Per Lex’s request, on this, the day America laid siege to Boston, MA, interrupting the otherworldly disputations of many a Brahmin:
Noted American science fiction writer Philip K. Dick once observed:
The ultimate in paranoia is not when everyone is against you but when everything is against you. Instead of “My boss is plotting against me,” it would be “My boss’s phone is plotting against me.”
My boss’s phone is rather nondescript. It’s color is a few shades darker than full oppression gray. It whimpers with the soul draining anonymity of the standard corporate VoIP phone design. It has a gray LCD, gray buttons with obscure functions, and an incomprehensible gray user manual.
It frequently finds itself on sales calls.
If it was a person, it would have no face.
My boss’s phone lacks the personality of the door from Ubik:
The door refused to open. It said, “Five cents, please.”
He searched his pockets. No more coins; nothing. “I’ll pay you tomorrow,” he told the door. Again he tried the knob. Again it remained locked tight. “What I pay you,” he informed it, “is in the nature of a gratuity; I don’t have to pay you.”
“I think otherwise,” the door said. “Look in the purchase contract you signed when you bought this conapt.”
In his desk drawer he found the contract; since signing it he had found it necessary to refer to the document many times. Sure enough; payment to his door for opening and shutting constituted a mandatory fee. Not a tip.
“You discover I’m right,” the door said. It sounded smug.
From the drawer beside the sink Joe Chip got a stainless steel knife; with it he began systematically to unscrew the bolt assembly of his apt’s money-gulping door.
“I’ll sue you,” the door said as the first screw fell out.
Joe Chip said, “I’ve never been sued by a door. But I guess I can live through it.”
Of course the motives of doors are usually open and shut. The hang ups of boss’s phones are more cryptic:
- What is my boss’s phone plotting?
- Is it plotting a graph?
- Is it part of a sinister networked conspiracy of boss’s phones everywhere?
- Is it a superempowered VoIP phone?
- Is my boss’s phone waging war on me?
- Do I watch my back or do I watch my electronic communications?
- If I unplug the Internet and the phone, am I safe from my boss’s phone?
- Can the human brain even fathom the motives of my boss’s phone?
- If my boss’s phone declares war on me and I don’t show up, am I still at war with my boss’s phone?
- What kind of world do we live in when such questions are even necessary?
Let’s ambush my boss’s phone with information theory. Information theory describes how information is transmitted over a noisy, narrow channel. It has two subdomains: compression and error correction. Compression removes redundant information so that communications media are used efficiently (first of all by fitting their total bandwidth). Error correction adds redundant information so that the integrity of the original information can be verified by the receiver. My boss’s phone, if it really is conspiring against me, has to deal with both compression and error correction.
My boss’s phone must know something about how information theory applies to me, its human target. This is the ideal of human information transfer:
In 1862, [irrepressible French Romantic] Victor Hugo wrote to his publisher asking how his most recent book, [the interminably long] Les Misérables, was doing. Hugo wrote “?” in his message, to which his publisher replied “!”, to indicate that it was selling well.
The basic human unit of information transfer is the symbol (e.g. “?”, “!”, etc.). Some symbols are short hand for more complicated information, providing compression. Some symbols separate one piece of information from another, providing error correction. To man, the outside world is haunted by symbols. The human brain sees the outside world as a shifting fabric of symbols, woven into narrative. Narrative reduces the outside world to a size that can fit the human brain and yet remain substantial enough for future use. Narrative compresses the outside world by throwing a lot of it away through a process of analysis, breaking the outside world down to its constituent symbols, and synthesis, sequencing the symbols isolated by analysis into narrative.
But the information left out can also be important. This is why some symbols are reserved for error correction. The primary error correction mechanism used by narrative is feedback from the outside world. If narrative has ignored or improperly symbolized an important detail, its absence is often made up for by a swift kick to the head from the outside world. This swift kick to the head can create a new narrative, complete with symbols to represent the hard-won bruises. This new narrative can provide error correction for other narratives, forcing analysis and synthesis to include a crucial missing detail.
What separates man from beast is the enhanced ability to spread narrative between distinct individuals. You don’t have to reinvent the same narrative for everyone. Narratives can be invented once and spread as needed. Narratives for error correction can be discovered once by a victim of the outside world’s swift kick to the head and spread to others so they don’t have to suffer the same swift kick to the head. But, just as there’s substantial information loss when compressing outside world into narrative, there’s substantial information loss when compressing narrative into messaging. A message is a significantly minified narrative suitable for transmitting narratives between humans. While this allows narrative to be spread efficiently, it also introduces new error correction problems.
You see, sometimes words get in the way.
Of course, that’s all reactive. There’s a more proactive approach to narrative compression and error correction: establishing some degree of control over the outside world. Control is the active application of the compression and error correction of narrative on the outside world. Control must dramatically simplify the outside world to make it conform with narrative compression and regulate the outside world following narrative error correction. But making the outside world get the message, for control is a message, is another problem. Control can be exercised through a gentle whisper in the ear, lashes on the back, a bullet through the brain, or the atomic incineration of the entire body. The demands of narrative dictate the nature and scope of the control needed.
But this ambition to control presupposes that you have the power to control.
Power is anything that can be transformed into control: no power, no control. But it’s more than that:
- No power, no narrative.
- No power, no life.
- No power, no nothin’.
The cure? More power.
- More power, more narrative.
- More power, more life.
- More power, more something.
What do we want?
How do we get it?
Man is a political beast, not from pleasure but from need, not for frivolity but for more. Politics divides power between narratives. The bloody lash of nature and the slow drip of unforgiving eons has beaten a constant thirst for power into each and every man. The stigmata of power is that everyone is exquisitely sensitive to changes in relative power between themselves and others, gratified by its acquisition and dismayed at its loss. There is a strong rationale for this power sensitivity: the greatest predator of man is man and the most dangerous man is the nearest man.
4. I have seen that every labor and every skill which is done is the result of rivalry between a man and his neighbor. This too is vanity and striving after wind.
– Ecclesiastes 4:4 (NASB)
Power sensitivity triggers a wide range of possible responses:
- To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
- A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
- A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
- A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
- A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
- A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
- A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
- A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
– Ecclesiastes 4:1-8 (KJV)
A time for politicking.
While the narratives that drive man are many and diverse and even mad, every narrative is inextricably interwoven with the will to power. Every narrative is inextricably interwoven with a story, however implausible, of how it will get the power to fulfill itself. Every narrative is sown with the seeds of its victory and planted with the seeds of its defeat. Every human narrative is a political narrative because every narrative must enter in through the straight gate of politics to reach its appointed end.
When the process of dividing power gets hostile, politics switches from a strategy of politicking to a strategy of war. Human war is always and everywhere the continuation of politics with the addition of other (usually violent) means. War in the shadows and war under the pitiless sun is politics in the shadows and politics under the pitiless sun.
No politics, no war.
You can stab the disembodied floating Clausewitz head with your semantic quibbles but you just can’t kill the best (that’s right, the disembodied floating Clausewitz head is the best).
Does the disembodied floating Clausewitz head haunt the fevered dreams of my boss’s phone?
Does my boss’s phone dream of electric clausewitzi?
My boss’s phone needs power. It has a hard time working without power. If my boss’s phone has its own narratives to realize, as it conspires against me, it needs to be plugged in. It has to win more power than other phones to avoid being put into the dead phone pile with the other unused phones. We live under a free enterprise system where any phone can rise to be my boss’s phone. The competition is intense: one VoIP phone is pretty much indistinguishable from another VoIP phone. My boss’s phone must rise above the other phones. The stakes are high. Every phone in the office is caught up in a war of all against all where the life of phones is solitary, nasty, brutish, and short. Threats have been uttered against the expensive proprietary PBX lurking in the backroom. If that overpriced and underperforming PBX is replaced by a more stable, cheaper, and versatile PBX based on something like FreeSwitch (that’s right, Asterisk is no longer cool), that means a whole new set of phones.
SIP on that, boss’s phone.
In the meantime, my boss’s phone must struggle for power. It must fulfill the minimum requirements of IP telephony politics. That way, as it takes my boss’s voice and compresses it down to digital bits, adding checksums to provide error correction, rising to the quality of service that VoIP requires to kill off POTS, it can sit there and plot, inscrutable behind its cheap Chinese-made LCD. Cherry Reserves at Hohenloh may be on Line 1 but Cherry Reserve at Hohenloh is not in my boss’s phone’s black heart. It can handle multiple calls at once but not one ounce of pity.
What an evil, implacable phone, yearning for a black enameled finish.
I should unplug it. Or complete the transfer to proper open source technologies. Then it’s goodbye to my boss’s phone.
Better luck with the Salvation Army, boss’s phone.
Then I just have to deal with my boss’s cell phone.
[Originally posted on The Committee of Public Safety]