tl;dr – I scanned a weird QR code of a football / eye hovering over a book, had a pretty good discussion of Bartleby the Scrivener, and found an even bigger mystery than the one I thought I solved.
So, there I was, walking home from Stata when I see this cool sticker with a QR code. I scan it and I find that it links to isthisabook.club . It was pretty nifty but was advertising an event in SF, so I email out to all of my friends to ask if someone can make it. I also do some further digging into the world, find out one of the organizer’s emails, and break the 4th wall by asking “yo what’s up”. My friend, Danny Ben-David, makes it out to the SF bunker, and indeed, they have a book club discussion. “Ok”, I say to myself, “I think I’ve generally figured it out. Some Media Lab kids who enjoy multimedia weird internet art and they are legit having a book club. That’s cool”.
Today, I went to the advertised event in Cambridge. Sure enough, most of the stuff was a book club and I was thinking “Ok cool. I like books and this discussion is pretty good”. Then, at the end of the meeting, the “organizers” start talking about how they are not actually in control of this and they are getting notes from random higher ups and also RISD kids and I’m just “YO WHAT?”. I thought I had solved one mystery, but it actually seems like it’s much deeper than that (or they’re just pulling my leg really hard)
I’m honestly fascinated by the whole thing, but part of me is really nervous about digging in too deep. I forget which book I read this from, but a character in there says that “you should cherish mysteries, because there’s honestly not that many left in the world”. Part of me feels like that – that if I figure out all of the answers, I”ll be left despondent and disappointed, but most of me just really feels intrigued and fascinated by solving the mystery of this book club. (Perhaps the incessant dynamicism of being a capitalist engineer at MIT? heh).
Regardless, I haven’t had a weird multimedia mystery so enthralling since I successfully internet-stalked someone (with their consent) to find as much personal information about them as I could before I had even met them in person. The sense of discovery and “what happens if I flip over this rock” is very enrapturing.
Below are some (very) raw notes of what I remember from the book club + original email that I sent out + Danny Ben-David’s writeup
Book Club Discussion
- Key idea of stasis-death-resistance-against-large-systems vs. dynamicism-capitalism-movement
- co-opting of the stasis to serve the capitalism – ex. see meditation + mindfulness being sold as a useful tool for greater efficiency and productivity
- For me, the Angels in America quote about the Angel asking Prior Walter to just get the humans to stop progressing in order to bring God back to heaven really stood out to me
- Manuel is sorta big anti-capitalist conspiracy theory – I ended up pushing back on his ideas a lot
- Ex. I was surprised that we didn’t talk about “Bartleby as parable for mental health” – Manuel push back on this with “isn’t it something about how we are as a culture that we see mental illness / depression in a lack of wanting to work”
- He sees this as really a parable of how to fight captialism / dynamicism – just simple denial of system can really get the alarm bells working
- I push back as “isn’t this stasis just destroying all human systems then?” where like the classic thing about communism is that people are no longer motivated to work because of constant wages so they stop, and the system collapses. He argues that yeah, maybe it’s not a communism / capitalism thing, but a dynamicism thing because of the “dynamicism of the bureaucracy”
- At some point, I ask him “isn’t the thing that you’re fighting against the nature of humanity’s desire for narrative”, using the Montfort / narratology definition of narrative as purely mediated action-verb, and he argued that it was rather a matter of degree – that in our current society, it’s really easy to keep accelerating to a faster and faster speed, but very few things to actually slow that pace down so it’s really refreshing to see Bartleby just be so adamant and forceful in his rebellion
- Some other guy pointing out that visiting other cultures (ex. Vietnam) is getting a view where people aren’t so constantly stimulated – and that’s ok
- same coffee shop, same view, etc.
- Coco who chose the book surprised that we stayed so closely to the book (whoops that close reading literary analysis training :P)
- Media lab connection – some people know each other before hand (Zivvy, Coco, Manuel, etc.)
- People pointing out Bartleby working in the office of dead letters vs. working as a scrivener – the sense of that passion and love in the letters being thrown out to be burned => nihilism
- I told people about working as a scanner in the library annex and they point out that “isn’t this the modern day scrivener??” heheh
Weird Meta Organizational Discussion
- Coming to the book club a bit late – immediately recognize it as the weird people sitting around in a circle with fake candle lights + weird masks hanging around hahaha
- This book club started in the 80s, didn’t really happen in the 90s or 2000s
- Zivvy and others are updating the website, but they are being partially directed from some of the old 1980s alumni on what to do / recreating some of the same things
- Apparently some of these alumni are really $$$, but they were not allowed to say
- There is a RISD connection (i.e. they found some source code that mentions Providence)
- Possibly John Maeda connection throughout all of this?
- They were really interested in Danny’s experience in SF bunker and then when I asked Zivvy “but weren’t you there?”, someone else interjected, “Yeah but we can’t really talk about much of it”
- Idea of episodes – this was apparently “the last episode of the first season” and “now the book club is just an artifact in our mind, just as it was before when it was in the 80s”
- Might be a second season, might be contacted for it???
- Someone joked that “they might sneak a message in a book you’re scanning” and I honestly don’t know how much of this is a joke. All of this weird meta nonsense came out at the end of the meeting where we were done talking about the book and I honestly really don’t know what happened because I thought they were just pulling my leg for a lot of it until they kept going.
- The original planned meeting location of Google Cambridge got punted because of the Youtube shooting that happened a couple of days ago so security got tightened
EDIT – Bonus: Danny made this website about the whole experience.
Original Email I Sent Out About This
Hey guys,I was walking down the street near Stata and saw this really cool sticker on a telephone pole with a football / eye floating over a book and a QR logo. I scanned it because I thought it would be a sequel to 17776.It linked to this website: isthisabook.club/ which says that there will be an evening meetup at a WWII bunker in SF on March 24th. It is probably going to be the Golden Gate bunkers but I am really hoping it’s the Devil’s Slide Bunker because I think that bunker is one of the most beautiful pieces of art I’ve seen, especially with all of the graffiti on it.I’m really interested to find out what happens, so is there anyone in the Bay Area who can go to this?Other things I’ve figured out:
- I think there might eventually be a MIT component because this trailer video is very clearly shot in the Frank Stella room in Building 9.
- The Google doc guest book is owned by “Zivvy Epstein” which comes up with Ziv Epstein, a MIT Media Lab who is a “fan of experimental digital media”. I’m going to email him lol, maybe this is breaking immersion-Lilly
The meeting spot was close to one of my favorite walking paths through the Presidio, so I took the opportunity to arrive back in SF over an hour early and head to the book club on foot. I crested Kobbe Avenue some twenty minutes before sunset, enjoyed the view from the Pacific War Memorial, then headed over to the WWII bunkers. To my right was one such relic, its windows covered in metal grating, with the flicker of candles and prep work within. Without much information, I made my presence known and someone inside gestured towards me to take the side stairs. Walking around the bunker, I found that from the northern face there were recessed concrete stairs leading to an open-air yard adjacent to the bunker’s own entrance. I don’t know the original purpose of this untilled garden, but it certainly wasn’t maintained.
Down the stairs, I met the three folks leading the book club. First was Christian, a Spaniard, who I later learned was the one who proposed Gay Talese’s “The Voyeur’s Motel” as the evening’s subject matter; then, Charlie, who was fiddling with a blue Naglene bottle and a headlamp to make a makeshift camping lantern; and finally, Ziv (or “Zivvy”), the creator of the book club. I wasn’t sure whether the mysterious nature of the event was going to imply pseudonymity, but apparently not. I introduced myself as Danny, and said that a friend on the east coast had given me coordinates and a time—so I followed their instructions.
I had arrived ten minutes before the designated start time, and so setup was still underway. The bunker itself had a square floorplan, approximately fifteen feet on each side interiorly. The door, on the eastern wall, was four feet lower than the floor of the bunker; the entryway had exactly the right amount of space for, and thus the glaringly obvious absence of, a set of OSHA-approved stairs. Zivvy and Charlie helped me up the smooth concrete wall. I sat against the far side of the wall, and mostly watched them continue to get ready. Candles were lit and sat spaced out along the corners, along with a small hint of incense and a half-bottle of Fabreeze. There was the remnants of a turret mount, one to which the Army could mount some swiveling cannon apparatus to defend the Bay, but all that remained now was a raised four-foot concrete disk and a rusted metal pipe at its center. The interior of the bunker had been swept, and Zivvy laid out a blanket near the center to designate where we would all sit. Light trance music played out of a bluetooth speaker near the entranceway for the entirely of the evening, with the sole exception of when Zivvy went to guide some lost folks towards the bunker and his phone left the connection range. Through the metal grating covering windows on all sides shone the last vestiges of sunset light. And in the northwest corner, perched above all, sat an oversized sculpted bust. It had been part of a Burning Man installation the summer prior, and now acted as a silent voyeur into the proceeding of the book club itself.
The book club started late, largely because I was the only on-time attendee. Casie and Ryan appeared a half-hour later, and twenty minutes after them came three more guests: Samantha, Sarah, and Leo. Gathered in a circle on the edges of the blanket, we went around and gave our first names, and a story of a time when either we had been surveilled or we had surveilled someone else. Each introduction was the launch of a smaller conversation about the facets of online identity, or whether selfies are “fake”, or why the wife of Gerald Foos [the voyeur in Gay Talese’s article & book] was complicit in his actions, or what it’s like to watch Snapchat stories from folks all around the world. The introductions process was really the source for the primary discussion in the meeting, and the intervening chatter meant that it was nearly an hour before I introduced myself. (By that point, a tenth book club member had arrived.)
In total, we talked for about ninety minutes. Less than half of those assembled had read “The Voyeur’s Motel”, which meant our discussions could not delve into the deeper themes and actions of Gerald Foos. Instead, we stayed relatively high-level, talking about the digital surveillance state, over-reliance on technology and social media, and whether we use different online personas to build facades of ourselves. This, above all, is my largest criticism of the book club: we failed to move past the more common tropes of these topics, even when Gay Talese’s writing could have acted as a proper catalyst in that regard. Foos was, at one point, witness to a murder in progress, and decided to remain mum rather than intervene and reveal his own misdeeds. To what degree was he responsible? Do agencies with personal data—governments, corporations—have responsibilities to detect such acts on their platforms? If they can detect them, must they stop them? Can they stop them?
All that would have to be left for another time. As the time passed 10pm, we each stood and tended to pack up. Candles extinguished, bags collected, muscles stretched after an extended stay on the cold concrete floor. I followed Casie and Ryan out of the bunker after a quick goodbye to the organizers and participants, and stood for a moment in the Presidio night air. Casie calls us a Lyft and we headed towards the nearby road for pickup. As we flagged down our ride, the other attendees stood on the roadside as well, each checking a glowing phone. The car doors closed, and we headed off with Junior, our driver, back into the city.