The Mysterious Case of Carlos Bustez

carlos bustez

When I was 16 I created fake identity. It was one part joke, one part experiment. 15 years later, my parents are still getting mail for Carlos Bustez, who does not exist.

It’s been so long that my memory of how this began is fuzzy. What I recall is that one day in high school my classmates and I were required to fill out some type of form that was clearly not just for use within the school. It wasn’t a standardized test, but it was something similar. The teacher passed around a stack of the forms and told us to fill them out. The form asked for our names and addresses, as well as demographic info, including ethnicity (and more info that I don’t recall, such as the actual purpose of the form). There were more forms floating around than there were students, so I took two and hatched a little plan. I wondered what would happen if I filled out one with my real information, and one where everything was the same except I would use the name Carlos Bustez and mark “hispanic” instead of “white” in the ethnicity category. The idea at the time was to see if that would make any difference. I still used my real address, so if Carlos got mail that I didn’t, I would know.

Within a few months I did get mail for Carlos Bustez, but the fact that my alter ego was hispanic made no difference. I just got twice as much junk mail, one for me and one for Carlos.

The Carlos Bustez experiment did have two interesting outcomes: One, it showed just how much junk mail and unwanted solicitations were generated from that single form (whatever it was). We have a sense that when we write our address or e-mail address on something and give it away it somehow falls into the hands of marketers, but since your contact info is always the same, it’s really hard to know exactly how it spreads. Carlos was like the radioactive dye that allows blood vessels to show up on x-rays. Every single piece of mail I got for him had a single source, an inocuos form filled out by a room full of bored teenagers.

The other lesson is just how long it has lasted. I moved out of my parents house long ago and changed my address, but Carlos never changed his. Is it typical for ITT Technical Institute to send a recruitment letter to someone who graduated high school 13 years ago? Is it a fluke? Will I still get them a decade from now?

It makes me wonder about other experiments that could allow us to put tracers on our identity. Is there a way to track the digital breadcrumbs we drop as we travel the Internet?

(As a postscript, it turns out that ITT Technical Institute is a pretty shady private university, according to Wikipedia. It has the highest rate of loans that go into default within two years of attendance, and grade inflation is a problem, illustrated by this lovely tidbit: “In one instance, a student got 100% on a computer forensics assignment by emailing the professor a noodle recipe.”)

A Proposal: Library of Babel the Video Game

 

Still from Youtube user superadvancepet's "Minecraft: the Library of Babel"
Still from Youtube user superadvancepet’s “Minecraft: the Library of Babel”

I read Jorge Luis Borges’ short story The Library of Babel in college. Like most people I know who read it in college, it bent my mind in a way that cannot be unbent. It’s not a story as much as a description of a setting. He describes a universe that consists of a series of hexagonal chambers. The rooms are joined by doorways at the sides, and stacked and joined by stairs above and below. No one knows how many chambers there are, and many believe they continue infinitely. The denizens of this universe wander the chambers, trying to make sense of the countless books that line shelves in every room, most of which appear to be nonsense. One wanderer describes the nature of the random books this way:

This thinker observed that all the books, no matter how diverse they might be, are made up of the same elements: the space, the period, the comma, the twenty-two letters of the alphabet. He also alleged a fact which travelers have confirmed: In the vast Library there are no two identical books. From these two incontrovertible premises he deduced that the Library is total and that its shelves register all the possible combinations of the twenty-odd orthographical symbols (a number which, though extremely vast, is not infinite): Everything: the minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels’ autobiographies, the faithful catalogues of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of those catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary on that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books.

I got to thinking about The Library of Babel while playing Minecraft. Minecraft, as you may know, is a sandbox game, meaning that there’s not a set narrative or purpose. Players are placed in a blocky, randomly generated world, and they can explore and build things as they like. The topography of a Minecraft world is not designed like levels of a typical video game, instead it’s generated by an algorithm. This generation is both random and theoretically infinite. According to Minecraftwiki, each unique world played has a surface area over 9.3 million times that of Earth before the limits of the terrain generating algorithm prevent it from getting any bigger.

Not surprisingly, someone used a Minecraft mod to create an in-game approximation of Borges’ Library universe. It’s not infinite, and not as big as a randomly generated world, but it is sizable. Youtube user superadvancepet, who uploaded a clip of the world, says, “it’s big enough that it runs the game out of memory if you don’t modify the view distance, which is kind of philosophically close enough.”

 

I’d like to mess around in the Minecraft version, but there’s one huge problem: you can’t read the books. I would really like to see someone build a video game version of The Library of Babel that applies Minecraft’s terrain generation concepts to the texts of the books. I’m no programmer, but it seems like you could write code that would randomly generate and save the text of each book as your avatar picked it up, ensuring that the next random generation would not be identical. The point of the game would be the same as the point of the story, try to find something that makes sense without going mad.

To stay true to the story, the game would need to be a massively multiplayer online game, where hundreds or thousands of players could explore the chambers at once. It would essentially be a huge chatroom, where I’m sure many players would abandon reading in favor of joking around and trolling one another. Which is something that happens in common areas and chat channels of MMOs anyway, even when there’s fun quests to do and people are paying to play the game. MMOs provide something that other art forms do not, they become sites of community, and these communities breed new cultures as a collective response to their surroundings. Borges imagines and describes this process, as literature does, but a game could actually create a space for it to happen.

The more I think about it, I’m becoming convinced that The Library of Babel as an idea is better suited to the medium of a video game than to the medium of a short story. It may be that existential dispair of the library, and its comment about our own attempt to make sense of the universe, would be better communicated through a first hand experience. Literature is a mature art. I think we’re only beginning to see the power of games to create inhabitable spaces that support not only the experience of a player, but the organic development of new cultures.

The Best Articles I Read in 2012

Thanks to Instapaper, I keep track of all the articles I read digitally. At the end of each year, I compile a list of the best articles, essays, and blog posts. This is the first time the list has appeared here, on my new blog (as the first post, no less).

Note: These are articles I read this year. Some may have been written before 2012.

The list, in the order I read them, with a thought and/or quote from each:

Y Combinator: Kill Hollywood

SOPA and PIPA caused a huge stir around net neutrality in January of 2012. There was plenty of hang-wringing from tech folks, but this simple blog post from Y Combinator was the best response I read.

 

Club Kids: The Social Life of Artists on Facebook

This is a great piece about the way networks fundamentally change how artwork is collectively produced (or intentionally not produced). The essay was collaboratively written by three authors, each using a different color text.

 

The Ballad of @Horse_ebooks

The link I shared more than any other in 2012. This post explains the phenomenon behind my favorite twitter account, a spam-bot set up by a mysterious Russian to sell crappy ebooks about horses (with 143,000 followers).

 

Puppies, Paintings and Philosophers

New York Times profile of a someone I know and look up to a great deal. Adam Lerner is the director of Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. He’s reinventing what an art museum is.

 

Brian Eno’s 1995 Opening Speech for the Turner Prize

Old, obviously, but posted to Art Fag City in 2012. A quote:

“Why is it that all of us here – presumably members of the arts community – probably know more about the currents of thought in contemporary science than those in contemporary art? Why have the sciences yielded great explainers like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Gould, while the arts routinely produce some of the loosest thinking and worst writing known to history? Why has the art world been unable to articulate any kind of useful paradigm for what it is doing now?”

 

31 Notes on the Breakdown of Practically Everything: The case of the “crazy” athlete

I don’t normally read about sports, but some of the writing on Grantland is so good I can’t resist.

 

Christianity in Crisis

Andrew Sullivan on Christianity getting mangled by politics.

 

An Essay on the New Aesthetic

Bruce Sterling at his rambling best on the New Aesthetic. (If you don’t know what the New Aesthetic is, he starts off with a link that explains it well). If this interests you, you should also check out two other posts: In Response To Bruce Sterling’s “Essay On The New Aesthetic” and The New Aesthetic Needs to Get Weirder. I really love this stuff. I’m bummed that is seemed to fall off the radar pretty quickly last spring.

 

The Tribal Mind: Moral Reasoning and Public Discourse

If you lean left politically (as I tend to), don’t be put off by the fact that this is from the American Enterprise Institute (a Conservative think tank). This is a really good explanation of how moral reasoning erodes useful political discourse.

 

All Eyez on Not-Me 

An excellent critical take on the Tupac hologram at Coachella. Seriously.

 

The End of the World: The State vs. the Internet

Will the state destroy the internet, or will the internet destroy the state?

 

The Collapse of Complex Business Models

Clay Shirky on what the Internet is doing to the television business, but it easily translates into lessons about what the internet is doing to nearly everything else.

 

Echo Chamber: Is today’s art too self-referential?

I tend to like writing about art that points out why so much other writing about art is so easy to ignore.

 

The Believer interview with Dave Hickey

This is from 2007, but I read it this year and it knocked my socks off. Dave Hickey quit the art world in 2012.

 

Welcome to the Future Nauseous

This post introduces the idea of manufactured normalcy, defined this way: “There are mechanisms that operate — a mix of natural, emergent and designed — that work to prevent us from realizing that the future is actually happening as we speak.” Have you ever noticed that what your body experiences on a plane isn’t that different that what it would experience on a boat 2000 years ago, even though you’re traveling 400 miles per hour 20,000 feet above the ground?

 

Five facts about achieving the American Dream

Fact one: “If you want to achieve the American Dream, America is actually not a very good place to try to do it.” Data to back that up, and more real talk.

 

Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math

A long and frustrating read from Rolling Stone.

 

Dear Young DFW Whippersnapper Artists

This is a post imploring Dallas/Fort Worth artists to get over themselves and get weird, but it applies to artists everywhere, especially in cities that are not major art centers.

 

Americans Want to Live in a Much More Equal Country (They Just Don’t Realize It)

A fascinating read about income inequality. Americans across the political spectrum want a far more equal society than we have. How we get there is another story.

 

The Veil of Opulence

How do we assess whether a government policy is fair? By imagining its impact on everyone it effects, or only on ourselves or some idealized version of ourselves?

 

Of Ourselves and of Our Origins: Subjects of Art

Peter Schjeldahl talks honestly about what we like about art and why. He cuts through great swaths of bullshit.

 

Speech, Lies and Apathy

Truth in politics probably died a long time ago. Here’s a good obituary spurred by the 2012 presidential campaign.

 

How Capitalism Can Save Art

Camille Paglia on art’s “airless echo chamber.” I don’t agree with everything here, but it’s a fun provocation.

 

A Modest Proposal: Exhibit ‘Bad’ Modern Art

Every art collection has tons of terrible stuff. I think the most memorable painting in the Grand Rapids Art Museum permanent collection is also the worst. (I’ll have to write about that later, stay tuned.)

 

Inside the Secret World of the Data Crunchers Who Helped Obama Win

This is incredible and a little creepy.

 

Seizing ‘Forward’: 3 Steps Obama Must Take to Fight Corruption and Gridlock

Lawrence Lessig, founder of Creative Commons, on what Obama needs to do now.

 

As Not Seen on TV, Restaurant Review: Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar in Times Square

A brutal New York Times review of Guy Fieri’s touristy restaurant. I read somewhere else that the controversy surrounding this review has made the restaurant even more popular. Viva la criticism!

 

Where Do Dwarf-Eating Carp Come From?

The story of Dwarf Fortress, the most difficult and complex video game ever made.