Thursday, May 16, 2013

Cohorts

  - What do you two do?
- On that subject I heard an interesting story...
- He's a philosopher.
- ...the story was told by an internet executive. He met a man at Davos, attending the meeting of the World Economic Forum. He could see right off this man was brilliant. Well, everyone there had to be special, rich, famous, powerful, successful, but he didn't know this guy. If he had had on his person one of the new wearable internet devices, in seconds a photo would have been taken, image search conducted to match the man to the photo, identification confirmed. The internet executive found out later that this man had made an important medical discovery. What conversations they would have had had he known it! Now though with the new wearable internet technology it need never happen again.
- I also studied philosophy. But then, somehow I became interested in statistics.
- My friend the philosopher you're talking with is like you. He's always on the internet checking how many people read his stories.
- Do you write stories?
- At the moment I'm trying to tell you one. Suppose the executive had his internet glasses on. They snapped the doctor's picture, delivered his name and biography to the lenses. He's happy, but what about the doctor who'd chosen not to identify himself? Now he has to go through the same old questions about his discovery and hear the same repetitive comments he's heard a thousand times from strangers.
- A conflict of interest.
- The internet executive said he wanted the man identified so he could do his job better, that he was in a competition to the death for information. The doctor, however, for whatever reason, was off duty, conversationally speaking.
- But they have to talk about something. And more information has to be better, right?
- If they are working together on making a conversation. But maybe that is the wrong model. Maybe working is not something we should be doing with conversation.
- What should we be doing?
- Sara?
- What?
- You've heard this already: "Peanut Butter Entropy". Can I repeat it?
- If you don't mind repeating yourself.
- I don't mind. We stir in the oil that's floated to the top of the peanut butter jar, forming swirls, ridges and valleys. One kind of order, the kind we don't want - the oil on top of the peanut mass - is replaced by another. Every added increment of movement of the spoon changes the portiion of peanut butter in contact with the spoon, and transmits the movement to, revises the status of all of the past changes. When you stop stirring, the progressive growth of change ends. When you stir the other way, the new order you have created, the swirls, ridges and valleys, is destroyed. You might think you'd simply undue all the change and return the peanut butter in the jar to the state it was in when you began. That doesn't happen, because going the other way with the spoon, you are no longer connecting with the relations built on relations that created the swirls, valleys and ridges. Instead your movement interferes with the order you'd created moving the spoon in the other direction. Understand?
- Yes, I do.
- Imagine two people meet each other at Davos. They each have their separate lives, a cumulative building of effect on effect, like we see in the peanut butter jar, when moving the spoon continuously in one direction, counter clockwise or clockwise. One person, though, wants to get the most out of the conversation, and thinks there ought to be a technology to doing that, a set of rules for doing it best, and a mechanical technology to help him do that. The technology with its fixed rules, like those governing the back and forth exchange in the marketplace, forces the spoon to be moved in the other direction. Not only is life interrupted, it's broken up.*
- It's not the technology itself as it imposes conventions you're worried about, it's the particular rules for conversation?
- Yes. Technology used to make conversation into work.
- Can't the technology be used to inspire an art of conversation, a game of conversation?
- It can, but it's isn't.
- Why not? What's the problem with technology that technology can't solve?
- The problem is not with the technology, the machines themselves, but our technique of conversation. With how we meet each other in public. We aren't doing it right.
- Our wrong rules cause the destructive back and forth? Then how do we let each other go in our own direction?
- First, we have to know that's what we want, and not accept the ritual of work as a cure-all for our individual frustrations.
- Ok.
- In Thomas Pynchon's book Against The Day a character who doesn't himself seem to have forgotten anything meets one person after another, all of them extremely angry at things he's supposed to have done. He wanders around the city and finds himself in an intersection where strange activities are taking place. He's advised that he must atone, and the people there can help him. Atone without guilt, he asks? Yes. The two, atonement and guilt, need not be related. Ridiculous, right?
- Yeah.
- I'll tell you a story I've repeated many times. I don't mind repeating it. When I quit film school I worked as a proof-reader for a woman's fashion magazine. In those days printing was still a mechanical process, and since I was in the midst of it I decided to write and oversee the printing of my own book. A little detective story was the result. Within a month the book was written, printed, and 500 copies sold by me personally at a table on the street in Westwood Village. I didn't myself have a copy of this book, and a few years ago I wondered if I could find one for sale on the internet. I was surprised to find many copies for sale, from 60 dollars to 200. It only took a minute to discover the reason for the high price: used book dealers had decided that my story was the unknown first novel published by the fairly well known writer of violent crimes stories who had taken as his pen name my real name.
- Wow.
- I knew about this writer already because several years before I had typed my name into Google and discovered an article written by someone with my name about travelling in Europe buying and selling old watches between dealers. There were only maybe a couple dozen people doing this very specialized job, myself one of them, so this was a practical joke, played by a man I learned from his biography famous for playing practical jokes.
- So as you had inadvertently taken credit for his fame, he retaliated by taking on your life!
- Yes. The Rex Miller Cohort: that's me, this Rex Miller, and all the other Rex Millers, affecting each other on the internet. The fame of all the others increases my fame, and vice versa. We have nothing meaningful in common. Only a matter of names. What do you think: am I affected by the other Rex Millers like the character in Pynchon novel is affected, has to atone for the crimes of that other person people say he is?
- I admit there is some similarity.
- I'll point out two things. First, the strange relation is created by technology. And second, there is no competent rule determining the relation.
- Competent?
- Imagine a conversation. A typical American conversation. We talk about work, we talk about money. We talk about working for money. This is what we have in common, show to each other when we meet to talk with each other. We have that in common, but I don't live for money, and you presumably don't live for money either, yet that is what we talk about, jarring each other clockwise to counter clockwise to clockwise with each exchange of words. What if we all met instead like the Rex Millers? Tied to each other, living in the same place, with the same rules, but in fact, not really? Atoning for the sins of other people. What if being of the same nationality meant that, and only that?
- And?
- Using then using our technology to help on the conversation: what would that be like?
- I have no idea.
- It would be like how we do art, make something, tell a story. We let all the things we thought we knew float around in our imagination, related to each other, but not really. There was such a person as Rex Miller, the sum of all the things he did and experienced. Putting him together was done with rules, like a sentence is put together by rules of syntax, but that way of organizing doesn't work any more, not since I have to go out in public and speak to this stranger, the collection of experience that goes by the name Rex Miller is now not rules, not syntax, but content.
- What kind of content?
- The kind where you have to atone for crimes you didn't commit, where you have to live with people who affect you, who you are forced to be responsible for, but are not you.
- Ok. The different kind of rules of conversation: what are they exactly?
- You see, what we want is to keep the spoon moving in the same direction. First Rex Miller. Then the Rex Miller who is affected by the actions of the other Rex Millers. Nothing is forgotten, the second continues the movement of the first, nothing is destroyed by the plot development. The story goes on.
- A really bizarre story.
- The bizarre characters, repeated in their cohorts but different, are appreciated for themselves, as a painter loves colors and a writer loves words. The conversation continues.
- Where does it end?
- When in the conversation each can say the same thing.
- Without deviating from their own directions. Does that happen?
- Do you agree with me this far?
- If I say I agree with you you'll say this is a technique of conversation? A technology of conversation?
- Yes. I'll concede it to be a weird technology, if that makes you happy.
- It doesn't! And internet technology could be safely applied to it?
- Do you agree?
- Won't we be multiplying the weirdness in the process?
- And maybe the agreement at the end.

* Peanut Butter Entropy