Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Elon Musk

A Fuller Life

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I’m pleased to announce that I’ve finally figured out the subject of my next book, which will be a biography of the architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably know how much Fuller means to me, and I’m looking forward to giving him the comprehensive portrait that he deserves. (Honestly, that’s putting it mildly. I’ve known for over a week that I’ll have a chance to tackle this project, and I still can’t quite believe that it’s really happening. And I’m especially happy that my current publisher has agreed to give me a shot at it.) At first glance, this might seem like a departure from my previous work, but it presents an opportunity to explore some of the same themes from a different angle, and to explore how they might play out in the real world. The timelines of the two projects largely coincide, with a group of subjects who were affected by the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and the social upheavals of the sixties. All of them had highly personal notions about the fate of America, and Fuller used physical artifacts much as Campbell, Asimov, and Heinlein employed science fiction—to prepare their readers for survival in an era of perpetual change. Fuller’s wife, Anne, played an unsung role in his career that recalls many of the women in Astounding. Like Campbell, he approached psychology as a category of physics, and he hoped to turn the prediction of future trends into a science in itself. His skepticism of governments led him to conclude that society should be changed through design, not political institutions, and like many science fiction writers, he acted as if all disciplines could be reduced to subsets of engineering. And for most of his life, he insisted that complicated social problems could be solved through technology.

Most of his ideas were expressed through the geodesic dome, the iconic work of structural design that made him famous—and I hope that this book will be as much about the dome as about Fuller himself. It became a universal symbol of the space age, and his reputation as a futurist may have been founded largely on the fact that his most recognizable achievement instantly evoked the landscape of science fiction. From the beginning, the dome was both an elegant architectural conceit and a potent metaphor. The concept of a hemispherical shelter that used triangular elements to enclose the maximum amount of space had been explored by others, but Fuller was the first to see it as a vehicle for social change. With design principles that could be scaled up or down without limitation, it could function as a massive commercial pavilion or as a house for hippies. (Ken Kesey dreamed of building a geodesic dome to hold one of his acid tests.) It could be made out of plywood, steel, or cardboard. A dome could be cheaply assembled by hand by amateur builders, which encouraged experimentation, and its specifications could be laid out in a few pages and shared for free, like the modern blueprints for printable houses. It was a hackable, open-source machine for living that reflected a set of tools that spoke to the same men and women who were teaching themselves how to code. As I noted here recently, a teenager named Jaron Lanier, who was living in a tent with his father on an acre of desert in New Mexico, used nothing but the formulas in Lloyd Kahn’s Domebook to design and build a house that he called “Earth Station Lanier.” Lanier, who became renowned years later as the founder of virtual reality, never got over the experience. He recalled decades later: “I loved the place; dreamt about it while sleeping inside it.”

During his lifetime, Fuller was one of the most famous men in America, and he managed to become an idol to both the establishment and the counterculture. In the three decades since his death, his reputation has faded, but his legacy is visible everywhere. The influence of his geodesic structures can be seen in the Houston Astrodome, at Epcot Center, on thousands of playgrounds, in the dome tents favored by backpackers, and in the emergency shelters used after Hurricane Katrina. Fuller had a lasting impact on environmentalism and design, and his interest in unconventional forms of architecture laid the foundation for the alternative housing movement. His homegrown system of geometry led to insights into the biological structure of viruses and the logic of communications networks, and after he died, he was honored by the discoverers of a revolutionary form of carbon that resembled a geodesic sphere, which became known as fullerene, or the buckyball. And I’m particularly intrigued by his parallels to the later generation of startup founders. During the seventies, he was a hero to the likes of Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, who later featured him prominently in the first “Think Different” commercial, and he was the prototype of the Silicon Valley types who followed. He was a Harvard dropout who had been passed over by the college’s exclusive social clubs, and despite his lack of formal training, he turned himself into an entrepreneur who believed in changing society through innovative products and environmental design. Fuller wore the same outfit to all his public appearances, and his personal habits amounted to an early form of biohacking. (Fuller slept each day for just a few hours, taking a nap whenever he felt tired, and survived mostly on steak and tea.) His closest equivalent today may well be Elon Musk, which tells us a lot about both men.

And this project is personally significant to me. I first encountered Fuller through The Whole Earth Catalog, which opened its first edition with two pages dedicated to his work, preceded by a statement from editor Stewart Brand: “The insights of Buckminster Fuller initiated this catalog.” I was three years old when he died, and I grew up in the shadow of his influence in the Bay Area. The week before my freshman year in high school, I bought a used copy of his book Critical Path, and I tried unsuccessfully to plow through Synergetics. (At the time, this all felt kind of normal, and it’s only when I look back that it seems strange—which tells you a lot about me, too.) Above all else, I was drawn to his reputation as the ultimate generalist, which reflected my idea of what my life should be, and I’m hugely excited by the prospect of returning to him now. Fuller has been the subject of countless other works, but never a truly authoritative biography, which is a project that meets both Susan Sontag’s admonition that a writer should try to be useful and the test that I stole from Lin-Manuel Miranda: “What’s the thing that’s not in the world that should be in the world?” Best of all, the process looks to be tremendously interesting for its own sake—I think it’s going to rewire my brain. It also requires an unbelievable amount of research. To apply the same balanced, fully sourced, narrative approach to his life that I tried to take for Campbell, I’ll need to work through all of Fuller’s published work, a mountain of primary sources, and what might literally be the largest single archive for any private individual in history. I know from experience that I can’t do it alone, and I’m looking forward to seeking help from the same kind of brain trust that I was lucky to have for Astounding. Those of you who have stuck with this blog should be prepared to hear a lot more about Fuller over the next three years, but I wouldn’t be doing this at all if I didn’t think that you might find it interesting. And who knows? He might change your life, too.

Written by nevalalee

November 16, 2018 at 8:50 am

Forward the foundation

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On February 6, which already seems like a lifetime ago, the private company SpaceX conducted a successful launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket, which some enthusiasts hope will eventually serve as the vehicle for a manned mission to Mars. Its dummy payload consisted of Elon Musk’s personal Tesla Roadster, permanently mounted to the second stage, which is currently orbiting the sun. A mannequin dressed as an astronaut, “Starman,” sits in the driver’s seat, and its stereo system was set to continuously play David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Even at the time, it struck me as a resplendently tacky gesture—which may have been the whole point—and in retrospect, it feels like a transitional moment for Musk, who would never again be able to take his uncritical press coverage for granted. Of all the comments that it inspired, the most prescient may have been from the space archaeologist Alice Gorman, who wrote on The Conversation:

The sports car in orbit symbolizes both life and death. Through the body of the car, Musk is immortalized in the vacuum of space. The car is also an armor against dying, a talisman that quells a profound fear of mortality…The red sports car symbolizes masculinity—power, wealth and speed—but also how fragile masculinity is. Stereotypically, the red sports car is the accessory of choice in the male midlife crisis, which men use to rebel against perceived domestication.

On another level, the launch also served as a nerd’s version of the gold record on the Voyager spacecraft, loaded with pop culture signifiers that wouldn’t have made it through the approval process at NASA. Apart from the David Bowie song, its cargo included a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the glove compartment, along with a matching towel and a Don’t Panic sign on the dashboard, as well as a secret payload. After the launch, it was revealed that the roadster also included a tiny quartz optical disk, designed to last for billions of years, that could theoretically store every book ever written. In the end, it ended up carrying just three. As Nova Spivack, a founder of the Arch Mission Foundation, explained in a blog post:

Our goal…is to permanently archive human knowledge for thousands to billions of years. We exist to preserve and disseminate humanity’s knowledge across time and space, for the benefit of future generations. To accomplish this we have begun building special Arch libraries (pronounced: “Arks”). Our first Arch libraries are data crystals that last billions of years. We plan to use many media types over time however—whatever material is the best available for the goal. We are very happy to announce that our first Arch library, containing the Isaac Asimov Foundation trilogy, was carried as payload on today’s SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch, en route to permanent orbit around the Sun.

Technically, the survival of Asimov’s work isn’t quite as assured as that of the Voyager gold record—it will be annihilated, along with everything else, when the sun’s red giant phase reaches the orbit of Mars in about seven billion years. (This might seem like a meaningless distinction, but I also suspect that Asimov would have been the first to make it.) Yet it’s still a remarkable tribute, and the way in which the Foundation trilogy ended up in space is instructive in itself. In his post, Spiwack writes:

Asimov’s Foundation series was the inspiration for the Arch Mission Foundation, many years ago when we first conceived of this project. It is a metaphor for what we hope this can become, and it is the perfect cornerstone as our mission begins…The series’ protagonist, Hari Seldon, endeavors to preserve and expand upon all human culture and knowledge through a 30,000 year period of turmoil. We felt this was a very fitting first payload to include in the Arch…This truly can evolve into Asimov’s vision of an Encyclopedia Galactica someday — an encyclopedia containing all the knowledge accumulated by a galaxy-spanning civilization.

In an interview with Mashable, Spiwack adds that he loved the Foundation books as a teenager, and that they were “in the air around MIT” when he did summer research there in college. Sending the disk to space wasn’t originally part of the plan, but, as the article notes, it may have influenced the choice of texts: “[Spiwack had] heard Elon Musk loved the trilogy too, and maybe he’d be able to press one of the five disks into the SpaceX founder’s hands some day.”

I’m in favor of any effort to preserve information in a lasting form for future generations, even if the impulse reflects a midlife crisis that we’re experiencing as a society as a whole—a life stage, which spans decades, in which we’re forced to contemplate the choices that we’ve made as a species. (Arch’s true predecessor isn’t the Voyager record, but the Rosetta Project of the Long Now Foundation, which has developed a nickel disk that can store microscopic etchings of thousands of pages.) And such projects are always about more than they seem. Even in the original story “Foundation,” the Encyclopedia Galactica is nothing but an elaborate mislead, as Hari Seldon himself reveals at the end:

The Encyclopedia Foundation, to begin with, is a fraud, and always has been…It is a fraud in the sense that neither I nor my colleagues care at all whether a single volume of the Encyclopedia is ever published. It has served its purpose, since by it…we attracted the hundred thousand scientists necessary for our scheme, and by it we managed to keep them preoccupied while events shaped themselves, until it was too late for any of them to draw back.

This is very far from what Spivack calls “Asimov’s vision of an Encyclopedia Galactica…containing all the knowledge accumulated by a galaxy-spanning civilization.” But the unconscious motive might well be the same. When you assemble people for this kind of project, the reasoning goes, there might be interesting consequences that you can’t predict in advance—and I confess that I sort of believe this. “We really just did it as a test,” Spivack said of the disk to Mashable. “If we’d known it would go to space, we would have put more stuff on it.”

The Illuminatus

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Over the last few months, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about Robert Anton Wilson, the late author whom I’d be comfortable describing as one of my intellectual heroes. There was a time when I seriously considered writing a book about his life, and I’m not sure that I won’t try it eventually. Wilson may not have had the range or the depth of the greatest science fiction writers, but at his best, he was at least their equal as a craftsman, infinitely funnier, and probably more sane. He was one of the few people to ever make it seem cool to be an agonistic, and his skepticism, which was genuine, makes much of what goes by that name these days seem like its own form of closemindedness. Wilson’s stated goal, which shouldn’t diminish his considerable merits as a pure entertainer, was “to try to get people into a state of generalized agnosticism, not agnosticism about God alone but agnosticism about everything.” He achieved this, notably, not by preaching to the converted or by humorlessly attacking those with whom he disagreed, but by constructing elegant intellectual games that he presented with such a straight face that you weren’t sure whether or not he was kidding. The most famous is deservedly the 23 enigma, in which he followed William S. Burroughs in “finding” that number in everything from biblical chronology to the life of the gangster Dutch Schultz. (It’s been a while since I was conscious of it operating in my own life, but I notice now that Astounding is scheduled to be released on October 23, which is the anniversary of the day on which Schultz was shot.)

But what I like the most about Wilson, who was supremely confident and stylish on the page, is that he knew that he didn’t have all the answers. Oddly enough, this isn’t always true within science fiction, which deals by definition in uncertainty. The four subjects of Astounding could be infuriatingly sure of themselves, and unlike Campbell or Heinlein, when Wilson said he only wanted to raise questions, you could believe him. His attitude didn’t reflect a lack of intelligence, rigor, or strong opinions, but the exact opposite. The 23 enigma itself is a virtuoso piece of performance art on both the potential and the limits of cleverness, while in The Illuminatus Trilogy, Wilson and Robert Shea say of the related Law of Five:

All phenomena are directly or indirectly related to the number five, and this relationship can always be demonstrated, given enough ingenuity on the part of the demonstrator…That’s the very model of what a true scientific law must always be: a statement about how the human mind relates to the cosmos.

Wilson’s ingenuity shines through every page that he ever wrote, and he had such an abundance of it that he became intensely skeptical of where it led. As a result, he never used his position of authority to present his ideas as authoritative—which is a temptation that few other science fiction writers have managed to resist.

And when you look at Wilson’s actual beliefs, what you find can be a little surprising. He opens the revised edition of Cosmic Trigger, which is probably his single best book, what seems like a definitive statement: “Many people still think I ‘believe’ some of the metaphors and models employed here. I therefore want to make it even clearer than ever before that I DO NOT BELIEVE ANYTHING.” For once, however, he’s being disingenuous. Wilson may not believe anything, but he’s come to some provisional conclusions about what matters, and you find them throughout his work. For instance, he writes of the editorial stance of Playboy magazine, where he used to run the letters column: “This position is straight old-fashioned mind-your-own-business John Stuart Mill libertarianism, and (since that is my philosophy as well as Hefner’s) I enjoyed the work immensely.” A few pages later, he writes of his introduction to the underground writer Kerry Thornley:

We were both opposed to every form of violence or coercion against individuals, whether practiced by governments or by people who claimed to be revolutionaries…At times we discussed free-floating libertarian communes in international waters, which in my case gave birth to the anarchist submarine fantasy in Illuminatus, and, later, to enthusiastic support of the Space Migration plans of [Timothy] Leary and Prof. Gerard O’Neill.

Wilson describes Cosmic Trigger itself as an account of “a process of deliberately induced brain change,” and much of the book is devoted to a sympathetic discussion of Leary’s “SMI²LE” program: “SM (Space Migration) + I² (Intelligence Increase) + LE (Life Extension).”

In other words, Wilson was a libertarian transhumanist with an interest in space travel, seasteading, and life extension, including cryonics. You know what that sounds like to me? It sounds like Peter Thiel—and I can’t stand Peter Thiel. And the difference isn’t just that the latter is a billionaire preparing his own survival plan, although that’s certainly part of it. I’m not a libertarian, but I have nothing against the other elements in that program, as long as they’re combined with an awareness of other urgent problems and of how most people want to live their lives. Yet it really comes down again to the question of uncertainty. Our most prominent contemporary futurists can come across as curiously resistant to questioning, doubt, or criticism—which Wilson recognized as central to such thinking. When you’re talking about immortality, space colonization, and brain engineering, it seems reasonable to start by acknowledging how little we know or can foresee, as well as the strong possibility that we might be totally wrong. It might also help to show a sense of humor. And I frankly don’t associate any of these qualities with most of the public figures driving our current conversation about the future, who hate and resent being questioned. (It’s impossible to imagine Wilson ever lashing out with the toxic insecurity that we’ve seen in Elon Musk, who looks smaller and more Trumpian by the day.) It’s also significant that neither Wilson nor Leary were in a position to benefit financially from the changes that they advocated. We desperately need to think about the future, but we can’t afford to be humorless about it, and in these troubled times, I miss the man who was able to write on his blog five days before his death: “I look forward without dogmatic optimism but without dread. I love you all and I deeply implore you to keep the lasagna flying. Please pardon my levity, I don’t see how to take death seriously. It seems absurd.”

Written by nevalalee

July 16, 2018 at 9:12 am

Critical thinking

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When you’re a technology reporter, as my wife was for many years, you quickly find that your subjects have certain expectations about the coverage that you’re supposed to be providing. As Benjamin Wallace wrote a while back in New York magazine:

“A smart young person in the Valley thinks being a reporter is basically being a PR person,” says one tech journalist. “Like, We have news to share, we’d like to come and tell you about it.” Reporters who write favorably about companies receive invitations to things; critics don’t. “They’re very thin-skinned,” says another reporter. “On Wall Street, if you call them a douchebag, they’ve already heard seventeen worse things in the last hour. Here, if you criticize a company, you’re criticizing the spirit of innovation.”

Mike Isaac of the New York Times recently made a similar observation in an interview with Recode: “One of the perceptions [of tech entrepreneurs] is A) Well, the press is slanted against us in some way [and] B) Why aren’t they appreciating how awesome we are? And like all these other things…I think a number of companies, including and especially Uber, get really upset when you don’t recognize the gravitas of their genius and the scope of how much they have changed.” Along the same lines, you also sometimes hear that reporters should be “supporting” local startups—which essentially means any company not based in Silicon Valley or New York—or businesses run by members of traditionally underrepresented groups.

As a result, critical coverage of any kind can be seen as a betrayal. But it isn’t a reporter’s job to “support” anything, whether it’s a city, the interests of particular stakeholders, or the concept of innovation itself—and this applies to much more than just financial journalism. In a perceptive piece for Vox, Alissa Wilkinson notes that similar pressures apply to movie critics. She begins with the example of Ocean’s 8, which Cate Blanchett, one of the film’s stars, complained had been reviewed through a “prism of misunderstanding” by film critics, who are mostly white and male. And Wilkinson responds with what I think is a very important point:

They’re not wrong about the makeup of the pool of critics. And this discussion about the demographic makeup of film critics is laudable and necessary. But the way it’s being framed has less helpful implications: that the people whose opinions really count are those whom the movie is “for.” Not only does that ignore how most movies actually make their money, but it says a lot about Hollywood’s attitude toward criticism, best revealed in Blanchett’s statement. She compared studio’s “support” of a film—which means, essentially, a big marketing budget—with critics’ roles in a film’s success, which she says are a “really big part of the equation.” In that view, critics are mainly useful in how they “support” movies the industry thinks they should like because of the demographic group and audience segment into which they fall.

This has obvious affinities to the attitude that we often see among tech startups, perhaps because they’re operating under similar conditions as Hollywood. They’re both risky, volatile fields that depend largely on perception, which is shaped by coverage by a relatively small pool of influencers. It’s true of books as well. And it’s easy for all of them to fall into the trap of assuming that critics who aren’t being supportive somehow aren’t doing their jobs.

But that isn’t true, either. And it’s important to distinguish between the feelings of creators, who can hardly be expected to be objective, and those of outside players with an interest in an enterprise’s success or failure, which can be emotional as much as financial. There are certain movies or startups that many of us want to succeed because of what they say about an entire industry or culture. Black Panther was one, and it earned a reception that exceeded the hopes of even the most fervent fan. A Wrinkle in Time was another, and it didn’t, although I liked that movie a lot. But it isn’t a critic’s responsibility to support a work of art for such reasons. As Wilkinson writes:

Diversifying that pool [of critics] won’t automatically lead to the results the industry might like. Critics who belong to the same demographic group shouldn’t feel as if they need to move in lockstep with a movie simply because someone like them is represented in it, or because the film’s marketing is aimed at them. Women critics shouldn’t feel as if they need to ‘support’ a film telling a woman’s story, any more than men who want to appear to be feminists should. Black and Latinx and Asian critics shouldn’t be expected to love movies about black and Latinx and Asian people as a matter of course.

Wilkinson concludes: “The best reason to diversify criticism is so that when Hollywood puts out movies for women, or movies for people of color, it doesn’t get lazy.” I agree—and I’d add that a more diverse pool of critics would also discourage Hollywood from being lazy when it makes movies for anyone.

Diversity, in criticism as in anything else, is good for the groups directly affected, but it’s equally good for everybody. Writing of Min Jin Lee’s novel Pachinko, the author Eve L. Ewing recently said on Twitter: “Hire Asian-American writers/Korean-American writers/Korean folks with different diasporic experiences to write about Pachinko, be on panels about it, own reviews of it, host online roundtables…And then hire them to write about other books too!” That last sentence is the key. I want to know what Korean-American writers have to say about Pachinko, but I’d be just as interested in their thoughts on, say, Jonathan Franzen’s Purity. And the first step is acknowledging what critics are actually doing, which isn’t supporting particular works of art, advancing a cause, or providing recommendations. It’s writing reviews. When most critics write anything, they thinking primarily about the response it will get from readers and how it fits into their career as a whole. You may not like it, but it’s pointless to ignore it, or to argue that critics should be held to a standard that differs from anyone else trying to produce decent work. (I suppose that one requirement might be a basic respect or affection for the medium that one is criticizing, but that isn’t true of every critic, either.) Turning to the question of diversity, you find that expanding the range of critical voices is worthwhile in itself, just as it is for any other art form, and regardless of its impact on other works. When a piece of criticism or journalism is judged for its effects beyond its own boundaries, we’re edging closer to propaganda. Making this distinction is harder than it looks, as we’ve recently seen with Elon Musk, who, like Trump, seems to think that negative coverage must be the result of deliberate bias or dishonesty. Even on a more modest level, a call for “support” may seem harmless, but it can easily turn into a belief that you’re either with us or against us. And that would be a critical mistake.

A season of disenchantment

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A few days ago, Matt Groening announced that his new animated series, Disenchantment, will premiere in August on Netflix. Under other circumstances, I might have been pleased by the prospect of another show from the creator of The Simpsons and Futurama—not to mention producers Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein—and I expect that I’ll probably watch it. At the moment, however, it’s hard for me to think about Groening at all without recalling his recent reaction to the long overdue conversation around the character of Apu. When Bill Keveny of USA Today asked earlier this month if he had any thoughts on the subject, Groening replied: “Not really. I’m proud of what we do on the show. And I think it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended.” It was a profoundly disappointing statement, particularly after Hank Azaria himself had expressed his willingness to step aside from the role, and it was all the more disillusioning coming from a man whose work has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. As I noted in my earlier post, the show’s unfeeling response to this issue is painful because it contradicts everything that The Simpsons was once supposed to represent. It was the smartest show on television; it was simply right about everything; it offered its fans an entire metaphorical language. And as the passage of time reveals that it suffered from its own set of blinders, it doesn’t just cast doubt on the series and its creators, but on the viewers, like me, who used it for so long as an intellectual benchmark.

And it’s still an inescapable part of my personal lexicon. Last year, for instance, when Elon Musk defended his decision to serve on Trump’s economic advisory council, I thought immediately of what Homer says to Marge in “Whacking Day”: “Maybe if I’m part of that mob, I can help steer it in wise directions.” Yet it turns out that I might have been too quick to give Musk—who, revealingly, was the subject of an adulatory episode of The Simpsons—the benefit of the doubt. A few months later, in response to reports of discrimination at Tesla, he wrote an email to employees that included this remarkable paragraph:

If someone is a jerk to you, but sincerely apologizes, it is important to be thick-skinned and accept that apology. If you are part of a lesser represented group, you don’t get a free pass on being a jerk yourself. We have had a few cases at Tesla were someone in a less represented group was actually given a job or promoted over more qualified highly represented candidates and then decided to sue Tesla for millions of dollars because they felt they weren’t promoted enough. That is obviously not cool.

The last two lines, which were a clear reference to the case of A.J. Vandermeyden, tell us more about Musk’s idea of a “sincere apology” than he probably intended. And when Musk responded this week to criticism of Tesla’s safety and labor practices by accusing the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting of bias and proposing a site where users could provide a “credibility score” for individual journalists, he sounded a lot like the president whose circle of advisers he only reluctantly left.

Musk, who benefited from years of uncritical coverage from people who will forgive anything as long as you talk about space travel, seems genuinely wounded by any form of criticism or scrutiny, and he lashes out just as Trump does—by questioning the motives of ordinary reporters or sources, whom he accuses of being in the pocket of unions or oil companies. Yet he’s also right to be worried. We’re living in a time when public figures and institutions are going to be judged by their responses to questions that they would rather avoid, which isn’t likely to change. And the media itself is hardly exempt. For the last two weeks, I’ve been waiting for The New Yorker to respond to stories about the actions of two of its most prominent contributors, Junot Díaz and the late David Foster Wallace. I’m not even sure what I want the magazine to do, exactly, except make an honest effort to grapple with the situation, and maybe even offer a valuable perspective, which is why I read it in the first place. (In all honesty, it fills much the same role in my life these days as The Simpsons did in my teens. As Norman Mailer wrote back in the sixties: “Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people in the most established parts of the middle class kill their quickest impulses before they dare to act in such a way as to look ridiculous to the private eye of their taste whose style has been keyed by the eye of The New Yorker.”) As the days passed without any comment, I assumed that it was figuring out how to tackle an admittedly uncomfortable topic, and I didn’t expect it to rush. Now that we’ve reached the end of the month without any public engagement at all, however, I can only conclude that it’s deliberately ignoring the matter in hopes that it will go away. I hope that I’m wrong. But so far, it’s a discouraging omission from a magazine whose stories on Harvey Weinstein and Eric Schneiderman implicitly put it at the head of an entire movement.

The New Yorker has evidently discovered that it’s harder to take such stands when they affect people whom we know or care about— which only means that it can get in line. Our historical moment has forced some of our smartest individuals and organizations to learn how to take criticism as well as to give it, and it’s often those whose observations about others have been the sharpest who turn out to be singularly incapable, as Clarice Starling once put it, when it comes to pointing that high-powered perception on themselves. (In this list, which is constantly being updated, I include Groening, Musk, The New Yorker, and about half the cast of Arrested Development.) But I can sympathize with their predicament, because I feel it nearly every day. My opinion of Musk has always been rather mixed, but nothing can dislodge the affection and gratitude that I feel toward the first eight seasons of The Simpsons, and I expect to approvingly link to an article in The New Yorker this time next week. But if our disenchantment forces us to question the icons whose influence is fundamental to our conception of ourselves, then perhaps it will have been worth the pain. Separating our affection for the product from those who produced it is a problem that we all have to confront, and it isn’t going to get any easier. As I was thinking about this post yesterday, the news broke that Morgan Freeman had been accused by multiple women of inappropriate behavior. In response, he issued a statement that read in part: “I apologize to anyone who felt uncomfortable or disrespected.” It reminded me a little of another man who once grudgingly said of some remarks that were caught on tape: “I apologize if anyone was offended.” But it sounds a lot better when you imagine it in Morgan Freeman’s voice.

Written by nevalalee

May 25, 2018 at 9:21 am

The Rotary Club Booster

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L. Ron Hubbard was unquestionably one of the more incredible figures of the twentieth century, but popular culture, which hasn’t been shy about going after Scientology itself, has tended to steer clear of his life and personality as a source for stories. One exception is Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which is less about Hubbard than an electrifying mediation on the nature of dianetic auditing. Another is Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash, which features a villain, whom we glimpse only briefly, with the evocative name of L. Bob Rife. Hubbard isn’t the only inspiration here—there are equally obvious affinities to Ted Turner—but many of the parallels are intriguing. Rife is a seafaring media mogul who starts a religion using a form of mind control based on the phenomenon of glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. It perpetuates itself through a franchise of churches called Reverend Wayne’s Pearly Gates, as the lead character, Hiro, explains:

[Rife] constructed a string of self-supporting religious franchises all over the world, and used his university, and its Metaverse campus, to crank out tens of thousands of missionaries, who fanned out all over the Third World and began converting people by the hundreds of thousands…L. Bob Rife has taken xenoglossia and perfected it, turned it into a science…[His followers] will act out L. Bob Rife’s instructions as though they have been programmed to. And right now, he has about a million of these people poised off the California coast.

And Hiro concludes darkly: “L. Bob Rife’s glossolalia cult is the most successful religion since the creation of Islam.”

A big chunk of Snow Crash is devoted to a reinterpretation of Sumerian religion as a form of neurolinguistic programming, most of which is delivered in the form of long conversations between the characters. (This is actually the least successful part of the novel—it seems to be trying to pull off what Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea did in The Illuminatus Trilogy, but it ends up sounding more like an anticipation of Dan Brown, complete with people who say things like “Bear with me.”) The central figure is the mythological hero Enki, who developed a linguistic virus that led to the origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind. After stumbling across this fact, another character in the novel, Lagos, begins to look for additional information in the remains of cuneiform tablets:

The surviving Sumerian myths exist in fragments and have a bizarre quality. Lagos compared them to the imaginings of a febrile two-year-old. Entire sections of them simply cannot be translated—the characters are legible and well-known, but when put together they do not say anything that leaves an imprint on the modern mind…There is a great deal of monotonous repetition. There is also a fair amount of what Lagos described as “Rotary Club Boosterism”—scribes extolling the superior virtue of their city over some other city.

Eventually, Lagos manages to reconstruct the original virus, which Rife then steals for his own benefit. To stretch the analogy a bit, you could say that the Enki myth plays much the same role for Rife that the Xenu material does for Hubbard, except that within the plot of Snow Crash, it happens to be real.

But the part that really catches my eye is the odd reference to religion as a form of “Rotary Club Boosterism.” If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might remember that this is remarkably close to what the journalist William Bolitho says of Muhammad in his book Twelve Against the Gods:

The start of Mahomet’s adventure, or in its more usual synonym, the basis of the Mahomedan religion, is this preoccupation of his with the fortunes of his native town. Squeamish pedantry may object to the triviality of the phrase which fits nevertheless with a precision no other can give: Mahomet was a “home-town booster,” and this conception will unlock the many obscurities of his life and his doctrine, with which the most subtle theological speculations and the most careful minutiae of history are incapable of coping with. The door by which he enters is this: “How can we attract the whole world, at least the whole of Arabia, yearly to the Ka’ba?” And the vision of One God, greatest common denominator of religion, is the solution, not the prime inspiration. In fact Mahomedanism is a religion, because Mecca’s problem, as a religious town, was religious. The rhapsodies, the epilepsies of the man while he is still struggling toward his invention, are the symptoms of a process which they sometimes assist and sometimes retard; if they were taken as analogous to the painful mental straining of a Rotarian enthusiast racking his brain for a world-beating slogan for the town of his heart it might be irreverent…but it would not be a joke; nor a mistake.

The italics are mine. And one of Bolitho’s fans was none other than L. Ron Hubbard, who once described Muhammad in a lecture as “a good small-town booster.”

The use of the phrase “Rotary Club Boosterism” in this context is so peculiar that I can hardly help concluding that Stephenson is quoting Bolitho. As far as I can tell, he’s never made this connection in public, although it isn’t hard to believe that he would have read Twelve Against the Gods, since his appetite for this kind of material seems limitless. (The fact that Elon Musk is also a big fan of the book makes me want to trace its subterranean passage from the hand of one futurist to another, which would be an adventure in itself.) I don’t know Stephenson’s work well enough to talk about it further, so I’m just going to throw it out here in case someone else finds it useful—which brings us, in a way, back to Snow Crash. Hiro’s job, as described by Stephenson, is that of a “freelance stringer” who assembles and distributes information like this for its own sake:

The business is a simple one. Hiro gets information. It may be gossip, videotape, audiotape, a fragment of a computer disk, a xerox of a document. It can even be a joke based on the latest highly publicized disaster. He uploads it to the CIC database—the Library, formerly the Library of Congress, but no one calls it that anymore…Millions of other CIC stringers are uploading millions of other fragments at the same time. CIC’s clients, mostly large corporations and Sovereigns, rifle through the Library looking for useful information, and if they find a use for something that Hiro put in it, Hiro gets paid.

Stephenson finishes: “[Hiro] has been learning the hard way that 99 percent of the information in the library never gets used at all.” Which is probably true of this blog, too. But here’s one more piece.

Two against the gods

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On December 9, 1952, L. Ron Hubbard delivered a lecture in Philadelphia titled “What’s Wrong With This Universe: A Working Package for the Auditor.” It’s even harder than usual to figure what he’s trying to say here, but it appears to be a description of the experiences that an individual might have “between lives,” a transitional phase in which he’s vulnerable to implanted ideas and hypnotism that can influence his goals in his next incarnation. Hubbard described a typical incident:

There was a big building. He was curious, he was very curious, and he…he wanted to know what was in the big building. It was very fancy…He’d heard some mystery had taken place in there so he goes in to take a look. It’s wide open, it’s very easy to walk into, and what does he find? He finds this enormous stone hanging suspended in the middle of the room. This is an incident called the Emanator. By the way, and this thing is, by the way, the source of the Mohammedan lodestone that they have hanging down there that—when Mohammed decided to be a good small-town booster in Kansas, Middle East, or something of that sort. By the way, the only reason he mocked that thing up is the trade wasn’t good in his home town. That’s right. You read the life of Mohammed. And he’s got a black one and it’s sort of hung between the ceiling and the floor and, I don’t know, it—maybe it’s called a casbah or something. Anyway, that thing is a mockup of the Emanator. The Emanator is bright, not black.

Hubbard would frequently suggest that other religions were misreadings of “implants” that the disembodied thetans received before attaching themselves to human hosts, which he casually extended here to the Ka’bah in Mecca. But this wasn’t the point of the lecture, and he quickly moved on.

This aside has received a fair amount of attention because it’s one of the few places where Hubbard explicitly mentions Islam. (His treatment of it isn’t much different from his views on Christianity, which he also saw as a distortion of an image implanted by Xenu: “The man on the cross—there was no Christ!”) Perhaps the most striking moment is the curious description of Muhammad as “a good small-town booster,” which certainly sounds like Hubbard—but he didn’t come up with it on his own. In fact, he took it almost verbatim from the book Twelve Against the Gods: The Story of Adventure by the South African journalist William Bolitho, which was published in 1929. Here’s the relevant section, from the chapter “Mahomet,” in full:

The start of Mahomet’s adventure, or in its more usual synonym, the basis of the Mahomedan religion, is this preoccupation of his with the fortunes of his native town. Squeamish pedantry may object to the triviality of the phrase which fits nevertheless with a precision no other can give: Mahomet was a “home-town booster,” and this conception will unlock the many obscurities of his life and his doctrine, with which the most subtle theological speculations and the most careful minutiae of history are incapable of coping with. The door by which he enters is this: “How can we attract the whole world, at least the whole of Arabia, yearly to the Ka’ba?” And the vision of One God, greatest common denominator of religion, is the solution, not the prime inspiration. In fact Mahomedanism is a religion, because Mecca’s problem, as a religious town, was religious. The rhapsodies, the epilepsies of the man while he is still struggling toward his invention, are the symptoms of a process which they sometimes assist and sometimes retard; if they were taken as analogous to the painful mental straining of a Rotarian enthusiast racking his brain for a world-beating slogan for the town of his heart it might be irreverent (we regretfully foreswore reverence at the beginning of these studies) but it would not be a joke; nor a mistake.

And we know that Hubbard read Twelve Against the Gods because he told us so himself, in a lecture that he had delivered just a few days earlier, on December 5, 1952:

There is never a great adventurer who did not end his career upon having discovered the sacred treasure of Peru. Bolitho, good old Bolitho, with his Twelve Against the Gods. It’s a wonderful thing to read—gorgeous! And the introduction of Twelve Against the Gods is one of the best pieces of work I know of, even related to a lot of things, and particularly to this subject.

It’s unclear when Hubbard first encountered it, although the occultist Jack Parsons read it aloud at meetings of the Agape Lodge during the period when the two of them were living together. Three decades later, Hubbard allegedly called it his favorite nonfiction book in response to a questionnaire from the Rocky Mountain News, although his answers were actually written up by his spokesman, who dug up the reference in his lectures. (One of the book’s other fans, interestingly, is Elon Musk, who mentioned it approvingly to a reporter last year, leading to a spike in the price of used copies online. I was lucky enough to find it for two dollars this summer at the Newberry Library Book Fair.) It might be a worthwhile exercise—and maybe I’ll do it one day—to read Bolitho’s book systematically to see where else it comes up in Hubbard’s teachings, particularly in the Philadelphia lectures. But we know for a fact that he read the chapter on Muhammad, a figure with whom he shares some superficial similarities. Hubbard’s early knowledge of Islam came primarily from The Book of a Thousand Nights and One Nights, translated by his hero Sir Richard Francis Burton, who wrote in a footnote:

Mohammed…claimed (and claimed justly) to be the “Seal” or head and end of all Prophets and Prophecy. For note that whether the Arab be held inspired or a mere impostor, no man making the same pretension has moved the world since him. Mr. J. Smith the Mormon (to mention one in a myriad) made a bold attempt and failed.

I don’t want to overemphasize these parallels, but it’s impossible for me to read Bolitho’s take on Muhammad without thinking of Hubbard. When he writes “Mahomedanism is a religion, because Mecca’s problem, as a religious town, was religious,” I’m reminded of the founding of Scientology, which was less the outcome of a coherent plan than a pragmatic solution to a specific set of problems that occurred right around the time that the Philadelphia lectures were delivered. Bolitho writes of a turning point in Muhammad’s career: “The lever of his position is now his own converts, his own past, the picked fanatics.” Hubbard was in exactly the same situation in Phoenix and Philadelphia. And many of the most resonant echoes were yet to come. What Bolitho writes of Muhammad just before the Hegira evokes Hubbard’s doomed dream of sailing the seas with his fleet: “The town-booster…has decided to liquidate, and distribute himself the bonus years of the effort of thinking and unpopularity had won for him; he signals the gods of adventure to stop and let him get down.” And these lines near the end of the chapter are chillingly prophetic:

But Mahomet the adventurer has been swallowed by his adventure, which is now openly independent of his personality…Out of the mass of incoherent writings, cursings, distichs, that he is still pouring out in his old age, half buried under the minutiae of new laws obviously inspired by the domestic bickerings of his harem, there is vaguely visible the plan to which the old man is arrived; the species of vast plunder gang, the Bandit State, in which he will brigade all the faithful, the gigantic enterprise or organized looting of the whole world to which he calls his race.

Hubbard was no Muhammad, but he probably believed that he was, and when he looked around him in the late fifties and early sixties, he would have found little evidence to the contrary. And it would be dangerous to underestimate how much he achieved. As Bolitho writes of such religious adventurers: “They have lived on this little earth like an island, and made up their night fires to scare away the noises of the interstellar dark.”

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