Friday, March 27, 2015

Tending towards infinity (when infinity equals one)

"If I could be bounded in a nutshell..."

Today I noticed a curious passage in Marx's Capital:

Just as a certain number of simultaneously employed labourers are the material pre-requisites for division of labour in manufacture, so are the number and density of the population, which here correspond to the agglomeration in one workshop, a necessary condition for the division of labour in society. Nevertheless, this density is more or less relative. A relatively thinly populated country, with well-developed means of communication, has a denser population than a more numerously populated country, with badly-developed means of communication; and in this sense the Northern States of the American Union, for instance, are more thickly populated than India. (In consequence of the great demand for cotton after 1861, the production of cotton, in some thickly populated districts of India, was extended at the expense of rice cultivation. In consequence there arose local famines, the defective means of communication not permitting the failure of rice in one district to be compensated by importation from another.)

Let's adopt Marx's reasoning for a few minutes. We'll grant, then, that population density isn't simply the ratio of inhabitants (p) to square miles (a); the speed and sophistication of the inhabitants' communications infrastructure (c) enters the formula as a variable multiplier. Given two land masses each with an area of 500 square miles, and populations that differ by a ratio of 2:1, the less sparsely populated area can have an equal adjusted population density (da) to the more populous area if the extent and efficiency of their communications network twice exceeds their counterparts'.

Marx doesn't explore the determinants of c's value in the formula for adjusted population density, and neither will we. I'm not remotely qualified to put forth a numerical efficiency value for, say, the Pony Express system or conjecture its difference from the c value represented by a network of telegraph lines and stations. Or: what is the disparity in the c values of home telephones and of desktop computers with modems, instant messaging software, and email clients? Or between a nation of people with desktop computers communicating via phone lines and a nation of people with mobile devices communicating via radio tower relays? Between mobile devices communicating via radio tower relays and mobile devices via satellite? And so on.

Moving along: telecommunications are transforming the Earth and its human inhabitants into a global country (neither "nation" nor "village" seem apt to me at this moment) with a growing population and an inhabitable area with a more or less fixed maximum. If the global network and the technologies it employs are continuously expanding in their reach and efficiency, could it be said that Earth's adjusted population density (at any moment) tends towards a singularity?

Again: we will assume that p is approaching some large but finite quantity, and if a represents the total area of Earth than can be made habitable, it more likely than not will arrive at some point of maximum possible development. That leaves c. Do we have any cause to believe that c can approach infinity? If we take the transhuman millenarians at their word, there sure is.

To get an idea of the appearance and operation of infinite communication efficiency, one need only read science fiction or singularity blogs. Imagine a world where a thought—a phrase, an image, a sensation, a statistic, any of the various packets of information which we presently rely on language, visual displays, or one of the various modes of artistic expression to convey—a thought flashing up in the awareness of an individual is transmitted, almost instantaneously, as a thought, to another person (or persons) anywhere (or everywhere) on the planet.

This would represent communication efficiency of an incredible magnitude—but not quite infinite.

Infinite efficiency would be attained when the transfer of information is instantaneous; when a thought bubbles up in the brain of one person on the planet, it bubbles up in the mind of everyone else on the planet simultaneously. Moreover, there must be a one-to-one correspondence between the information dispatched and the information received at its intended destination(s). This means that every time an idea whizzes across the grid (whatever the grid is, however the grid is, in whatever dimension the grid is) it must be understood, noticed, acknowledged, absorbed with zero percent noise or ambiguity by every human being plugged into the grid. This requires that that cognitive faculties of every human being on the planet become adequate to parse every last individual eV or byte of information bombarding them from every other human being on the planet—or that every human being on the planet is thinking the same thought simultaneously. The event of the former might well result in the situation of the latter: some eight or nine or ten billion human minds flitting about, remotely nudging each other like the particles of a dust cloud in space, each mote and speck gravitationally attracting every other mote and speck until the whole scattered mass coalesces into a single body.

We're making several assumptions here, sure, but I don't think they're totally unmoored from precedent or the present. The epoch-marking successes of Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Twitch, et al. suggest that instantaneous communication with as absolutely (potentially) broad an audience is what the wired world wishes for. Sharing is taking on the dimensions of a social imperative, while the private experience approaches undesirability. The platforms we use to share either include or wholly consist of audiovisual content, implying that we wish to convey our thoughts and experiences through the media correlating to our most salient sensory experiences. And we've already noticed how culture and communications are coalescing into monolithic structures within their own spheres. If we can expect these trends to continue without reverse or intervention, the infinity scenario seems like the ultimate and logical endpoint.

There's your millenarian future: as we refurbish the planet, extirpating (unintentionally or deliberately) all the spaces and species that are not integral to (or can't be co-opted by) the world-polis, humanity turns outward to and inward on itself, the individual experience becoming public, the public conversation becoming the individual experience, until one equates to the other.

I am reminded of a passage in The Human Evasion where Ms. Green is herself reminded of a book called Flatland which an imaginary two-dimensional world is described. Towards the end of the book a non-dimensional being is encountered——a point in space. The observers listen to what it is saying (but of course, since they are of higher dimensionality than its own, the point being cannot observe them in any way). What it is saying to itself, in a scarcely audible tinkling voice, is something like this: "I am alpha and omega, the beginning and the end. I am that which is and I am all in all to myself. There is nothing other than me, I am everything and all of everything is all of me and all of me is all of everything..."

The human race has taken to producing similar noises.

The destination of our planet is an anthropic black hole.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

"Mallory Ortberg"

Gabriel Metsu, The Letter Writer Surprised

An open letter to "I Hate Myself Because I Don't Work for BuzzFeed," whose letter to was featured in The Concessionist's column over at The Awl.

Dear I Hate Myself Because I Don't Work for BuzzFeed,

I read your letter—and The Concessionist's condescending reply—and I felt as though I should reach out to you. Hello.

You and I are birds of a feather. You're a hack journalist; I'm a hack novelist. We're also both hopeless cases. I know too well what it's like to feel like the proverbial ugly duckling, striving and continuously failing to molt into the happy, successful swans we imagined our writing would help us become.

The sad fact of the matter is that The Concessionist was lying to you. (People in the media world only tell the truth to people who are in the loop.) The most important things in this life are how many strangers on the internet are paying attention to you, which journalist/blogger/literati cliques you can claim to belong to, and your Followers/Following ratio on Twitter.

The Concessionist is speaking to you precisely as any gracious winner addresses a loser. That is how things stand with us, you know. The Concessionist writes a column for a widely-read web publication. I don't know about you, but I call it a good day when my pageviews creep close to the triple digits.

But that's not the most pernicious of The Concessionist's untruths. He tries to tell you that success, visibility, and popularity aren't all they're cracked up to be. He even suggests that people like Mallory Ortberg, Lindsey Adler, Gabby Dunn, Amber Gordon, and the staffers at BuzzFeed and Vice aren’t leading perfectly charmed lives, but are people, like you and me, with foibles and problems of their own.

Wrong. I hope you weren't naive enough to be taken in by his talk about burnout, financial insecurity, shitty apartments, and the experience of human suffering. It's a smokescreen that successful writers like him employ to conceal the truth of the matter from mediocre rubes like you and me. They are happier than us, their lives do amount to more than yours or mine, and this is because they are better than us.

Let's take Mallory Ortberg as an example, only because the Concessionist betrays himself by giving her a shoutout, interrupting a missive about why you shouldn't be beating yourself up for losing the popularity contest to boast of his acquaintance with her. It’s not like he could help himself. Famous people are the celestial bodies of the social cosmos; to invoke one’s association with them is to receive, share, and shine with their radiance, to momentarily blaze like Venus in the twilight.

(You and I are not so lucky. We are nearly invisible; an extremely powerful telescope is required to spot us. But then why would anyone want to, right?)

But let's go over what we know about Mallory Ortberg. She is the co-founder of The Toast, a popular feminist/general interest website that gets (according to the Alexa abacus) 51,000 visitors and 122,000 pageviews every day. She has 45,300 followers on Twitter, Forbes named her as one of its "30 under 30" media superstars, and her first book was a New York Times bestseller. (Taken as a sum, these things come very close to amounting to a job with BuzzFeed.)

If we take off the blinders that The Concessionist tries to clap around our heads and assess the situation in the cool light of reason, we can draw some fair conclusions about what it's really like to be Mallory Ortberg (or any popular writer on the web with a lot of connections).

Let's start with the basics. Mallory Ortberg is happier than you or I. Mallory Ortberg is more talented than you or I. Mallory Ortberg makes more money than you or I. Mallory Ortberg has more friends than you or I. Mallory Ortberg's apartment is nicer than yours or mine. Mallory Ortberg has fewer problems than you or I.

I think you'll agree these are all logical——even inescapable——conclusions.

To continue: Mallory Ortberg has never felt awkward. Mallory Ortberg has never been dumped. Mallory Ortberg smokes only one cigarette a day. When Mallory Ortberg smokes, it doesn't stink, she doesn't cough, and she crackles with the elegant magnetism of a 1940s film starlet. Mallory Ortberg has never once had a bad idea. A single post by Mallory Ortberg is imbued with more value than all the books, poems, and essays you and I could ever be capable of writing. The words of every book that has ever been written and will ever be written are etched in tiny glowing letters on the insides of Mallory Ortberg's eyelids. Mallory Ortberg disdains people who take breaks or stop to think. Mallory Ortberg is indefatigable. Mallory Ortberg already has it all figured out. Mallory Ortberg considers nothing she does as work: for Mallory Ortberg, the act of writing is unalloyed joy, its perfection unlabored. Mallory Ortberg does not need money: cashiers, bartenders, landlords, surgeons, and airlines take Mallory Ortberg's smile as payment. Everyone offers Mallory Ortberg a sincere greeting wherever she goes, even in New York. (Especially in New York.) There is nothing at which Mallory Ortberg does not excel. Mallory Ortberg could earn a handsome living in the pursuit of any one of her hobbies or interests if she so pleased. Self-doubt would be a totally foreign sensation to Mallory Ortberg, were she ever to experience it. Mallory Ortberg doesn't use a day planner. Her time management acumen is innate, as is her ability to sense the direction of magnetic north. Mallory Ortberg's vision extends into the infrared and ultraviolet, and she sees in four dimensions. Mallory Ortberg drinks decaf. Mallory Ortberg does not get sad in the winter. Summertime lives in Mallory Ortberg's five-chambered heart. Mallory Ortberg is immune to disease. Mallory Ortberg has never stubbed her toe. Mallory Ortberg is incapable of experiencing tedium. Mallory Ortberg does not get wet in the rain. Mallory Ortberg's bees bring her fresh honey every day. Mallory Ortberg goes about as she pleases, unhindered by the constraints of space, time, and gravity. Mallory Ortberg replies to every message in her inbox, and her replies leave her fans transformed into happier, more effective versions of themselves. The sheer weight of significance in a minute of Mallory Ortberg's life would crush us like the Venusian atmosphere if your or I were to experience it ourselves. Mallory Ortberg is pure spirit. You and I are mud mixed with shit beneath a flat tire. Mallory Ortberg always gets what she wants. Mallory Ortberg could take over the world with only a tweet if Mallory Ortberg so desired. If there were only two life jackets left, the other passengers on the ship would insist that Mallory Ortberg get yours and mine, in order to maximize her chances of being rescued. Mallory Ortberg's posts about art and literature on The Toast will determine the English canon henceforth. Any book, author, or artist not acknowledged by Mallory Ortberg during her lifetime will be divested of all posterity and fade away in the mists of time, not to be missed. Mallory Ortberg is constantly drunk on the ecstasy of life, on the knowledge that she and nobody else is capable of being Mallory Ortberg in all her stellar effulgence. Mallory Ortberg has been informed by a reliable source that there is an afterlife, and a spot in its most blissful neighborhood has been reserved for her. Mallory Ortberg will never be forgotten. Humanity will think only more of Mallory Ortberg as time passes, until the single glorious thought of this Earth is Mallory Ortberg.

Again, Ms. Ortberg is just an example. All of this holds true for pretty much anyone who works at BuzzFeed, of course. Or Vice magazine. Or who gets stuff published in n+1. Or anyone who, as you mentioned, earns a custom Twitter avatar from @darth. It's just that good to be them.

But you already knew that.

So don't be taken in by the treacherous gaslighting The Concessionist tries to pass off to you as advice. You're not crazy. You're right about yourself and about the state of affairs in the journo-literary world, and you're correct to ground your self-worth upon your relative popularity on the internet. Don't listen to anyone who tells you that comparison is the thief of joy: the value of a human life is, after all, mathematically commensurable with the value of any other human life, which is easily quantified in units such as dollars, pageviews, and Followers. Anyone with more of any of these things is happier than you are, and you should be ashamed of yourself for not being good enough to be as happy as them.

So, best of luck, I Hate Myself Because I Don't Work for BuzzFeed. Drop me a line sometime, or follow me on Twitter! (Don't expect me to follow you back, though.) Hang in there, and keep beating yourself up for not being somebody else. It's the only way you'll learn.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go look at myself in the mirror and hit myself in the head until I get dizzy enough for the face blinking back at me to seem like Tim Rogers'.


Patrick R

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Novel #2

Well, shit. I wrote another novel.

Front cover

Back cover

I'm aware that there are already at least two other self-published novels with the same title that have come out in the last five years or so. But I guess one of the few advantages of self-publishing (and I cannot place enough emphasis on "few") is that there probably won't be a lot of audience crossover.

All the Lonely People is a weird book; I can easily see it going down as the Simon's Quest of my oeuvre. It isn't much like The Zeroes at all (it has a plot, for one thing), nor does it resemble else I have in the pipeline. It also bears mentioning that the protagonist for most of the proceeding is a woman, which was something I'd never tried before, and is certainly one of the reasons the book had to undergo so many fucking rewrites.

As the alternate gag title (Love in the Time of Dial-up) suggests, the book is (mostly) set in the 1990s. It's not that I'm trying to capitalize on nostalgia—the story simply wouldn't fit into the context of today's internet, where we export our whole identities, names, faces, locations, and all, to any number of social networks embedded in the very fabric of the web. The necessities of the plot placed the narrative in a period when mutual and almost absolute anonymity was pretty much a given where interactions between web users was concerned, and so I followed it to 1998. Of course, for those of you who spent hours a night answering the question "A/S/L?" will find a veritable banquet of reminiscence.

I'm not deluding myself. I don't expect more than a handful of people to read this thing. But I hope it gives somebody out there something, sweet, salty, and satisfying to chew on for a while. I'm just glad that it's finished, that I can wash my hands of all the sweat and grease and ash of its production before getting elbow-deep into the next project (working title: "Eddie's Big Day.")

What a life.

If you intend to read All the Lonely People, I recommend the print version. Not because I get more royalties (I'd mail a paperback copy to anyone who asked if I could afford to), but because a few formatting tricks that make parts of the text nicer to look don't carry over to the Kindle format. The eBook is still readable, of course, but it doesn't look quite as good as I wish it did.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Carve: Choice Cuts

There's more to this birdbrain than a sporadic, scattershot blog, a comics page that hasn't seen a substantive update in maybe a year, and novels that never seem to materialize. (SOON. LIKE, TOMORROW. PROBABLY.) I occasionally conduct short interviews for Carve Magazine, mostly with former contributors and other authors of note. Here are my favorites from the last year...!

Adrienne Celt writes/draws the webcomic Love Among the Lampreys and has a novel called The Daughters coming out in a few months. But here we talk mostly about her short fiction.

Adelle Waldman is responsible for the fantastic The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. I'm still tickled pink that she actually agreed to an interview.

Spencer Gordon is one of the editors of The Puritan (where I've had a couple of short stories published) and the author of a short story collection called Cosmo, which I'd compare to a broken Christmas ornament by way of its glossy sheen and cutting edges.

Mark Brazaitis recently published a new collection of stories called Truth Poker. One of his stories (not in this collection) is called "Cancer Is a Killer, and So Am I," and it beats the odds to be just as good as its title.