I Drink Your Milkshake: Chaos and the Cloud of Unknowing

2010 May 14
by Carl Watson

BP told Congress Tuesday its massive Gulf oil spill was caused by the failure of a key safety device made by another company. In turn, that company says BP was in charge, and that a third company that poured concrete to plug the exploratory well didn’t do it right. The third company, which was plugging the well in anticipation of future production, says it was only following BP’s plan, which didn’t work either.

We are constantly confronted with things that don’t work. Flood control precautions apparently don’t work, either in Nashville levees or in Boston sewers. Government doesn’t seem to be able to fix these things; witness the state of the City of New Orleans. But maybe it’s not government’s fault. After all, the technological contraptions they might try probably won’t work. It’s just the way it is: Filipino voting machines, accelerators on Toyotas, the brakes on the Staten Island Ferry. We might look to morality as a safeguard but morality is not up to par. We need only look to mining companies such as Massey Energy for evidence of that failure. In fact, morality aside, many big ideas don’t work: the Eurozone, Greece, Thailand, Communism, Capitalism. Democracy doesn’t much work either. The majority does not seem to rule (unless its major money). This is partly because not enough people care to vote and voters don’t have anything to choose between anyway. Even if they did, their choices don’t seem to accomplish anything, as some other unseen power somewhere will have some other agenda. We need only look at our own election system circa 2000 (or any year for that matter) or witness the recent British elections that left an entire country standing around rather dumbfounded. But that’s no different than a congress that doesn’t work, either on the federal level where one obstinate clown can screw up the whole machine, or in New York State, which seems to be frozen in a perpetual motion loop of bitter accusation and denial. What about a mind that doesn’t work? There’s a lot of them out there, rabid partisanship notwithstanding. We don’t have to look farther than Rush Limbaugh: insinuating that the BP oil disaster is a plot by the Obama administration, instigated as an excuse to shut down all off shore drilling. Perhaps Rush Limbaugh is an anomaly, a bad example of failure, what with his addiction issues and all.

Today we live in a world of anomalies—individual instances of failure in a largely functioning system—that’s what they tell us. In fact, however, it is becoming more apparent that nothing really works, and a paranoid person might believe we are receiving some kind of comeuppance for our ego-gratifying consumerist ways. When things don’t work there are a few actions that can be taken, besides claiming the failure as a kind event and not a systematic problem. One of these actions, or rather reactions, is to put on a big show of being on top of the situation right away—albeit after the fact. We see this in NYC all the time. For instance, the other day, after the failed Times Square bomb, I went to the main post office on 8th Avenue and the whole place was surrounded by cops as if they were expecting another terrorist event at any moment. Of course any terrorist wanting to blow up the post office would simply just wait until the cops left before attempting it. And the cops will leave eventually; I think they did the very next day. This kind of after-the-fact remedy reminds me of the many train trips I took across the subcontinent. Kids in the Indian villages loved to throw rocks at the train when they passed through their village. I was always surprised that immediately after such an incident everyone closed their windows Inevitably, when it got uncomfortable, they opened them again. The closing of the windows did nothing because a half hour later we would pass through another village and the whole thing would happen over again. The safeguard of closing the window is kind of like putting a lot of cops around the post office the day after the bomb threat.

Speaking of safeguards that don’t work in mine disasters and cops around post offices, what about those New York’s anti-terrorist strategies that were designed to prevent Times Square bombs. Recently we have seen both Bloomberg and Kelly parading across the media landscape proclaiming how well their anti-terrorism strategies work. Am I missing something here? The only truth that comes out of this episode is massive failure of precisely those strategies. Here’s a guy, who, over the last couple of years has strewn his path with red flags and profile markers: he quits his job, moves his family to Pakistan, where he attends a bomb building camp, then comes back to the US, still with no one paying much attention. He lives alone, keeping to himself to the point that even his neighbors say he was acting strange. Then he buys a car with cash, does not register it, and drives it around with stolen plates. In fact drives it into Times Square and parks in an erratic manner on a street where no parking is allowed. Still no notices. A tee-shirt vendor finally sees that the car is smoking and calls a cop. By then the bomb has fizzled out. That very day the authorities were acting as if they caught the guy before he could pull off his plot. They didn’t catch anything. Their strategy didn’t work. Fortunately, neither did the bomb. As if this weren’t enough, apparently “No Fly” lists don’t work either. This Faisal Shahzad dude manages to get on a plane anyway, and not by some devious clever route; he heads to Kennedy of all places, the one airport where they are most likely to be looking for him, and buys a seat to the United Emirates, one of the most likely places for terrorists to chill out. The plane is on the tarmac ready to take off and they finally catch up to him. Who are Bloomberg and Kelly kidding? They should be embarrassed as hell, but they are acting as if they triumphed, which shows that apparently evolution doesn’t work either, if embarrassment is an evolutionary function.

Computer trading programs that produced the recent glitch that caused the Dow to drop over a thousand points recently has not only exposed the fact that this kind of software just don’t work but it has also gave us a glimpse behind the curtain to sad truth that nothing is really worth anything, and this is especially true of your retirement account if you have one, because as oil creeps toward the gulf shore, whatever nest egg you worked so many years for has probably become as worthless as Lehman Brothers’ and Goldman Sachs’ investment strategies, which actually did work, if only for them. The Euro might not be worth anything soon, but an obscure Picasso that no one knew existed is still worth a lot of money. I don’t understand really but I don’t feel bad because my lack of understanding is mitigated by everyone else’s. In fact, there seems to be a global lack of understanding going on. No one understands anything anymore and they don’t even try to hide it. The bankers at Goldman Sachs don’t understand the financial instruments that they themselves created, and they admit it—after the fact of course, after they brought down the economy. Morgan Stanley didn’t have a clue. Going back to that recent thousand-point market swoon, the traders of Wall Street don’t understand why it happened. For the last week they keep throwing up their hands saying “We just don’t know what happened.” Who is supposed to know? Who should be responsible under the law when no one knows what they are doing? Apparently no one. Toyota still has no idea why their cars accelerate uncontrollably. Some ghost in the machine appartently. But at least their sales figures are way up in this last quarter despite their crashing cars. No one knows why. BP doesn’t even understand why their platform exploded. The blowout valve failed, the one that should have shut the well down. And the concrete plug failed, the one that was supposed to stop the methane bubble. But there was something that failed before that, and something before that—the failures go way back in a chain. One thing we do know is that science fiction has failed us: apparently all those remote-control robots we see in the movies don’t work as well as they do in the movies. They are the dreams of the computer animation sequences in which they were invented. No wonder they don’t work. They were created by programs that no one actually understands. It’s true I don’t understand how my computer works either. I certainly don’t have any idea how my dreams work but I know I have them. Last night I had a dream: I was underwater with Diver Dan and some of his talking fish buddies. There was an underwater gusher and Daniel Day Lewis was saying “I Drink Your Milkshake” to the shrimp fishermen of the gulf coast.

What about that Libyan plane crash the other day, or that missing French airliner last year? No one knows why they happened. They can’t find any black box. If only there was a black box, I mean for everything—something like the one in Kubrick’s 2001, the black box that all the monkeys rallied around before they got smart. Well we do have our devices that we can turn to (if the batteries happen to be working). We can turn to the media for answers, but media doesn’t work either; they can’t seem to explain anything. They do manage to pose the question over and over again in the effort to bring in more advertising revenue. I should just stop listening because all I hear is more news about things that don’t work and how nobody knows why nothing is working. “Not knowing” something that you really know is, of course, one sign of trauma, which might mean maybe we are living in an age traumatized by complex and aggressive media. Someone, however, has to pretend that it is at least possible to understand, otherwise everyone would just start shooting their neighbors for food instead of going to the grocery store. And so the pundits and talking heads gleefully keep trying to explain everything, desperately promoting a blind faith in the increasing complexity of the culture that keeps everybody working and making money. Of course that doesn’t seem to work very well either, because a lot of people who need to be making money can’t do it, either here in the Land of the Free, or over there, in the land that the Land of the Free feeds upon. Who’s making money off of mining in Africa and the Amazon anyway? Not the people who live there. It might actually be you or me and we might not know it. It’s like the BP executive said—if you drive a car or heat your home with oil you are responsible for the Gulf Coast disaster.

I hate to be the voice of pessimism, but it’s time to realize that probably nothing works. It’s a mathematical certainty that as complexity grows, the laws that govern predictability (based on perceivable cause and effect) become inapplicable, simply because it is no longer possible to know what the causes and effects are without severely limiting your field of vision, and thus becoming “narrow-minded,” a state not conducive to understanding anything. But then if you are “broad-minded” you don’t understand anything either. It would be easy to say that this all has something to do with the butterfly theory: you know, a butterfly flaps its wings in Beijing and we get two weeks of severe tornadoes across Oklahoma and Kansas. Picture a dead battery that causes an ecological disaster that destroys all Gulf Coast life and livelihood. It might even cause someone a thousand miles away to jump into the Hudson River in a vain suicide attempt. Given recent circumstances, I would update the Butterfly Theory concept into the Milkshake Theory whereby you just don’t know who or what is trying to stick its straw into your milkshake: it may be an oil baron or it may be a computer code running off on its own, or some hacker trying to get into your bank account if you are lucky enough to have one. But these days there are fewer and fewer people who have milkshakes to drink and that straw has to go somewhere. Watch your backs.

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