by Jeff Tangel
My son Jack is a nice young man. I haven’t been nice since I was a young man. Hopefully he’ll have more stamina. Isn’t that the kind of thing we wish for our children? Or ought to anyway.
Last weekend we drove downstate, to Farmington—a place just like it sounds—to see his grandmother who, after many years of sharing her talents with the people thereabouts, now lives in what we Americans call a “nursing home”. She taught 5th Grade for 31 years and raised six children. Now she has Alzheimer’s and can’t take care of herself, her memory a flickering flame.
On the way down Jack and I talked. He said that he had been thinking about the number of ways he could be contacted, nowadays, with all the technology. He counted out for me about fifteen: Facebook post and message, Facetime, cell phone call, cell phone text, email (2 accounts), g-chat, Skype, i-message . . . well, that’s ten, the others I’m forgetting right now. Maybe I’ll remember later.
Though I had some idea about this, hearing the list was eye opening. In my class I require students to watch the The Matrix—the well known, 1999, action packed allegory of our modern lives by Chicago’s Wachowski brothers, who, it must be said, are fans of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulations.[i] Me too. I won’t recount the whole idea here, but the upshot of the film is that human beings have become the power source for the ruling AI machines. That is, super-intelligent machines now raise humans in test tube cells, farm-like, to capture the energy that we naturally produce. Every-body is connected by a multitude of wires and tubes—like a terminally ill hospital patient with great insurance—monitoring functions, making corrections and delivering nutrients all to collect the product of the cell, energy, which is food for the machines. We humans, in our tubes, see and experience everything as simulacra—so real-like we can taste it, and so we are placated and unaware, while the AI machines are able to harvest that energy to continue both their own, and our simulacrum existence. Think of it as a form of levitated permaculture.
When Jack started describing all of the ways that he could be contacted, I thought of the movie. Isn’t each of these new technologies that “connect” us like tubes and wires running into our bodies? Sure they connect us horizontally. Humans in the movie have all sorts of intercourse. But aren’t we all connected to central servers? And it’s unclear to me who is being served even as technology seems to be satisfying our needs.
The heroes of The Matrix, and specifically the reluctant Neo, aim at setting humans free from the chains of their manufactured existence—from manufactured illusion and slavery—to exit the cave and reclaim our humanity.
Steven Shaviro explains “accelerationism” as, “the idea that the only way out is the way through.” In a recent online interview he characterized the controversial hypothesis just so: “If we want to get beyond the current social and economic order and reach a post-capitalist future, then we need to push through all the messy complications of capitalism, rather than revert to something supposedly older and purer.” [ii]
This seems a pragmatic and sage response to intractable socio-economic forces. But I’m not convinced.
“Accelarationism” may be a new and catchy name for a not terribly new idea. “Back” in 2008, UC Berkeley sociologist Peter Evans published an insightful essay along these lines titled, “Is an Alternative Globalization Possible?” [iii] in which he argues well for employing the tools of capitalist globalization to render the world more hospitable for humans. This means, more than anything, recovering the power of technology and repurposing it towards better than profitable ends. As Shaviro says, “If computational technologies are eliminating millions of jobs, then the best response is not to demand the jobs back, but to spread the wealth—to give back what the 1 Percent has stolen from everybody else—so that people can afford to lead comfortable lives without always worrying about the cost of housing or the size of their credit card bills.” [iv] So we can live contentedly, the fruit of our technology.
And yet I can’t recall ever being so tired as I am now. Maybe I just can’t keep up. So Godspeed to that century-long promise of progress. Or has it been longer?
For me, the most interesting thing about capitalism is its creation of a capital as a concept with ontological status. This fictional disembodied spirit now roams the world without restraint and wherever it goes it recreates the world in its own image. What is that? Well, in a phrase: reproductive efficiency. That’s what capital does. Messy is bad, so it finds the most efficient path for its reproduction. And to do this it has to simplify the world into neat productive interconnected silos. That’s what globalization is.
Interestingly, that’s also what technology does. Long ago we dropped the “ought,” question. “Ought we aim at doing this or that?” Instead, we just do. Why? Because “we” are not the deciders anymore. Nearly all technology now serves its makers, not its users, and its makers serve capital. In fact technology creates its users as University of Pennsylvania Professor Joseph Turow explains in his insightful book, The Daily You[v] as if we were cultured in a lab. All that data collection is not to provide better stuff to human beings, for which they may or may not clamor. Instead it’s a means of creating a clamor. It’s about creating better, more efficient consumers of technology so that capital can continue to reproduce itself in the most efficient manner possible.
Production is the master. Consumption the servant.
Aren’t nearly all the solutions offered by technology aimed at solving problems created by it-self—created by capitalism? I call this the economics, and metaphysics, of duct tape and bailing wire. Sure some amazing things can be done with those rudimentary tools (think ones and zeroes), but it can’t, and never will be able to offer an “ought” idea.
Embracing technology as a means of breaking through to the other side is like someone who’s had too much Guinness trying to sober up with a shot of Jameson. Neat.
Steven Fraser tells us in his book, The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power, that the reason we’ve had so much trouble battling back, or reforming capitalism is because we have forgotten a time when it didn’t make all our decisions. [vi] We can’t collectively recall our past. And lacking recall, we can’t imagine another way to live. We’re stuck.
What use is the past to capital? What use is the past to technology? Doesn’t technology now mean obliterate the past? Back in the 1940’s Schumpeter called it “creative destruction”. Today Silicon Valley calls it “disruption”. Whatever. New duct tape. We’ve naturalized Alzheimer’s because it’s good for business. That’s all the “ought” we have.
I haven’t yet remembered those other five ways my son can be contacted.
But I do remember many years ago my elderly neighbor saying, “If you find yourself in a hole, first thing to do is to stop digging.”
Image Credit: ” A Gene for Forgetting” <http://www.kurzweilai.net/a-gene-for-forgetting>
[i] Baudrillard, J. (1983). Simulations (P. Foss, P. Patton, & P. Beitchman, Trans.). New York: Semiotext (e).
[ii]“What is Accelerationism?” <https://environmentalcritique.wordpress.com/2016/01/09/what-is-accelerationism/> partial repost from: http://www.vice.com/en_ca/read/is-consuming-like-crazy-the-best-way-to-end-capitalism-050
[iii] “Is an Alternative Globalization Possible?” <http://www.learningace.com/doc/57794/dfa1e8c1c7a26773e2bdd42973d1935c/evans-alter-globalization-pol-soc-v36n2-june08>
Peter Evans: <http://sociology.berkeley.edu/professor-emeritus/peter-evans>
[iv]“What is Accelerationism?” <https://environmentalcritique.wordpress.com/2016/01/09/what-is-accelerationism/> partial repost from: <http://www.vice.com/en_ca/read/is-consuming-like-crazy-the-best-way-to-end-capitalism-050>
[v].Turow, J. (2012). The daily you: How the new advertising industry is defining your identity and your worth. Yale University Press.
<https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Daily_You.html?id=rK7JSFudXA8C&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button#v=onepage&q&f=false> Book TV Interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zt2KwcsMbks> (8:27)
[vi] Fraser, S. (2011). The Age of Acquiescence. Little Brown.