The Subtle Algorithm of the Original Face

You open your Facebook account, and immediately, at the top of your feed, is a photo you posted some years ago. The photo is given back to you and you are asked if you would like to share this photo again. There is some peppy accompanying message like “A look at your friendship from 3 years ago. Would you like to share this? This will not be shown unless you share it now.” Every time I see this, I shudder. You feel it in the back of your head. The Matrix is offering to harvest some more of your battery-power through your digital plug.

I never connect with this whole “throwback”-culture birthed into our over-willing, ever-challenged attention span by social media. It is a trick and a trap dressed up as normal nostalgic reflection. I guess it started as a gimmick contrived by social media techie people to get us to rehash material we have already posted, for the express purpose of getting people who are already “connected” with us to show how their “likes” about me have changed over the intervening years, etc., thereby giving the Peeping-Tom algorithm more juicy chances to scoop up information: How often do they connect? What are the gaps in between? What does their “like” or “share” do to influence other people in the “shared” relationship? What affiliations in his network have changed, due to observable changes in interaction through this: who remains a frequent “liker,” who avoids this, and who has totally cut off interaction?

So, the data-crunchers and their AI are looking at the difference between past and present. The algorithm is hungry for fresher blood, as well. Encouraging you to send this out again (because you are always nostalgic!), it seeks to assess the quality of newer associations: the people who have become “friends” with you in the two or three years since that photo was originally posted (or the people tagged in it, or who “liked” it the first go-around) can now have it thrust under their noses — anew, thereby giving them fresh bait to react to, thereby giving the tech overlords even more information about who you are connected with, and amidst that, who you seem to be connected with closely, and to learn who you used to be connected with who you have suddenly not interacted with for some weeks or months or years, and who might also pass up a chance to “like” or “share” this throwback post that they are, in fact, tagged in. “Oh, this is how their connection changed,” the algorithm determines. “This is the distance or enhanced closeness between them.” Especially if there has been an “unfriending” in that intervening period, between people who were frequent fellow-“like”ers and sharers, this is important information about our psychology and temperament, as well. A model of our behaviour and impulses can reliably be mapped out for the advertisers to whom this data will be sold.

And so our tech watchers have devised these false-cultures to use that nuance of insight to compile predictive algorithms (and to update predictive algorithms already created about that you and every relationship that is admitted on their platform), based on these actions that either happen or don’t happen based on this “old” information that you are sharing anew, by participating in this throwback. I just have this intuitive sense that that’s what these companies are up to by offering you a chance to recycle some bait which you previously tossed out for consumption.

Several years ago, there suddenly appeared on Facebook all of these “ten-years past” photos from people alongside a new photo of their present-day self. It was this new game presented by Facebook and everyone was suddenly participating in it. It was immediately clear to me that some Silicon Valley smarty-pants had created a very ingenious (and patently manipulative) tool for getting people to refine and perfect AI systems, in particular, facial-recognition software: By an millions of individuals voluntarily posting a photo of how they “used” to look ten years ago, alongside a photo of how they look today, the photo-scanning algorithms could have an Everest-sized mountain of information for training facial-recognition softwares to make more accurate predictions of how faces change across populations, over time. Through this, such software could be reliably constructed that would need only one photo of you today (of which we share reams) in order, later, to be used in making inferences about your future-current appearance, for use with law enforcement or (if marketed to states like China) sold to nation-states that have a vested interest in knowing as much as possible about its citizenry and that citizenry’s movements and activities out in the “real” world. No one has ever told me that this is what they are doing: I have just sensed it, intuitively. It was such a sudden phenomenon, appearing one day out of the blue, where everyone seemed to be going for the bait whole-hog and doing this comparative social game, and doing it so willingly. And, again, the analysis of “likes” or “shares” or not from people who previously interacted with you, gives more insight into the ebb-and-flow of your psycho-emotional world than you would ordinarily reveal to some new friend in a bar or at a party. But you had just done that.

What an ocean of real-world data for an algorithm to play with, and nobody guarantees where the fruits of such algorithim-development flow. I was surprised to see so many really good, intelligent people pulled in by this, without even stopping for a second to consider its implications. The social media overlords had found a game familiar to our most vulnerable child-like selves — Hide-and-Seek — and had appealed to all sorts of fundamental vanities and need for self-revelation, sharing, and affiliation, to create a bait for its test-rats to enter the maze and perform some very, very revealing tasks. And they had gotten a trove of data that will be used on future populations, in contexts we have no control over. Reason No. 718 why I am glad never to have produced children into this game!

So, for these reasons (which I only feel in my gut, and have no evidence for but experience), I have never once re-shared something in this social media “throwback” function. And it is why this photo will not be posted on social media, apart from this blog, which no one looks at anyway. In any event, because I have lived some years with a much more public-facing role than most FB users, there are thousands of images out there that face-recognition softwares could have a field day using to predict my future appearance!

But today, the FB gods just slipped this photo under my nose — a throwback to something which happened here at ZCR two years ago. The ego-juicy bait was laid out there for me to “share,” to see which fish would nibble and cough up some predictive information for them to update their scary mechanics. Since I have never engaged this function before, for them, there was no wish to do it now.

And yet, I had an emotion, as all reflections on the past do, no matter how benign. This is a small group of our family here who practiced together in utter silence and don’t-know flow for three days, ending on September 18, 2018. Some of them knew nothing about one another before starting. And yet, by the conclusion of three days’ looking at their Original Face in silence, such inexpressible joy and connectedness arose as a result. People had joined from several cities in Germany, someone else had flown in from California (from Silicon Valley, actually!), from Switzerland, Greece, and Austria. Several different cultures and races and vastly different backgrounds: experienced meditators and the inexperienced, gay and straight, wealthy and (shaky), straight-arrow teetotaling and out-and-out cannabis-friendly, college-educated and only-high-school. And on the last day of retreat, during the closing “circle talk” where retreat ants break their silence and share their experiences, there were expressions of love for one another. Several described to others what a powerful example of effort was made by some them — so powerful, in one case, that one member whose inner experience in the silence — things deeply buried which were being revealed to her attention for the first time — was so overwhelming that, when she decided to leave the retreat, the sincere effort of another participant (who she had never known previously) inspired her to stay, and she ended up becoming super-clear, and feeling such eternal gratitude to that fellow retreatant that at the “circle talk” immediately preceding this picture she said, “I love you. I have never said that to someone who I just met three days ago.” And there were several similar revelations, as there often are on these sorts of intensive silent group-journeys, sometimes called “Zen retreat.”

The Original Face — how stunningly beautiful. It defies machine-learning. It has no predictive properties. It cannot be manipulated or monetised. It can be “liked” and “shared,” but it does not leave any tracks anywhere. Even the vast properties of AI cannot touch it or name it or describe it or market it. Without gender or nationality, it is never born, and never dies. And that is certainly news worth sharing.

“What did your face look like before your parents were born?” September 18, 2018. Zen Center Regensburg.

You Must Become Completely Crazy

…meaning, “free.”

Jon Habat-Zinn is one of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s original Western students. Later, he went on to use his meditation work in the service of helping patients afflicted with various physical and mental ailments, and is now internationally recognized as one of the founding exponents of what is called “mindfulness-based stress reduction,” or MBSR.

When I was writing the book Wanting Enlightenment is a Big Mistake, I asked him to please consider contributing a foreword for the book. He agreed without the slightest hesitation.

In the Foreword he offered, he related a funny story from the 1970s about Dae Soen Sa Nim and his insight into “crazy”:

“One night, with [Dae] Soen Sa Nim sitting next to me, I gave the Wednesday evening public talk at the Cambridge Zen Center. When it was over, he answered the questions. It was his way of training his students to become teachers. It was a pretty interesting and challenging training regimen. The very first question came from a young man halfway back in the audience, on the right side of the room, who, in the way he asked the question (I forget entirely what the import of it was), demonstrated a degree of psychological disturbance and confusion that caused a ripple of concern and curiosity to pass through the audience. As usually happens in such situations, many necks craned, as discreetly as possible of course, to get a look at who was speaking. Soen Sa Nim gazed at this young man for a long time, peering over the rims of his glasses. Utter silence in the room. He massaged the top of his shaven head as he continued gazing at him. Then, with his hand still massaging his head, still peering over his glasses, with his body tilted slightly forward toward the speaker from his position sitting on the floor, Soen Sa Nim said, cutting to the chase as usual: ‘You craaazy!’

“Sitting next to him, I gasped, as did the rest of the room. In an instant, the tension rose by several orders of magnitude. I wanted to lean over and whisper in his ear: ‘Listen, Soen Sa Nim, when somebody is really crazy, it’s not such a good idea to say it in public like that. Go easy on the poor guy, for God’s sake.’ I was mortified. All of that transpired in my mind and probably the minds of everybody else in the room in one momentary flash. The reverberations of what he had just said were hanging in the air. But he wasn’t finished. After a silence that seemed forever, Soen Sa Nim continued: ‘. . . but . . . [another long pause] . . . you not crazy ennuffff.’ Everybody breathed a sigh of relief, and a feeling of lightness spread through the room. This interchange didn’t follow a predictable script for meeting suffering with compassion, but I felt in that moment that everyone had participated in and witnessed an enormous embrace of compassion and loving-kindness, Soen Sa Nim-style.”

Here is a teaching-video that Pablo “Yorae” Rodas and I made yesterday in the Zen Center from a recent snippet which was taken while following this great nearly-free spiritual monkey and Zen Center Regensburg resident Housemaster on a midsummer night’s walk after Evening Practice. The video was spontaneously filmed, without planning, unexpected, in the moment; the teaching is eternal. Thanks to Ji Bong.

A Rave in Athens

I was recently invited by some of our precious Greek Zen students to a true rave in an abandoned factory in the old industrial heart of Athens. The place was so hidden in shadows on such a nameless street that even the taxi driver had a hard time locating it. There was no door or discernible entrance, even; only the sound of a few barking dogs behind rusty chain fences on a faceless dead-end street with no name. Needless to say, no streetlights. Garbage and metal refuse strewn here and there was the only sign that humans might actually have commerced here at some point. The place was so pointless, the walls of these factory-spaces had not even attracted the graffiti artists who are ubiquitous in Athens.

But out of the darkness, a steady stream of partygoers merged from side-alleys and taxis which had long slowed and were searching the dead-end street for signs of anything passing for an address. We were soon guided to a corrugated sheet of metal hanging thinly from old hinges, and passed through to an inky-black courtyard in what must have been some sort of infernal smelting concern. Through the blackness, a “THUMP! THUMP-a THUMP-a THUMP-THUMP…” dimly touched the inner-ears. We were led into a thoroughly abandoned space with a rusted spiral staircase leading to a roof. The bone-deep techno beat throbbed the physical soul, and sweating bodies emerged from a lower room, drenched and smoking.

On the rooftop, there was only one drink available — gin and tonic made by flashlight at a folding table. Even water was not being sold. Descending and ascending from roof to the room where the DJ was hyper-blasting mixes and projecting abstract shapes on a bare concrete wall, it was so weird to be back in an environment I had left many many years before (albeit in New York).

Friends screaming things in my ear that are pixelated into static buzz by the soundtrack. Everyone, everywhere, truly seeks a kind of transcendence from the narrowness-grind of life-job-relationship-politics-money-family-climate/crisis-future/fear. “But is it true Samadhi?” I am often asked. “Does this no-mind experience rate with the don’t-know of Zen?” 

I also don’t know. But unplug the priestly DJ’s extensive lights and BUNGGGGGGGGG-ing sound-pumping: Now, in that silent factory space, without pumping sound-and-graphics, gathered with so many unknown travelers, maybe drained of helpful pharmaceuticals — “Where is the techno-driven transcendence THEN?” My skull and jaw throb with the micro-manic force of inexpressible decibels pumped straight through the invisible marrow of these bones. And yet…? If this sound is suddenly unplugged, these lights silenced: Where is true Samadhi?

Practicing Zen in Athens among the post-apocalyptic Greeks, their vast communitarian consciousness so expressive of the sincerest tribal wish for survival. An infernal kind of Zen Center, whose allure is completely faded for me, and whose effects whither the soul far far far more than they samadhify. But great to check out, if just for an hour or so.