STATE OF THE DISUNION

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The Vancouver Courier, Oct. 16

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SOCIAL NETWORKING A WHIZZ

On our morning walks, my dog Meika ambles next to me with her nose to the ground, enthusiastically sniffing the canine “blogs” posted on trees, shrubs and fence posts. I imagine the comments, archived in cascading style sheets of urine, go something like this:

“Cody was here at 7 a.m.”

“Jasper likes this.”

“This is Shadow. I just ate some grass.”

“Gizmo likes this.”

It took eons for the ancestors of dogs to evolve their pee-mail messaging system. It’s taken less than a decade for human beings to start marking digital territory through social networking. There are similarities. Last time I checked into Facebook, woozy with tryptophan from a Thanksgiving dinner earlier in the evening, it was all fenceposts and shrubs. Like leg-lifting pooches, the posters’ central theme seemed to be, “Here I am! Here I am!”

I know a few people who post with such obsessive frequency that I can’t imagine them relaxing into their constantly updated outings and holidays. I’m so distractible myself, I very rarely spend time on Mark Zuckerberg’s clock-sucker. A few minutes of surfing his site can turn into several hours of missing time. It’s like a sedentary alien abduction, with

Facebook’s tractor beam hijacking your eyeballs and sucking personal information straight through your fingertips.

I could go on about how “Total Information Awareness,” the mass surveillance wet dream of Bush-era neocons, has been outsourced to the private world (by design or default), with many of us spying on ourselves voluntarily, right down to the minutest details of our lives. But that cautionary note is about a half decade too late, what with Edward

Snowden’s leaks about the NSA’s all-seeing panopticon, and all our noses stuck in wide-open mobile devices.

Advances in social networking have moved so fast that Ondi Timinor’s 2009 documentary We Live in Public seems almost quaint now. The film profiles the late ’90s exploits of

Internet pioneer and dot-com millionaire Josh Harris. The “Warhol of webcasting” placed more than 100 willing artists in a huge human terrarium under New York City, with multiple webcams constantly tracking their every movement. For weeks, there was no privacy for anyone in this concrete underworld. Wherever they went — to bed, the toilet, the shower — it was all displayed on monitors dotting the underground space.  

Harris’ disturbing project, called “Quiet: We Live in Public,” was created after he “became interested in controversial human experiments which tested the effects of media and technology on the development of personal identity,” according to an entry in Wikipedia. This included “interrogation artists “trained to psychologically brutalize fellow participants into confessing their most humiliating memories — all on camera. Alcohol and food available were available 24/7 at an 80-foot long dining room table. There was a gun range with a wide selection of arms and ammo available on the floor below.

Within weeks, Harris’s underground scene disintegrated into a rat’s nest of interpersonal conflicts. Police, suspecting it to be some kind of millennium cult, shut down the operation on Jan. 1, 2001.

As a coda to his designed-to-fail “art experiment,” Harris outfitted his apartment with 30 motion-controlled surveillance cameras and 66 microphones to expose he and his girlfriend to months of 24-hour global ogling on weliveinpublic.com. His Manhattan-based Petri dish of auto-surveillance turned predictably rancid. The girlfriend walked and

Harris burned through cash, connections, and any remaining goodwill among potential investors. The former dot-com millionaire decamped to a New England apple farm and then hightailed it to Ethiopia to start anew.

His seeming experiments in sociopathy, presumably designed as a warning, predated the explosion of mobile social networking by nearly a decade. “As time goes by we are going to have our lives increasingly exposed in very personal and intimate ways, and we’ll want that to happen,” he prophesied in the film.

Today we all live in public, though some attempt to control the exposure wisely through privacy settings and limited online activities. The reason social networking sites are as free as a walk around a park is because the product is you — specifically, your personal information. And with so much hyperlinked treats to sniff out, most of us don’t have the time or the inclination to think about who’s at the other end of the leash.

The Vancouver Courier, Oct. 17

THE FREEMEN’S QUIXOTIC CRUSADE

A man in Calgary recently told landlord Rebecca Caverhill that he was a “Freeman-on-the-Land” and that her house was now his “embassy.” Mario Antonacci has since been evicted and arrested, his diplomatic immunity as convincing as a fright wig from a costume shop.

The Freeman-on-the-Land movement appears to be gaining ground in the Canada, the U.K., and the U.S. Its adherents take a unique approach to law and language. They believe statute laws are contractual, and can be voluntarily accepted or rejected by “sovereign citizens” living under “natural law.” Not surprisingly, the practice of such beliefs has led to confrontations with police officers and court judges.

Some of the more adventurous Freemen drive around with hand-drawn licence plates on their motor vehicles, and are intercepted by police when “exercising their right to travel.” When asked for proper documents, the drivers offer papers of their own making, and/or say they are a private entity, not a person. You can find some of these encounters on YouTube.

Freemen insist that birth certificates are actually financial instruments that are sold by the state and traded on the “sea of international commerce,” with your state-defined self as security. They have a special fondness for Admiralty Law, describing a court as a “ship,” its occupants as “passengers,” and insisting that those who exit during a trial or hearing are “men overboard.”

This may sound like an extended Monty Python sketch, but it’s serious stuff to the thousands of people convinced that laws can be abrogated once lawmakers interpret them properly. Yet I have found no evidence of successful Freemen court challenges in any country. (On RationalWiki, the entry for “Freeman successes” is a text-free section featuring a gif of rolling tumbleweeds.)

In a 2012 Supreme Court of Nova Scotia decision on “Her Majesty the Queen vs. Daren Wayne McCormick,” Justice Gerald R. P. Moir rejected the defendant’s appeal to Freeman philosophy to undo his charges for weapons offences and threatening to kill police officers.

“While respect can be shown for the interest of the Freeman in law and legal history, no respect is due for the next level of teaching. They say that an individual who withdraws from the social contract is beyond the jurisdiction of the state, and the courts, to enforce statute law. That is patently false,” wrote Moir in his decision. “This teaching is not only wrong in the sense that it is false. It is wrongful. That is, it is full of wrong.”

Even Alex Jones — a gravel-voiced fixture of libertarian webcasts — rejects Freemen philosophy as “quackery.” I prefer to see it as a unique form of eschatology. That’s a fifty-dollar word assembled from the Greek words eschatos, meaning “last,” and logos, meaning “reason of the word.” It commonly refers to the theological study of the end point/salvation of humanity.

There have been colourful eschatological belief systems across the world for centuries. For example, the Ghost Dance was a prophetic belief system that spread among North American indigenous people in the late 19th century, during the time of their forced relocation onto reservation lands. The correct practice of the dance promised to reunite the living with the spirits of the dead and usher in a golden age for peacefully united tribes. Needless to say, the rituals have failed to achieve their goal in the historical near-term.

A much less violent process of dislocation, involving a half century of increasing income disparities in the U.S., the U.K. — and to a lesser degree Canada — has created a sense of economic desperation and disconnection among the chronically unemployed and the perpetually underpaid. The Freeman movement represents a quixotic effort to resurrect a world — partly but not wholly mythical — predating globalization. This effort involves enacting obscure rituals in courts that lawmakers fail to honour.  

The Freemen’s faith in word-magic about natural law echoes the Ghost Dancers’ belief that circular movements would back-engineer paradise. And while you can’t equate Freemen grievances to the continental destruction of hunter-gatherer/pastoral cultures, you also can’t expect a massive, decades-long transfer of wealth from the middle class to a technocratic elite won’t result in eschatological mass movements. We’d be wise to pay as much attention to the provocation as to the responses.

The Vancouver Courier, Oct. 10

IN DEFENSE OF BOREDOM

In a recent clip from the Conan O’Brien show, comic Louis C.K. ranted about why he won’t let his kids use “toxic” smartphones, and how hi-tech addictions cancel out the benefits of boredom.

“The thing is, you need an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something — that’s what the phones are taking away. It’s the ability to just sit there like this,” he said, tapping his fingers on Conan’s guest couch. “That’s being a person, right?”

If you were born anytime before the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, you probably remember a certain brand of tech-free boredom. In the years before gadgets hijacked lazy afternoons and weekend mornings, there were fewer entertainment options. If today’s media menu is like a smorgasbord on a five-star cruise line, yesterday’s was like a roadside cafe in a dry county, with a thin gruel from network television and a few dozen newsstand magazines. But it wasn’t a complete desert. On the near horizon were brick-and-mortar temples devoted to music, film, and books.

My teenage friends and I warded off the black dog of boredom (we called it ‘Suburbia’) with wisecracks, sports, and boneheaded stunts. We did stupid things in person, without avatars. By the time we were old enough to drive, cassette players were standard features in automobiles, putting George Harrison’s dictum — “The Beatles saved the world from boredom” — in motion. There were enough media options to keep my adolescence from feeling completely Soviet, although most of it was more than a click away. Canadian AM radio was as big a wasteland as television, and it took some legwork to track down obscure bands and performers.  In contrast, I don’t see much chance of serendipity for the over-scheduled, over-stimulated, over-connected kids of today — or opportunity for boredom for that matter.

As someone from Louis C.K.’s demographic, I’m not about to romanticize the long stretches of tedium in my youth. I love the wealth of information and entertainment I can now access instantly. But when I think back to when play was mostly interactive — in the outdoors sense of blue skies and scraped knees — I wonder about the cultural tradeoff, for children and adults alike.

“Sometimes when things clear away, you’re in your car and you go, oh no, here it comes that I’m alone. Like it starts to visit on you, just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad just by being in it,” Louis C.K. observed. A Bruce Springsteen song on the car radio recently set him into a momentary funk, he confessed to Conan. He felt the impulse “get the phone and write hi to 50 people,” but chose instead to let Springsteen’s blue-collar wail hit him “like a truck.”

“I let it come …and I pulled over and I just cried like a bitch. I cried so much and it was beautiful. It was like this beautiful — it was just this — sadness is poetic. You’re lucky to live sad moments.”

There is a word for what the comic experienced: “mindfulness,” a moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. It’s what meditation is all about. Westerners are still much more about becoming than being; when the first wave of Buddhist teachers arrived in North America, they encountered a culture unfamiliar with sitting still for extended periods of time. Students learning to quiet their minds discovered how much negative thought informed their inner dialogues — a first stage in awakening.

Mindfulness doesn’t go well with fractured attention spans, and as consumer technology merges and morphs with our bodies and brains, it’s anyone’s guess whether this will end as a Huxleyan delirium or an Orwellian nightmare. Will our descendents be attention-shattered cyborgs, fully networked into the hive-mind but lacking the lachrymal source code to cry?

As the Swiss psychoanalyst C.G. Jung once observed, “Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.” I suspect technology will both aid and hinder looking inside, in different ways under different circumstances. In any case, it seems we are in the midst of a vast, uncontrolled experiment, using our own kids as raw material.

The only one thing we can say with confidence about the future is that it won’t be boring.

The Vancouver Courier, Oct. 2