Time for a new rhythm: I will send newsletters three times a week (instead of the current two), on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The Monday essay will be an opener, raising questions and floating balloons for the future; in short, giving us pointers to continue our reading of Eswar Prasad and Niall Ferguson’s books on Money, Bolter’s book on Reality Media and Chalmers’ book on Reality+: four tomes split evenly between “money” and “reality.”
An crisscross reading of these four books will be the focus of Wednesday’s post and the at the end of the week, I’ll open a discussion thread like I did last Friday. The books might change as winter turns to spring, but the format will remain the same - when I am done with one tome, I will switch to another from my anti-library. That’s how I plan on grasping the fundamental question.
Fundamental Question: What if everything were Media?
Order & Chaos
My Delhi childhood was mostly peaceful & boring, but on occasion the veneer of civilization broke down. The day Indira Gandhi was assassinated was one of those occasions. We were interrupted in the middle of art class, asked to pack our bags and go home. An eerie silence settled on the streets as we shut our doors and sat glued to our TVs and radios.
The next morning, mobs were about, electoral rolls in hand.
That curly haired fellow who lorded it over a small gang was in it, wearing a white kurta-pajama declaring his Congress colors. I spotted other known faces, men who worked the streets and shops nearby. They weren’t strolling or running or marching like I had seen people move their feet. Instead, they swarmed and prowled in fits and starts. And when the order came, they rushed towards their destination, a flock of predators circling their prey.
The house across the street from me belonged to Sikhs. It was empty, neighbors having taken the family into protection. The mob pelted stones at the windows. I had broken glasses playing cricket, but this wholesale shattering had another pulse. An advance guard broke the door and everyone stormed inside; a few minutes later, men came streaming one by one, some carrying furniture and others carrying electronics. One man stood out from the passing crowd: he had an enormous TV on one shoulder while using his free arm to fend off others who too wanted the idiot box. That melee within the melee turned a corner and vanished into the daytime darkness.
Soon, nothing was left to loot and the only the mob leaders were left. They reentered the house with kerosene cans. After they were done and back on the street, some threw burning cloths wrapped around stones through a broken window. Soon, the house was ablaze while neighbors tried - feebly - to douse the flames. They wouldn’t dare to be serious in their efforts. The mob moved on to the next Sikh house on the street, where a fresh batch of rioters waited for their TVs.
And where were the police? Standing in a posse at the corner of the street, making sure no one stopped the violence.
If Partition was independent India’s original sin, 1984 was its fall, when it was made clear that state sponsored genocidal violence was possible in the heart of the nation’s capital, that one community could be isolated and turned into the enemy, living under the ‘sign of the sword,’ subject to arbitrary violence without any hope of justice.
We have since expanded the sign of the sword to many others and not just in India. Much of the violence and authoritarianism throughout the world since the 90s is due to the co-evolution of our societies with media technologies. The internet was advertised as a new source of democratic organization, but has since become an agent of turmoil. Carrot and stick, right hand and left hand, yin and yang - whatever you call it: the very instruments of order shade into chaos.
The Nature of Order
Where does order come from, where is it going, what instruments and institutions sustain the order we see around us? And: what happens when it breaks down? Does chaos have patterns or is each departure from order unique1? These are old puzzles about Dharma, ‘that which upholds the world.’
The Fundamental Question
We thread the world in many colors: the economic order by markets, the political order by states and serving both masters - the order of text, of memos, documents, manuscripts etc, the order of money, of cash, banks, budgets and allocations and the order of violence, of guns and bombs. Text, coin and guns are the media through which the market & state order is conveyed, but what if they were the order itself?
Fundamental Question Repeated: What if everything were Media?
What if we took that question seriously? We are familiar with a caricatured version of this claim already; for example, if the Matrix were real and we were all living inside a simulation, then everything would be media because:
1. everything would be a simulation and
2. simulations are media.
Simulations are a new media form, and the medium being the message, we are peppered with movies, novels and even scientific treatises claiming our universe is a hologram. But others have ridden their technological horses into the reality sunset before. An ancient version of the Fundamental Question is: what if everything was the WORD? The WORD has two manifestations: one in the metaphysical plane as a ‘cosmic principle’ and the second in the material plane as a cluster of sacred texts. This twinned claim is taken seriously by several influential religious and philosophical traditions.
Elevator pitch: Technology and Theology are combined - there’s the divine WORD and there’s the written WORD.
Barbara Holdredge's book on Veda and Torah examines the 'In the Beginning was the Word' idea across two religious traditions - the Brahminical tradition in India and the Rabbinic Jewish tradition in Israel. She says “each is represented in certain strands of its respective tradition as a multileveled cosmological principle identified with the primordial Word, and while this Word might have found expression on the earthly plane as a concrete corpus of texts, it is not held to be bound by this textual referent.
If you’re Christian, the written word becomes flesh in the body of Christ.
You don’t have to believe a word of this 😛 to acknowledge the profound theological-technological moves that underlie the world → word → flesh transmutations.
I am not a humanist. What I like about 'everything being the WORD' is that the WORD comes first; humans are incidental to the story of the WORD. The Vedas are said to be 'apauruseya,’ i.e., ‘not of a human.’ It’s only with the WORD becoming flesh as a human being that theologically sanctioned humanism takes center stage.
One day, I want to trace the evolution of this deep idea about the word in the nonhuman world; not the ‘history of this deep idea’ since history is a chronicle of human agents and their actions, and that doesn’t work for non-humanists does it? The WORD as an idea has its own dynamics; it mutates after the print & scientific revolutions, so that Galileo is able to say:
Philosophy [nature] is written in that great book which ever is before our eyes -- I mean the universe -- but we cannot understand it if we do not first learn the language and grasp the symbols in which it is written. The book is written in mathematical language, and the symbols are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without whose help it is impossible to comprehend a single word of it; without which one wanders in vain through a dark labyrinth.
The word has become ‘book,’ but equally importantly, Galileo also had ideas on how to fold the universe into the book - through the languages of mathematics. Less known than Galileo's epiphany but equally important to our lived experience is the 'taming of chance,’ the mathematics of risk and uncertainty that also emerged at about the same time and has since been deployed in the service of speculation and markets. Once we start on those parallel paths, we are bound to ask sooner or later: what’s the essence of the language of probabilities and triangles and circles?
code. It's with that understanding that when we say today ‘everything is media’ we have two new tracks:
Metaphysics: everything is code,
Technology: the interverse is everything
Word becomes book, the world becomes the universe, but what happened to the flesh? There’s a line of philosophical inquiry from Kant to Marx to Merleau-Ponty that’s devoted to uncovering the flesh in the modern world. It’s a road we won’t travel this season😔 and in any case, since books have become code, we have to identify the avatars of the world as well as the flesh in a new trinity.
How assimilation works
Does the coded interverse have teeth? Does media subsume existing institutions and instruments of ordering the world? For example: are Nation States media? Is Money media? Are Markets media? For those claims to be believable, we need to show that the 'everything is media’ theory:
1. illuminates & incorporates existing instruments and institutions, i.e., unifies these disparate entities and gives new insights, and
2. incorporates emerging instruments and institutions.
I have mixed feelings about 1 & 2, for they can create new forms of order and unleash new types of chaos. While writing this essay, I chanced upon an obituary for the Catalan-French architect Ricardo Bofill. Bofill’s buildings are known for transforming classical architectural themes into geometric forms, like how he was inspired by the Kasbah Taourirt in Morocco to create a an apartment complex in Spain called La Muralla Roja, the building on the right.
Bofill reimagined a dwelling of the powerful into a democratic residence.
His goal, his son Pablo said in an interview, was “to demonstrate that at a modest cost you can build social housing where every floor is different, where people don’t have to walk down endless corridors, and where different populations can be part of one community.”
Or take this piece of generative art inspired by traditional Chinese landscape painting:
The computer generated version doesn’t match the skill of a great master, but the point isn’t to make something better than what a master can - we aren’t trying to beat world champions at Chess or Go - but approach the past aslant, with gratitude and irreverence, which fosters creativity. It took a click of a button to make another one:
and this twitter thread 👇🏾 tickled me. The faces on the right are synthetic btw.
I imagine growing old with an intelligent muse that will help me create synthetic masterpieces.
But all is not well in futuretown. There’s a recurring dream that the free and open flow of knowledge will end strife for ever or that the universal library will be the meeting point of all cultures and nations. Or more cynically, that people would rather make money than shoot one another. The internet hosts the manifestation of both dreams, and for a while it looked like we will all be content harvesting information for knowledge and profit. But it doesn’t look that way anymore, does it?
Toward the beginning of the great epic, after he was mistreated by Takshaka, the snake king, Uttanka goes to the emperor Janamejaya's court. Recounting how Janamajeya’s father’s died after being bitten by the snake king, Uttanka needled the emperor:
Uttanka: Why do you sit idle while your father's death remains un-avenged?
Janamajeya: What should I do?
Uttanka: Organize a great sacrifice. We will burn every snake in the world.
Much harm comes from malign reason married to unchecked power. Adam Smith thought violence can be tamed by self-interest, that a society of merchants will be peaceful for selfish reasons. If only! Any needle that threads the world can stab and sting.
Two hundred years after Smith, in the flush of cold war victory, the US pushed markets and deregulation everywhere, outsourcing jobs and pauperizing Russia. And if those tragedies weren’t enough, 9/11 provoked the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Nothing like an emperor scorned. But away from the public eye, the malaise was creeping back from Baghdad and Kabul into the streets of Columbus and Pittsburgh.
However idyllic the matrix, a war is raging next to it.
As Tolstoy says in the first line of Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”