All posts by xenopraxis

PERSONALITIES WITHOUT PEOPLE. Guest Post by Katherine Behar!

Editorial note: The Occulture is delighted, in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica revelations, to publish Katherine Behar’s extremely lucid diagnosis of the dividualizing mechanisms increasingly modulating collective affordances. This paper was originally presented at Tuning Speculation V last November. Thanks to Katherine for her rapid-response, hereby chronoportated!

xenopraxis

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I’d like to begin by vibrationally exchanging some gratitude as yet further creative debt to The Occulture. Thank you David, Ted, Marc, Eldritch, and Rebekah. This conference is one of the highlights of my year and so I’d like to begin with your words, not my own.

In summoning us this weekend, you appealed to the “impossible, imaginary, and/or unintelligible.”[1] Yet, the ideas that I intend to outline this morning will hinge on a notion that the impossible and imaginary is more and more incompatible with the unintelligible. I’ll ask whether, again borrowing your excellent words, the “possibly impossible, and likely unlikely” is, by now, too like the “unknown unknowns and known unknowns” prophesied by Donald Rumsfeld, and so all too vulnerable to militaristic and capitalist cooptation and the general baseness of exchange.

Arguably, quivering indeterminacy is all the more valuable to today’s growing arsenal of speculative/predictive/data-based/probabilistic/etc. exchange practices. And by this I mean not only financial exchange practices, but also social ones. I worry that as a result of probability’s marketplace hegemony on both fronts, it is becoming today impossible to be anything other than possibly? I’ll argue that this has interesting consequences: on an ontological level, for human/nonhuman distinctions, and on a pragmatic one, for politics.

So. My paper today is called “Personalities Without People.” Some Tuning Spec repeat offenders may recall a talk I gave last year in the immediate wake of the U.S. presidential election. That talk concerned the then barely emergent phenomenon of fake news. (And what a year it’s been.) Here I’ll be picking up and picking at a stray thread that I found and ignored in the course of my research last year, that being psychometrics. Secondarily, by approaching data and network ecologies through object-oriented feminism, I’ll try to expose what I see as a feminist quandary within the logics of psychometrics, and predictive data practices in general.

So let’s begin.

In the dazed days following the U.S. presidential election, I was reading obsessively about malignant clickbait and fake news on Facebook when I came across a New York Times article by McKenzie Funk titled “The Secret Agenda of a Facebook Quiz.”[2] And so I stumbled into the orbit of “psychometrics” and a company named Cambridge Analytica.

Cambridge Analytica has surfaced in mainstream news of late so many of you have probably heard of this data firm hired by the Trump campaign. In summary, a couple of high notes:

The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the Senate intelligence committee, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia probe, and now the Senate Judiciary Committee are all investigating Cambridge Analytica. Most recently, the firm made headlines on October 25th, when news broke that CEO Alexander Nix reached out to Julian Assange seeking to team up with WikiLeaks to “help” release Hillary Clinton’s famous missing emails.[3]

Cambridge Analytica is a U.S.-based big data firm that “uses data to change audience behavior”[4] and it specializes in political campaigns,[5] drawing in part on the “psy ops” defense contracting work of its shadowy British parent company, SCL Group.

Mostly, Cambridge works in support of right-wing political campaigns primarily in the U.S. and Britain, although none other than Hillary Clinton noted that September’s overturned Kenyan election was also a Cambridge “project.”[6] Before the Trump campaign, the firm worked on Republican campaigns for Ted Cruz and Ben Carson, as well as the pro-Brexit Leave.EU campaign, among others.[7] And they are also under investigation in the UK.[8]

There’s plenty more to say, particularly about the company’s funders and board members. Rather than indulge my inner conspiracy theorist, and in the interest of time, I’ll refer you to Carole Cadwalladr’s remarkable series of articles on the company in The Guardian, which I highly recommend.[9]

For now a word of caution: It is a fact that the Trump Campaign hired Cambridge Analytica and that Cambridge sent three staff members to San Antonio where they worked with Brad Parscale, the Trump Campaign’s digital director. Cambridge publicly identifies itself with psychometrics, (or interchangeably “psychographics”) and boasts having 5000 data points for each of 230 million Americans. Nevertheless, Parscale, who was interviewed by the House Intelligence Committee on the 24th, has repeatedly insisted that in their work for the Trump campaign, Cambridge was doing things other than psychometrics and was using data other than their own, specifically data obtained above board from the RNC.[10] My skepticism is beside the point. What interests me is less whether psychometrics is unsavory or has been applied toward politically disagreeable ends, and more what it suggests about identity and political subjecthood right now.

So what is psychometrics, and what is Cambridge Analytica up to?

According to Funk, “Cambridge Analytica … has been using Facebook as a tool to build psychological profiles that represent some 230 million adult Americans … by seeding the social network with personality quizzes.”[11]

We’ve all seen them. These quizzes ask innocuous questions like, Do you have a vivid imagination? Do you have a sharp tongue? Do you often feel blue? Do you get chores done right away? Do you like art?[12] The quizzes are a key ingredient of Cambridge Analytica’s special sauce,[13] which combines personality trait-based psychological profiling, micro-targeted advertising techniques, political messaging, and, of course, big data.

When Facebook quizzes ask if we feel blue or promptly do our chores, they are measuring our psychological traits through a metric known as the five-factor model, which assesses the “Big Five” personality traits known by the acronym OCEAN: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Developed in the 1980s, the Big Five metric indicates an individual’s psychological character, priorities, and likely future behavior, and is now the psychometric gold standard. (As an aside, psychological typologies are far older, dating back to Sir Francis Dalton, the father of eugenics.)

But psychometrics caught my attention for other reasons, having to do with OOF.

As it happens, psychometric personality attributes are a near perfect example of secondary qualities, attributes of objects that, in object-oriented theories like object-oriented feminism, become objects in their own right.[14] Gender, race, class, and so on, are attributes that once formed the basis of subject-oriented identity politics, as well as of demographics by referring back to the human subject. But! These secondary qualities of people objects are becoming detachable and remixable independent objects. And the same goes for qualities like personality types. They could be arranged in a formation that looks like or centers on a human individual. But they could just as easily be organized otherwise, taken on their own, without a person in their midst.

This mutability is self-evident not only in psychometrics but also in the data practices we live with day-to-day. The digital systems that saturate and structure our lives quietly repeat this logic to us, with every step we and our step-counters take… joined as we are, at the hip, though only loosely so. I think this is part of a greater collapse under the weight of data of the personal or human that can no longer be neatly isolated from the data-driven or nonhuman.

Even the phrase “identity theft” captures colloquial awareness that something as fundamental as identity is no longer a sure thing. Who we are has become a bad bet: a cluster of data points, at risk of dispersal, falling apart at the seams. Identity theft is adequately scary, but try flipping this logic: What if the identity persists and we’re what’s lost?

In “The Data That Turned the World Upside Down,” Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus follow the story of Michal Kosinski, a Polish psychologist now based at Stanford.[15] In 2008, Kosinski posted “MyPersonality,” a Big Five questionnaire in the form of a Facebook app in an attempt to collect some data for grad school. Innocent enough. He soon had millions of respondents who took the quiz and gamely agreed to donate their profiles for his research. He went on to use this gigantic data set to hone predictive models correlating personality quiz results with Facebook user data, achieving unprecedented levels of accuracy.

Grassegger and Krogerus summarized his published research:

Slide: Kosinski study on Bloomberg

He could use 68 Facebook “likes” to predict skin color, sexual orientation, and party affiliation.

Before long, he was able to evaluate a person better than the average work colleague, merely on the basis of ten Facebook “likes.” Seventy “likes” were enough to outdo what a person’s friends knew, 150 what their parents knew, and 300 “likes” what their partner knew. More “likes” could even surpass what a person thought they knew about themselves.[16]

Eventually he could use just number of profile pictures or contacts, or smart phone motion sensor data to “ascribe Big Five values.”

Kosinski now suspects that Cambridge Analytica’s strategies for influencing elections are based on his methods. The firm created their own quizzes to harvest Facebook data in combination with data acquired from commercial brokers. They drive tremendous offline IRL political action by isolating and influencing uniquely identified individuals using predictive personality typing. Built on top of Kosinski’s predictive data tools, their method takes advantage of Facebook’s massive user base, its permissive privacy policies, and microtargeting.

Microtargeting in Facebook’s advertising platform relies on “dark posts,” newsfeed content items that are seen only by specified users, remaining invisible to everyone else. In his New York Times article, Funk explains how microtargeting of political messaging seeks, to push the exact right buttons for the exact right people at the exact right times. [… For example] a pro-gun voter whose Ocean score ranks him high on neuroticism could see storm clouds and a threat: The Democrat wants to take his guns away. A separate pro-gun voter deemed agreeable and introverted might see an ad emphasizing tradition and community values, a father and son hunting together.[17]

In this way, psychometrics reveals a significant shift. Descriptive demographics are giving way to predictive psychometrics, probablistically modeled on personality types.

For example, according to Grassenger and Krogerus, Cambridge Analytica created 32 personalities focused on 17 states for the Trump Campaign, using data models to isolate the groups predicted to be most actionable, and to feed them hundreds of thousands of ad permutations in dark posts. The targeted groups included potential Trump voters, and potential Clinton voters, like residents of Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood who saw dark posts about the Clinton Foundation’s difficulties following the Haiti earthquake in an effort to persuade them to stay home from the polls.[18]

On October 27th, under pressure from critics and lawmakers, Facebook announced a new policy for political advertising, intended to add transparency to political dark posts.[19] In part, they plan to create a tool for users to see all of the ads an advertiser has sent to isolated user populations on the platform.[20]

While this policy revision is significant, it strikes me that the extraordinary algorithmic variability in these messages would make it impossible for any person to view every ad. Is it going too far to suggest that in their shear number, or dare I say their capacity for speculative tuning, the totality of ads is not well-suited for human consumption? What if not “possibly impossible and likely unlikely” is the human feat of swallowing never mind digesting all of this datic potential?

Parscale used Cambridge Analytica tools to inundate likely Trump supporters with Facebook ads tested in real time to be most effective out of “100,000 distinct pieces of creative content.”[21] They ran 40,000–50,000 variants of ads every day.[22] Human or nonhuman, this over-the-top variability and customization in political content is a stunning repudiation of demographics, which assumes commonality, and which Nix dismisses as

A really ridiculous idea. The idea that all women should receive the same message because of their gender—or all African Americans because of their race.[23]

Now that this is a fairly radical statement that one might expect to hear from a woke intersectional feminist, not the CEO of this company.

This makes me wonder, uncomfortably, if intersectionality itself might be understood as close to woke data mining.

They both participate in a broader trend toward parsing the personal with infinite granularity.

Consider recent social media mob attacks in the name of intersectionality like those against painter Dana Schultz or philosopher Rebecca Tuvel, which exemplify what I call “intersectionality done badly,” in that they make a particular arrangement of secondary qualities a precondition for communication. Without a perfectly—and possibly impossible—symmetrical data match, solidarity is shut down.

Times are strange. Right-wing white supremacists in khakis are rallying around “identity politics,” and leftist gatekeepers are silencing outside opinions by invoking “intersectionality.” Both result in greater isolationism, which I suspect is bred of defensiveness—perhaps an intuition that our own secondary qualities are abandoning us.

As concerning as some of Cambridge Analytica’s practices may be, this isolationism across the spectrum indicates to me that it is part of a larger pattern that is politically agnostic. My hunch is that the exhausting rise of networked data practices contributes to these vehement reassertions of an overbearingly autonomous (hence disconnected) self. Constant data transactions subtly reshape our self-conception as probabilistically computed, contingent, always available, and at-risk. In exchange for tantalizing personalization, personhood is reduced to fragile data constellations requiring continuous maintenance to cohere.

Predictive models do pinpoint people and do produce personalization. But now the metrics themselves are becoming stand-in political subjects. Unmoored from the individuals they once defined, personality types are gaining autonomous agency. The metrics attract politicians’ deference even though they can only be probabilistically or probably? correlated to any person.

What’s more, with Ocean and microtargeting, as Grassegger and Krogerus point out,

“it also works in reverse: not only can psychological profiles be created from your data, but your data can also be used the other way round to search for specific profiles.”[24]

This reversibility is the independence of secondary qualities—attributes as objects with a logic of their own.

They write, “Essentially, what Kosinski had invented was sort of a people search engine.” But notwithstanding real names and addresses, there is no actual person to be found who is “conscientiousness.” People are varying combinations of all five factors. Moreover, speaking for myself, my neuroticism or agreeableness fluctuates wildly based on things like “proximity to lunch” and don’t get me started on how variously I might answer the question “Do you like art?”

People congregate in waffling middles, yet isolationist extremism is undeniably on the rise. Is it the sway of data pushing us, like a centrifuge, to the outer edges of this media ecosystem?

This is exactly the type of polarization that Russian operatives at the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked St. Petersburg troll farm, sought to sow, through dark post advertising, as well as fake Facebook accounts moored in charismatically exaggerated false personalities.[25] As Jonathan Albright, of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, has shown, by posting viral content on so-called “hot button topics” and relying on organic reach, the trolls perverted the intricacies of intersectional communities, and funneled the trust of users who self-identified with content into ever greater extremism, specifically because they calculated that it would lead to apathy and inaction.[26]

Put another way, both Ocean personalities and trolls are nonhuman. They’re in, of, and for data. Psychometrics can only indicate or find abstractions, like “openness,” and anticipations, meaning probabilistic future actions, presumed likelihoods, or possible trends in the data. So, insofar as any person is ever more than a pattern in data, what psychometrics finds with Kosinski’s reverse-look up database is personalities without people—shells or placeholders for a self. And what is this abstraction of pure personality? Maybe a troll.

[1] The Occulture, “Tuning Speculations V: Vibratory (Ex)changes,” The Occulture, March 28, 2017, http://www.theocculture.net/tspecv/.

[2] McKenzie Funk, “The Secret Agenda of a Facebook Quiz,” The New York Times, November 19, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/20/opinion/the-secret-agenda-of-a-facebook-quiz.html.

[3] Betsy Woodruff, “Trump Data Guru: I Tried to Team Up With Julian Assange,” The Daily Beast, October 25, 2017, https://www.thedailybeast.com/trump-data-guru-i-tried-to-team-up-with-julian-assange; David Smith, “Julian Assange confirms Cambridge Analytica sought WikiLeaks’ help,” The Guardian, October 25, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/oct/26/julian-assange-confirms-cambridge-analytica-sought-wikileaks-help.

[4] Cambridge Analytica, “Cambridge Analytica: Data drives all that we do,”accessed November 15, 2017, https://cambridgeanalytica.org/.

[5] Cambridge Analytica, “CA Advantage | CA Political,” accessed November 15, 2017, https://ca-political.com/ca-advantage.

[6] Abdi Latif Dahir, “Hillary Clinton says Kenya’s annulled election was a ‘project’ of a controversial US data firm,” Quartz, September 19, 2017, https://qz.com/1081021/hillary-clinton-says-trump-linked-cambridge-analytica-had-role-in-kenyas-annulled-election/.

[7] Funk, “Secret Agenda.”

[8] See Carole Cadwalladr, “The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked,” The Guardian, May 7, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/may/07/the-great-british-brexit-robbery-hijacked-democracy; see also Carole Cadwalladr, “British courts may unlock secrets of how Trump campaign profiled US voters,” The Guardian, September 30, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/oct/01/cambridge-analytica-big-data-facebook-trump-voters.

[9] See articles linked from Carole Cadwalladr’s Guardian profile page, accessed November 15, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/profile/carolecadwalladr.

[10] Issie Lapowsky, “What did Cambridge Analytica really do for Trump’s campaign?” Wired, October 25, 2017, https://www.wired.com/story/what-did-cambridge-analytica-really-do-for-trumps-campaign/; Sean Illing, “Cambridge Analytica, the shady data firm that might be a key Trump-Russia link, explained,” Vox, October 22, 2017, https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/10/16/15657512/cambridge-analytica-trump-kushner-flynn-russia. See also, Julie Bykowicz, “House Panel to Interview Trump Campaign Digital Director Brad Parscale,” The Wall Street Journal, October 22, 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/house-panel-to-interview-trump-campaign-digital-director-brad-parscale-1508708941.

[11] Funk, “Secret Agenda.”

[12] Cambridge Analytica, “Ocean Personality Quiz: Discover Yourself,” accessed November 15, 2017, https://ocean.cambridgeanalytica.org/

[13] Nicholas Confessore and Danny Hakim, “Data Firm Says ‘Secret Sauce’ Aided Trump; Many Scoff,” The New York Times, March 6, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/06/us/politics/cambridge-analytica.html.

[14] Katherine Behar, “An Introduction to OOF,” in Object-Oriented Feminism, edited by Katherine Behar (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 22–23.

[15] Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus, “The Data That Turned the World Upside Down,” Vice Motherboard, January 28, 2017, https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/mg9vvn/how-our-likes-helped-trump-win.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Funk, “Secret Agenda.”

[18] Joshua Green and Sasha Isenberg, “Inside the Trump Bunker with Days to Go,” Bloomberg News, October 27, 2016, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-10-27/inside-the-trump-bunker-with-12-days-to-go. See also Grassegger and Krogerus, “Data That Turned.”

[19] The New York Times reported that Facebook “will maintain a publicly viewable database of ads purchased on the network.” See Mike Isaac and Daisuke Wakabayashi, “Russian Influence Reached 126 Million Through Facebook Alone, The New York Times, October 30, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/30/technology/facebook-google-russia.html. See also Issie Lapowsky, “Facebook’s Election Ad Overhaul Takes Crucial First Steps,” Wired, September 21, 2017, https://www.wired.com/story/facebook-election-ad-reform/; Tony Romm and Kurt Wagner, “Facebook is taking a stricter stance on political advertising ahead of its testimony to the U.S. Congress next week,” Recode, October 27, 2017, https://www.recode.net/2017/10/27/16555926/facebook-political-advertising-ads-2016-russia.

[20] Lapowsky, “Facebook’s Election Ad Overhaul.”

[21] Green and Isenberg, “Inside the Trump Bunker.”

[22] Martin Moore, director of the King’s College Centre for the Study of Media, Communication, and Power, cited this statistic in Carole Cadwalladr’s “Google, democracy and the truth about internet search,” The Guardian, December 4, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/dec/04/google-democracy-truth-internet-search-facebook.

[23] Grassegger and Krogerus, “The Data That Turned.”

[24] Ibid.

[25] Adrian Chen, “The Agency,” The New York Times Magazine, June 2, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/07/magazine/the-agency.html.

[26] Craig Timberg, “Russian Propaganda may have been shared hundreds of millions of times, new research says, “ The Washington Post, October 5, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2017/10/05/russian-propaganda-may-have-been-shared-hundreds-of-millions-of-times-new-research-says/. See also aggregated links about this research at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism website, accessed November 15, 2017, https://towcenter.org/research-director-jonathan-albright-on-russian-ad-networks/.

 

THE PROSODIAC (or, A PRO’S O.D.)

DARPA, Defense Sciences Office, is seeking individuals with advanced musical training and expertise with audio software environments for a wide-range of research initiatives tasked with the development of disruptive technologies for U.S. national security. Submit CV and statement of interest to DSO-SPW@darpa.mil.

Trawling through the opportunities page on the site of the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency as she sometimes did, X never expected a request like this to surface. What could this musical securitarian collusion involve, she wondered, as her interest received an exponential boost from the coincidence of the position’s requirements with her portfolio. A conservatory-trained violinist turned audial modulator, known on the streets of Chicago as dronegrrrl, she surfaced here and there, loaded with the inevitable dual Samsonites and a massive black camping-style backpack containing all manner of tweeters, preamps, computer speakers, adaptors, all couched against knotted nests of 22-gauge wire. She blended frequencies distilled from recorded soundscapes captured over months—time-lapse recording bringing out the city’s baseline frequencies through slow accumulation—with on-the-fly circuit-bending. Once she used a highly directional speaker to blast out one of her altered soundscapes from an extremely narrow alleyway, effectively amplifying the background drone of the Mag Mile for a split-second as you walked by. Eventually some started basking in the amplification, which drew so much sudden attention that X quickly aborted the intervention. The hidden sides of dumpsters provided usual cover. Not to mention they were good resonators, especially after garbage day. She believed in maintaining strict anonymity, just in case future operations demanded it, just as they had in the past. It made things easier. But now she needed a job, and the prospect of getting an insider’s view of what for her remained a defiantly mysterious entity was too much to resist.

She had instantly forgotten about all of it, until receiving a curt email signed G. Hertzman two weeks later yielding little more than the time and location of the interview and polite formalities. On an unabashedly sunny Monday afternoon, X showed up at DARPA HQ, North Randolph Street, in the Ballston enclave of Arlington, Virginia, a six-story mildly futuristic looking building overshadowed by the Kettler Capitals Iceplex, which was really a massive parking garage. Maybe that’s where the DARPA deep throat meets with reporters, on a skating rink. An intern escorted her to Hertzman’s top floor office, 619. There seemed to be a remarkable lack of people milling around. Maybe they were all in their labs. She chuckled to herself in recognition of what this place would do to her already deeply conspiratorial disposition. The grayish man slumped in the leather swivel that dwarfed him barely noticed the opening door. Throughout he spoke too loudly, as if deliberately misgauging the remit of his speech, and for the first minute or so his gaze remained trained on a green psychedelic ceramic ashtray.

“You were on TV, miss?”

“Uh… once or twice.”

“As performer?”

“Yes.”

“OK. Do you know about speech-song transmutation?”

X didn’t. The formulation appealed.

“Politicians speak in organized ways, and I don’t mean through words…”

Without warning, Hertzman whipped out a handkerchief and began hacking uncontrollably. X thought, this guy’s probably been there since the ARPANET days, when Licklider was around. X had read the latter’s “duplex theory of pitch perception” paper with the expectation that it would give her clues as to how to break open the brain-ear, but found it lacking. Still, he did invent the internet. Further investigation warranted. After a solid half-minute, Hertzman sputtered on.

“They’re literally singing for their supper.”

Pardon?”

“Singing from their point of view… I mean, hearing! To the rest of us, it sounds like regular speech. It’s an old mnemonic trick, and it works to activate aphasics too…. to a certain extent. We’ve all done it, you perhaps more than others. You set a list of things to remember to music… when you remember the melody, the list comes with it, right? Now the problem is you can’t go around singing all the time… well some people do… Reagan… Buckley, heh heh. So you need a way to conceal completely coherent melodies, real tunes, so that they’re only hinted at when the speech is perceived by the… uninitiated. Deutsch uncovered all of this decades ago. You start by recording yourself saying something and loop fragments of different lengths until you find one that starts to turn into music. It’s magic. Something… corrects itself. Like after a few days of wearing those glasses that flip the world upside-down back to the way the light waves actually hit you in the first place! Stratton glasses. You can no longer hear that passage as anything other than music. And then you listen to what comes before and after and it’s like, you’re bursting into song! Listen to Jack Lemmon in the China Syndrome. It’s practically a Broadway musical when he’s in the room! That’s the magic time he talked about. The kicker is that, since your audience hasn’t had the training, they’re not binding these fragments the way you are. But the melodies, in their non-altered state, if you will, are entering them differently, underground. It’s powerfully seductive. Meanwhile, your speaking style remains the same as it ever was, because you dial back the melodic aspect you’ve discovered until it’s just noticeable. You sort of reverse engineer yourself back into the state you started in, but with a twist. It’s consistent. It’s reliable. And you can remember a whole lot, too!”

The act of describing the phenomenon had buoyed Hertzman, now affecting an energetic disposition proper to a younger, Carl-Sagan-type agent from the 1980s, perhaps working on the fringes of science, paranormally. And the hacking had ceased.

“Let me get to the point, miss. You’re here to listen to speeches in order to detect their melodic undercurrents.”

“You want me to… find melodies?

“Yes. By pinpointing fragments in each speech and listening to them on loop until they give way. You’ll have to judge where the loops start and end. It’ll probably take a little doing at first. The main thing though, is this. At times these melodies align with popular songs, or bits of them anyway… and it’s no accident. If you can hijack, subliminally, an association, a positive association, it’s win-win, for you and the consciousnesses of the people you’ve attracted to your cause. When listeners become participants, hearts and minds are synchronized and health is restored. Ku-ber-ne-tes.

On that word, he looked X right in the eyes, for the first time. A Wesley-Clark-glassy-delusional kind of direct, perhaps useful when the stakes of the matter are being acknowledged.

“Your credentials are impeccable, miss. Can you start tomorrow morning?”

X smiled. “I can.” That was easy, she thought, not that she understood what she had just signed up for. Hertzman pushed a small black storage box towards her. On the front of it, hastily scrawled: Trump.

STS

After crashing at an unexpectedly fleabag motel, X showed up the next morning to room 432, no bigger than a conventional walk-in closet, equipped with a laptop and two high-quality Genelec speakers secured to an awkwardly-sized table and a microphone and stand leaving little room to maneuver. The Trump box contained a shiny metallic orange hard drive on which 126 entries were grouped into two folders, “speeches” and “informal,” the former containing everything from his Republican Nomination acceptance to the Inaugurination and the bizarre announcement of his Supreme Court choice; the latter housing a more heterogeneous blend of “remarks,” “statements” and “conversations.” X had been unable to sleep much, for pondering the implications of the task before her. Anyone could do such a thing and achieve stealthy control of another individual’s attention. True, it could cut in multiple directions, and that was fine for a while. But mostly, she couldn’t face the concept of listening to… that President.

Yet face it she did, and the inaugural speech would inaugurate. The hard drive had only one folder, the computer only one application, STS, represented by a nondescript black square icon. On dragging the file onto it, a spartan interface opened, expanding the clip’s waveform to fit the entire screen. There was a resizable yellow bar at the top of the window for setting loop boundaries. You couldn’t play back without looping. You couldn’t loop a segment under 6 seconds, or over 15 seconds, which constrained things rather specifically. And you couldn’t stop the loop once engaged. You had to wait for it to exhaust the amount of repeats specified in advance, that you entered in a dialog box that popped up once the loop limits determined. A sizeable spectrogram covered the lower half of the screen though it didn’t appear to play a part in the process. The summed effect of these weirdly monomaniacal formalisms and lack of interactivity immediately suggested significant work had already been accomplished on the matter and that X had arrived in medias res to fine-tune. Perhaps.

The mic was another matter. Hertzman told her to record herself singing the found melody, as confirmation of a successful conversion. It’s a tune once you sing it, or so the quantum reasoning seemed to go. “First you subvocalize, then vocalize.” He also told her this singing would be recorded and all other operations in STS meticulously tracked, not for purposes of surveillance he insisted (all too performatively), but to precisely record the various spans of time required for full “turning” (as he put it) and to feed this information into a database. That’s one database I want to hear, X thought.

She received a jolt when listening to the ex-President’s inauspicious inception. His schematic way of speaking, condensed into a limited number of pat phrases, repeated often, fast-tracked him for speech-song conversion therapy. There was music everywhere! Not to mention that the speech format—concerned with projection and expression—already impelled more robustly articulated contours. Maybe Hertzman didn’t think she could handle the more subtle technics of melodic extrication required when dealing with the monotone set. If only he knew.

Still, for a while X remained hypnotized by one particular loop from the NRA speech. “But earlier in the evening remember. Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina. Pennsylvania. All the way up we ran up the East Coast. And you know…” X caught herself singing it, remembering the words, on the way to the can and back. Could this be what Hertzman had in mind? No, too obvious. After all, Trump ran with that electoral night story—and did until the end—squeezing it in wherever and whenever he could, and then some. It had nudged itself toward song by virtue of copious rehearsals.

X found a more promising candidate in the Gorsuch nomination address: “Whose qualities define… really and I mean closely define… what we’re looking for.” It contained a signature turn-of-phrase at its core (“really and I mean”), whose musicality radiated in both directions, infecting recalcitrant speech and gently shoving it towards song. This meant a lot more repetition. For the first time, X registered on a somatic level the inertial aspects of her newfound position. She also noted how the rigidity of the procedure (abetted by digital replication) kept the fragment in place during the ongoing morph, ensuring its smooth incorporation. By the thirteenth or fourteenth repeat, X intuited a shift had taken place, retrospectively noticing her bodily rhythms slowly succumbing to the loop, adopting its intensities as their own. Around the 22nd or 23rd, she gained a sense of what it would feel like to sing this emerging melody, subvocalization kicking in. By the 32nd repeat, X felt secure enough to sing the nascent melody for posterity and surely, she thought, for immediate analysis by her superiors. She now felt a sympathetic connection with this tune. That made sense; she had surfaced it in the first place. This fact by the same token uncomfortably exposed how quickly something can be claimed as one’s own, re-ontologized through incantation. More than imagining yourself producing it, you’ve actually created it. You own it. And then a wave of pure revulsion prompted by the thought of becoming connected in any way to that abject meatsack of a president postponed consideration of the conceptual intrigue this weird binding secreted.

THC

The next day at 9 AM sharp, Hertzman, looking particularly frail, stopped in, shutting the door behind him. An uncomfortable intimacy quickened his pace. He reached into his suit pocket for a small pill bottle. He spoke quickly.

“Some analysts use these. THC. Taking one of these will increase your ability to track down contours. The right hemisphere surges and does the work the left usually suppresses. OK, good day miss.”

Hertzman had already departed by the time X could manage acquiescence. Brute force maneuvers dominated the morning, which meant endless repetition. X set an inordinately high number of them—111—for an altogether hopeless fragment in order to carve out a space to think without drawing attention. Something about Hertzman’s account didn’t sit right. Why would politicians go through the trouble of listening to loops of themselves just to remember a speech? Didn’t they all use teleprompters? And isn’t all of this musicalizing only tantamount to standard expressive and rhetorical tactics that seduce and compel? The motivation for this esoteric undertaking eluded her completely. Nor could she find anything on G. Hertzman except that the G. was for Gig and he had a PhD., and that was all exclusively from the DARPA site. Kubernetes was Greek for steersman. Wiener appropriated it to coin cybernetics.

Nevertheless, the process remained fascinating to X, who had noted Hertzman’s use of the word transmutation, signaling the alchemical realm. X’s preoccupation with slow background transformations in the portentous Chicago soundscape opened her to the language and practice of alchemy, and to the transformation of minds and bodies via particular frequency combinations. The transmutations at play here took place differently. It wasn’t just that sense zeroed out after a certain amount of repeats. Any child knew that from repeating words until they deliriously melt into sonic magma. It was way weirder than that, even creepy. The pitches actually changed, adjusting upwards or downwards in order to conform to frequencies that could bind together to simulate the contours of the system of reference X found herself in, the equal-tempered Western scale. X could feel that slip happening, the percept revising itself in small increments. The melodies became more spaced out in range, as if a veil had been lifted. The tune had been there all along, it only needed surfacing. And it happened rhythmically too. Irrational intervals progressively distorted into synchrony with an implied beat. Slow quantization. Even the more intractable elements of a loop behaved as expressive deviations within a secure meter. X came to believe that it was the speech’s rhythmic profile that first tripped the abductive intuition of melodic potential. Perhaps the only significant precondition lurking in this nebulous process. Still, at times you really had to work it. One particular rhythmic intuition, admittedly faint, took 86 iterations before anything resembling a melody became apparent. It felt like a protracted boiling down, but also the worst kind of enforced pareidolia. X wondered, feeling on shaky cognitive ground, were musicians able to better sniff out cues because of some kind of skewed, hypermelodic umwelt? Was that why she was here?

The binding took, as it always did, especially when one’s tendencies to see things through verged on the masochistic. Before divining a new sequence, X accidentally nicked the spacebar into kicking off playback a few seconds before the last conversion and heard the phenomenon described by Hertzman, the springing into music. Only minutes before had X merely suspected the passage suitable for looping; now it was music, incontrovertibly and totally. The discrete interval, the qualitative jump, flashed in an instant the extent of the disfiguration, how far things had strayed. Something in the background, a weak signal, had been boosted. But these weak signals remained weak signals for anyone who hadn’t gone through the loopy maneuvers that were warping her brain. Despite Hertzman’s contentions of subliminal influence, it wasn’t clear that these covert musicalizations could perform as advertised.

X popped the pill after lunch, in need of other stimulations and a temporary deferral of all these questions. It might not have been the best idea. Now, patterns became manifest the second a passage was singled out, in quantum fashion. And practically any passage would do. Like this one: “Some point in the future we ought-a look back and say how did we do it without space.” The nonsensical sentence slotted itself compliantly into the frame of a stuttering, descending melody: a one-note ostinato on E-flat, moving to D for “we ought-a look back and say how did we do it,” then a doubled C on “without” to finally land on A, for “space,” the largest interval in the sequence. But if it was open season, where were you supposed to set the boundaries paramount for any elusive melody to emerge? Even accounting for the restrictive frame set by STS, no human could possibly assay all the options.

619

On the morning of the third day, exasperated by two days of stumbling around, X visited Hertzman, who this time instantly broke his ashtray fixation, summoned by her somewhat impulsive entry.

“Miss?”

“There must be a way to get there faster. Surely a computer could process the speech, extract possible melodies, compare with existing tunes, a Shazam-like thing, all in milliseconds!”

Hertzman gestured X to sit as Sagan surfaced again, smiling for the first time.

“Heh heh. If it doesn’t take off after one hundred and eleven, it’ll never get there! Hahaha.”

He knew of the temporal transgressions, but continued as if they didn’t bother him.

“It’s not that it can’t be done with computers. We are doing it. As well. The thing is, a computer doesn’t get infected the same way a human does. Do you know about primers?”

“No.”

“Some musically gifted folks developed odd tics after undergoing absolute pitch experiments. They started spontaneously humming tunes they had never heard before. The theory is that they were… incubation media for earworms later harvested for corporate purposes. Priming for something to come, get it? These primers self-generated the earworms, somehow, and then jettisoned these accursed things by humming them out. It’s a well-known technique. Many subjects had Williams-like dispositions… they were bursting with song and couldn’t wait to spread the earworms around. Their brains and vocal cords both were humming! Amazing generators! The hooks would either catch on, become pervasive, or die out. It was hit and miss, but… essential that the earworms be human generated. Some sort of program for stimulating this generation must have been implanted during the PET scan. Do you understand?”

“What part?”

“That what we’re interested in is the way your particular inclinations modulate the machinic process. Lick used to say ‘it’s the coupling, stupid!’ The computers provide the speed and accuracy, the humans bring flexibility and intuition.”

Hertzman shook his head slowly, caught in a timewarp. “Computers. Heh. Invention, the mother of necessity. We can design speeches, put them in other people’s mouths, which are of course beautifully simulated visually. That was a tough nut to crack. Working on that since the 90s. Sound of course is porous from the get go. I’m assuming you know about VoCo through the consumer end and maybe some of the work we’ve done, though I can’t talk about a lot of it, naturally. Yet, anyway.”

It dawned on X that Hertzman had been singing his last few interventions. Could that be? It seemed implausible that the speech-song effect, which after all required a particularly vigorous kind of shepherding into existence, could jump scale to prime phonic encounters willy-nilly. Surely not after only two days at it? And Hertzman might just plausibly be a master at covert melodicizing, able to slip into that mode at will.

“The truth is, machine audition has not matched the detection sensitivity and flexibility of the human auditory system. You hear into the backgrounds of things, miss. We want to know… how you deal with all of this.”

Hertzman’s speech-melody had slipped into an even more concrete articulation, with a mid-80s affectation, redolent of a cheesy Foster-era Chicago tune.

“The neural circuitry in the temporal lobe that controls pitch salience, right hemi especially, gets aroused while the semantic side retreats. It whisks the speech away from its communicative function towards more shadowy realms of experience.”

Retreats, my ass! X defiantly attended to the content of Hertzman’s florid speech, to reverse the process. A bad feeling came over her, the one that always accompanied an impending crossroads. The melody began to flicker out, the speech crossfading itself back into its unquantized, untempered mode. The veil back on. Fuck. Hertzman had not been speaking any differently than before.

“Broca’s area takes care of the syntactical part. And there’s an intense amount of activity in the motor and pitch areas when you’re looping. Speech and music were neurally one before the secession. Language used the repetition endemic to music to jumpstart itself into existence! Bindings of sounds become words that go on their merry way, while music careens off the deep end.”

“You need musicians… to pick up the melodies, the rhythmic cues, as a shortcut… to jumpstart the process, right?”

“Well… yes and no. Musicians are good at pinpointing but, as it turns out, take longer to convert speech to song. They’ve been conditioned to hear pitch within a relatively rigid framework, which is hard to let go of. The pitch alterations that occur happen slower for them. They detect something in the background, on a pre-conscious level, but can’t close the circuit as quickly. It’s that effort we’re interested in. You’re here in more of… an exploratory capacity. And in no small part because of your software expertise. You have first-hand knowledge of the methods by which one thing can transmute into another. Though I have to say, when you finally did close that circuit, when you sang those melodies out… you fashioned that malarkey into something really gorgeous.”

X contemplated the prospect of being another organism probed for data, a suitable biological medium from which to extract better methods of subliminal control for more insidious persuasion schemes. If I quit, I have to do it now, she thought. And then, having reached that conclusion, another trajectory imposed itself, the way that crossroads, even arbitrarily designed, clarify stakes in an instant. Sure, knowing what operational levels the agency worked on, and what they considered promising lines of investigation, even if completely crackpot, could come in handy. Useful intelligence for blowback ops. And clearly, the insufficiency of Hertzman’s explanations pointed to deeper implications lurking, surely connected to “disruptive technologies for U.S. National Security,” a matter which hadn’t really been explained. There was that primer thing too which, though saturated with the earmarks of a gonzo CIA initiative, appeared to pose certain mysteries for Hertzman, an “all-knowing” type, at least from his demeanor. More visceral motivations clamored. The momentary attunement X felt moments before was signaling something, even if its cause couldn’t be identified with any certainty. It was peculiar enough hearing speech as music after the requisite effort, yet quite another, altogether shocking thing, for the procedure to metastasize into everything, coupled with the even more extraordinary ability to turn the filter off at will, which left X dumbfounded. A weird circuit had been activated, a new form of transit between modes of perception and production that X would want to trip repeatedly, perhaps with this job as useful cover.

TC

X couldn’t believe it. Tony Conrad was standing outside of the main DARPA entrance. He double-taked on catching sight of her, and burst:

“You gotta be kidding! You? Here?

“What do you want me to tell you? Infiltration, maybe? What are you doing here?”

“I figured, when in Arlington, visit DARPA, right? They must have loads of interesting information about things even we never thought to suspect, the paranoids we are! Good thinking, I know. Even people who work there probably don’t know the whole of it. You think I can ask someone about that Cuban thing? What are they getting you to do?”

“Speeches that become songs… politician speech… I spent the day with fucking Drumpf…”

“Oh fuck! Really? Well you know what I always say about melodies. They’re for control! But they’re way out of control now, like hoaxes that perform beyond their intended function. They fuck a whole lot more things up… very proactive. Melodies… they’re major brain operations… quantum operations. When you hear music you’re in the past, present and future at the same time! Temporalities are… what’s that Barad word? Entangled! Hey, what’s your safe song?”

“My what?”

“Your safe song. The one that gets you out of trouble up there, if you know what I mean.”

“Uh…”

“Well get one! Mine’s Wild! Dee Dee Sharp. “And I knoooooow…. in the end… you’re gon-na leave me, my friend.

– xenopraxis

THE RESTRICTED AND THE GENERAL

Deep Throat was slouched against a pillar at the north end of the underground parking lot we used to meet in. It had been over 40 years, but the vagaries of chronoportation made it seem like just yesterday that we had gathered in the detritus of the crumbling Nixon administration. When early warning signs began to surface in the folds of the incipient Trump regime—war on the press and an “enemies list”, the Attorney General firing (redolent of the Saturday Night Massacre), vindictive leaks, generalized paranoid disposition—I thought it prudent to flag DT in the usual way, by sending out a tweet I knew would meet its target: “A friend in need is worth two in the bush.”

DT evidently needed to get this stuff off his chest as quickly as I wanted to hear it. He wasted no time. I had missed his familiar nicotine rasp. “The alt-right can’t believe their luck. We’ve witnessed a comedy of errors performed by individuals who don’t realize their status as relays. Pepe was a stupid frog before Hillary, or her campaign rather, consolidated its totally uncoordinated associations into an operational white supremacist meme. All kinds of bad adjacencies came from that particular shout out. Look who’s getting press beyond their wildest dreams. The obstruction of Milo’s Berkeley thing consecrated him as a free speech advocate and hapless victim of censorship. Touching… And thanks to Time, reporting on one insignificant rally, Lügenpresse, a Nazi-era neologism is back in style. Look at it travel now. And on and on. It’s incredible. Such disproportionate attention for so little effort. The network is the intelligent agent in this story. These are people caught off guard by their sudden ascendency to power. But you better believe some of them already have a pretty sophisticated understanding of how… thought-forms gain traction. It makes me sick to admit it… but Trump was right about one thing: people don’t understand the internet. There actually have been fewer executive orders than in Obama’s first month, but everything amps up so quickly now… 8 years makes a lot of difference to a relayist. Heh.”

I mumbled something about the lack of cannily infectious alt-left memes as countermeasures, quickly summoning DT’s devastating eyeroll.

“Make your countermemes! You might get lucky. But it’s going to start to feel like a futile activity, upping the ante with no foreseeable end to it. And all that time, you’re training algorithms, fine-tuning them with every one of your contributions. Machine learning. You toss these things into the social media feedback vortex and they either intensify… stimulate other lines of pursuit, or die off when replaced by the next thing. The same tactics Anonymous used in their 4chan stage are now popping up with a distinct alt-right flavor-of-the-month. Same logics, different valencing. People are watching especially closely for how this shit territorializes. Material effects. It’s like what happens when tics escaping from the motor system’s random noise generator unexpectedly become conscious. You remember the Times a year after Shock and Awe, oh so contrite, “sorry about the cheerleading.” Retractions never cut it once the hyperstitional card has been played and effects have multiplied a thousandfold. You think sober rationality is supposed to dial it all back just like that? Heh. Christ, The Daily Show has scads of interns trawling through limitless archives to catch contradictions, and yet the President’s handlers can’t be bothered to clean up the deleterious flotsam and jetsam, like tweets expressing the exact opposites of his current positions? Or are they ordered not to? The paradigm has shifted, baby. Milo got it good though… taken down by a 16-year old girl! I’m not saying things never backfire…”

Gitanes drag. Time to get a word in. “But Trump…

“Pfft, Trump! Trump is a… surface. The first few weeks were pinging time. His handlers feed him key words to emphasize in his appearances, which are carefully scripted make no mistake, and then run some pretty sophisticated analytics to see how they play. His vocabulary is so limited it’s a default position anyway. It’s pure mètis. That’s the Ancient Greek practice of cunning intelligence. Economy of effort. Leveraging existing conditions, to achieve… wildly incommensurate effects. The Muslim ban. A gauche mess, you say? Or did they make sure it was unconstitutional, to see how much pushback would entail? In the meantime, the real game-runners are using these forms of restricted chaos to craft more meticulously duplicitous policy. They and their machines are learning. But that… meatsack in the Oval Office is ultimately uncontrollable. He’ll bury himself. Someone will get hold of his Echo feeds or something heh heh…”

Restricted chaos?”

“Yeah. You know, fake news… disinformation, which is more accurate. There are pingers everywhere, seeing how plausible a rumor has to be to stick around long enough to jump scale. Pizzagate. These incursions are relatively short lived… and their remit is restricted. It’s mostly obfuscation, generating a sea of distracting similes that make it impossible to establish any kind of coherent position. Here’s something to pass around your circles. There’s evidence that exposure to constant low-level meaningless noise actually damages the brain’s capacity to perceive speech subtleties. A few branches have been talking about this. The researchers meant noise acoustically, you know like living next to an airport. But the expression applies. These equivocations, turnarounds, hasty maneuvers—which are perfectly crafted, I repeat—Bannon is a media whiz and don’t forget it—psyops, man… These constant disturbances are causing brain damage. The cut-up artist has to understand that.”

“You can check up on these… reports.”

“Sure, but like I said, the effect has already taken hold. It’s constantly taking hold. It’s a relatively insuperable thing. And debunking takes time, besideswhich.”

“Why not just give as good as you’re getting?”

DT shook his head. “You need something a couple steps ahead… or before. Memes, disinformation, fake news are only the surfaced edge of what I’m talking about. Meanwhile, the deep state continues to chug along. You’re not worried enough. Where are the psychoacoustic tacticians? Where is alt-DARPA in all of this? I’ll give you this: the fact that one of these pro-Trump meme campaigns was instigated and bankrolled, secretly, by a high profile individual in the virtual reality industry, which is already shall we say invested in rewiring perception, should already tell you a lot. It’s the compact between technics, the brain and control that needs your attention. The compact that intervenes before consciousness can do anything about it. Creating the right ambient conditions to rearrange all kinds of concepts. How do you make something inaudible? Now that’s a question. I don’t mean acoustically, but… psyoptically! DARPA is all over the map in terms of what they’re looking at, and they will continue to be, Republican or Democratic administrations alike. And their type of chaos is… more comprehensive. To see these Democrats openly singing the praises of the deep state—‘our brave CIA operatives’—is truly terrifying. Look at Stuxnet, for fuck’s sake! Ugh… And remember too that Watergate wasn’t about dirty tricks, it was about protecting the deep state. The people really running the show are already making inroads to it, even while they berate the agencies publically… Certain factions are keeping information from Trump now. Like I said, it’s increeeedible.”

That look of blank desolation washed over DT, the one that always surfaced after meeting with Kissinger. Change the subject.

“Did you see the Face2Face ventriloquy thing that was making the rounds a few months ago…”

“Hm! That’s more like it. At the bureau, we call it the rubicon.” He pulled out his phone. “Rubicon. ‘A limiting line that when crossed commits a person irrevocably.’ It wasn’t so long ago that people were saying you can engineer a plausibly real fake recording with consumer software that could dance around any edit detection script, but where visual duplicity is concerned, forget about it. Well we’re there. And you of course know about what they call photoshop for audio, that listens to you speak for a half-hour and then can speak anything in your voice. It can take over from you as long as you feed it a script. Another rubicon. Sound plus image. There you go. The timing… and combination… adjacency of these advances with this particular administration is kairotic… but they’re only the continuation of something deeply abiding. It gets to the point where the average person doesn’t even know what they don’t know in terms of future, or even present capabilities. You’ve got computational models that analyze Facebook “likes.” With 150, it knows you better than your partner. What about a thousand? It knows what you want before you even know it. Bannon’s big data affiliations and dark web obsessions married to a belief in immutable economic cycles worthy of fucking Kondratiev, all suggest a man willing to dissolve the state into a machinic cybernetic operation, without checks or balances. Meanwhile, Facebook—an agent actively carrying out psychological experimentation on you without your consent—wants to be… a nanny state? Oh… I’m exhausted just thinking about it. These enhancements are outpacing… have outpaced our ability to grasp their operation. These are portals. Their xeno—…”

A massive tire screech instantly turned my head. (Machinic interpellation?) In the time it took to fleetingly glimpse the tail of a vehicle careening up the exit ramp, DT had volatilized.

NEXT EPISODE: How To Build an Egregor That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later.