Tag Archives: self

Don’t Vote

My great grandmother had to fight for her right to vote. She marched down the streets of Boise, Idaho with a giant beautiful banner she sewed herself on a treadle sewing machine. It read, in large and gorgeous lettering, “We demand an amendment to the US constitution enfranchising women.” From the first moment I saw it I was aware that it was in so many ways larger than me. I still have it, and hope to pass it on to my daughter to pass on to her daughter.

Incredibly old, and skin hanging from her bones, my great grandmother was still a terrifyingly full woman. She taught me what it was to vote. The first time I voted was 1992, and doing so made me feel like I was at last a full person, part of a full world. And when I decided that I would not vote anymore, it was to her that I uttered my prayer of sad apology: not merely for not voting, but for being part of the system that had reduced voting to meaning so little. I have decided that I am on strike as a voter, until voting means something.

It was learning that lead me to voting, and learning that lead me away from it. It was gerrymandering, legalized corruption, the impossibility of campaign finance reform. It was dry words like ROI on lobbying, which have turned the world wet with non-metaphorical blood. It was suicidal nonideas that reduced human civilization to a consuming blob left to go necrotic on its denuded tiny blue dot.

But then, it was more. It was watching how people built an internet while the institutions weren’t looking. It was the kindness of strangers that took me in. It was buying dinner for an old Vietnam vet on the streets of California. It was watching my daddy chewed up by the system. It was the radiation of the Columbia river and the old songs and stories of Utah Phillips. It was children who filled potholes in Zambian streets and needed pens, which I gave them with as much heart as you can give a pen to someone. It was the fall of the iron curtain, it was poet presidents, revolutions young and old, and the slow and terrible petrification of the American spirit. It was a world that runs red with blood and spirit, a body politic raped and beaten by a ruling class as arbitrary and accidental as the rest of it.

People who think that by calling for a strike against the vote I’m advocating inaction are not paying attention. Yes, I am saying please don’t throw your vote away in our corrupt ballot boxes. Instead vote everyday, not just one day in November. Vote with the stuff of your life. Vote like your life, and your opinions matter — because they do.

Vote with every dollar, in every relationship. Vote in how you work and how you speak. Vote in how you treat others and what you will accept from them. Vote your dignity and the dignity of others. Live in the opposite of fear. Bring your morals to work. Whistleblow, organize, strike, disrupt your corporation until it respects human rights. Even if just the knowledge workers in my social circle walked off the job, they could grind the machine to a halt — they could be heard. They would, in fact, resound not only through the body politic but through history as well.

But we don’t know anymore that we have this strength. We are told both that we must perform our kabuki democracy, and that our vote doesn’t really matter. We are told that this voting is our only civic duty, and the only power we have, and quietly reduced to a system where that vote can’t realistically do much.

When you vote, you complain, and then go to work to do the work of others, often against the interests and values of you, your family, the family of humankind. And you can complain about that, too. We have to get along, we have to pay down the student loans, we have to make the mortgage payment, we have to delay facing the truth about the frail and failing world we’ve built as long as we possibly can.

No. The magic of aggregate human attention is so strong that we can fix this world, we can exceed these troubles — but only together, not looking to leadership structures that have failed us again and again.

Humanity is amazing. It is the elemental magic of the world. You are the ground that can shake and rise under the fragile political structures of the Earth. You are the wrath of angry gods, you are the true storm a small and accidental system of power fears. As long as you keep believing you have to vote, and all your power is tied only to that vote, our leaders get to balance a pyramid on its tip and call it democracy.

Lay down the lie of the American ballot box, with its legal rigging, lobbying, revolving doors, gerrymandering, and even at moments outright fraud. You will have to ask yourself what is next? What do you believe, and how do you live out those beliefs? It is a scary and beautiful thing to live your beliefs.

We are on a fundamental level responsible for each other. We have incredible power, in fact we have all the power not reserved to killer robots. But it’s very hard and very painful. Coordinating, acting, having to be together with humanity after so many years of running away from it.

Today we distract ourselves from feeling hopeless and powerless. There are a million numbing balms for thousands of tiny cuts. We numb ourselves with TV, Youtube, Reddit, alcohol, games, even love. We ceaselessly and selfishly chase after a personal happiness only available to those who outgrow the hunt for it. We go to work for corporations and governments that violate our ethics, we go into debt, and come to see ourselves as bound, indentured to things we didn’t choose. But this is an illusion, and a fragile one at that. It ends the day we decide that our power is with us, in us, that it can’t fit inside a quarterly review, or an assigned essay, or even a ballot box. It ends when we realize that our minds and bodies, and most of all our little allotment of precious time are holy, holy, holy.

Let your body be your ballot.

Laboratory of the Self: Description and Syllabus

Laboratory of the Self
Quinn Norton
Monday, 2:30pm – 5:25pm
Location: Somewhere at ITP…
Office Hours: Usually Tuesday, 2-3

Course Description

This course will explore the relationship between the body and the self, both in theory and in hands-on application. We’ll begin by learning the basic physiology that links perception to memory and action. How does your mind and body react when you get a coffee, or see a text on your phone? How do you get from there to drinking the coffee or replying to a friend? The process of perception, cognition, and action underlies how we relate to the world, and ultimately, who we believe we are.
The first half of the class culminates in a midterm self-monitoring project. Examples of projects include monitoring heart rates, glucose levels, or music and mood. Students will report on what the data they’ve collected tells them about their body and their understanding of their individual self.
The second half of the class examines the history and state-of-the-art of human modification, from both a technical perspective, and how the practice of body modification has changed society. We’ll discuss ancient changes, and the latest and greatest cybernetic advances, along with bio-ethics and a bit of cyborgian philosophy. For the final projects, students will engage in a self modification project, which will be presented at the end of the term. By the end of the class the student will have a basic understanding how their own perceptions and memory are formed, how this gives rise to their sense of self– and how to change it.


There will be examples, but I will be looking for students to designs projects that are really about themselves. Technical complexity takes a backseat; design for personal insight. You will have a couple weeks to think of ideas, and the chance to discuss them in class, or with me privately.
Both the monitoring and modification projects have the option of privacy and can be presented only to myself if they cover sensitive material.


Missing class will affect your grade. If you’re ill, please stay home, but consider Skyping in. If you know you will have to miss a session let me know in advance.


projects: 60%,
class participation 20%,
reading response 20%.

Class blog

We will have a blog as a place for people to share their thoughts on the reading and their projects publicly. Blogging is optional for those wishing to work more privately. But reading the blog is required.

Reading and Reading Response

Reading will be a mix of offline and print. You must email me or post to the class blog a brief response after every reading. Not required for the coloring book, though I will run though quick verbal checks on it in class.


Week One: The Only Animal That has to Find Itself

Introductions to the topic, and each other, & setting up the first project.
A Colorful Introduction to the Anatomy of the Human Brain: A Brain and Psychology Coloring Book, chapters one, two, three
Reinventing Ourselves, Andy Clark

Week Two: The Substrate of Sensory-Motor Experience, part 1

Anatomy of the Neuron, Sympathetic and Parasympathetic responses, Ramon Y Cajal and the Neuron Doctrine, Basics of the physiology of sense, Styles of the major neurotransmitters, A little on how psychoactive drugs work, Neurological and psychological homeostasis, Addiction.
A Colorful Introduction to the Anatomy of the Human Brain: A Brain and Psychology Coloring Book, chapters seven, eight, nine
Except of Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust
A Sixth Sense for a Wired World, Quinn Norton

Week Three: The Substrate of Sensory-Motor Experience, part 2

Discuss the reading responses, lobes and locations, thalamus: the great receptionist in our heads, describing the sensory-motor loop,  the various homunculi, the homunculi we’re missing, our six and seventh sense, The strange path of the olfactory bulb, the stranger case of toxoplasmosis, comparative brains across evolution, the corpus collosum, Alien Hand syndrome, grey vs white matter, association areas, TMS, the pain circuit and P, fun with P, why I hate the term ‘lizard brain’, finalizing quantitative self projects.
A Colorful Introduction to the Anatomy of the Human Brain: A Brain and Psychology Coloring Book, chapters ten, eleven, twelve
Better Than Well: The perfect voice, Carl Elliott

Week Four: The Substrate of Sensory-Motor Experience, part 3

Memory formation, the reliability of memory, dreams as a paradigm for the problems of neuroscience, EMDR, Association, Emotion and Motivation,CBT, Gourmand’s syndrome, Demyelination (MS), Spinal response variation in mammals, circadian rhythms, sleep in mood and memory, No talking but singing, inner speech, emotions.
A Colorful Introduction to the Anatomy of the Human Brain: A Brain and Psychology Coloring Book, chapter four
‪Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky – Stress, Neurodegeneration And Individual Differences‬ (Optional)
Sixth Meditation, Rene Descartes
“I sing the body electric” Walt Whitman
I have not the words, Quinn Norton

Week Five: The History of Our Selves

Dualism vs materialism, Whitman v Descartes cage match, the drift of childrearing, the disruption of feminism, gender in the modern age vs gender in history.

Better Than Well, Chapter 2: The True Self
Oxford Uehiro Center: Neuropunditry
“Bring them on, the power plants”, Dale Pendell

Week Six: Self monitoring projects + More History of the Self

Social construction of self, history and perspectives on depression, bipolar, and schizophrenia, authenticity as moral right, fMRI studies, Class presentations and discussion, setting up the second project

Becoming Dragon, Micha Cárdenas
Chapter 5, Better than well

Week Seven: Self monitoring projects

Midterm presentations
Coffee and tea chapters from Pharmako/Dynamis, Section Excitantia by Dale Pendell
Surviving in an Alien Environment: Human + Christ as Medieval Natural-Born Cyborg

Week Eight: History of modification

How we’ve modified ourselves, and the shifting baseline of wellness and rights. Caffeine, tobacco, our many camp followers, literacy and memory, vaccination.
Nature: Professor’s little helper
If steroids are cheating, why isn’t LASIK? William Saletan
The Brain on the Stand, Jeffrey Rosen

Week Nine: Bioethics of Enhancement

Policies that affect how we choose to modify, neurolaw and its problems, sports and its triumphs, cognitive enhancers and academia, the social role of medicalization, the redefinition of well.
Kanye West, Media Cyborg, Robin Sloan
The Body Without Memory: An Interview with Stelarc, Mark Fernandes

Week Ten: High Weirdness Pt 1: Body modders, artists, drugs and DIY + Media and Politics

The artists, body modders, and edge cases, modern primitives, portrayal of enhancement in the media
Better than Well, Chap. 9, Carl Elliott
Transhumanism, Francis Fukuyama

Week Eleven: High Weirdness Pt 2: Medical Frontiers

Research on brain computer interface, drug delivery, implantables, optogenetics, gene therapy, transhumanists, extropians
Better than Well, Conclusion, The tyranny of happiness, Carl Elliott

Week Twelve: Self modification projects

Class presentations and discussion

Cyborgian Mates

My friend Matt Dickerson recently told me of the existence of centaur chess, alternatively called cyborg chess or, harder to google, advanced chess. Advanced chess is Kasparov’s pretty lame name, so I’m going to called it centaur chess. It’s a simple concept. Instead of trying to beat Deep Blue, Kasparov decided to join him.

I read a lot of essays of the general form of When We Can Engineer Our Babies, Will We Be Human Post Feminist Cyborg Identity Constructs, or Post Human Post Feminist Cyborg Identity Constructs? and they generally don’t do much for me. I don’t understand why academics and thinkers feel like they need sci-fi technologies to start talking about what augmentation is going to do to us, given how much is floating around not only in our present, but our past. Beyond that, I find what we’ve already done to be difficult enough to understand, implication-wise, that we can chew on that a good long while without having to speculate about how as yet undeveloped technologies might change society.

Seriously, keeping up with now could be a full industry on its own.

Centaur chess is yet another example of the interestingness of now. The computer and human play as a team, building on each other’s strengths in a kind of UI enabled decision making synthesis. The consensus seems to be the computer is good at tactics, and the human is good at strategy.

There were briefly tournaments, but these floundered. I suspect this is because while the point for Kasparov was to become the perfect chess player, it’s not clear that watching perfect chess players would be any more fun that watching a very well maintained threshing machine. We enjoy sports because they are imperfect.

What makes more sense is that several sources (including my friend Matt) have suggested that centaur chess has quietly taken over correspondence and online chess. Being the more perfect player is a lot more fun than watching. Scores of people out there are learning how to augment- to surrender the weaker parts of their ability to their computers and reintegrate the ability of the computer into a new identity without surrendering their egos. We do this all the time with certain mental capacities, but not the very special mental areas we think of as things like smartness or wisdom. That’s changing now. It bodes ill for other games like poker, and well for expanded human capacity.

Northpaw, end of first week.

No problem getting it through TSA. I even had my story ready, and it turned out to be entirely unneeded.

The Northpaw doesn’t work well when tilted. It’s unstable while driving, or a few other similar conditions. This seems reasonable for a compass, but it can be disorienting. I have now worn it in two cities, DC and SF, and I hope to add NY to the mix. As soon as I figure out where I’m living. My DC house flooded while I was in SF, and my life is pretty disrupted at the moment.

Since returning to DC I have found out that my mental spacial map of DC swapped north for west. I have found out that my idea of north isn’t quite what I thought it was. My mental north seems to be less a cardinal direction as the dominant direction, the top, the most important thing. I wonder if north is simply, from any direction, where Ada or the Pacific Ocean are. The map I have of DC is pretty hard, and turns out to be difficult and disorienting to dislodge. Much of my experience of the Northpaw is more about disrupting a mythical sense than augmenting life with a new one. I am trying to let the Northpaw win, but it’s slow going.

The one part that is broadening my horizons is how the Northpaw corrects the extreme smoothing we do to get along. Straight things aren’t as straight as we perceive them. Skory told me that in the time he was wearing this Northpaw he found that hiking trails are much more twisted that he thought they were. I find roads, paths, and bit of buildings drift in ways usually too subtle to notice. Not always, but just enough to be unsettling. I am beginning to wonder how much maps are myths we tell ourselves about man’s mastery of nature.

The fact that it goes wrong quite a bit is making it hard to integrate as a sensory experience. Whatever is happening with plane of inclination or possible software or hardware glitches, there’s also those times when something is just mucking with the magnetic field. Riding on the subway, both the BART and the Metro, is very magnetically unstable. And it’s not the Northpaw- if I put my hand compass on the floor, it goes crazy as well. I plan to try re-calibrating it by circling the compass with a rare earth magnet and seeing if that helps me find the proper locations for the buzzers- a non trivial task.

In LeDroit Park a man on a moped stopped me while I was on my bike and asked me about the anklet. He was clearly interested. I explained the concept behind the Northpaw and my project, and his eyes and smile grew. I pointed to north. He was nearly giddy. People love this thing, though I occasionally get comments that it looks like I’m under house arrest. Still, this idea of widening perception consistently fascinates people.

The Northpaw, Day 1: A new sense I didn’t know I didn’t have.

The magnetic implant had a magical quality to it. A long journey ending in a moment of bloodletting in a ritualistic setting, surrounded by cryptically ornamented people, and suddenly I had the full force of an entirely new sensation. I could see a new thing in the world. I practiced, but there was still something of the etherial to the situation, enhanced by the ritual with which it all began. The loss was just as otherworldly. One day without an apparent precipitating event my finger grew swollen and angry. It turned black and painful and I developed a fever, and as quickly as it had come, the new sense was gone. All I had left was the apparent the anger of the gods at my hubristic magic, to be satisfied only by a weeklong course of Cipro.

I was very sad. A dear friend gave me a hug and said “There, there. We’ll get you another new sense.”

The Northpaw feels a lot more like technology than magic. It’s based on the Feelspace, a project by the Cognitive Psychology department of Universität Osnabrück in Germany. It works by a series of mild buzzers hooked to an electronic compass and arrayed along a belt. the buzzers signal north to the wearer. The wearer gets used to it. They just begin to always know where they are, and have perfect direction sense. The Northpaw, a kit under development by some friends at Noisebridge, does this in an anklet.

I am an extremely alpha tester of the Northpaw. We’ve run into some hardware problems, software problems, and problems caused by the size of my ankle and the direction of the zipper on my strap. We’ve fiddled, by which I mean Adam Skory has fiddled, while I watched and offered to make tea. I have served my universal purpose though- exposing flaws by suddenly having everything fall apart the second I touch it. (This is no criticism of Skory’s work. This happens with major corporations and large governmental computer systems as well. I’m just amazing at breaking things.)

After some trial I figured it was almost working right, good enough to take home and try to calibrate later. Calibration in this case is moving the motors slightly on the strip to make sure that they are actually in the right place for north on the small circumference offered by my ankle. I’ve always had a good native sense of direction, so I felt I could tell when the Northpaw was off.

I got out my compass and wandered around. Yes, I have a great sense of direction. It’s just wrong most of the time. I get around by what I have realized is extreme smoothing. It wanders well off the cardinal directions, and then gets yanked back by points of reference. I also hold an independent compass in my head for buildings I know that defines north as whatever I think of as the top of the building and has not much relationship to the cardinal directions.

The Northpaw isn’t perfect, but so far it’s better than I turn out to be. I am still in the alarming newness phase of awareness, figuring out how much I was wrong about things I didn’t know I thought about.

I will blog the experience as I go, and will be writing an article for h+ magazine summing up my time of augmentation.