Postcard — September 20, 2018, 11:08 am

Indistinguishable from Magic

Dynamicland seeks to free us from our devices—through technology

All photographs by the author

Rain was falling inside Dynamicland, but no one could identify its source. Bright, pixelated raindrops dotted a table covered with paper as the space filled with the soothing sound of a gentle rain shower. Dozens of projectors—large and minuscule—hung from the ceiling, their lenses aimed down at all manner of surfaces covered in white sheets of paper and immersed in flickering lights. Every piece of paper in Dynamicland is bordered by colorful circular stickers arranged in a careful pattern, which act as a kind of barcode that renders the paper recognizable as a piece of code. In Dynamicland, coding doesn’t mean tapping away in front of a computer—it means physically creating code on the page. Somewhere on its expansive floor, someone had evidently switched on the code for “make it rain.” A crowd of onlookers didn’t seem to mind.

A nonprofit research group with the feel of an artspace, Dynamicland was first conceived by Alan Kay, an influential computer scientist who is known as the “father of mobile computing,” and a designer named Bret Victor, who once held the title of “Human Interface Inventor” at Apple, where he helped create products like the Apple Watch. Together, Kay and Victor began working on their new medium in a research lab modeled on Xerox PARC, where things like Ethernet, laser printers, graphical user interfaces (and with them, the mouse) were developed. In late April, I went to experience the group’s nascent technology, which Victor sees as an antidote to the “inhumane” products he once helped create. Through Dynamicland, he hopes to destroy them, or at least render them redundant by inventing a new medium that does not require users to be chained to an illuminated rectangular screen. The space, which resembles an elementary school more than a lab or an office, was teeming with dozens of visitors gawking at the technology surrounding them, many of them wielding their smartphones like defensive shields, snapping photos of the simulations hovering over every surface.

Dynamicland belongs to a cohort of new Bay Area projects dedicated to freeing us from the tyranny of our devices. But where others have proposed simpler tactics, like disabling notifications, abandoning infinite scroll, and taking “breathers” from one’s screen, the team behind Dynamicland has taken a more radical approach, encouraging visitors to leave their mobile screens in their pockets and marvel, instead, at life-size programmable interfaces built into the lab’s walls and floors and furniture.

A team member handed me a brochure at the entrance: “The entire building is the computer,” it read. “We are inventing a new computational medium where people work together with real objects in physical space, not alone with virtual objects on a screen.” I looked around, waiting for this computer to reveal itself. Instead, what I saw would be more aptly described as a playroom for adults where every surface is a screen; men sat cross-legged on a carpeted floor before a projection of an interactive graph that was beamed down from an array of cameras and motion detectors fixed to the ceiling. Using popsicle sticks and rectangles of white paper lined with multicolored dots, they compared the life expectancy and GDP per capita of the United States, Japan, and China in 1987. The program mimicked the famously entertaining presentations of the late Swedish statistician Hans Rosling, who used data to teach people “how not to be ignorant about the world,” and became a fixture on the TED Talk circuit for his optimistic sermons about rising global prosperity. In a corner, a group lingered in front of a paper display labeled “exquisite corpse”; they knew they were supposed to do something to make the illuminated 2-D corpse come alive, but they couldn’t be sure what.

I wandered over to a small library, where there were couches, books—Einstein’s biography, The Last Whole Earth Catalog, and an encyclopedia of imaginary flora and fauna from a nonexistent world—and relics of computational mediums past (including a Ritz pocket calculator, a slide rule, a West German Addiator, and a weathered copy of The Principles and Practice of the Chinese Abacus). Above, a timeline traced technology’s evolution from cave paintings through written language, the public library, the printing press, disposable paper, personal computing; and then, finally, triumphantly, in 2050 ad, Dynamicland is fully realized and the dynamic medium is born. Standing before this display, in 2018, I had the feeling of both being ahead of time, and behind.

In 96 ad, the Roman Emperor Domitian was murdered in the defenseless position of holding a scroll with two hands. A few decades later, the codex, a predecessor to the modern book made from parchment and string, came into use, allowing readers to read with just one hand and to use the other for self-defense, if need be. At Dynamicland, Victor envisions a similarly emancipatory project, a technological advance that frees us from our laptops and cell phones. “We’ve invented media that severely constrain our range of intellectual experience,” he remarked in one talk. The answer to this problem, evidently, is to free us from our screens by turning everything into a screen, into a computerized, programmable, interactive interface. At one point, the sound of birds chirping filled the space, their songs interrupted by the enthusiastic cries of young programmers milling about before an interactive map of the Bay Area. “This is so cool!” one young man exclaimed.

Dynamicland might seem to be something like a life-size version of Microsoft Paint, or an unnecessarily aggressive enhancement of smart-home technology; in reality, it is something like both of those put together, a world where everything is interactive, where the divisions between the material and the virtual are obliterated, where simulations blanket our physical environment. The dissolution of these boundaries can be useful for things like playing games and presenting information, but it might also seem rather disorienting, and even dangerous, for those of us acquainted with the more inhospitable corners of the online world. For now, Dynamicland is dressed up as a whimsical place that frees its inhabitants from the tyranny of having to periodically glance at their devices, but it is easy to see how this new freedom can quickly start to feel entrapping. Dynamicland was certainly cool, but it was also frightening—if its technology can transform the entire world into a computer, what happens if you want to get out?

A few weeks after the community showcase, I returned to Dynamicland for an official tour led by Isaac Cohen, an artist and volunteer, and Virginia McArthur, the research group’s executive producer, who previously helped bring The Sims to life. On one table, an animated jellyfish—one of Cohen’s many dynamic creations—hovered over a piece of paper labeled “Jelly Rainbow.” He had written the code to connect every program on his workspace: each paper “page” became the end of a wiggling, neon tentacle. In a corner, a live feed of BART arrivals and departures illuminated the painted plaster wall.

By 2050, they hope, Dynamicland will have moved far beyond its Oakland headquarters, spreading into new cities and states not as a curiosity but as a piece of infrastructure, rendering all the surfaces—sidewalks, roads, streetlamps—into dynamic, programmable mediums. Around us, the walls and floors and tables glimmered with simulated shapes and sounds. Staring at an activated surface in Dynamicland is not wholly unlike staring at a screen, but it is far more pleasant: the colors are softer and slightly less alluring, which makes it that much easier, that much more natural, to look away.

“So much of what Silicon Valley believes is that technology can never be bad. But look at the history of what that is,” said Cohen. “I think everyone around here understands that we could really fuck this up, and that’s scary.”

Soon we were shaking hands and saying goodbye. Once I made it back onto the street, I fought the urge to pull my phone out of my back pocket, but I couldn’t find my way onto the freeway without it. Once I found my car, I sat down and opened Google Maps on my iPhone, and reveled, a little bit, in the thoughtless pleasure of listening to the navigator’s soothing staccato voice guiding me home.  

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October 2018

Checkpoint Nation

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Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a three-hour drive to reach home, in the mountains in New Mexico, and she hated driving in the dark.

Sandoval took her place in the long line of people waiting to have their passports checked by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). When it was her turn, she handed her American passport to a customs officer and smiled amicably, waiting for him to wave her through. But the officer said she had been randomly selected for additional screening. Sandoval was led to a secondary inspection area nearby, where two more officers patted her down. Another walked toward her with a drug-sniffing dog, which grew agitated as it came closer, barking and then circling her legs. Because the dog had “alerted,” the officer said, Sandoval would now have to undergo another inspection.

Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk
The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images

Chances an American who voted for Ross Perot in 1992 can no longer recall having done so:

1 in 2

People tend to believe that God believes what they believe.

Nikki Haley resigns; Jamal Khashoggi murdered; Kanye visits the White House

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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