Category Archives: DP

Of Plankton and Plastic

In the wake of recent research documenting the transformation of the world’s oceans into plastic soup, we turn to artist-scientist Mandy Barker, who writes:

“The aim of my work is to engage with and stimulate an emotional response in the viewer by combining a contradiction between initial aesthetic attraction along with the subsequent message of awareness. The research process is a vital part of my development as the images I make are based on scientific fact which is essential to the integrity of my work. The impact of oceanic waste is an area I am committed to pursuing through visual interpretation and in collaboration with science, hoping it will ultimately lead to positive action in tackling this increasing environmental problem which of current global concern”

In her most recent project, Barker uses John Thompson’s 19th century research into plankton as a conceptual template for proposing a new class of organism, “hatched” from degrading plastic debris. As Barker notes, plankton actually ingest plastic microfibers, thereby entering the food chain. We are what we eat.





For more on microfibers, we urge consideration of the below video, from the producers of The Story of Stuff:




Killed By Police

A week after hundreds of thousands of youth protested the lack of meaningful political action to reduce gun violence, and almost two weeks since the brutal murder of Stephon Clark by Sacramento police for the “crime” of holding up a cell phone in his grandmother’s garden, it is important to remember that  “1 in 13 people killed by guns are killed by police.”

Writing for Counterpunch, John W. Whitehead provides a sobering list of homicidal gun violence perpetrated by those who purport to enforce the rule of law, excerpted below.

Images are from the excellent Artresponders cultural activism collective, whose intermedia project titled Cops, Color and Casualties we will explore in a future DP.


There are countless incidents that happen every day in which Americans are shot, stripped, searched, choked, beaten and tasered by police for little more than daring to frown, smile, question, or challenge an order.

Growing numbers of unarmed people are being shot and killed for just standing a certain way, or moving a certain way, or holding something—anything—that police could misinterpret to be a gun, or igniting some trigger-centric fear in a police officer’s mind that has nothing to do with an actual threat to their safety.

With alarming regularity, unarmed men, women, children and even pets are being gunned down by twitchy, hyper-sensitive, easily-spooked police officers who shoot first and ask questions later, and all the government does is shrug and promise to do better.



Killed for standing in a “shooting stance.” In California, police opened fire on and killed a mentally challenged—unarmed—black man within minutes of arriving on the scene, allegedly because he removed a vape smoking device from his pocket and took a “shooting stance.”

Killed for holding a cell phone. Police in Arizona shot a man who was running away from U.S. Marshals after he refused to drop an object that turned out to be a cellphone. Similarly, police in Sacramento fired 20 shots at an unarmed, 22-year-old black man who was standing in his grandparents’ backyard after mistaking his cellphone for a gun.

Killed for carrying a baseball bat. Responding to a domestic disturbance call, Chicago police shot and killed 19-year-old college student Quintonio LeGrier who had reportedly been experiencing mental health problems and was carrying a baseball bat around the apartment where he and his father lived.

Killed for opening the front door. Bettie Jones, who lived on the floor below LeGrier, was also fatally shot—this time, accidentally—when she attempted to open the front door for police.



Killed for running towards police with a metal spoon. In Alabama, police shot and killed a 50-year-old man who reportedly charged a police officer while holding “a large metal spoon in a threatening manner.”

Killed for running while holding a tree branch. Georgia police shot and killed a 47-year-old man wearing only shorts and tennis shoes who, when first encountered, was sitting in the woods against a tree, only to start running towards police holding a stick in an “aggressive manner.

Killed for crawling around naked. Atlanta police shot and killed an unarmed man who was reported to have been “acting deranged, knocking on doors, crawling around on the ground naked.” Police fired two shots at the man after he reportedly started running towards them.

Killed for wearing dark pants and a basketball jersey. Donnell Thompson, a mentally disabled 27-year-old described as gentle and shy, was shot and killed after police—searching for a carjacking suspect reportedly wearing similar clothing—encountered him lying motionless in a neighborhood yard. Police “only” opened fire with an M4 rifle after Thompson first failed to respond to their flash bang grenades and then started running after being hit by foam bullets.

Killed for driving while deaf. In North Carolina, a state trooper shot and killed 29-year-old Daniel K. Harris—who was deaf—after Harris initially failed to pull over during a traffic stop.



Killed for being homeless. Los Angeles police shot an unarmed homeless man after he    failed to stop riding his bicycle and then proceeded to run from police.

Killed for brandishing a shoehorn. John Wrana, a 95-year-old World War II veteran, lived in an assisted living center, used a walker to get around, and was shot and killed by police who mistook the shoehorn in his hand for a 2-foot-long machete and fired multiple beanbag rounds from a shotgun at close range.

Killed for having your car break down on the road. Terence Crutcher, unarmed and black, was shot and killed by Oklahoma police after his car broke down on the side of the road. Crutcher was shot in the back while walking towards his car with his hands up.

Killed for holding a garden hose. California police were ordered to pay $6.5 million after they opened fire on a man holding a garden hose, believing it to be a gun. Douglas Zerby was shot 12 times and pronounced dead on the scene.



Killed for calling 911. Justine Damond, a 40-year-old yoga instructor, was shot and killed by Minneapolis police, allegedly because they were startled by a loud noise in the vicinity just as she approached their patrol car. Damond, clad in pajamas, had called 911 to report a possible assault in her neighborhood.

Killed for looking for a parking spot. Richard Ferretti, a 52-year-old chef, was shot and killed by Philadelphia policewho had been alerted to investigate a purple Dodge Caravan that was driving “suspiciously” through the neighborhood.

Shot seven times for peeing outdoors. Eighteen-year- old Keivon Young was shot seven times by police from behind while urinating outdoors. Young was just zipping up his pants when he heard a commotion behind him and then found himself struck by a hail of bullets from two undercover cops. Allegedly officers mistook Young—5’4,” 135 lbs., and guilty of nothing more than taking a leak outdoors—for a 6’ tall, 200 lb. murder suspect whom they later apprehended. Young was charged with felony resisting arrest and two counts of assaulting a peace officer.


Finally, from the Sociology Toolbox, four charts that communicate the heart of the story:






Miners of the Self

One of our core themes here at DP:

Our social life-world has become increasingly transformed into a vast data mine, an extractive and highly lucrative corporate bonanza in which the “mine” is our own subjectivity, together with whatever is left of our communities and collective identities. 

The behavioral psychology lab offers the dominant social organizational model, with strip miners such as Facebook, Alphabet and Twitter at one end of the spectrum, and more focused drill-hole miners at the other end, such as black sites and Guantanamo Bay.

Full disclosure: DP has no personal experience of Facebook, having declined to “connect” in a way that so obviously destroyed personal privacy and web autonomy. We submit for your consideration a montage of quotes and captioned images, beginning with a charming IM thread from the Prime Digger of the FB Data Mine, twitching his thumbs in a rare moment of brutal honesty, dating from 2004:


More recently, we have that exemplary “networker” Steve Bannon sifting tailings from the Cambridge Analytica strip mine:


Not to worry, because “Zuck” is sorry for stealing your subjectivity after tricking you into commodifying every quirk and foible from your most private self:



Gentle DP reader: We suggest that you treat Mr. Zuckerberg’s disingenuous apology with a degree of skepticism, and STRIKE the FB Data Mine until you are amply compensated for the sale of your self, over and over again.







Descent Into Darkness

On this, the fiftieth anniversary of the massacre at My Lai, we turn to historian Howard Jones, with an excerpt from My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness. Jones places the massacre in the context of American exceptionalism: our exceptional disposition towards atrocity. The second image is a 1968 assemblage with skulls titled My Lai, by Hans Burkhardt.






We also urge consideration of an exceptional film, The Sound of the Violin in My Lai, available in its entirety at the website of the equally as exceptional Madison Quakers.


Forgeries of the Self

Now comes Henry Farrell, in excerpts from an essay exploring key themes wired from the brain of Philip K. Dick, an essay that is included in the Global Dystopias issue of Boston Review. Our title descends from an essay by PKD himself, in a passage cited by Farrell:

Images are from the fecund studio of Senga Nengudi.









In the midst of the Sixth Extinction, we can say with a fair degree of certainty that the future looks absolutely splendid: for the forgers of the self.


Strange Loops

Here in New England, home base for DP navigations, we have gyrated in recent days from weather conditions one would expect in mid-July two days ago to yet another “once-in-a-generation” Nor’easter snow dump. In Northern Europe, our correspondents report near-Arctic conditions, while in the Arctic scientists record temperatures a full thirty degrees above the norm.

All of this loopy, weird weather represents what climatologist Jason Box referred to in a recent interview  as a “signature” of climate change:

The greenhouse effect has been enhanced by human burning of fossil fuels. That’s elevated atmospheric CO2 almost 50 percent now. OK, so that’s heating the planet. And it’s the Arctic that is warming at twice the rate of areas to the south as a consequence of this.

And there are feedbacks that allow the heat to stay in the Arctic. And when the sea ice, which has lost half of its thickness in the last 50 years, moves away from the shore, we have an ocean surface that is about 30 degrees Celsius warmer than the surface would otherwise be of the ice. That releases heat into the atmosphere. And there’s something called the lapse rate feedback, which allows that heat to get trapped near the surface in the atmosphere. It allows it to warm up further.

So, there’s an interaction between the loss of Arctic sea ice that’s been retreating—it’s now at record low, it’s about the area of Alaska below its average—the interaction of that heat release with warming in the lower atmosphere, that reinforces the slowdown of the jet stream, the polar vortex. They’re the same thing. And what’s normal is the jet stream, polar vortex, to have a circular shape around the Arctic. But the warmer it gets, the Arctic, the more wavy that structure becomes, and the jet stream starts to meander more. And those meanders, they get locked in. This is a signature of climate change, a more persistent wave pattern, which is now driving extra heat into the Arctic, that wasn’t possible before, and allowing more heat out.


Now comes philosopher Timothy Morton. In an essay contributed to the exceptional research/art organization Sonic Acts, Morton sketches the outlines of a well-riddled theory for our twisted present. An excerpt below, with a painting from the wonderfully weird imagination of  Kristine Moran.





Pepper Loves You

Who is Pepper? From the SoftBank website, we read:

Pepper is a human-shaped robot. He is kindly, endearing and surprising.

We have designed Pepper to be a genuine day-to-day companion, whose number one quality is his ability to perceive emotions.

Pepper is the first humanoid robot capable of recognising the principal human emotions and adapting his behaviour to the mood of his interlocutor.

To date, more than 140 SoftBank Mobile stores in Japan are using Pepper as a new way of welcoming, informing and amusing their customers. Pepper also recently became the first humanoid robot to be adopted in Japanese homes!

Wow! Japanese homes! Yet there is even more to gush over:

Pleasant and likeable, Pepper is much more than a robot, he is a genuine humanoid companion created to communicate with you in the most natural and intuitive way, through his body movements and his voice.

Pepper loves to interact with you, Pepper wants to learn more about your tastes, your habits and quite simply who you are.

Pepper can recognise your face, speak, hear you and move around autonomously.

You can also personalise your robot by downloading the software applications that take your fancy, based on your mood or the occasion. Dance, play, learn or even chat in another language, Pepper adapts himself to you!

Your robot evolves with you. Pepper gradually memorises your personality traits, your preferences, and adapts himself to your tastes and habits.



What could possibly wrong?


Last week saw the release of a report on potential malicious uses of AI, the result of a collaboration among fourteen institutions and twenty six distinguished authors. We urge careful review of the entire report; the conclusion is excerpted below.



Our own view on the dangers of AI will be familiar to longtime DP readers. Our ability to invent clever technologies accelerates while the development of moral consciousness and empathic conscience degrades, resulting in an ever-deepening discrepancy that, if left to its own lethal devices, will eventually terminate in a world without us. In the words of Gunther Anders:

Erasure of the Unseen

Now comes the estimable Rebecca Solnit elucidating how degrees of power shape, distort and often obliterate what experiences, and whose experiences, become publicly visible and acknowledged. The entire essay is worth close consideration; a couple of brief excerpts below, with images from the studio of Lesley Dill.





Though Solnit focuses mostly on sexual abuse of women by more powerful men, we would suggest that the identical dynamic applies to a more distant form of violence. Jill Stauffer, author of Ethical Loneliness: The Injustice of Being Heard, directed us to a remarkable analysis of drone warfare in an essay titled Phenomenology of a Drone Strike, in which Nasser Hussain traces how the military power to obliterate “unseen” civilian bodies becomes inscribed within the perceptual parameters of the weapon itself:

“We have become too accustomed to seeing from the air, which violates all the familiar geometry and perspective of our mundane, grounded vision. The exhilaration of the bird’s-eye view, or the god’s-eye view, so palpable in early accounts of flying, stems from the possibility of outstripping human limitations. But in another respect, aviation is very much tied to the modern mode of seeing, because from the very beginning it has been linked to photographic and cinematographic representation. Shooting a film, or focusing on a target, are not cheap puns, but reminders of a shared genealogical origin. Indeed, this way of looking is so naturalized that we forget that seeing through an aperture produces a particular and partial visual construction.

Aerial vision at once expands the range of view and hones in on a perceived target. But this focus inwards, this claim of precise aim, is not just one among other ways of looking. Rather, the accuracy of the drone’s eye structures more than vision; it shapes the way we think about, talk about, and evaluate a bombing. We focus on the target, the moment of impact. We dispute how contained or collateral the damage was, how many civilians died alongside the chosen target. These questions begin to eclipse all other questions about the global military apparatus that makes the strike possible or about civilian injury that goes beyond body counts.”



“Inequality makes liars of us all.”



Precarity and Suicide

We are indebted to Amy Goodman for alerting us to a number of recent suicides among professional taxi and livery drivers in New York City, under tremendous stress as a result of the so-called gig economy, as expressed in app-based “disruptive” enterprises such as Uber and Lyft. According to the co-founder of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, Bhairavi Desai, speaking on Democracy Now:

It’s a race to the bottom. Every day, people are going deeper and deeper into poverty. And this is the reality of the so-called gig economy. It’s about destroying what has been a full-time profession, turning it into part-time, poverty-pay work. Uber and company—Uber and Lyft—and, by the way, they are absolutely the same. It’s all one same business model. They use their political might. In 2016, Uber and Lyft combined spent more on lobbying than Amazon and Walmart combined, and Microsoft, as well. And so, they use their political might to win deregulation bills.

The destruction of the taxi and livery profession exacts a heavy price; writing in a social media post shortly before killing himself in front of City Hall, driver Doug Schifter delivered a blistering attack on those who enable such a duplicitous transfer of wealth:



Writing in the Boston Review, Clara Hendrickson names and shames the delusions of the gig economy with specific reference to Airbnb, Uber and Lyft:

The first gig economy delusion we need to clarify is that these platforms offer temporary work to help bridge gaps in employment. In reality, many gig economy platforms tend to encourage full-time work, not the empowering, flexible part time arrangement they so often claim. While sharing economy platforms promise freelancers they can earn income on their own terms, evidence shows that to enjoy this promised economic security, freelancers often have to labor under conditions that mirror those of full-time employment. For instance, an analysis of Uber earnings data suggests that average hourly earnings only become reliable for those who work over thirty hours a week while the earnings are typically erratic for those who drive part time. Not to mention Uber, Lyft, and Postmates incorporate psychological tricks into their apps, like those used by video game designers, to keep their drivers on the road longer.

Freelancing in the gig economy is thus not just a safety net for those in between jobs or those looking to “get back on their feet.” In reality, it is often a full-time job. Yet because these companies assert they’ve created a safety net rather than a labor market, they’ve successfully justified abnegating their responsibility as employers. Given their status as independent contractors, gig economy workers are denied the benefits, such as health care and paid time off, usually enjoyed by workers in traditional arrangements.

The second delusion we must address is that these platforms offer a path forward for a more equitable and inclusive economy. Airbnb calls itself “an economic lifeline” and often boasts about the economic opportunities it has opened up to ethnic minorities. Similarly, Lukas Biewald, the CEO of CrowdFlower, argues that the crowdsourcing industry is “bringing opportunities to people who never would have had them before.” Anyone “who wants to can do microtasks,” Biewald says, “no matter their gender, nationality, or socio-economic status, and can do so in a way that is entirely of their choosing and unique to them.”

Such inspiring and hopeful talk is common among the platforms, but it represents a willful ignorance on the part of their executives who have not only denied their freelance workforce benefits but excluded them from the byproducts of corporate success. As economist Robert Solow notes, the “casualization” of work means that many of today’s worker “have little identification with the firm,” and thus “correspondingly little bargaining power.” As a result, these workers “have little or no effective claim to the rent component of any firm’s value added.” This reality stands in stark contrast to the empowering message of economic inclusion delivered by gig economy platform executives.

Moreover, though they are often advertised as opportunities for economically excluded communities to build wealth, there is emerging evidence that these platforms enable a regressive wealth distribution. Wealthy Airbnb hosts, for example, typically spend extra money on cleaning and booking logistics services that are specifically designed to boost hosts’ ratings and attract more guests. The platform often ends up advantaging hosts who reside in wealthy, urban hubs even while the platform boasts it is building wealth in underserved communities. As New Yorker staff writer Nathan Heller keenly observes, the platform is “helping divert traditional service-worker earnings into more privileged pockets.”  


The gig economy embodies a particularly toxic form of neo-liberalism, whereby workers become the agents of their own precarity, experiencing a steadily deepening impoverishment and marginalization. As Douglas Schifter so powerfully expresses, “I will not be a slave working for chump change. I would rather be dead.” Returning to his post:


The gig economy is an economic disaster disguised as “game-changing” (gag) innovation, providing a classic example of what Gunther Anders called “inverted utopianism”,   a state of mind where we are no longer able to imagine the social and existential implications of our clever inventions. Let us collectively reject “disruption” that is based in precarity, exploitation, immiseration and death.