Old Friends: Payphones of Tallahassee

Maybe you remember what it felt like, what it sounded like, to use one of these. I remember the dusty plastic cover on the heavy phone book dangling beneath the box. I remember the slight delay between picking up the receiver and hearing the dial tone down the line. I remember the automated voice insisting on more coins in the machine. I remember the road noise, the ringing phone on the other end of the line, the throat clearing anticipation. Most of those sensations are gone, but a few of the old workhorses remain, including this battered old friend rotting away at a gas station just below the campus of Florida A&M University.

Inspired by 2600 Magazine’s longtime obsession with these beautiful, hackable old devices, I keep an eye open for them and try to grab pictures when I can.

There was no dial tone when I placed the dangling speaker to my ear and picked up the other end, but I did hear a strange clicking sound. That may have been the sound of wires striking metal, or the death rattle of the ancient and destroyed mechanism.

Poster Design: Subpotent I

This post is a little bit about art and a little bit of self-promotion. My new band, Subpotent, is shaping up. We are almost done with our first set and getting ready to start playing shows in Tallahassee!

To start building awareness, I designed this poster inspired by surrealist art, situationist technique, and propaganda. This design reflects the band’s aesthetic and (I think) powerfully imprints the message with the combination of strong color, bold type, and an arresting image stolen from the Dalí/Buñuel film Un Chien Andalou.

Analog Future

The future is local.

I mean local in several senses of the word. The future will be local, first, in the sense that the things you do there will be somewhere close to you instead of located on a computer somewhere in Atlanta or San Francisco or Dublin. It will also be local in the sense that the majority of things you will make and do there will likely be stored on your own computer, perched on your tabletop, stored on your bookshelf, built on your workbench, cooked in your kitchen, and so on, rather than somewhere else. You will own them. Related to this, the future will be local, finally, in the sense that you will share things there with local people whom you actually know, rather than digital representations of people in chat rooms or on headsets. You will likely post the things you make there on your own website, print them in your own zine, sell them in your own community. The internet is not dead, but its role as the primary force shaping our lives is coming to an end.

When I say “the internet,” I don’t mean the technical stack. I’m not referring to the network of networked computers communicating with one another using various protocols. Instead, I refer to the “phenomenological internet” of “the more familiar sites of daily use by billions of people” that Justin E.H. Smith defines in his book, The Internet is Not What You Think It Is. Smith writes,

“Animals are a tiny sliver of life on earth, yet they are preeminently what we mean when we talk about life on earth; social media are a tiny sliver of the internet, yet they are what we mean when we speak of the internet, as they are where the life is on the internet.”

To this definition I would add another category, however: the streaming media provider. When we speak of the internet, we also speak of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Disney Plus, and so on. These multi-billion dollar corporations draw on the rhetoric of “the internet” to position themselves as scrappy upstarts opposing the staid traditional media providers, such as film studios and television networks. Viewers have largely accepted this position and view these services as outposts of the internet on their television screens.

Prediction is a mug’s game, so think of this as a prescription instead of a prediction. There are several related trends converging over the next several years that are likely to drive people away from the comfy little burrows they’ve carved out of the internet by forking over $5 or $7.99 or $14.99 or a steady stream of personally identifiable data every month. Together, these trends map the contours of serious contradictions between abundance and desire, on the one hand, and humans and machines on the other, which strikes at the heart of the internet as we have understood it since around 2004. The dialectic emerging from these contradictions will drive new user behaviors in the next decade.

The first trend is the grinding ennui which has resulted from the relentless production of entertainment and cultural commodities for consumption on the internet. Reduced in the past several years to a sort of semi-nutritive paste called “content,” art and entertainment are losing their capacity to relieve and enrich us and now increasingly amplify the isolation and pessimism of life online.

A seemingly infinite stream of money dedicated to the production of entertainment on the internet has resulted in an ocean of unremarkable “content” that does little more than hold your attention long enough to satisfy the adware algorithm or build a platform big enough to stage the next bit of content in the franchise and queue up the next marketing event. Outside of their algorithmically contoured bubbles of fandom, there is little difference between Marvel and Star Wars or DC or YouTube creators or Twitch streamers or podcasts. Netflix shows and Amazon Prime shows and Hulu shows and HBO Max shows and Paramount Plus shows and Peacock shows and so on are indistinguishable blips in time, forgotten as quickly as they are consumed. Books scroll by on Kindle screens or drop serially onto shelves. Photographs and artwork slide past on instagram, meriting a second or perhaps a moment’s notice before disappearing into the infinite past. Pop music percolates through TikTok, moves week-by-week downward on officially curated playlists, radiates out into commercials, and then disappears, poof, as rapidly as it came, displaced by the next. Independent music on the internet–even on platforms nominally controlled by the artists, like Bandcamp or SoundCloud–exists in much the same sort of vacuum as it always has. The internet promised an efflorescence of color and creativity. What it gave us instead was a flat, white light that grows dimmer over time as the algorithms which shape it converge on a single point of optimization.

The top 5 most-viewed links on Facebook in the last quarter

Because the vast majority of the “content” is indistinguishably boring, the second trend is tightly related to the first. Social media is dying. Many platforms, Facebook front and center, are already dead, gliding still on accumulated momentum but inevitably bound to stop. As recently as 2016, we believed that Facebook could change the world. In recent quarters, however, the most viewed content on the behemoth platform has either been a scam or originated somewhere else. The top 5 most-viewed links in the second quarter of this year, according to Facebook, consisted of TikTok, two spam pages, and two news stories from NBC and ABC on the Uvalde School Shooting. TikTok leads the second-place spam page by a huge margin. Facebook is not a healthy business. Ryan Broderick recently summed up the situation with Facebook admirably on his excellent “Garbage Day” Substack. “Facebook, as a product, is over,” Broderick writes. “Meta knows it. Facebook’s creators know it. Possibly even Facebook’s users. But no one has anywhere else to really go.”

People who rely on social media to promote and build businesses are beginning to note a general decline as well. According to a poll detailed in a recent article on “creatives” frustrated with social media, 82% believe that “engagement” has declined since they started using social media. “I’ve given up on Instagram,” one freelance artist noted. “I wasn’t even sure it was making a difference with getting more work. And I seem to be doing okay without it.”

Facebook and Instagram are in rapid decline, but what about TikTok, YouTube, Reddit, Twitter, and others? A third problem, more profound than the others, faces these: there are no more users to gain. Two decades into the social media era, the market is highly segmented. New platforms like TikTok will continue to emerge, but their surge will climb rapidly to a plateau. The decades-long push for growth that fueled platforms like Facebook and Twitter through the 2000s and 2010s dovetailed with the proliferation of smartphones. Now that the smartphone market is saturated, social media companies can no longer look forward to a constantly expanding frontier of new users to sign up.

Relying on content algorithms to retain existing users or coax those back who have already left, platforms accelerate the ennui of optimization. This leaves precious little room for new types of content or new talents to emerge. Still, people will entertain each other. Those who create art will seek approval and criticism. Others will seek out new and exciting art and entertainment to enjoy. When there is no room on social media for to put these groups of people together, they will find each other in new (old) ways: on the street.

You may have recently heard that machines are going to solve the problem of creating new and engaging content for people to consume on the internet. AI models like DALL-E, Stable Diffusion, GPT-3, various Deepfake models for video, and others use the oceans of existing images, text, audio, and video to create new content from scratch. Some of these models, such as Nvidia’s StyleGAN, are capable of producing content indistinguishable from reality. Artists are beginning to win prizes with AI-generated work. AI-generated actors are appearing in media speaking languages they don’t know, wearing bodies decades younger than the ones they inhabit in reality. GPT-3 is a “shockingly good” text generator which prompted the author of a breathless article in this month’s Atlantic to swoon. “Miracles can be perplexing,” Stephen Marche writes in the article, “and artificial intelligence is a very new miracle…. [An] encounter with the superhuman is at hand.”

Some critics of these AI models argue that they will prompt a crisis of misinformation. Deepfakes may convince people that the President of the United States declared war on an adversary, for example, or a deepfake porno video could ruin a young person’s life. These are valid concerns. More overheated critics suggest that AI may one day surpass human intelligence and may, therefore, power over its creators like masters to pets. Setting aside the Social Darwinist overtones of this argument—that ”intelligence,” exemplified by the mastery of texts, translates automatically to power—machine learning algorithms are limited by the same content challenges facing social media. AI may create absorbing new universes of art and sound and video, but it can only generate content based on the existing corpus, and it can only distribute that content on existing networks. People have to create new texts for AI to master. The willingness of a continuous army of new users to generate these texts and upload them to the phenomenological internet of social media and streaming video, where they can be easily aggregated and made accessible to machine learning models using APIs, is declining. The same types of algorithms that prompted Stephen Marche to proclaim a New Miracle in The Atlantic are driving the most successful corporations in history right off a cliff as I write this.

These critiques of AI-generated content assume that people will continue to scroll social media and engage with the things they see there in ways similar to their behavior over the past decade. In this model, to review, users scroll through an endless stream of content. When they see posts that inspire or provoke, impress or irritate, they are encouraged to like, comment, and share these posts with their friends and followers. The content may be endless, but the people on both sides of the transaction are the most important elements in the decision to like, comment, or share. Users are not impressed or provoked by the content itself, but because of the connection it represents with other people. They respond and share this content performatively, acting as a bridge or critic between the people who created the content–and what they represent–and their friends and followers. If you remove enough of the people, all of the content loses its value.

At a more fundamental level, people are the appeal of any creative work. Art without an artist is a bit like clouds or leaves: these may be beautifully or even suggestively arranged, but they offer no insight on what it means to be human. GPT-3 may tell a story, but it does so mimetically, arranging words in a pattern resembling something that should please a human reader. You may level the same criticism at your least-favorite author, but at least they would be insulted. GPT-3 will never feel anything.

AI-generated content will neither solve the content problem for platforms nor prompt a further crisis of misinformation and confusion for users. AI content will be the nail in social media’s coffin.

As a result of these interlocking trends–the crushing ennui of “content,” the decay of social media, the dearth of new smartphone users, and the incompatibility of AI-generated art with human needs–“culture” is likely to depart the algorithmic grooves of the internet, sprout new wings offline, and take flight for new territory. Perhaps, once it is established there, the internet will catch up again. Perhaps then software will try, once again, to eat the world. This time it has failed.

The Town Center Ritual

Fiction

You sit down by the fire to warm your tired bones. The cardboard crates, old pallets, pine straw, shreds of paper, and other debris fueling the fire crackle beneath the glowing flames, gently whispering soothing sounds against the silence of the long, dark night. It has been another interminably long day, as always this time of year, choring around the camp and roving the scattered junk atop the earthen mounds searching for supplies to stockpile against the coming winter. It won’t be long now, winter. You’ve felt it in the air for a few weeks. Soon the days will grow shorter, and the long cold nights will follow. That is still a way off in the future, however. For now, the night is warm. The insects who made it through the extinction quietly chirr and click in the browning trees. The rest of the group is there too, murmuring and drinking while they wait for the storyteller to take her place on the old recliner at the head of the group. 

A moment later, she arrives, settles in. She removes her spectacles–the purple ones you found in the pile last spring, you note with a surge of joy–and wipes them on the underside of her shirt, a little smile twinkling in her eyes and upturning the corners of her mouth as she rubs clockwise patterns on the glasses. She pauses occasionally to peer through them at the fire until, satisfied at last, she places the spectacles back on her kindly old face, waits a moment for the chatter to die off, and clears her throat. 

The group buzzes with anticipation for a tale of the Old Ones. “They called this place once,” she begins, “a Town Center.” Puzzled murmurs ring the fire. “People traveled hundreds of miles to visit the Town Center,” she continues. “It was a place of power and riches, beautiful things, terrible desires.”

“Before the bad times, this land was part of a great city. Everything you see was ruled by a council, who represented the wealthiest and most powerful people in the city. The council’s masters were elite for a reason, the stories say, the hardest-working, wisest, and most intelligent of all the people in the city. That’s why the council did what these brilliant and dedicated masters told them to do. Well, one day, they decided that the city needed a great palace of magic and ritual, a place for all the most powerful wizards and shamans, warriors, philosophers, and chiefs to come and serve the people. Recognizing the wisdom of this plan, the people set out to build the palace, the Town Center. 

“It took many years to build, summers and winters of clearing, sawing, chopping, lashing. People gave their lives to the project. Workers moved their homes closer to the worksite–this place, right here–so they could work longer and harder, just like the wise masters who dreamed up the palace. For their part, the masters watched from a distance, waiting for the people to gain honor through hard work.”

“Finally, at long last, the palace was complete. The people rejoiced. Just like the masters predicted, the Great Ones came. We remember the names of those wizards and shamans, warriors, philosophers, and chiefs. Harken now to the fragments they have left us, and honor them with me!”

Here the storyteller’s voice descends into a lower register, an intoned ritual from the depths of memory.  

“Harken now to Mayors Jewelry,” she says: “For more than a century, MAYORS has been defining luxury by bringing the world’s most exclusive selection of iconic brands to connoisseurs of fine jewelry and timepieces.”

“Hark!,” the group responds. “Honor!”  

“Harken now to Tiffany & Co.: In 1837, Charles Lewis Tiffany arrived in New York with a vision of spectacular beauty that went on to redefine glamour and style around the world.”

“Hark! Honor!”

“Harken now to Psycho Bunny: Over the years, the brand has developed a cult following for men who don’t have to sacrifice irreverence for style. Psycho Bunny is about contradictions; it is mischievous, yet refined; timeless, yet contemporary.”

“Hark! Honor!”

“Harken now to Louis Vuitton: Founded in Paris in 1854, Louis Vuitton is synonymous with the art of travel. Its iconic trunks, luggage and bags have accompanied journeys throughout time.”

“Hark! Honor!”

“Harken now to LoveSac: Sactionals are the most adaptable, adjustable, reconfigurable, forgivable, livable, lovable furniture on earth.”

“Hark! Honor!”

“Harken now to Tommy Bahama: Inspired by the relaxed sophistication of coastal living, Tommy Bahama is dedicated to the good life. Stylish, upscale offerings include island apparel for men and women, footwear, jewelry, accessories and home décor, all designed to help you relax in style.”

“Hark! Honor!”

“Harken now to lululemon: lululemon is a yoga-inspired, technical athletic apparel company for yoga, running, training and most other sweaty pursuits. While Vancouver, Canada is where you can trace the company’s beginnings, the global community is where you’ll find lululemon’s soul.”

“Hark! Honor!” 

On and on she continues, each name, each ancient text ringing into the night like an incantation. The fire grows to a roar as the group listens to the old storyteller in wonder, harkening, honoring, spellbound by the strange words stripped of their meaning and power by the ravages of time. Onward she continues, a hundred names more, a hundred and fifty.

“Harken now to Lane Bryant: As the leading fashion brand for curvy women, Lane Bryant continually strives not only to be first in fashion and fit, but to be everywhere, be everything you expect us to be. From clothing and accessories to our Cacique line of intimates, look to Lane Bryant for the latest looks.”

“Hark! Honor!”

Finally, some time later, exhausted by the effort of intonation and memory, the storyteller rasps, “Harken now to Tesla: Forget everything you know about the automobile. The Tesla electric drivetrain offers a radically different experience. The driver, the car, and the environment connect in ways they’ve never connected before.” She slumps in the old recliner, head hanging heavily, breathing softly.

“Hark,” we whisper. “Honor.”  

The fire is dying now, its embers glowing deep orange and golden yellow as the storyteller regains her composure. The group is silent and tense, worn by the ritual of honor, ready for the storyteller to open the circle. A cool wind stirs the trees and she lifts her face to meet the gaze of the expectant circle. Her eyes are tired and sad, brimming with pain for the loss of it all.  “O Great Ones!,” she says, “We can only imagine the mighty things you might have done, if only the bad times had not come to punish us all.”

“Let us be worthy,” the group says. The usual ending. 

With this, the group relaxes. A young man across the dying fire laughs awkwardly, relieved to mark the end of the ritual. From a cloth sack next to the recliner the old storyteller removes a bottle. Clear liquid sloshes against the glass as she removes the cap, upends the bottle, takes a long swallow. Wincing, she passes the bottle down to the woman on her left. You see the woman’s face through the liquor and the glass, distorted in the soft firelight. The cool wind tousles your hair. A sympathetic burn streaks your throat and warns your stomach as you watch the bottle pass from hand to hand. 

“Let us be worthy,” you say. 

Absurd Symmetries: Flux Gourmet (2022)

In academia, there is a witticism known as Sayre’s Law, which holds that the intensity of a fight is inversely proportional to its stakes. The lower the stakes, this law claims, the harder the fight. If you’ve spent time in graduate school, you probably recognize Sayre’s Law shaping the action on the screen in Peter Strickland’s absurdist gem. You don’t need to have attended graduate school, though, to recognize that there are few better targets for absurdist satire than the rarefied world of academic art, with its artist residencies churning out C.V. lines for postgrad MFAs and its institutional funders evading taxation by supporting “the arts” instead of social reform. And what better weapons to draw on this numskull assembly than the equally pretentious and inaccessible worlds of culinary criticism and analog audiophilia?

On paper, it sounds preposterous; but Strickland pulls it off, and the result crackles with creative energy. I was delighted, first of all, by the endless visual feast: the vivid palette, the old and new, the staid and the modern, the delightful juxtapositions and unexpected choices. The audio palette, too, is raw and interesting. Strickland understands the judicious use of silence, but the film trembles with possibility when the wah-wahs and reverbs and flanger modulate the mundane reality of boiling water and slicing carrots into something more–in the same way that film modulates vision into something greater and more coherent than reality itself. As the film progresses from scene to stunning scene, the part of you that craves coherence from a story may pout. The part of you that wants a film to reach into your head, however, and twang your cortices like a piano string will be rolling in the aisles.

One may debate what a film like this “means,” but perhaps there are clues in the symmetries between music and the body and art and medicine. All are shaped by absurd power struggles in Strickland’s film. The artists, played admirably by Fatma Mohamed, Ariane Labed, and Asa Butterfield, strain against the authority of the institutional funder, played impeccably by Gwendoline Christie. Stones, the “dossierge” played by Makis Papadimitriou, strains against the implacable authority of his own intestines, which challenge the pretentious skill of Richard Bremmer’s Dr. Glock. It is a cycle of conflict, as never-ending as the food chain.

Mangoes on Wednesday

Sometimes in life you need a little gift. Here are some simple instructions to practice the pleasure principle on the cheap.

Go to the produce department at your grocery store and find the sliced mangoes. You could buy a fresh mango, but that wouldn’t be a gift for yourself. That would be work. Buy the sliced mangoes in the plastic container instead and promise to recycle the plastic if you need that peace of mind.

When you get home, put the container somewhere in the bottom of the refrigerator. It is a law of nature that the mango spears in that container are nowhere near ready to eat. They are still basically white, sour, and tough. Walk away and do something else. You have plenty to do. Forget about it.

In the meantime, perhaps the week ahead will kick you in the face. That’s the way it goes sometimes.

Notice the mangoes late on Wednesday night. Maybe you will be rooting around the refrigerator looking for the last Inca Kola, or maybe you are thinking about the leftovers from Monday’s dinner down there somewhere. Whatever the reason, look in the back. When you see the little plastic boat full of beautiful little golden yellow spears, now perfectly ripened, you may curse with delight. That is up to you.

Resist the urge to crack open the container and scoop the contents into your greedy maw two or three spears at a time right there at the refrigerator. This would be good, sure, but a measure of patience now will pay off later.

Take the container over to the counter and open it carefully. Search your spice rack for the Chili Powder and liberally dust the top layer of mangoes with the rich, ochre-red seasoning. I learned this trick from a woman selling mangoes on the street outside of the New York Public Library. She was shouting, “Mango, Mango, Mango, Mango,” a simple but effective incantation, and I was drawn like an insect to the porch lamp on a summer night. When I handed over four sweaty dollar bills, she produced a Zip-Loc bag full of the precious golden slices—which is the closest thing to a drug deal I have been involved in for many years—and asked, “you want chili?” You want chili.  

Now you are ready. Grab a fork and recline like Nero on the couch in the living room while you eat every single chili-seasoned mango spear in the box. This is a gift.