After the end of a second ultraviolent American civil war, after we've placed the state under the guidance of automated systems—well, there's inevitably going to be a Smithsonian exhibit. Ingrid Burrington and Brendan Byrne's brilliant new speculative fiction newsletter—which received support from the Mozilla Foundation, and which we're thrilled to share the first installment here today—collects the dispatches of an architecture critic with personal ties to the bloody conflict who is assigned to review the museum's new Reconciliation Wing.
The authors explain: "The Training Commission is a speculative fiction newsletter about the compromises and consequences of applying technological solutionism to collective trauma. The USA, still reeling from a civil war colloquially referred to as the Shitstorm, has adopted an algorithmic society to free the nation from the pain of governing itself." It's also a hell of a story. There will be six installments in all, arriving weekly—subscribe here to receive the next five direct, as they say, to your inbox. Enjoy. -the ed
I understand why you think that would work, Ellen, but aside from generally having no interest in putting my personal life on display like that, I really don’t think me writing a tearjerker op-ed about a traumatizing exhibition display is going to get the Smithsonian to change their minds so much as convince them that the controversy will draw crowds. I’d rather deal with them through backchannels with my mom and sister on board, try to make this all go away quietly before the museum opens.
Thanks for the Kilfe token, I just saw it come through on the ledger. I’ll be running the runnable parts of the draft in my newsletter, I guess. Sorry again to let you down on this. I might have a beat on something interesting soon–too early to say but it means I think I’ll be down in DC for at least another week.
From: Aoife T <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Some Things Don't Belong In A Museum
Date: May 12, 2038 4:30:58 PM EDT
Apologies that it’s been a while since the last one of these. I’ve been busy, not successful busy, mostly pitching pieces in my new/old specialty. You’d think a contemporary moment so focused on rebuilding America would give some kind of shit about architecture, but uhm, nope.
What follows began as a review of the new Reconciliation Wing of the Smithsonian which a Very Kind Editor cherry-picked me for. It’s good to get paid to visit my hometown because, as my regular readers know, I will otherwise avoid the District like the sweaty American bog it is. I was apparently desperate enough for work to imagine the Reconciliation Wing might not feature an intersection with my own personal history, which, of course, was deeply delusional, and I took myself out of the game in a semi-dramatic fashion. Suffice to say, currently I’m fine but couldn’t really file something this incomplete so I’m sharing what parts of it could be salvaged here.
As seen from the National Mall ferry, the finally-completed Reconciliation Wing of the Smithsonian American History Museum is a major architectural interruption in the capitol’s low-lying landscape of retrofitted and elevated 20th-century buildings–which is ironic, considering how much attention went to making it seamlessly connect to the natural systems of the Anacostia canals. The first new construction project on the Mall since the creation of the DC canal system, the Reconciliation Wing has been subject of curiosity not only as an opening move in historicizing the National Shitstorm (ahem, The Interstate Conflict) but also as a formal progression in post-Capitol architecture. (Unless, of course, you believe that the bare-chested, perpetually shouting hologram of Alex Jones in the rear sculpture garden of the Newseum cannot be topped.)
The wing’s designer, Kay Mangakāhia, was a controversial selection from the Smithsonian and Ashburn Institute’s open call for submissions. An intern at Bjarke Ingels Group at the time, Mangakāhia was notable not only for her age (at twenty-two, she was barely ten at the time the Ashburn Accords were even signed) but her permaculture-infused proposal. The mycelium buttresses and living fungal structures of the Reconciliation Wing are now in high demand, but it took Mangakāhia’s persistence and the algorithm’s faith in her design to reach this plateau. The thriving structure’s delicate complexity and environmental pragmatism reflect the oft-quoted line from Mangakāhia’s original proposal: “survival without poetics is a carceral existence.”
One can’t say such an attitude pervades the exhibits in the Reconciliation Wing. Upon entry, a flickering series of Extremely Relatable Human Faces projected on black plinths greet visitors. The visages display a fairly narrow scale of emotions between Makes You Think and Slight but Telling Emotional Pain but somehow they manage to be all very specific. No context is provided. Given the purpose of the wing, one might suspect that these are some of the IRL victims of what the museum seems to have decided we’re calling “The First Algorithmic Society.”
Only upon arriving at a small, dim aperture is context provided: the portraits are all visuals generated by AIs developed pre-Shitstorm, let loose to slither upstream into visitors’ phones. They cull contact info, pictures, bank account etc. and put together a monstermash of the type of person you’re most likely to have an empathetic reaction to, then plugged said persona into the the loop, along with the last fifty or so visitors’.
This led to the other journalists in attendance performing variations on the exhausted sigh, since recent years have seen around half a dozen gallery shows in NYC using some version of this shock tactic (though, to be fair, rarely with the technical success of the Reconciliation Wing). While this installation is no doubt supposed to primarily remind visitors of the prevailing ease with which corporations accessed our pocket technological unconsciousnesses pre-Ashburn, it also serves the dual purpose of showing how vulnerable Palantir’s National Firewall is to even ridiculously outdated tech. Hence why the feds keeps running that Don’t Bring Your Phone to China/Don’t Actually Go to China Ever awareness campaign. (It shouldn’t surprise you that Vera’s written about this. Read her shit!)
Next is a long, narrow room skirted on the left by an unbroken screen which features a 1990s techno-thriller code waterfall with, again, no context. On the right runs a series of pictures, videos and artifacts designed to shock viewers into clubsterbomb memories–the remnants of a Google bus retrofitted and weaponized into a battering ram, that famous photo of the National Guard standing down at one of the many early BLM standoffs (everyone remembers the photo, never the standoff), a yellowing final print edition of the Washington Post.
To be fair, the Smithsonian’s only getting a fraction of the archival materials collected by the Ashburn Institute as part of the truth and reconciliation process. (This controversy–the splintering of the archive and intra-federal agency squabbles over it–does not get a mention in the exhibition.) Of course they went with the most bombastic acquisitions. But for all the attempted sensory overload, the wall text and captions are jarringly milquetoast, acquiescing to the kind of both-sides-ism that heavily aided the collapse of consensus truths in the first place. I wondered what kind of exhibit might have emerged had the Smithsonian received the full archives of the Training Commission–side note, has anyone ever actually referred to it as the Ashburn Truth and Reconciliation Council For A New American Consensus outside of official documents? Even Darcy Lawson called it the TC in her fucking victory lap TED Talk last year. When the director of the Ashburn Institute has embraced a term originally coined and deployed by critics of the project it seems like it might be time to drop the formalities.
Presumably, the TC is at least acknowledged in the exhibition. Considering that it enabled UBI, closed (almost) every prison in the country, and effectively automated the office of the Presidency out of existence, it would have to be. But I didn’t get that far.
(Here endeth the non-article.)
As longtime readers already know, I write about architecture and design here, not my brother. In fact, I don’t write about him at all. I have no interest in following in Ciarnán Whelan’s investigative reporter footsteps or reflecting on what happened to him in any public setting. I’m hoping that by the time the Reconciliation Wing opens to the public, a particularly distasteful section of the exhibition will be revised or altogether removed. But to include something so graphic with so little warning, with such a manipulative experience design, and with the gall to strategically place tissue boxes around the space as though that’s an act of mercy? It’s cheap and insulting. It doesn’t deserve to be written about. So I didn’t write about it.
Thanks for subscribing (and reading). Depending on whether a piece an editor’s been sitting on for months ever lands I might have something old-new for you next week.
Did you read my last stringr newsletter? I mean, probably not by now since it just went out like under twelve hours ago and you have a small excellent child. But I can’t sleep, and you’re the kind of person who might be able to help but you also probably should read that first for context. (And, as context for the context, most of what’s below is what I wrote in a fugue state before realizing that I couldn’t send it to my editor.)
So I knew the real reason I got a press pass to the Reconciliation Wing preview wasn’t my bylines so much as my real last name. The press tour minders were practically levitating with morbid curiosity when I arrived. I managed to ditch them, lingering and checking photo credits (nerd) by about halfway through the exhibit. This meant, thankfully, that there was no one around when I turned the corner into the section I had secretly hoped wouldn’t be included: the tragic death of renowned journalist Ciarnán Whelan while embedded with the Last Luddite Revolutionary Guard, declared here by the museum to be a “turning point” in the Interstate Conflict.
I mean, I was expecting some triggering bullshit, but I wasn’t expecting the audacity of how it was delivered. Instead of taking the larger-than-life screen approach with that portrait everyone loves to use of him or a slo-mo attempt to make a snuff film elegiac, I got a fucking push notification on my phone from the museum AI.
“Please be advised that the following content may be disturbing to some,” it read. It turned out that wasn’t a notice to give you a fucking choice, just a preamble before the video started to play and I was fucking thirteen years old again, staring at my palm and a video of my big dumb reporter brother using his “serious correspondent voice” I always made fun of, just outside a New Mexico Facebook data center embedded with the Ludds. People forget how long the broadcast ran before the too-good-for-a-minor-militia “DIY” quadcopter IED actually hit. (This was, of course, the video that was broadcast on Facebook Live, the one that people said Facebook tweaked the algo to downrank when their role in the attack became clear. It didn’t work. As the wall text accurately notes, most people, like me, saw it live.)
The wall displays telegraphed the rest of it, though mostly I’m just guessing from what I vaguely remember seeing spinning on the walls in front of me right before I blacked out mid-panic attack. 90% sure they have a shot of Faraday Fields under construction, which should amuse you; also seemed like they get into the conspiracy theory/ies, which probably won’t.
I woke up in a basement office of the old Smithsonian, somewhere far below the canals. A slouchy middle-aged guy with no hair on his head and a throwback 2010s beard was sitting by the door, scrolling through his phone. “Welcome back,” he said, gesturing toward an ancient percolator with the elan of a long-suffering mid-level bureaucrat. The coffee smelled about as appealing as Anacostia scumwater, but I was too tired to turn it down.
I asked if I’d been out long, a little thrown that the Smithsonian’s idea of first aid was depositing me in an office with some rando who I definitely hadn’t seen on the press tour.
“A little more than an hour. The tour’s over. If you want to see the rest of it I can take you around in a bit.” Eyes a little too steady on me, he took the smallest sip of coffee from a mug which read No Taxation Without Input/Output. “You’re a good writer. I subscribe to your Stringr.”
“No shit, thanks man. What’s your name?”
“I was surprised to hear you took this gig,” he added, “Considering.” My face must have done something because he ducked his head slightly and said, “Sorry. Just came out.”
“Nothing new. Half my subscribers are legacy leftovers. Pity’s a driving force in my economic security, if you wanna call it that.”
His face compressed into a porpoise’s little O. “That can’t be true.”
(It’s true, shut up Avi, it’s true.)
I sipped some of the coffee, letting him know via performative sigh that it was shit. “So what’s your deal, guy? You volunteer to babysit me while I’m unconscious to fanboi out here or is this like your actual job?”
Said guy did some seriously inscrutable facial muscle constrictions, which I studied as an example of how not to behave towards formerly unconscious people. Then he smiled suddenly and said, “I have to get back to work.” He raised his eyebrows, actually raised his eyebrows, and gestured at the door.
“Well,” I said, standing a little unsteadily, blowing on and sipping the rough coffee one last time. “Thanks for the hospitality, I guess.” I watched him watch my right hand replace the coffee cup. I was pissed at myself that it couldn’t stop trembling, and I was pissed at him for noticing it. “You know whoever designed that section on my brother?”
“You know who approved it?”
He thought about that a second. “Yes.”
“Do me a favor and tell them it’s manipulative and crass? That no one fucking needs to relive that?”
He nodded once, looking down at his coffee. I left before he could put his foot in his mouth again. Outside, in a arcing, narrow corridor I turned to see the name on the door: John Temblaine Paulson.
Shockingly, my phone had already synched up with the Smithsonian’s wayfinding platform, which guided me up two separate elevators then shunted me out a service exit onto Mangakāhia’s rhizomatic terrace. I took about three steps before palming my juul out of my bag and putting it to my lips, automatically clicking the button and drawing in hard before realizing that I had clicked no button and was drawing around an object which was definitely not providing me with a long-overdue nicotine hit.
It was a USB stick. The kind you might use in, like, 2008. Dead tech, and it looked it: scarred light purple shell and a connector skewed so hard I doubted its operability.
Avi, you are well aware that I have a fairly disordered work/home/personal life, but you’ve known me long enough to know my bag is always ordered. And never have I put a USB stick in my bag. Never have I, as an adult, even used a USB stick, much less carried one on my person. So John Temblaine Paulson had, quite obviously, stuck it in there.
Recalling his idle phone-scrolling when I came to and the inscrutable creepy expressions, I concluded the guy probably filmed me passed out in his office chair as some weird sex thing, then put that video on the USB somehow and left in my bag to taunt me.
Which, as I type this, sounds kind of insane but I was also coming off a blackout induced by re-watching my brother’s livestreamed murder, so logical conclusions weren’t exactly in reach. Plus the only thing in my stomach at that point was that shit museum coffee.
As I returned to the museum entrance the elderly docent who’d processed my credentials two hours ago welcomed me with a smile that demonstrated she’d completely forgotten who I was. “Lemme tell you about the kind of people you got working here,” I spat. “John Temblaine Paulson, that weird old pervert, how could you just let him–”
“John?” said the docent.
“–scoop me up like I was a puppy or something like small and stupid and throw me over his shoulder like a sack of onions or whatever he did, maybe he used a handtruck–”
“–and just spirit me down to his little serial killer sanctum and video me while I was passed out in his shitty little Federal-ass stiff-ass chair–”
“Yeah, don’t even try to tell me you don’t know him.”
“Of course I know him, dear. He’s in Iceland for the month.”
That set me back, my jaw going while my brain stopped, and, luckily, nothing more coming out of my mouth. The docent smiled at me like she was worried I might be about to stroke out. “There’s no one in his office then?” I mumbled.
“Oh, that should be locked,” said the docent, but she was catching up and looking all concerned. “Were you there? In Mr. Tembaline Paulson’s office? Did someone take you there?”
And here, embarrassed and out of it yet suddenly aware of my own behavior, I was saying things like I’m confused, I think, apologies, you don’t remember who I am do you? and backing out of the lobby. With the docent oozing concerned utterances in my general direction, I fled through Mangakāhia’s rhizomes and caught a ferry back to the sliver of shipping container I’d reserved on the Marion Barry Inlet (of course I didn’t tell my mom I was in town, fuck’s sake). Wrote the article, cut off the part marked HAZARD PERSONAL SHIT, sent the other chunk to Ellen, fell asleep for three hours, woke up, wrote Ellen an email saying the article was shit, and then she said no it wasn’t but yeah she couldn’t run it, and then spent the rest of the night listening to the arrhythmic thud of water against the container hull and hating myself.
I tried to clear my head this morning by heading up to Air and Space. I know, I know you fucking hate that place, but my childhood nostalgia still beats out my discomfort at imperialist propaganda. It's one of the last places in this city where I can actually space out.
You’ll be shocked to hear this is directly related to Ciarnán taking me there routinely as a key part of Big Brother Babysitting. Specifically, the museum’s second floor, where an exposed platform lets you look down on various high points of colonialist engineering. There’s a glass partition that I’d press against, as if there was nothing between me and the immense sun-drenched lacuna beneath us, Ciarnán at the ready just in case the glass shattered under the stress of my little form.
For just a minute, fingers dragging the smudging glass, now knee-height, looking down at the overlit off-season emptiness, I felt like I just might fall, like I just might be pulled back.
When I returned to the world somewhere around the Drone Wing, my phone buzzed insistently with one of FBUS’ all-hands alerts. Automatically I obeyed and was rewarded with not-John Temblain Paulson’s face enclosed in a little blue box. “Ashburn Institute staffer found dead in Potomac.” As my eyes blurred the images and my upper back instinctively scrunched into a defensive hunch, my hand curled around the USB stick still shoved in my pocket, fingernail scouring it again and again as if that might reveal whatever was stored inside.
So: can I come visit? Whatever this guy wanted me to see was apparently important enough to fake his way into the Smithsonian, and if I hand the USB to the case workers I’ll probably never find out what’s on it. You, on the other hand, have an oracular way with the dead tech, and who knows, maybe it’ll have some fun dirt on our New Algorithmic Society we can send to a real journalist or whatever. I mean, it’s probably not real spooky ops shit. But if it is, it’ll at least be interesting, right?