Our emerging culture of shame

Jules_Arsène_Garnier_-_Le_supplice_des_adultères

I remember a speech that the novelist Tom Wolfe gave on CSPAN or some such back in the 1990s in which he said something like “Nietzsche predicted that the 20th century would be the age of ideology, and that the century after the age of morality, and I believe him” I’ve never been able to find the source of the quote, but the more the 21st century rolls on, the more I’m finding it to increasingly, frighteningly true.

Thing is, I didn’t really get Wolfe’s point at the time given that the 90’s were a period in which relativism of one sort or another was so ascendant- at least on college campuses -in America. While such relativism dominates it’s hard to  see that the ultimate outcome is  either going to be a growing inability to distinguish genuine communication from manipulation and propaganda, or more surprisingly, will result in an environment of cultural and political fanaticism where seemingly everything, including the interpersonal give and take of everyday life, becomes subsumed into unresolvable moral conflicts.

All that’s probably pretty confusing, so let me start with the latter point, and especially one peculiar aspect of this reality which all of us are probably guilty of.  If we most often recognize moral fanaticism when it comes in the form of shootings and bombings done by humans who act like automatons, much, much more often it comes in the form of nasty tweets and comments by us. This verbal violence we inflict aims to psychologically rather than physically injure- to inspire shame, through which we hope to enforce our own ideal of what is right and just. It’s a behavior I myself have engaged in and felt superior while doing so, and hadn’t thought of questioning until I read  Jon Ronson’s, remarkable, hilarious, and incredibly sad, book So you’ve been publicly shamed.

The book starts off with a story that would not have made sense until our early 21st century world. A group of academic researchers, without Ronson’s permission, created a bot with his name- a simulcra that sends out tweets he finds alien. For the academics it’s a kind of experiment in postmodern theories of the self. For Ronson it’s identity theft.

It’s in the Twitter mob that came to Ronson’s defense that he found the subject for his book. At first aligned with their anger over the blatant attempt to misrepresent his identity, Ronson became both disturbed and intrigued by the forceful and sometimes violent rhetoric of those who used Twitter to shame his tormentors into taking down their bot.

Ronson then goes on a journey to understand this online shaming, a journey that takes him to some strange and sometimes disturbing places. There’s Jonah Lehrer, the disgraced science journalists who confessed his misdeeds in front of a live frothing Twitter wall. There was the case of Justine Sacco whose thoughtless, many thought racist, joke led to the end of her career and threats against her life.

This justice of the mob in part grows out of the nature of the internet itself. Social media democratizes power, but this is a power stripped of the accumulated lessons of history. The problem is not so much that groups collectively pursue what they believe to be right and just. It is that they do so without all the mechanisms designed for discovering some shadow of the truth. To actually discern whether someone actually deserved any public reprobate or other form of social punishment would actually require some agreed upon mechanism for deciding upon an approximation of the truth.

This amounts to frankly boring procedures whose purpose is to restrain emotion especially the desire for revenge which arises out of our need for justice. Something  that in a different context Jaron Lanier referred to as “low pass filtering” and is an essential component of the civilization in which we live that we take for granted at our peril.

These procedures and emotional restraints are exactly the opposite of a Twitter mob, and in a clever twist that I’m not sure Ronson was aware of, like the creators of the tormenting bot that began his quest to understand shame, such mobs are impervious to facts because they do not believe anything resembling truth actually exist.

Yet this is more my darkness and bleak perspective poking through than what can be found in Ronson. He wants nothing to do with a resurrected Gustav Le Bon, or even something like the Stanford Prison Experiment. (As a side note he points out that this famous demonstration of the human potential for depravity was mostly fake. There was only one “evil” guard, and he was acting the part he thought he was expected to play. It made me wonder how much the villainy of the present and future will be influenced by what the media has defined a villain to be.)

Ronson, however, sees the kinds of dark rhetoric that is so often found on the internet, as less a reflection of human darkness than something that arose out of the anarchic spirit of the early internet itself. A spirit which, though it might no longer exist on the corporatized web, can still be found on a forum like 4chan.

I think this less jaundiced view of human beings stems from Ronson’s obvious compassion towards our flawed nature. Because (I believe) he rightly, holds true evil to be very rare, he needs to explain the prevalence of human “baddness”, our verbal attacks upon persons we believe have committed moral infractions such as Justine Sacco or Jonah Lehrer.

His explanation ends up being remarkably similar to that of the evolutionary psychologist, Mark Pagel, in his book Wired for Culture. Pagels argued that our inhibitions against violence can most quickly be unleashed against those who violate the norms of the groups to which we belong. Our unrivaled capacity for violence, and shame is a form of violence whose aim is most often coercion, is but the dark side of our equally unrivaled capacity for culture.

But unlike Pagels, Ronson is driven to understand the desire to police norms through shame caused by himself. Reflecting on what had driven his own engagement in online shaming he writes:

… it was the desire to do something good that propelled me. Which was definitely a better thing to be propelled by than group madness. But my desire had taken a lot of scalps- I’d torn a lot of people I couldn’t now remember- which made me suspect that it was coming from some weird dark well, some place I really didn’t want to think about. Which is why I had to think about it. (109)

It’s the same impulse that led so many East Germans to report their neighbors activity to the Stasi:

It was an impulse to make sure your neighbor was doing the right thing. (271)

Ronson’s book could not have come at a better time for shame seems to be undergoing something of a renaissance lately. The journalist David Brooks has recently done some fascinating pieces on the subject, the most important takeaway from which I think should be, when he said:

Some sort of moral system is coming into place. Some new criteria now exist, which people use to define correct and incorrect action. The big question is: What is the nature of this new moral system?

Here Brooks is building off of the work of writers like Andy Crouch, whose work he cites:

Crouch argues that the omnipresence of social media has created a new sort of shame culture. The world of Facebook, Instagram and the rest is a world of constant display and observation. The desire to be embraced and praised by the community is intense. People dread being exiled and condemned. Moral life is not built on the continuum of right and wrong; it’s built on the continuum of inclusion and exclusion.

…there are nonetheless enforcers within the group who build their personal power and reputation by policing the group and condemning those who break the group code. Social media can be vicious to those who don’t fit in. Twitter can erupt in instant ridicule for anyone who stumbles.

… people are extremely anxious that their group might be condemned or denigrated. They demand instant respect and recognition for their group. They feel some moral wrong has been perpetrated when their group has been disrespected, and react with the most violent intensity.

In the new shame culture, the opposite of shame is celebrity — to be attention-grabbing and aggressively unique on some media platform.

On the positive side, this new shame culture might rebind the social and communal fabric. It might reverse, a bit, the individualistic, atomizing thrust of the past 50 years.

On the other hand, everybody is perpetually insecure in a moral system based on inclusion and exclusion. There are no permanent standards, just the shifting judgment of the crowd. It is a culture of oversensitivity, overreaction and frequent moral panics, during which everybody feels compelled to go along.

I think this description of Brooks/ Crouch is really onto something and that someone with just the right eye in the 1980’s and 90’s who had combined the kind of psychological lynchings on shows like Jerry Springer, with the kinds of assaults on privacy and paparazzi caused destruction and politically driven character assassination, along with the democratization of media and communications technology might have gotten the zeitgeist of 2016 eerily correct. It’s weird, but for how technologically advanced we are, the culture our technology is helping give rise to looks like something out of the morally balkanized Reformation period, combined with the prying, social climbing and vindictiveness of the court at Versailles.

This points to how I differ from either Brooks or Crouch’s view that the “new shame culture might rebind the social and communal fabric.” It probably is the case that the use of shaming as punishment is the oldest way in which human groups have enforced their norms, though one might respond to Brooks and Crouch that shame culture is only possible in tribal scale societies and becomes impossible once a society is too large for any individual to be able to keep track of all of his neighbors business.

That objection, however, isn’t really true. You can indeed use shame to enforce norms across large societies as anyone from a large society like China, South Korea or Japan will tell you. There was even a famous book about it The Chrysanthemum and the Sword by the anthropologist Ruth Benedict. In that book she contrasted Western cultures where norms were enforced via externalized guilt with Japan where similar norms were enforced through shame.

Indeed I’ve been wondering of late how the large shame based societies in East Asia have been interacting with the new social media, curious if Neal Stephenson’s prediction of how the internet in China way back in 1994 has becoming true. Stephenson wondered that while the internet in the West promised grassroots democracy:

…. but the Chinese are just as apt to think of it as a finely engineered snare for tying the whole country together even more firmly than its predecessor.

If the internet hasn’t even brought grassroots democracy to countries where republicanism is a deep, indeed defining, part of their identity, it certainly won’t bring it to China, which means only the darker aspect of Stephenson’s prediction can come true. But I digress.

Back on topic, it is nevertheless the case that thinking we are moving from a guilt culture to a shame culture thanks to communications technologies, and that this shame is robust enough to hold up a large society such as ours because it can do so for even larger societies in Asia, actually collapses upon inspection. The distinction between East Asian shame based societies and our own formerly guilt based one is just how heterogeneous Western societies are compared to their counterparts. That is, you need a shared understanding of what is “shamable” behavior and what is not for shame to work as the basis for enforcing social norms in the first place, which probably entails some shared understanding of the truth or deference to some group that defines good and the truth. In fact we’re moving in the opposite direction.

Globally it’s even worse, which is why I think a project such as Jennifer Jacquet’s proposal to use “shaming at scale” to pursue environmental justice, however laudable, just isn’t feasible over the long term, and would likely fail in the same way it has failed in the US where efforts to shame CEOs and companies over horrors such as global warming leads to deliberate agontology which is quickly followed up by a nationalist backlash against “elites”using the language of environmental protection and human rights to pursue their own agenda.

Yet while the difficulty in using shame to enforce social norms globally and broadly across Western societies may end up being a fool’s errand that doesn’t mean it won’t be tried. Maybe we’ll use AI to overcome the the fact that shame becomes harder to enforce once it gets so big there are more people than you could ever personally know, let alone keep track of. Though in that case- those who control the AI will also control the social norms. Or maybe we’ll find ourselves in something like David Brin’s Transparent Society- gag. In the end it might happen, but that makes it even more important that we understand what Ronson has to say about the soul destroying effects of shame and the attempts to escape it.

One response to shame is to become shameless. Ronson finds this in a group whose shame “cure” is based on the adoption of radical honesty. The group spends most of its time insulting one another. This might be yet another way to explain the rise of Trump- as a revolt of the shamed who have declared their own shamelessness.

I think what many of Trump’s supporters are revolting against, over and above legitimate economic grievances, is the sense that they are not merely ridiculed as “white trash”, by what they think are “smug”, “liberal”, “elites”. Perhaps they feel that we’ll off people who believe themselves to be superior think they are  supposed to feel ashamed for what they think. Their anger and total transparency are forms of protection against shame.

Given the absence of shared norms and a  shared understanding of truth all continued shame and ridicule seems to do is to cause people to become even angrier and in their anger they have torn up not merely their filters, but the very civility that makes shared political life possible.

Another response to shame which Ronson explores which is applicable to our situation is not transparency but the mask. “Reputation management” is now a service meant to smother in the banal and benign something that has brought a person into public derision.

We were creating a world where the smartest way to survive was to be bland. (266)

It’s also incredibly expensive, which is why in the transparent society before us only the poor and lower middle classes are actually seen through. 

Lastly Ronson, jumping off of the work of the psychologist James Gilligan ,shows how deep shame is perhaps universally at the root of extreme violence, that those driven to such violence see it as a way to expunge their otherwise unbearable shame. Even should we not be capable of Ronson-level compassion towards fellow our human beings, given the ever increasing capacity of “the little guy” to exercise violence ,this is not a seed we should continue to sow.

 

Shedding Light on Peter Thiel’s Dark Enlightenment

Eye of Sauron

Lately I’ve been experiencing quite a bit of deja vu, and not in the least of a good kind. The recent bout was inspired by Ben Smith’s piece for BuzzFeed in which he struggled to understand how an Ayn Rand loving libertarian like the technologist Peter Thiel could end up supporting a statist demagogue like Donald Trump. Smith’s reasoning was that Trump represented perhaps the biggest disruption of them all and could use the power of the state to pursue the singularity and flying-cars Theil believed were one at our fingertips.

What Smith didn’t explore was how a small group of Silicon Valley centered thinkers and technologists who call themselves “neo-reactionaries” have been evolving in an authoritarian direction known as “the dark enlightenment” over the last couple of years. Hence my deja vu, for back in 2014 I had written a post on this movement, and the reasons for its appearance. In many ways neo-reactionaries were a kind of harbinger of Trumpism – the movement’s open misogyny and racism, and especially the desire for a return to authoritarian control. To put Thiel’s Republican speech in its neo-reactionary context, see below.

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There has been some ink spilt lately at the IEET over a new movement that goes by the Tolkienesque name, I kid you not, of the dark enlightenment also called neo-reactionaries.  Khannea Suntzu has looked at the movement from the standpoint of American collapse and David Brin  from within the context of a rising oligarchic neo-feudalism.

I have my own take on the neo-reactionary movement somewhat distinct from that of either Suntzu or Brin, which I will get to below, but first a recap.  Neo-reactionaries are a relatively new group of thinkers on the right that in general want to abandon the modern state, built such as it is around the pursuit of the social welfare, for lean-and-mean governance by business types who know in their view how to make the trains run on time. They are sick of having to “go begging” to the political class in order to get what they want done. They hope to cut out the middle-man. It’s obvious that oligarchs run the country so why don’t we just be honest about it and give them the reins of power? We could even appoint a national CEO- if the country remains in existence- we could call him the king. Oh yeah, on top of that we should abandon all this racial and sexual equality nonsense. We need to get back to the good old days when the color of a man’s skin and having a penis really meant something- put the “super” back in superior.

At first blush the views of those hoping to turn the lights out on enlightenment (anyone else choking on an oxymoron) appear something like those of the kind of annoying cousin you try to avoid at family reunions. You know, the kind of well off white guy who thinks the Civil Rights Movement was a communist plot, calls your wife a “slut” (their words, not mine) and thinks the real problem with America is that we give too much to people who don’t have anything and don’t lock up or deport enough people with skin any darker than Dove Soap. Such people are the moral equivalent of flat-earthers with no real need to take them seriously, though they can make for some pretty uncomfortable table conversation, and are best avoided like a potato salad that has been out too long in the sun.

What distinguishes neo-reactionaries from run of the mill ditto heads or military types with a taste for Dock Martins or short pants is that they tend to be latte drinking Silicon Valley nerds who have some connection to both the tech and trans-humanist communities.

That should get this audience’s attention.

To continue with the analogy from above:  it’s as if your cousin had a friend, let’s just call him totally at random here… Peter Thiel, who had a net worth of 1.5 billion and was into, among other things, working closely with organizations such as the NSA through a data mining firm he owned- we’ll call it Palantir (damned Frodo Baggins again!) and who serves as a deep pocket for groups like the Tea Party. Just to go all conspiracy on the thing let’s make your cousin’s “friend” a sitting member on something we’ll call The Bilderberg Group a secretive cabal of the world’s bigwigs who get together to talk about what they really would like done in the world.

If that was the case the last thing you should do is leave your cousin ranting to himself while you made off for another plate of Mrs. T’s Pierogies.  You should take the maniac seriously because he might just be sitting on enough cash to make his atavistic dreams come true and put you at risk of sliding off a flattened earth.

All this might put me at risk of being accused of lobbing one too many ad hominems, so let me put some meat on the bones of the neo-reactionaries. The Super Friends or I guess it should be Legion of Doom of neo-reaction can be found on the website Radish where the heroes of the dark enlightenment are laid out in the format of Dungeons and Dragons or Pokémon cards (I can’t make this stuff up). Let’s just start out with the most unfunny and disturbing part of the movement- its open racism and obsession with the 19th century pseudo-science of dysgenics.

Here’s James Donald who from his card I take to be a dwarf, or perhaps an elf, I’m not sure what the difference is, who likes to fly on a winged tauntaun like that from The Empire Strikes Back.

To thrive, blacks need simpler, harsher laws, more vigorously enforced, than whites.  The average black cannot handle the freedom that the average white can handle. He is apt to destroy himself.  Most middle class blacks had fathers who were apt to frequently hit them hard with a fist or stick or a belt, because lesser discipline makes it hard for blacks to grow up middle class.  In the days of Jim Crow, it was a lot easier for blacks to grow up middle class.

Wow, and I thought a country where one quarter of African American children will have experienced at least one of their parents behind bars– thousands of whom will die in prison for nonviolent offenses– was already too harsh. I guess I’m a patsy.

Non-whites aren’t the only ones who come in for derision by the neo-reactionaries a fact that can be summed up by the post- title of one of their minions, Alfred W. Clark, who writes the blog Occam’s Razor : Are Women Who Tan Sluts?  There’s no need to say anything more to realize poor William of Occam is rolling in his grave.

Beyond this neo-Nazism for nerds quality neo-reactionaries can make one chuckle especially when it comes to “policy innovations” such as bringing back kings.

Here’s modern day Beowulf Mencius Moldbug:

 What is England’s problem?  What is the West’s problem?  In my jaundiced, reactionary mind, the entire problem can be summed up in two words –chronic kinglessness.  The old machine is missing a part.  In fact, it’s a testament to the machine’s quality that it functioned so long, and so well, without that part.

Yeah, that’s the problem.

Speaking of atavists, one thing that has always confused me about the Tea Party is that I have never been sure which imaginary “golden age” they wanted us to return to. Is it before desegregation? Before FDR? Prior to the creation of the Federal Reserve (1913)? Or maybe it’s back to the antebellum south? Or maybe back to the Articles of Confederation? Well, at least the neo-reactionaries know where they want to go- back before the American Revolution. Obviously since this whole democracy thing hasn’t worked out we should bring back the kings, which makes me wonder if these guys have mourning parties on Bastille Day.

Okay, so the dark voices behind neo-reaction are a bunch of racist/sexist nerds who have a passion for kings and like to be presented as characters on D&D cards. They have some potentially deep pockets, but other than that troubling fact why should we give them more than a few seconds of serious thought?

Now I need to exchange my satirical cap for my serious one for the issues are indeed serious. I think understanding neo-reaction is important for two reasons: they are symptomatic of deeper challenges and changes occurring politically, and they have appeared as a response to and on the cusp of a change in our relationship to Silicon Valley a region that has been the fulcrum point for technological, economic and political transformation over the past generation.

Neo-reaction shouldn’t be viewed in a vacuum. It has appeared at a time when the political and economic order we have had since at least the end of the Second World War which combines representative democracy, capitalist economics and some form of state supported social welfare (social democracy) is showing signs of its age.

If this was just happening in the United States whose 224 year old political system emerged before almost everything we take to be modern such as this list at random: universal literacy, industrialization, railroads, telephones, human flight, the Theory of Evolution, Psychoanalysis, Quantum Mechanics, Genetics, “the Bomb”, television, computers, the Internet and mobile technology then we might be able, as some have, to blame our troubles on an antiquated political system, but the creaking is much more widespread.

We have the upsurge in popularity of the right in Europe such as that seen in France with its National Front. Secessionist movements are gaining traction in the UK. The right in the form of Hindu Nationalism under a particular obnoxious figure- Narendra Modi -is poised to win Indian elections. There is the implosion of states in the Middle East such as Syria and revolution and counter revolution in Egypt. There are rising nationalist tensions in East Asia.

All this is coming against the backdrop of rising inequality. The markets are soaring no doubt pushed up by the flood of money being provided by the Federal Reserve,  yet the economy is merely grinding along. Easy money is the de facto cure for our deflationary funk and pursued by all the world’s major central banks in the US, the European Union, and now especially, Japan.

The far left has long abandoned the idea that 21st century capitalism is a workable system with the differences being over what the alternative to it should be- whether communism of the old school such as that of Slavoj Žižek  or the anarchism of someone like David Graeber. Leftists are one thing the Pope is another, and you know a system is in trouble when the most conservative institution in history wants to change the status quo as Pope Francis suggested when he recently railed against the inhumanity of capitalism and urged for its transformation.

What in the world is going on?

If your house starts leaning there’s something wrong with the foundation, so I think we need to look at the roots of our current problems by going back to the gestation of our system- that balance of representative democracy, capitalism and social democracy I mentioned earlier whose roots can be found not in the 20th century but in the century prior.

The historical period that is probably most relevant for getting a handle on today’s neo-reactionaries is the late 19th century when a rage for similar ideas infected Europe. There was Nietzsche in Germany and Dostoevsky in Russia (two reactionaries I still can’t get myself to dislike both being so brilliant and tragic). There was Maurras in France and Pareto in Italy. The left, of course, also got a shot of B-12 here as well with labor unions, socialist political parties and seriously left-wing intellectuals finally gaining traction. Marxism whose origins were earlier in the century was coming into its own as a political force.  You had writers of socialist fiction such as Edward Bellamy and Jack London surging in popularity. Anarchists were making their mark, though, unfortunately, largely through high profile assassinations and bomb throwing. A crisis was building even before the First World War whose centenary we will mark next year.

Here’s historian JM Roberts from his Europe 1880-1945 on the state of politics in on the eve, not after, the outbreak of the First World War.

 Liberalism had institutionalized the pursuit of happiness, yet its own institutions seemed to stand in the way of achieving the goal; liberal’s ideas could, it seemed, lead liberalism to turn on itself.

…the practical shortcomings of democracy contributed to a wave of anti-parliamentarianism. Representative institutions had for nearly a century been the shibboleth of liberalism. An Italian sociologist now stigmatized them ‘as the greatest superstition of modern times.’ There was violent criticism of them, both practical and theoretical. Not surprisingly, this went furthest in constitutional states where parliamentary institutions were the formal framework of power but did not represent social realities. Even where parliaments (as in France or Great Britain) had already shown they possessed real power, they were blamed for representing the wrong people and for being hypocritical shams covering self-interest. Professional politicians- a creation of the nineteenth century- were inevitably, it was said, out of touch with real needs.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Liberalism, by which Roberts means a combination of representative government and laissez faire capitalism- including free trade- was struggling. Capitalism had obviously brought wealth and innovation but also enormous instability and tensions. The economy had a tendency to rocket towards the stars only to careen earthward and crash leaving armies of the unemployed. The small scale capitalism of earlier periods was replaced by continent straddling bureaucratic corporations. The representative system which had been based on fleeting mobilization during elections or crises had yet to adjust to a situation where mass mobilization through the press, unions, or political groups was permanent and unrelenting.

The First World War almost killed liberalism. The Russian Revolution, Great Depression, rise of fascism and World War Two were busy putting nails in its coffin when the adoption of social democracy and Allied Victory in the war revived the corpse. Almost the entirety of the 20th century was a fight over whether the West’s hybrid system, which kept capitalism and representative democracy, but tamed the former could outperform state communism- and it did.

In the latter half of the 20th century the left got down to the business of extending the rights revolution to marginalized groups while the right fought for the dismantling of many of the restrictions that had been put on the capitalist system during its time of crisis. This modus vivendi between left and right was all well and good while the economy was growing and while the extension of legal rights rather than social rights for marginalized groups was the primary issue, but by the early 21st century both of these thrusts were spent.

Not only was the right’s economic model challenged by the 2008 financial crisis, it had nowhere left to go in terms of realizing its dreams of minimal government and dismantling of the welfare state without facing almost impossible electoral hurdles. The major government costs in the US and Europe were pensions and medical care for the elderly- programs that were virtually untouchable. The left too was realizing that abstract legal rights were not enough.  Did it matter that the US had an African American president when one quarter of black children had experienced a parent in prison, or when a heavily African American city such as Philadelphia has a child poverty rate of 40%? Addressing such inequities was not an easy matter for the left let alone the extreme changes that would be necessary to offset rising inequality.

Thus, ironically, the problem for both the right and the left is the same one- that governments today are too weak. The right needs an at least temporarily strong government to effect the dismantling of the state, whereas the left needs a strong government not merely to respond to the grinding conditions of the economic “recovery”, but to overturn previous policies, put in new protections and find some alternative to the current political and economic order. Dark enlightenment types and progressives are confronting the same frustration while having diametrically opposed goals. It is not so much that Washington is too powerful as it is that the power it has is embedded in a system, which, as Mark Leibovich portrays brilliantly, is feckless and corrupt.  

Neo-reactionaries tend to see this as a product of too much democracy, whereas progressives will counter that there is not enough. Here’s one of the princes of darkness himself, Nick Land:

 Where the progressive enlightenment sees political ideals, the dark enlightenment sees appetites. It accepts that governments are made out of people, and that they will eat well. Setting its expectations as low as reasonably possible, it seeks only to spare civilization from frenzied, ruinous, gluttonous debauch.

Yet, as the experience in authoritarian societies such as Libya, Egypt and Syria shows (and even the authoritarian wonderchild of China is feeling the heat) democratic societies are not the only ones undergoing acute stresses. The universal nature of the crisis of governance is brought home in a recent book by Moisés Naím. In his The End of Power Naím lays out how every large structure in society: armies, corporations, churches and unions are seeing their power decline and are being challenged by small and nimble upstarts.

States are left hobbled by smallish political parties and groups that act as spoilers preventing governments from getting things done. Armies with budgets in the hundreds of billions of dollars are hobbled by insurgents with IEDs made from garage door openers and cell phones. Long-lived religious institutions, most notably the Catholic Church, are losing parishioners to grassroots preachers while massive corporations are challenged by Davids that come out of nowhere to upend their business models with a simple stone.

Naím has a theory for why this is happening. We are in the midst of what he calls The More, The Mobility and The Mentality Revolutions. Only the last of those is important for my purposes. Ruling elites are faced today with the unprecedented reality that most of their lessers can read. Not only that, the communications revolution which has fed the wealth of some of these elites has significantly lowered the barriers to political organization and speech. Any Tom, Dick and now Harriet can throw up a website and start organizing for or against some cause. What this has resulted in is a sort of Cambrian explosion of political organization, and just as in any acceleration of evolution you’re likely to get some pretty strange mutants- and so here we are.

Some on the left are urging us to adjust our progressive politics to the new distributed nature of power.  The writer Steven Johnson in his recent Future Perfect: The case for progress in a networked age calls collaborative efforts by small groups “peer-to-peer networks”, and in them he sees a glimpse of our political past (the participatory politics of the ancient Greek polis and late medieval trading states) becoming our political future. Is this too “reactionary”?

Peer-to-peer networks tend to bring local information back into view. The fact that traditional centralized loci of power such as the federal government and national and international media are often found lacking when it comes to local knowledge is a problem of scale. As Jane Jacobs has pointed out , government policies are often best when crafted and implemented at the local level where differences and details can be seen.

Wikipedia is a good example of Johnson’s peer-to-peer model as is Kickstarter. In government we are seeing the spread of participatory budgeting where the local public is allowed to make budgetary decisions. There is also a relatively new concept known as “liquid democracy” that not only enables the creation of legislation through open-sourced platforms but allows people to “trade” their votes in the hopes that citizens can avoid information overload by targeting their vote to areas they care most about, and presumably for this reason, have the greatest knowledge of.

So far, peer-to-peer networks have been successful at revolt- The Tea Party is peer-to-peer as was Occupy Wall Street. Peer-to-peer politics was seen in the Move-ON movement and has dealt defeat to recent legislation such as SOPA. Authoritarian regimes in the Middle East were toppled by crowd sourced gatherings on the street.

More recently than Johnson’s book there is New York’s new progressive mayor-  Bill de Blasio’s experiment with participatory politics with his Talking Transition Tent on Canal Street. There, according to NPR, New Yorkers can:

 ….talk about what they want the next mayor to do. They can make videos, post videos and enter their concerns on 48 iPad terminals. There are concerts, panels on everything from parks to education. And they can even buy coffee and beer.

Democracy, coffee and beer- three of my favorite things!

On the one hand I love this stuff, but me being me I can’t help but have some suspicions and this relates, I think, to the second issue about neo-reactionaries I raised above; namely, that they are reflecting something going on with our relationship to Silicon Valley a change in public perception of the tech culture and its tools from hero and wonderworker to villain and illusionist.

As I have pointed out elsewhere the idea that technology offered an alternative to the lumbering bureaucracy of state and corporations is something embedded deep in the foundation myth of Silicon Valley. The use of Moore’s Law as a bridge to personalized communication technology was supposed to liberate us from the apparatchiks of the state and the corporation- remember Apple’s “1984” commercial?

It hasn’t quite turned out that way. Yes, we are in a condition of hyper economic and political competition largely engendered by technology, but it’s not quite clear that we as citizens have gained rather than “power centers” that use these tools against one another and even sometimes us. Can anyone spell NSA?

We also went from innovation, and thus potential wealth, being driven by guys in their garages to, on the American scene, five giants that largely own and control all of virtual space: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Micro-Soft with upstarts such as Instagram being slurped up like Jonah was by the whale the minute they show potential growth.

Rather than result in a telecommuting utopia with all of us working five hours a day from the comfort of our digitally connected home, technology has led to a world where we are always “at work”, wages have not moved since the 1970’s and the spectre of technological unemployment is on the wall. Mainstream journalists such as John Micklethwait of The Economist are starting to see a growing backlash against Silicon Valley as the public becomes increasingly estranged from digerati who have not merely failed to deliver on their Utopian promises, but are starving the government for revenue as they hide their cash in tax havens all the while cosying up to the national security state.

Neo-reactionaries are among the first of Silicon Valleians to see this backlash building hence their only half joking efforts to retreat to artificial islands or into outer space. Here is Balaji Srinivasan whose speech was transcribed by one of the dark illuminati who goes by the moniker Nydwracu:

 The backlash is beginning. More jobs predicted for machines, not people; job automation is a future unemployment crisis looming. Imprisoned by innovation as tech wealth explodes, Silicon Valley, poverty spikes… they are basically going to try to blame the economy on Silicon Valley, and say that it is iPhone and Google that done did it, not the bailouts and the bankruptcies and the bombings, and this is something which we need to identify as false and we need to actively repudiate it.

Srinivasan would have at least some things to use in defense of Silicon Valley: elites there have certainly been socially conscious about global issues. Where I differ is on their proposed solutions. As I have written elsewhere, Valley bigwigs such as Peter Diamandis think the world’s problems can be solved by letting the technology train keep on rolling and for winners such as himself to devote their money and genius to philanthropy.  This is unarguably a good thing, what I doubt, however, is that such techno-philanthropy can actually carry the load now held up by governments while at the same time those made super rich by capitalism’s creative destruction flee the tax man leaving what’s left of government to be funded on the backs of a shrinking middle class.

The original generation of Silicon Valley innovators is acutely aware of our government’s incapacity to do what states have always done- to preserve the past, protect the the present and invest in the future. This is the whole spirit behind the saint of the digerati Stewart Brand’s Long Now Foundation in which I find very much to admire. The neo-reactionaries too have latched upon this short term horizon of ours, only where Brand saw our time paralysis in a host of contemporary phenomenon, neo-reactionaries think there is one culprit- democracy. Here again is dark prince Nick Land:

 Civilization, as a process, is indistinguishable from diminishing time-preference (or declining concern for the present in comparison to the future). Democracy, which both in theory and evident historical fact accentuates time-preference to the point of convulsive feeding-frenzy, is thus as close to a precise negation of civilization as anything could be, short of instantaneous social collapse into murderous barbarism or zombie apocalypse (which it eventually leads to). As the democratic virus burns through society, painstakingly accumulated habits and attitudes of forward-thinking, prudential, human and industrial investment, are replaced by a sterile, orgiastic consumerism, financial incontinence, and a ‘reality television’ political circus. Tomorrow might belong to the other team, so it’s best to eat it all now.

The problem here is not that Land has drug this interpretation of the effect of democracy straight out of Plato’s Republicwhich he has, or that it’s a kid who eats the marshmallowleads to zombie apocalypse reading of much more complex political relationships- which it is as well.  Rather, it’s that there is no real evidence that it is true, and indeed the reason it’s not true might give those truly on the radical left who would like to abandon the US Constitution for something more modern and see nothing special in its antiquity reason for pause.

The study,of course, needs to be replicated, but a paper just out by Hal Hershfield, Min Bang and Elke Weber at New York University seems to suggest that the way to get a country to pay serious attention to long term investments is not to give them a deep future but a deep past and not just any past- the continuity of their current political system.

As Hershfield states it:

 Our thinking is that the countries who have a longer past are better able see further forward into the future and think about extending the time period that they’ve already been around into the distant future. And that might make them care a bit more about how environmental outcomes are going to play out down the line.

And from further commentary on that segment:

 Hershfield is not using the historical age of the country, but when it got started in its present form, when its current form of government got started. So he’s saying the U.S. got started in the year 1776. He’s saying China started in the year 1949.

Now, China, of course, though, is thousands of years old in historical terms, but Hershfield is using the political birth of the country as the starting point for his analysis. Now, this is potentially problematic, because for some countries like China, there’s a very big disparity in the historical age and when the current form of government got started. But Hershfield finds even when you eliminate those countries from the equation, there’s still a strong connection between the age of the country and its willingness to invest in environmental issues.

The very existence of strong environmental movements and regulation in democracies should be enough to disprove Land’s thesis about popular government’s “compulsive feeding frenzy”.  Democracies should have stripped their environments bare like a dog with a Thanksgiving turkey bone. Instead the opposite has happened. Neo-reactionaries might respond with something about large hunting preserves supported by the kings, but the idea that kings were better stewards of the environment and human beings (I refuse to call them “capital”)  because they own them as personal property can be countered with two words and a number King Leopold II.

Yet, we progressives need to be aware of the benefits of political continuity. The right with their Tea Party and their powdered wigs has seized American history. They are selling a revolutionary dismantling of the state and the deconstruction of hard fought for legacies in the name of returning to “purity”, but this history is ours as much as theirs even if our version of it tends to be as honest about the villains as the heroes. Neo-reactionaries are people who have woken up to the reality that the conservative return to “foundations” has no future. All that is left for them is to sit around daydreaming that the American Revolution and all it helped spark never happened, and that the kings still sat on their bedeckled thrones.

 

A world ruled by networks

Pollock number 7

One of the more confusing characteristics of our age is how it trucks in contradiction. As a prime example: the internet is the most democratizing medium in the history of humankind giving each of us the capability to reach potentially billions with the mere stroke of a key. At the same time this communication landscape is one of unprecedented concentration dominated by a handful of companies such as Facebook ,Google, Twitter, and in China, Baidu.

For quite some time now I’ve been trying to figure out a way to wrap my head around this incongruity. A recent book called The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks by Joshua Cooper Ramo I think has taken me at least part of the way there.

Thinkers who focus on the internet tend to take an either utopian or dystopian track. Sometimes they even managed to combine both of these views by presenting the early history of the internet as a kind of Eden which was lost corporate to greed and the state’s insatiable hunger for power.

What makes Ramo’s argument interesting is that he transcends this division by claiming the internet’s seemingly contradictory tendencies to move towards both the diffusion and the concentration power are built into the nature of the internet as a network itself. Jaron Lanier has done something similar, and I myself, in part,  jumping off of Lanier, have also tried to make the point that the what appear to be rival panoptic or anarchic destinies of the internet are instead merely different sides of the same phenomena. What makes  Ramo’s case in The Seventh Sense different from either Lanier or myself is that he largely openly embraces the new order, connects its development to the science of networks, and tries to foresee the geopolitical implications of power moving in this direction.

We are far too deep into the age of ISIS beheading videos on YouTube and online mobs for the early utopian hopes for the internet continue to be plausible, and unless you are Parag Khanna, we are no longer so naive as to think that connection naturally bring with it understanding and compassion for the other. Ramo is no utopian either. Writing:

The simple, once- appealing idea that connection is liberation is wrong. To connect now is to be encased in a powerful and dynamic tension. (120)

Our current communications architecture makes diffuse networks of individuals who share a common goal possible- it is therefore a tool of enormous empowerment. Such networked powers, however, erode and undermine all established powers that have failed to reorganize themselves for the network age.

This pulling movement, the way that cores and distributions of power mercilessly jerk at certain once- essential structures and objects and people, explains a lot about our age, including the failure of institutions we once relied upon. Connection changes the nature of an object. That’s true for your doctor, your bank account, your army-  and for billions of people whose lives will soon alter irreversibly once they connect to markets to knowledge to the world. We have to ask just how many of the scaffolds humans erected, ones that were essential for Enlightenment- era advances, will now be pulled down. (121)

Though he doesn’t apply it, the case Ramo makes in The Seventh Sense is a good way to understand the rise of Trump and Trumpism. Trump has essentially leveraged Twitter and the media’s weakness for sensationalism to successfully pull off a coup of a major political party. He’s been able to do this because a large part of the American public no longer trusts once venerated institutions and elites, including the fact- checking role of the 4th estate itself.

At the same time networks flatten traditional power structures they are built on power laws that filter communications through only a handful of hyper-concentrated nodes. As Ramo puts it:

…. the massive data centers they built, they realized, are so large that they are nothing less than computers that are the size of massive buildings. Solar fields are their power supply; entire rivers are there cooling tubes. and they enable nothing less than Magic instant knowledge, connection to distant lands, a constant picture of what humanity knows. This is the growing, heroic scale of operations now. (73)

Another way in which Ramo might be said to explain the current Trumpian turn is his argument that we are moving from an era of openness to one of gates. That is, an increasing effort and desire to establish protocols and “walls”, although, not necessarily centered on the nation-state.  Indeed after the era of tearing down walls and globalization that followed the end of the Cold War we appear to be entering the golden age of wall building. Vulnerability in the age of networks leads to a desire not only to surveil, but to tightly control who can enter what Ramo calls a “gateland”  and under what circumstances. Yet the rising prominence of gatelands is less about the “revenge of geography” than a coming age of topology. In topology what matters less is physical proximity than the connection between points. Far-flung cities might be more connected to one another through financial and cultural connections than either are to their more geographically proximate hinterlands.      

In an age of networks it is the plumbing that counts, and those who control the means of connection wield an enormous amount of power. And what makes this situation incredibly dangerous is that neither the public nor the political class understand these systems of connection, nor could they, which is not an argument the for  lack of intelligence of either. Rather, only a very narrow slice among the tech-elite understand these things. Ramo calls them the “New Elite”, and like Plato’s dream of philosopher kings, he sees a real danger that they might seize control, or we might surrender control to them, as our society becomes so increasingly complex to become incomprehensible.  Artificial intelligence is becoming the primary tool to deal with this incomprehensibility, most especially the flood of all types of data brought about by the networked world.

In the short to medium term Ramo sees a battle being waged between the old order and those who have developed the seventh sense, the ability to understand and navigate the world of networks, and those individuals and institutions that either cling to the old order or fail to master networks. These networks Ramo then envisions struggling between themselves with the last battle being one between the human network masters and the AI they have created and deployed to survive the age of networks.

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For all its insight the seventh sense is not without its problems. Pegged as the heir to Henry Kissinger, Ramo argues for a globalist project that is ultimately untenable. He urges the US to use its historical legacy as the primary creator of today’s global networks to seek to create the world’s dominant gatelands.

Yet that ship has already sailed. It’s not only that other large countries, most importantly China, have already decided that they will establish their own gatelands, it is that the very mood of the US itself seems to be moving in the direction of much more circumscribed national gatelands. Ramo also exhibits a degree of technological determinism, and this very determinism blinds him from seeing that the future will be full of surprises, including the surprise of technologies we now believe inevitable never actually arriving.

One alternative future he did not explore is the return to dominance of centralized powers after they have mastered the age of networks, which is just one of the crazy futures that might be seen to exist in embryo in the current technological and social order. Still, even if Ramo failed to inspire me to develop a seventh sense, or even if I remain uncertain as to what such a sense even is, he did help me to see the present more clearly, which is the first step towards understanding the future.

 

How our police became storm troopers, redux

J Bachman photo 2016

Give events of late I thought it relevant to re-post this piece from the summer of 2014 on the militarization of policing. Sadly, almost nothing has changed, except that my prediction that police would start using robots to kill people has come true, though in a way I certainly did not anticipate. I haven’t changed anything from the original post besides cleaning up the some of the shitty grammar and adding the mind-blowing photo by Jonathan Bachman, a freelancer for Reuters. If they have history books in 20 years time that photo will be in them.     

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The police response to protests and riots in Ferguson, Missouri were filled with images that have become commonplace all over the world in the last decade. Police dressed in once futuristic military gear confronting civilian protesters as if they were a rival army. The uniforms themselves put me in mind of nothing so much as the storm-troopers from Star Wars. I guess that would make the rest of us the rebels.

A democracy has entered a highly unstable state when its executive elements, the police and security services it pays for through its taxes, which exist for the sole purpose of protecting and preserving that very community, are turned against it. I would have had only a small clue as to how this came about were it not for a rare library accident.   

I was trying to get out a book on robots in warfare for a project I am working on, but had grabbed the book next to it by mistake. Radley Balko’s The Rise of the Warrior Cop has been all over the news since Ferguson broke, and I wasn’t the first to notice it because within a day or two of the crisis the book was recalled. The reason is that Ferguson has focused public attention on an issue we should have been grappling with for quite some time – the militarization of America’s police forces. How that came about is the story The Rise of the Warrior Cop lays out cogently and with power.

As Balko explains much of what we now take as normal police functions would have likely been viewed by the Founders as “a standing army”, something they were keen to prevent. In addition to the fact that Americans were incensed by the British use of soldiers to exercise police functions, the American Revolution had been inspired in part by the use by the British of “General Warrants” that allowed them to bust into American homes to search in their battle against smuggling. From its beginning the United States has had a tradition of separation between military and police power along with a tradition of limiting police power, indeed, this the reason our constitutional government exists in the first place.

Balko points out how the U.S. as it developed its own police forces, something that became necessary with the country’s urbanization and modernization, maintained these traditions which only fairly recently started to become eroded, largely beginning with the Nixon administration’s “law and order” policy and especially the “war on drugs” launched under Reagan.

In framing the problem of drug use as a war rather than a public health concern we started down the path of using the police to enforce military style solutions. If drug use is a public health concern then efforts will go into providing rehabilitation services for addicts, addressing systemic causes and underlying perceptions, and legalization as a matter of personal liberty where doing so does not pose inordinate risk to the public. If the problem of drug use is framed as a war then this means using kinetic action to disrupt and disable “enemy” forces. It means adhering as close to the limits of what is legally allowable when using force to protect one’s own “troops”. It mean mass incarceration of captured enemy forces. Fighting a war means that training and equipment needs focus on the effective use of force and not “social work”.

The militarization of America’s police forces that began in earnest with the war on drugs, Balko reminds us, is not an issue that can easily be reduced to Conservative vs Liberal, Republican vs Democrat. In the 1990’s conservatives were incensed at police brutality and misuse of military style tactics at Waco and Ruby Ridge. Yet conservatives largely turned a blind eye to the same brutality used against anarchists and anti-globalization protestors in The Battle of Seattle in 1999. Conservatives have largely supported the militarized effort to stomp out drug abuse and the use of swat teams to enforce laws against non-violent offenders, especially illegal immigrants.

The fact that police were increasingly turning to military tactics and equipment was not, however, all an over-reaction. It was inspired by high profile events such as the Columbine massacre, and a dramatic robbery in North Hollywood in 1997. In the latter the two robbers Larry Phillips, Jr. and Emil Mătăsăreanu wore body armor police with light weapons could not penetrate. The 2008 attacks in Mumbai in which a small group of heavily armed and well trained terrorists were able to kill 164 people and temporarily cripple large parts of the city should serve as a warning of what happens when police can not rapidly deploy lethal force as should a whole series of high profile “lone wolf” style shootings. Police can thus rationally argue that they need access to heavy weapons when needed and swat teams and training for military style contingencies as well. It is important to remember that the police daily put their lives at risk in the name of public safety.

Yet militarization has gone too far and is being influenced more by security corporations and their lobbyists than conditions in actual communities. If the drug war and attention grabbing acts of violence was where the militarization of America’s police forces began, 9-11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq acted as an accelerant on the trend. These events launched a militarized-police-industrial complex, the country was flooded with grants from the Department of Homeland Security which funded even small communities to set up swat teams and purchase military grade equipment. Veterans from wars which were largely wars of occupation and counterinsurgency were naturally attracted to using these hard won skill sets in civilian life- which largely meant either becoming police or entering the burgeoning sector of private security.

So that’s the problem as laid out by Balko, what is his solution? For Balko, the biggest step we could take to rolling back militarization is to end the drug war and stop using military style methods to enforce immigration law. He would like to see a return to community policing, if not quite Mayberry, then at least something like the innovative program launched in San Antonio which uses police as social workers rather than commandos in to respond to mental health related crime.

Balko also wants us to end our militarized response to protests. There is no reason why protesters in a democratic society should be met by police wielding automatic weapons or dispersed through the use of tear gas. We can also stop the flood of federal funding being used by local police departments to buy surplus military equipment. Something that the Obama administration prompted by Ferguson seems keen to review.

A positive trend that Balko sees is the ubiquity of photography and film permitted by smart phones which allows protesters to capture brutality as it occurs a right which everyone has, despite the insistence of some police in protest situations to the contrary, and has been consistently upheld by U.S. courts. Indeed the other potentially positive legacy of Ferguson other than bringing the problem of police militarization into the public spotlight, for there is no wind so ill it does not blow some good, might be that it has helped launch true citizen based and crowd-sourced media.

My criticism of The Rise of the Warrior Cop, to the extent I have any, is that Balko only tells the American version of this tale, but it is a story that is playing out globally. The inequality of late capitalism certainly plays a role in this. Wars between states has at least temporarily been replaced by wars within states. Global elites who are more connected to their rich analogs in other countries than they are to their own nationals find themselves turning to a large number of the middle class who find themselves located in one form or another in the security services of the state. Elites pursue equally internationalized rivals, such as drug cartels and terrorist networks like one would a cancerous tumor- wishing to rip it out by force- not realizing this form of treatment is not getting to the root of the problem and might even end up killing the patient.

More troublingly they use these security services to choke off mass protests by the poor and other members of the middle class now enabled by mobile technologies because they find themselves incapable of responding to the problems that initiated these protests with long-term political solutions. This relates to another aspect of the police militarization issue Balko doesn’t really explore, namely the privatization of police services as those who can afford them retreat behind the fortress of private security while the conditions of the society around them erode.

Maybe there was a good reason that The Rise of the Warrior Cop was placed on the library shelf next to books on robot weapons after all. It may sound crazy, but perhaps in the not so far off future elites will automate policing as they are automating everything else. Mass protests, violent or not, will be met not with flesh and blood policemen but military style robots and drones. And perhaps only then will once middle class policemen made poor by the automation of their calling realize that all this time they have been fighting on the wrong side of the rebellion.

 

Before the artisanal cheese comes the darkness

Contrasts

In 1832 the English architect, Augustus Pugin, published his beautiful book Contrasts. The book was full of sketches in which Pugin juxtaposed the bland, utilitarian architecture of the 19th century with the intricate splendor of buildings built in medieval Europe.

By any honest reckoning Pugin was being unfair. The buildings he selected as symbols of modern banality not only weren’t the 19th century’s best, he tended to draw such structures from the most unflattering angles while engaging in an early form of airbrushing when it came to the flaws of of the Gothic structures he so loved.

Yet the public didn’t care about such artistic dissembling. Rather, Pugin ended up launching what became known as the Gothic Revival. A civilization undergoing the most stupendous technological and social transformation since the adoption of agriculture would dress itself up in the form of a religious culture that had passed from the seen centuries before with the Reformation.

I feel like we continue to engage in such nostalgic fantasies because a cartoon version of the past is so much easier to wrap our minds around than either the fractal present or the Stretch Armstrong of multiple, incompatible predictions regarding the future. Brexit is a version of nostalgia for a British Empire that will never return, just as Trump promises a return to American “greatness.” ISIS is the ultimate, terrifying, nostalgia trip and living in its “caliphate” must be a little like entering an Islamic version of colonial Williamsburg- all the more banal because the people living there think it is actually real.

There are many legitimate reasons to look to history, and I often do. The problem with our current fetish for the past is that we seem to be looking to it for whole social structures rather than as either a source of design and aesthetics or as object lesson in the eternal human capacity for both folly and resilience.

For someone left-of-center, such as myself, these right-wing and fundamentalist versions of nostalgia are easy targets. But the left, along with some of the more communitarian elements on the right, has its own version of such nostalgia. It is the way such longings for a return to the past have associated themselves with technology that have perhaps  prevented us from seeing it.

Unfortunately, Douglas Rushkoff’s recent book Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus does precisely this. Hipster-like, it creates a vision of the future out of a nostalgaized version of the past. I say unfortunately because I was such a big fan of Rushkoff’s prior book Present Shock and was therefore looking forward to some genuinely novel solutions to our current institutional crisis that avoided facile techno-solutionism. Instead, what I found was the latest version of Pugin, an attempt to leap over the dilemmas of the present through the imagining of a past that never was. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The title of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus stems from protests in 2013- 14 over Google’s private bus service which opposition believed was exacerbating San Francisco’s already crippling housing crisis and skyrocketing levels of inequality. Rushkoff’s task was to answer the question of how a company whose motto was “Don’t be Evil” could end up the target of such intense public derision. To answer this question he cast his net wide into the origins of capitalism itself.

Stories of a Fall always start out by painting a picture of the paradise we have left behind, and Rushkoff locates his in strangest of all places- medieval Europe during the Crusades although in a version that is shorn of all its religiosity, fanaticism and barbarism and put in terms all of us aspiring bobos  can understand.

For a happy couple of centuries before industrialism and the modern era the business landscape looked a little bit like Burning Man, the famous festival for digital artisans.

The bazaar was a peer-to-peer economy, something along the lines of e-bay or Etsy, where attention to human relationships and reputation promoted better business. (16)

The snake that ended up ruining this paradise were the nobility.

The people’s economy were growing while the aristocracy remained stagnant or even shrank. The nobles had no way to keep up. They looked at this new phenomenon of wealth and wanted some for themselves…. (17)

…industrialism was about restoring the power of those at the top by minimizing the value and price of human laborers. This became the embedded value system of industrialism, and we see it in every aspect of the commercial landscape, then and now.   (19)

We spent all of the 19th and the majority of the 20th century in the age of industrialization, but then in the 1970’s a whole set of digital innovations occurred which up until recently, Rushkoff argues, held out the prospect of a return to what he sees as the more humane and peer-to-peer features of the pre-capitalist world. Think of the openness of the Internet when it first emerged as a new form of public space, or the enormous success and power of purely volunteer platforms like Wikipedia.

Instead of a golden age of the peer-to-peer we got Uber. Rather than facilitate the horizontal distribution of wealth and power digital technologies have give rise to almost unprecedented degrees of inequality, surveillance and control. The reason Rushkoff thinks this has happened is that we’ve retained capitalism’s  compulsion to extract value from labor, whether that’s through platforms that strip employees of benefits and protections, or because all of us have become digital peasants forced to grow data for our server lords that reap the harvest.

The solution to our dilemma, Rushkoff posits, is for us to preserve and expand digital technologies’ inherent capacity for peer-to-peer sharing and action. Creating an economy in which human element is restored. What could anyone object to when it comes to that? Unfortunately, a lot.

Let’s start with Rushkoff’s version of history. The problem with the type Manichean explanation he offers where there were good guys- peasants and the middle classes- versus bad guys- the nobility-  is that they inevitably end up glossing over what turn out to be extremely important historical details. Sure, the nobility played an initial role as the catalyst for industrialization with the enclosure movement in England, but once the process got going the nobility were soon sidelined to the extent that an industrial juggernaut like the United States didn’t need a nobility for industrialization at all. Not only that, the industrial revolution would so undermine the nobility that today they barely exist except in a mummified form as a version of celebrity, however adorable. But rather than quibble over interpretations of the past, what about the more important question of the future?

It certainly seems to be the case that the young of both the left and the right seem to favor a version of society and state as decentralized as possible. I myself used to belong squarely in this camp. What convinced me otherwise was both the failure of the Occupy movement along with the broken promises of digital utopianism itself. This was the case I made in a recent article:“Algorithms versus Hive Minds: a premonition on democracy’s future. “ That piece makes an argument I’ve only grown more convinced of in light of what seems to be near continuous institutional collapse and the often frightening ways new forms of power are being manifested in the realms of both business and politics. We have yet to come to terms with these developments, and are very unlikely to find any way of coming to do so by looking to the Middle Ages.

It is also the case that arguments for a peer-to-peer society seem oblivious to the kinds of infrastructure and expertise that go into any modern civilization. It’s a blindness that can only be truly cured through travel to societies in a state of early or failed development, or failing that to experience the convulsion of one’s society as the British are now with Brexit.

Peer-to-peer networks are not going to provide our medical care, or build our roads and bridges, or even, despite leaps of the imagination, fight our wars. They will not prove to be the source of most scientific and technological breakthroughs, provide more than a minority of our manufactured goods, and probably could not, even if our diets were greatly reduced in quantity and variety, provide for our food.

Perhaps, peer-to-peer technologies and universal information will provide ways for non-experts to do things currently impossible for even the most dedicated groups of amateurs. Still, no one should assume all of these networks will be good citizens like Wikipedia, nor is it necessary that decisions and power in such groups will take an egalitarian form.

Rather, they’re just as likely to be composed of groups set up by elites with dark political agendas – think the Koch brothers- and run by some algorithm. Anyone thinking about the future of social organization should study both Uber and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The very ad hoc nature of groups brought together by networking technology mean that power will likely become even more concentrated in those groups that cohere over longer periods of time: namely private and public bureaucracies such as multinational corporations or the NSA.

Perhaps the unprecedented period of economic and technological growth that occurred over the last few centuries is indeed coming to a close. And perhaps we’re adjusting to this end of growth in the way civilizations in the past have, by a systemic retrenchment back to the local.  Though it might be the case that such forms of retrenchment are much less about collapse than the sign of civilizations capacity for adaptation and resilience, and even if such ages of retreat are much less barbaric than we imagine, the transition to them is often shocking and painful. For before the artisanal cheese comes the darkness.

 

Imagining the Anthropocene

Mining operations near Green Valley, Arizona. (NASA)

 

Almost a year ago now, while reading an article by the historian Yuval Harari in the British newspaper The Guardian, I had a visceral experience of what it means to live in the Anthropocene. Harari’s piece was about the horrors of industrial meat production, and as evidence of the scale of the monstrosity, he listed a set of facts that I had either not known, or had never taken the time to fully contemplate. Facts such as that the world’s domesticated animals, taken together, weigh not only double that of all the human beings on earth, but are seven times the weight of all of the world’s large land animals combined, or that there are more chickens in Europe than all of that continent’s wild birds taken together.  It struck me while reading Harri’s piece the degree to which we as a species had changed much of nature into something mechanically hellish, and I shuddered at the thought.

If one conducted a kind of moral forensics of the human impact on nature certainly industrial farming would be among its darkest aspects. Luckily for us, such a forensics would also result in some signs of human benevolence, such as the millions of acres many of the world’s nations have set aside for the protection of wildlife, or our growing propensity to establish animal rights.

While a moral forensics would give us an idea of our impact on the natural world right now, the proposed geological epoch known as the Anthropocene is measured in the duration of the geological and atmospheric scars we are leaving behind, for geological epochs are marked off by the differences in the layers that have been put down by planet transforming processes. Collectively we have become just such a process, and hypothetical geologists living in the deep future will be able to read evidence of how we have shaped and changed the earth and the rest of life upon it. Whether that evidence ultimately comes to reflect our uncontrolled and self-destructive avariciousness and shortsightedness, or our benevolence and foresight, remains up to us to decide.

Communicating the idea that the Anthropocene is both the period of greatest danger and a historical opportunity to right our relationship to the planet and to one another isn’t easy in an age of ever sharper ideological divisions and politics performed in 140 characters. Nevertheless, such communication is something Steven Bradshaw’s newly released documentary ANTHROPOCENE does brilliantly introducing viewers to the idea in a way that retains its complexity while at the same time conveying the concept in the visceral way only a well done film can accomplish.

ANTHROPOCENE  conveys the perspective of seven members of the working group on the Anthropocene, along with an environmental expert, on what it means to say we have entered the Anthropocene. Among them are some of the leading figures of twenty-first century environmentalism: Will Steffen, Erle Ellis, Jan Zalasiewicz, Andrew Revkin, John McNeil, Monica Berger Gonzalez, Eric Odada, and Davor Vidas.

The working group was established by the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy, “the only body concerned with stratigraphy on a global scale”. Its task is to establish whether we have truly exited the geological epoch in which humans have lived since our beginnings- the Holocene- and caused the onset of a new epoch the Anthropocene.

It was the Nobel Prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen who in 2000 helped revive the term “anthropocene” and propel it to its current unprecedented traction. The idea of the Anthropocene may be academic, but such ideas have consequences and conveying them to the larger public, as Bradshaw’s documentary sets out to do, is extremely important in light of these consequences. Only when we have some intuitive sense of the scale of humanity’s impact on the planet since the industrial revolution can we overcome the much older sense of being dwarfed by nature and that anything we are capable of doing pales in comparison to what nature herself does to us.

Bradshaw’s ANTHROPOCENE tells the story of the development of humanity into a force capable of shaping the whole of nature in the form of chapters of a book. While the early chapters set the stage and introduce us to a human species that has always shaped, and, as with the extinction of megafauna, severely disrupted, nature to our own interests, the rising action of the story does not occur until as late as the 1950’s with the “Great Acceleration”, when human population growth and energy use began their exponential rise. And though the developed countries have since fallen off of this exponential curve, the majority of the world’s population is only now undergoing a Great Acceleration of their own.

While human beings prior to the contemporary period that began around the middle of the last century have always had an outsized impact, only after 1950 has our effect been such to both leave behind evidence that will be discoverable millions of years into the future, and which are of a completely different order than the kinds of scars left by non-human natural processes.

Many of these scars will be located in what the documentary calls “sacrifice zones” areas such as islands in the Pacific where countries tested the most powerful nuclear weapons ever built.  Sacrifice zones are also comprised of the vast areas of the earth that have been scared by our resource extraction, whole mountains torn into in the quest for coal or precious metals. In addition there will be the huge swaths of territory where we have disposed the waste of human civilization. Our plastics and toxins will likely far out last us, while those aspects we most identify with the pinnacle of urbanism- being built of concrete and glass- may survive for less time than the stone monuments of prior civilizations.

Still, much of the underbelly of cities along with other structures and artifacts that become subsumed by tectonic plates will form an event layer, which will speak of the strange species who dominated a world only to lose it, that is ourselves.

It will not only be these debris and artifacts which will call out from the geological  strata the sheer fact of our past existence, that is, what is there, but we will also be legible through what is absent. If we succeed in causing what some are calling the sixth great extinction then many the anthropocene strata will be a kind of dead-zone lacking the great diversity of plants and animals found in the strata before it.

The idea of a planet scared for millions of years by our technological civilization is certainly disturbing, yet the ultimate message of Bradshaw’s documentary neither surrenders to the dystopian spirit of the times, nor does  it counsel stoic resignation to our self-destruction. The message I took from the film was much more nuanced: we have spent the last few centuries transforming a nature we believed separate from us only to learn that this distinction was like a child playing pretend. If we can mature quickly enough we can foster a world good for both ourselves and the rest of life. But should we fail to grow up in time the earth will shrug free from our weight, and the life that remains will continue into the deep future without us.

* Bullfrog Films is the distributor the documentary ANTHROPOCENE and holds the license to to public performance rights. The DVD is featured in their catalog:  http://www.bullfrogfilms.com/catalog/anthro.html

 

 

A Less Bleak Lesson from the Silent Universe

Mars Veg brain

The astronomers Adam Frank and Woodruff Sullivan have an interesting paper out where they’ve essentially flipped the Drake Equation on its head. If that equation is meant to give us some handle on the probability that there are aliens out there, Frank and Sullivan have used the plethora of exoplanets discovered since the launch of the Kepler space telescope to calculate the chance that, so far, we alone have been the only advanced civilization in the 13.7 billion year history of the universe. I won’t bore you with actual numbers, but they estimate the chance that we’re the first and only is 1 in 10 billion trillion. I shouldn’t have to tell you that is a really, really small number.

Frank and Sullivan’s paper emerges as a consequence of the fact that we now have very clear answers to at least some of the values of the Drake equation. We now know not only how many stars are out there, but also how many of those stars are likely to have planets, and how many of those planets are likely within their star’s habitable zone. It is the fact that this number of potentially habitable planets is, to channel Donald Trump, so huge, which leads to the conclusion that (when plugged into Frank and Sullivan’s rejiggered Drake equation where the requirements that alien civilization exists presently and are within communication distance from us are dropped) the only way we have been the first and only technological civilization would be if we were the beneficiaries of the most extraordinary luck.

We’re not quite at the point, however, where we can make a definitive guess as to just how lucky, or how normal, our civilization is in history the cosmos. To do that we’ll need to find out what the probability is that life will develop on planets that have liquid water, and how difficult the leap is from single celled life to multicellularity. As I’ve written about before these questions are the subject of sharp differences and debate between bio-physicists and evolutionary biologists with some of the former, notably Jeremy England, seeing the laws of physics in a sense priming the universe for life and complexity and the latter seeing evolution as much more contingent and intelligence of our sort a lucky accident.

The historical question, namely, how likely is complex life likely to give rise to a technological species will remain unanswerable as long as the universe continues to be silent or until we discover the artifacts of some dead civilization. Frank and Sullivan’s answer to the silence is that the vast majority of alien civilizations have died, and those that might exist are beyond any distance in which we could observe or communicate with them. Theirs is the ultimate cautionary tale.

Then again,  perhaps we’re on the very verge of finding other technological civilizations that either exist now or existed in the very recent past once we start to look in the proper way. That, I think, is the lesson we should take from last year’s observation by the Kepler space telescope of some very strange phenomenon circling a star between the constellations of Cygnus the Swan and Lyra. Initially caught by citizen scientists reviewing Kepler data, what stuck astronomers such as Tabetha Boyajian  was the fact whatever it is they are looking at is distributed so widely, and follows such an unusual orbit, that it has lead some to speculate that there is a remote possibility that this object might be some sort of Dyson Sphere.

It seems most likely that some natural explanation will be found for the Kepler data, and yet, whatever happens, we are witnessing the birth of what Frank and Sullivan call cosmic archeology. The use of use of existing tools, and eventually the creation of tools for that purpose, to look for the imprint of technological civilizations elsewhere in the cosmos.

We do have pretty good evidence of at least one thing: if there are, or have been, technological civilizations out there none is using the majority of its galaxy’s energy. As Jim Wright at Penn State who conceived of the recent scanning 100,000 galaxies that had been observed by NASA’s Wise satellite for the infrared fingerprints of a galactic civilization  discovered. Wright observed:

Our results mean that, out of the 100,000 galaxies that WISE could see in sufficient detail, none of them is widely populated by an alien civilization using most of the starlight in its galaxy for its own purposes. That’s interesting because these galaxies are billions of years old, which should have been plenty of time for them to have been filled with alien civilizations, if they exist. Either they don’t exist, or they don’t yet use enough energy for us to recognize them.

Yet perhaps we should conclude something different about the human future from this absence of galactic scale civilizations than the sad recognition that our species is highly unlikely to have one.  Instead, maybe what we’re learning is that the kind of extrapolation of the industrial revolution into an infinite future that has been prevalent in science-fiction and futurism for well over a century is itself deeply flawed. We might actually have very little idea of what the future will actually be like.

Then again, maybe the silence gives us some clues. Rather than present us with evidence for our species probable extinction, perhaps what we’re witnessing is the propensity of civilizations to reach technological limits before they have grown to the extent that they are observable across great interstellar distances by other technological civilizations. To quote myself from a past post:

This physics of civilizational limits comes from Tom Murphy of the University of California, San Diego who writes the blog Do The Math. Murphy’s argument, as profiled by the BBC, has some of the following points:

  • Assuming rising energy use and economic growth remain coupled, as they have in the past, confronts us with the absurdity of exponentials. At a 2.3 percent growth rate within 2,500 hundred years we would require all the energy from all the stars in the Milky Way galaxy to function.
  • At 3 percent growth, within four hundred years we will have boiled away the earth’s oceans, not because of global warming, but from the excess heat that is the normal product of energy production. (Even clean fusion leaves us burning away the world’s oceans for the same reason)
  • Renewables push out this reckoning, but not indefinitely. At a 3 percent growth rate,even if the solar efficiency was 100% we would need to capture all of the sunlight hitting the earth within three hundred years.

There are thus reasonable grounds for assuming no technological civilization ever reaches a galactic scale whether because it has destroyed itself, or, for all we know just as likely, that all such civilizations run into development constraints far closer to our own than someone like Ray Kurzweil would have you believe.

Energy constraints might even result in the cyclical return of intelligence from silicon back to carbon based forms. At least that’s one unique version of the future as imagined by the astrobiologists Caleb Scharf in a recent piece for Aeon. Silicon intelligence has some advantages over carbon-based, as Lee Sedo can tell you, but you can’t beat life when it come to efficiency. As Scarf points out:

Estimates of what you’d need in terms of computing power to approach the oomph of a human brain (measured by speed and complexity of operations) come with an energy efficiency budget that needs to be about a billion times better than that wall.

To put that in a different context, our brains use energy at a rate of about 20 watts. If you wanted to upload yourself intact into a machine using current computing technology, you’d need a power supply roughly the same as that generated by the Three Gorges Dam hydroelectric plant in China, the biggest in the world. To take our species, all 7.3 billion living minds, to machine form would require an energy flow of at least 140,000 petawatts. That’s about 800 times the total solar power hitting the top of Earth’s atmosphere. Clearly human transcendence might be a way off.

A problem that neither Murphy nor Scharf really deal with is one of integration over a vast scale. A not insignificant group of techno-optimists sees the human technological artifice not just an advanced form of industry-based civilization but as an emerging universal mind in embryo. Personally, I think it more likely that we are moving in the exact opposite direction, towards a balkanization of this global brain, but there might be reasons to think that even if what we’re seeing is the birth pangs of something out of Stanisław Lem’s Solaris or Teilhard de Chardin, that such intelligence wouldn’t occupy a space all that much larger than the earth.   

As the physicists Gregory Laughlin recently pointed out in the magazine Nautilus, the speed of light would seem to impose limits on how big any integrated intelligent being can become:

If our brains grew enormously to say, the size of our solar system, and featured speed-of-light signaling, the same number of message crossings would require more than the entire current age of the universe, leaving no time for evolution to work its course. If a brain were as big as our galaxy, the problem would become even more severe. From the moment of its formation, there has been time for only 10,000 or so messages to travel from one side of our galaxy to the other. We can argue, then, that, it is difficult to imagine any life-like entities with complexity rivaling the human brain that occupy scales larger than the stellar size scale. Were they to exist, they wouldn’t yet have had sufficient time to actually do anything.

Since the industrial revolution our ideas about both the human future and the nature of any alien civilization have taken the shape of being more of the same. Yet the evidence so far seems to point to a much different fate. We need to start thinking through the implications of the silence beyond just assuming we are either prodigies,or that, in something much less than the long run, we’re doomed.