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2020 Year in Review

A janitorial perspective

Published onDec 25, 2020
2020 Year in Review

Epistemic Janitorial Revue

Well, 2020 was a year. Some might say it was the year to end all years. But everyone else is constantly talking about that! So let us leave The Mainstream Discourse to one side and continue in the 0x Salon’s attempts to better articulate our motivations and ongoing activities in order to encourage future development in fruitful and compelling directions. Here follows a 2020 salon diary through the eyes of a local janitor.

The 0x Salon pretty much began at the start of the year, but the roots had been in the ground for a while. Various flavours of unusual discourse were convened over the years via independent workshop programs, arts festivals and legacy institutions around Europe but that had been on pause due to some faraway floors needing urgent attention. It was through a related glitch in time and space that this janitor crash-landed at Trust in Berlin in late 2019, rather than the intended destination of Cambridge MA. Turned out someone in that country had in fact built an administrative (janitorial!) wall quite some time ago.

The environs of Trust made quite an impression on this janitor, particularly the reading groups that research residents and fellow members would hold around the table alongside the Cybernetics Library. In retrospect, the salon’s Ursprung was the braiding of these past and present strands - more on the present & future of the salon here.

Though the message itself is elusive, the original mention of ‘0x Salon’ was with Trust co-conspirator Sam Hart. Recall there being a bunch of questions to which there were no answers, not yet anyway. Plague vibe at this point was non-existent in Berlin and starting an event series seemed like a reasonable thing to do, despite continually promising to not come out of retirement again - this was already a fail in late 2019.

We held the first salon at Trust on Thursday 6th February, on the theme Better Living Through Abstraction? A few friends were generous enough with their time and patience to go along with the fun but quite poorly defined experiment. We collectively authored a small provocation in advance to set the scene which is a little embarrassing to revisit now but there you go. 12 humans and one dog participated, no outputs were published or produced. Plague vibe was still low in early February and we decided to try out another salon topic at Trust in mid-March.

0xSalon001 ::: Better Living Through Abstraction?
Talks & readings by Nick Houde, Laura Lotti, Sam Hart, Wassim Alsindi

This is an experiment in reformulating the salon context as an open venue for post-disciplinary exchange. Join us at Trust on Thursday 6th Feb. at 19h for short talks and readings interwoven with participatory discussion in an intimate environment.

We live in times of liquid modernity. As the pace of life quickens, humans struggle to effectively contextualise the growing deluge of inbound information. Frameworks employing abstraction promise essential insights by challenging pre-existing notions regarding the relationship between representation and underlying form.

In contrast, entropic bias and curiosity compel us to continue abstractio ad absurdum into ontologies resembling dense, striated jungles or barren deserts. Without closing the loop, such meta-analytic procedures are open to criticism from pragmatists for their ultimate inconsequentiality to the everyday. What affordances can we grasp, returning the abstract back into concrete?

We all remember March, and in particular how everything changed by the time we reached the Ides - et tu, Shakespeare? This janitor had a particularly interesting start of March, having to sweep some campus floors at what would turn out to be one of the very last international events anywhere. Somehow the overlap between Cryptoeconomic Systems journal & conference colleagues and salon discourse enthusiasts was sufficient for an impromptu post-CES20 Epistemic Trespassing salon on Sunday 8th March at MIT with colleagues including Joshua Tan, Primavera De Filippi, Michael Zargham and Sam Hart. No outputs were published or produced.

0xSalon002 ::: Epistemic Trespassing
“Epistemic trespassers judge matters outside their field of expertise. We should doubt that trespassers are reliable judges in fields where they are outsiders.”

Nathan Ballantyne, Mind (2019)

A few days later on Thursday 12th March, the previously scheduled ‘official’ 0x002 Epistemic Trespassing theme kick-off was due to take place at Trust. The previous 24 hours had seen a big change in sentiment, with lockdown and border closures imminent. Despite expecting a healthy attendance of 10-15 people, only a handful of close friends made it and we were naturally quite preoccupied with our new viral realities.

With the salon effectively quarantined, our thoughts - and everyone else’s - turned to how we might take these conversations into the virtual realm. With some praxis-focused colleagues we tried out the first virtual salon 0x003 Algorithmic Realism.

0xSalon003 ::: Algorithmic Realism
Addressing the harms of algorithmic formalism - the dominant current paradigm of algorithmic thought - requires pursuing a new mode of algorithmic thinking that is attentive to the internal limits of algorithms and to the social concerns that fall beyond the bounds of formalist orientations and their implications.

B. Green & S. Viljoen, ACM FAT’20

May / June / July
With quarantine continuing there was not much public salon activity in early summer. However there was a huge amount of topic research (check out our topic channels) and a number of colleagues were welcomed into our loose community. In retrospect this ‘summer break’ was probably the best thing that could have happened for the salon, as some much-needed groundwork went in to shore up epistemic foundations so that we could be more ambitious later. Over the course of the summer, Daniel Shinbaum became involved in salon research and writing activities.

Don’t call it a comeback! Second half of summer was great for the salon as a janitorial sabbatical freed up a lot of bandwidth. We organised two 0x002 Epistemic Trespassing virtual salons in early August and one 0x003 Algorithmic Realism salon at Trust at the end of the month. The first of these 0x002 salons (the theory branch) was particularly notable as the author of the Epistemic Trespassing paper Nathan Ballantyne was in attendance, following a rather surreal unsolicited email encounter earlier in the year.

We also started to produce written documentation as outputs from the salons. We felt this was important because some participants were not comfortable with recordings being published. So in an effort to collate and disseminate some of our insights, we wrote a Trespasser Theory report, building upon salon conversations with additional thoughts. This was a step towards our goal of collective authorship, with the janitor temporarily taking on editorial and synthetic duties while we started to develop some processes.

The IRL salon at Trust on Thursday 27th August was well attended with 17 humans and one dog present. Due to the circumstances we made this an invite-only event. We had a lot of fun at this and received a great deal of encouragement to continue the experiment. We later began to write up the conversation, with an article series currently in progress.

This month was free of events but we kept busy with topic preparation for 0x004 The Forest From The Trees.

We held the 0x004 theme kick-off at Trust on Thursday 1st October, just days before it would have been impossible to do so due to tightening restrictions. This was somewhat anticipated on our part, and though we didn’t feel fully ready to launch the new theme we did want to hold the event - behind closed doors - in our spiritual home. 22 humans participated and we were so relieved to hear that attendees enjoyed the event despite the circumstances. We’re glad to have mandated masks, as the Berlin police cruised by mid-salon and took a good look inside! Though it’s not ideal for discourse to be spaced out and masked, it was the only way. Viral realism strikes again.

It was also at this point that we looked around the room and realised that we had somehow attracted and retained the interest of an incredible amount of intellectual capital with these humble and raggedy independent events. The sorts of people with grand reputations and bibliographies that janitors might be frightened of were coming to our gatherings, then returning and bringing their colleagues.

0xSalon004 ::: The Forest From The Trees
Exploring the emergence of life and collective behaviour, and agency at the level of the individual and the collective.

We’ll connect the drivers towards self-replication from physics and the speculative astrochemistry of primordial life to ecological-evolutionary games, information theoretic approaches to individuality and the emergence of collective behaviour in natural and synthetic contexts.

Considering drivers from statistical physics, is the emergence of life and development of complexity inevitable from an entropic perspective?

The recent and unexpected detection of phosphine in the highly oxidising environment of Venus' atmosphere gives rise to the possibility that life exists in the unlikeliest of places. If here, then where else?

How can we better understand the concept of individuality, especially when living things collaborate and cooperate despite ostensibly lacking substantive sensory or cognitive capacities?

In applying systems and technology paradigms to nature, how much richness and nuance do we risk losing? Must we develop new forms of ecological realism to supplant prevalent formalist modes of thought?

Beyond the individual, alliances realise the potential of cooperation and collaboration.

The rest of October was taken up with continuing work on the 0x003 article series, in particular overcoming some process-based roadblocks as we zoned in on an output form that we felt more honestly captured the dissonance and lack of narrative arc within salon conversations. Wouldn’t these events be boring if we always agreed and brought the same tired old talking points to the fold!

Serialising in short chunks, somewhere between the Feyerabendian Analytical Index, aphorisms in the vein of Nietzsche or Thacker, Zettelkasten and conversational vignettes seems to be the way we are going.

Having fruitlessly pushed numerous boulders uphill in October, we now feel that working in a subtractive manner from conversation transcripts is far more labour-intensive for our purposes than more precisely ‘fishing’ for insights and building around them additively. This is good to know for the future! We are still in the early stages of developing this ‘radically collaborative authorship process’ and welcome your suggestions and help!

We had hoped to hold an IRL theme kickoff for 0x005 The Indifference Engine in November, however you-know-what put paid to that dream. However we did write a little provocation which neatly dovetailed with the first public outputs from the 0x Salon offshoot the Cryptographic Poetics Researchers’ Union. 0x005 is coming in early ‘21.

0xSalon005 ::: The Indifference Engine
As Bitcoin surpasses previous price records and re-enters mainstream consciousness following several wilderness years, the twelve-year-old cryptocurrency appears to have “arrived” in the eyes of the market. The value proposition of an ungoverned, uncensorable digital means of value transfer is clear for all to see…but can humanity and Earth afford the thermodynamic price tag?

To maintain the integrity of the transaction record, the Bitcoin network creates a hard boundary to the outside through exacting validation requirements. However it does not possess any feedback mechanism or capacity to respond to the consequences of the thermoeconomic challenges it issues. This insensitivity of ‘mined’ cryptocurrencies to the energy sources used to secure them has led to criticism as to their inability to mitigate their ecological externalities.

Started from the bottom, now we here! The community is still working on 0x003 articles & 0x005 topic research while we plan for a series of upcoming 0x004 virtual salons taking place in December and January. We will soon announce details of those - each with sub-topics and additional thematic elements - and also some very exciting collaborative projects where we invite esteemed co-hosts into the salon environment.

Ugly rumour: there may be a surprise 0x Salon appearance in the dying embers of 2020 at this year’s virtual Chaos Computer Congress.

edit: 0x005 ‘The Indifference Engine’ Topic Preview

Is 2021 still happening? Hopefully not a re-run of this year. Despite being an amazing year for the salon, most of us humans have suffered needlessly.

Anyway, as we said at the most recent salon:

There is no telos here, we’re just passing time until we die.

Given the absence of anything better to do, we will continue the experiment! The 0x004 virtual salon series carries on into spring and with upcoming co-hosted events we may also revisit prior topics with new angles, expanded networks and novel frameworks. We aim to launch 0x005 IRL in spring, but who knows there may be a digital session or two between now and then…

Final thoughts
Alright, time for this janitor to sign off and sweep the floor before making Christmas dinner. Stay safe out there this viral winter and please reach out (email: [email protected], Telegram group, Discord soon) if you want to contribute to the 0x Salon’s activities!

With greatest respect,
Wassim & the 0x Salon crew

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