The Nine Billion Names Of God

In The Perfect Crime Jean Baudrillard references Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “The Nine Billion Names of God” to set up his critique of virtual reality and our desire to actualize the world in its totality.

Clarke’s story centers on a group of Tibetan monks who for centuries have been transcribing with great care the nine billion names of God. Logging the final name, we’re told, will trigger the end of the world.

It’s a tiresome task so the monks call in technicians from IBM. Computers finish the job in a few months.

On page 27 of The Perfect Crime Baudrillard describes man’s fate: “As they walk back down into the valley, the technicians, who did not really believe in the prophecy, are aghast to see the stars going out one by one.”

I believe the monks not only knew their project would end the world but actively wished for it.

The rise of IBM and its solution-focused IT professionals facilitated a quicker exit. Computers relieved the monks of their duties. Ethics and the Middle Way no match for algorithms and HTML.

Computers relieve us all from the burden of being human. Tools for the realization of every fantasy, computers fulfill our secret wish to disappear. Social media posts serving as our collective suicide note.

Smartphones, tablets and laptops communicate for us, but not necessarily on our behalf. “I’ll text you,” we say, as if the text creates you—a “you” we never meet. If the medium is the message, today the message is singular: “Show me your text and I’ll show you mine.”

In the valley of the shadow of tech we are all monks—all “IBMers”—exchanging the pleasure of face-to-face interaction for the stupor of screen-to-screen manipulation.


Bullet Spoof

After Obama took away my guns, I sobered up, hopped in my truck and went straight to Walmart to reload. I’m a family man, after all.

My cell phone’s a weapon too. I text militia buddies between tactical drills in my backyard, posing for selfies in my finest fatigues.

Imagine both in one convenient package: the cell phone gun. Shit just got real.

Cell phone guns would have all the killer apps. Folks could sign up for the Don’t Tread On Me plan, brought to you by your independent concealed-carry mobile carrier.

Cue Wayne LaPierre, the voice of the NRA: Act now. Before Hillary assumes the throne.

The Ecstasy Of Communication

[T]oday we have entered into a new form of schizophrenia—with the emergence of an immanent promiscuity and the perpetual interconnection of all information and communication networks. No more hysteria, or projective paranoia as such, but a state of terror which is characteristic of the schizophrenic, an over-proximity of all things, a foul promiscuity of all things which beleaguer and penetrate him, meeting with no resistance, and no halo, no aura, not even the aura of his own body protects him. (Jean Baudrillard, The Ecstasy of Communication, 1987, p. 30)

There’s a lot going on in this passage. To dissect its meaning would murder the poetry. I know only that I enjoy it, that my returning to it says something about my relationship with “an immanent promiscuity and the perpetual interconnection of all information and communication networks.”

I’ve written many times about people’s fascination with cell phones. I fancy myself a part-time cultural critic pointing out the pitfalls of exchanging what makes us human for the allure of the newest all-mighty gadget, the “Next Big Thing,” as one company likes to advertise.

But last week I bought a smartphone. Simply put: I like it. For too long I muddled through life without a reliable 4G LTE network, an unlimited data plan, or a strong enough signal to text from my basement.

There’s no disconnect here. Now I can Google the nearest independent bookstore, call them up and ask for the obscure French philosophy department. All the way from my basement.


My Favorite Martian

Yesterday the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the content of cell phones can’t be searched without a warrant. It turns out that some people pulled over by the police have incriminating information on their phones, which upon inspection, leads to charges for other offenses.

The decision is being hailed as a victory for freedom. I’m not here to argue that, although I will say the ruling gives me the freedom to be just another asshole with a cell phone committing crimes against the burden of human contact. I’m more interested in an amusing quote from Chief Justice John Roberts on the matter.

Cell phones, the Chief Justice writes, are “such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.”

We don’t need Martians to point out the fusion between our phones and our bodies (both contain some form of the word “cell” after all). Earthlings who spot another earthling without a smartphone attached to his ear or extending from his hand think he’s an alien, find his conduct unbecoming, his way of life obscene.

On earth, where only savages and infants go without a data plan, Martians would serve as our last moralists. They’d remind us that smartphones are a recent addition to the human anatomy. Only aliens retain hope we’ll one day cut the wireless cord, if only for a second, to recall what it means to be human.

Caller ID

You know the feeling: you’re drifting off to sleep, easing into a dream. The phone rings. You’re awake.

~ ~ ~

Life is your inability to continue the dream.

~ ~ ~

If God had proposed the idea of my life to me before my birth, I’d have thought him insane. But I accepted the offer before it was made. I wasn’t so much conceived as convinced.

~ ~ ~

God once left a cryptic message. Someday I’ll get back to him.

~ ~ ~

As a child I wondered where I came from. How at first the world appeared. The cosmos had a pressing thought. Something of a dark matter.

~ ~ ~

Life is the length of a restless night. A series of tosses and turns.

~ ~ ~

The other day, a dream. UNKNOWN calls. And I say hello.

I, Phone (Part Two)

Everyone requires a cell phone now; to debate this point is akin to doubting gravity or arguing that time moves in reverse. My iPhone distinguishes me from all non-iPhone users. It expresses me. It’s an extension of my being, a form of identification on my person at all times.

The iPhone as fashion statement. The lucky hipster at the front of the Best Buy line shouting, “I have the latest model.” He’s bought a device for communicating, but he’s actually consuming Communication. He has messages to get across, but it’s not their content that matters: he has to send and share and speak because everybody’s doing it. Everybody has a voice. Who cares what you say as long as you say it.

But with everybody talking at the same time my voice sounds like a whisper into a jet engine. Our world of hyper-communication is built on harmony and dissonance. Our bodies are overloaded, our minds frazzled: hyper-communicating leaves us vulnerable to nonsense, noise and nuisance.

We get away from the Conversation by conversing with our mobile devices. The iPhone user talks to his iPhone as it talks to him. He is mesmerized by all the bells and whistles and in touching/tapping/scrolling leaves the moment. The very thing that connects him to others allows him to disconnect temporarily; it’s a coping mechanism, survival mode. A pocket of air on a sinking ship.

It’s family dinner. Father playing Angry Birds. Mom amused by Grumpy Cat. Children tuning out with Spotify playlists.

Being in touch all day makes us want to lose touch. My iPhone brings the world to me one minute and takes me out of it the next. It speaks volumes about me without conveying my disgust at feeling forced to communicate all the time, even when there’s nothing left to say.

I, Phone (Part One)

Professor Martin Irvine, founding director of the Communication, Culture and Technology Program at Georgetown University, has an interesting way of looking at the iPhone. In a presentation called “Deblackboxing Technology: Mediology and Actor Network Theory,” located on his website, Irvine opens our eyes to the inner workings of the iPhone.

We look at a device like the iPhone as a series of inputs and outputs. We turn it on and expect the device to work. This assumption, according to Irvine, is a function of the blackbox quality of the iPhone. Apple sells us a device that appears simple or user-friendly without revealing the secret worlds behind its interface.

According to Irvine, if we take apart or “deblackbox” it, we find that the iPhone is “a system of prior technology functions and social mediation deployed through the logic of combinatorial hybridity and hypermediation.”

Inside the iPhone exist the following technologies: mobile telephony (radio frequencies); computer chip makers; data transmission that includes Internet connections through telecom providers and ISPs; transaction systems and banking networks; digital voice, image and sound codecs; and GPS, to name a few (Irvine, “Deblackboxing Technology,” slide 36).

All of these processes are dependent upon or are the result of “institutions/regulatory regimes/patents/licenses” that originate within “business/economic ecosystems/manufacturers” and are shaped by (and in turn shape) “demographics/markets/social and cultural practices” (Irvine, slide 36).

So what, the average user says, I like my iPhone because it just works. I am free to use my mobile device as I choose.

Not so fast, says Irvine.

“We say the user ‘plays music on the iPhone’—but the user has no agency or experience apart from the system operations, software prompts, and a complex background system of other agencies and mediations…” (Irvine, slide 43).

I use my iPhone as I see fit but its operation far exceeds my comprehension; its inner workings determine my experience. Mobile devices, many believe, make life easier, but in many ways we’re simply blind to the fact that hidden worlds are operating before and over us—worlds far too complex to put a finger on.

And so we worship the iPhone for all that we see it doing and all that it conceals from us. Arthur C. Clarke was on to something when he wrote in 1962 that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” That we convince ourselves we’re in charge of our gadgets is the real trick.