A Citizen of the Internet – first thoughts

9 December, 2010

“A constitutional amendment was offered to create a new fourth branch of government for American citizens whose ‘primary residences were virtual networks’.” – Bruce Sterling, Distraction

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.” – John Perry Barlow

“The general concept is simple, there are people that want to send a message that the Internet is a sovereign territory” – Barrett Lyon

————————-

I do not trust the government of the country of my birth. I do not feel any loyalty to them, or any other country, whatsoever. At best, I see them as an especially powerful mafia I have to kowtow to and buy services from. The closest thing to patriotism I have ever felt is to the Internet.

So, why can’t I take Internet as my nationality?

Barlow’s Declaration of the the Independence of Cyberspace is now nearly fifteen years old – which coincidentally is about how long I’ve been online. The internet was a very different beastie back then.

In the last couple of days, the fallout from the Wikileaks affair has spread far and wide. Julian Assange is in a British jail on what even skeptical observers note is a rather enthusiastic prosecution of an alleged sexual assault charge. Few doubt the real reason he is there is pressure from the US government. Ranking members of that government have called for his assassination. Wikileaks has been hit by multiple DDoS attacks – and, perhaps inevitably, Anonymous have responded with a wave of DDoS attacks of their own against targets which have supported the pressure on Wikileaks and Assange (from Paypal, Mastercard and Visa to the Swiss bank who froze his assets).

On the same day as Assange was arrested, the US Dept of State sent out a press notice, thus:

The United States is pleased to announce that it will host UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Day event in 2011, from May 1 – May 3 in Washington, D.C. UNESCO is the only UN agency with the mandate to promote freedom of expression and its corollary, freedom of the press.

…New media has empowered citizens around the world to report on their circumstances, express opinions on world events, and exchange information in environments sometimes hostile to such exercises of individuals’ right to freedom of expression. At the same time, we are concerned about the determination of some governments to censor and silence individuals, and to restrict the free flow of information. We mark events such as World Press Freedom Day in the context of our enduring commitment to support and expand press freedom and the free flow of information in this digital age.

I’m not quite sure what is worse – the staggering hypocrisy of this, or that the US think we’ll not notice that, or that they simply don’t care.

My own country’s government – run by a weak coalition government which is acting like they have a landslide mandate – is cutting vital services to the poor and disadvantaged to pay for deficits caused by their banking pals’ having been caught running the largest Ponzi scheme in human history… and their representatives have the gall to blame those poor and disadvantaged for the financial mess. Students are taking to the streets in protest. They are not my rulers, except by virtue of monopoly of violence and general habit.

When we’re at the point where The Economist refers to Anonymous as “a 24-hour Athenian democracy” I think it’s time to at least consider the idea. (Although, as my esteemed colleague David Forbes points out, that also means unruly mobs…)

There’s plenty of precedent for dual-citizenship (such as my being both a citizen of UK and EU), as well as transnational exemptions based on residential status – think diplomatic immunity. (And if ever there was a system that sums up the idea of privilege overriding local law, it’s diplomatic immunity… though as a quick-and-dirty way to get Internet Citizens protected, granting all such citizens diplomatic status under the Vienna Convention would do nicely! After all, every Internet Citizen is potentially a post-state actor unto themselves…)

There’s also precedent in such ideas as the World Citizen aspect of the Bahá’í Faith, as well as libertarian proposals for independent states such as Sealand.

Citizenship implies abiding by, and contributing to, a social contract. Doing Your Bit. I have to tell you I’m far happier doing that for the internet than for any state. It’s rules, customs and rituals make more intuitive sense to me than any state I have ever heard of. And yes, I would cheerfully give up my right to vote in the UK and EU for the rights and responsibilities of Internet Citizenship. (Dear David Cameron – that’s what a Big Society really fucking means.)

(Of course there’s intrinsic problems with being Citizen Internet. As I was writing this, I had an ISP issue that required multiple reboots of router & 2 hours on tech support. The physical infrastructure of the internet is indeed reliant on meatspace hardware located in post-Westphalian states. But then again, a huge amount of the wealth and culture of those states is now internet-based… some form of detente is surely negotiable. And perhaps the Wikileaks fallout is the first ugly step towards such a detente.)

(I’m also very aware that saying The Internet is a gross oversimplification of a whole bunch of different, sometimes competing, cultures. A key issue would be finding some common ground among all users – from attitudes to censorship to trolling to vandalism. But having a set of ground rules all citizens can accord to is surely the first necessary step for a citizenship, yes?)

The single biggest issue with declaring the internet as a sovereign territory is that nation-states have nothing to gain, and much to lose, from this. But then again, that doesn’t make it unthinkable – those nations once also had a lot to lose by making slavery illegal. (I can imagine quite similar arguments from them, too – “We own that! You can’t take our property!”) The quote from Bruce Sterling’s political SF novel Distraction comes from near the end of the book, after a post-financial crash US has to negotiate with a new power within it’s borders, nomadic tribes who conduct most of their social admin and political apparatus online (think Whuffie on steroids). I can easily imagine circumstances where the US would have to come to an understanding with non-state (or rather, post-state) actors. Another quote from Distraction goes, “Politics is the art of reconciling aspirations”.

OK – so let’s assume through some miracle the Powers That Be allow Internet to be recognised as a nationality. There’s a rotating crowd of randomly selected Anons sitting at the UN or something. What does that actually do?

One advantage I can see is that all those Blue Laws which use the phrase “based on the prevailing standards of the community” go away. My community is the Internet. Our standard for sexual freedom is /b/. (Obvious exception – and perhaps a necessary precondition – is zero-tolerance of actual child pornography and images of actual rape.) I also imagine that property and privacy laws would develop rather differently… the most important part for me is that those who wish not to play the same games as their home state have somewhere to call home. It would also be somewhere (for a rather virtual definition of ‘somewhere’, of course) where organisation to survive failed states and other antiquated tribes can be accomplished.

No doubt existing state actors would cause all kinds of problems for the Internet Citizen – governments tend to do that. But then again, they do that between each other – as the Wikileaks cables clearly show.

And for the states which claim to be democracies, it’ll show one possible result of truly sharing power among the people.

——————

NB – This isn’t a working proposal. It’s not even really a manifesto, yet. It’s perhaps just a naive dream… but it’s one that obsesses me increasingly. If anyone has useful ideas to contribute to this, sing out!

Advertisements

Doctor Who and the cheapening of sacrifice

26 June, 2010

Trying to nail this down quickly after watching last episode of the first Matt Smith season of Doctor Who. Much as I loved the episode and season in many ways, there’s a huge painful flaw running through the show since Russell T Davies brought it back, and sadly it seems Stephen Moffatt has inherited it.

In this universe, personal sacrifice doesn’t mean shit.

Multiple times now, we’ve had major characters either trapped on the other side of an unassailable void or full-blown dead after sacrificing themselves for the greater good… and after a few minutes, just long enough for the audience to get a bit weepy, they magically come back.

And they just fucking did it again.

Jack Harkness. Rose Tyler. River Song. Rory. The Doctor himself. Indestructable ‘cos the plot requires it, or ‘cos they’re Special. Only ever Mostly Dead (and this episode even had that phrase, so it’s not like they haven’t seen Princess Bride…).

For me, this makes any sacrifice they make utterly meaningless.

Other than that, it was pretty good…

EDIT:

1. Of course there will be those who say about my Who concerns “it’s only a kid’s show”. True – but as wife-the-shaman points out, what message then is the show teaching our childrens? Trust mad strangers? Tears bring back the dead?

2. The real contrast in attitude to death/sacrifice in this incarnation (heh) of Doctor Who is summed up for me by the Fifth Doctor’s attitude to the death of Adric – his angry refusal to even consider changing history to allow him to not die sits uneasily with the current tendency for waving the “make it all better” wand.

EDIT 2 – After rewatching with my teenage son.

I thought that the real sacrifice had been Auton Rory, the nobel warrior/troubador who sat by his beloved lady’s side for 2000 years – just sitting, thinking and fighting. After that amount of time, you’re either a warrior supreme or raving mad, possibly both. But even that loss is retconned – Meat Rory has Auton Rory’s memories, it seems.

But once I got over the previous hole, just let it get all Mythic on me, and loved it much more. Well enough to take a few cool ideas to muck around with, on how The Doctor sort of turned himself into a story and when he was retold by Amy (+DNA from tear) he reboots from backup.

It’ll be interesting to hear whet the synchromystic folk think. (Top thoughts – at this point both Amy & Rory are demigods and… as for The Lonely God –  what kind of god is Doctor Who?

He’s a trickster-god, of course! (Wife-the-artist, often cleverer than I, looked down at me and said “well durr...”)

And the Doctor has a married couple on his hands, to show him how that works… perhaps making his next meeting with River even more significant?


Voting

6 May, 2010

“Politics is the art of reconciling aspirations.” Bruce Sterling, Distraction

Election day begins. And, for the first time in the 28 years I have been eligible to do so, I am going to vote.

I always vowed that I would never ever do so, unless a candidate or party came along that were supporting at least some of my non-standard views, were not merely players in the status-quo game. I also vowed I’d never vote against a party or position rather than for one, unless the BNP or similar scumbags stood a chance of winning.

(How serious was I about that? I didn’t vote against Thatcher.)

I despise party politics. I think it a vile mash of knee-jerk bollocks veneered with hypocrisy and histrionics. I’ve seen good, honourable people I knew personally become part of the party machinery and rendered either irrelevant or absorbed into the Borg Continuum. Churchill’s line about Democracy being “the worst system of government except for all the others” never struck me as enough excuse to support it. My reply to questions on why I didn’t vote was, “Same reason I don’t gamble in Vegas – the House always wins.” The longer version is; governments effectively perform experiments on the entire population of their country while in power, based not on science but various economic and (HAHAHAHA) moral principles, with no training in doing anything other than winning and dealing. I’d love to see candidates have to show an understanding of this simple fact and act accordingly – rather than their usual skills of rhetoric and corruption.

I’ve worked in the British Civil Service (Treasury), so I’ve seen how the game is played. Like working in a sausage factory, but far worse for your sense of smell.

I was one of the few on the night that misbegotten mad-eyed cuntbag Tony Blair was elected who stated outright that he’d be a worse whore than the Tories for corporate cock. That ended any chance of voting for the working-man-gutted version of Labour. And the behaviour of that vile man we called The Smiler and his glum successor in regard to unjust foreign adventurism, erosion of civil liberties and in the end their inability to realise the oligarchs they served would sell even them into the ground – and then demand compensation when the economy noticed the fraud – and Labour gave it to them… no way could I ever vote for them, even to stop a return to Conservative rule.

My disgust for the Tory hypocrisy on matters such as homosexuality, and their utter disregard (now shared by ‘Labour’) for the non-rich, non-elites renders them unacceptable under any circumstances to be given power again. They think they deserve to rule us plebs – reason enough for them to never do so ever again.

The LibDems blew their chance with me by their cowardly “oh we’ll fix it later” attitude to the Digital Economy Act (and that after writing personally to my local MP on the subject, I was fobbed off with press releases.) Also, another status-quo white public schoolboy as leader. Same song, slightly different verse.

Greens just seem overcommitted to their special-interest angle (and a little Luddite for my taste) and the other small parties are right-wing wankers of various stripes.

I also never considered it right to just turn up and spoil the ballot paper, or just piss it away on a Monster Raving Loony Party-like candidate. Given the options I faced, I felt (like that line in Slacker) that withdrawing in disgust is not the same as apathy, so that’s what I did.

So why change the habits of an adult lifetime now?

Because I have a local candidate whose platform comes from the poor bastards who usually just suffer political decisions rather than make them – ordinary people. He stands for a controversial and important position in social change – drug legalisation. And, in the very likely hung parliament, it’s a time when a single voice could actually be heard and do some good.

I’m voting for the People’s Manifesto candidate, Danny Kushlick.

(More on the People’s Manifesto here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_People’s_Manifesto)

EDIT: One way that I think voting should be changed is to allow actual voting against a candidate, rather than having to vote for someone else as a protest/attempt to curb them. Simple enough – one column for Yes, one for No. You can tick one candidate in one column, not both. That way, those who wish to express the (all-too-common) view that “they’re all scum but this fucker shouldn’t be allowed near anything even vaguely resembling power” can be accounted for.


Guttershaman, “…of Jedi and jail”

2 May, 2010

So, like I was saying earlier – this Jedi walks into a Job Centre

Because it’s a British Job Centre and we’re the proud world leaders in intrusive CCTV surveillence, the staff ask our hero to lower his hood. (Of course he’s in hood and robe – Jedi, remember?) He politely refuses, on the grounds that doing so is against his deeply-held beliefs.

So they chuck him out. And he sends a letter of complaint.

A couple of weeks later, the Job Centre send him a formal apology for disrespecting his faith.

This delightful tale of modern manners is interesting to me for many reasons.

For one thing, it hit the news a couple of weeks before the finale of another case of alleged religious disrespect, one where the complainant didn’t get the result they wanted. In this case, it was a Christian woman, a nurse, who was asked not to have her crucifix-on-a-chain visible at work. She sued the hospital and lost.

The parallels are notable. For one thing, both complainants were making a fuss about a display of their faith which is not defined as either a right or requirement of their belief – the Bible has no “Thou Shalt Have Jesus On A Stick Swinging Around Thy Neck” commandment and the Star Wars films have many examples of Jedi doffing their hoods in a variety of public and private settings.

The major difference, the thing that really interests me, is that the believer in a completely fictional faith actually got more respect and better treatment than the one from the long-established, allegedly historically-based one. That’s a first, I think.

And it’s a game-changer.

What happens when belief systems which cheerfully admit they are based on fiction get the same recognition in society and law as the ones that claim they’re not?

So far, the established religions have a hard enough time admitting any other faith deserves the same recognition or rights they they have. The case of Patrick McCollum in the US offers a sad example of the situation as it stands. McCollum is a Pagan priest who wants to be a prison chaplain. So far, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is refusing him permission to do so. The reason they offer – which is supported by a Xtian protest org perfectly named The Wallbuilders – is that there are two tiers of religious belief under the US Constitution. The First Tier consists of the so-called Big Five faiths – Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Native American – who have all the rights and privileges. The second tier – everyone else – simply don’t.

Needless to say there’s a lot of pressure from pagan groups, and people who seem to have actually read the Constitution, against this opinion. The case is, to date, unresolved.

But now we have this precedent, that Jedi-boy has all the rights and privileges of any other believer.

I use that word ‘privilege’ carefully. Its original meaning, ‘private law’, seems more than a little significant under the circumstances. One rule for the First Tier… and there’s nothing so galling to the privileged as being made to share with the rest of the group.

There is of course one New Religious Movement that’s managed to secure itself all manner of rights and privileges – the Church of Scientology. Suffice it to say that recognition of your faith’s status is fairly easily enhanced by having access to lots of expensive lawyers. (Though it doesn’t seem to have helped them any in their home state of California, as noted above. Maybe there are some things money can’t just buy?)

(Interesting to compare this to the UK situation. As I understand it, members of any faith, including pagan, can be prison chaplains in Britain. I don’t know if anyone’s tried to be a Jedi chaplain yet, but I do know that all of the 139 prisons in England and Wales and many of the 16 prisons in Scotland have the equivalent of their own Scientology chaplains and spiritual services… and there are precisely three Scientologist prisoners in the whole system.)

So – how does society decide which beliefs should be respected? Who decides? On what basis? Who gets to choose what is called real?

Obviously, the belief systems which hold the current monopoly of privileged status aren’t going to give up their exclusive specialness without a fight – which, judging from previous displays of their intentions towards anyone disagreeing with their beliefs, will involve everything from whiny protests to inciting murder. So there’s that to look forward to.

Meanwhile, my position is this:

I honestly believe all religions and beliefs are, at best, stories. Possibly stories with some level of truth to them, but no less mythological for all that. We can debate the degree of ‘truth’ at the core of each ’till the cows come home – but it seems to me a politeness for all beliefs to meet on an equal playing field. Certainly, the hard core believers will insist that their faith deserves privilege above the others because theirs is the Real True Truth… but after the first fifty or so different flavours of believer stating that with a straight face, it gets real old, real fast. Either raise all beliefs up to the level of the most-favoured… or bring them all down to the lowest. No special pleading, no tax breaks, no exemptions from civil law on grounds of belief. Everyone gets the same treatment. From the Jewish Anti-Defamation League to the Na’vi one. From Sunni and Shia to followers of Sol Invictus and Satan and Scooby-Doo.

Then, finally, perhaps we can all compare notes about what we believe, and how we see the world, like civilised people.

Yeah. Sure.

(Next time on Guttershaman – looking deeper at the ‘Hyper-Real’ religions via the work of Adam Passamai, who coined the term.)


Finding a Goddess – You’re Doing It Wrong

24 June, 2009

Sometimes, especially at fuck-o’clock in the morning, I can be a little… evil.

My-beloved-the artist forwarded me a link that she’d acquired from the Ravelry forum (which, despite being a site about knitting, has a little of everything). It’s a single webpage which basically consists of an extended lonely-hearts/Craigslist contact-style ad.

The title is:

Finding My Goddess

Smart, Sexy, Spiritual Goddess Desired for Awesome Relationship with Extraordinary Man.

One Gentleman’s Quest to Find His Goddess.

Are YOU a Woman Who Has Most of the Extensive Goddess-Qualifications?

Finding My GoddessSmart, Sexy, Spiritual Goddess Desired for Awesome Relationship with Extraordinary Man.

One Gentleman’s Quest to Find His Goddess.

Are YOU a Woman Who Has Most of the Extensive Goddess-Qualifications?

…and goes rapidly downhill from there:

Some of the material in my message is controversial. I do not wish to offend anyone, but I do need to say certain things so that an interested lady knows what she’s getting into. I think that’s reasonable and fair.

I’m a deeply spiritual man. As I explain in detail below, my guidance comes directly from God (or, as my Buddhist friends would say, from my Buddha Nature). I am well aware that you might think otherwise. As you read my message, you might conclude that I have an over-inflated ego and that, rather than following “divine guidance,” I should instead work on “getting over myself”—and, indeed, given the expansiveness of my message, that would be a very “normal” reaction for you to have.

The Goddess I seek sees far beyond the “normal” level of thinking. She follows the guidance she receives from God (even when people might think she’s crazy), and she believes that others (including me) should do the same. Her life is dedicated to making this world a better place, and she realizes that the “normal” way of thinking is precisely what has gotten this world into so much trouble! My message EXCITES her. She believes what I’m saying is coming from God. She believes what I’m saying is not only possible but doable. She passionately desires to be directly and intimately involved.

One more excerpt, so you know what kind of guy we’re dealing with here:

I am on the brink of a large-scale financial success that many people believe will escalate me, over the next decade, from member of the middle class—to billionaire. I am the inventor and developer of, and control the majority interest in, a patented new technology that numerous well-credentialed experts agree can, quite literally, re-define the entire computer industry. We need about one more year to complete implementation of our first product release (hopefully in early 2010), and then the computing paradigm will begin to shift…. people will start thinking about information and utilizing computers in a whole new way that greatly EMPOWERS them. This will shake the foundation of a nearly trillion-dollar industry (computer hardware, software and information technologies, including the Internet).

However, I am much more than a computer scientist. I am a Global Visionary, and my desire and intention is to utilize my anticipated computer fortune to create fundamental changes in the systems, institutions and traditions on this planet: from darkness to LIGHT. In contrast with my computer technology which is likely to succeed (at least to some significant degree), my broad global vision is a gigantic LONG SHOT. With God (and if my karma proves good enough), I will find some degree success with my huge vision. If not, I will at least have enjoyed the adventure of daring to go for it.

Why am I sharing this Global Vision with you? Because it tells you a whole lot about who I am. I am a man who DARES to dream the impossible dream, and who DARES to devote his life to realizing it. I am seeking a woman who LOVES my vision and WANTS to be my intimate partner in the adventure of going for it, whether we succeed or fail.

(That amazing computer breakthrough is described by himself here. Basically, a new OS made for Newage angel-heads who have a pastels fetish. World-shaking, no. Terrifying, yes.)

I couldn’t just let that lie, could I? So I did a little translation of his cri de coeur:

Hi. I’m a failing computer geek with delusions of being The Next Steve Jobs. I also think God likes me more than anyone else – except possibly You, the only True Consort of such a swell, spiritual and almost-nearly-any-time-soon financially wealthy man.

Oh yeah – I have such a weird face because I was hit on the head by a large Newage Tantra manual at an impressionable age.

(See angel picture from cover of book which hit me hardest and warped my ideas of sex and god forever.)

The Goddess I seek must be smart (but not quite as smart as me), trusting (by which I mean “gullible enough to believe the ‘100% control’ over an undisclosed portion of my imaginary fortune will amount to bupkiss”) hate all concepts of ‘authority’ (except of course the ones where I tell her what to do) and she’s sexy, sexy, sexy!

And of course she must pray and meditate in a style of my choosing, ‘cos she’s just a girl.

Due to her (approved) spiritual praxes, she will have many superpowers, most importantly;

-She never ever gets grumpy – especially around *that* time of the month,

-She never feels greed – especially over my increasingly blue-sky wealth.

-She unconditionally loves a large number of people – who are all cute girls with bisexual leanings. No Fags!

-She has the quality of childlike innocence – or can at least fake it when she puts on the frilly dress and calls me Daddy.

No fatties, dykey haircuts or commoners need apply.

More about me. Me, me, meeee.

I’m really clever and smart, and clever. My balls don’t work, but I disguise that by claiming I’m a Tantra Master who withholds his Precious Bodily Fluids deliberately (& hiding my viagra stash).

I am a Chivalrous Man – meaning I do the opening-doors-paying-restaurants thing, while you do the supplicant-muse-and-fucktoy thing, with occasional witty banter about how high-minded we of the Light are for not liking that new-fangled rock music and television the kids like so much.

Did I mention I’m really, really Funny? Really I am. Funny. Really funny!

Surrender versus control… If you surrender, I won’t have to control you now, will I?

Yours in desperate lonely wanking hope,

The geeky Newager with strange creepy eyes.

I do hope he finds the woman he deserves… who would be an awful long way from the one he demands.

(PS – for more of this kind of gratuitous and malicious attacking of the desires of poor little internet-trolling men, check out the blogs Why Women Hate Men and Will Not Get You Laid.)


Mocking the king, not the subjects

4 April, 2009

I’ve made it clear before that though I think that mockery and satire are a good and necessary thing, but only when applied upwards – by the relatively powerless to the powerful. Mockery by the strong of the weak is merely cruelty. Fred Clark gets this, completely. In this weeks installment of his deconstruction of the Dominionist Xtian apocalyptic wankfest Left Behind series, he posts on the Slacktivist blog, he sinks his teeth into a scene where the born-again protagonist wields his not-so-scathing wit at a woman who is not his boss. The mysogyny and stink of entitlement in the scene are palpable. Fred says:

Comedy is essentially revolutionary. This scene is counter-revolutionary. That’s never funny. Everything in these pages is about reasserting hierarchy and punishing anyone who challenges it. That’s never funny either.

Buck Williams isn’t the court jester, he’s the sycophantic court prophet. The court prophet isn’t funny. (Nor is he really a prophet.)

The jester is funny because he mocks the king. He deflates the over-inflated and humbles the proud. This is what comedy does. It’s what comedy is for. It brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly; it fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty.

..That’s what makes it funny. That’s what makes us laugh.

Everything that Buck does in the Chicago bureau of Global Weekly is intended to tear down the lowly and lift the powerful onto their thrones, to fill the rich with good things and send the hungry away empty.

That’s not funny. That’s the opposite of funny.

Postmodernism in modern banking

5 March, 2009

Hmm… is this becoming a series of posts on ‘posts’?

(Not a bad idea… lends me to fond recollections of Julian Cope and I backstage at one of his gigs, both utterly stoned as could be and him looking me deep in the eye and describing my wives and I as “the most post-christian family I know”. Good times.)

No, this one is about modern banks and how their decline and fall started as a modernist movement, but soon fell into post-modernism as it got non-linear…

The original conceit comes from a New Yorker article (found by Letter From Here blog),

Melting into Air – Before the financial system went bust, it went postmodern.” by John Lanchester

Have a toke on this… it’s long, but satisfying.

There’s something almost nineteenth century about Buffett’s writing on finance—calm, sane, and literate. It’s not a tone you’ll readily find in anyone else’s company reports, letters to shareholders, public filings, or press releases. That’s because finance, like other forms of human behavior, underwent a change in the twentieth century, a shift equivalent to the emergence of modernism in the arts—a break with common sense, a turn toward self-referentiality and abstraction and notions that couldn’t be explained in workaday English. In poetry, this moment took place with the publication of “The Waste Land.” In classical music, it was, perhaps, the première of “The Rite of Spring.” Jazz, dance, architecture, painting—all had comparable moments. The moment in finance came in 1973, with the publication of a paper in the Journal of Political Economy titled “The Pricing of Options and Corporate Liabilities,” by Fischer Black and Myron Scholes.

The revolutionary aspect of Black and Scholes’s paper was an equation that enabled people to calculate the price of financial derivatives based on the value of the underlying asset. Derivatives themselves had been a long-standing feature of financial markets. At their simplest, a farmer would agree to a price for his next harvest a few months in advance—and the right to buy this harvest was a derivative, which could itself be sold. A similar arrangement could be made with equity shares, where what was traded was an option to buy or sell them at a given price on a given date. The trade in these derivatives was hampered, however, by the fact that—owing to the numerous variables of time and risk—no one knew how to price them. The Black-Scholes formula provided a way to do so. It was a defining moment in the mathematization of the market. The trade in derivatives took off, to the extent that the total market in derivative products around the world is counted in the hundreds of trillions of dollars. Nobody knows the exact figure, but the notional amount certainly exceeds the total value of all the world’s economic output, roughly sixty-six trillion dollars, by a huge factor—perhaps tenfold.

It seems wholly contrary to common sense that the market for products that derive from real things should be unimaginably vaster than the market for things themselves. With derivatives, we seem to enter a modernist world in which risk no longer means what it means in plain English, and in which there is a profound break between the language of finance and that of common sense. It is difficult for civilians to understand a derivatives contract, or any of a range of closely related instruments, such as credit-default swaps. These are all products that were designed initially to transfer or hedge risks—to purchase some insurance against the prospect of a price going down, when your main bet was that the price would go up. The farmer selling his next season’s crop might not have understood a modern financial derivative, but he would have recognized that use of it. The trouble is that derivatives are so powerful that—human nature being what it is—people could not resist using them as a form of leveraged bet.

And then, once the results of all these leveraged bets became clear (an awful lot of basically useless financial instruments and toxic debts) it all went a bit… postmodern.

The result is a new kind of crash. The broad rules of market bubbles and implosions are well known. They were systematized by the economist Hyman Minsky (a student of Schumpeter’s), in the nineteen-sixties, and their best-known popular formulation is in Charles P. Kindleberger’s classic work “Manias, Panics, and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises” (1978). Tulip bulbs in the sixteen-thirties, railways in the eighteen-forties, and Internet stocks in the nineteen-nineties are all examples of the boom-bust cycle of a mania leading to a crash. As Morris points out, however, a credit bubble is a different thing: “We are accustomed to thinking of bubbles and crashes in terms of specific markets—like junk bonds, commercial real estate, and tech stocks. Overpriced assets are like poison mushrooms. You eat them, you get sick, you learn to avoid them. A credit bubble is different. Credit is the air that financial markets breathe, and when the air is poisoned, there’s no place to hide.”

The crisis began with defaulting subprime mortgages, and spread throughout the international financial system. Thanks to the new world of derivatives and credit-default swaps, nobody really knows who is at risk from the wonderfully named “toxic debt” at the heart of the trouble. As a result, banks are reluctant to lend to each other, and, since the entire financial system depends on interbank liquidity, the entire financial system is at risk. It is for this reason that Warren Buffett was doubly right to compare the new financial products to “weapons of mass destruction”—first, because they are lethal, and, second, because no one knows how to track them down.

If the invention of derivatives was the financial world’s modernist dawn, the current crisis is unsettlingly like the birth of postmodernism. For anyone who studied literature in college in the past few decades, there is a weird familiarity about the current crisis: value, in the realm of finance capital, evokes the elusive nature of meaning in deconstructionism. According to Jacques Derrida, the doyen of the school, meaning can never be precisely located; instead, it is always “deferred,” moved elsewhere, located in other meanings, which refer and defer to other meanings—a snake permanently and necessarily eating its own tail. This process is fluid and constant, but at moments the perpetual process of deferral stalls and collapses in on itself. Derrida called this moment an “aporia,” from a Greek term meaning “impasse.” There is something both amusing and appalling about seeing his theories acted out in the world markets to such cataclysmic effect. Anyone invited to attend a meeting of the G-8 financial ministers would be well advised not to draw their attention to this.

Give the whole piece a read, it’s quite illuminating. And while you’re there perhaps you can answer one of the great mysteries of our time – why are the cartoons in the New Yorker so uniformly shite?