Taginterviews

Selections from The Dream Manual Artist Michael Skrtic – Technoccult Interview (Part 2)

Dream Manual Now tell me what I am here for

Selections from the Dream Manual is an “aesthetic grimoire.” On one level, it’s a collection of cut-up texts by Bill Whitcomb (occasional Technoccult guest blogger and frequent commenter) accompanied by collage paintings by Michael Skrtic for each line of text. On another level, it is a collection of excerpts from the employee handbook of the Ministry of Dreams. On both levels, it’s a remarkable and engaging work. As Antero Alli writes in his foreward, “Look at them as meditation portals to the cinematic dreamscapes of the Other Side, or if you prefer psychological terms, the Unconscious (and naturally “other” to the conscious Ego). Or, if you side with the Australian aborigines, the Dreamtime.”

You can learn more about it, and preview it, here. You can buy it from the publisher here or from Amazon.com.

Part one of this interview can be found here.

I found it interesting that everything right down to the typeface in the book is meaningful. Can you talk a bit about that?

Yeah. It’s all about packing. Density is what it is. It’s symbol density. How much can you pack into each page, each image, and each combination? If you start with the text, you got some very plain, random text that Bill assembled Burroughsian-style. He was assembling lots of text ala Burroughs and Gysin. He made these little stanzas that were just starkly beautiful, but were rather plain in and of themselves…they’re just sort of…pronouncements, but if you start with those and you start stacking images, so that the words couple with the images. Some years after the original dream manual was created Bill created the magical alphabet called the Alphabet of Dreams for another purpose. And as I was painting these things, the first paintings, I thought “Well, hmm, the Alphabet of Dreams.” I needed a textual element. Originally, I was thinking about sort of lettering the text comic book style on the paintings and then thought “Wait a minute, if I grab the Alphabet of Dreams which has these runic…each letter has an association.” In typical Bill-manner, each letter has two or three pages of associations, colors, days of the week, and astrological signs. So I thought that if I just transliterated Bill’s original text into the Alphabet of Dreams, I could use that as a pictorial element. It stacked another layer of symbolism on top of just the images coupled to the text. As we built this thing, we just kept packing and packing to point where, as you say, even the fonts Pentagramm and Pentagraf are based on a five-point star. The idea is that all this should act on you in a beneath-the-consciousness sort of way. Indeed, everyone we’ve been able to get to look at it, to play with it, to really read and experience it, has been totally blown away. Most recently, my neighbor who doesn’t read much – he works with the Forestry Committee in Sweden – his family are farmers. He has absolutely no interest in any odd occult stuff, but he read it from front to back and has been asking questions. He thinks this is completely fascinating, so even unlikely people seem to open it and get immediately lost in all the layers of symbols and meaning in it. You’ve got the text layered on there, and there’s that lovely little bit of foreword matter, and some of those strange line drawings that are placed about, and then the final end-piece. I think that’s one of the most interesting parts of the book – that last piece where we listed the image sources. All of these things came from airline magazine, or French fashion magazines while I was travelling through France or postcards from Tokyo. That just ties it to the rest of the world. Finally, as we were assembling the book, Bill wrote these really lovely descriptions of each of the paintings. Not just a dry description, but sort of a poetic description that provides you another route through it. In a way, I think Bill and I were both heavily inspired by the Dictionary of the Khazars. The Dictionary of the Khazars is really a sort of hypertext novel.

That was mentioned in the introduction. When was that published?

You know, it would have to be the early 80’s. I could actually check if you want, but it’s upstairs.

I can look it up online.

I’m sure there’s even a hypertext version these days – a true hypertext version.

Dream Manual I Could Use Your Help

As Antero Alli points out in the foreword, you and Bill avoid the question of what dreams are and what they mean. Do you have an opinion on that?

At different points in my life, I’ve had different answers with different degrees of certainty. I don’t know what dreams are. I’ve had prophetic dreams. I’ve had dreams that seemed just totally weird. As I was learning to speak Swedish fifteen years ago, I used to dream about John Wayne talking to me about Swedish. It’s a combination of prophecy, and processing daily actions, and you mind spinning loose and just relaxing and fantasizing, like watching TV, I think. No. I have no definitive answer about what dreams are.

Since you’ve just finished this seven year project, what are you going to do now or what are you going to do next?

There are two projects I’m working on right now that are totally unrelated or maybe they are, in an odd sort of way. I’m working on a children’s book called “When Gaia Dreams the World.” I’m doing the text and images for that, but that’s sort of in outline stage at the moment. At the same time, I’m working with Bill Whitcomb on the “The Hard-Boiled Tarot.” It’s a Tarot deck which uses modern popular culture genres like Weird Science, True Romance and Thrilling Detective Stories as suits. Like Selections from The Dream Manual, both of these projects deal with the dreams and stories we tell ourselves about the world around us.

Back to part one…

Selections from The Dream Manual Artist Michael Skrtic – Technoccult Interview (Part 1)

Selections from the Dream Manual Try This Experiment

Selections from the Dream Manual is an “aesthetic grimoire.” On one level, it’s a collection of cut-up texts by Bill Whitcomb (occasional Technoccult guest blogger and frequent commenter) accompanied by collage paintings by Michael Skrtic for each line of text. On another level, it is a collection of excerpts from the employee handbook of the Ministry of Dreams. On both levels, it’s a remarkable and engaging work. As Antero Alli writes in his foreward, “Look at them as meditation portals to the cinematic dreamscapes of the Other Side, or if you prefer psychological terms, the Unconscious (and naturally “other” to the conscious Ego). Or, if you side with the Australian aborigines, the Dreamtime.”

You can learn more about it, and preview it, here. You can buy it from the publisher here or from Amazon.com.

Part two of this interview can be found here.

Michael currently lives in Sweden, but is a true citizen of the world. I caught up with him by telephone to talk about the Dream Manual, his relationship with Bill and what he’s working on now. Tune in next week for part 2 of this interview.

Klint Finley: What possessed you to undertake this process of creating a collage painting for every line of Bill’s original Dream Manual?

Michael Skrtic: The Dream Manual appeared first in 1984 or 1985 in a magazine called The Negentropy Express, which was an APA (an amateur press association) by the Society for Creative Thought. I was one of the founding members of the Society for Creative Thought and I was immediately taken with Bill’s original text and the original short little collage things that he did to accompany the text. It sort of followed me around since then. In the early 90s, I had just moved to Stockholm and I was looking for a project. I thought, ah, I know what I’ll do, I’ll colorize Bill’s original collages, so I blew them up and I colorized a couple of pages, and then I got involved with something else. Fast forward to 2003. I had a new studio and I’d just finished painting strange diagrams on the floor to get the mojo right, so I started thinking about the Dream Manual as a possible thing to do. I started looking at it and realized that I actually could – that’s basically it.

I started thinking about all the places I’ve been, collecting collage material. I’ve been collecting collage material for many, many years. Each of the Dream Manual images has touchstones to everywhere I’ve been and all the other images I’ve gathered, so I started putting them together to see where I’d end up. That’s how it started. It took seven years of work from the second time I started. I started painting and spent about six years painting and another year with Megalithica Press getting the book ready for publication. That’s the physical story of the Dream Manual.

Selections from the Dream Manual cover

What states of altered consciousness did you employ while creating the collages and paintings?

None. [laughs] I was drawing on a rich reserve of that. But, painting is an altered state of consciousness. I have a very active style of painting, so I’m standing up and I’m sorting through hundreds and hundreds of images just stacked up in front of me. I’m going through these processes of, in a way, accreting the paintings. I’d step into my studio – which is a magical workspace – and start sorting pictures and to see how they would go with different paintings. Often, I was working on three, or four, or five paintings at once. It’s definitely an altered state of consciousness. It’s a magical state of consciousness. It’s sort of like meditation in motion – I guess that’s how I’d classify it.

Did you have any interesting dreams while creating this work? That you can tell us about?

You know, that’s a hard question because I have really interesting dreams all the time, but nothing really stood out. After I was done, there have been a couple of occasions where I felt, as we were creating the book, we were sort of opening a doorway to the Ministry of Dreams. The Minister of Dreams as a character and the Ministry of Dreams as an imaginary place became quite real during the period we worked on these things. Bill and I would talk three to five times a week during the time when we were working on the Dream Manual project. He’s on the West Coast, as you are, so I would get up at five o’clock in the morning and I’d go paint for an hour and then I’d call Bill and we’d talk for half an hour. I’d have morning coffee with Bill after I’d done my painting and he’d have his tea in the evening with me. Sort of a Nokia moment.

So you were in contact with him every day while you were working on this.

Basically. Four or five times a week. A lot. We’ve actually spent more time over the telephone than we have face to face over the time we known we’ve known each other. We’ve lived together a couple of times in Florida and in Texas, but most of the time we’ve spent with each other has been incorporeal.

Dream Manual Realized

Did you meet through the Society for Creative Thought?

That’s kind of funny. We’d heard about each other for two or three years before we actually met. I was living in Tallahassee, Florida. It was the beginning of the 80s and I had started a group on campus called the Pagan/Occult Discussion Group. We we’re trying stuff out. We were a bunch of people who had read a lot and were experimenting. It started as a discussion group, but that lasted about two meetings, until we said, hey let’s try some stuff. Bill was living in Thomasville, Georgia, about an hour north of Tallahassee, and a lot of the people in the Pagan/Occult discussion group knew Bill. So, for about two or three years, we had been hearing about each other. We finally met at a very strange party and both of us had the same reaction, namely “Wow, I’m supposed to meet this guy?” We were mutually unimpressed with each other.

Shortly thereafter we met again, and this time hit it off. He used to climb through the windows at night on weekends. That was
his favorite mode of entry to the house. He’d get done with work in Georgia and would drive down to Tallahassee and, usually on Friday night about one or two morning, I’d find Bill climbing through my window.

Onward to part two…

Erik Davis – Technoccult Interview

Erik Davis

Erik Davis has been covering fringe spiritual movements, underground music and subcultures for magazines like Wired, Arthur and Spin for the past two decades. He’s probably best known for books his books TechGnosis and Visionary State. He’s currently a contributor to several publications, including Reality Sandwich and HiLobrow. His web site is here and you can follow him on Twitter here.

Nomad Codes

Erik’s latest book, Nomad Codes, is a collection of several of his articles and essays. It can be purchased from its publisher YETI or from Amazon. I talked with Erik about the new book, the changing American spiritual landscape, and why he’s now pursuing academia.

Klint Finley: Over the last few years, while writing the essays that comprise this book, have you seen any significant shift in American spirituality? Has much changed since the publication of TekGnosis?

Erik Davis: Spirituality is always changing, because “spirituality” itself is almost defined by its informality, at least in contrast to those more organized movements we call “religion.” And even religions are always changing. Since the 1990s, there have been some intriguing developments, some cool, some odd.

One has been the extraordinary popularity of yoga, and what makes yoga particularly interesting is that it bridges between spirituality and a purely secular world of exercise and keeping fit. People don’t go to yoga for gurus like they did in the 70s — it’s about the “practice.” That shows some healthy pragmatism in some ways, but it also represents how easily spirituality gets commodified in America. I mean, yoga is pretty cheap when you boil it down–you on a mat on a floor. And yet it has become a whole industry.

Yeah, the brouhaha over Bikram yoga really exemplifies that.

Then there’s the 2012 thing, which has really grown tremendously, right on schedule. I have been tracking that for years, a combination of archaic dreaming and very contemporary apocalypticism. I knew some folks in British Columbia that all decided to adopt the 13 moon calendar for a while, and they lived their lives partly in that alternate calendrical frame. Pretty outside stuff! Then a year ago, my sister, who is not a freak by any stretch of the imagination, started talking about 2012 and what it meant. That represents quite a shift. Even Christian fundamentalists are talking 2012 these days. Everyone on the bandwagon!

Where does the title of the book, Nomad Codes, come from?

For me the phrase Nomad Codes really captures something about the 1990s culture that really influenced me and most of the writing in the book, even the later stuff. In some ways, we never leave our home-base cultural framework. In the early 1990s, there was a tremendous sense of novelty and possibility–the Internet was opening up, electronic music, a revived psychedelic culture, even “Twin Peaks” on the TV seemed to confirm that reality itself was warping. That sense of warp was captured by the figure of the nomad–slipping beyond the established narratives and institutions, not trying to root himself anywhere, flowing between the cracks. But all this stuff was happening in the context of an exploding media and particularly digital culture. So codes were, and are, everywhere. The world we perceive is partly dependent on our codes–not just our ethical codes, but the codes of perception and experience we use to program our engagement with reality.

Goa sunset by Koshy Koshy
Goa sunset, photo by Koshy Koshy

Do you have a favorite story from the book? One that you’re particularly proud of?

There’s a number of pieces that come out of really amazing trips and explorations I’ve one on. “Sampling Paradise” was about going to Goa in India in 1994 to hunt down the origins of raves; it was just when Psy-Trance was starting to leak into the west, and I went to some amazing parties. But the craziest time was my visit to Burma, which I write about at length. At the end of the piece, I am drunkenly dancing with a cute transvestite spirit-medium whose gaudy outfit was stuffed with currency. My wife was there at the time and she found it all hilarious.

I don’t have a copy of the book yet, so I don’t know if “Technopagans” and/or “Songs in the Key of F12” are included, but I wanted to tell you that those two article were formative for me.

Well thanks. They both nearly made the cut, but not quite. “Technopagans” was too long, and a little dated, and some of the ideas were repeated elsewhere. And not a lot of the music writing made it in, other than a profile of Sun City Girls and a long piece on Lee Scratch Perry. Maybe I should have given more thought to “Songs” though! That was a fun time to write about electronic music. I am curious though: how did they influence you?

Keiko Uenishi

I read “Technopagans” in 2000 just as I was starting to learn about chaos magic, and the way the article related it to tech culture kind of gave me the push I needed to jump in and start doing it.

I read “Songs in the Key of F12” around the time it came out, and it planted the seeds that eventually lead me to become a laptop musician myself – though it was years after reading it. I guess, like “Technopagans,” it told me “This is something YOU can do.”

That’s great. That’s why I love writing about subcultures: I get drawn toward things I want or attract me, and then I try to communicate the attraction and the appeal, even if I don’t end up becoming a chaos magician or a laptop musician myself.

Here’s a question someone on Twitter just asked me to ask you: Have you faced any challenges as an independent scholar outside the university system?

Well its funny you should ask. I have faced some challenges, and the unfortunate fact is that, in terms of getting paid, the challenges have only gotten larger the more established in my career I have become. I came of age as a writer at a time when I was lucky enough to be able to live off interesting magazine work–I got paid for the Goa piece by Details magazine, all expense paid trip and a good fee, even though they never ran the story. That world is gone, at least for someone with my interests, which have only gotten farther off the beaten track as far as the “mainstream” goes. Which is why I have decided to cross the great divide and enter the academy. I am at a religious studies program at Rice that specializes in magic, mysticism, and the esoteric tradition. I still like to think of myself as an independent scholar though, cause I am just doing what I want to do!

In a round-table on the impact of the Internet on writing, you said “I find the internet-driven pressure to make pieces short, data-dense, and crisply opinionated — as opposed to thoughtful, multi-perspectival, and lyrical — rather oppressive, leading to a certain kind of superficial smugness as well as general submission to the forces of reference over reflection.” Since then, Slate has reportedly found long-form pieces on its site to be the among the most popular. Have you seen any shift back towards a demand for longer form work?

Well that’s wonderful news. I have certainly gotten great reactions from the half-dozen longish-form pieces I have written for HiLobrow this last year or so. They werent super-long, but they were dense and careful and reflective. I think the interest for this kind of stuff probably never went away but the editors and the people designing magazine and online templates went for the short stuff. I will be a happy camper if the pendulum swings back.

What are your favorite publications, print or otherwise?

Online I rove; I rarely return to the same place as if it were a magazine. Print is more conducive to a regular relationship, in my experience. I love Fortean Times, I can’t understand why everyone doesn’t have a subscription. Marvels and Wonders every issue. Coming to school I kind of went on a magazine diet though, so I am not reading the journals I normally do, from the annoying/enjoyable New Yorker to the occasional issues of Plazm. My parents just got me a subscription to The Economist, which is great because I don’t usually read that much news online, so it keeps me more “current”–whatever that means. But I like it because they write intelligently about this insane, totally fucked up world and somehow manage to seem chipper about it all.

Erik Davis at Burning Man
Erik lecturing at Palenque Norte camp at Burning Man in 2003

And what’s next for you? Are you working on another full-length popular audience book, or are you completely focused on academia now?

I have always written some stuff that had an academic twist–I’ve hard articles in almost half a dozen university press books. So I will be emphasizing that side of the equation while still doing as much online and magazine work as possible. I’ve also been doing the Expanding Mind net radio show on the Progressive Radio Network for a year and a half, and will continue to do that. It’s great because I have to push myself to discover new and interesting people–or to remember all the interesting people who have crossed my path, and bring ’em on and find out what they’re doing now. I love that conversational style. I am also working on an collection of Philip K. Dick’s writings from the Exegesis which is really fun.

Do you have any parting words before we sign-off?

Keep your minds open!

The American Book of the Dead Author Henry Baum – Technoccult Interview

The American Book of the Dead The American Book of the Dead, part II

In Henry Baum’s novels Golden Calf and North of Sunset he explored the American religion that is Hollywood. His latest novel, The American Book of the Dead, delves into religion more directly – specifically apocalyptic Christianity and New Age ufology. It’s likeThe Stand as written by Philip K. Dick. You can buy the book here or download a free copy here. Henry’s now serializing the sequel online here. He took the time to talk to me about music, writing and fundamentalism.

Klint Finley: In addition to being a writer, you’re also a musician. I’m actually listening to your soundtrack to The American Book of the Dead for the first time right now, in fact. I’m wondering if you see yourself as more of a writer or as more as a musician, or whether you make that distinction.

Henry Baum: I started as a musician – age nine, guitar lessons. My dad was a fiction writer growing up (now a playwright). So in high school, the way for me to rebel against my parents was in a way to be anti-writing. So I was in punk bands and such. Played in indie rock bands in New York City. My own songwriting was always on the backburner. I always thought of myself as a drummer and fiction writer first, rather than a songwriter. Now, though, I’ve got a copy of Logic and can record any way I want, so I’ve been working on this whole backlog of songs I’ve had through the years. But still…I find fiction writing more satisfying for some reason. I love writing and playing music, but it’s not the thing I wake up thinking about, even if I’ve been playing music a lot longer than writing fiction. It’s less in my bloodstream, maybe.

Introduction by theamericanbookofthedead

How long have you been writing? What made you decide to start after avoiding it for all those years?

In college I lost that teenage rebellion and realized I was fighting the inevitable. I started working on a novel and realized how much I liked it. The novel wasn’t so great, but I at least found that I enjoyed the process. So I’ve been writing since I was 18 – which means, 20 years. Damn. The American Book of the Dead is my sixth novel, though I’ve published three. The first two were practice. One ripping off Richard Yates, who I was once obsessed with. The other trying to be a twenty-something Charles Bukowski. I’ve excised everything that was readable from those two novels and put together two short stories – i.e. 20 readable pages out of hundreds.

You’re serializing a sequel to American Book of the Dead right now, so I take it you think serializing the other novel online was a success? Do you have the novels written ahead of time and then release them piece by piece online, or do you write them as you go?

I actually abandoned serializing the novel almost as soon it was started. I put it up on Blogspot and soon realized I wasn’t ready for it. The site’s still live but what’s there is basically half of the introduction. Instead, I started posting a blog called “God’s Wife” which was part one of a completed novel I wrote about a porn star who joins a religious cult. I posted the porn part – it’s first person, female, and I posted it as if it was being written by a real porn star. People bought it. It makes me sound like a James Frey type, but this was in 2004 – blogs and Blogspot were new, and it was a literary experiment. Some people were pissed when they found out, some were supportive. Now, many years later, I’m ready to start posting something online as it’s written, which I’m trying to make a part of the story – but it’s also kind of terrifying because it doesn’t give me as much time to get used to something before publishing it.

Henry Baum

How much of both books is autobiographical? Have parents at your daughter’s school really confronted you about ABOTD?

Ha, no – that’s totally a projection of my worst worry, as was the chapter in the first novel – about a father discovering his daughter doing porn online. Basically, that confrontation is one I’m having with myself. I’m torn about writing this whole sequence because at some point my daughter’s going to be reading what I wrote. It’s an honest fear though, and something many fathers out there are dealing with, so my self-judgment isn’t totally overwhelming.

I’ve only read the introduction and first chapter of the sequel, but so far it’s much more personal, while the first one is more, I guess, universal. Is that why you decided to do a sequel? To work out more personal rather than universal issues?

A little bit. The first novel is about me in the year 2020, so it’s purely a fantasy about what I could be. Whereas Part II covers this time period. Eventually though it gets pretty far out – and revisits the 2020 character. Part II is going to be much more about the UFO issue: what first contact could do to the world’s psyche. How the world’s psyche could be prepared for that “awakening.” The first novel’s more about far right fundamentalism and the damage that can cause. I always intended it to be three parts, but the autobiographical writers are the ones who appeal to me most – Kerouac, Bukowski, Philip K. Dick’s Valis books. So it’s nice to be writing about who I actually am in real time.

That’s interesting, because yours is one of the few “writers writing about being writers” novels that I actually like – along w/ Dick’s stuff, though it’s not as expressly about writing. I couldn’t make it through Ask the Dust for that reason. Records about how much the recording industry sucks annoy me too.

Wow, thank you for that. I like Fante. To be honest, I’m not sure I need to read Post Office or On the Road ever again. They’ve been formative, but that period’s over. I absolutely love Philip K. Dick’s Valis books because they mix the totally far out with autobiography. I recently read Anne Dick’s memoir (and interviewed her) and it’s pretty remarkable how autobiographical ALL his novels are, which is why he appeals to me more than other science fiction writers. I read Jonathan Lethem recently say that Dick is continuing the legacy of Kerouac more than Asimov. So that’s what I’m attempting to do. Emphasis on the word “attempt.”

Do you have a particular process or ritual for writing?

I pretty much write in an insane trance for three months at a time and then have long spells where I don’t write at all – recovering from the trance. That’s why music’s been helpful to me. On my fiction writing downtime, I often dive back into recording. It’s rare when I go full-on with both at once.

How much do you buy the fringe ideas that have influenced the American Book of the Dead novels? For example, do you really think the world is in need of a mass die-off to curb over population?

It’s a disturbing concept and one I’m still exploring. I look at the recent mosque controversy and wonder, for instance, what would happen if there was UFO disclosure. If people think Obama’s a socialist Hitler terrorist now, they might be turned into David Ickean conspiracy theorists at that point – he’s a reptilian. There’s just so much volatility that seems like it could end in violence. People are crazy – how do we introduce new radical ideas into the culture if a centrist like Obama is seen as a radical? I’m not advocating genocide of any kind – but metaphorically at least, many different types of thought need to die, especially different aspects of fundamentalism. And now it seems fundamentalism is getting a louder and louder voice in the mainstream. It’s like the culture is primed to create mass conflict. So while it’s not something I desire, it does seem inevitable.

It can suck to be prescient sometimes, huh? You started the novel, what, 8 yeas ago? Those seemed like dark times then, but fundamentalist rhetoric just seems to be getting worse and worse.

Sarah Palin didn’t even exist when I started this book. I was fearing the Bush/Cheney cabal and what they were capable. Sarah Palin makes Bush look like, I don’t know, Bill Clinton.

Speaking of Clinton – you’re a little older than me so you might remember this period a bit more clearly than me – was the right so apocalyptic during the early years of Clinton’s presidency? Some elements certainly were, it seems like, reading those old Ron Paul Survival Report issues that were published online during the presidential primary.

And those seem to fit my very young memory of Clinton’s early years – I lived in rural Texas then, but I was only 11, I think, when Clinton was elected.

The far right’s always existed. But 9-11 really blew a hole in people’s last shred of rationality. The vitriol then seemed to be aimed at Hillary Clinton. But post 9-11, post electing a person named Barack Obama, and people have totally lost it. I mean, 9-11 blew a hole open in how I look at the world as well – it was then I started looking at conspiracies, UFOs, mysticism, and everything else that went into this book. I asked, as many people did, What the fuck is going on?

You’ve said that you write because you hope you can change people’s thinking. If you could change society’s thinking in just one way, what would that be?

Whoa, big one. The main thread here I think is the problem of fundamentalism. First two novels I wrote were about Hollywood – which I see as another religion, with the same kind of blind worship. I also mentioned porn up there. Though sexual taboos are a problem, being overly devoted and thinking sex is the only thing that matters isn’t the alternative. Christian and Islamic fundamentalism are next in line. I just posted a piece on Reality Sandwich which expressed the possibility of skepticism about 9-11 truth, and people were PISSED. Frankly, I don’t think this kind of true believerism makes any more sense for the fringe than it does for Sarah Palin devotees. So, short answer, the thing I think needs to go away is: blind devotion.

Indie Game Designers Luke Crane and Jared Sorensen on Transhumanist RPG FreeMarket – Technoccult Interview

FreeMarket

New York based game designers Luke Crane (of Burning Wheel and Mouse Guard fame) and Jared Sorensen (known for octaNe and the various games released through his Memento Mori imprint) are sometimes referred to as godfathers of the indie game scene. Tomorrow they’re releasing their new game FreeMarket at GenCon – you can find them at booth #1732. I talked to them a couple weeks ago about what FreeMarket’s all about.

Could you briefly go over what FreeMarket is and why it’s different from other role playing games?

Luke Crane: FreeMarket is a transhumanist RPG in which players take on the roles of telepathic, immortal infovores living on a space station orbiting Saturn.

Jared: That’s also what makes it different from other RPGs.

Luke : In order to get ahead on the station, players must make friends, cooperate and give gifts to one another. Doing so enhances a player’s reputation. Players can then spend this reputation to accomplish personal goals. It uses a unique card-based mechanic, comes in a box and is really pretty.

Jared Sorensen and Luke Crane
Left: Jared Right: Luke

It also sounds like it’s a more intellectual game than most – you’ve said you can, for instance, play the role of a philosopher and have that be meaningful within the game.

Luke: Yeah, but don’t think you can’t play Soulshitter Killfuck and have fun, too. But, unlike many other games that I’ve played, you can play an artist and have serious conflict about what you do. It’s impossible to just make a piece of art in this game and have it sit there, inert. Art is controversial.

Jared: And conflicts (especially philosophical, critical and artistic) are both internal and external and can have wide-reaching and unplanned repercussions.

Right. So you could do a more typical hack and slash scenario, or you could do something where you’re dealing with post-scarcity speculation. Or maybe both.

Luke: Yes. But the “typical” scenario is also turned on its ear.

Jared: Definitely. “Death artists” is a common FreeMarket trope we see in our games.

Luke: You can kill the living shit out of something in the game. In fact, when you get into a fight, someone is going to die, period. But that is very costly, so you better be ready to have another side to your character. You better be ready to cooperate and give gifts. Otherwise, you’re not going to survive.

Jared: Some of the nicest people on FreeMarket Station are killers… because they have to be nice in order to remain viable members of society.

FreeMarket 1

So you can kill or be killed in the game?

Jared: Yes, but not permanently

What do you mean?

Luke: Yeah, the station just resuscitates you or reloads your back up into a new body if you’ve “perfect deathed.”

Jared: There are different levels of death… from induced death to brain death to total bodily destruction. If you just go around murdering people left and right, people are going to shun you and you’re going to burn your social capital to ashes.

Luke: Right, killing costs a lot of your reputation.

Jared: Especially if you’re killing people who are valuable members of the society. Assholes who kill each other off can get away with that for a while

Luke: *Laughs* True!

Jared: But kill a baker? Or a garbage man? You are FUCKED.

FreeMarket 2

I haven’t role played in years, and it’s been even longer since I’ve been at all serious about playing. But Free Market sounds like something I’d like to play. Do you think this is the sort of game that people who have lost interest in role-playing or maybe never even role played before would get into?

Luke: YES

Jared: We had a woman play — she was the CFO of a game company — who had never played an RPG before. She got it in five minutes. It was awesome.

Luke: It’s different. It’s not about roll-to-hit and not a number style play. People who are diehard RPG players have the most trouble with it, actually.

Was that your intention? To create a game for non-gamers?

Luke: No, we just wanted to create a game that we liked (and that Peter Adkison would like).

Jared: We wanted to create a game for people interested in science fiction.

Luke: That, too!

Jared: Not SF gaming, but actual SF.

Luke: Yeah, this isn’t space pirate romance.

Jared: No travel, no aliens. Which are two mainstays of the game genre.

You’ve said before this is the first actual science fiction game.

Jared: We say a lot of things.

Luke: *Laughs* True. Paranoia is the first science fiction roleplaying game. Our friend Joshua made a really neat science fiction game called Shock, but it’s not really an RPG.

What makes it a science fiction game and other sci-fi themed games NOT science fiction games?

Luke: They’re about fighting and romance. FreeMarket is about time, space and identity.

And economics?

Luke: Not really!

Jared: D&D is as much about economics as FreeMarket. The title of the game is ironic commentary — the space station was renamed “FreeMarket Station” by its residents and it’s probably ironic commentary by us as well.

So it’s not Milton Friedman: The Game?

Jared: Hah, no.

Luke: Unfortunately, no. Milton Friedman would probably hate the economy in this game.

Jared: More Malcom Gladwell.

Luke: There’s no money. No market.

Jared: That’s the joke. The market is one of ideas.

FreeMarket 3

More “free” than “market.”

Jared: And it’s a truly free society. For the first time ever, people have real freedom. And it’s terrifying.

Luke: Utterly.

And you’re going to be giving the game, sans artwork, away for free online at some point, correct?

Luke: We already did that.

Jared: With artwork even.

Luke: We gave away a PDF from November to April. We took it offline while we launch.

Jared: It was limited to 1,000 people. And we used that for our “colony program.”

Luke: I’m sure it’s out on torrent sites.

Jared: It totally is.

Luke: We’re discussing the future fate of the electronic life of FreeMarket. We need to see how well the printed version does. You can definitely get a sense of the game from the PDF. But to play it, it’s best to have the materials—the cards and chips.
FreeMarket hazard

How did you get interested in transhumanism and why did you decide to write a game based around it?

Luke: I’ve been a fan of cyberpunk since I had a brain…since about 1991. Transhumanism seems like the next natural step. It’s like cyberpunk, but without the 1980s and with some more thoughtful science fiction.

Jared: The game has gone through a lot of development and research but even from the first step we knew “transhuman science fiction” was going to be its thrust. And it was kinda unexplored as a game subject at the time (2007).

Luke: Yeah, somebody said to us, “What would you do with X” and we both said, “Transhumanist SF RPG. Space stations and weird technology.” I think I was reading Bruce Sterling at the time.

I suppose it would be hard to create a normal hack and slash transhumanist game. Unless you count Rifts or something.

Jared: You can play out brutal combat sequences in FreeMarket and it’s very satisfying. It’s just the consequences are all backward and upside down.

Luke: Rifts is totally transhumanist. But Eclipse Phase, our cousin, is a TH game about fighting. Did I just say that out loud?

Jared: *Laughs* Except that DEE-BEES are not human (so really, it’s transdimensional).

Luke: Fuck.

Jared: Rifts also has space whales I think.

Were virtual worlds like MOOs and MUSHes and newer things like Second Life an influence?

Jared: Definitely.

Luke: Absolutely. Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter too.

Jared: Everything from MUDs and Second Life to Facebook, dating sites and Slashdot.

Luke: Good science fiction expresses the present through the fiction of the technology. We wanted FM to feel like an outgrowth of today.

FreeMarket 4

How were social networking sites an influence?

Luke: Well, in the game, you friend each other. Friending each other increases your overall reputation and provides “social insurance.” The more friends you have, the harder it is for you to be kicked out of the community. So the influence is rather naked. It was more “What if that shit was about people and real life rather than your profile?”

Why wouldn’t everyone just friend everyone then?

Luke: Hah, well, do you go around friending everyone on Facebook? Do you love the people who do nothing but friend you?

No, but it doesn’t really keep me from getting kicked off my space station.

Jared: There are game equivalents of “like” and “mod down” buttons, social groups and trolling. There are people on the station who try and friend everyone. But friending carries serious social implications. Friending is like allowing someone access to your Google Calendar. And Ebay account. And email. Etc.

So there’s a real trust relationship there.

Luke: And if you’re worried about getting kicked off, then I don’t know if we should be friends. because you’re obviously up to something that’s going to get me in trouble. When your reputation tanks, your friends all take a hit, too.

Jared: Klint’s friends are all switchers, breakers and wetworkers! Don’t friend him!

What advice would you give people who want to be game designers?

Jared: continue to want to be that.

Luke: *Laughs* Play lots of games. Start breaking games. And then play your games. And break them. Also, recruit tolerant friends.

Jared: And stay the hell off of game forums.

Luke: That, too.

Are there any books on game design you’d recommend?

Luke: I like Rules of Play by Salen and Zimmerman. But Jared and I are both self-taught.

Jared: Also Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud.

Luke: Oh, yes!

Why Understanding Comics?

Luke: Because it’s the single best deconstruction of a medium around there. It teaches you how to think structurally and critically. It shows you how to clearly break down complicated stuff.

Jared: And if you get a chance to come to a convention seminar by Luke and me, I seriously recommend it.

Anything else you’d like to say to readers?

Jared: Replace your body as soon as possible! But don’t throw out the original packaging just in case.

Luke: Always back up your memories. Unless you need to forget.

Special thanks to Jesse for suggesting this interview!

FreeMarket

Binaural Beats with SbaGen Developer Jim Peters – Technoccult Interview

Binaural Beats

Jim Peters is the developer of the cross-platform, open-source binaural beat generator SbaGen. Although the application has been available for free online since 1997, an commercial application called I-Doser, which used SbaGen’s source code without permission, has been in the news lately. I took the opportunity to ask Jim a few questions about binaural beats and his program.

Jim Peters

Can you tell us a bit about binaural beats and how they work?

The mechanism behind binaural beats is very simple — on the face of it, at least. Two pure sine-wave tones are fed to the brain, one in each ear. For example, you could play a 200Hz tone to the left ear, and a 210Hz tone to the right ear. The end result, as far as the listener is concerned, is that they hear a tone of 205Hz but pulsating or ‘beating’ at a frequency of 10Hz. This 10Hz stimulation is what leads to the entrainment.

This could be viewed as simple wave interference, but actually it is a lot more complex than that because the sound waves never get to mix in the air. They do not meet until they have already been converted into
signals in the nervous system of the brain.

Our hearing centres do a lot of complex processing on the sounds that we hear, especially to determine the direction and distance of objects in our environment. If an object is to our left, then sounds from that object arrive first at the left ear, then slightly later at the right ear. There is a part of the brain dedicated to detecting these delays which gives us our sense of sound direction.

When the brain is fed tones of slightly differing frequency, this is interpreted as a sound with a delay that is constantly changing. The direction-detection part of our brain reacts to this sound, resulting in the beating effect that we perceive.

Directional hearing is a very low-level, primitive function of the brain, and the centres dedicated to it are right on the brain stem (the ‘superior olivary complex’). This means that causing a beating stimulation here with binaural beats has the potential to cause entrainment effects quite different to those produced by light glasses or other methods of entrainment. Certainly it is valuable tool.

Binaural Beats diagram

Binaural beats diagram from Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Binaural Beats

How did you first learn about binaural beats?

I first heard about binaural beats through attending a workshop with Ken Eagle Feather (Kenneth Smith), a Toltec teacher. He had been a test subject in the labs of Robert Monroe.

Why did you decide to create SbaGen?

I wanted to experiment with binaural beats, so the obvious thing to do was to create a tool to allow me to do that. However, I now realize that I am not a genius like Robert Monroe! It is one thing to build a tool that generates tones to a high standard, but quite another to have the inspiration to create sequences that take people to other places. This is like the difference between a musical instrument maker and a virtuoso player. So, whilst I’ve been able to create the tool, I have to leave it to others to create interesting sequences.

SbaGen screenshot
SbaGen screenshot

What programming language is it written in?

It was originally written in C for Linux /dev/dsp, a long time ago when a fast machine was a 75MHz Pentium and I was still thinking like an assembler programmer. So, apologies for any poor style! Over the years it has been adapted for Windows and Mac, and even things like Blackfin boards. It uses integer-only arithmetic, even for MP3 and OGG decoding, which is an advantage when porting to ARM, for example.

However, modern processors are capable of a lot more and if I were to rewrite it today, I’d consider the use of other techniques.

What happened with I-Doser and SbaGen’s source code?

As far as I can gather, the guy behind I-Doser calls himself Christopher Canavan, based on messages to the SBaGen list and WHOIS data. It seems that he had a bright idea of how to make lots of money from binaural beats, and he contracted some programmer “for hire” to develop a GUI wrapper around SBaGen that added encryption and some means of packaging sequences. However, he did not pay any attention to SBaGen’s GPL license — he just took what he wanted.

As it happens, he violated the SBaGen license by modifying it and not redistributing the source code of the changes, as required by the GPL. With a little more care, he could have got what he wanted without any
license trouble or payment.

For a long time I knew nothing about this. Then I started getting E-mails from SBaGen users bringing the problem to my attention. I could see that I was dealing with someone who was a bit shady, and I really didn’t look forward to having to negotiate with him, especially as I am based in the UK and he is based in the US. Eventually the pressure from users was so much that I had to act and try to resolve the issue.

I’m sure that Christopher Canavan (or whoever he really is) is making huge amounts of money from I-Doser — I’ve heard stories of individuals spending hundreds of dollars. I’m also sure that with enough money spent on lawyers I could have had a large slice of his cake. But in our discussions he gave me the impression of being completely evasive and untrustworthy. I considered the stress and cost of protracted legal action in a foreign country, and decided on something symbolic instead. On moral grounds, I’m not sure that I would have wanted a slice of his cake in any case.

So I settled for putting the source code in order, and him paying me $1000 (which he paid without hesitation), and having a link from his site to mine so that there was a ‘way out’ for people looking for more information.

I-Doser has gone global — I’ve heard reports of worried parents and officials from as far away as Russia and Korea. What I-Doser has done is very clever from a business and marketing point of view, but also quite corrupt (in my eyes). But then you could say the same of Coca Cola or McDonalds. You can see why I am not a successful businessman!


Coil – “Methoxy-N, N-Dimethyl,” from their album Time Machines

Do you believe that I-Doser can actually deliver on their promise of providing a variety of discrete recreational psychoactive experiences? My own experience working with SbaGen, Brainwave Generator, and sound and light machines is that it does feel like “something happens,” but I haven’t found that the specific experience each one is aiming for (“relaxation,” “creativity,” “stimulation,” etc.) In fact, I actually conducted some controlled experiments with classmates as a research project in college. We investigated whether the “intelligence enhancement” setting of a particular sound and light machine was effective at improving MENSA test exam scores. We didn’t get statistically significant results.

No, I don’t believe that I-Doser can deliver on their promise. If I hit you over the head with a mallet you will see stars, but that doesn’t mean that you’ve had a marvellous journey through the universe. However with a good enough sales pitch maybe I can make you believe that you have.

I-Doser uses quite high-amplitude binaural beats, much higher than is recommended by organizations such as The Monroe Institute or CenterPointe, where the beats are generally only just audible under the soundtrack.

I guess you could compare I-Doser’s use of binaural beats to typical teenagers’ use of substances like alcohol — i.e. excessive. Actually, I think that this may be the key to it. For some reason people of that age are attracted to self-destruction in various forms, and I-Doser are tapping into that with their fantastical and exaggerated descriptions of their sessions’ properties. It is on about the same level as teenage experimentation with alcoholic drinks.

Whether listening to high-amplitude binaural beats does any harm, I really don’t know. But would the harm be more or less than the harm done by getting completely intoxicated with alcohol? Who knows.

In some ways I am sad to see binaural beats used in this way, but on the other hand it does raise interest in a tool that is very valuable for people who are past their teenage self-destructive phase and who are looking to do something rather more constructive.

There is great potential for new research combining binaural beats with other techniques such as biofeedback or EEG. By a happy accident, nature has provided us with a direct signal feed into the brain stem without any surgery required!

The applications of binaural beats are varied, but they will never be a ‘silver bullet’ to instantly give you high MENSA scores or whatever.

I’ve heard from Buddhist monks who found that binaural beats took them to places in consciousness that required years of meditation to reach by normal means. But again this sounds better than it is — they were
practiced meditators, so they could follow the guide provided by the beats to reach those places. Someone who is not practiced in meditation would fall asleep or pop out of entrainment under the same conditions. Meditation takes time to learn, but binaural beats can be used as a guide for practice.

The late Robert Monroe used binaural beats, sometimes combined with flotation chambers and sensory deprivation, to guide people to places he knew from his journeys out-of-body. This could be seen as another
form of meditation.

Then there are organizations such as CenterPointe who see binaural beats as a means of emotional cleansing. They use both carrier frequency and beat frequency to plot a 2-D map, which they traverse slowly, session by session, stimulating and clearing blocked emotions. I can testify to the strength of some of these clearing effects through my own experiments with similar sessions. ‘Overwhelm’ is a condition where you have stimulated too much emotional material, and you feel half-crazy and a bit on the edge. The advantage that binaural beats have in this application is that they are 100% under your control. You choose how often to listen, or when it is time to have a few days break to let things calm down again.

I have even heard from someone who lives in constant pain due to a spinal injury who found that binaural beats of a certain frequency allowed him to sleep. He appreciated the way that he could tune the frequency very precisely to meet his needs.

Again, it is the precision, controllability and repeatability of binaural beats compared to other means of influencing the organism that give them a real advantage here.

Are you still working on SbaGen? Will there ever be a GUI?

Unfortunately I don’t have time to work on new features due to having to earn a living. Whilst I would love to write a GUI, I think that realistically other things are going to get my attention before that in the limited free time that I have. So, unfortunately probably not.

Have you considered creating an iPhone or Android app?

No, sorry.

Further Resources

I-Doser doses reverse engineered for SbaGen

Monroe Institute entry on WikiPedia

Gnuaral Another cross-platform, open-source binaural beat application

Technoccult interview with HipGnosis, an electronic musician who uses binaural beats in his work.

Boing Boing’s David Pescovitz – Technoccult interview

David Pescovitz
Photo by Bart Nagel

David Pescovitz (aka Pesco) is an editor of Boing Boing, research director with the Institute for the Future, and editor-at-large for MAKE. Perhaps the most mysterious of the Boingers, Pesco joined me by instant message to talk about his lifelong interest in the weird and wonderful.

Klint Finley: How did you get involved with Boing Boing? Were you a contributor to the original magazine?

David Pescovitz: I read Boing Boing when I was in college in the early 1990s. When I moved to San Francisco in 1993 and started working at Wired, I met Mark because he had just started as an editor there. Mark took me downstairs to meet his wife Carla Sinclair who was running the ‘zine out of a basement office. We quickly became very close friends and I started writing for the print ‘zine. From there, we took it online and the long strange trip continued. Back then, the print ‘zine had maybe 10,000 readers if that. Now the blog has 5 million.

A journalist once asked Timothy Leary what people should do after they “turn on.” Tim said, “Find the others.” Every day, I feel incredibly fortunate that Boing Boing helps me do that.

I’ve noticed that most of the time there’s something about the occult on Boing Boing, it’s posted by you. Sometimes Mark, but mostly you. How did you get interested in the occult? What attracted you to it?

Well, I’ve been interested in weird phenomena and fringe ideas since I was a child. I was always looking up Bigfoot, UFOs, and telekinesis at the library. Now, I realize of course that the Occult doesn’t necessarily connect to those things, and those things don’t necessarily connect to each other. But in my head at least it’s all related as a curiosity about the strange.

Yeah, I think that’s how it starts for a lot of people. It was exactly the same way for me.

Much later, I discovered Robert Anton Wilson and Cosmic Trigger became a port of entry for me. Or maybe a “port of exit.”

Are you now, or have you ever been, a practicing magician or are you just interested in the history, the culture, etc.?

The latter. I find the history, the “characters,” and the aesthetic to be fascinating. I guess I’m a bit of a poseur in that regard.

It reminds me of something that Rudy Rucker once said about the psychedelic side of the early cyberculture. He said he liked reading about people’s drug trips, and hearing what they learned, but didn’t have much interest in taking drugs himself.

That’s how I am now, actually. I tried a lot of magical experiments over the years, but now I’m mostly interested in history and how ideas from the occult have ended up penetrating science and other areas.

Exactly! The historical connections between science, technology, art, and the occult are fascinating. In many ways, it seems that people were using different metaphors to describe the same amazing, wonderful things.

I could be wrong, but it seems like occult related posts on BB have actually increased over the past couple years – you had Mitch Horowitz guest blog there, for instance. Has this raised any eyebrows, elicited any significant negative response?

My interest in the subject, in any subject, ebbs and flows, probably based in part on the people I encounter in the “real world.” And perhaps it’s been flowing again recently.

Boing Boing is a group blog, and we have as many opinions as we do contributors. We usually don’t discuss what any of us are going to post about, and we certainly don’t judge what each other may be interested in at the moment. The only filter I need to have when determining whether to post something is if it’s interesting to me.

Now, we also post a great deal about traditional science on Boing Boing. And are often critical about organized religion. So some commenters who may be Rationalists or Skeptics (note the capitals) might experience a disconnect when a post about James Randi is followed a few days later by an essay by my friend Jacques Vallee. But in my opinion, that perceived dissonance is part of Boing Boing’s magic. Or rather, magick. ; )

As my friend Jody Radzik of Guruphiliac pointed out to me, Boing Boing as a whole appeals to the full spectrum of “geekdom.” And that spectrum includes scientists, conspiracy theorists, hardcore rationalists, diehard skeptics, New Agers, Forteans, paranormal investigators, cryptozoologists, etc. And I appreciate that diversity!

And while there may not be enough evidence, in my opinion, to support a far-out idea that someone is presenting on Boing Boing, I still enjoy pausing for a moment and saying “What if?”

What is the most far-out, fringe or incredible idea that you think might actually be correct?

From the very first time I encountered Jacques Vallee’s idea that we’re living in a Control System, and also read similar ideas from John Keel, Hans Moravec, Rudy Rucker, and others, I’ve always gone back to that notion whenever I want to blow my own mind.And this was decades before The Matrix.

Could you elaborate on that idea?

In recent years, mathematicians, phlosophers, and physicists like Nick Bostrom, Ed Fredkin, Stephen Wolfram, Seth Lloyd, and others have explored the idea that we’re living in a simulation or that the universe is a quantum computer.

Now, I don’t pretend to understand the physics or math underlying these theories, and I recognize that they are just theories and difficult to prove, but the very fact that so many brilliant people from a variety of disciplines are seriously asking these questions delights me to no end.

You’re the lowest profile of the Boingers. You don’t have any books that you’re promoting on the site, or anything like that. Do you have any books or anything like that coming out?

I don’t have any books in-the-works at the moment. I’ve written several proposals over the years, but was burned out on the ideas by the time I finished the outline. To me, that’s a good sign I haven’t found the right topic yet.

Also, I’m happily busy with my other work outside of Boing Boing, as a research director at Institute for the Future.

The Institute for the Future just finished up its 10 year forecast, correct?

IFTF does a 10 Year Forecast every year. Each year, my colleagues look at the technological and societal trends — from demographics to disease, sustainability to science — most likely to have a large impact on the way we live.

I’m not directly involved in IFTF’s Ten Year Forecast research program, as my work is more focused in the Technology Horizons program.

Are there any interesting trends you’re researching now that you can tell us about?

Actually, my research in the last year or so is related to what we just discussed about life in a “control system.”

My colleagues and I were exploring what a world might look like if “everything is programmable.” As we have access to more data about ourselves and our environment than ever before.

Sensor networks, bio-monitors, pervasive computers, and a host of other new technologies have given us unprecedented insight into the chaos and patterns underlying our world. Once we understand what the data means, we can act on it. We live in a control system and are developing new techniques — from social software to gene therapies to geoengineering — to tweak the dials and see the results in real-time.

And so we’re using genetic engineering to reprogram DNA, drugs to reprogram our brains, digital media to reprogram our social networks, etc.

Pesco with a Dreamachine
Above: Pesco with a Dreamachine

So instead of a control system controlled externally, we’re building a control system of our own design?

To some degree. More that it seems useful as a metaphor, to look at the world through a computational lens. And that metaphor raises huge questions and dilemmas, of course.

How do you make sure it’s not just an elite group that knows how to do the programming? What unintended consequences might emerge when you start fiddling with the knobs of reality?

That reminds me of Burroughs’s idea of the Reality Studio, which reminds me that you’re a fan of Burroughs – would you say his thinking has influenced your own, or do you just find him interesting?

Indeed, Burroughs and Brion Gysin both had a big impact on me. Burroughs’s notion of Control and finding ways to derail it are tremendously provocative. And I think their work with cut-ups predated much of the language of media used by MTV, Madison Avenue, and even the hyperlinked Web.

And as a futurist, I have to love this Burroughs quote: “When you cut into the present, the future leaks out.”

Burroughs also had a terrific sense of humor, of course.
I have art by both Burroughs and Gysin hanging above my desk and it inspires me every day.

Whenever I start to feel a bit too complacent I end up thinking of Burroughs’s writings about control. That usually fires me up a bit.

He was a master at shifting your perception with just a single sentence.

Vale of RE/Search Publishing once told me that Burroughs advised him to always look up a lot when you’re wandering around a city. It’s amazing the things you can see by just looking in non-obvious places.


Pesco on The World as a Wunderkammer at TEDx SoMa

Participatory medicine with Jon Lebkowsky – Technoccult interview

Jon Lebkowsky

Jon Lebkowsky is a social media consultant and cofounder of the Society for Participatory Medicine. He was also the co-founder of FringeWare, Inc. and EFF-Austin, co-edited Extreme Democracy, and is a regular contributor to WorldChanging. You can read his blog here and follow him on Twitter here.

Klint Finley: Let’s start off by defining what “participatory medicine” is.

Jon Lebkowsky: There’s a good definition on Wikipedia:

Participatory Medicine is a model of medical care in which the active role of the patient is emphasized.” It can be patients coming together in communities dedicated to a specific disease or condition, or it can be patients being considered peers within treatment teams that are treating their conditions.

The Internet makes it more possible, in that patients can find much more information about their conditions online, and they can find each other.

You’ve been involved with online communities for many years, how did you get involved with participator medicine?

Through my relationship with Tom Ferguson. Tom was a participatory medicine pioneer. He had edited the health section of the Whole Earth Catalogs, and published a magazine called Medical Self Care. We started talking and hanging out in the early 90s – he found me via EFF-Austin. He could see the potential for the Internet to provide patients access to more and more information, and he had always advocated for patients to be as informed as possible, and to have a role in treatment… and do as much for themselves as possible.

He had a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to do a white paper on e-patients (See e-patients.net), and he knew that blogs and social technology would be relevant. He wanted me to join his team of physicians and others because I was involved in the evolution of social technology, what some now call social media.

I started working with the e-patients working group and became a founding member of the Society of Participatory Medicine.

How long this movement had been afoot? I’ve read that things like this were going on as far back as the 80s in places like the WELL.

Yes, there’ve been a lot of patient conversations and communities over the years in various contexts. The WELL has always had an active health conference, and patient communities like ACOR have been around for a while.

Other than there being a lot more people involved now that the Internet has become mainstream, is there any big difference between what’s going on now and what was going on way back when?

In a way, yes. With higher adoption of the Internet, you have so many more patients getting active online. And the tools are evolving so that it’s easier to create contexts for conversation. Also, partly thru Tom’s work and the Society, and other orgs like PatientsLikeMe and the Health 2.0 conference, you have a lot more interest, activity, and potential for innovation. And there’s more information coming online, so patients can theoretically be better informed. There’s also new tools for people to manage their health records online, and track aspects of their health. More hospitals and healthcare professionals are starting to use social media to connect with patients and for community engagement.
We have a whole movement forming around patient demands for access to their complete health records.

Can you give any examples of “success stories” in participatory medicine – anything that really stands out? Like a situation where you could say “Wow, that recovery could never have happened otherwise.”

Dave deBronkart. He had 4th stage terminal cancer, is now in remission. If he hadn’t been an e-patient, he might never have found the treatment that made him so much better.

Here’s what the Wikipedia article about him says:

His kidney was removed laparoscopically and he was treated in a clinical trial of high-dose interleukin-2 (HDIL-2), ending 7/23/07, which was effective in reducing the cancer, although his femur ultimately broke from damage caused by the disease. Visible lesions on follow-up CT scans continued to shrink for a year and have been stable since, and are presumed dead.

He learned of the treatment through his e-patient activiites and research. No one had told him about it. If a healthcare provider can’t offer a treatment, they don’t necessarily know about it or tell you about it.

ePatient Dave
Dave deBronkart aka E-patient Dave/em>

Is there a downside? Increased “cyberchondria,” or decreased trust in physicians?

Jon L. Part of the power of participatory medicine is in patients collaboratively researching and discussing various treatments. More powerful than a single source of information. There’s a potential down side – a physician has a different context for assessing information, and may make different judgements. But it’s good for patients to be more informed. For the physician, there can be an issue of having to spend more time with patients explaining why something they’ve found online might be inaccurate or inapplicable.

Physicians who believe patients should be empowered can be pretty good about that, though.

And there are physicians who don’t assume they necessarily have the answers, and are very willing to listen to patients who’ve been researching, and consider what they have to say.

The patient has a strong vested interest in outcomes, and will sometimes dig more deeply and thoroughly than the healthcare professional has time to do.

Here’s another downside to consider: some patients may become more knowledgeable about their conditions than their doctors. There’s a tendency for people, and I’m as guilty of it as anyone, to sort of double-down on their position if their expertise is questioned- especially if that expertise is questioned by an amateur. A physician might not want to admit they were wrong about something and their patient, who might not have ever even been to college, was right.

Yes, that’s definitely a concern. The solution is to create a culture where patients can be seen as peers. (Though not all patients will want that… many will.)

Not to be too personal, but have you been an e-patient yourself?

Jon L. Yes, but not with anything life-threatening, at least no so far. I have psoriasis and have researched it online, and was on a psoriasis email list for a while. I left it. My general sense was that the list was dominated by people who had strong feelings about what would or wouldn’t work – e.g. would vehemently oppose other patients who felt there was a potential to see results through changes in nutrition. I had a feeling they were being defensive – didn’t want to change their eating habits. So not all communities will be functional, or will work for all members.

I also had a problem with arrhythmia that seems to have been treated effectively by cardioversion and a round of drugs. I researched the drugs and decided I felt they were too toxic to continue, so I stopped after a year and a half. The cardio would have preferred I continued at least another six months.

Do you have any recommendations for potential e-patients for finding resources and communities, or places to avoid?

I would counsel proceeding with caution until you’ve felt your way into it, and got a good sense of the online landscape for your condition. It’s so easy to be misled, to get the wrong info. There are some communities that are well-established, and are the best places to go for specific conditions – like ACOR for cancer.

Also in researching your condition, remember that you’re not a physician or health researcher, so you don’t have the same context for assessing the information you find. Don’t assume your physician is wrong if you find contradictory information online.

You can get a sense of the landscape by reading e-patients.net and Journal of Participatory Medicine (the latter is the journal that the Society for Participatory Medicine started). There are also a lot of bloggers and tweeters in the e-patient space. Here’s a blogger on patient advocacy: Every Patient’s Advocate

Ed Bennett has resources for healthcare professionals.

Is there anything of note in the recent health care overhaul regarding participatory medicine?

It’s more of an insurance overhaul than a healthcare overhaul. I don’t think it has a lot of impact on what we’re talking about.

One thing specifically mentioned on the Society for Participatory Medicine’s web site is a need to address the digital divide’s impact on participatory medicine. Do you know of anything being done, or do have any ideas for solutions?

I don’t think there’s a specific project to address digital divide in this context. In fact, the community network / digital divide efforts in general seem to lack steam. Part of that is because Internet adoption is so high, it seemed that the issue was resolving as we had more and more ways for people to get online, and more incentives for them to do so. However I know there’s a significant number of adults who don’t have the kind of access they should, especially considering that so infrastructure for services is moving online.

State and smaller governments, for instance, are moving services online for the efficiency.

It’s not just a matter of access either, there’s also a matter of online literacy.

And when we get to the point where all healthcare data for everyone is available digitally, not just as an electronic health record but as a personal health record, only those who have the right degree of digital literacy will be able to have that as a factor in managing their health. To me the digital divide is more about knowing how to use computers than actually owning the hardware, so I’m with you 100%.

augmented reality medical app
Metaverse One’s augmented reality anatomy education app

Bruce Sterling, in the State of the World conversation you moderated, suggested the possibility that individuals, informed by various web based instructional materials, could start doing amateur medical operations. It was clear that what he was talking about wasn’t what you were talking about in terms of participatory medicine at the time, but have you thought anymore about that scenario?

I think it’s pretty unlikely – he was seeing that as the ad absurdum where participatory medicine could go, but I think that’s a real misunderstanding (and I don’t think he seriously believed it would go there). That’s really not what “participatory medicine” and “empowered patient” is about… when we talk about being better informed and being part of the conversation about your own health, it doesn’t follow that anyone would necessarily want to be an amateur surgeon.

Maybe not in the global North, but I can imagine it happening elsewhere, where access to professional health care is worse. Or even here in the States if economic conditions worsen.

You have a point there, but it’s not really what participatory medicine is about.

I could imagine someone learning how to do just one or two particular procedures really well and just doing doing those.

We are near a point where only the elite can afford adequate care. Yes, very possible.

Right, so the “participatory” in participatory medicine means more participating in the decisions, not doing surgeries.

Right… participating in the knowledge, and in the decisions.

Well, I think that about wraps it up. Do you have any closing thoughts?

My focus has always been on the Internet and its impact on culture, so participatory medicine is just one of a set of related interests. I’m still thinking about what’s really happening and how what’s happening in various sectors relate – participatory medicine to the changes in journalism and in politics, for instance.

Virtual reality veteran FSK1138 talks about his new low-tech lifestyle – Technoccult interview

FSK1138

Electronic musician and artist Donald Baynes, aka FSK1138, spent 10-12 hours a day exploring 3D virtual worlds in 1996 and 97. But now he spends less than 3 hours a week online. He spent an hour of his weekly Internet time chatting with me from a park to tell me why he decided to unplug.

Klint Finley: You say you were “addicted” to virtual reality in the late 90s. How did you get started with VR and what were you doing with it?

FSK1138: During that time – I was what you would call cyberpunk – I spent days plugged into a body suit, data glove, and HMD [head mounted display]. I explored virtual worlds and was surfing the web in 3D. Searching, always searching, for others and A.I out there in the sea of information.

What sort of equipment were you using?

Virtual io HMD, Nintendo Powerglove, dual cpu pPRO.

Did you have broadband back then or was this on dial-up?

I was using dial-up but I moved to Toronto because there was faster Internet – this thing called ISDN.

I remember ISDN. Basically it was using two phone lines to achieve faster speeds, right?

Yes. It was a dream – so much faster. It made 3D surfing VRML [Virtual Reality Markup Language] a reality.

So you were surfing VRML sites then? What were those virtual worlds like back then?

Low rez – like Quake or the first DOOM but at the lowest settings. There was a whole underworld of VRML BBS sites at the time.

And what did you typically do on the BBSes? Chat, socialize?

Chat, socialize, share data – much like what people are doing right now but like the Sims or SecondLife.
FSK1138

Are you still using VR?

No – I think it is a very bad thing. Even back then 3D was considered bad for your eyes and brain. I don’t think we were made for this type of input.

What makes you say that?

The reaction of any one who has seen avatar – when people who have seen it talk about it they always seem to have a smile on their face – the same smile…

He later sent me this article mentioning health concerns surrounding prolonged 3D gaming in children

FSK1138

You say now use the Internet for less than 3 hours a week and do not own a TV, phone, or stove. What brought you to the point that you decided you had to unplug like that?

I lived in Guyana for 4 years. You can have days when you have no power, and I survived. I feel that people think that the Internet will always be there. I feel it will not and the day is coming soon. I have seen the Internet change over the years – it has changed alot. The day is coming, I feel, that the can not remain a free utility.

Life really is not hard without technology if you learn to live without it. But if you’re addicted – what then?

When did you decide to cut back your use of technology?

When I realized it was taking up so much of my time – 2007 – I started closing down websites that I was using. I cut back to Myspace and YouTube – there were so many. And I cut my surfing – I use RSS now, I do not surf. By 2008 I did not have a landline or cell or Internet at home.


Above: Video FSK1138’s “Catch the Man,” a cover of Front 242’s “Headhunter.”

It looks like you use a lot of technology to make your music – have you thought about going towards a more low-tech approach to making music?

I am in a way back to where I started with making music. When I could not get a sampler or computer I used found objects – metal and glass and things you could bang together to make noise.

So you’re not using computers for music music any more?

I am using computers still – I just did a track for The 150-Years-of-Music-Technology Composition Competition.

Do you have any opinions of augmented reality? Have you used any AR applications?

I think is a cool concept. I just hope it doesn’t become the next form of spam.


Above: Video for FSK1138’s “Digital Drug”

Trippy Japanese artist Satoshi Sakamoto interviewed by Klintron

Satoshi Sakamoto

I interviewed Satoshi Sakamoto for the newly (re)launched R/evolutionary XChange shop:

R6XX?You call your work “surnaturalism.” What does that mean to you?

Satoshi: ?I have been calling my work ‘surnaturalism’ consistently since I was 23. I use ‘sur’ to differentiate between supernatural and surrealism. Also the name ‘surnaturalism’ suggest its roots in surrealism. The surrealistic melting clock invented by Dali is senseless for a person who has never seen a clock. Surnaturalism includes nameless things of nuances of colors and forms. It is similar to music. Ultimate surnaturalism should be understandable even for the beings of other planets.

Full Story: R/evolutionary XChange.

Be sure to check out Satoshi’s prints!

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