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FLOWER MOON 2023
The Moon is the Message
I’m feeling a bit paranoid this Flower Moon.
Last night, I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned. Finally, I gave up and started pawing through my phone. There, waiting for me, were advertisements for melatonin, nasal strips for better quality sleep, and an app that provides affirmations to help you overcome fatigue in the workplace.
We all know that the phones we carry are essentially miniature slot machines, but they’re also bugging devices, a fact given away by those too-perfectly targeted ads.
Our phones are listening—and judging.
For years, my feed pointed me toward mental health resources, but recently it’s begun trying to sell me services to attract clients. The algorithm has finally decided that I must be a therapist because no one person could possibly complain this much.
I’ve considered ditching my smartphone but then I don’t want whoever’s listening to know how paranoid I am.
That’s how paranoid I am.
I planned to leave my phone in a drawer tonight and step outside and have a private conversation with the full moon.
But then I remembered that even the Moon can’t be trusted.
During the Cold War, the Navy used the Moon as an eavesdropping device. They built large antennas to capture Soviet radio signals as they bounced off the lunar surface.
The top secret project was only partially successful, though it must be said that the Moon was definitely more cooperative than the other assets US Intelligence used to bug the Russians—cats.
In “Operation Acoustic Kitty,” the CIA actually created a cyborg cat by “implanting a microphone in its ear and a radio transmitter at the base of its skull.”Before being deployed to the Kremlin, the cat was taken on a dry run.
“For its first official test, CIA staffers drove Acoustic Kitty to a park and tasked it with capturing the conversation of two men sitting on a bench. Instead, the cat wandered into the street, where it was promptly squashed by a taxi. The program was abandoned.”
So I’d be careful what you say out there tonight.
Between the echoing Moon and a possible stray in a bush, you should think twice before unburdening yourself to the darkness. The age of the Shakespearean soliloquy, when you could confess to love or murder in peace, is long over.
And on top of it all, you’re being watched.
Not by the Moon you can see but by the moons you can’t see.
According to Trevor Paglen, a conceptual artist who investigates mass surveillance, the night sky is looking back at us:
Over the last fifty years, hundreds of satellites have been launched into geosynchronous orbits, forming a ring of machines 36,000 kilometers from earth. Geosynchronous spacecraft will be among civilization’s most enduring remnants, quietly circling earth until the earth is no more.
These flitting spy satellites are invisible to us. Most artificial satellites can be tracked from the ground because they are outfitted with retroreflectors—optical devices that operate in darkness similar to a cats’ eyes.
Until now, I assumed that my generation’s lasting contribution to the planet would be the internet—the giant pyramid we have all labored to construct. (I think the cat-worshipping pharaohs would approve, since the base of our pyramid is made of cat videos.)
But as it turns out, our permanent contribution to the Earth is these hundred of secret moons. Billions of years from now, long after terrestrial life has died out, they will still be wheeling through the night.
I’m not sure that our contribution is something we should be proud of.
Marshall McLuhan, the media theorist who coined the phrase “the medium is the message,” cried when Sputnik was launched, not because the Soviets had bested America by launching the first satellite into orbit, but because he knew that a sky full of whirling eyes would inevitably change us.
“Do you know what the satellite does to you? As an environment, when it goes around the planet?” he asked. “It’s a proscenium arch. It turns the planet into a stage…”
McLuhan was right.
Today, we live under constant surveillance—much of it self-imposed as we document and upload our daily lives, acting as our own tenacious paparazzi.
Naturally, a certain self-consciousness has set in. A general TV readiness.
According to McLuhan, “Shakespeare at the Globe had seen all the world as a stage, but with Sputnik, the world literally became a global theater with no more audiences, only actors.”
In a few years, when the crew of Artemis 3 bunny hops onto lunar sand, I expect everyone—from news anchors to “man on the street” interviewees—to stay on script, whether it’s written or not. We all know how to perform our selves on screen.
In contrast, when the first Apollo mission landed on the Moon, even the consummate professional Walter Cronkite transformed into a wide-eyed child. “Oh, boy,” was all he could manage as he wiped a tear from his eye.
McLuhan was a techno-prophet. He accurately predicted the Internet age and foresaw our contemporary interconnectedness. Much like a cat at night, he could see better than the normal human when he peered into the darkness of the future.
(McLuhan had other feline attributes. Later in life, he survived a blocked carotid artery due to a “one-in-a-billion” medical oddity: his brain was fed by two arteries at the base of his skull, an anatomical feature found not in humans but in cats.)
Perhaps due to his robust Catholic faith, McLuhan had a rosy view of a future in which the whole human population was logged onto the internet and psychically enmeshed.
“The computer thus holds out the promise of a technologically engendered state of universal understanding and unity, a state...that could knit mankind into one family and create a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace.”
Clearly, he never imagined Twitter.
Nor did McLuhan imagine that the information age would erect another stage.
A hidden theater that only the very paranoid talk about.
It’s called Sentient World Simulation—and I believe it exists.
Announced in 2006, Sentient World Simulation was the brainchild of a Purdue University professor specializing in artificial intelligence and wargaming.
Dr. Alok Chaturvedi described his creation as “a continuously running, continually updated mirror model of the real world that can be used to predict and evaluate future events and courses of action.”
Few media watchers noted the birth of this new technology. One was the tech journalist Mark Baard, who reported for The Register:
“…[T]he US Department of Defense (DOD) may already be creating a copy of you in an alternate reality to see how long you can go without food or water, or how you will respond to televised propaganda.
The DOD is developing a parallel to Planet Earth, with billions of individual "nodes" to reflect every man, woman, and child…
[Sentient World Simulation] replicates financial institutions, utilities, media outlets, and street corner shops. By applying theories of economics and human psychology, its developers believe they can predict how individuals and mobs will respond to various stressors.
Back in 2006, Dr. Chaturvedi’s nascent technology was already being utilized by private companies like Eli Lilly and Lockheed Martin, along with the US government. And while there’s been little news in the intervening years, the silence strikes some—me included—as proof that the program has been deepened, widened, and sucked into the tenebrous world of military intelligence.
While the early simulation was fed a steady diet of news, census figures, and economic indicators, it was also understood to be gorging on the information we so readily reveal about ourselves via social media.
It must be having a feast now.
Everything we say in the presence of an electronic device, literally every step we take with a smartphone in our pocket, could help to refine our digital double.
This is dangerous.
The more accurate our cyber twin, the more easily and subtly we can be controlled. Programmers could introduce something into the simulation—a lost job, a hurricane, a water shortage—and see how we would react. They can poke and prod our virtual Voodoo doll until we do exactly what they want us to. And then they can make that a reality.
The Earth will be a theater, alright. A puppet theater.
But who’s to say our world isn’t the simulation?
What if we are the digital doppelgangers?
It would certainly explain the improbable obstacles we experience in our daily lives. Being left on hold for two hours when you called the pharmacy the other day—maybe that was just an experiment run by a customer service company to see how far you can be pushed before you hang up.
Maybe every misfortune, not to mention every happy serendipity and eerie coincidence, you’ve ever been dealt has been a test to better understand, and thereby manipulate, the other version of you—the one living a real life on a real Earth beneath a real Moon.
It sure would be nice if the programmers would take pity on us. If one of them would enter the simulation to explain the true nature of things. No doubt they would urge us to throw off the shackles of our material wants—those mimetic desires we falsely believe will make us happy—and renounce our worldly attachments. It would be a tough message for the programmer to sell. In fact, we’d probably string him up.
I just took a quick break from typing this newsletter—I required a few bracing snorts of an allergy spray. (It’s not called the Flower Moon for nothing.)
Before returning to the task at hand, I indulged in a brief, compulsive scroll and encountered two ads: one for an antihistamine supplement, the other for an app that promises to ghostwrite your emails.
I’ll admit it—I badly want both of these products right now. And that terrifies me.
The algorithm, clearly intelligent and acquainted with my every sniffle, already knows me intimately, and with each passing second, I have no doubt my digital avatar grows more indistinguishable from me.
I could try acting against my nature, just to throw off the simulation. For example, I could start speaking within earshot of my iPhone about how relaxed and optimistic I feel about the future.
But even then, my evasive gestures will be harvestable data. My zigs and zags will simply outline the contours of my character, plot the outer possibilities of my personality.
Still, I don’t believe we will ever be totally captured.
Humans have a failsafe.
Beginning in the early 1960s, Marshall McLuhan began to glitch. While lecturing a hall full of students, he would fall silent and his eyes would slide out of focus. After a minute, his internal static would clear and he would start speaking again, picking up exactly where he’d left off.
He was suffering from mini-strokes.
Our ultimate defense—what will ultimately save us from simulation—is our physical frailty. As humans, we are always in the process of waxing or waning, growing or breaking down. Unlike an indestructible satellite, we are subject to organic degradation.
McLuhan’s health gradually deteriorated. Even if he ingested every longevity supplement advertised on my phone, he could not have stopped what was coming.
At age 68, a not-so-minor stroke stripped him of his ability to read and write and, aside from a few words, speak.
His genius remained intact, but now it was invisible to the naked eye.
For McLuhan, the loss of speech cut the deepest. A man who had cast verbal spells over the nation with his brilliant extemporaneous riffs on human communication—"He talks in circles, and spirals, and flower forms,” Timothy Leary once marveled—could now only mutter one phrase, which he more or less repeated for hours on end.
The phrase was common and ambiguous, expressing either wonder or the lack of it.
It would have given nothing away to an eavesdropper.
Because it meant nothing.
And it meant everything.
The phrase was “oh, boy.”
See you on the Strawberry Moon!
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