland Blockchain Foundation to run their immersive media junkets, while pretending mining is about Auroracoin and not about augmented reality, digital twinning, mental entrainment, behavioral economics, cybernetics linked to the internet of bodies, the internet of bio-nano things. Academics play both sides – the expert and the idiot – as circumstances require. What hat do you wear to your gig at Intel advising on Web 3 sustainability?
Is it the same one you wear when you’re writing papers about supply chain management for e-waste funded by a $200,000 “Greening the Internet” from the Internet Society Foundation? I suppose those supply chain systems would involve blockchain, too?
What hat would you wear to meet me for a beer or a coffee so we could talk about IXO Foundation’s vision for a world covered in code? Yes, that Global South world you pay lip service to in your lofty essays. Well, I’ll never know Zane, because you didn’t reply to my requests to talk with you. The comfortable don’t want to be discomfited. It sickens me the degree to which so many people construct identities that end up being carboard cut outs, no substance. If you all actually had any intention of living up to the lofty ideals you write about, you’d want to know what I know. You’d stop spending your summers in Greenland and buckle down and do an ethnography of predatory philanthro-capitalism and synthetic biology and blockchain in your own damn back yard. But that’s not how the game works is it? It’s just one big scam on repeat.
“We believe that political economies are what drive the design professions: This project will foreground the histories and contemporary realities of colonialism, imperialism, racial capitalism and they manifest themselves in the built and natural environment. We are especially interested in the relationship between how and where design is deployed within these existing frameworks, and how alternative, anti-capitalist/imperialist/colonialist frameworks might restructure how and where our fields operate through an Internationalist Green New Deal.” Source
The Internationalist Atlas came after the McHarg Center’s 2100 Project. The insanity of that thinking is aptly represented on page 66 of an 81-page document where the authors describe the need for nearly 90% of the United States to be covered in trees by 2060 in order to achieve their planned levels of carbon sequestration. While they may call such installations “forest,” I doubt very much such efforts would lead to any sort of biologically rich, integrated ecosystem. These are tree factories, and the idea that the government could impose such a land use on private property or that the millions upon millions of acres of prairie and desert would support billions of trees is ludicrous if not outright treacherous to the integrity of existing natural systems. Who are these regional engineers to play God anyway? Are they looking to exterminate all life in non-forest ecosystems? Because that’s what it looks like to me.
Ian McHarg was a Scottish-born landscape architect, a leader in regional planning who popularized the concept of “designing with nature.” These days that sentiment at UPenn could be rendered as some sort of bio-inspired material created by evolutionary algorithms that bears only a passing resemblance to the natural world. McHarg taught one of the most popular courses at UPenn in the 1960s, “Man and the Environment.” His students led the first Earth Day celebration in Philadelphia in 1970, and he developed the first database for a national ecological inventory for the EPA in 1993.
Today the visualizations that McHarg pioneered are much more sophisticated. In fact, social impact investors and the United Nations are creating metrics to run financial markets in measurable behavior change, especially behavior change aligned with the narratives that make the Sustainable Development Goals come to life. Now the machines can watch us, and artificial intelligence is getting better at responding – they call it people analytics and neuromarketing. They’ll use it for our good health and economic wellbeing, wink, wink. The folks over at Wharton are really good at it and have been since Eric Trist brought over his Tavistock social ecology work, and Hasan Ozbekhan started up systems science and helped launch the Club of Rome.
The digital twin simulations, once Web 3 begins to scale, are going to be a game-changer. It’s hard to say if the results will be so warped that navigating that reality will make us psychically ill or if the majority of people will be so numb, they won’t even notice. If the latter, I guess the digitally engineered experiences will simply be ramped up in intensity until they can get us to move in the direction they want. Cooper started out as a young filmmaker at the University of Colorado Boulder. His CV lists him as Co-Founder, Director, and Editor at Kinematic Studios with office in Denver and Los Angeles. He did some acting, including a 2008 appearance as a dancing scientist on an Applied Biosystems commercial selling Veriti PCR systems. Wow.
In 2019, Cooper presented a piece of immersive media he created to examine sensations relating to the experience of infrastructure used for crypto mining in Iceland. The production, “Alchemical Infrastructures: Making Blockchain in Iceland,” was supported by the Annenberg School of Communication, the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy and UPenn’s Center for Experimental Ethnography whose 2021-22 theme is hyper fictions / hyperreality. It was featured in an exhibit of the Annenberg School in 2019 along with a soundscape and portrait series.
One additional feature of the exhibit was a functional Antminer 7 that mined the unofficial cryptocurrency of Iceland, Auroracoin. Cooper said, “Configuring the rig for the solo-mining Auroracoin through a campus internet connection was no easy feat! The exhibit enjoyed a tremendously positive reception and was featured on the local news. The overall intent of the exhibit was to give blockchain and cryptocurrency a more immediately relatable face, by focusing on the people and material processes involved.” Auroracoin was created in 2014 as a replacement currency for the small country after the economy crashed in 2008. Coins were distributed to citizens through a national ID system, but many people cashed them in right away causing the system to crash in short order. Zane often describes the focus of his work as an alchemical process, a topic of a recent collaborative presentation. Turns out it is very difficult to turn digital money into gold.
The VR element was featured in a 2019 conference hosted by the Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities, “Environmental Storytelling and Virtual Reality.” The keynote address given by Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, was titled “Experience on Demand.” According to his Stanford bio, “Bailenson studies the psychology of virtual and augmented reality, in particular how virtual experiences lead to changes in perceptions of self and others. His lab builds and studies systems that allow people to meet in virtual space and explores the changes in the nature of social interaction. His most recent research focuses on how virtual experiences can transform education, environmental conservation, empathy, and health.”
This, of course, is about harvesting emotional data to fulfill the requirements of social impact finance deals and to train machine learning. Virtual reality is a central feature of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal implementation. It is astonishing to me that people imagine any of this is actually “green.” Not to worry though – fellows like Zane will be coming up with systems to manage all this e-waste and mitigate the harm caused by data transmission and storage.
The conference had other talks on bodies in fantasy worlds, panels on the value of “play,” trainings in immersive game design for climate change sponsored by Unity, and hands-on pedagogical opportunities. Cooper joined Sarah Cameron Sunde, a performance artist engaged with concepts of deep time and water, to discuss In/Visible Elements. The frustration for me lies in the fact that all of these very well educated people are legitimizing this technology designed to usher in programmable digital life without even recognizing its origins in military behavioral psychology. You’d think being on Penn’s campus with Martin “Guantanamo-Learned Helplessness” Seligman nearby might trigger some measure of discernment. For goodness sake even the humanities folks and the environmentalists have all fallen into line without a peep. Money talks, I guess.
Among the references on his CV are a UPenn professor of digital culture and technological activism; the dean of Northwestern University in Qatar who specializes in evidence-based multi-modal storytelling centering the Global South; an anthropologist examining spatial epistemologies and mediated sensation; a Canadian communications professor who’s the PI for a project on DNA data storage; and a fellow with Data for Progress focused on low-carbon public housing policy. We can see in this group the importance of narrative – how it is structured – how it is delivered – how it is stored. We want our stories to empower us and make us feel like our better selves. Unfortunately for me I really suck in that regard. I’ve never been able to remember the spoon full of sugar approach. It’s not in my nature.
I feel I’ve provided a pretty good tour of the University of Pennsylvania. I hope you have gained an understanding of how I see things – cagey financiers, delusional do-gooders, crafty policy makers, ambitious scientists, and digital storytellers each of whom is living their own drama where they hope to be the hero. So why have I taken you down this winding path? Well, I wanted to let you know that Zane Griffith Talley Cooper is the reason I chose to separate myself from Silicon Icarus.
I’d had some communication failures with Raul the previous month, and when I saw his story highlighting Cooper’s work in Greenland my heart dropped. Not because it wasn’t a well written piece or that rare earth mineral mining wasn’t a concern, but I knew that the Annenberg School of Communication, created by Sir Walter Nixon’s ambassador to England and heir to the Daily Racing Form / TV Guide fortune, was a mouthpiece for social impact propaganda. I’d written about it in 2018, including their push for blockchain media and sham social justice outlets. I’d sent Raul the link to, “Don’t Let the Impact Investors Capture the Non-Profit Activist Media,” a week or so prior to his article coming out.
I asked if we could have a conversation about Cooper, because the nature of his inclusion in the piece didn’t make sense to me. Nor did the shout-out given to him on Twitter. It was not the way Raul normally operated, and I pretty much read and uplifted every piece he’d written over the course of the year. I’m not one to let things fester. You may say I’m blunt or direct or even rude. I’ll own that. But I don’t play games, and people know where I stand.
I never got that conversation. The door was closed, a brief message exchange abruptly ended, and at that point I said I felt we were on different paths and it was probably appropriate to remove me as a contributor. Raul never opened the message I sent saying I hoped our paths would cross again, and that I wish him open pathways on his journey. I’m sure he will continue to do important work. I’d love to think impact finance will be a part of it, but it’s not the first time people I thought understood ended up pulling back and repositioning. As I said in the beginning of this post, this is not about assigning blame. I’m in this machine as deeply as anyone. I even have empathy for Zane Talley Griffith Cooper. It can’t be easy on the soul getting paid to study Web 3 while being expected to be an anti-imperialist in your academic circles. But he did do Beckett naked, so I suspect he’ll probably make it through.
I stepped away from Silicon Icarus not because Raul interviewed Zane or wrote a piece I felt pulled punches, but because my request to talk about it was rejected. I didn’t have ten pages of thoughts when I made that ask, but there were things on my mind – serious things. To my way of thinking friends, real friends, should have enough trust and respect in one another to do the hard work of being human, which can be messy. Two years of support deserved better than ghosting, but we never know what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes. I know he’s facing challenges. I don’t regret making that ask, because I wouldn’t be me if I hadn’t. The hardest part is not knowing if we ever were really friends, and that is the sickness of the Internet folks. It can be a real mind fuck.
But if the past few years have taught me anything, the universe operates according to purposeful if mysterious plans. I’ve had people arrive in my life to teach me and then abruptly leave. Still, we are all connected and so I will end with this passage from Louise Erdrich that I read this past week about waves. The waves are the key – periodicity, cycles, harmony. Edward Dewey knew some things. This paragraph is from “Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country,” page 64.
“Waves – On our way to visit the island and Eternal Sands we experience a confluence of shifting winds and waves. Tobasonakwut shows me how the waves are creating underwaves and counterwaves. The rough swells from the southeast are bouncing against the rocky shores, which he avoids. The wooded lands and shores will absorb the force of the waves and not send them back out to create confusion. Heading towards open water, we travel behind the farthest island, a wave cutter. We slice right into the waves when possible. But we are dealing with yesterday’s wind and a strong north wind and swells underneath the waves now proceeding from the wind that shifted, fresh, to the south. I think if what Tobasonakwut’s father said, “The creator is the lake and we are the waves on the lake.” The images of complexity and shifting mutability of human nature is very clear today.“
Your words touch my heart.
I wish a wave cutter island for everyone who needs it right now – each and every one.
Hug your people.
You never know what tomorrow will bring.