The Reality Czar

On GME, DeFi, magic and beyond...

One moment some of my more financially sophisticated friends were joking about bidding up the price of Gamestop shares, the next moment the stock price was going parabolic. 

Then came the crackdown, which looked like something out of a 21st Century cyberwarfare playbook: first communications were disrupted, the communications platform Discord suspended investors’ efforts to coordinate; then came OpEds and commentary to vilify and discredit the tech-bros and meme investors, and when that didn’t work, the platforms closed positions. 

Wall Street Bets (which was the community coordinating entity behind the notorious GME short squeeze) made money at first, as the soaring prices forced the hedge funds who’d over leveraged themselves shorting the price of Gamestop shares to hemorrhage money (apparently nearly $70B was at risk) but the strangled deal flow put the brakes on speculation, and the momentum sputtered out, and now, a week later, the movement has mostly collapsed. 

The promise of safe, centralized financial platforms like Coinbase, Mastercard, Charles Schwab or Robinhood was always that your assets were being looked after by relatively benign entities whose interests align with your own, so long as your credit score was decent and you didn’t call customer service too often. Which made this so surreal. It was as if Walmart slammed the doors on Black Friday. It was also  reminiscent of other, creepy, paternalistic attempts to strangle crypto speculation in 2018 and more recent massive, network-effect busting attacks on amateur sex workers and political organizing.

Robinhood and CoinApp blamed the third-party brokers who provide shares to them. Their investors started taking a closer look at what this free service they were using was really providing. Ugly realizations followed. Robinhood made much of its money selling customer data to hedge funds and institutional investors, so why wouldn’t these hedge funds also be able to pressure Robinhood to change the rules when it suited them?

Robinhood probably did need to close those trades, and you can’t fault Discord for turning off the communications spigot given the public fury and demands for squelching disinformation after the Capitol Hill “insurrection.” But the errors being made only ever seemed to go in one direction. 

All of a sudden decentralized finance looks mighty tempting. You can use blockchain-based settlement and peer-to-peer networks to bypass third parties entirely, which puts sophisticated marketplaces, high interest savings and financial instruments into the hands of anyone who asks for it. Better yet, you own your assets until the moment you decide to trade them. Then you pay a small “gas” fee for the transaction to be processed and it just happens without ever involving anyone else. There’s no need for a clearing house, no need to wait two days for a trade to post, it all happens over a vast decentralized computer called Ethereum (or whatever we end up using).

Most of our current financial infrastructure is ancient, based on protocols developed in the 70s, 80s and 90s (and hastily repaired in 1999 before Y2K struck). Crypto promises to build a completely new financial ecosystem that simply routes around the existing one. 

I don’t think we’re quite at a place where something like Robinhood will send millions of retail investors to decentralized exchanges yet. The layers are being built: there are oracles feeding real world data into the blockchain, there are world computers, there are decentralized exchanges and companies working to tokenize stocks (effectively host them on the blockchain) but it hasn’t all come together yet. Eventually we’ll just ask our natural language processing agents to execute a trade and it will just happen, unless we’ve ceded all investment to decentralized automatic organizations. All that will happen, it’s just a question of when and which platform will be used.

What was shocking to me to behold was how quickly the Robinhood debacle lifted the veil on an ossified, deeply unfair yet integral part of the structure of the society we’ve all agreed to live in.

In India there was a roving team of citizen scientists called the Rationalists who would get together and expose mystics and mass hysterias. The Wall Street Bets yanked the foreskin back on a reality-exposing event on par with the storming of the Capitol. As the kids say these days: Definitely the same kind of energy.

*

There was a party trick that used to disturb me deeply as a kid. 

I saw it for the first time at a campsite in Rishikesh. Reminds me of crowd surfing at a concert. One guy lay down on the river sand and everyone else surrounded him, crouching down with their fingers and palms extended and somehow, through some magic of coordination, they hoisted him in the air and ran around until someone tripped and they all went sprawling.

I’m sure it was fun. At the time I was an officious little monster, solitary and secretly tortured with self-imposed rules and ridiculous superstition. There were entire categories of food I wouldn’t touch. I wouldn’t step on pavement cracks and if something on my desk were slightly askew I’d be paralyzed with discomfort until I put it right. (Even today reading all the 19th Century superstition in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer feels unbearably revealing). The party trick didn’t fit, and it drove me crazy. I was roused to give a campfire speech decrying the “stupid mysticism of it all.” 

At the end I remember hurling something into the flames for emphasis and the explosion of sparks and embers twisting up into the starry sky.

India (where I grew up in the 1990s) was filled with inexplicable things. There was a mass hallucination involving statues of Ganesh sipping milk. At a temple in Ladakh I watched blindfolded monks clamber the crumbling  ramparts of a thousand-year old fortress, and sprint and leap. My dad arranged an exorcism at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, and the staff swore the series of strange coincidences that had been plaguing them came to an abrupt halt that very day. 

It seems like we keep running into these massive reality bending shocks. 

Fifth generation warfare is about sparking and manipulating eruptions of enthusiasm. But so many of these eruptions seem more like natural phenomena. I never made the connection between the beautiful, brutal, confounding Subcontinent and my own pseudo-mystic convulsions. But I should have. Confronted with a void you can’t help but project yourself in.  One of the recurring themes of Our Cyberpunk Now is how uncertain and strange the future promises to be. We’re surrounded with reality warping events these days. How do you anticipate and react to something like WSB?

*

Pac-Man, the paleolithic video game character provoked a reality bending event in the 1980s. These days videogames are an enormous industry, much larger than they ever were during the first craze in the early 1980s (wonderfully documented by Leslie Berlin in Troublemakers). But they don’t have the same impact as they did back then. Nowadays games have been fully absorbed into the fabric of society, sure they’re bigger than books, bigger than Hollywood and the NFL combined (or whatever it is) but there’s no way the next Zelda release comes close to inspiring the ferocity of enthusiasm that Pac-Man did. 

There were songs and soft drinks and dances and crazes. He devoured culture for a couple of months. The reason why, at least according to Noah Wardrip-Fruin, is a simple change the representation of meaning in video games.

In his book HOW PAC-MAN EATS, Wardrip-Fruin traces Pac-Man Fever’s transmission vector to its source. It was the act of eating, the semiotic lift from a game representing a collision between two objects to one representing a collision between two objects and calling it ‘eating.’ Pac-Man became more than Pong’s disembodied paddle or a spaceship blasting defenders. He became a ‘he,’ an entity with needs and desires—a greedy puck imbued with enough narrative to project a story into. 

It was sorcery, really, the same strange wonderful thing that happened with abstraction in painting. A space and structure to project unstructured stimulus into.

Wardrip-Fruin was my last in-person interview at UC Santa Cruz’s Baskin School of Engineering, where I was working as a public information officer, taking bewilderingly complicated ideas and technological breakthroughs and trying to pitch them to local television news stations. 

I’d take something like DARPA-funded drone swarm and dumb down the abstract, add a few quotes and send it off with a subject line saying something like: “Santa Cruz builds a drone arena!” Coming into the job, programming was the most forbidding thing to think about. (Other than writing about dynamics in applied math.)

To an outsider, coding seems magical, especially the more exotic forms of it like the machine learning algorithms I used to generate the illustrations on here. We’re visual creatures, we humans, and it’s amazing to watch networks seize little bits of texture or pattern. For this latest project I scraped two databases of Audubon images the other day and fed them to the same algorithm; the model caught something I’d never noticed about Audubon’s prints before: his love for goopy, Disney-cute eyes. After 5,000 iterations, a combination of vituperous quadrupeds and North American birds all the images look like cute octopi. 

Writing about code, you quickly realize how kludgy and human it is, especially once you start trying to do it yourself. It’s a very personal process, as intimate a connection with your mind as writing poetry. 

At UCSC there was a computer scientist who insisted on decorating the page dedicated to her bot-hosting language’s webpage with pinks and purples and rainbows and girlish flourishes. Now I can see why she did. Why discourse about identity politics and coding is so fierce. Coding feels like automatic math at first, but there’s more, you get it to do things like draw a line or store something in a database. It really feels like the limit is your own knowledge of the stuff. 

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, yeah, yeah… I know. I met Arthur C. Clarke once in Sri Lanka. I did a year of therapy which ended a few months back. The diagnosis was Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (mostly from being a sensitive young lad in a chaotic developing country). I think of it almost like contamination of a database of memories. The way my Audubon model smears into nothingness if I toss in a few street signs, is the same way head scrambling trauma warps my own system of belief and behavior. As a child that contamination manifest as a nearly deranged obsession with superstition, especially the IChing; later as my database continued to fill, the malady evolved into a st- stammer that was so intense I couldn’t communicate for months, followed by about a decade of destructive near-alcoholism and fury. Coding and thinking and how our memories modulate our behavior are all very different things, but it feels like they’re all blending together and maybe they are.

We’ve spent the last year mostly trapped in our houses and connected to an ocean of digital stuff, digital content, digital coins, digitized versions of loved ones, glitchy zoom meeting with loved ones, feeds of funerals, births, deaths and revolutions; it’s all seeping out and garbling us, and everything else, even our DNA can be digitized and mucked about with by computer, and it really feels like we’re in the primordial ooze of a new era, waiting to sprout little nubby legs to go prowl on the shore with.

*

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder sufferers tend to self-medicate by creating soothing cycles for themselves. If you’ve ever taken a bad dose of mushrooms and been caught in a cognitive loop it’s very similar: The idea is that it gives them (us) a grip on reality. It might be throwing the I-Ching or get drunk into oblivion and profoundly hungover the following morning. It’s a cycle you can understand and structure your reality around.

During the worst of my self-imposed trauma, which I guess in the old days they would call a crackup, when I was in the middle of a divorce and broke and so tense it was almost impossible to write, I found a self-published monograph about hunting Bigfoot. 

While I pursued the story I allowed myself for a couple of silly weeks to become slowly drawn into the conspiracies and scraps of evidence and mad schemes like blasting pornography into the woods to flush the Sasquatch into firing range and it wasn’t until a little acorn hit the tin roof of my porch that I realized how distorted my thinking had become. Sasquatch are said to hurl rocks at campgrounds and I realized in that moment how easy it would be to mistake a small sound for a large animal if you were in the right frame of mind. In any case, thinking about all the strangeness and chaos and the way I’d always leaned back on mysticism when I was really doing poorly, I went looking for another monograph. 

After all, magic and the occult are in right now.

*

I found a researcher who didn’t want to be identified, but might be the most cyberpunk person I’ve met. She used to be a project manager but started writing romance novels, which were incredibly successful and allowed her to un-peel herself from the rat race. Nowadays she lives in a trailer in a western wasteland, running several startups, including one that was based on a machine learning copywriting model that I was worried would eventually replace my job at UC Santa Cruz. Today she’s funding a comprehensive meta-study of magic and the occult. The results, she says, are very promising.

I reached out, expecting her interest in the occult to be related to her artificial intelligence startup, but she dismissed the idea immediately. “My interest in occult has nothing to do with artificial intelligence,” she said. Instead, the practice was something much more personal. em. 

“I struggled with a very distressing medical issue that was the source of a lot of anxiety for me,” she said. “I worked with a number of medical professionals, and we tried a number of things and none of it was successful and I gave up on it and accepted that dealing with it was part of my life, figured I didn’t have anything to lose playing with [chaos magic], and after six months after doing a pretty heavily emotionally charged ritual it just resolved itself, I’m not claiming that’s due to the magic, but it was an amazing coincidence.”

She went from chaos magic to experimenting with Tarot cards. “I went through a kind of cycle playing with magic and the occult,” she said, “I go from thinking it’s all nonsense to watching all these coincidences stack up to wondering whether I’m just cold reading myself and convincing myself there’s something there when there isn’t. It got to the point where I had to have an answer, so I started paying my researchers to look into it.”

She assembled a team of researchers and began compiling what could be the world’s largest database of occult information, going in and doing a meta-study of all the existing scientific studies. The hope is that they’ll be able to glean a grand unified theory of what’s going on.

“One of my goals is to create a materialist primer on the occult,” she says, “I wanted to know if there was a way to explain this stuff to STEM science types that doesn’t require digging into Aliester Crowley throwing stuff through mirrors. I want to create a really pragmatic 2021 guide that says here’s what we know about all the literature and research and here are some of the questions I want to put out there and suggest some answers to.”

As she’s become closer to the material, she’s found herself using it less and less. Ethically it makes sense. If you believe that magic can influence the behavior of other people, it would be cruel to force someone to fall in love with you, for example, and if it does impact the world, not all of the impact would be predictable. There might be magical pollution. (Or a price to pay in the afterlife.) She hesitates to attach any of her ideas about the occult to a system of belief. She won’t say whether there’s an afterlife or spiritual realm beyond. “The bottom line is that it’s impossible to know what’s going on”, she says. 

But the mechanism is very similar to prayer and invocation. 

“Does it matter whether you pray to Athena or hold some kind Jungian archetype in your head?”  She questions how much of a connection contemporary religions have to the divine, but thinks they’re occupying the same space. “Years ago [the church] made an effort to consolidate all that power and hide it behind a barrier, and that barrier is very comforting for most of us.”

As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to realize that I shouldn’t count on being the first to sprout nubs. We compute as we exist; on a certain level our intellect is an attempt to model the universe and make predictions, and use those predictions to out-maneuver the clock cycles of enemies and prey. The hope is that her research and her primer might provide a kind of guide to a power that could contain the increasingly strange, messy forces shaping our lives. I hope she succeeds. 

The mass coordination of people seems capable of magic, or something resembling it. Now that the Wall Street Bets event has passed, I noticed that Mark Cuban and Elon Musk joined the fray, prodding the price of Bitcoin up and encouraging the hordes of speculators. I don't think they're up to no good, but I do know that the whims of the very rich and powerful can change quickly. It must be easy for them to forget how vulnerable most of us are to a glimmer of hope that suddenly fouls.

Perhaps her primer and unpredictable coordinated madness like the storming of Capitol Hill and the short squeeze might leach a little of power back into the hands of the rest of us.