Journey to the Center of the Earth

Destination: Istanbul (and beyond)

(Figured you might want a break from the boiled StyleGAN images: this is an NFT called “Infirmary” that I bought from a Manila-based photographer named Lucius Felimus:

A red roadster streaked through the California dark. An incipient coronavirus outbreak kept the roads open: he, James, downshifted to fifth as the freeway slanted up toward the Grapevine and the LED speedometer nosed 95.

His car was ostensibly Italian, badged as a Fiat, but really the result of a failed collaboration between a Japanese Zaibatsu and an American industrial goliath. Nevertheless, for a man of a certain age and standing it was a thing of beauty, a spare, spry little thing with few embellishments that hugged the curves and attracted conversation at gas pumps (because no, couldn’t bring himself to buy an electric car, he was old school and besides, Teslas look like sow bugs).

The freeway dipped, the navigation system scolding him for exceeding the speed limit again as he slalomed between two trucks on the Teton Pass and hurtled down toward the twinkling lights of Los Angeles and then... he noticed a little squiggle forming on the windshield. The light kept snagging on a streak of muck; he assumed it was an annihilated insect but this was catching the light like a facet, and worse, it was spreading… creeping from one side of the console to the other.

(A little bit of My Cyberpunk Last Week) 

I spent the last month in the Santa Clarita Valley attending to wedding-related things: Erin, my fiancee, and I are getting married soon, and what was to be a backyard wedding has been swelling and expanding, and now there are cakes to taste and catering to sample and dresses to try, and a peacock green suit for me to squeeze into—I went up two coat sizes during lockdown—and on the drive down my goddamn windshield shattered. My car is a blessing, it’s done more for my mental health than a year and a half of intense therapy, but it’s rare: one of about 4,000 built in the four years they sold it in the states, and it took ten business days to source the glass.

The wedding stuff is madcap fun on the good days; peaks when we find a combination of tables and chairs that can miraculously fit three dozen diners and a procession through a backyard, and moments of high drama when a store runs out of tinsel or tassels or white roses, and deep deep lows when the bill comes.

It’s been an amusing contrast with my job, I can reveal it now, I’m a senior research fellow at the Smart Contract Research Forum, where I’ve been editing and proselytizing cryptocurrency research papers: right now the big, big thing in crypto is Decentralized Finance (DeFi), which is essentially taking Wall Street functions (like market-making or derivatives and options) and converting them to math.

It’s generating billions of dollars and threatens to obsolesce the entire financial system within a couple of years, but what’s interesting to me right now is that these pools of electronic money are attracting predators, and so DeFi is blooming an entire ecosystem of malfeasant bots and sandwich attacks and counterattacks (such as the poison sandwich attack), and I keep reading papers referring to Cixiu Liu’s Dark Forest Theory. There’s danger lurking… They try to define the crookedness of the system with measurements called ‘extractible value,’ so you’ll get Miner Extractible Value when the miners take their vig, and Blockchain Extractible Value (the total) and Governance Extractible Value, and, online, the founders of the biggest DeFi platforms—which are gloriously strange, with bounding Unicorn logos and san serif interfaces—squabble with one another and accuse one another of extracting value… anyway, the Wedding Industry makes the DeFi look like tadpoles. 

The sales funnels and motivated decisions and constant pressure and the upselling. If you’ve ever read Robert Cialdini’s Influence you’ll tick through the entire bestiary of manipulative sales tactics with every transaction. It comes across on all channels. I’m not exactly a desirable demographic for advertisers so I usually get a jumbled mass of insurance ads and cancer meds and lots of baldness cures and boner pills and Ford trucks, but all of a sudden online it’s like the Eye of Sauron focused on me because they know! There are cummerbunds popping up for sale and gift packs for groomsmen (sorry Sean, you’re getting a bottle of booze) and plane tickets and helpful guides to diamond cut clarity and color… Wedding Extractible Value is very real. It’s a very cyberpunk sales approach clothed in very un-cyberpunk whites and creams and accent color aesthetic. Cottage-core bridal-punkt, perhaps?

A small blood vessel burst in my left eye. Stress, I think. The most cyberpunk moment I experienced during my three years at UC Santa Cruz was a cursor that used the glint of infrared reflection in a human eye to move around a screen. Which brings me to the point of this missive: In June, the next phase of this Substack will begin.

We’re going global. After the wedding, we move to Turkey. At first, I was hoping I’d be able to adapt a project I’ve been wanting to do about China’s Road and Belt project (essentially a vast infrastructure program for its neighbors to facilitate trade) but I’ve become fascinated with the idea of Istanbul and the Silk Roads as the historical heart of the civilization. I’m guessing that if there’s anywhere that’s a harbinger of the future, it’s on the Silk Road and rumbling toward Istanbul. (Let’s hope it isn’t a hundred battalions of Russian soldiers descending on the Ukraine.) Expect plenty of Belt and Blockchain material, just wrapped up in a bit more historical context than before.

Erin and I will live in Istanbul for a few months, and then move on to other cities. I’m pushing for Moscow. Erin would prefer somewhere sunnier. We’re a little confined by timezones but I think we can make it work.

There will be more opportunities for photography as we travel, so expect to see more of that from me (Santa Cruz isn’t exactly a cyberpunk-friendly photo-scape). I’m also tinkering around with the cadence of this Substack. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

This project is a fine blend of personal memoir, tech, and weirdness: so I don’t want to inundate you, but I also want to make sure I’m providing enough value for my subscribers. I’m thinking this will end up being one juicy well-researched essay per month along with one or two lighter, more photography-oriented pieces. But if you strong feelings please let me know in the comments. Other projects: Maybe some fiction. Maybe some poetry. Definitely NFTs, videos, and maybe an audio version of the essays for subscribers.

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