I’ve started a new job in an engineering group at a Fortune 500 company that’s delving into personal cloud deployment with multi-point device access. It’s pretty interesting tech moving into the same space as the Apple home media ecosystem but with a different angle on ownership. The idea is that you control your content & file management rather than trusting a 3rd party to hold it on some remote server. The implementation is pretty nice and the experience is good for such a young product line. While I don’t really have the job description I want, the organization is pretty loose and I’m following the “great employee guideline” of not being defined by my role. Of note, the commute adds 2 hours on top of an 8-hour day so it’s been a bit tricky to get used to the new schedule and the attendant physical overhead.
I’m also collaborating with the Hybrid Reality Institute run by Parag & Ayesha Khanna to contribute research and help grow client opportunities. This is a part-time volunteer gig at the moment but may dovetail with my consulting work at some point in the future. I’ve admired Parag’s efforts since reading his book, The Second World, and have been excitedly following his & Ayesha’s work growing HRI. I recently had the chance to chat with Parag for the first time and was very impressed with his friendliness and the incredibly dynamic life he & Ayesha lead. For my part, I’ll be looking at the broad & somewhat over-trod area of smart cities and urban development. It’s a cool challenge for me to map & articulate such complex systems; to integrate my interests in mobility, social structures, embedded systems, augmented reality, and CAD/BIM architecture; and to tease out hopefully novel approaches to understanding urban dynamics and bending development towards greater efficiency, equity, and sustainability.
On the side, I’ve got a new song I’ve just sent out for final mix & mastering. It’s a chunky hip hop beat with a big dubby flavor and some nice melodic elements. The whole track is built around this old recording of a “rasta elder” speaking on a radio station in, like, 1978. I’ve chopped it up and pulled out a couple of the most compelling bits. I love dub & reggae and have a fondness for rastafari culture in general so this song is really a realization of marinating in this stuff for some time. Particularly in the last 2 years I’ve been deep in the Dub Chamber trying to reverse engineer the dub reggae sound from a large archive of music produced by Studio One, Lee Perry, Trojan Records, King Tubby etc…. In the past few months it got mashed into my hip hop efforts with the result being this song, Man Crab. I’ll hopefully be publishing and promoting this track within the next month. More info as it proceeds but I’m working with a great engineer and can’t wait to hear the final result!
Finally, I’m talking with a German film maker who recently returned from Caracas, Venezuela. He approached me last year after finding my Sathorn Unique project and asked if I’d be interested in doing some soundtrack work for his documentary about La Torre de David, a 45-story abandoned skyscraper now home to literally thousands of squatters. He returned with a bunch of media to compile the documentary. I’ll be plundering the audio files for stuff to work into & inform the music. So, I may be carving out a very rarified niche as a producer who writes soundtracks for weird abandoned skyscrapers. :)
Anyway, I’ve got a lot of other stuff kicking around in the ol’ mind tank that will hopefully congeal into some coherent articles in the near future. In the mean time, thanks for reading!
Sathorn Unique is a 50-story skyscraper in Bangkok that was meant to be a luxury living address but now it’s totally abandoned and decaying. Cory posted about this Ballardian behemoth earlier this year. BB contributor Chris Arkenberg saw the building from a boat several years ago and was so inspired that he made a killer instrumental hip hop soundtrack for the building.
And from my summary:
The developers called the building Sathorn Unique, but the locals think of it as the Ghost Tower. 50 stories tall, built to show-off the mighty rise of Asia in the 1990’s, it was abandoned in 1997 when their economy dried up and capital fled to better markets. It remains as a hollow monument, nearly complete in the lower floors but slowly de-rezzing as it gets taller until the bare and open rooftop stands jagged above the Bangkok skyline. It lives as a shell, a reminder, a warning, and a resilient monolith.
I made this music to express the many different feelings & ideas that Sathorn Unique raises about architecture & acoustics, finance & globalization, great hopes & haunted dreams, and the way that futures can take sudden unexpected turns away from great visions.
I saw Amon Tobin’s ISAM project a week ago at The Warfield theater in San Francisco. Literally jaw-dropping.
Leviathan worked with frequent collaborator and renowned VJ Vello Virkhaus on groundbreaking performance visuals for electronic musician Amon Tobin, creating ethereal CG narratives and engineering the geometry maps for an entire stage of stacked cube-like structures. Taking the performance further, the Leviathan team also developed a proprietary projection alignment tool to ensure quick and accurate setup for the show, along with custom Kinect control & visualization utilities for Amon to command.
As many of you know, I’ve been producing a music project exploring the sound of architecture and the divergence of futures embodied in a 50-story abandoned skyscraper in Bangkok. I saw this structure in 2009 and was struck by the many contradictions imposed by its monolithic bone-white presence along the downtown skyline. It is both a monument to the whims of capital and a container for the shining future that never came to pass, like a hollow ballroom filled with dancing ghosts.
The first single, Approach, is now available for streaming & free download. This track conveys a pre-dawn approach towards the Sathorn ghost tower along the Chao Phraya river, attempting to capture some of the emotional currents inspired by the encounter. It is first contact.
I’ve shared my process and thoughts as I unpack the whole project over at my Sathorn Unique Tumblr.
If the Rooftop represented the peak of the Sathorn Unique experience, then the 5th & final song, simply titled Sathorn, is the come-down & resolution. The track opens with sounds of the street under falling stars. The beat is more syncopated and there’s a roots vibe, accented with a guitar & organ skank. There are more obviously-melodic elements in this song suggesting the enduring vitality of the creative act, in spite of decay & downfall.
And really, Blade Runner futures aside, amidst the endless rise & fall of empires people will always find simple ways to sing & make music. The electronic studio I’ve used to produce these songs could dry up with my ability to pay utilities, or be looted by desperate & displaced interlopers. I’d still have an acoustic guitar. No blips & bleeps needed.
This final song is more about the reality of the street below the Ghost Tower, and the necessary persistence of urban life proceeding whether or not Sathorn Unique was ever a success. Indeed, for most people, such overly-ambitious and incomprehensibly expensive skyscrapers have always been barely real. Such towers are not made for commoners. This one in particular emphasizes the tension, standing as it is now, hollowed and broken, once flush with moneys now vanished & moved on to better investment opportunities.
This is where the lavish imagined timeline of Sathorn Unique collapses back into the local reality, like the moldering brochures showing off a future that never was. This is where the ephemeral whims of capital touched down long enough to leave an indelible reminder of their ultimate disloyalty. The final movement of Sathorn, the song, reinforces the hard facts of life and the brutishness of the global money game. The droning wall and the whining worm throw up the fierce edge of survival.
And yet, the tempest sputters out and returns, as it always does, back to the streets where life continues, for good & ill, unabated for millenia thus far. This is the resolution: that, despite the great power elites and their fantasies & seductions, despite the shell games and ponzi schemes and cronyism and backstabbing… Despite all this the people persist. And they make music to express their lives, ease their burdens, and tell their stories. For most, the Ghost Tower is like the global elite: more easily forgotten in its decline than challenged in its prime.
From Sathorn Unique.
2 new songs from my Sathorn Unique project. This has been the bulk of my focus lately, between paying gigs & whatnot.
Also, please check out my short note on music as structure, music as dream.
I was in Bangkok in 2009 and one of the first things that I encountered was this 40-story building, bonewhite & hollow, looming over the Chao Phraya river – one of many such abandoned structures but this one had a special aesthetic that rather captivated me. I took a bunch of photos, marveled at its very existence, and let the subliminal details and tides settle in for some future reflection. (There’s always too much to absorb to have any time to really process while “in the field”.)
Just last week Boing Boing picked up a post from the Abandoned Journey urban explorers who had recently documented their journey into the building, revealing in the process it’s name: Sathorn Unique. The name itself conjures up all sorts of cyberpunk-ish thoughts but I won’t belabor those here at the moment. Suffice it to say that, not having known that the structure even had a name, learning it’s title was revelatory. The Abandoned Journey document was a temporal reflection of my own meeting with the structure 2 years ago, sparking a re-connection with the subtleties of that experience and immediately led to some new understanding of how this particular ghost tower is in many ways an expression of our times.
So I’ve started a new project called Sathorn Unique, exploring the various concepts & feelings inspired in me by the building of the same name. This project is an attempt to both express those un-nameable currents through my own musical interpretation (spacey, deep, hip hop instrumentals), and a process of documenting that expression and capturing some of the threads within our own world that appear to be presented by Sathorn Unique.
I’m documenting the musical, architectural, and expository process in a fairly loose, stream-of-consciousness sort of way at the Tumblr blog, Sathorn Unique. Here are my introductory thoughts on the project.
And below is the first track I’m working on:
Two tracks are from ThirtySeven’s [Justin Boland] catalog – one from his Humpasaur Jones album and one from Algorhythms. The third track is a remix of Peter Gabriel’s epic “Games WIthout Frontiers”. Big thanks to both Real World Remixed and World Around Records!
Here’s the Algorhythm remix embedded:
Enjoy and please share if you like ‘em!
While the chorus of hand-picked pre-release iPad reviewers has pretty roundly declared it just as magical as Steve Jobs told us it would be, and how the interface sweetly beckons the user into it’s experience before gently disappearing to reveal some new oddly-posthuman machine love affair, not a whole lot is being said about what this device means to content publishers. The naysayers deride, among oh so many niggling things, it’s flat file system, lack of HDMI output, no USB, no Flash support, and virtual uselessness as an authoring platform but, clearly, that’s not what it’s really meant for. As many have noted, the iPad is a device designed primarily for consumption.
More specifically (and more importantly to the publishing & distribution biz), the iPad is a shiny, friendly, closed & gated, DRM’d device for finding, purchasing, and consuming new media, all managed by the secure & reliable iTunes Store. The user gets what is arguably a faster, more intuitive, and compelling experience that will probably have them throwing gobs of money at the next generation of digital media. Publishers get a delivery target that is a de facto store with all the innate moral understanding about payment and value and theft that comes with that context. And consumers get the ability to search, find, purchase, and consume media in one single, engaging mobile device.
In the iPad frontier, it’s explicitly OK for publishers to charge users for content. They have a whole new platform in which to innovate experiences that upsell users from the last generation’s content. You loved The Beatles remasters? Well now you can get The Beatles remasters with HD multimedia interactive album copy & studio videos for only $22.95 an album!
It’s no wonder that Disney, ABC, the Wall Street Journal, Netflix, Conde Nast, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, Penguin, Marvel, and many, many others have rushed to the new platform to plant their flags and set up shop. Marvel basically set up it’s own comic store on the device, as Netflix has done with video. The Wall Street Journal has the perfect premium gateway for their subscription model. News & magazine publishers barely breathing after the beating they’ve taken since the web forced them to give away all their content for free must be droooooling over the opportunity to create the next generation of news experiences in a gated platform. Likewise for the book publishers finally reaching the new frontier of interactive digital content more compelling than paper books now lining so many remainder shelves like dusty word bricks. And arguably, the planet may be at least partially relieved of some of the paper and ink waste bloating landfills (we’ll overlook the as-of-yet unresolved energetic/carbon burden of dematerializing into electronic containers…).
While many of us have been beckoning the new era of open content, the major media publishers have been begging for the lockdown offered by the iPad. To them, the device promises both a new platform for innovating compelling content, extending their business opportunities into the future landscape at a time when they’ve been so stuck in the past, and it offers the security of a trusted gate for managing purchases and IP protection. It’s more of a nightmare for a lot of people but for the majors it has to be a dream come true. I can only assume that Steve et al worked closely with these interests to make sure they help build an impressive content catalog and a massive hype machine to drive as many new buyers to the iPad as they can. Apple knows that it sells a lot more product when it has the major distributors on it’s side and, at this point, the Old Media houses are pretty much powerless in Steve’s patented Reality Distortion Field.
Questions remain, of course. They’ve already sold over a million units in pre-sale but will the price point hold enough momentum to herald the new age of digital content consumption? Fanboys and early adopters are not enough to sustain a publishing revolution. Apple will probably drop the entry level price in another year or so after it’s stacked up a solid catalog of content. Will the content be good enough to merit the costs? The Wall Street Journal thinks people will pay $17 a month for their service. I wonder if more news sites will follow the lead of the Wall Street Journal and start locking down their web content..? And how long until all the content houses push back and want to extend distribution to the next gen of iPad competitors? Well, it hasn’t been much of a problem for iTunes & the iPod so far. That ecosystem, with plenty of would-be competitors, has kept music publishers pretty happy in a time of otherwise dismal CD returns. Will Apple’s DRM solution be enough to stem the blood loss from file sharing? Face it kids, piracy is a problem for the industry. And face it, industry: your recycled, top-40, tent pole, hedge fund, bloated, over-managed content production models are done. Get used to the long tail of compelling new media niche content that costs half as much as it used to.
Whatever you think about Apple, however much you hate them for being so good at manipulating the public narrative in their favor, however much you detest-and-secretly-admire their obsessive design principles, their ability to dismiss seemingly obvious functionality, their iron-fisted distribution mamagement, and their cavalier “we don’t really worry about the business side” attitude towards their shareholders… Whatever. Apple has lined up pretty much the entire content industry, pointed them at a new playground, and guaranteed them a financial return on their efforts. Will it be enough to save their business in the face of the democratized world of free user content? The industry will abide and do it’s best to make compelling new content that’s only available on this very compelling new device.
[For a much more user-centered take, see Cory Doctorow's impassioned piece, Why I Won't Buy an iPad and Think You Shouldn't Either. Also see Joel Johnson's similarly impassioned counterpoint.]
[Andrew Keen summed it up nicely in this tweet: "my prediction: iPad will formalize chasm between Apple's high-end paid content model & Google's low-end free model. Adieu to mass media."]
[Quinn Norton discusses the Elephant in the room: the iPad is simply too expensive for most people.]
[Investor Howard Lindzon shows off the NASDAQ app w/ StockTwits support. Lovely UI!]
[Round-up of media brands currently on the iPad.]
Vennessa Miemis’s piece on Framework for a Strengths-Based Society drew out thoughts I’ve had about the seeming risks of marching wholehearted into the Digiversal Interwebs without intentionally designing online experiences that cultivate the physical & the human. Without going too deeply into it, here are my comments on the topic:
Such is the lure and danger of virtualized humanity. Can we be led into virtuality in a way that makes us more human? What design ethos and practices might wield the web as a tool to build better people? And what might this relationship, this merger between humans and machines look like in 20, 30, or 50 years? The web is so young and so shiny and we’re all rushing in to look at each other through new lenses. As you suggest, it’s rather important to consider how we’re changing the web in ways that change us…
By moving parts of our lives online, into digital networks, we’ve stepped into a virtual social & cognitive space. Humanity, as a species, is increasingly virtualized in the digital domain: we represent ourselves through crafted interfaces & intermediary social profiles, icons & avatars; we speak through bytes and 140char bursts, passing urls and embeds. This is a new form of social transaction and, likely, brings with it all sorts of subtle & not-so-subtle behavioral conditionings and entrainments, eg the dopamine burst of getting a new Follower. Our greatest human construct – the webernets – is undoubtedly changing what it means to be human. Yet, we also bring our social humanity – the innate empathy and morality that makes us care for each other, often with altruistic disregard to our own gains – into this domain in ways that empower great acts of kindness & collaboration. I guess your post highlighted for me the tension between these two aspects of “virtualized humanity” and the call to empathic designers to engineer humanistic solutions and help entrain us towards a more successful integration with the virtual in ways that reinforce the physical world.
I made this graphic to organize some of my research in Neuroprogramming for When Everything is Programmable.
Full-size image here.
Steady progress in medical & military implant BCI over the next 10 years, with significant
advances in repair of sensory, motor, and neurological impairments. Finer resolution,
amplification, and interpretation for EEG headsets yielding reasonable engagement with
simple computation, communication, & services. Minimally interactive commercial eyewear
for media & information content, with most advances emerging from military R&D. Society
will gradually evolve towards tighter integration with machine computation.
Better treatment. Finer resolution. Augmented eyewear.
Economic, religious, and sociopolitical factors push R&D deeply into medical and military
segments, with limited but consequential flow into black markets. Minimal commercial
applications will surface, while cultural penetration proceeds primarily through invasive
and state-mandated use for control, surveillance, and tracking. Socioeconomic differences
between agents fitted with augmentations and those without will widen the Transhuman Gap,
further reinforcing class disparity and tensions while putting increasing pressure on
insurgent groups to acquire BCI technologies for logistic & disruptive advantage.
Restricted research. Control mechanisms. Black markets & insurgency.
Medical advances in BCI & BMI eradicate sensorimotor afflictions and bring physical
augmentation into the common fabric of society. Military research pushes R&D into
highly advanced applications that rapidly move into the civilian marketplace. Widespread
adoption of Augmented Reality establishes a new baseline for human functionality while
freeing creatives to experiment with novel modalities of expression. Profound advances
in nanotech & neurocomputation remove the boundaries between mind, brain, computation,
machines, & AI, revealing a deeply interwoven fabric of hypermind.
Ubiquitous bci. Transhumanity. Hypermind.
I was recently interview by Klint Finley over at Technoccult. He asked me about foresight methodologies, BCI, augmented reality, systems, and information overload.
What sort of skills and technologies do you think it’s most important for people today to learn to live in the future?
Accept that we live in a world of great change. You have to be agile and prepared to adapt. The fundamental global systems of civilization are shifting with the impact of instantaneous communication, globalization, and ubiquitous computing. Add to this the threats of climate change and a declining fossil fuel infrastructure and you have a tremendous amount of challenges ahead. I feel it’s critical to embrace the change and try to both anticipate and design the future. The future is not yet writ so you can always influence it, perhaps now more than ever.
I’ve been on a music production bender since the new year. The results have come together in a new free EP I’ve released through Bandcamp: Western Rains. It’s wet and devotional, a sort of dubstep electro platter featuring eastern vocals and world percussion. Give it a listen. If you like it, please share!
My older music is at N8UR. I’m always interested in collaboration (or licensing!) opportunities…
Thanks to Noah Shachtman’s post at Danger Room I’m reading through the Quadrennial Intelligence Community Review document, “Scenarios: Alternative Futures the IC Could Face” [PDF]. I’ll let them describe the report:
The Quadrennial Intelligence Community Review (QICR) 2009 is a scenario-based strategic planning activity that looks out to the year 2025 and considers alternative futures (i.e., “scenarios”), missions the Intelligence Community (IC) might be called on to perform, and the operating principles and capabilities required to fulfill those mission… The insights gleaned are intended to help shape the next National Intelligence Strategy and other planning and capability guidance documents.
The document considers four scenarios based on the NIC’s Global Trends 2025 report: World without the West, Politics is not always local, BRIC’s bust-up, and October surprise. These are plotted against two axes: Global Cooperation & Key Players. The scenarios thus represent movement between State-Dominated & Non-State-Dominated Actors, and Aligned & Fragmented Global Cooperation. [Wish I could embed the graphic but it's locked in the PDF.]
From this scenario map I want to consider first why non-state-dominated actors might be more important to the global landscape in the next 15yrs. States function as, literally, governors of the system for which they are responsible. They’re tasked with maintaining a degree of socioeconomic equilibrium in the face of change. Yet state governance is relatively immature and considerably laden with the legacy code of The Enlightenment. Most of the prevailing governing structures did not anticipate the world in which we find ourselves today. The rate of change has become so accelerated and the system of civilization so complex that significant broad control of nations has become nearly impossible. Even cities are struggling to manage the change tearing through their streets. This suggests a declining ability of large states to effectively manage their domains, both through inability to manage internal complexity and over-extension across the globalized world. The perennial torpor of state bureaucracy is much slower to adapt leaving more nimble actors room to innovate & thrive.
So with respect to the Key Players axis of the QICR Report, I’m inclined to forecast a rise in non-state-dominated actors (eg corporations, NGOs, militias, cartels, super-empowered individuals…) increasingly pulling power away from state institutions. This, of course, will be against a background of hardening state bodies (eg Iran, Russia, China…) trying to clampdown on their power typically through authoritarian means. But the pre-eminence of state control is already fading against rising non-governmental powers. Of particular note is the empowerment of ideological-based insurgencies and organized crime. These elements deliberately undermine state authority often directly challenging control with open source warfare tactics, as in Somalia, Mexico, Iraq, and Af-Pak. Similarly, corporations do this with increasing boldness but generally stop short at armed aggression (though maybe Xe/Blackwater will cross this line…).
The second consideration involves the axis of Global Cooperation. What are the factors at play here? Treaties, trade, military, Bretton-Woods structures like the UN and World Bank, and the structures of government and the Rule of Law all give cohesive input to the system. Working against such cohesion are identity politics, self-interest, tribalism, and the injuries wrought by history. Technology has certainly enabled cooperation and the Social Media Revolution seems to reinforce the basic human nature to share and collaborate. Yet it’s likely that such a popular movement will take time to erode the catatonia of bureaucracy enough to make a significant difference in government. Historically, foreign policy has primarily been a function of managing competition, aggressing towards resources, and defending against incursions. So it would be a considerable shift to see a great degree of cooperation across governments, the difficulty of which is presently illustrated by the delicate climate negotiations at Copenhagen.
So with respect to the Global Cooperation axis, my sense is that people and groups and even larger NGOs are indeed cooperating more but governments and corporations are still driven primarily by competition and prone to territorial disputes. The very nature of state borders delineates an “Us vs. Them” posture, as does the Art of War mentality still deeply lodged in the corporate marketplace. This oppositional influence effectively reinforces the ascendancy of non-state actors, particularly identity-based groups and NGOs that can show more competency and humanity in addressing the very real problems of the world. In many ways globalization itself has played a major role in challenging tribal structures and incentivizing cooperation. Buoyed by the waves of commerce, the devices of instantaneous global communication have washed up on the shores of almost every developed & developing nation. Tools of instantaneous collaboration have been surprisingly empowering to insurgencies and militias now much more capable of coordinated strategies and global networking. Ultimately, non-local social networking is likely to undermine racial and nationalistic tendencies while enabling affinity-based collaborations. Yet, in spite of such tremendous connectivity, governments continue to proceed from territorial geopolitics while citizens are living increasingly in a world without borders. This gap will produce increasing tensions in the near-term before yielding to new forms of emergent governance over the next decade.
The primary outlier today is climate change. Shifting patterns of rainfall and arable land may radically redraw the map of cooperation. Rising food prices and massive migratory displacement are obvious precursors to substantial internecine resource conflicts and all-out war. In such a scenario states will radically harden borders and identity politics will cohere around resource rights and the safe-havens of nationalism and religious fervor. If India has to absorb millions of Bangladeshi’s as the Himalayas melt, Indians will face much stiffer competition for local jobs & resources. This pattern could play out all over the world given the mosaic of effects predicted by current climate models. In such a crisis, it’s unclear whether the insurmountable US military will act as global peacekeeper or merely reinforce the interests of its owners.
Nevertheless, humans seem to be innately wired to cooperate and help others. As a species, we’re arguably on a path that reinforces this nature. Our technologies keep making it easier & easier to connect across the world and collaborate towards great heights. Tribalism continues but there is a trend towards tribes of affinity rather than tribes of geography. Whether we can collaborate enough and in time to avoid a return to global tribalism is an open topic. As animals, our access to food & water will determine everything, as will the struggle to maintain energy flow towards all of our technological endeavors.
Christian Bannister, Subcycle Labs: “Things are starting to sound more song-like and I can really appreciate that. In previous builds everything sounded more like an experiment or a demo. Now I have something more akin to an experimental song. “
[Cross-posted from Signtific Lab.]
While most would support using technology to allow parapalegics to walk again, to help the blind to see and the deaf to hear, how will society view those who electively enhance themselves through prosthetics & implants?
Consider the not-so-subtle marginalization of transhumanists who believe that technology should be readily integrated into human biology, experimenting with their own crude body modifications. Or the implications around personal security and privacy (not to mention religious fear) raised by those intrepid folks who are self-implanting RFIDs into their forearms to activate lighting & appliances when they enter their homes. Even the international debates over performance-enhancing drug use by athletes reinforces the cultural belief that a “natural” baseline range exists for human abilities and any “synthetic” modification beyond the accepted range is considered unfair.
From issues of fairness to those of security and trust, integrating more machinery into a programmable nervous system challenges many of the fundamental notions we have of what it means to be human. When a Marine returns from a warzone patched up with a cochlear implant, how will they be regarded when it’s revealed that they can hear you speaking from 3 blocks away? Imagine if that person then enters the Police force, what issues of civil liberty and privacy might be confronted? How might we regard an employer that suggests each employee be programmed with software to bring them into the corporate Thinkmesh?
How does society’s regard for a technology change when that technology becomes part of our bodies? How does our relationship to people change if we know they are different? What competitive advantages are conferred by these technologies and how will they be reinforced by socioeconomic drivers? What gaps might arise between those able to afford augmentations and those who cannot?
And what becomes of the Platonic sense of one fundamental Reality when more & more people are seeing personalized variations of the world mediated by connected devices? Will the merging of technology & flesh enable a more cohesive & effective society or a more fragmented and divisive one?
Thus far humans have worked from a standard body map that allows us to understand ourselves and project that understanding onto all other classes of our species. We will likely bring both our sense of membership as well as our fear of otherness with us as we begin to internalize machines unevenly across cultures.
[See also 5 Dark Scenarios For Trans-humanity.]
[Extensive photo album here.]
Japan crossed with Mexico. Hack, mash, and lash everything together. Very hot and thick, humid and prone to short heavy rains. Bangkok is larger than expected, with a higher skyline. Slum-like in many ways but comfortable. Dirty, aged, grafitti’d, tagged, polluted, smelly, hungry, buggy, feral. Friendly, smiley, reverent, strong, spiritualized, watery, creative, delicious, surviving with tenacity. Temples & tenements, luxury hotels and megamalls. Insane traffic and transport. Little regard for lanes or right of way. Swarms of motorbikes, vespas. Cheap and dangerous tuk tuk 3-wheelers. Families piled onto scooters, kids asleep, baggage strapped on. Traffic flow like a logjam, shifting metal slabs moving within inches of each other, victory goes to the bold in a cloud of exhaust. The mighty Chao Phraya cutting its way through Bangkok and out to the coast, it’s headlands in the foothills below Burma. These are river people, with traffic on the waterways as busy and chaotic as the streets. The river is deep, a 1/4 mile wide, running green & tan, dirty and littered with commercial & vegetal detritus. After the rains clumps of fallen jungle float on its surface, carried down from farms and foothill tributaries. Black & yellow birds land on leafy branches half submerged to dine on nuts and berries. Water taxis from hotel to Sky Train. Fantastic monorail, the SRT, its cement track a modern work of civil engineering adding to the Tokyo vibe of downtown Bangkok.
Tangled mess of black utility cable slashing horizontal lines across most everything, tied in to huge transformers, burnt metal grills pumping amperage for the teeming metropolis of 6 million. The twisted infrastructure grows organically like a banyan, stretching out axonal to connect and communicate. Most buildings are old haggard tenements, their facades stained with a dark grey wash like grease and ash drawn out of the thick air. Structures that seem abandoned, uninhabitable, are strung with drying laundry drawn perpendicular to the necessarily ubiquitous swamp coolers lining the sides of each floor. Broken concrete fields under freeway overpasses offer football grounds lined by graffiti mural walls under chainlink divisions.
Downtown, luxury malls with Louis Vuitton and Burberry fronted by large altars of golden Buddha’s and Ganesha’s, black marble elephants flecked with gold, yellow floral garlands and incense offered by shoppers to their immaterial gods. A sign at Wat Phrao Keo in broken Thaiglish sagely, if not inadvertently, warns visitors to “Beware of your valuable possessions”. Technology, commerce, wealth, and western aesthetics have moved in with the economic development afforded here as in every other large city by the realities of globalized communication and trade.
Down crowded alleyways lined with merchant stalls and open air ad hoc kitchens, thick with pedestrians, cars, tuk tuks, and manic motorcyclists weaving through the narrow channels, over rooftop patios caged against some unseen menace, rise countless golden and white and glittery temple spires. Buddhist Wats take residence everywhere, themselves seemingly hacked into the dense fabric of the city, rising like aspirational fruiting bodies of ancient mycelial webs. Wat Arum, Wat Pho, Wat Phra Keo & the Grand Palace, and innumerable others. Religion & myth is woven throughout the populace. Every building has it’s own adjacent spirit house offering residence to the disincarnate lest they move into your own home. City walls are tacked with incense holders between stores. Banyans breaking through the sidewalks are wrapped with rainbow sashes honoring their freakish holy treeness. Every taxi has a statue on the dash or mala hanging from the rearview or Buddhist stencil on the headboard or any combination of the aforementioned. A 3-day Buddhist holiday shut down all government and banking.
The current Thai king is the longest reigning monarch of the modern age, holding office since 1950. Thailand was the only East-Asian country to resist British colonialism, sparing its autonomy by ceding a few bits of territory along the Burmese & Malay borders. Indeed there are long running conflicts with the Burmese, and Buddhist Thailand is in the midst of an insurgency along the Malaysian border from an advancing Islamic populace. The cabinet of the prime minister and the military have provided ongoing political theater as each vie back and forth for the seat of power. Most transfers of power, even in the case of multiple coups, have been bloodless. The Thai people themselves seem to have little interest in these power games, preferring a life of pragmatic spirituality while maintaining a deep abiding love and respect for the king. The two possibly mortal social offenses in Thai society are speaking ill of the Buddha and speaking ill of the king.
Farming is honored. Rubber trees and palms cover most southern land, providing two of the country’s largest exports. The Thai peninsula includes all the most breathtaking exotic tropical beach locations you could imagine, including the stunning Railay Bay – famed for the movie The Beach. Beautiful light blue waters, ridiculously warm and salty, stretched for ages across the gulf. Koh Samui running on Full Moon inertia, tourist trinkets, and scattered luxury resorts sheltered from the hustle. Low inland jungles bring minimal shade to island shanties in seemingly impossible poverty. Yet they survive & persist and move through generations like the rest of us. Koh Phangan also still milking their internationally notorious Full Moon Rave scene, adding a Half Moon party to underwrite the Euro draw. Even away from the main strips the beach scenes has a fun accidental Burning Man vibe, a shoreline esplanade of shanty bars and sound systems. Expats all over the place. Seems easy to get lost for months, years, decades in some seaside shack eating fruit and fish in a poor man’s paradise. Impossible walls of insects whip up into sudden frenzy, a cacophonous wail of screamapillars, giant cicadas that still don’t seem anywhere near big enough to make such a pitch. Monkey troops swing across canopies carpeting tall rock slabs jutting from the water. A rock climber’s joy, sheer faces hung with dripping stalactites and pocked with rope tie-ins. These tall rocks are scattered by the hundreds – thousands? – across the Gulf of Thailand and Andaman Sea. A boater’s paradise. You could spend months exploring thin beaches stretched around the edges of countless small jungle rock islands.
In the South, each night was attended by thunderstorm, often over sea or above the island peaks. Big black charcoal canvas lumbering across, flicker flashed with lightning bursts every few moments, often too distant to hear the thunderclap, then a sudden ear-shattering rend of ozone right above. When the heavy rains hit they come quickly and with ferocity. Never seen rain like it. So thick that it occluded line of sight to 20 meters or so, hiding everything beyond in watery showers. From the steep island peaks water rushes down in sudden rivers cutting through beach sands, pushing tan clouds out into the bay, a shimmering clear layer of fresh water forcing the saline back out over the ocean’s surface. Giant raindrops agitate the bugs forcing them to take flight in peppery swarms. Small opportunistic swift-like birds take to the skies darting and arching, turning and diving to pluck the insects mid-air in some ancient deeply programmed ballet of the food chain. Life goes on. It must. When rains come often and fiercely you can’t just drop your business. This was especially so in Bangkok whose streets are lined with tirelessly deployed open markets bare to the sky save for a small canvas over each. In 20 or 30 minutes the rain will likely pass so there’s no point in worrying much about the interlude.
While the deep south is struggling with a mounting Islamic insurgency, and the peninsula is attending the construction of more new mosques, the buddhist majority continues to permeate life with the spirit of their patron, accompanied by a host of Garuda and Nagas and a menagerie of mythic beasties syncretized from India and China. If Thai Buddhist Bangkok is feral and lashed and relentlessly modded in ghetto slapdash, the Bangkok Chinatown is 10x more so compressed into tighter alleyways, with more people and motorcylces (Vespas apparently seek Chinatown to live out their golden years), hung with impossibly more spaghetti cables, and festooned with walls of neon Mandarin signage casting a little too much light onto freakish displays of animal carcass and presumably inedible seafood and giant transparent sacks of fried pork product and stall after stall of fashionable Versace & Loius Vuitton knock-offs. Imagine threading your way down a dark, narrow alley lined with flea market stalls and no-health-code/no-insurance open air cart kitchens, filled with people pressing in all directions through dense heat and smell and rot, then send a motorcycle down the alley every few moments to do battle with cross-traffic carts and tuk tuks. Now imagine the alley is a whole network labyrinth covering multiple blocks between several-story tenaments streaked with black soot and stain and hung with drying clothes and black cables. This is why we western pansies stay in the nice hotel with A/C and a pool.
The final capper to the trip was in Bangkok the night before our departure. After the evening rains subsided, my partner and I went down to the pool for a night swim, around 9pm. Refreshing and fun we frolicked and generally soaked up the remaining moments of our stay. Then, in the poolside darkness moving low between the lounge chairs, I saw a large reptilian form lumbering along. “Dude, there’s a fricken alligator coming towards the pool!” I exclaimed excitedly. As it marched into the light we realized it was actually a monitor lizard – Varanus salvator, to be precise – about 5-6ft long with a fattened belly like it just ate a dog or possibly a small European child. “If that thing gets in the water, we get out immediately” I said with some urgency. I knew it could swim and see underwater much better than we could. No reason to tangle with a 6ft thunderlizard in a foreign country with questionable health care. Sure enough the beast slipped into the pool and sidled along the swim-up bar. We hopped out, laughing nervously, and I approached the lizard from a careful distance. Grabbing the pool attendant I motioned towards the monster. “That’s bad”, he said in a way that suggested that, bad as it may be, it wasn’t unusual. And so he casually splashed the creature with water nudging it along until it climbed out of the pool slowly, begrudgingly, made it’s way back into the riverside brush. It was easily the biggest lizard I’d ever seen in the wild.
The final day we were denied pool access during a particularly solid rain. When it’s always 90+ degrees & 90+% humidity, swimming in the rain is quite nice. But no, we were not allowed. “Why?” I protested. “Lightning” retorted the attendant. Fair enough, I thought. Then, in a casual but cautionary aside, the attendant reflected, “We had an accident last year”. This is the Bangkok Riverside Marriott, a fancy if not dated family hotel. Apparently buried somewhere deep in the boilerplate legalese fine print of our hotel contract is the clause, “Marriott Properties takes no liability in the event of any hotel guest or visitor getting suddenly struck by lightning and then slowly eaten by ferocious monitor lizards”.