SCIOPS 01.11: Intertwingled Tensegrity

Hey, everyone. Just finished the absolutely game-changing Walkaway by Cory Doctorow, which you must read. It’s the most optimistic possible future I’ve seen this century, fiction or otherwise. Yet it isn’t fantasy – it’s a totally realistic vision of the suffering and radical joy the 21st will bring. And it’s got me thinking about infrastructure, and its relation to the superstructure of our social/cultural lives.

In our exploration of the practical techniques of cognitive security, I think it’s important to spend some time thinking about those fleshy spacesuits we use to traverse the planet Earth.

It’s easy to just assume our bodies take care of themselves – beating hearts, flexing lungs, automatic-pilot search for food and shelter and sex. Especially in the City, where our physical needs are largely met by invisible and abstract entities. The power company makes the thermostat go, the agriculture industry puts the food on the table, the water district bathes us and washes our dishes. The supply chains are so tangled and leveraged that they resemble the freaky future-bikes in Walkaway .

minimal-topology 3d printed bike frame by James Novak

“We’re into deconstructed bikes, minimal topologies.”

Tam saw Gretyl and Seth nodding. She suppressed her irritation. She tried to understand the attraction of minimal topology, but it just looked … unfinished. The drive to reduce overall material volume of mechanical solids had been a project in both default and walkaway for decades, minimizing feedstock use in each part, getting better at modeling the properties of cured feedstock. Familiar things grew more improbably gossamer. Everything was intertwingled tensegrity meshes that cross-braced themselves when stressed, combining strength and suppleness. It was scary enough in bookcase or table form, everything looking like it was about to collapse all the time. When applied to bicycles, the technique nauseated her with fear, as the bike deformed and jiggled through the imperfections in the roads.

“Great,” she managed.

Hoa nodded. “We’re ahead of everyone else. I did one last month that only weighs ninety grams! Without the wheels. You’d get seven hundred kay out of it before it flumfed.”

That was the other thing about minimal topology. It had catastrophic failure modes. A single strut giving way caused a cascade of unraveling chaotic motion that could literally reduce a bike frame to a pile of 3D–printed twigs in thirty seconds. People swore the bike’s self-braking mechanisms would bring it to a safe halt before it disintegrated. But if they could model the cataclysmic collapse so well, why couldn’t they prevent it?

That’s the world we live in. One supply chain failing can lead to a massive domino effect. All the life-support systems tracing our settlements, the tubes we attach to our orifices to deliver goodness and dispose of badness, winking out at once. Would you know what to do? How long would it take, in the rolling blackout, to re-orient yourself and start meeting your own needs? What is your survival threshold?

Survival Heuristics

For a practical implementation, we can look to the SCIM model designed by open-source futurist Vinay Gupta, free to download and re-use at the Gupta State Failure Management Archive .

Simple Critical Infrastructure Maps, or SCIM, analyzes the “Six Ways to Die” and how we prevent them, scaling from individual action all the way to international relations. It’s infrastucture wonkery at its best, barebones and widely applicable systems thinking. The whole system is outlined in the 14-slide deck here . It takes ten minutes to read. It could save the lives of yourself and those you love.

SCIM diagrams (i) by Vinay Gupta

I said before that the greatest cognitive hack is to control a person’s internal narrative. If you can get inside their decision loops, between Observe-Orient-Decide-and-Act, they are at your mercy. Modern war is infowar, n-dimensional mind-chess. It’s a war of stories, of rhetoric, played not only against other militants but in the “hearts and minds” of civilians abroad and at home. The greatest battles of World War Forever are fought in the Theater of Propaganda.

However, this does not change the fact that internal narratives are trapped inside fragile bags of blood, located in specific real-world places. It’s really easy to change someone’s narrative if you can hot-wire their survival needs. Anyone who wants to do a brute-force attack on human cognition just has to apply, well, brute force.

Try a Six Ways to Die meditation .

Sit in your home and visualize yourself floating upward, looking out over your body, your family, your neighborhood, your city, your bioregion. Your world. Hold these levels all in your mind, from personal to global. Think of all the people you know and how far away, physically, they are. Let them be glowing dots upon the world’s skin. Feel your human compassion in your actual heart.

Holding to that feeling of love and safety, zoom back in from the global to the local to the personal. Hover a foot above your own head and attempt to destabilize yourself. Nothing easy, like bug spray in the hot tub or a necktie hanging. Think infrastructurally. What would it take to break your supply of food and water? To collapse your shelter, to send you into the scorching sun or the freezing wind? To taint your water supply or spread a plague? What levees stand in the way of actual death? What tubes are connected to your orifices?

How far away are the life support systems you rely on? Are there any glowing points of human connection in that radius? Perhaps you grow some of your own food, but the major supermarket distribution centers are miles away at the edge of town. When those supply hubs fail, the other gardeners in your town are your allies. Overlay the map of actual human connections on the grid of infrastructure. The distance between your house and your nearest friend’s is the distance you will have to cross to safety. Maybe it’s a good time to start meeting the neighbors.

As you return to your body, check the kitchen for baking supplies. Visualize yourself bringing some cookies to the family next door.

Intertwingled Tensegrity

Think of the most independent you’ve ever been – backpacking through unfamiliar territory, sailing the open sea, moving alone to a strange city. How far were you from help? And yet, how many of your needs were met through global human co-operation?

All those virtualized institutions are actually made of real humans, doing things that keep themselves alive, keeping untold numbers of humans alive by their participation. This is the secret truth of civilization: even as the dominant narrative divides, the daily interactions unite. Nobody wants to die, or wants their friends and family to die. We work together because it is better for all, not because the governments and corporations control our minds. We don’t need their help, their organization and incentive-scheduling. Humans take care of each other. It’s how we got where we are, and how we will get where we’re going. The profit motive and the religious crusade are just hacks, rewiring our social tendencies into engines of despair.

To protect your mind, cover your ass. Protect your body, and the bodies of your friends and neighbors. The more we collectively take responsibility for our own life-support, the less we can have our foundations shaken by the forces of control.

In the slow apocalypse, there are only three rules:

  1. Don’t die.

  2. Don’t let anyone else die.

  3. Have fun!

At your service,



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