The Ethics of a Simulated Universe

Zhuangzi-Butterfly-Dream

This year one of the more thought provoking thought experiments to appear in recent memory has its tenth anniversary.  Nick Bostrom’s paper in the Philosophical Quarterly “Are You Living in a Simulation?”” might have sounded like the types of conversations we all had after leaving the theater having seen The Matrix, but Bostrom’s attempt was serious. (There is a great recent video of Bostrom discussing his argument at the IEET). What he did in his paper was create a formal argument around the seemingly fanciful question of whether or not we were living in a simulated world. Here is how he stated it:


This paper argues that at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. It follows that the belief that there is a significant chance that we will one day become posthumans who run ancestor-simulations is false, unless we are currently living in a simulation.

To state his case in everyday language: any technological civilization whose progress did not stop at some point would gain the capacity to realistically simulate whole worlds, including the individual minds that inhabit them, that is, they could run realistic ancestor simulations. Technologically advanced civilizations either die out before gaining the capacity to produce realistic ancestor simulations,  there is  something stopping such technologically mature civilizations from running such simulations in large numbers or, we ourselves are most likely living in such a simulation because there are a great many more such simulated worlds than real ones.

There is a lot in that argument to digest and a number of underlying assumptions that might be explored or challenged, but I want to look at just one of them, #2. That is, I will make the case that there may be very good reasons why technological civilizations both prohibit and are largely uninterested in creating realistic ancestor simulations. Reasons that are both ethical and scientific. Bostrom himself discusses the possibility that ethical constraints might prevent  technologically mature civilizations from creating realistic ancestor simulations. He writes:

One can speculate that advanced civilizations all develop along a trajectory that leads to the recognition of an ethical prohibition against running ancestor-simulations because of the suffering that is inflicted on the inhabitants of the simulation. However, from our present point of view, it is not clear that creating a human race is immoral. On the contrary, we tend to view the existence of our race as constituting a great ethical value. Moreover, convergence on an ethical view of the immorality of running ancestor-simulations is not enough: it must be combined with convergence on a civilization-wide social structure that enables activities considered immoral to be effectively banned.

I think the issue of “suffering that is inflicted on the inhabitants of a simulation” may be more serious than Bostrom appears to believe. Any civilization that has reached the stage where it can create realistic worlds that contain fully conscious human beings will have almost definitely escaped the two conditions that haunt the human condition in its current form- namely pain and death. The creation of realistic ancestor simulations will have brought back into existence these two horrors and thus might likely be considered not merely unethical but perhaps even evil. Were our world actually such a simulation it would confront us with questions that once went by the name of theodicy, namely, the attempt to reconcile the assumed goodness of the creator (for our case the simulator)  with the existence of evil: natural, moral, and metaphysical that exists in the world.

Questions as to why there is, or the morality of there being, such a wide disjunction between the conditions of any imaginable creator/simulator and those of the created/simulated is a road we’ve been down before as the philosopher Susan Neiman so brilliantly showed us in her Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy.  There, Neiman points out that the question of theodicy is a nearly invisible current that swept through the modern age. As a serious topic of thought in this period it began as an underlying assumption behind the scientific revolution with thinkers such as Leibniz arguing in his Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil that “ours is the best of all possible worlds”. Leibniz having invented calculus and been the first to envision what we would understand as a modern computer was no dope, so one might wonder how such a genius could ever believe in anything so seemingly contradictory to actual human experience?

What one needs to remember in order to understand this is that the early giants of the scientific revolution, Newton, Descartes, Leibniz, Bacon weren’t out to replace God but to understand what was thought of as his natural order. Given how stunning and quick what seemed at the time a complete understanding of the natural world had been formulated using the new methods it perhaps made sense to think that a similar human understanding of the moral order was close at hand. Given the intricate and harmonious picture of how nature was “designed” it was easy to think that this natural order did not somehow run in violation of the moral order. That underneath every seemingly senseless and death-bringing natural event- an earthquake or plague- there was some deeper and more necessary process for the good of humanity going on.    


The quest for theodicy continued when Rousseau gave us the idea that for harmony to be restored to the human world we needed to return to the balance found in nature, something we had lost when we developed civilization.  Nature, and therefore the intelligence that was thought to have designed it were good. Human beings got themselves into trouble when they failed to heed this nature- built their cities on fault lines, or even, for Rousseau, lived in cities at all.


Anyone who has ever taken a serious look at history (or even paid real attention to the news) would agree with Hegel that: “History… is, indeed, little more than the register of the ‘crimes, follies, and misfortunes’ of mankind”. There isn’t any room for an ethical creator there, but Hegel himself tried to find some larger meaning in the long term trajectory of history. With him, and Marx who followed on his heels we have not so much a creator, but a natural and historical process that leads to a fulfillment an intelligence or perfect society at its end. There may be a lot of blood and gore, a huge amount of seemingly unnecessary human suffering between the beginning of history and its end, but the price is worth paying.

Lest anyone think that these views are irrelevant in our current context, one can see a great deal of Rousseau in the positions of contemporary environmentalists and bio-conservatives who take the position that it is us, that is human beings and the artificial technological society we have created that is the problem. Likewise, the views of both singularitarians and some transhumanists who think we are on the verge of reaching some breakout stage where we complete or transcend the human condition, have deep echoes of both Hegel and Marx.

But perhaps the best analog for the kinds of rules a technologically advanced civilization might create around the issue of realistic ancestor simulations might lie not in these religiously based philosophical ideas but  in our regulations regarding more practical areas such as animal experimentation. Scientific researchers have long recognized that the pursuit of truth needs humane constraints and that such constraints apply not just to human research subjects, but to animal subjects as well. In the United States, standards regarding research that use live animals is subject to self-regulation and oversight based on those established by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). Those criteria are as follows:

The basic criteria for IACUC approval are that the research (a) has the potential to allow us to learn new information, (b) will teach skills or concepts that cannot be obtained using an alternative, (c) will generate knowledge that is scientifically and socially important, and (d) is designed such that animals are treated humanely.

The underlying idea behind these regulations is that researchers should never unnecessarily burden animals in research. Therefore, it is the job of researchers to design and carry out research in a way that does not subject animals to unnecessary burdens. Doing research that does not promise to generate important knowledge, subjecting animals to unnecessary pain, doing experiments on animals when the objectives can be reached without doing so are all ways of unnecessarily burdening animals.

Would realistic ancestor simulations meet these criteria? I think realistic ancestor simulations would probably fulfill criteria (a), but I have serious doubts that it meets any of the others. In terms of simulations offering us “skills or concepts that cannot be obtained using an alternative” (b), in what sense would a realistic simulations teach skills or concepts that could not be achieved using something short of such simulations where those within them actually suffer and die? Are there not many types of simulations that would fall short of the full range of subjective human experiences of suffering that would nevertheless grant us a good deal of knowledge regarding such types of worlds and societies?  There is probably an even greater ethical hurdle for realistic ancestor simulations to cross in (c), for it is difficult to see exactly what lessons or essential knowledge running such simulations would bring. Societies that are advanced enough to run such simulations are unlikely to gain vital information about how to run their own societies.

The knowledge they are seeking is bound to be historical in nature, that is, what was it like to live in such and such a period or what might have happened if some historical contingency were reversed? I find it extremely difficult to believe that we do not have the majority of information today to create realistic models of what it was like to live in a particular historical period, a recreation that does not have to entail real suffering on the part of innocent participants to be of worth.

Let’s take a specific rather than a general historical example dear to my heart because I am a Pennsylvanian- the Battle of Gettysburg. Imagine that you live hundreds or even thousands of years into the future when we are capable of creating realistic ancestor simulations. Imagine that you are absolutely fascinated by the American Civil War and would like to “live” in that period to see it for yourself. Certainly you might want to bring your own capacity for suffering and pain or to replicate this capacity in a “human” you, but why do the simulated beings in this world with you have to actually feel the lash of a whip, or the pain of a saw hacking off an injured limb? Again, if completely accurate simulations of limited historical events are ethically suspect, why would this suspicion not hold for the simulation of entire worlds?

One might raise the objection that any realistic ancestor simulation would need to possess sentient beings with free will such as ourselves that possess not merely the the ability to suffer, but to inflict evil upon others. This, of course, is exactly the argument Christian theodicy makes. It is also an argument that was undermined by sceptics of early modern theodicy- such as that put forth by Leibniz.    

Arguments that the sentient beings we are now (whether simulated or real) require free will that puts us at risk of self-harm were dealt with brilliantly by the 17th century philosopher, Pierre Bayle, who compared whatever creator might exist behind a world where sentient beings are in constant danger due to their exercise of free will to a negligent parent. Every parent knows that giving their children freedom is necessary for moral growth, but what parent would give this freedom such reign when it was not only likely but known that it would lead to the severe harm or even death of their child?

Applying this directly to the simulation argument any creator of such simulations knows that we will kill millions of our fellow human beings in war and torture, deliberately starve and enslave countless others. At least these are problems we have brought on ourselves,but the world also contains numerous so-called natural evils such as earthquakes and pandemics which have devastated us numerous times. Above all, it contains death itself which will kill all of us in the end.    

It was quite obvious to another sceptic, David Hume, that the reality we lived in had no concern for us. If it was “engineered” what did it say that the engineer did not provide obvious “tweaks” to the system that would make human life infinitely better? Why, are we driven by pain such as hunger and not correspondingly greater pleasure alone?

Arguments that human and animal suffering is somehow not “real” because it is simulated seem to me to be particularly tone deaf. In a lighter mood I might kick a stone like Samuel Johnson and squeak “I refute it thus!” In a darker mood I might ask those who hold the idea whether they would willingly exchange places with a burn victim. I think not! 

If it is the case that we live in a realistic ancestor simulation then the simulator cares nothing for our suffering on a granular level. This leads us to the question of what type of knowledge could truly be gained from running such realistic ancestor simulations. It might be the case that the more granular a simulation is the less knowledge can actually be gained from it. If one needs to create entire worlds with individuals and everything in them in order to truly understand what is going on, then the results of the process you are studying is either contingent or you are really not in possession of full knowledge regarding how such worlds work. It might be interesting to run natural selection over again from the beginning of life on earth to see what alternatives evolution might have come up with, but would we really be gaining any knowledge about evolution itself rather than a view of how it might have looked had such and such initial conditions been changed? And why do we need to replicate an entire world including the pain suffered by the simulated creatures within before we can grasp what alternatives to the path evolution or even history followed might have looked like. Full understanding of the process by which evolution works, which we do not have but a civilization able to create realistic ancestor simulations doubtless would, should allow us to envision alternatives without having to run the process from scratch a countless number of times.

Yet, it is in the last criteria (d) that experiments are  “designed such that animals are treated humanely” that the ethical nature of any realistic ancestor simulation really hits a wall. If we are indeed living in an ancestor simulation it seems pretty clear that the simulator(s) should be declared inhumane. How otherwise would the simulator create a world of pandemics and genocides, torture, war, and murder, and above all, universal death?

One might claim that any simulator is so far above us that it takes little concern of our suffering. Yet, we have granted this kind of concern to animals and thus might consider ourselves morally superior to an ethically blind simulator. Without any concern or interest in our collective well-being, why simulate us in the first place?

Indeed, any simulator who created a world such as our own would be the ultimate anti-transhumanist. Having escaped pain and death “he” would bring them back into the world on account of what would likely be socially useless curiosity. Here then we might have an answer to the second half of Bostrom’s quote above:


Moreover, convergence on an ethical view of the immorality of running ancestor-simulations is not enough: it must be combined with convergence on a civilization-wide social structure that enables activities considered immoral to be effectively banned.

A society that was technologically capable of creating realistic ancestor simulations and actually runs them would appear to have on of two features (1) it finds such simulations ethically permissible, (2) it is unable to prevent such simulations from being created. Perhaps any society that remains open to creating such a degree of suffering found in realistic ancestor simulations  for anything but the reason of existential survival would be likely to destroy itself for other reasons relating to such lack of ethical boundaries.

However, it is (2) that I find the most illuminating. For perhaps the condition that decides if a civilization will continue to exist is its ability to adequately regulate the use of technology within it. Any society that is unable to prevent rogue members from creating realistic ancestor simulations despite deep ethical prohibitions is incapable of preventing the use of destructive technologies or in managing its own technological development in a way that promotes survival. A situation we can perhaps see glimpses of in our own situation related to nuclear and biological weapons, or the dangers of the Anthropocene.

This link between ethics, successful control of technology and long term survival is perhaps is the real lesson we should glean from Bostrom’s provocative simulation argument.

The Iron Heel and the Long-view

The Iron Heel is a 1908 novel by Jack London. It’s a novel which I think is safe to say is not read much today, which is a shame especially for an Americans, for the setting for what was the world’s first modern political dystopia, a novel written when Orwell and Huxley were just babes in the cradle was the United States itself.

Reading the novel as an American gives puts one in a kind of temporal vertigo. It’s not only like finding a long forgotten photograph of oneself and being stuck with the question “is that really me?”, it as if when one turned the photo over one found a note from scribbled n from yourself to yourself a kind of time capsule rich with the assumption that the past “you” knew who the “you” reading the note would be. It makes you start asking questions like “am I the person who I thought I would be?” and set to pondering on all the choices and events which have put you on, or diverted you from, your self-predicted path.

The Iron Heel tells the story of the rise of , “The Oligarchy”, a fascist state deftly laid in almost all of its details before fascism had even been invented. The fact that London pictures the rise of not only the world’s first fascist regime, but what might be considered the world’s first communist revolution not “out there” in the Old World, but on the familiar grounds of the United States where places like California, Idaho, “Indian Territory”, Chicago and Washington D.C. are the setting for events that are hauntingly similar to ones that would indeed happen in Europe decades later, turn the novel into a kind of alternative history.

The story itself is presented in the form of a kind of time capsule, a buried manuscript that has been discovered by a scholar, Anthony Meredith,  in the year 2,600 AD. Footnotes throughout the book are written from this very long view of the future when, after centuries of repression and false starts, a true Brotherhood of Man has been obtained.

The manuscript,  footnoted by Meredith,  contains the story of, Avis Everhard, the wife and fellow revolutionary of seminal figure in London’s fictional history, Ernest Everhard. Avis tells the tale of an early 20th century America racked by inequality, class divisions, and the most brutal forms of labor exploitation. These conditions set the stage for a looming socialist revolution, a political alliance between industrial labor in the form of a Socialist Party, and American farmers in the Grange Movement, that is preempted by the forces of capital. Ernest Everhard is elected as a socialist US Senator, one of many members of the Socialists and Grange Movement who have been swept into national and state office by the groundswell of support for revolutionary change.

The chance to change American  society through constitutional means does not last long. The Oligarchs use a feigned terrorist incident in the US Capitol to turn the American Constitution into a mere facade. Members of the Grange Movement are barred from taking their seats in state legislatures. Socialists are hounded from office pursued as potential terrorists and arrested. The Oligarchs create new mechanisms of social control.  London, writing before the US had a true and permanent standing Army, describes how The Oligarchs turn the state militias into a national army “The Mercenaries” with their own secret service tied to the police that will act against any perceived challenges to the social order.

Writing a generation before corporatism was even conceived, London describes how this oligarchic coup would manage to divide and conquer the forces of labor by essentially buying off and vesting in the system vital workers such as those in steel or railroads so that crippling general strikes became impossible, and all other unskilled labor was pushed into what we would understand as Third World conditions of bare survival. These wage slaves would be compelled to build the glittering new cities of the Oligarchs such as Ardis and Asgard.

The lower classes are robbed of that singularly American right- the right to bare arms, and only allowed to travel using an internal passport system similar to the one used in Czarist Russia.

Under these conditions, actual revolution brews, and the Oligarchs and the revolutionary forces engage in a protracted struggle of espionage and counter-espionage that for the revolutionaries is to culminate in a planned revolution- essentially a set of coordinated terrorists attacks on US communications and military infrastructure that the revolutionaries hope will spark a genuine revolution against the Oligarchs.

The Oligarchs again set out to short- circuit revolution, this time by staging a massive military assault on the heart of American labor, Chicago. The assault unleashes violent clashes between the well-armed Mercenaries and police forces and howling crowds of the poor armed only with household tools: knives, clubs, axes. In scenes far more gripping than those in Collin’s Catching Fire, London depicts urban warfare between security forces fighting raging crowds and bomb throwing insurgents who attack their targets from the heights of skyscrapers, in a way surely reminiscent of Fallujah, or even more so, what is going on right now in Syria.

Eventually, the oligarchic forces burn the poor sections of Chicago to the ground, and end all chance of successful revolution within the lifetime of the Everhard’s. In such conditions the effort at revolution becomes pure terrorism, the names of the terrorists groups no doubt reflective of the limited geographical area in which they operate and America’s history of resistance to the powers of the federal government such as the Mormon group the Danites or the Comanches.

The Oligarch’s suppression of revolutionary forces eventually reaches the Everhard’s. The novel ends abruptly with Avis’s narration stopping in mid-sentence.

The Iron Heel is a kind of warning, and the strange thing about this warning is that London, who was labeled a gloom obsessed pessimists by many of his fellow socialists, got so much of what would happen over the next 50 or so years eerily right, with the marked exception of where they were to occur.

Such prescience is hard to achieve even for someone as brilliant as the fellow novelist Anatole France the author of the introduction to the 1924 edition of the The Iron Heel I hold in my hand.

France, who was 80 at the time and would die the same year, thinks London was right, that the Iron Heel was coming, but doesn’t think it will arrive for quite some time.

“In France, as in Italy and Spain, Socialism, is for the moment, too feeble to have anything to fear from the Iron Heel., for extreme feebleness is the one safety of the feeble. No Heel of Iron will trouble itself to tread down this dust of a party”. (xiv)

1924 is the same year that the murder of socialist Giacomo Matteotti truly began the fascist dictatorship in Italy- a kind of corporate state that was certainly anticipated by London in The Iron Heel. Within 6 years “feeble” Spanish socialism would be locked in a civil war with fascism, within 9 years, the Nazis would rise to power on the backs of the same sort of fears of revolution, and using the same kinds of political machinations described in The Iron Heel. The bombing of the Reichstag ,which was blamed on the German communists but really committed by the Nazi’s, became the justification for an anti-revolutionary crackdown and the transformation of German democracy into a sham. It makes one wonder if Hitler himself had read The Iron Heel!


The Iron Heel throws up all sorts of historical questions and useful analogies for the current day. Why did neither revolutionary socialism or outright fascism emerge in the US in the 1930’s as it did elsewhere?

The Iron Heel should perhaps be read as part of a trilogy with Sinclair Lewis’ 1936 It can’t happen here! Which describes the transformation of America into a Nazi-like totalitarian state, or Philip Roth’s 2004 The Plot Against America which describes a similar fascists regime which comes about when the Nazi sympathizer and isolationist, Charles Lindberg, win the presidential race against Franklin Roosevelt. Full reviews of both will be found here at some point in the future the point for now being that there were figures and sentiments in American politics that might have added up to something quite different than American exceptionalism during this period. That what we ended up with was as much the consequence of historical luck as it was of any particularly American virtue.

Some, on both the right and the left would argue that what we have now is just a softer version of the tyranny portrayed by London, Lewis, and Roth, and they do indeed have something, but I do not as of now want to go there. The reason, I think, the kind of socialist revolution found in other countries never got legs in the United States the way it did elsewhere was that the US, which had been a hotbed of labor unrest and socialist sentiment and anticipation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, willingly adopted a whole series of reforms that made worker grievances against capitalism less acute.

  • Unemployment benefits- 1935
  • Eight-hour workday- 1936
  • Worker’s compensation in event of injury (widespread by 1949).
  • Government funded support for the poor that preserved a minimum standard of living- 1935
  • Minimum wage- 1938
  • Right to unionize and the adoption of a formal system to hold strikes- 1935

In addition controls were placed on financial markets so that the kinds of wild swings, financial panics, that periodically brought the nation’s economy to its knees would no longer occur.

Even when derided on the right as move towards socialism or on the left as delusional reformism, these changes followed by an unprecedented era of prosperity for the middle class from the 1940s through the 1970s, essentially ended the vicious circle presented in the Iron Heel of a political system unresponsive to worker grievances and exploitation that gave rise to forces of social revolution that in turn  engendered a move towards state violence and tyranny by the wealthy elites, which resulted in widespread terrorism by continually frustrated revolutionaries.

As a system for producing widespread prosperity faltered in the 1970s the American right, followed by increasingly centrist Democrats diagnosed the economic malaise as having originated from both the choke hold American unions had over the economy and the stifling effects of too much government interference.  Through the 1980s and 90s labor union power was dismantled, economic production globalized, capital markets freed up from earlier constraints, welfare reformed. Support for the lower classes was now to come not primarily through government programs, but through tax policy, such as the Earned Income Tax, that would free individuals to make their own choices and vest them in the capitalist economic system rather than view them as an opposition. Such reforms with their explicit claim that they would lead to universal prosperity collapsed with the 2008 financial crisis and neither the American right nor the American left has any clear understanding of where we go from here.

This history is what makes the recent video of Romney and his 47% comments so galling. His fellow oligarch’s who had paid more than the median income of an average American family- $50,000- to listen to his speech laugh and clink their silverware as he describes the sad state of American society where over half of the county either receive some government support or pay no taxes to the federal government. Romney and his audience forget how we got here: that the working class were granted their “privileges”  because the only way to otherwise sustain him and his fellow oligarchs would be through a regime of violence. That the fact that so many Americans don’t pay federal income tax was brought about by Republicans who hoped to entrench the idea that the system of free enterprise was for the good of rich, middle class and poor alike.

Romney and his listeners are oblivious to the long-view. In a way I wish I could send them all a copy of The Iron Heel.

Would I charge, or could it be a tax write-off?

*Jack London, The Iron Heel, McKinlay, Stone & Mackenzie, 1924 (original 1907).

Big Brother, Big Data, and the Forked Path

The technological ecosystem in which political power operates tends to mark out the possibility space for what kinds of political arrangements, good and bad, exist within that space. Orwell’s Oceania and its sister tyrannies were imagined in what was the age of big, centralized media. Here the Party had under its control not only the older printing press, having the ability to craft and doctor, at will, anything created using print from newspapers, to government documents, to novels. It also controlled the newer mediums of radio and film, and, as Orwell imagined, would twist those technologies around backwards to serve as spying machines aimed at everyone.

The questions, to my knowledge, Orwell never asked was what was the Party to do with all that data? How was it to store, sift through, make sense of, or locate locate actual threats within it the  yottabytes of information that would be gathered by recording almost every conversation, filming or viewing almost every movement, of its citizens lives? In other words, the Party would have ran into the problem of Big Data. Many of Orwellian developments since 9/11 have come in the form of the state trying to ride the wave of the Big Data tsunami unleashed with the rise of the internet, an attempt create it’s own form of electronic panopticon.

In their book Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, Dana Priest, and ,William Arkin, of the Washington Post present a frightening picture of the surveillance and covert state that has mushroomed in the United States since 9/11. A vast network of endeavors which has grown to dwarf, in terms of cummulative numbers of programs and operations, similar efforts, during the unarguably much more dangerous Cold War. (TS 12)

Theirs’ is not so much a vision of an America of dark security services controlled behind the scenes by a sinister figure like J. Edgar Hoover, as it is one of complexity gone wild. Priest and Arkin paint a picture of Top Secret America as a vast data sucking machine, vacuuming up every morsel of information with the intention of correctly “connecting the dots”, (150) in the hopes of preventing another tragedy like 9/11.

So much money was poured into intelligence gathering after 9/11, in so many different organizations, that no one, not the President, nor the Director of the CIA, nor any other official has a full grasp of what is going on. The security state, like the rest of the American government, has become reliant on private contractors who rake in stupendous profits. The same corruption that can be found elsewhere in Washington is found here. Employees of the government and the private sector spin round and round in a revolving door between the Washington connections brought by participation in political establishment followed by big-time money in the ballooning world of private security and intelligence. Priest quotes one American intelligence official  who had the balls to describe the insectous relationship between government and private security firms as “a self-licking ice cream cone”. (TS 198)

The flood of money that inundated the intelligence field in after  9/11 has created what Priest and Arkin call an “alternative geography” companies doing covert work for the government that exist in huge complexes, some of which are large contain their very own “cities”- shopping centers, athletic facilities, and the like. To these are added mammoth government run complexes some known and others unknown.

Our modern day Winston Smiths, who work for such public and private intelligence services, are tasked not with the mind numbing work of doctoring history, but with the equally superfluous job of repackaging the very same information that had been produced by another individual in another organization public or private each with little hope that they would know that the other was working on the same damned thing. All of this would be a mere tragic waste of public money that could be better invested in other things, but it goes beyond that by threatening the very freedoms that these efforts are meant to protect.

Perhaps the pinnacle of the government’s Orwellian version of a Google FaceBook mashup is the gargantuan supercomputer data center in Bluffdale Nevada built and run by the premier spy agency in the age of the internet- the National Security Administration or NSA. As described by James Bamford for Wired Magazine:

In the process—and for the first time since Watergate and the other scandals of the Nixon administration—the NSA has turned its surveillance apparatus on the US and its citizens. It has established listening posts throughout the nation to collect and sift through billions of email messages and phone calls, whether they originate within the country or overseas. It has created a supercomputer of almost unimaginable speed to look for patterns and unscramble codes. Finally, the agency has begun building a place to store all the trillions of words and thoughts and whispers captured in its electronic net.

It had been thought that domestic spying by the NSA, under a super-secret program with the Carl Saganesque name, Stellar Wind, had ended during the G.W. Bush administration, but if the whistleblower, William Binney, interviewed in this chilling piece by Laura Poitras of the New York Times, is to be believed, the certainly unconstitutional program remains very much in existence.

The bizarre thing about this program is just how wasteful it is. After all, don’t private companies, such as FaceBook and Google not already possess the very same kinds of data trails that would be provided by such obviously unconstitutional efforts like those at Bluffdale? Why doesn’t the US government just subpoena internet and telecommunications companies who already track almost everything we do for commercial purposes? The US government, of course, has already tried to turn the internet into a tool of intelligence gathering, most notably, with the stalled Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Intelligence Act, or CISPA , and perhaps it is building Bluffdale in anticipation that such legislation will fail, that however it is changed might not be to its liking, or because it doesn’t want to be bothered with the need to obtain warrants or with constitutional niceties such as our protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

If such behemoth surveillance instruments fulfill the role of the telescreens and hidden microphones in Orwell’s 1984, then the role the only group in the novel whose name actually reflects what it is- The Spies – children who watch their parents for unorthodox behavior and turn them in, is taken today by the American public itself. In post 9/11 America it is, local law enforcement, neighbors, and passersby who are asked to “report suspicious activity”. People who actually do report suspicious activity have their observations and photographs recorded in an ominous sounding data base that Orwell himself might have named called The Guardian. (TS 144)

As Priest writes:

Guardian stores the profiles of tens of thousands of Americans and legal residents who are not accused of any crime. Most are not even suspected of one. What they have done is appear, to a town sheriff, a traffic cop, or even a neighbor to be acting suspiciously”. (TS 145)

Such information is reported to, and initially investigated by, the personnel in another sort of data collector- the “fusion centers” which had been created in every state after 9/11.These fusion centers are often located in rural states whose employees have literally nothing to do. They tend to be staffed by persons without intelligence backgrounds, and who instead hailed from law enforcement, because those with even the bare minimum of foreign intelligence experience were sucked up by the behemoth intelligence organizations, both private and public, that have spread like mould around Washington D.C.

Into this vacuum of largely non-existent threats came “consultants” such as Montijo Walid Shoebat, who lectured fusion center staff on the fantastical plot of Muslims to establish Sharia Law in the United States. (TS 271-272). A story as wild as the concocted boogeymen of Goldstein and the Brotherhood in Orwell’s dystopia.

It isn’t only Mosques, or Islamic groups that find themselves spied upon by overeager local law enforcement and sometimes highly unprofessional private intelligence firms. Completely non-violent, political groups, such as ones in my native Pennsylvania, have become the target of “investigations”. In 2009 the private intelligence firm the Institute for Terrorism Research and Response compiled reports for state officials on a wide range of peaceful political groups that included: “The Pennsylvania Tea Party Patriots Coalition, the Libertarian Movement, anti-war protesters, animal-rights groups, and an environmentalist dressed up as Santa Claus and handing out coal-filled stockings” (TS 146). A list that is just about politically broad enough to piss everybody off.

Like the fusion centers, or as part of them, data rich crime centers such as the Memphis Real Time Crime Center are popping up all over the United States. Local police officers now suck up streams of data about the environments in which they operate and are able to pull that data together to identify suspects- now by scanning licence plates, but soon enough, as in Arizona, where the Maricopa County Sheriff’s office was creating up to 9,000 biometric, digital profiles a month (TS 131) by scanning human faces from a distance.

Sometimes crime centers used the information gathered for massive sweeps arresting over a thousand people at a clip. The result was an overloaded justice and prison system that couldn’t handle the caseload (TS 144), and no doubt, as was the case in territories occupied by the US military, an even more alienated and angry local population.

From one perspective Big Data would seem to make torture more not less likely as all information that can be gathered from suspects, whatever their station, becomes important in a way it wasn’t before, a piece in a gigantic, electronic puzzle. Yet, technological developments outside of Big Data, appear to point in the direction away from torture as a way of gathering information.

“Controlled torture”, the phrase burns in my mouth, has always been the consequence of the unbridgeable space between human minds. Torture attempts to break through the wall of privacy we possess as individuals through physical and mental coercion. Big Data, whether of the commercial or security variety, hates privacy because it gums up the capacity to gather more and more information for Big Data to become what so it desires- Even Bigger Data. The dilemma for the state, or in the case of the Inquisition, the organization, is that once the green light has been given to human sadism it is almost impossible to control it. Torture, or the knowledge of torture inflicted on loved ones, breeds more and more enemies.

Torture’s ham fisted and outwardly brutal methods today are going hopelessly out of fashion. They are the equivalent of rifling through someone’s trash or breaking into their house to obtain useful information about them. Much better to have them tell you what you need to know because they “like” you.

In that vein, Priest describes some of the new interrogation technologies being developed by the government and private security technology firms. One such technology is an “interrogation booth” that contain avatars with characteristics (such as an older Hispanic woman) that have been psychologically studied to produce more accurate answers from those questioned. There are ideas to replace the booth with a tiny projector mounted on a soldier’s or policeman’s helmet to produce the needed avatar at a moments notice. There was also a “lie detecting beam” that could tell- from a distance- whether someone was lying by measuring miniscule changes on a person’s skin. (TS 169) But if security services demand transparency from those it seeks to control they offer up no such transparency themselves. This is the case not only in the notoriously secretive nature of the security state, but also in the way the US government itself explains and seeks support for its policies in the outside world.

Orwell, was deeply interested in the abuse of language, and I think here too, the actions of the American government would give him much to chew on. Ever since the disaster of the war in Iraq, American officials have been obsessed with the idea of “soft-power”. The fallacy that resistance to American policy was a matter of “bad messaging” rather than the policy itself. Sadly, this messaging was often something far from truthful and often fell under what the government termed” Influence operations” which, according to Priest:

Influence operations, as the name suggests, are aimed at secretly influencing or manipulating the opinions of foreign audiences, either on an actual battlefield- such as during a feint in a tactical battle- or within civilian populations, such as undermining support for an existing government of terrorist group (TS 59)

Another great technological development over the past decade has been the revolution in robotics, which like Big Data is brought to us by the ever expanding information processing powers of computers, the product of Moore’s Law.

Since 9/11 multiple forms of robots have been perfected, developed, and deployed by the military, intelligence services and private contractors only the most discussed and controversial of which have been flying drones. It is with these and other tools of covert warfare, such as drones, and in his quite sweeping understanding and application of executive power that President Obama has been even more Orwellian than his predecessor.

Obama may have ended the torture of prisoners captured by American soldiers and intelligence officials, and he certainly showed courage and foresight in his assassination of Osama Bin Laden, a fact by which the world can breathe a sigh of relief. The problem is that he has allowed, indeed propelled, the expansion of the instruments of American foreign policy that are largely hidden from the purview and control of the democratic public. In addition to the surveillance issues above, he has put forward a sweeping and quite dangerous interpretation of executive power in the forms of indefinite detention without trial found in the NDAA, engaged in the extrajudicial killings of American citizens, and asserted the prerogative, questionable under both the constitution and international law, to launch attacks, both covert and overt, on countries with which the United States is not officially at war.

In the words of Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic writing on the unprecedented expansion of executive power under the Obama administration and comparing these very real and troubling developments to the paranoid delusions of right-wing nuts, who seem more concerned with the fantastical conspiracy theories such as the Social Security Administration buying hollow-point bullets:

… the fact that the executive branch is literally spying on American citizens, putting them on secret kill lists, and invoking the state secrets privilege to hide their actions doesn’t even merit a mention.  (by the right-wing).

Perhaps surprisingly, the technologies created in the last generation seem tailor made for the new types of covert war the US is now choosing to fight. This can perhaps best be seen in the ongoing covert war against Iran which has used not only drones but brand new forms of weapons such the Stuxnet Worm.

The questions posed to us by the militarized versions of Big Data, new media, Robotics, and spyware/computer viruses are the same as those these phenomena pose in the civilian world: Big Data; does it actually provide us with a useful map of reality, or instead drown us in mostly useless information? In analog to the question of profitability in the economic sphere: does Big Data actually make us safer? New Media, how is the truth to survive in a world where seemingly any organization or person can create their own version of reality. Doesn’t the lack of transparency by corporations or the government give rise to all sorts of conspiracy theories in such an atmosphere, and isn’t it ultimately futile, and liable to backfire, for corporations and governments to try to shape all these newly enabled voices to its liking through spin and propaganda? Robotics; in analog to the question of what it portends to the world of work, what is it doing to the world of war? Is Robotics making us safer or giving us a false sense of security and control? Is it engendering an over-readiness to take risks because we have abstracted away the very human consequences of our actions- at least in terms of the risks to our own soldiers. In terms of spyware and computer viruses: how open should our systems remain given their vulnerabilities to those who would use this openness for ill ends?

At the very least, in terms of Big.Data, we should have grave doubts. The kind of FaceBook from hell the government has created didn’t seem all that capable of actually pulling information together into a coherent much less accurate picture. Much like their less technologically enabled counterparts who missed the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and fall of the Soviet Union, the new internet enabled security services missed the world shaking event of the Arab Spring.

The problem with all of these technologies, I think, is that they are methods for treating the symptoms of a diseased society, rather than the disease itself. But first let me take a detour through Orwell vision of the future of capitalist, liberal democracy seen from his vantage point in the 1940s.

Orwell, and this is especially clear in his essay The Lion and the Unicorn, believed the world was poised between two stark alternatives: the Socialist one, which he defined in terms of social justice, political liberty, equal rights, and global solidarity, and a Fascist or Bolshevist one, characterized by the increasingly brutal actions of the state in the name of caste, both domestically and internationally.

He wrote:

Because the time has come when one can predict the future in terms of an “either–or”. Either we turn this war into a revolutionary war (I do not say that our policy will be EXACTLY what I have indicated above–merely that it will be along those general lines) or we lose it, and much more besides. Quite soon it will be possible to say definitely that our feet are set upon one path or the other. But at any rate it is certain that with our present social structure we cannot win. Our real forces, physical, moral or intellectual, cannot be mobilised.

It is almost impossible for those of us in the West who have been raised to believe that capitalist liberal democracy is the end of the line in terms of political evolution to remember that within the lifetimes of people still with us (such as my grandmother who tends her garden now in the same way she did in the 1940’s) this whole system seemed to have been swept up into the dustbin of history and that the future lie elsewhere.

What the brilliance of Orwell missed, the penetrating insight of Aldous Huxley in his Brave New World caught: that a sufficiently prosperous society would lull it’s citizens to sleep, and in doing so rob them both of the desire for revolutionary change and their very freedom.

As I have argued elsewhere, Huxley’s prescience may depend on the kind of economic growth and general prosperity that was the norm after the Second World War. What worries me is that if the pessimists are proven correct, if we are in for an era of resource scarcity, and population pressures, stagnant economies, and chronic unemployment that Huxley’s dystopia will give way to a more brutal Orwellian one.

This is why, no matter who wins the presidential election in November, we need to push back against the Orwellian features that have crept upon us since 9/11. The fact is we are almost unaware that we building the architecture for something truly dystopian and should pause to think before it is too late.

To return to the question of whether the new technologies help or hurt here: It is almost undeniable that all of the technological wonders that have emerged since 9/11 are good at treating the symptoms of social breakdown, both abroad and at home. They allow us to kill or capture persons who would harm largely innocent Americans, or catch violent or predatory criminals in our own country, state, and neighborhood. Where they fail is in getting to the actual root of the disease itself.

American would much better serve  its foreign policy interest were it to better align itself with the public opinion of the outside world insofar as we were able to maintain our long term interests and continue to guarantee the safety of our allies. Much better than the kind of “information operation” supported by the US government to portray a corrupt, and now deposed, autocrat like Yemen’s  Abdullah Saleh as “an anti-corruption activist”, would be actual assistance by the US and other advanced countries in…. I duknow… fighting corruption. Much better Western support for education and health in the Islamic world that the kinds of interference in the internal political development of post-revolutionary Islamic societies driven by geopolitical interest and practiced by the likes of Iran and Saudi Arabia.

This same logic applies inside the United States as well. It is time to radically roll back the Orwellian advances that have occurred since 9/11. The dangers of the war on terrorism were always that they would become like Orwell’s “continuous warfare”, and would perpetually exist in spite, rather than because of the level of threat. We are in danger of investing so much in our security architecture, bloated to a scale that dwarfs enemies, which we have blown up in our own imaginations into monstrous shadows, that we are failing to invest in the parts of our society that will actually keep us safe and prosperous over the long-term.

In Orwell’s Oceania, the poor, the “proles” were largely ignored by the surveillance state. There is a danger here that with the movement of what were once advanced technologies into the hands of local law enforcement: drones, robots, biometric scanners, super-fast data crunching computers, geo-location technologies- that domestically we will move even further in the direction of treating the symptoms of social decay, rather than dealing with the underlying conditions that propel it.

The fact of the matter is that the very equality, “the early paradise”, a product of democratic socialism and technology, Orwell thought was at our fingertips has retreated farther and farther from us. The reasons for this are multiple; To name just a few: financial   concentration,  automation, the end of “low hanging fruit” and their consequent high growth rates brought by industrialization,the crisis of complexity and the problem of ever more marginal returns. This retreat, if it lasts, would likely tip the balance from Huxley’s stupification by consumption to Orwell’s more brutal dystopia initiated by terrified elites attempting to keep a lid on things.

In a state of fear and panic we have blanketed the world with a sphere of surveillance, propaganda and covert violence at which Big Brother himself would be proud. This is shameful, and threatens not only to undermine our very real freedom, but to usher in a horribly dystopian world with some resemblance to the one outlined in Orwell’s dark imaginings. We must return to the other path.

1984

Do you not begin to see, then, what kind of world it is we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined.

A world of fear and treachery, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world that will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself.


George Orwell, 1984

Even if it is the case, as I have argued elsewhere, that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a better guide to our dystopian present than the much more brutal and barren world of Orwell’s 1984, the West, since 9-11 has been evolving in a decidedly Orwellian direction. This has been the case under both George W. Bush and perhaps even more so under President Obama, a reality that has proven highly upsetting to civil libertarians of all stripes who helped  sweep Obama into office in the hopes that he would end some of the worst practices of the Bush Administration.

It might be best then to take another look at Orwell’s 1984, a book most of us probably remember from high school or college, and then to see how Orwell’s warnings line up with reality today.  For he drew our attention to features of state power and put that power within a context that is perhaps more relevant today for political, technological, and economic reasons than at any time since the end of the Cold War.

1984 is the story of, Winston Smith, a “middle-class” member of the Outer Party of Oceania that works in the Ministry of Truth. His job is to doctor and destroy documents based upon the constantly shifting whims of what the Party which rules Oceania declares to be the “truth”.

Oceania is a totalitarian state that would make even monsters like Stalin and Hitler green with envy.  Oceania which includes what was formerly Great Britain (now called Air-Strip One, on which Winston lives), the United States, Canada and Australasia is covered with telescreens which are a kind of two-way television that projects propaganda in, and can also watch for subversive activities, and microphones that monitor citizens almost anywhere 24/7.

Whereas the mass of citizens, the “proles” are left unmolested by the Party largely because of their ignorance and inability to organize, the Outer Party, especially is constantly monitored for “thought-crime” (even having a thought that challenges the orthodoxy of the Party) by the Thought Police who are housed in the Ministry of Love.

Orwell has a genius for playing with words, and his Oceania is a dystopia in a literal sense of being a world where everything is really its dark opposite: the Ministry of Truth is really an organization for creating lies, the Ministry of Love a hell-house of torture, the Ministry of Plenty a bureaucracy that administers privation, or the Ministry of Peace an institution of war.

One of the ultimate goals of the Party is to destroy the meaning of language itself- to fully institute the use of “Newspeak” so that all reference with the past and the truth has been destroyed. The Party then becomes the sole arbiter of what is real and what is fiction. The defiant act against the Party that would ultimately lead to Winston’s doom was when he started a diary. It was an act that declared what the Party found totally unacceptable- that a person could think for himself. Later, under the most brutal forms of torture, Winston would find himself compelled to deny the very sanity of trying to think outside of the iron grip of the Party:


   “He could not fight against the Party any longer. Besides, the Party was in the
right. It must be so: how could the immortal, collective brain be mistaken? By
what external standards could you check it judgements? Sanity was statistical.
It was merely a question of learning to think as they thought.” (228)

The Party of Oceania takes relativism, social construction, and collective solipsism to their logical extremes. It does not merely reflect a certain view of the world- it is the world- and can create and destroy the “truth” as it sees fit. Facts and the past are nothing but memory, so by controlling memory both individual and collective facts and history become whatever the Party wants them to be. Even logical, self-evident truths are capable of being overthrown- ideas such as 2 + 2 = 4. Under the proper pressure and manipulation even mathematics and science bend before the will of the Party.

Winston’s second crime against the Party is to engage in a secret love-affair with his co-worker Juila.  Much like in Plato’s Republic  Orwell’s Oceania will not countenance divided loyalties and passions, especially the kinds of loyalties and passions that grow out of love and sex. Unlike Plato, the Party has not ended the family, but has turned it into a nest of spies, where children betray their parents at any hint of unorthodoxy. The sexual instinct, especially for women, is channeled into the love of Big-Brother and hatred of the traitorous Goldstein, both of whose no doubt imaginary images are plastered , everywhere.

The emotions of the masses are constantly kept at a fever-pitch of hate against Oceania’s  geo-political enemies: Eurasia and East Asia. These two other great powers live under similar totalitarian systems as that in Oceania. Eurasia combines essentially the former Soviet Union and Europe, East Asia, China, Japan, the Koreas and nearby territories. The three great powers struggle with one another for what is left of the globe- essentially the Middle East and India. They fight not so much over resources or markets- all three are in essence self-contained, autarchic systems, as they do labor power, with the peoples of these up-for-grabs regions being enslaved by one region and then the other into making weapons. Weapons, which because world wars have become a thing of the past, are essentially useless.

If these were geo-political predictions, Orwell was on all accounts incorrect.  In terms of war, however, Orwell has some very interesting and prescient things to say, both for the Cold War period that followed his novel, and even more so, for today. The international environment in which Oceania exists is one of constant low-level or outright phony war between the big powers. Orwell in the mouth of the imaginary Goldstein muses that “war by becoming continuous has fundamentally changed its character” (163).

Orwell thinks that real wars- for all their horrors- served as a reality check on the state anchoring its delusions to the practical need of avoiding conquest. In the world of 1984 actual conquest of one great power by another had become impossible, and because of the vast resources which each of the 3 world powers possessed- unnecessary.  The reality check of war, therefore disappeared, and its very purpose which had once been the survival or aggrandizement of the state transformed into an instrument of internal control. Not merely did the phony war hypnotize the masses and bind them tightly to the Party, the creation of completely useless weapons was a way to steer surplus production away from the needs of the subject classes, therefore keeping them in a constant state of privation, in which the spread of general wealth and education that might threaten the grip of the Party was not allowed to come into being.

Winston’s third crime is to join the ranks of the secret revolutionary organization- The Brotherhood.   Like Big Brother, who serves as the face of the Party, or Goldstein who serves as the face of the revolution, The Brotherhood itself is a fiction created by the Party. In its name both Winston and Julia, in a act completely out of character, pledge themselves to crimes even against innocents, a subject that will be dealt with in my next post.

The Orwellian state imagined in 1984 is a sadistic-state the likes of which have never been seen. What makes it so horrendous even in light of its very real world rivals in this regard is its concept of power as a self-justifying force.  As Orwell puts in the mouth of Winston’s torturer O’Brien:

Progress in our civilization will be progress towards more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love and justice. Our is founded on hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy- everything.

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face-forever. (220)

The scenes Orwell depicts of Winston’s imprisonment and torture are gut wrenching and horrifying. They starve him until he becomes skeletal and loses his hair, break most of his bones, smash his teeth, burn his insides with electrical shocks. We are forced to watch a once dignified man reduced to groveling, bargaining and betrayal. But it is not the physical abuse that so much reduces Winston as the psychological:

These other questioners saw to it that he was in constant slight pain, but it was not the pain that they chiefly relied on. They slapped his face, wrung his ear, pulled his hair, made him stand on one leg, refused to leave him urinate, shown glaring lights in his face until his eyes ran with water; but the aim of this was simply to humiliate him and destroy his power of arguing and reasoning. Their real weapon was their relentless questioning that went on hour after hour, tripping him up, laying traps for him, convicting him at every step of lies and contradiction, until he began weeping as much from shame as from nervous fatigue. (199)

The ultimate psychological torture comes at the end of the novel when Winston, whose greatest fear is rats, has a cage of starved rats attached to his face. Under the extremest of fear he betrays Julia not in the sense of turning her in, but in asking that she be put in his place. It is a real rather than a feigned request, and with it Winston has lost both his mind and his soul to the evil of the Party.

I think a good question to ask here is how Orwell thought such a horrifying world might come about? I think it would be a mistake to see Orwell as engaged in a sort of political phantasy that he thought was completely implausible, rather, 1984, is a kind of warning that given the continuation of certain trends this might be the world we ended up with. Orwell’s version of history up until the end of WWII can certainly not be considered a fiction, but a kind bird’s-eye-view of what had happened stretching back before the industrial revolution.

Orwell sees history as the story of class struggle between the 3 classes that have composed humanity since the Neolithic Age: the High, the Middle, and the Low. Consistently the Middle have overthrown the High by enlisting the Low taking the position of the High themselves and once victorious inevitably throwing the Low back into servitude. What would make the 20th century distinct is that the revolutionary forces of the Middle, which in the past had been partially fooled by their own rhetoric concerning the freedom of the masses that could be brought by revolution, became openly authoritarian and tyrannical in their aims.

Socialism, a theory which appeared in the early 19th century and was the last link in a chain of thought stretching back to the slave rebellions of antiquity, was still deeply infected with the Utopianism of past ages. But in each variant of Socialism that appeared from about 1900 onward the aim of establishing liberty and equality was more and more openly abandoned.  (167)

In part, Orwell saw this growing out of the new historical consciousness. According to the logic of the new revolutionaries: if society’s, instability- understood to be caused by war between classes- could be ended by the permanent domination of  ONE class, then, history itself would come to an end, the world, like that proposed in Plato’s Republic frozen forever in amber.

But the main reason Orwell saw for the new authoritarian revolutionaries was that machine based civilization had, for the first time in human history, made actual material equality possible. New groups wanting to seize power saw equality as no longer a bait for the masses, but as a threat to their own claims on power.

“The earthly paradise had been discredited at exactly the moment when it became realizable. Every new political theory, by whatever name it called itself, led back to hierarchy and regimentation”. (168)

The political ideology which Orwell imagined dominated his Oceania – Ingsoc- was foreshadowed by the Nazi and Soviet totalitarian movements who stripped of their Utopian veneer in his imagined ideologies and became mere will to power. The class which gave rise to Orwell’s ruling Party had been “brought together by the barren world of monopoly industry and centralized government” (169).

Their totalitarian order, he thought, would likely be enabled by new technologies of surveillance and control. Technologies such as the aforementioned ubiquitous telescreens and microphones, but also neuropharmacology, and mechanisms such as novel writing machines. Indeed, because it aimed to destroy independent thought and empirical science, Orwell’s dystopia is a world of technological decline and endemic scarcity; the only areas in which it excels being that of manipulation and control.

1984 gives us a lot to think about and not as something abstract, applied to some far off dystopia, but right here and now.  He brings to our attention the issues of technological surveillance, torture, continuous low-level war and propaganda and the abuse of language, along with questions about the history up- to- the- present of inequality and its origins. All the subject of my next post.

Only then will we be able to guess where such Orwellian trends might be leading, and how we might stop them.

* Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell, Signet Classics,  New American Library of World Literature, Inc. 1961. First published 1949 

Pagles’ Revelation 1

 

Readers of this blog who take note of how much I talk about the Book of Revelation might be forgiven for thinking I had perhaps lost my grip on reality, that soon I might be found wandering the street with a sign around my neck informing the world that “the end is near!” or might be on the verge of joining the church of Harold Camping with the hope that next time he will get his dates right.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Nevertheless, I perhaps find the Book of Revelation as fascinating as those who believe it to be an outline of the human future composed by the mind of God. For me, Revelation is the first, and without doubt the most powerful dystopia ever written. The vagueness of its symbolism is its strength. For what other narrative is so flexible that its penultimate villain- the Anti-Christ- can be grafted onto historical figures as diverse as the Roman Emperor Nero, Pope Boniface VIII, Napoleon Bonaparte,  Abraham Lincoln, and Barack Obama.

We should not forget either that the Revelation narrative was sometimes used by the “good guys” of history such as Bartolome de Las Casas who fought for the rights of Native Americans against his Spanish countrymen, or could be found in the hearts and minds of the Union armies during the Civil War who sang:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;

He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:

His truth is marching on.

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,

He is Wisdom to the mighty, He is Succour to the brave,

So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of Time His slave,

Our God is marching on.

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Revelation has proven the most powerful dystopian narrative in history whose value is as varied as the humanity that is its subject inspiring saints, poets, madmen and murderers. Thus, I awaited with some anticipation to get my hands on the religious scholar Elaine Pagels’ recently released Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation. Pagels is a brilliant historian of religion who writes in a style accessible to the lay reader, and in her work she sets out to tell us the origins of this strangest of books.

For those who have never read the Book of Revelation, or have read it and don’t quite remember what exactly it says,  below are the basics. Please bear with it, for later on, with the help of Pagel we will snap the whole thing into place.

The author of Revelation , John of Patmos, announces at the beginning of his book in a tone that clearly implies the imminent occurrence of what he is about to unveil:

Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things therein: for the time is at hand. [emphasis added]

In powerful words John speaks in the voice of God and indicates that the story he will tell is the end of a drama that began with the creation:

I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, what was, and which is to come, the Almighty.

John then reports how he was given his prophecy, which come to him in visions that he was told by God to convey by letters along with “warnings” to the seven churches of Asia.

In his letter to the church of Ephesus John warns against “them which say they are apostles and are not”.  To the church of Smyrna he warns against “those who say they are Jews and are not”. The church of Pergamos he warns against worshipers of the pagan god Baal. Thyatira he warns against “that woman Jezebel who calleth herself a prophet”. Sardis he cautions to keep on the right path. To Philadelphia John again makes this strange warning against those “which say they are Jews and are not” but are instead of “the synagogue of Satan”. [Quick note: this has often been interpreted as deranged anti-semitism on the part of John, and that is how I have always read it, but Pagel is going to offer a whole new explanation for this nonsense, so again, stay turned].  Lastly, John warns the Laodiceans about their “lukewarm” faith.

Now the story gets interesting. John sees four heavenly beasts with the faces of a lion, calf, man, and an eagle each with six wings and “full of eyes within”  surrounding a throne on a “sea of glass”  praising God. Around the throne also are seated 24 “elders” clothed in dazzling white and also singing praises to God.

On his throne, God holds a book in right hand locked shut with “seven seals”, only a slain lamb, the symbol of Christ, is able to open the book. This is the book on which the end of our world is written. The breaking of the first seal brings forth a white horse representing conquest, the second a red horse-violence-, a black horse-famine-, and a white horse-death. The breaking of the fifth seal reveals those who have died in the name of their faith who cry for the justice and revenge of God upon their tormentors.
The sixth seal triggers an enormous earthquake, the sun goes black, the moon becomes as red as blood, and stars fall from the sky.

For the great day of his wrath has come; and who shall be able to stand?

Angels descend from heaven to mark God’s chosen with a seal that will offer them protection from the horrors to come 144,000 are so marked. The story gets even harder to follow. At the breaking of the seventh seal  angel’s blow trumpets and all hell breaks-loose, so to speak, the angles pour out vials causing all kinds of horrors and monsters to descend upon the earth where a gaping abyss has opened up.

John now shatters all human conventions of past, present, and future. He sees a woman in heaven bathed in sunlight crying in labor giving birth to a child. (Mary, giving birth to Jesus which had happened a little less than a century before John wrote)  Satan, emerging from the abyss, makes chase to kill the child and battles Michael and the Angels of heaven (something that “took place” before the creation of mankind). To his side Satan calls the two figures we all remember from Revelation, the Beast, and another figure who has become known as the Antichrist.

The Beast has “seven heads and ten horns” and is obviously some sort of political power for he is said to have power “over all kindreds and tongues  and nations”. The Beast has been “wounded by a sword but did live”. The second figure, the Antichrist, makes his appearance. He is a sort of miracle worker who convinces the masses to worship the first Beast. The Antichrist decrees that everyone:

….. receive a mark in their right hand or in their forehead:
and that no man might buy or sell, save that he had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.

John then let’s us know that if we are wise enough we can actually figure out who this beast is:

for it is the number of a man: and his number is six-hundred threescore and six.

John then sees seven more angels pour yet more cups of horrors on the peoples of the earth. One of these angels takes John to see a woman sitting on a scarlet colored beast- again with seven heads. Upon her head is written:

MYSTERY BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH

And we are informed that the seven heads of the beast “are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth”.

John tells us how Babylon will be destroyed and how the merchants that have grown rich from her and those that have felt her pleasures “cinnamon, and, and ointments, and frankincense, and wine, and oil… and the souls of men” [emphasis added] will lament her fall.

God, on a white horse, and his armies descend from heaven and destroy the Beast, and end up chaining Satan in a bottomless pit for a thousand years. After this period Satan is released who will again deceive the nations of the earth including “Gog and Magog” at the four corners of the earth.  A last great battle for the meaning of the world ensues. The forces of good win. The great generations of the dead of humanity rise from under water and earth: their physical bodies reconstituted. The wicked of the world receive God’s justice, condemned  to a lake of fire.

After this last epic battle between the forces of good and evil, the resurrection of the dead and last judgement, John’s prophecy turns from a horrifying dystopian vision to poetic image of utopia, a reality that promises moral closure, a final end in which the world has made sense: the evil punished, the good rewarded, and all that haunts us has passed away. The world as we have known it with its deceit, desire, pain, and suffering is at last gone replaced with something entirely new and beautiful:

And God will wipe away all the tears from their eyes: and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any pain: for the former things are passed away.

The holy city of Jerusalem, the seat of this new world, is composed of dazzling jewels on a sea of glass.

And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon… for the Lord God giveth them light and they shall reign forever and ever.

That then, is the Book of Revelation, we are left with questions: Who was this John of Patmos? Why did he write this strange book that has haunted us since? What does its crazy symbolism: this Beast, and Antichrist, and Jezebel, and Babylon and all the rest mean? And lastly, the most important questions, what does it say to us? What does it mean, for us?

We will need Pagels’ help to answer these questions, and I will pick it up there next time.

The Janus Face of Metropolis

Last week my post consisted of a Voice Thread presentation on the 1927 science-fiction silent-film by Fritz Lang, Metropolis. My thanks to John  for participating, and to everyone who gave me positive comments and feedback. One of the drawbacks of Voice Thread is that you have to sign up to participate, and though relatively painless, I can understand why someone wouldn’t sign up for yet another web application- I know I wouldn’t if I didn’t have to, or if it didn’t obviously add something helpful to my life.  Feedback was good enough, however, that I think I will try such presentations again, where they fit with the subject, but for this week I am back to my usual fare.

You can get the background for the post that follows below from that presentation. Click on the image above to access.  Be forewarned you’ll have live through my nasally voice and might want to have a cup of coffee at the ready. There are reasons I don’t work in Hollywood.

In any case, what struck me about the film Metropolis was how the film could be so forward looking and so backward at the same time. As I mentioned in the presentation Lang supposedly got his inspiration for the film from a few years before ‘27 when he first set eyes on the skyline of New York.  Now that the modernism of urban landscapes has moved elsewhere, the cityscape of the film put me as much in mind of hypermodern Shanghai,  Abu Dhabi, or Tokyo than my near and familiar New York.

Lang’s idea of air-travel was just a little off, after all, we don’t really have biplanes anymore, except for hobbyist, let alone biplanes as a means of traveling between skyscrapers, but for a certain strata of the elite you do have helicopters, which do just about the same. If memory serves me, in cities where the automobile traffic is horrendous, such as Mexico city, helicopter travel is the preferred way for elites to get from place to place, and avoid all the “undesirable” neighborhoods. I guess they haven’t caught on to Lang’s idea of hiding the poor underground.

Lang also has a pretty good grasp of just how dominant the automobile is going to be as a form of transportation. At this time the German autobahn was just an idea floating in some German engineers’ heads, and the ever present freeways of Metropolis were merely a dream, a prediction which Lang got roughly right, even if our expressways don’t, as his do, stretch into the heavens between the skyscrapers.

Yet if Lang, and let’s not forget his wife, Thea Von Harbou, who co-wrote the film, get these technological details right, they get the social,  historic, and economic forces propelling the world toward the uncertain and dangerous future both foresaw horribly wrong.

Think about the year the film was released- 1927.  What’s going on in 1927? This is ten years after the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Lenin had died three years earlier and been replaced by Joseph Stalin who would prove to be one of the most murderous rulers in human history. Five years before Metropolis had been released Mussolini had brought fascism to the world with his new form of dictatorship in Italy. In 1923, inspired by Mussolini’s “March on Rome” a little known nationalist maniac in Lang’s own Germany  attempted to duplicate Mussolini’s revolution with something that became known as “The Beer Hall Putsch”. The revolution would fail, and the maniac would be thrown in prison, but Adolf Hitler would be back. Within two years of Metropolis’ release the entire capitalist-industrial world Lang’s Metropolis portrays had collapsed, although, I suppose, he can not be blamed for having not seen that.

Lang’s answer to this is “Christian Brotherhood”. He is saying to the elites in effect: “the workers are your brothers in Christ, do not mistreat them”. Lang can perhaps be forgiven for not having read his Nietzsche who declared God to be dead and for there to thus be great storms on the horizon. Or, for having not read or understood the Christian message of Dostoevsky who predicted that the godlessness of European society made inevitable savage inhumanity the likes of which had never been seen. Still, Lang and his wife can be blamed for not reading the newspapers, not seeing how the concept of Christian charity was a thin and already broken reed on which to place the solutions to the enormous pressures society was undergoing.

Indeed, the Catholic Church, whose imagery we find throughout Metropolis would fall into the same moral vortex that swept up every other element of European society, and would fail to mount any real defence to save the Jews of Europe who found themselves in the center of the storm.

Metropolis demonstrates the enormous flexibility of the story of the Book of Revelation which can be used as a way to give meaning to almost any dystopian predicament and in a bewildering diversity of historical circumstances. The problem with being overly reliant on this or any other myth or sets of myths, such as that of the Tower of Babel, or the legend of Golem, which Lang also taps into to give meaning to events, is that as often as not they blind you to the actual historical situation you are facing.

The world of the 1920s-30s was facing enormous challenges: the dysfunction of industrial-capitalism, the utter incompetence of parliamentary democracy, the spread of nihilism throughout Western society, both on account of the savagery of the First World War, and the moral vacuum opened up as the traditional religious worldview gave to a scientific and secular one. And, of course, there was the specter of a workers’ revolution inspired by the example or machinations of the Soviet Union. Fascism was one “answer” to this, and Lang’s wife Thea Von Harbou herself became a Nazi, a decision that caused the two to split. Fascism offered social protection to the workers in exchange for the disavowal of revolution, indeed in exchange for rabid nationalism and anti-communism.

After the Second World War, the democracies, especially in Europe, but to a lesser extent even in the United States, found that they could short-circuit communism and its by offering this same social protection to its workers. But, instead of those protections coming attached to a militaristic, expansionist regime in the form of fascism theses protections, again I am speaking primarily about Europe, were attached to the softer nationalism of the democratic nation-state. Elites took care of the poor as fellow members of the nation, and as a historical result of the contest between fascism and communism for the loyalty of the people.

But now we face a dilemma. The worker protections and social welfare programs that were created in the middle of the 20th century were inspired by the fear of elites  communism- that is fear of revolution. In Europe this system is premised on the nation-state. Europe is now a supranational entity, but it is difficult to imagine how its version of social democracy can survive unless Europeans treat one another like a common people- that is rich individuals provide some support for poorer countries and individuals.

In the US the much thinner system of social support has proven much easier to erode, and the social gospel has been supplanted by the “prosperity gospel”.

All signs point to the fact that the old system is giving way, but there appears to be nothing in the offing at the ready to take its place. We are back, in a sense, in the world Metropolis has shown us and faced with the question Lang failed to answer.  What bond is there between elites and non-elites, between the rich and the poor, that will limit exploitation and make society liveable, or in Lang’s lame phrase, what unites the head and the hands in a world without heart?


Metropolis, please share your voice

This week I wanted to try something new. I deeply appreciate all of you who take the time to read this blog and especially those who share their own thoughts in the comments. One of the down sides of blogging, or any other writing for that matter,  is that you never get to listen to your readers. It would be wonderful to actually hear your voices.

With that in mind, this week I created a presentation on the 1927 science-fiction classic Metropolis. I did this using a program called Voice Thread. What is cool about Voice Thread is that not only does it allow you to create presentations that can include the presenter’s own audio comments; you can also open the presentation up to others so they can make audio comments as well.

So, if you’d like check out my presentation at:

https://voicethread.com/#q.b3223281.i0.k0

Hope to hear from you. And this time I mean it literally.

Rick Searle