Twice in the late winter and early spring of 2018, I climbed the stairs to the fourth floor of the Fisher Fine Arts Library, a Venetian-Gothic jewel box designed by Frank Furness as the main library of the University of Pennsylvania’s West Philadelphia campus in 1890. It had been years since I’d been inside the building whose open stacks of books I haunted in the early 1990s as a graduate student in the historic preservation program. It is there, for better or worse, that I learned about decoding symbols and interpreting diverse landscapes of industrialization and predatory finance.
I hold a crisp memory of my thesis advisor, a striking German woman with long white hair tucked into a tidy bun originally from the Palatinate who relocated to Oley, PA. We were walking down Walnut Street when she paused to look at me, put her hand on my shoulder, and tell me that one day I would see it; that my family would be protected because I could see it. Thirty years later the ability to sense worrisome artifacts lurking behind consensus reality is a burden I’d like to abandon, but I can’t. I’m still waiting for the upside. I don’t feel protected at all, and my family doesn’t understand me.
The account that follows isn’t about placing blame. I recognize we’re all caught in a terrible machine. Some of us are enmeshed more deeply than others. Some of us are more vulnerable than others. My ability to keep a roof over my head is intimately intertwined with the fate of Philadelphia’s largest private employer. If you believe the press releases, it is one of the best big employers in the nation. I am doing my best to complicate their contrived narratives. My lot is being a gad fly for Ben Franklin’s big project, the University of Pennsylvania.
I consider myself fortunate to have the stability to witness and tell the stories I tell. I harbor some guilt, because many people I care about don’t have that luxury. Still, there is nothing to do but forge ahead honing our skills, learning from our missteps, being human. Hanging back because we are afraid to fail is not an option. So, I choose to chip away at the foundation upon which my world rests with stories and felt dolls and dandelions. This anti-life egregore is nothing you can disarm by military force. Fritz Kunz and Piritim Sorokin were searching for the power of eros, the creative force of the universe. I’ll settle for a tonic of philia, affectionate love, appropriate to Philadelphia.
My significant other regularly points out this institution, one from which we both hold degrees, is not a monolithic presence. Rather it is more like a fractious collection of feuding fiefdoms. The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, which is exactly how systems of power like it. University culture is a civilizing force that rewards deep, narrow, often polarizing inquiry. Academic pecking orders are determined by books published, conference papers given, grants secured, patents filed, the robustness of one’s network. Virtuosos of cultivated ignorance are lauded; plausible deniability abounds. Behind ivy-covered walls chosen ones are conditioned to look to experts to define the contours of their character even as the system guts them and hollows their minds to make room for infusions of submission coding.
Look everywhere but inside your heart where you might unearth your moral compass. Ignore the elephants in the room as the acrid odor of dung fills your nostrils. The war on consciousness and natural life is well underway, but few retain sufficient clarity of thought or a firm enough backbone to call a spade a spade. Their boning knives are so sharp, and the cuts so deft, many victims never realize they’ve been gutted. That was me for decades – the good student, the good mom, the good co-worker, plowing ahead until a lattice of fine cracks began to widen revealing socially conditioned “goodness” to be a flimsy veneer under which a deep psychic wound festered.
And it wasn’t one wound, but many wounds. It was a pervasive network of woundedness, riddled with rot, and papered over with progressive social policy. The prognosis is not good. There’s not yet a cure for chronic domination disorder though symptoms may temporarily be alleviated through superficial social justice performances enacted even as most participants know deep inside nothing is actually meant to change. Cycles of harm run on repeat with increasing intensity, a perpetual gas-lit charade.
On that day, February 20, 2018, Neil Kleiman, NYU professor of “what works” government would be presenting on “A New City O/S.” At the time I was new to Twitter, and I distinctly remember tweeting the question, who decided to put behaviorists in charge of our cities? Who had ordered up this new operating system, which I now understand will be blockchain vending machine e-government tied to digital ID and smart sensor networks?
I grabbed a chair up front to record the presentation and got several pointed questions in at the end about social impact finance. As usual, the self-proclaimed experts seemed to know nothing about what was actually going on, upholding the ruse for an audience who would leave thinking they’d learned something when they were simply being managed through fanciful stories.
A lot more ...
I feel I’ve provided a pretty good tour of the University of Pennsylvania. I hope you have gained an understanding of how I see things – cagey financiers, delusional do-gooders, crafty policy makers, ambitious scientists, and digital storytellers each of whom is living their own drama where they hope to be the hero. So why have I taken you down this winding path? Well, I wanted to let you know that Zane Griffith Talley Cooper is the reason I chose to separate myself from Silicon Icarus.
I’d had some communication failures with Raul the previous month, and when I saw his story highlighting Cooper’s work in Greenland my heart dropped. Not because it wasn’t a well written piece or that rare earth mineral mining wasn’t a concern, but I knew that the Annenberg School of Communication, created by Sir Walter Nixon’s ambassador to England and heir to the Daily Racing Form / TV Guide fortune, was a mouthpiece for social impact propaganda. I’d written about it in 2018, including their push for blockchain media and sham social justice outlets. I’d sent Raul the link to, “Don’t Let the Impact Investors Capture the Non-Profit Activist Media,” a week or so prior to his article coming out.
I asked if we could have a conversation about Cooper, because the nature of his inclusion in the piece didn’t make sense to me. Nor did the shout-out given to him on Twitter. It was not the way Raul normally operated, and I pretty much read and uplifted every piece he’d written over the course of the year. I’m not one to let things fester. You may say I’m blunt or direct or even rude. I’ll own that. But I don’t play games, and people know where I stand.
I never got that conversation. The door was closed, a brief message exchange abruptly ended, and at that point I said I felt we were on different paths and it was probably appropriate to remove me as a contributor. Raul never opened the message I sent saying I hoped our paths would cross again, and that I wish him open pathways on his journey. I’m sure he will continue to do important work. I’d love to think impact finance will be a part of it, but it’s not the first time people I thought understood ended up pulling back and repositioning. As I said in the beginning of this post, this is not about assigning blame. I’m in this machine as deeply as anyone. I even have empathy for Zane Talley Griffith Cooper. It can’t be easy on the soul getting paid to study Web 3 while being expected to be an anti-imperialist in your academic circles. But he did do Beckett naked, so I suspect he’ll probably make it through.
I stepped away from Silicon Icarus not because Raul interviewed Zane or wrote a piece I felt pulled punches, but because my request to talk about it was rejected. I didn’t have ten pages of thoughts when I made that ask, but there were things on my mind – serious things. To my way of thinking friends, real friends, should have enough trust and respect in one another to do the hard work of being human, which can be messy. Two years of support deserved better than ghosting, but we never know what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes. I know he’s facing challenges. I don’t regret making that ask, because I wouldn’t be me if I hadn’t. The hardest part is not knowing if we ever were really friends, and that is the sickness of the Internet folks. It can be a real mind fuck.
But if the past few years have taught me anything, the universe operates according to purposeful if mysterious plans. I’ve had people arrive in my life to teach me and then abruptly leave. Still, we are all connected and so I will end with this passage from Louise Erdrich that I read this past week about waves. The waves are the key – periodicity, cycles, harmony. Edward Dewey knew some things. This paragraph is from “Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country,” page 64.
“Waves – On our way to visit the island and Eternal Sands we experience a confluence of shifting winds and waves. Tobasonakwut shows me how the waves are creating underwaves and counterwaves. The rough swells from the southeast are bouncing against the rocky shores, which he avoids. The wooded lands and shores will absorb the force of the waves and not send them back out to create confusion. Heading towards open water, we travel behind the farthest island, a wave cutter. We slice right into the waves when possible. But we are dealing with yesterday’s wind and a strong north wind and swells underneath the waves now proceeding from the wind that shifted, fresh, to the south. I think if what Tobasonakwut’s father said, “The creator is the lake and we are the waves on the lake.” The images of complexity and shifting mutability of human nature is very clear today.“
Your words touch my heart.
I wish a wave cutter island for everyone who needs it right now – each and every one.
Hug your people.
You never know what tomorrow will bring.