In memory of Michael Toussaint Stowers (1963-2014)
Olga Solovieva became friends with Michael Toussaint Stowers on January 17, 2011 (FaceBook)
My friendship with Michael Stowers was fully and totally electronically mediated. I saw him at a conference in Cambridge in June of 2008: a somewhat baggy figure of a guy in dark blue jeans and a dark blue T-shirt with longish hair wandering around the lecture hall. He drew my attention because of his typical look of a lefty, alternative intellectual as I have known them only in Berlin. In the corporate American academic establishments that have been suffocating me for years you won’t meet free spirits, but in England you still can. So he drew my attention, nostalgically, reminding me of my European past and the type of people I loved to hang out with.
Nobody else stayed in memory from that event that sounded promising and was supposed to be interesting but like all such events wasn’t. It wasn’t mostly because few of the participants took seriously the agenda of thinking of new innovative relations that humanities and sciences could strike. In fact, hardly anyone even cared to write a new talk but just came with their old, not quite relevant stuff, mostly attracted by a prospect of putting a prestigious Cambridge conference on their CV.
I fell very sick on the second day of the conference and was spared more frustration but I also missed a chance to meet Michael in person. He talked to Haun after his talk, and it is through Haun that I learnt about him and matched the image of a baggy guy I saw a day before with Haun’s description: The only really curious guy – interesting, unconventional — who had understood the talk and had something substantial to say about it. He came over to Haun not just to laud but to challenge. In this way the offer and demand met, boosted by the common disappointment at another failed attempt to turn the stagnated academia into an arena for a genuine intellectual exchange. Haun and Michael clicked right away and continued their discussion on their own through emails and FB. I got into conversation with Michael only through Printculture and through our electronic comments on Haun’s Wall. After several years of such indirect contact, I received from him this personal introduction and invitation to a friendship:
January 17, 2011 7:29 pm
- Hello Olga
I’m Michael. Briefly met Haun at conference I thought might do what it didn’t and where he gave an excellent talk. Since then kept in touch — prefer that to numbering him as one of my “Facebook friends” (a horrible expression & illustrative of a devaluation of the concept of friendship resulting from social networking). H probably thinks I’m quite mad but I like him, so he’d be forgiven!
Anyway, yes, on iPhone which doesn’t allow text in friend requests so this stands in for same.
Oh yes. Autodidactic leads to prolixity. Anyway, hand offered in friendship with hope of acceptance. (;
– It is a pleasure.
– Thank you.
Oh yes. English. Am not concerned with royalty though. Or patriotism in any form. Or soccer.
:: smiling ::
Michael’s introduction was indeed “interesting and unconventional” which to somebody like me means beautiful. Being a computer scientist by education, he took the electronic medium seriously and chose to live in it in full but at the same time he knew from inside out its technical and social limitations, and maybe precisely because of this knowledge that he sought consciously to counter and to transcend them in his own life. And he was successful. He has shown that the electronic medium is just a medium, that it carries the content that you put in it, and hence that electronic life, friendships, love are as real and fulfilling as they can be, if you are capable of them in the first place.
Soon after this first introduction Michael became a friend, a part of my life, and more — a member of our family. We woke up and went to bed in conversation with Michael. He had been a steady presence in our household and in our daily conversations we often referred to him in a casual, matter-of-fact fashion. He was the kind of guy we cherish and love to have around – endlessly inquisitive and genuinely curious about everything on Earth, politically principled and decent, sensitive and artistic in nature, but also very, very kind and idealistic, while ironically, Socratically self-aware. In the course of the last six years, in conversation with him we accomplished what the Cambridge conference failed to do: we lived a dialogue between humanities, arts and sciences; and in the end, ironically, it was this conference’s accomplishment to bring us together with Michael.
After his sudden, incomprehensible passing on August 29, I went back through our conversations on FB, public and private, and chose some snippets from them to honor our friendship and mourn Michael by reminding our readers of his unusual mind and memorable voice, as I experienced them in my exchange with him over the last three years and as they will stay with me far beyond his death.
Our conversations were mostly about politics. In the years after the midterm elections of 2010 when the right-wing mob took over the American Congress and the United States seemed to be carried away toward a social and political abyss, Michael’s voice from overseas offered strong support. I have never met a foreigner who was better informed about America’s domestic politics. Our conversations often took off from some concrete event or observation but then spun off to much broader and universal issues of social justice. For example, one of our first conversations about class consciousness triggered, of all things by Oscar Wilde:
February 3, 2011
“Misery and poverty are so absolutely degrading, and exercise such a paralysing effect over the nature of men, that no class is ever really conscious of its own suffering. They have to be told of it by other people, and they often entirely disbelieve them.” — This is from Oscar Wilde’s “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” (1891), which I’m reading right now. This explains to me why Americans don’t want an affordable health care that has been offered them recently.
Michael Toussaint Stowers:
@lga, what does it mean for a ‘class’ to be ‘aware’ of anything, including its own members’ suffering? Is it the same as saying individual(P) which is a member of subset S (say “those who have suffered”) is capable of understanding itself as an individual which, among many myriad sets, is a member of set S?
@Michael, I think, Lilia has explained it above. The divine Oscar thought, quite rightly, that people internalize their condition as the way of the world, and need another perspective, that of another class, to tell them that their situation is awful. He then speaks of the need for agitators who awaken people’s consciousness. Or Gramsci will later come up with his “organic intellectual.”
@lga, thanks. At the interface of the group with the individual interesting ideas arise. I suspect Oscar, though, perhaps because he was higher-class than I am, though mostly for other reasons.
He is reported to have said that it requires another ‘class’ to awaken the suffering to their condition, which is okay. What worries me is whether the ‘awakening’ of this ‘consciousness’ of which he speaks is or can be bi-directional. That is, what happens if the ‘class’ which does the ‘awakening’ is that which is suffering the most.
I’m thinking of, for example, the emerald miners in the Congo who do back-breaking labor for around eighty cents a day as being, perhaps, on an almost unimaginably lower level than the lowest of the low in the US and UK. Are they allowed to tell the our own underprivileged how privileged they are? A literal reading would seem to suggest that they should be able to do this, though I wonder if Wilde would agree.
Or for example this, about the teenage single moms, in reaction to my horrified discovery of the baby milk powder supplies kept under lock and key in American shops – a provision to keep low-income mothers from stealing food for their babies:
February 4, 2011 10:33 pm
What you say about low-income teenage schoolkid-mums is very interesting. Here, teenage mums are demonised though the actual numbers are not as bad as people think.
Your country continues to puzzle and amaze. I heard that some state was planning to legislate in order that people would be required to carry guns!
I suspect that the keys to meaningful global social improvement absolutely must include big improvements in education, especially of women, so any impediment to this is not good news especially in a country in such disarray anyway.
The big problem with breast feeding here is finding somewhere where they’ll allow it. Many places consider it obscene and relegate it to the lavatory which is, itself, obscene.
Oh yes, how can you accuse me of self-aggrandisement and quote Wilde!? That’s my main issue with him! Plus I don’t like it when someone presumes to know what my own subjective mental states are, even if the person doing the presuming is dead! Your quote of Wilde’s does presume this; don’t mean your quoting him but what he was asserting.
Michael could be stern or goofy but always a no-bullshit interlocutor, in big and small. Here is our exchange on René’s bike:
January 28, 2011 at 6:18 pm
That don’t look like no bike to me! It has two front wheels! Pretty cool: I’d like a larger version!
It has two front wheels and two rear wheels. And it doesn’t have pedals. It is a walking bike. But so far René has enjoyed biting the saddle and ringing the bell.
:: laughing :: It’s kind of a car then, or an early taste of a Zimmer frame!? Biting saddles and ringing bells sound like marvellously educational activities for someone 365 days old! Can it be steered and can he steer it? I do hope there aren’t too many sloping surfaces in your house! The device should be given a name.
It has the name “René” in the white letters painted on it! No sloping surfaces, just the door frames… He can steer it but not while sitting on it but rather while standing next to it. He also enjoys pushing it while crawling after it.
Looks as though it’s all made from wood, the frame anyway. Looks Scandinavian. Are those feathers sprouting from his left shoe? If so, is it a Saussy trait to occasionally affect feathers!? This picture makes me smile. I wonder what the opposite of ‘schadenfreude’ is.
His father gets feathers on his head, usually around Halloween. René might have inherited it on his feet as a winter trait.
Then on the Halloween of 2011 he posted this:
October 31, 2011 near Norwich, United Kingdom
“Solovievasaussys & whomsoofsprung clusteraboutwith ghastproof yeldritchglow.” Happy Hallowe’en t’all.
And this started as a congratulation note for my birthday last year:
February 28, 2013 2:10 pm
Have a wonderful birthday… One day later and you’d been four times younger!
Thank you, Michael. What I really don’t want to be is ‘younger.’ But there was no danger of it in 1971 any way, one day later would be March 1.
Not in 1971, true.
1971 is a well-remembered year: I am predisposed to imagine it to have been a “time of innocence, of confidences,” as Paul Simon put it. It is a palimpsest of memory though and despite it being a year of great fortune it was also one of the straits of passage (learning what death consisted in, preparing to be dragged to the ends of the earth at my father’s whim, being nadirs).
The paths we trace through time are ambiguous. At one obvious level we “age” in that Blake idea of becoming experienced, but we lose the constant strangeness of the new and become distanced from a particular way of seeing the world which – though I would not return to it, I have striven not to lose. It’s as though we gain and lose as we age, moving from young to young. I am hugely tired and can’t articulate it well. And articulating it well may be a Proustian task, and the supplies of cork are running out. :: smiling ::
So, have a marvellous evening, and be wary of using mobile devices to access any ‘social networking’ service. Seriously. All are being siphoned off, especially G+, without regard for propriety. Facebook is far safer, though that will soon change. These rivers of data are routed to the USA / UK by the State, and – interestingly – to the former Soviet bloc, and mobile access is the main conduit. Because it’s easy, I guess, and people don’t notice.
(I promised Stuart Semmel an explanation of why G+ is riskiest but I need another twenty thousand words or so!)
I always thought that Simon’s “Long ago, it must be, long ago, I had a photograph: preserve your memories / they’re all that’s left [to] you” was deeply ambiguous. It is now becoming more pertinent day by digitised day.
Happiest of birthdays to you and yours and may there be many more to follow it. I do hope this reaches you through a message lest I be thought to be trolling!
Now I can shut my eyes.
I asked Michael what he thinks about Julian Assange’s book that he has written during his exile in the Ecuadorian embassy. I posted Assange’s essay launching the book and summarizing its argument. This is Michael’s dialogue with Assange’s embedded quotations that he wrote in response:
July 12, 2013, 12:01 pm
I said there was a longer response to Assange’s piece, and I’ve misplaced your email address and don’t want to crowd your wall with it, so here it is. (When I first read the piece I wondered “where is the message concealed within this?” but I still can’t find one. My responses such as they are are embedded in his text… Anyway, here…
The original cypherpunks were mostly Californian libertarians. I was from a different tradition but we all sought to protect individual freedom from state tyranny. Cryptography was our secret weapon. It has been forgotten how subversive this was. Cryptography was then the exclusive property of states, for use in their various wars. By writing our own software and disseminating it far and wide we liberated cryptography, democratized it and spread it through the frontiers of the new internet.
Cryptography has been a tool of both those with power and those who wish to subvert that power since, I suspect, “time immemorial.” Da Vinci and the early Christians being more obvious examples, but there any many others both known and unknown. I am not checking any of this, by the way, so there may be mistakes. As far as what JA claims about it having been “liberated” by “cypherpunks” goes, I know nothing. Though there was certainly no such name in currency, and it’s an obvious variation on “cyberpunk,” which was coined in the nineties. William Gibson, ‘Neuromancer” I think.
(Forgive me when I state the obvious as if it weren’t, and when I lack correct terminology. Or misusing orthodox terms, and such like, and the resulting abominoneologisms.)
Cryptology was – for me at least – first highlighted by an article in “Scientific American” about one-way trapdoor functions and their use as encryption methods, I can’t recall the date but it was probably between 1982 and 1994, I guess. The authors had posed a cryptological puzzle – a sequence of seemingly meaningless letters – and challenged the world to solve it (they said in a footnote that their encryption algorithm would take billions of years to crack, or something similarly hubristic), even offering some monetary award to whomsoever succeeded. Of course, the reward was of little worth when it was cracked a few years later and, if I recall correctly, the solution turned out to be “the magic words are ‘osseous saxifrage'” or some such string. (-:
Ever since that article, though, the method has been in the public domain, as far as I know.
The resulting crackdown, under various “arms trafficking” laws, failed. Cryptography became standardized in web browsers and other software that people now use on a daily basis. Strong cryptography is a vital tool in fighting state oppression. That is the message in my book, Cypherpunks. But the movement for the universal availability of strong cryptography must be made to do more than this. Our future does not lie in the liberty of individuals alone.
See previous comments. The last two sentences trouble me, for reasons which must be obvious. I think.
Our work in WikiLeaks imparts a keen understanding of the dynamics of the international order and the logic of empire. During WikiLeaks’ rise we have seen evidence of small countries bullied and dominated by larger ones or infiltrated by foreign enterprise and made to act against themselves. We have seen the popular will denied expression, elections bought and sold, and the riches of countries such as Kenya stolen and auctioned off to plutocrats in London and New York.
Yet again, who is this “we” who has seen all these things? Wikileaks? Or is Assange using some royal privilege?
The struggle for Latin American self-determination is important for many more people than live in Latin America, because it shows the rest of the world that it can be done. But Latin American independence is still in its infancy. Attempts at subversion of Latin American democracy are still happening, including most recently in Honduras, Haiti, Ecuador and Venezuela.
This is why the message of the cypherpunks is of special importance to Latin American audiences. Mass surveillance is not just an issue for democracy and governance – it’s a geopolitical issue. The surveillance of a whole population by a foreign power naturally threatens sovereignty. Intervention after intervention in the affairs of Latin American democracy have taught us to be realistic. We know that the old powers will still exploit any advantage to delay or suppress the outbreak of Latin American independence.
Consider simple geography. Everyone knows oil resources drive global geopolitics. The flow of oil determines who is dominant, who is invaded, and who is ostracized from the global community. Physical control over even a segment of an oil pipeline yields great geopolitical power. Governments in this position can extract huge concessions. In a stroke, the Kremlin can sentence eastern Europe and Germany to a winter without heat. And even the prospect of Tehran running a pipeline eastwards to India and China is a pretext for bellicose logic from Washington.
This is the biggest problem facing us, he’s right about that. This is a huge problem, bigger than terrorism or surveillance, and is what the Internet could facilitate ending.
But the new great game is not the war for oil pipelines. It is the war for information pipelines: the control over fibre-optic cable paths that spread undersea and overland. The new global treasure is control over the giant data flows that connect whole continents and civilizations, linking the communications of billions of people and organizations.
Rubbish. Or, there are greater games, if that’s what one chooses to call them.
It is no secret that, on the internet and on the phone, all roads to and from Latin America lead through the United States. Internet infrastructure directs 99% of the traffic to and from South America over fibre-optic lines that physically traverse US borders. The US government has shown no scruples about breaking its own law to tap into these lines and spy on its own citizens. There are no such laws against spying on foreign citizens. Every day, hundreds of millions of messages from the entire Latin American continent are devoured by US spy agencies, and stored forever in warehouses the size of small cities. The geographical facts about the infrastructure of the internet therefore have consequences for the independence and sovereignty of Latin America.
The problem also transcends geography. Many Latin American governments and militaries secure their secrets with cryptographic hardware. These are boxes and software that scramble messages and then unscramble them on the other end. Governments purchase them to keep their secrets secret – often at great expense to the people – because they are correctly afraid of interception of their communications.
But the companies who sell these expensive devices enjoy close ties with the US intelligence community. Their CEOs and senior employees are often mathematicians and engineers from the NSA capitalizing on the inventions they created for the surveillance state. Their devices are often deliberately broken: broken with a purpose. It doesn’t matter who is using them or how they are used – US agencies can still unscramble the signal and read the messages.
These devices are sold to Latin American and other countries as a way to protect their secrets but they are really a way of stealing secrets.
This is not why the devices are sold, as it is not why they’re bought. What does he mean “deliberately broken”? I mean, what idiot who really wanted to keep “national secrets” secret would rely upon any device designed or made by a potential enemy?
Meanwhile, the United States is accelerating the next great arms race. The discoveries of the Stuxnet virus – and then the Duqu and Flame viruses – herald a new era of highly complex weaponized software made by powerful states to attack weaker states. Their aggressive first-strike use on Iran is determined to undermine Iranian efforts at national sovereignty, a prospect that is anathema to US and Israeli interests in the region.
So he says. He may be right. As far as I am aware, none of the viruses he mentioned was discovered though, as they are all invented. Huge difference.
Once upon a time the use of computer viruses as offensive weapons was a plot device in science fiction novels. Now it is a global reality spurred on by the reckless behavior of the Barack Obama administration in violation of international law. Other states will now follow suit, enhancing their offensive capacity to catch up.
This kind of sums it up. Only after William Gibson were there any such themes in “science-fiction.” He speaks of the recent past (as recent as the fall of the Soviet Bloc, by implication) as though they were ancient history. In fact, the computer, never mind any viruses it might have, was completely absent from any such literature. (There are exceptions, but they’re trivial, in Kapek and a few others, who write of “artificial humans,” but these are only very obliquely related to cryptology).
And it is not just the Obama administration, either. This has been a global reality since way before Obama’s time, and is kind of obvious given the way in which the internet protocols are designed to route packets. It’s an obvious consequence of this, in fact.
The United States is not the only culprit. In recent years, the internet infrastructure of countries such as Uganda has been enriched by direct Chinese investment. Hefty loans are doled out in return for African contracts to Chinese companies to build internet backbone infrastructure linking schools, government ministries and communities into the global fibre-optic system.
Has he forgotten the Internet’s original purpose and structure??
Africa is coming online, but with hardware supplied by an aspirant foreign superpower. Will the African internet be the means by which Africa continues to be subjugated into the 21st century? Is Africa once again becoming a theatre for confrontation between the global powers?
Which aspirant foreign superpower might that be?
These are just some of the important ways in which the message of the cypherpunks goes beyond the struggle for individual liberty. Cryptography can protect not just the civil liberties and rights of individuals, but the sovereignty and independence of whole countries, solidarity between groups with common cause, and the project of global emancipation. It can be used to fight not just the tyranny of the state over the individual but the tyranny of the empire over smaller states.
The cypherpunks have yet to do their greatest work. Join us.
And become one of their number? No. I have huge issues with the “us and them” polarity of his language. This reads like a call to arms. It’s the notions of leaders and wars and borders and control (etc.) which need to change. Surely?
In March of 2011, I inadvertently introduced Michael to my friend Roxana, the Romanian photographer and writer, whose blog I shared on FB. Michael was overwhelmed by her talent and became her close friend, collaborator and intellectual challenger ever since. By the time of his death, she was the most important person in his life. Here is a link to the obituary on her blog.
Here are snippets of our exchange about Roxana, Dracula, and Europe:
February 19, 2012 5:54 pm
I am talking with Roxana right now, but I will be back afterward. (Thank you for that introduction, by the way: she is a rather special person. The world needs more like her.)
Roxana is special, I agree. I love her very much. Say ‘hi’ to her.
Olgsol, hi! Sure, I’m taking with her now in fact. […] And a thousand thank yous for having pointed
me Bridgewards: she is one of the most remarkable people I have ever
met; talent deep as a well! I’m sure she’d love to hear from your
friends and from you also. (She says hi!) All care, mts
Hey Michael, I just communicated with Roxana a couple of weeks ago and sent her my new article on Kurosawa. She is in Germany right now, forget where somewhere in the North supervising kids at a Rumanian-German summer camp within some European initiative. All best,
Wismar, on the Baltic. I think she is getting tired, but the camp was / is a success…I think there’s a third one planned for next year, but she seems happy with it all, which is good. (-: all best from here too!
Wismar! How appropriate for a visit from Romania! This is a place visited by Dracula, a place of dark passions. Have you seen “Nosferatu”?
You had Nosferatu as your profile picture for a while, which J Cohen uncharacteristically misidentified as the megalomaniac Technocrat from ‘Metropolis’ whose name I embarrassingly cannot now dredge up! It’s the best film ever of the book, and masterly in and of itself. I’ve seen it fewer times than ‘Alien’ but that allows quite a bit of leeway!
Unfortunately (or not) I’ve seen far too little of Europe first hand and then usually just one day stopovers, and a couple of visits to my oil-rich brother in Northern Italy and Southern Spain. Oh, and Holland, which is exactly the same as where I live now. The language problem (being a monoglot) makes obtaining direct information difficult: this linguistic laziness is peculiar to the Anglophone world and is shared by many therein. Ironically, one of the most consistently reliable and trustworthy political voices here belongs to Charles, the Prince I mean. He claims descent from Dracul too, and R tells me he is much respected in Romania, more so than here where he’s dismissed as a tree-hugging idiot (which he’s not).
In the media here, we are daily reminded of the danger posed to our ethnicity and venerable state institutions by EU citizens in general and those from Romania and Bulgaria in particular, who are apparently going to migrate here in the millions and live off our generous welfare state. Far right parties such as ukip benefit, but there are those farther to the right, waiting in the wings to exploit whatever chaos there is to exploit (the British National Party and the English Defence League to name but two).
Meanwhile the distant sound of Benefit Tourists, Asylum Seekers and Economic Migrants resounds constantly, subdued in the trans-Carpathian forests. Or so we are told. (-:
In a couple of days we are departing for New Zealand. It is an irony of fate that we are going to spend two months in Dunedin in Otago, where Michael told us he has been conceived and where he spent three years of his life between the age of 12 and 15. We are going to lecture at the University of Otago where Michael’s mother worked as a lecturer in philosophy in the mid-70s; we are even going to live in the same street. Michael was very amused about this fact and for the last couple of weeks has been preparing us for what he expected to be a “culture shock.” We were looking forward to sharing our experience with him. But alas. Here is what he wrote to me about the country that contributed much to his identity. I posted an article from the Guardian on New Zealand’s recent political scandal. This triggered our last exchange:
August 24, 2014 at 2:46am
Oh, not the National Party! Are they preparing for you?! (;
“National Party” sounds hilarious, especially in the context of any hybrid society like NZ. Well, I’m sure they are not prepared. I hope to ambush them in the middle of the scandal!
‘Hybrid society”!? Things must have completely changed! The article doesn’t suggest much has changed, though I don’t think the “Mana Party” was extant when I was there (without checking them up, which I will, I conjecture they may be an offshoot of various New Agers who once congregated in Queenstown). Oh, the culture shock!!
What about Maoris?
Discriminated against, but to Maori and Pakeha alike, they are first and foremost Kiwis, as distinct/opposed to Non-Kiwis (particularly Australians and British). The Maoris are cool people, in general, though I’ve heard they have been subject to a lot of deprivation. Hopefully they still teach Maori in schools!
(And they are more North Island than South. Where you’re off to is like a tiny chip of Edinburgh, hence the name!)
I have various connections with that particular part of NZ (I.e. Otago / the Southern Allps / Dunedin) so I’m very interested in how you and Haun will find it.
You know you are going to live in the same street in which my parents were silly enough to have conceived me?! Probably something to do with the University, if they’re providing accommodation.
Yes, another thing. The North Island is where most of the people live, and is VERY different from the South Island, and further away that it might seem! (-:
Thank you, Michael, for your friendship and conversation. We consist of people we loved. In this sense there is no death. We hear your voice and we’ll keep talking!