This morning I received a response to my latest blog post, a piece I’d written about grief and family separation and controlled consciousness along with a description of site visits I did in Durham, NC related to military gaming simulations, neuroscience, and psychical research. It was sent by someone I know from my education activism days, an individual who’s done important work exposing the toxic discipline and financial schemes behind a particular no-excuses charter school franchise. I won’t quote from the email because the comments weren’t shared publicly. I do, however, want to unpack the content in broad strokes.
I’ll admit to being triggered by that email landing in my inbox. Blaring out from the page, at least that’s how it felt to me, was the sentiment – you are a talented person Alison, but you are not humble, and that’s a problem. I quickly started drafting a response. If I’m being perfectly honest, my reply was defensive and would probably only have served to reinforce the writer’s mental picture of me as a combative, hard-headed know-it-all. Upon reflection, I sensed the sender of the email, also a blogger, likely found my post equally triggering since it critiqued academia, the prevailing climate narrative, and political polarity. All three are topics about which the author holds strong opinions. So, I paused and made a hearty breakfast of poached eggs and crispy kale with a side of thick bacon slices, and then after finishing off a Moka pot, I decided to write my reply here instead.
The email sent to me opened with the lyrics from Grace Slick and The Great Society’s song “Someone to Love,” which was later re-recorded at “Somebody to Love.” According to Wikipedia, the group originally performed the song at The Matrix nightclub in San Francisco in 1965-66. For me this has synergy with my ongoing interest in Madeline L’Engle’s “Wrinkle In Time” novel, which centers love as the only thing that can overcome IT, the mechanical ruler of the dead world of Camazotz. The song lyrics speak of truth turning into lies, joy and garden flowers dying, and a mind full of red. The answer is to find “somebody to love,” which given the nature of the personal rejection I’m navigating by the people I love is rather cutting.
As I interpreted the intent of the email, which is in itself a fraught enterprise, the implication seems to be that I had turned into an angry and joyless person. People who read my work or listen to my talks know that is not the case. Sure, the past few weeks have been terrible, not just because my father died – I had mostly come to terms with that. The worst part was dealing with the finality of being cast out by my living family and the deep woundedness I felt at that cold, clinical distancing.
This week I was able to mostly push my anger aside, because I continue to hope that the answer is love – that love will win in the end. The message being implanted in the minds of many today is that dissidents are dark, bitter people – people who can neither be trusted nor understood with minds full of “red” thoughts. In that way we can be dehumanized, marginalized. You don’t have to pay attention to bitter people. It gives you a pass.
Below is what I wrote in my unsent, draft response.
“I want to make it clear that I am not enraged. That is what the media juggernaut would have you believe. The masses are inhabiting narratives that have been strategically fed to them for years, decades even, by sophisticated digital content management systems. These systems have been set up to reinforce social segmentation, divisiveness, and teaming. Consumption of programmed information threatens to turn us into the human equivalent of social insects. Complexity and emergence leverage automated reactivity and pre-programmed social cues. The system is using playlists of content to manage entire populations, to trigger specific biochemical reactions. I sense we’re in a simulation that is being remotely guided by hormone manipulation and biochemical signaling. See this four-minute clip about neuro-economics and use of oxytocin to induce (or remove) social trust by Elizabeth Phelps of Harvard and Paul Glimcher, a neuro-economist from UPenn.
By making your critique about some aspect of my personality, you get to sidestep the content I’ve meticulously gathered on the ethical implications of guided consciousness, biosensors, game mechanics, and group mind. Please know, I’ve mostly made peace with my situation. I plan to find a little house in the forests and lakes of the Ozarks, put up a deer fence, make a garden, get a kayak, and reconnect with nature. I’ll quilt and maybe learn how to fish. I hear the White River offers amazing trout habitat. At the top of my list for now is the little town of Mountain View, Arkansas a center for the preservation of folk music, craft, and heirloom plants. I sense we all are instruments of the divine, energetic beings, members of life’s symphony. The byline of a Twitter handle of an online friend, a musician, is “I am a string.” A string yes, and who or what are we allowing to play us? As I see it now, the military-finance-big pharma psychiatric machine is working overtime to shove God off the conductor’s podium and install the Web3 layer of mathematical logic. I’m not going to stop my work, but I am going to change the context in which I pursue it.
As far as “The Great Society,” I understand it differently now. If you haven’t seen my site visit to the LBJ Presidential Library and School of Public Policy in Austin, it might be of interest.
I recognize that Elizabeth Hinton’s book, “From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime,” even in its critique, was setting up social impact finance and ultimately cybernetic signaling. She’s an agent of Harvard after all. Still, the history she lays out was super helpful to me as I started making sense of the ways socio-technical systems intersect with Skinnerian behavior modification and optimization metrics.”
I looked up the definition of humility to revisit what “humble” traits are: recognizing your own limitations, not thinking you are better than others, showing gratitude for team members, learning from those around you, and understanding your imperfections. Now, I would assert that I do have gratitude for those around me. We learn from one another even though our community is small in number. Many of the leads I pursue are shared with me by others. I may not always acknowledge that as loudly as I probably should, so let me do that now. Thank you all. I see you and appreciate you even if I don’t always say it.
I sense that by putting myself out publicly and framing my research through a lens of personal experience, some might imagine me to have a big ego. Egocentrism is the inability to recognize the needs of others or act with empathy. Egocentric people place their personal needs above those of others. What I’m struggling with is my feeling that I have been called to carry out a particular task at a particular time. Does this make me egocentric?
Should I set aside this calling and instead listen to people who are living out a totally different storyline that incorporates none of the cataclysmic changes now underway? Am I supposed to empathize with the wife of the guy managing multibillion-dollar investment portfolios that will run on ubiquitous sensing and derivatives markets in human behavior change? I can try and relate to her situation, but don’t expect me to bite my tongue and pretend I don’t have a problem with how all of this greenwashing is unfolding.
Maybe my single-minded enthusiasm for the topics I research is seen by others as boorish, impolite, and aggravating. Most people do not wish to have their ideas about civilization questioned. I get it. I have some degree of sympathy for their plight, but it doesn’t mean the things we talk about aren’t happening, aren’t relevant. Why can’t I just go along quietly and stop making the people around me so uncomfortable – especially since I don’t have a handy solution ready to pull out of my back pocket. Civil society including educational institutions, religious groups, and political parties, have been set up instruct us on how to be “good” within the confines of the game board that we call “civilized” life today. There are informal rubrics of socially-acceptable behaviors to which they imagine I must be oblivious. Is disciplined silence the key to being a “good” person in this stupid game? It feels like bullshit to me.
The pronouncement that I was not humble (or that I was proud / overbearing) felt like someone patting me on the head like a good little girl and sending me off to bed while the grown-ups took care of business. Who am I to presume I might be able to help shift the course of social evolution away from the cybernetic gangplank? I’m just a mom after all. Be humble Ally; stay in the background; think whatever you like; but don’t rock the boat in public. It’s unseemly. My husband recently told me, you don’t understand your effect on people. I should have asked, which people? People are not a homogenous monolith, at least not yet.
My family feels burdened by me. I think they imagine I have an over-inflated sense of self-worth. Though if they loved me unconditionally, they’d probably give me a big hug and be proud to be connected to a strong, grounded woman who is confident in her abilities and has a solid moral compass. I think I have a unique mind. I certainly don’t consider myself “better,” just “different.” I’m okay with being different. Each of us has God-given gifts, and I’m trying to use mine to advance right relationships. Since no one gave me an operating manual, and I only have a rough idea of what the end goal might look like, I’m learning and stumbling and recalibrating as I go along. I’ve chosen to do it out in the open to show that we can be fragile, creative, messy, and perhaps imperfectly perfect.
It is my strongly held feeling that we all have an obligation to talk about, grapple with, and come to terms with aspects of technological “progress” that are coming online right now before our eyes. While personally I believe many of these developments are unnatural and profane; I will not insist others agree with me. I will, however, continue to press for public conversations and informed consent. God has put this on my heart and given me resources to fulfill that responsibility. Who am I to turn my back on such an assignment?
It requires a healthy ego and sense of self-worth to pour out one’s personal pain onto the page for all to see. Quite a few comments on my recent posts, indicate to me that unpacking my present anguish is helping others navigate their way through the dark night of the soul. I know my audience is a niche one. I left social media and realized what drove me was a quest for internal clarity about the nature of the world and how history has informed the digitally-mediated social communications (or more likely mis-communications) of today.
I’ve chosen to conduct my research by sharing it on the internet, in the digital commons, a place I’ve come to understand is treacherous and full of landmines. I pulled back on my participation in these algorithmically-engineered spaces a few years ago when I began to have negative, dramatic interactions with people online. The weaponized nature of these platforms sank into my bones with deep finality. While I still share observations on my blog and video channel, I’m not actively looking to convert people to my way of thinking. I don’t do interviews with people I don’t know anymore. I’m not aiming to lead anyone anywhere. I just want to stay over in my corner, thinking my own thoughts and playing with ideas rather than wading out into the storm to be buffeted by digital tempests. That’s such a time suck, and I have other things I’d rather be doing.
This person’s email expressed the view that I sought to educate through intimidation and disparaged those who couldn’t understand my perspective. I recognize from the work of Cliff Gomes, that such sentiments have less to do with who I am, than the story the author of the email was listening to. It is easier to imagine me as a mean-spirited critic than consider they might not really want to know what I’ve been up to, because then they would be faced with the challenge of fitting it into a worldview where it just doesn’t fit. Jason has had similar things said to him. I suppose that confronting people with information that might undermine the vision of the world they hold at the core of their being could be seen as intimidating. Maybe that’s why people keep running away.
Our intention isn’t to be threatening. The tools of my trade, beyond relationship maps and hyperlinks to primary source documents, are flowers and rocks and even Bible passages. Is a sunflower laid down at an office park intimidating? I feel called to be a witness to the changes underway – to ask, insistently sometimes, for us to act responsibly lest we fall victim to a terrible Faustian bargain. I’m trying to be voice of the firm parent to a child in a tantrum. Children find parents intimidating, but it doesn’t mean they don’t learn from them.
The email also implied I wanted to be everything and know everything, which is odd, because in the post I specifically mention I’ve come to realize no one can ever hold the entire “truth.” All we get are the slices of “reality” we curate from the information we bump into as we live our lives. What did resonate with me though was a line about the importance of boundaries in systems and that making distinctions is a vital cognitive act, which is an idea I’ve been exploring related to complexity and emergence.
The body works to distinguish good from bad, encapsulating and removing the latter to preserve life. Computational fitness landscapes and genetic algorithms are based on this process. If the goal of “civilization” is to merge natural life with engineered nano-machines and birth a global, distributed, noetic, biohybrid supercomputing system, it’s logical that polite society would shun anyone seeking to slow progress towards that goal.
As I’ve tried to explain to my husband numerous times, we seem to be occupying different slices of reality. It doesn’t mean one of us is wrong and one of us is right. We could both be right and still different. Each person curates the world they inhabit. Our conceptual immune systems are set up to minimize cognitive discomfort. Boundaries contain us. Boundaries organize our identities. Boundaries tell us who is in and who is out. In the slow boil that is the Web3 digital identity and social steering, there are few incentives to think deeply and work to tear down manufactured boundaries that may be obscuring deeper understandings of the world we inhabit. I get it. I can empathize. That’s frightening to most people; boundaries make us feel safe.
There are no easy answers. The game mechanics have been structured so that we remain distracted as we get leveled up or cancelled on social leaderboards. For now, I’m choosing to view my cancellation as a back-handed blessing. Jason and I have a camping trip planned for October to explore Arkansas and see what there is to be seen – quartz, oaks, pine, bass, lakes, and streams. Maybe I’ll find a place where flowers will grow, joy is the norm, and the people I love will come find me there. For everyone I wish that you, too, can find a place to plant yourself, a place that brings you the personal satisfaction you desire and lets you develop into the person you were meant to be. For me, it’s time for reinvention, fingers crossed. Take the good parts, leave those which are no longer serving me, and uncover new dimensions in the human constellation that is Ally.