Hypermodern International Congress 2175

Remember, it wasn't raining when Noah built the ark.


A Plea for Sanity

From today's New York Times:

Op-Ed Columnist

Reading the Coca Leaves

Published: September 23, 2006

The most enlightening speech at the United Nations this week, I’m sorry to say, was the one by Evo Morales of Bolivia.

I don’t mean it was a good or even a coherent speech. That would be too much to expect from the world leaders’ annual gasathon. The rhetorical bar is extremely low. Morales, like his friend Hugo Chávez, spent much of his time ranting about a new world order based on the economic policies that have worked such wonders in Cuba.

But Morales at least brought a visual aid — and thank God, it wasn’t a book by Noam Chomsky. Unlike Chávez, he didn’t assign reading homework to the U.N. Instead, he held up a small green coca leaf, and when he talked about international drug policies, he made more sense than anyone in the United States government.

We’ve sacrificed soldiers’ lives and spent billions of dollars trying to stop peasants from growing coca in the Andes and opium in Afghanistan and other countries. But the crops have kept flourishing, and in America the street price of cocaine and heroin has plummeted in the past two decades.

Meanwhile, we’ve been helping terrorists and other enemies abroad. The Senate has voted to send Afghanistan more money for programs to harass opium growers, whose discontent is already being exploited by the resurgent Taliban. In the Andes, American drug policies made Bolivians so mad that they elected Morales, a former leader of the coca growers, who campaigned for president on the kind of anti-American rhetoric he spouted this week.

At the U.N., he denounced “the colonization of the Andean peoples” by imperialists intent on criminalizing coca. “It has been demonstrated that the coca leaf does no harm to human health," he said, a statement that’s much closer to the truth than Washington’s take on these leaves. The white powder sold on the streets of America is dangerous because it’s such a concentrated form of cocaine, but just about any substance can be perilous at a high enough dose.

South Americans routinely drink coca tea and chew coca leaves. The tiny amount of cocaine in the leaves is a mild stimulant and appetite suppressant that isn’t more frightening than coffee or colas — in fact, it might be less addictive than caffeine, and on balance it might even be good for you. When the World Health Organization asked scientists to investigate coca in the 1990’s, they said it didn’t seem to cause health problems and might yield health benefits.

But American officials fought against the publication of the report and against the loosening of restrictions on coca products, just as they’ve resisted proposals to let Afghan farmers sell opium to pharmaceutical companies instead of to narco-traffickers allied with the Taliban. The American policy is to keep attacking the crops, even if that impoverishes peasants — or, more typically, turns them into criminals.

Drug prohibition in Bolivia and Afghanistan has done exactly what alcohol prohibition did in America: it has financed organized crime.

The only workable solution is to repeal prohibition. Give Afghan poppy growers a chance to sell opium for legal painkilling medicines; give Andean peasants a legal international market for their crops in products like gum, lozenges, tea and other drinks. As Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance proposes, “Put the coca back in Coca-Cola.”

That’s what Morales wants, too, and he’s right to complain about American imperialists criminalizing a substance that has been used for centuries in the Andes. If gringos are abusing a product made from coca leaves, that’s a problem for America to deal with at home. The most cost-effective way is through drug treatment programs, not through futile efforts to cut off the supply.

America makes plenty of things that are bad for foreigners’ health — fatty Big Macs, sugary Cokes, deadly Marlboros — but we’d never let foreigners tell us what to make and not make. The Saudis can fight alcoholism by forbidding the sale of Jack Daniels, but we’d think they were crazy if they ordered us to eradicate fields of barley in Tennessee.

They’d be even crazier if they tried to wipe out every field of barley in the world, but that’s what our drug policy has come to. We think we can solve our cocaine problem by getting rid of coca leaves, but all we’re doing is empowering demagogues like Evo Morales. Our drug warriors put him in power. Now he gets to perform show and tell for the world.


Re-re-re-re-introducing Max Headroom


Yes, Max Headroom did do commercials for New Coke. Yes, he was the host of a talk show. And yes, he does make appearances on VH1's I Love the 80s. But do you know Max's origins? Do you know what fate awates us "20 minutes into the future?"

Arriving just a year after William Gibson wrote Neuromancer, Max Headroom was the first cyberpunk breakthrough in the world of television. Originally created to be the host of a UK talkshow, Headroom was the wet dream of a television marketing executive's opiate induced sleep cycle. He was witty, he was unreal, and he typified the sort of "science fiction turned reality" aesthetic that was sweeping the 18-24 age demographic during the mid-80s. At his inception, Headroom was designed to turn heads and sell ratings. It was with this in mind that Max was given his own made-for-TV movie in the UK (Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future). The movie was a sort of public introduction of Channel 4's new digital talkshow host, allowing viewers a peek into the background of television's ultimate irony-oriented personality.

Although it is never explicitly stated in the film, I did some calculations and determined that Headroom's movie is set in the year 2006. Remniscent of films like Blade Runner, "20 Min into the Future" takes place in a dreary, rain drenched neo-metropolis, complete with riot gear clad shock troopers, a paperless monetary system, and an overabundance of cathode ray tubes and video phones. At the center of this bleak future world is star reporter Edison Carter, whose primary interest as a journalist is in uncovering scandals involving the elite heads of multi-national corporations that are running the world's economy.

"Remember when we said there was no future? Well this is it!" - Blank Reg

In the course of his career, Carter learns of a new form of marketing technology being implimented by his employers. Designated as "blipverts," these new ad-spots promise to compress 30 seconds of advertisements into a 2 second subliminal pulse. Predictably, no significant human testing has been done on this psychologically intense form of marketing. And during the initial trial period of public broadcasting, several casualties are reported. What is the tragedy of blipverts, you ask? Three words: Spontaneous human combustion.

Of course, Carter gets too close to the truth during his investigation, and his superiors try to liquidate him. While being pursued by hired thugs, he runs face first into a parking garage security gate, nearly resulting in his death. The last thing Edison Carter sees before going into shock is a warning plastered on the board with which he collides: Max Headroom 2.3m.

His pursuers plan to dump his body, although not before his entire memory and likeness are transferred to the television channel's network mainframe. And thus, Max Headroom is born. A perfect digital reproduction of Edison Carter's mind and body, Headroom has all of Carter's memory, including the footage of the blipvert incident. Subsequently, it is necessary to create and isolate him as a program, insuring that the information he possesses will never be leaked.

While network executives believe they have created a digital footprint of Carter in Max Headroom, things are slightly more complicated. Headroom, while indeed a digital file, also appears to have the ability to learn, adapt, and emote. And because he lives entirely within a digital universe, he quickly learns the ins and outs of his world better than his creators. Headroom escapes the mainframe, moving quickly from terminal to terminal in the global communications network, carrying with him critical information, along with an attraction to terrible puns, quips, and one liners.

Max appears to individuals within cyberspace, which incorporated television years ago. He communicates with everyone from corporate CEOs to homeless "blanks" (people who have deleted themselves from the global databanks in order to preserve their anonymity). If Max appears to be a populist icon, than it's no coincidence: he was designed this way for a reason.

Edison Carter survives his ordeal, only to wake up to a world in which an autonomous digital likeness of himself is plastered on every video screen, barking orders and cracking jokes at the same time. Perhaps Carter's predicament seems abnormal to us, but it shouldn't. Each and every one of us has created our own Max Headroom. In fact, these digital reproductions of ourselves (in the form of credit scores, myspace accounts, etc.) are what continue to turn the great wheels of contemporary capitalism. In them we become network nodes, transmitting information on a global scale. reducing ourselves to binary entities capable of nothing more than the distribution of data and sales. If we are ashamed of Max Headroom for selling Coca-Cola, then it is nothing more than our own shame over being conned by the cybernetic world order.

Max Headroom certainly was the future, but his time came to pass twenty minutes after his conception. He represented a new form of science fiction: one in which temporal detachment serves only as a means of isolating the plot from one's immediate experience (i.e. watching Max Headroom). Viewing Headroom is not alienating in the traditional sense, he does not appear to us as something foreign or unknown. He is not external to us in the least bit. In fact, Headroom appears as more real than we consider ourselves to be.

As Gibson predicted before Max, instead of technology being towed behind our growth and expansion, instead of us being towed behind technology's horrific advancement, we are, in fact, moving in parallel with it. Both cyberspace and human experience are advancing at the same rate, hand in hand. There should be no attempt to see one's own likeness in Headroom, nor should effort be made into detaching oneself from his person. That's the whole joke. That's what makes Max Headroom funny. In his digital destortion and stuttering, we see what truly is: namely, the accelerated sense of becoming that has come to define what is real. We are always eclipsing ourselves, whether in digitizing ourselves into a binary medium (like Carter is to Max) or in attempting to regain our sense of "what is human" (like Max is to the world around him). Either way, the residual is always going to be digital distortion: the stuttering, sometimes irritating means through which we sublimate our great digital age. So, take the time to view Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future.

But don't take my word for it.


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