Before the artisanal cheese comes the darkness


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.


Bruce Sterling urges us not to panic, just yet


My favorite part about the SXSW festival comes at the end. For three decades now the science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling has been giving some of the most insightful (and funny) speeches on the state of technology and society. In some sense this year’s closing remarks were no different, and in others they represented something very new.

What made this year’s speech different was that politics has taken such a weird turn, like something out of dystopian science-fiction that Sterling, having mastered the craft, felt obliged to anchor our sense of reality. He did this, however, only after trying to come to grips with exactly why had gotten so weird that the writers of The Simpsons seemed to be in possession of a crystal ball.

A read on events Sterling finds somewhat compelling is that put forward by Clay Shirky who claims that the age of social media has shattered something political science geeks call the Overton window.  The Overton window is essentially the boundary of politically acceptable discourse as defined by political elites. Sterling points out that in the age of broadcast television that boundary was easy to control, but with the balkanization of media- first with cable TV and then the Internet (and I would add talk radio) that border has eroded.

Here’s the conservative, David French’s, view on what Donald Trump himself has done to the Overton window:

Then along came Donald Trump. On key issues, he didn’t just move the Overton Window, he smashed it, scattered the shards, and rolled over them with a steamroller. On issues like immigration, national security, and even the manner of political debate itself, there’s no window left. Registration of Muslims? On the table. Bans on Muslims entering the country? On the table. Mass deportation? On the table. Walling off our southern border at Mexico’s expense? On the table. The current GOP front-runner is advocating policies that represent the mirror-image extremism to the Left’s race and identity-soaked politics.

All this certainly resembles what Moisés Naím has described as the end of power where traditional institutions and elites have lost control over events largely as a result of a democratized communication environment. Or, as Sterling himself put it in his speech the political parties have been:

“Balkanized by demagogues who brought in their own megaphones”.  

Sterling thinks it’s clear that the new technology and media landscape is a contributing factor of the current dystopian ambiance. The world has tended to take some very strange turns during the rise to dominance of new forms of media and new forms of economy, and maybe this is one of the those moments where old media and tech is supplanted by the new in the form of the “Big five” Apple, Amazon, Alphabet (Google), Facebook and Microsoft. Sterling thinks the academic Shoshana Zuboff is onto something when she describes this new order as surveillance capitalism an economic order based on turning the private lives of individuals into a saleable commodity.

Sterling is clearly worried about this but is also certain that the illusion of techno-libertarianism behind something like Bitcoin isn’t the solution. Some alternative technological order can’t solve our problems, but if it can’t solve them then perhaps technology itself isn’t the primary source of our problems in the first place.

Evidence that technology alone, or the coming into being of surveillance capitalism, isn’t to blame can be seen in the global nature of the current political crisis. The same, and indeed incomparably worse, problems exemplified by the rise of Trump in the US are apparent almost everywhere. Middle Eastern states have collapsed, an anti-immigrant anti-globalization right is on the rise across Europe, Great Britain is threatening to exit the EU further weakening that institution with dissolution. Venezuela is on the verge of collapse, nationalist tensions continue to roil Asia, the global economy continues to suffer the injuries from the financial crisis even as economic policies become increasingly unorthodox. A much more environmentally and politically unstable world looms.

Yet Sterling points out that there’s one people that seem particularly calm through this whole affair and do not seem generally to be panicked by the bizarre turn politics has taken in the US. The Italians see in Trump America’s version of their own Silvio Berlusconi. If politics in the US follows the Berlusconi model after a Trump victory (however unlikely), then though we may be in for a very seedy political period it will not necessarily be a dangerous or chaotic one.

As for myself I am not as sanguine as Sterling about the idea of a president Trump given that he will have at his disposal the most powerful military and survelillance apparatus on the planet. Francis Fukuyama who also pointed the resemblance between Trump and Berlusconi thinks Trump’s flirtation with violence is much more troubling.

Nevertheless, Sterling certainly is right when he points out that, in light of historical precedents- say the 1960’s- the level of political violence we have seen in 2016 is nothing to panic over. Nor is society in any way in a state of collapse – the lights are still on, food is still available, we are not entering some survivalist scenario- for the moment.

While events elsewhere may continue to take the world in a dystopian direction as a result of state and institutional collapse, the dystopia the US will most likely enter will be much less of the type found in science-fiction novels. It is one where the US is governed by a gentrified political elite which clings to its own power and the status quo while Americans remain distracted by the “glass lozenges” of their smart phones. Where mass surveillance isn’t scary a la Minority Report because it isn’t all that effective, or as Sterling puts it:

“Is there anybody with a drone over their head who is actually doing what the guys with the drones want?”

It’s a world where everything is failing but nothing has truly and completely failed where we have plenty to be unhappy about but also no reason in particular to panic.


How dark epistemology explains the rise of Donald Trump


We are living in what is likely the golden age of deception. It would be difficult enough were we merely threatened with drowning in what James Gleick has called the flood of information, or were we doomed to roam blind through the corridors of Borges’ library of Babel, but the problem is actually much worse than that. Our dilemma is that the very instruments that once promised liberation via the power of universal access to all the world’s knowledge seem just as likely are being used to sow the seeds of conspiracy, to manipulate us and obscure the path to the truth.

Unlike what passes for politicians these days I won’t open with such a tirade only to walk away. Let me instead explain myself. You can trace the origins of our age of deception not only to the 2008 financial crisis but back much further to its very root. Even before the 1950’s elites believed they had the economic problem, and therefore the political instability that came with this problem, permanently licked. The solution was some measure of state intervention into the workings of capitalism.

These interventions ranged on a spectrum from the complete seizure and control of the economy by the state in communist countries, to regulation, social welfare and redistributive taxation in even the most solidly capitalist economies such as the United States. Here both the pro-business and pro-labor parties, despite the initial resistance of the former, ended up accepting the basic parameters of the welfare-state. Remember it was the Nixon administration that both created the EPA and flirted with the idea of a basic income.  By the early 1980’s with the rise of Reagan and Thatcher the hope that politics had become a realm of permanent consensus- Frederick Engel’s prophesied “administration of things”- collapsed in the face of inflation, economic stagnation and racial tensions.

The ideological groundwork for this neo-liberal revolution had, however, been laid as far back as 1945 when state and expert directed economics was at its height. It was in that year that Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek in a remarkable essay entitled The Use of Knowledge in Society pointed out that no central planner or director could ever be as wise as the collective perception and decision making of economic actors distributed across an entire economy.

At the risk of vastly over simplifying his argument, what Hayek was in essence pointing out was that markets provide an unrivaled form of continuous and distributed feedback. The “five year plans” of state run economies may or may not have been able to meet their production targets, but only the ultimate register of price can tell you whether any particular level of production is justified or not.

A spike in price is the consequence of an unanticipated demand and will send producers scrambling to meet in the moment it is encountered. The hubris behind rational planning is that it claims to be able to see through the uncertainty that lies at the heart of any economy, and that experts from 10 000 feet are someone more knowledgeable than the people on the ground who exist not in some abstract version of an economy built out of equations, but the real thing.

It was perhaps one of the first versions of the idea of the wisdom of crowds, and an argument for what we now understand as the advantages of evolutionary approaches over deliberate design. It was also perhaps one of the first arguments that what lies at the very core of an economy was not so much the exchange of goods as the exchange of information.

The problem with Hayek’s understanding of economics and information wasn’t that it failed to capture the inadequacies of state run economies, at least with the level of information technologies they possessed when he was writing, (a distinction I think important and hope to return in the future), but that it was true for only part of the economy- that dealing largely with the production and distribution of goods and not with the consumer economy that would take center stage after the Second World War.

Hayek’s idea that markets were better ways of conveying information than any kind of centralized direction worked well in a world of scarcity where the problem was an accurate gauge of supply vs demand for a given resource, yet it missed that the new era would be one of engineered scarcity where the key to economic survival was to convince consumers they had a “need” that they had not previously identified. Or as John Kenneth Galbraith put it in his 1958 book The Affluent Society we had:

… managed to transfer the sense of urgency in meeting consumer need that was once felt in a world where more production meant more food for the hungry, more clothing for the cold, and more houses for the homeless to a world where increased output satisfies the craving for more elegant automobiles, more exotic food, more elaborate entertainment- indeed for the entire modern range of sensuous, edifying, and lethal desires. (114-115).

Yet rather than seeing the economic problems of the 1970’s through this lens, that the difficulties we were experiencing were as much a matter of our expectations regarding what economic growth should look like and the measure of our success in having rid ourselves (in advanced countries) of the kinds of life threatening scarcity that had threatened all prior human generations, the US and Britain set off on the path prescribed by conservative economists such as Hayek and began to dismantle the hybrid market/state society that had been constructed after the Great Depression.

It was this revolt against state directed (or even just restrained) capitalism which was the neoliberal gospel that reigned almost everywhere after the fall of the Soviet Union, and to which the Clinton administration converted the Democratic party. The whole edifice came crashing down in 2008, since which we have become confused enough that demons long dormant  have come home to roost.

At least since the crisis, economists have taken a renewed interest in not only the irrational elements of human economic behavior, but how that irrationality has itself become a sort of saleable commodity. A good version of this is Robert J Shiller and George Akerlof’s recent Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception. In their short book the authors examine the myriad of ways all of us are “phished” – probed by con-artists looking for “phools” to take advantage of and manipulate.

The techniques have become increasingly sophisticated as psychologists have gotten a clearer handle on the typology of irrationality otherwise known as human nature. Gains in knowledge always come with tradeoffs:

“But theory of mind also has its downside. It also means we can figure out how to lure people into doing things that are in our interest, but not in theirs. As a result, many new ideas are not just technological. They are not ways to deliver good-for-you/good-for-me’s. They are, instead, new uses of the theory of mind,  regarding how to deliver good-for-me/bad-for-you’s.” (98)

This it seems would be the very opposite of a world dominated by non- zero sum games that were heralded in the 1990’s, rather it’s the construction of an entire society around the logic of the casino, where psychological knowledge is turned into a tool against consumers to make choices contrary to their own long term interest.

This type of manipulation, of course, has been the basis of our economies for quite sometime. What is different is the level of sophistication and resources being thrown at the problem of how to sustain human consumption in a world drowning in stuff. The solution has been to sell things that simply disappear after use- like experiences- which are made to take on the qualities of the ultimate version of such consumables,  namely addictive drugs.

It might seem strange, but the Internet hasn’t made achieving safety from this manipulation any easier. Part of the reason for this is something Shiller and Akerlof do not fully discuss- that much of the information resources used in our economies serve the purpose not so much of selling things consumers would be better off avoiding, let alone convey actual useful information, but in distorting the truth to the advantage of those doing the distorting.

This is a phenomenon for which Robert Proctor has coined the term agontology. It is essentially a form of dark epistemology whose knowledge consist in how to prevent others from obtaining the knowledge you wish to hide.

We live in an age too cultured for any barbarism such as book burning or direct censorship. Instead we have discovered alternative means of preventing the spread of information detrimental to our interests. The tobacco companies pioneered this. Outright denials of the health risks of smoking were replaced with the deliberate manufacture of doubt. Companies whose businesses models are threatened by any concerted efforts to address climate change have adopted similar methods.

Warfare itself, where the power of deception and disinformation was always better understood has woken up to its potential in the digital age: witness the information war still being waged by Russia in eastern Ukraine.

All this I think partly explains the strange rise of Trump. Ultimately, neoliberal policies failed to sustain rising living standards for the working and middle class- with incomes stagnant since the 1970’s. Perhaps this should have never been the goal in the first place.

At the same time we live in a media environment in which no one can be assumed to be telling the truth, in which everything is a sales pitch of one sort or another, and in which no institution’s narrative fails to be spun by its opponents into a conspiracy repackaged for maximum emotional effect. In an information ecosystem where trusted filters have failed, or are deemed irredeemably biased, and in which we are saturated by a flood of data so large it can never be processed, those who inspire the strongest emotions, even the emotion of revulsion, garner the only sustained attention. In such an atmosphere the fact that Trump is a deliberate showman whose pretense to authenticity is not that he is committed to core values, but that he is open about the very reality of his manipulations makes a disturbing kind of sense.

An age of dark epistemology will be ruled by those who can tap into the hidden parts of our nature, including the worst ones, for their own benefit, and will prey off the fact we no longer know what the truth is nor how we could find it even if we still believed in its existence. Donald Trump is the perfect character for it.


Religion and Violence

One moring at the gates of the Louvre

Sometimes, I get the uneasy feeling that the New Atheists might be right after all. Perhaps there is something latently violent in the religious imagination, some feature, or tendency, encouraged by religion that the world would better be without.

I kind of got that feeling after Paris and Mali, I felt it a little bit more after the attack on the Planned Parenthood office attack in Colorado, but it really hits me when I reflect on the recent brutal killings in San Bernardino where both the intimate cruelty of the act- the persons killed were one of the killer’s co-workers whom he was supposedly friends with and knew well- and the fact that the other murderer was this man’s wife, and the mother of their young child. Nothing I know about human nature allows me to make sense of how far this couple was able to step outside our evolutionarily forged instincts against harming those whom we are intimate with, and where maternal bounds prove stronger than ties of any other kind. Maybe the physicist Steven Weinberg was right when he said:

With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion.

This seems to be the main point the New Atheists want to get across, as Steven Pinker did recently in a public discussion with Robert Wright on that topic, among others. Much more suffering, Pinker argued, has been caused by people acting in the name of religion than by those acting in the pursuit of self-interest in the form of raw power or wealth. For those who would counter with a list of the horrors committed by the secular totalitarian regimes in the 20th century Pinker would argue that such movements amounted to little more than religion in drag with God replaced by “History” or “Race”.

In light of recent events such an argument has the heavy feel of Truth in one’s hands, but upon reflection what seems solid begins to fall apart at the joints. To state the obvious, it simply cannot be the case that any religion is the primary cause of violence  because any society in which violence ran as deep as religious sentiment would very quickly destroy itself. Whatever Donald Trump might think, there are anywhere from 5- 12 million Muslims in the United States- were any significant portion of them driven to violence by their faith the country would truly be on fire. It’s a fact that is just as true when it comes to Christians opposed to abortion on moral grounds.

Religion has certainly been the source of many human conflicts and the origin of much suffering inflicted in the name of dogmatism, but has it really, as Pinker claims, inflicted more suffering throughout the whole of human history than all the other non-religiously based wars? Has the suffering inflicted by religious fanaticism been greater than that of oppression based on naked self-interest? Has religion not played an important role in both the charity to offset, or the direct challenge (as in the abolition of slavery) to such oppression? In any case, how in the world is one supposed to disaggregate those who were motivated to commit atrocities by their religious beliefs from those who used religion as a cover for self-interest or the blatant desire to destroy as no doubt a number of princes did during the Reformation.

It seems a gross over simplification to single out religion as a unique source of human violence. Nevertheless, I think we miss something important if we fail to see religious thinking and aspirations as indeed a deep aspect of the way the human capacity for violence has manifested itself in recent decades. This religious connection in large part grows out of the claims of the world’s major religions to be the unique possessor of spiritual truth and sole path to human salvation.

The potential for violence latent in such monopolistic truth claims is made even more dangerous by the world’s very democratization and the communications revolution of the past few decades. For in such an atmosphere religious institutions and elites are no longer able to control the beliefs and actions of their believers. It is a situation that bears an eerie resemblance to the European Reformation and Wars of Religion, but is now global in scope- our luck so far is that so very few of us have fallen under the spell of such a conflict and instead are under the enchantment of the consumerist paradise in which we live where life and its needs drown out everything else.

It’s not so much any particular religion’s claim that it is the possessor of the truth which is the origin of any tendencies towards violence as it is the belief of its adherents that they have the right to enforce conformity with their beliefs through violence if necessary. Still, with the exception of where, as is the case with ISIL, such a demand for conformity comes to rule or where deep sectarian divisions intersect with political conflicts within a society, much of this new violence appears to be waged almost as a form of communication, an attempt to break through the cacophony and materialism of pluralistic societies and be heard.

On this score, violence is just as likely to be racially (as it was in the case with Timothy McVeigh, Anders Breivik, and Dylann Roof,  or even environmentally motivated e.g. Ted Kaczynski aka the “Unabomber”) as it is to emerge from religiously based commitments. One need not take the worldview behind such violence seriously, but one should certainly take it as a barometer of deeper social fissures and political failures that go unaddressed at our peril. The same types of systemic failures that have led many on the left, with more legitimate claims to justice, into the age of protests.

The more insular and unresponsive our political and economic elites appear and the more ideological conflicts in our societies become, the more likely it is that those who believe themselves to be permanently disenfranchised will turn to political conspiracies to explain events, and the more likely a small but very dangerous minority of these disaffected will turn to violence as a form of political action. Should that become the case, elites are likely to retreat even further into their gated communities and rely on technology as a means of social control absent democratic legitimacy, commitment to the common good, and the quest for international solidarity. Such a world would represent a dark, mechanized analog to the promise of universalism and concern for the other at the heart of all the world’s great religions: a noosphere absent a world soul.


The Kingdom of Glass Walls: A Fable


There once was a king of extraordinary vanity who liked to spend his time riding throughout the great city he ruled on his gilded coach allowing all who saw him to marvel at his attire which was woven of gold thread and bejeweled with diamonds and sapphires.

The vain king especially liked parading himself in the neighborhoods of the poor reasoning that their sight of him would be the closest thing to heaven such filthy people would have before they died and met God’s glorious angels. It was during one of these “tours” that a woman threw a bucket of shit out of her window which landed squarely on the king’s head.

Who knows if it was by accident as the poor peasant girl claimed that she was merely emptying onto the streets the overflow of her commode when the bucket slipped from her hands and fell onto the king? In any case the king awoke from unconsciousness after the blow a changed man with his vanity transformed.

The changed king adopted the unusual style of doing away with all prerogatives of royal privacy and ordered the bricks of his castle walls be replaced with the most transparent glass. Anyone could now literally see all the doings of the royal household as if the court were now fish in a bowl to the great annoyance of the queen.

The king soon went so far as to abandon his former golden attire for no clothes at all. The queen at this point wanted to have the royal doctors declare the king mad on account of him having been hit by a bucket on the head, but there were powerful courtiers in the court who decided that the king was to remain on his throne.

After having a dream that his city-kingdom had been invaded by an enemy that feared the naked king was planning a surprise attack he had the defensive walls of the city leveled, so that no one could might think he meant them ill. Having experienced how liberating it felt to be open to all the world through his glass or torn down walls and nakedness the king wished that all his subjects could experience what he had.

He thus offered to pay out of his own treasury the cost of any of his subjects replacement of their walls of wood, brick or straw with walls of glass. Many of his subjects took the king up on the offer, for who would not want their cold house with walls of straw or dilapidated wood to be replaced with walls of clean, shiny glass?

But then a bug was placed in the king’s ear from a powerful anonymous courtier : “He with nothing to hide has nothing to fear” and with that the suspicion entered the king’s mind that the only people who would have kept their opaque walls must be hiding something.

Criminals and bandits soon found ways game this system largely by using disguises and fake scenes painted on their glass walls while those with enough money found that with the proper “donation” they could keep their brick houses if they just put in a few more windows. However most law abiding persons now completely surrounded by glass had left themselves open to all sorts of peeping toms, shisters, and burglars. And with the walls of the city taken down some said they could see the torch lights of an army on the nearby hills at night.   

Citizens began to complain that perhaps replacing the walls of their homes with glass and tearing down the walls of the city was not a good idea. Just then the king announced to everyone’s’ surprise that he had fallen in love with a pig and wished to divorce the queen and marry his newly beloved scrofa domesticus.

At this the queen and even more importantly the powerful courtiers had had enough. The king was arrested and placed in a dungeon, although, not to be accused of cruelty, he was allowed to keep his pig with him. New walls much thicker than before replaced the castle’s walls of glass and the walls around the city were rebuilt.  

A decree went out from the court declaring that no citizen was allowed to replace the glass walls of their homes. The queen claimed that such total transparency among the subjects was necessary to catch criminals and even more so spies from neighboring kingdoms who meant to do the city harm, and after many years the people forgot that things had ever been different or that they had once been ruled by a transparent king.         

Why aren’t we living in H.G. Wells’ scientific dictatorship?

HG Wells Things to Come

One of the more depressing things to come out of the 2008 financial crisis was just how little it managed to effect our expectations about the economy and political forms of the future. Sure, there was Occupy Wall Street, and there’s been at least some interesting intellectual ferment here and there with movements such as Accelerationist Marxism and the like, but none have really gone anywhere. Instead what we’ve got is the same old system only now with even more guarantees and supports for the super rich. Donald Trump may be a blowhard and a buffoon, but even buffoons and blowhards can tell the truth as he did during last Thursday’s debate when he essentially stated that politicians were in the pocket to those with the cash, such as himself, who were underneath it all really running the show.

The last really major crisis of capitalism wasn’t anything like this. In the 1930’s not only had the whole system gone down, but nearly everyone seemed convinced that capitalism, (and some even thought the representative democracy that had emerged in tandem with it) was on the way out.

Then again, the political and economic innovation of the early 20th century isn’t the kind of thing any of us would wish for. Communists, which to many born after 1989 may seem as much like antiquated creatures from another world as American revolutionaries in powdered wigs, was by the 1930’s considered one of the two major ways the society of the future would likely be organized, and its’ competitor over the shape of the future wasn’t some humane and reasoned alternative, but the National Socialism of Hitler’s dark Reich.

If one wants to get a sense of the degree to which the smart money was betting against the survival of capitalism and democracy in the 1930’s one couldn’t do much better than that most eerily prescient of science-fiction prophets – H.G. Wells. In many ways, because he was speaking through the veneer of fiction Wells could allow himself to voice opinions which would have led even political radicals to blush. Also, because he was a “mere” fiction author his writings became one of the few ways intellectuals and politicians in liberal societies could daydream about a way out of capitalism’s constant crises, democracy’s fissiparousness and corruption, and most importantly for the survival of humanity in light of the nation-state’s increasingly destructive wars.

Well’s 1933 The Shape of Things to Come, published not long after the Nazis had come to power in Germany, is perhaps his best example of a work that blurs the boundaries between a work of fiction and a piece of political analysis, polemic, and prediction. In the guise of a dream book of a character who has seen the future of the world from the 1930’s to the middle of the beginning of the 22nd century, Wells is able to expound upon the events of the day and their possible implications- over a century into the future.

Writing six years before the event takes place Well’s spookily imagines World War II beginning with the German invasion of Poland. Also identifying the other major aggressor in a world war still to come, Wells realizes Japan had stepped into a quagmire by invading China from which much ill would come.

These predictions of coming violence (Wells forecast the outbreak of the Second World War to be 1940- one year off) are even more chilling when one watches the movie based upon the book, and know that the bombings of cities it depicts is not some cinematographer’s fantasy, but will no doubt have killed some of those who watched the film in theaters in 1936- less than five years later.

Nevertheless, Wells gets a host of very important things, not only about the future but about his present, very wrong. He gets it ass backwards in generally admiring the Soviet Union and seeing its’ problem not being the inhuman treatment by the Communist regime of its citizens, but the fact that they have wed themselves to what Well’s believes is an antiquated, dogmatic theory in Marxism.

Indeed, Wells will build his own version of dictatorship in The Shape of Things to Come (though versions of it can be seen in his earlier work) using the ideas of two of Soviet communism’s founders- Trotsky’s idea of a global revolutionary movement which will establish a worldwide government and Lenin’s idea of an intellectual nucleus that will control all the aspects of society.

Nor, did Wells really grasp the nature of Nazism or the strange contradiction of a global alliance of fascist regimes that ostensibly worship the state. Wells saw Hitler as a throwback to a dying order based on the nation-state. His only modernity being

“…control by a self-appointed, self-disciplined élite was a distinct step towards our Modern State organization.” (192)

Wells therefore misses the savagery born of the competition between world shaping ideologies and their mobilization of entire societies that will constitute the Second World War and its aftermath.

Ironically, Wells mistakenly thinks WWII will be short and its fatalities low because he gets his technological predictions right. He clearly foresees the role of the importance of the tank, the airplane, and the submarine to the future war and because of them even anticipates the Nazi idea of blitzkrieg. At one point he seems to have a glimmer of the death spirit that will seize over humankind during the war when he compares the submarine to a sacrificial altar:

The Germans supplied most of the flesh for this particular altar; willing and disciplined, their youngsters saluted and carried their kit down the ladder into this gently swaying clumsy murder mechanism which was destined to become their coffin. (70)

Nevertheless, he fails to see that the Second World War will unleash the kinds of violence and fanaticism formerly only seen in religious wars.

Two decades after Wells’ novel many would think that because of the introduction of nuclear weapons wars would be reduced to minutes. Instead conflict became stretched out across multiple decades. What this is should teach us is that we have no idea how any particular technology will ultimately affect the character of war – especially in terms of its intensity or duration- thus those hoping that robotic or cyber weapons will return us to short decisive conflicts are likely seeing a recurrent mirage.

Wells perhaps better understood than other would be revolutionaries and prophets of the time just how robust existing societies were despite their obvious flaws. The kind of space for true political innovation had seemingly occurred only during times of acute stress, such as war, that by their nature were short lived. A whole new way of organizing society had seemingly revealed itself during World War I in which the whole industrial apparatus of the nation was mobilized and directed towards a particular end. Yet the old society would reassert itself except in those societies that had experienced either defeat and collapse or Pyrrhic victory (Italy, Japan) in the conflict.

Wells thus has to imagine further crises after economic depression and world war to permanently shatter Western societies that had become fossilized into their current form. The new kind of war had itself erased the boundary between the state and the society during war, and here Wells is perhaps prescient in seeing the link between mass mobilization, the kinds of wars against civilians seen in the Second World War and insurgency/terrorism. Yet he pictures the final hammer blow not in the form of such a distributed conflict but coming in the form of a global pandemic that kills half of the world’s people. After that comes the final death of the state and the reversion to feudalism.

It is from a world ruled by warlords that Wells’ imagined “Air Dictatorship” will emerge. It is essentially the establishment of global rule by a scientific technocracy that begins with the imposition of a monopoly over global trade networks and especially control over the air.

To contemporary ears the sections on the Air Dictatorship can be humorously reminiscent of an advertisement for FedEx or the US Navy. And then the humor passes when one recalls that a world dominated by one global straddling military and multinational corporations isn’t too far from the one Wells pictured even if he was more inspired by the role of the Catholic Church in the Dark Ages, the Hanseatic League or the what the damned Bolsheviks were up to in Russia.

Oddly enough, Wells foresaw no resistance to the establishment of a world-state (he called it The Modern State) from global capitalists, or communists or the remnant of the security services of the states that had collapsed. Instead, falling into a modernist bias that remains quite current, Wells sees the only rival to the “Modern State” in the form of the universal religions which the Air Dictatorship will therefore have to destroy. Wells’ utopians declare war on Catholics (Protestants oddly give no resistance) forcefully close Mecca and declare war on Kosher foods. And all this deconstruction to be followed by “re-education” Wells thinks could be done without the kinds of totalitarian nightmares and abuses which are less than two decades away from when he is writing The Shape of Things.

I am not particular fan of the universal confusion called post-modernism, but it does normally prevent most of us from making zingers like Wells’ such as this:

They are going to realize that there can be only one right way of looking at the world for a normal human being and only one conception of a proper scheme of social reactions, and that all others must be wrong and misleading and involve destructive distortions of conduct. (323)

Like any self-respecting version of apocalypse, Wells imagines that after a period of pain and violence the process will become self sustaining and neither will be required, though most honorably for the time Wells thinks this world will be one of racial equality that will never again suffer the plague of extreme want.

Analogous to the universal religions, after the establishment of the Modern State all of humankind will become party to ultimate mission of the scientific endeavor which the protagonist in the movie version sums up manically in this crazy speech at the end of the film:

For man, no rest, he must go on. First this little planet and its’ winds and ways, and then all of the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets above and at last out across immensity to the stars. And when he conquers all the depths of space and all of time still he will not be finished.

All the universe or nothing! Which shall it be?

(As a side note Ken Stanley Robinson seems to think this modernist’s dream that the destiny of humanity is to settle the stars is still alive and kicking. In his newest novel he is out to kill it. Review pending. )

To return to our lack of imagination and direction after 2008: we, unlike Wells, know how his and similar modernist projects failed, and just how horribly they did so. Nevertheless, his diagnosis remains largely sound. It might take a crisis the scale none of us would wish for to engender real reform let alone the taking of radically new directions. Given historical experience such crises are much more likely to give rise to monsters than anything benign.

Anarchists seem to grasp the shape of the time but not its implications. In a globalized world power has slipped out of the grasp of democratic sovereignty and into the hands of networked organizations- from multinational corporations, to security services, to terrorists and criminal groups able to transcend these borders. Yet it is tightly organized “machine like” organizations rather than decentralized/anarchic ones that seem to thrive in this feudal environment, and whereas that very feudalism and its competition makes achieving a unified voice in addressing urgent global problems even more difficult, and where despite our current perceptions, war between the armed groups that represent states the gravest existential threat to humanity, we, unlike Wells, know that no one group of us has all the answers, and that it is not only inhumane but impossible to win human unity out of the barrel of a ray gun

William Gibson Grocks the Future: The Peripheral

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It’s hard to get your head around the idea of a humble prophet. Picturing Jeremiah screaming to the Israelites that the wrath of God is upon them and then adding “at least I think so, but I could be wrong…” or some utopian claiming the millenium is near, but then following it up with “then again this is just one man’s opinion…” would be the best kind of ridiculous- seemingly so out of character to be both shocking and refreshing.

William Gibson is a humble prophet.

In part this stems from his understanding of what science-fiction is for- not to predict the future, but to understand the present with right calls about things yet to happen likely just lucky guesses. Over the weekend I finished William Gibson’s novel The Peripheral, and I will take the humble man at his word as in: “The future is already here- it’s not just very evenly distributed.” As a reader I knew he wasn’t trying to make any definitive calls about the shape of tomorrow, he was trying to tell me about how he understands the state of our world right now, including the parts of it that might be important in the future.  So let me try to reverse engineer that, to try and excavate the picture of our present in the ruins of the world of the tomorrow Gibson so brilliantly gave us with his gripping novel.    

The Peripheral is a time-travel story, but a very peculiar one. In his imagined world we have gained the ability not to travel between past, present and future but to exchange information between different versions of the multiverse. You can’t reach into your own past, but you can reach into the past of an alternate universe that thereafter branches off from the particular version of the multiverse you inhabit. It’s a past that looks like your own history but isn’t.

The novel itself is the story of one of these encounters between “past” and “future.” The past in question is a world that is actually our imagined near future somewhere in the American South where the novel’s protagonist, Flynn, her brother Burton and his mostly veteran friends eek out their existence. (Even if I didn’t have a daughter I probably love Gibson’s use of strong female characters, but having two, I love that even more.) It’s a world that rang very true to me because it was a sort of dystopian extrapolation of the world where I both grew up and live now. A rural county where the economy is largely composed of “Hefty Mart” and people building drugs out of their homes.

The farther future in the story is the world of London decades after a wrenching crisis known as the “jackpot”, much of whose devastation was brought about by global warming that went unchecked and resulted in the loss of billions of human lives and even greater destruction for the other species on earth. It’s a world of endemic inequality, celebrity culture and sycophants. And the major character from this world, Wilf Netherton, would have ended his days as a mere courtier to the wealthy had it not been for his confrontation with an alternate past.

So to start there are a few observations we can draw out from the novel about the present. The hollowing out of rural economies dominated by box stores, which I see all around me, the prevalence of meth labs as a keystone of this economy now only held up by the desperation of its people. Dito.

The other present Gibson is giving us some insight into is London where Russian oligarchs after the breakup of the Soviet Union established a kind of second Moscow. That’s a world that may fade now with the collapse of the Russian ruble, but the broader trend will likely remain in place- corrupt elites who have made their millions or billions by pilfering their home countries making their homes in, and ultimately shaping the fate, of the world’s greatest cities.

Both the near and far futures in Gibson’s novel are horribly corrupt. Local, state and even national politicians can not only be bought in Flynn’s America, their very jobs seem to be to put themselves on sale. London of the farther future is corrupt to the bone as well. Indeed, it’s hard to say that government exists at all there except as a conduit for corruption. The detective Ainsley Lowbeer, another major character in the novel, who plays the role of the law in London seems to not even be a private contractor, but someone pursuing justice on her own dime. We may not have this level of corruption today, but I have to admit it didn’t seem all that futuristic.

Inequality (both of wealth and power with little seeming distinction between the two) also unites these two worlds and our own. It’s an inequality that has an effect on privacy in that only those that have political influence have it. The novel hinges around Flynn being the sole (innocent) witness of a murder. There being no tape of the crime is something that leaves her incredulous, and, disturbingly enough, left me incredulous as well, until Lowbeer explains it to Flynn this way:

“Yours is a relatively evolved culture of mass surveillance,” Lowbeer said. “Ours, much more so. Mr Zubov’s house here, internally at least, is a rare exception. Not so much a matter of great expense as one of great influence.”

“What does that mean?” (Flynn)

“A matter of whom one knows,” said Lowbeer, “and of what they consider knowing you to be worth.” (223)

2014 saw the breaking open of the shell hiding the contours of the surveillance state we have allowed to be built around us in the wake of 9/11. Though how we didn’t realize this before Edward Snowden is beyond me. If I were a journalists looking for a story it would be some version of the surveillance-corruption-complex described by Gibson’s detective Lowbeer. That is, I would look for ways in which the blindness of the all seeing state (or even just the overwhelming surveillance powers of companies) was bought or gained from leveraging influence, or where its concentrated gaze was purchased for use as a weapon against rivals. In a world where one’s personal information can be ripped with simple hacks,or damaging correlations about anyone can be conjured out of thin air, no one is really safe. It merely an extrapolation of human nature that the asymmetries of power and wealth will ultimately decide who has privacy and who does not. Sadly, again, not all that futuristic.

In both the near and far futures of The Peripheral drones are ubiquitous. Flynn’s brother Burton himself was a former haptic drone pilot in the US military, and him and his buddies have surrounded themselves with all sorts of drones. In the far future drones are even more widespread and much smaller. Indeed, Flynn witnesses the  aforementioned murder while standing in for Burton as a kind of drone piloting flyswatter keeping paparazzi drone flies away from the soon to be killed celebrity Aelita West.    

That Flynn ended up a paparazzi flyswatter in an alternate future she thinks is a video game began in the most human of ways- Netherton trying to impress his girlfriend- Desarda West- Aelita’s sister. By far the coolest future-tech element of the book builds off of this, when Flynn goes from being a drone pilot to being the “soul” of a peripheral in order to be able to find Aelita’s murderer.

Peripherals, if I understand them, are quasi-biological forms of puppets. They can act intelligently on their own but nowhere near with the nuance and complexity of when a human being is directly controlling them through a brain-peripheral interface. Flynn becomes embodied in an alternative future by controlling the body of a peripheral while herself being in an alternative past. Leaves your head spinning? Don’t worry, Gibson is such a genius that in the novel itself is seems completely natural.

So Gibson is warning us about environmental destruction, inequality, corruption, and trying to imagine a world of ubiquitous drones and surveillance. All essential stuff for us to pay attention to and for which The Peripheral provides us with a kind of frame that might serve as a sort of protection against blinding continuing to head in directions we would rather not.   

Yet the most important commentary on the present I gleaned from Gibson’s novel wasn’t these things, but what it said about a world where the distinction between the virtual and the real has disappeared where everything has become a sort of video-game.

In the novel, what this results in is a sort of digital imperialism and cruelty. Those in Gibson’s far future derisively call the alternative pasts they interfere in “stubs” though these are full worlds as much as their own with people in them who are just as real as us.

As Lowbeer tells Flynn:

Some persons or people unknown have since attempted to have you murdered, in your native continuum, presumably because they know you to be a witness. Shockingly, in my view, I am told that arranging your death would in no way constitute a crime here, as you are, according to current legal opinion, not considered to be real.(200)

The situation is actually much worse than that. As the character Ash explains to Netherton:

There were, for instance, Ash said, continua enthusiasts who’d been at it for several years longer than Lev, some of whom had conducted deliberate experiments on multiple continua, testing them sometimes to destruction, insofar as their human populations were concerned. One of these early enthusiasts, in Berlin, known to the community only as “Vespasian,” was a weapons fetishists, famously sadistic in his treatment of the inhabitants of his continua, whom he set against one another in grinding, interminable, essentially pointless combat, harvesting the weaponry evolved, though some too specialized to be of use outside whatever baroque scenario had produced it. (352)

Some may think this indicates Gibson believes we might ourselves be living in a matrix style simulation. In fact I think he’s actually trying to saying something about the way the world, beyond dispute, works right now, though we haven’t, perhaps, seen it all in one frame.

Our ability to use digital technology to interact globally is extremely dangerous unless we recognize that there are often real human beings behind the pixels. This is a problem for people who are engaged in military action, such as drone pilots, yes, but it goes well beyond that.

Take financial markets. Some of what Gibson is critiquing is the kinds of algo high-speed trading we’ve seen in recent years, and that played a role in the financial the onset of the financial crisis. Those playing with past continua in his near future are doing so in part to game the financial system there, which they can do not because they have a record of what financial markets in such continua will do, but because their computers are so much faster than those of the “past”. It’s a kind of AI neo-colonialism, itself a fascinating idea to follow up on, but I think the deeper moral lesson of The Peripheral for our own time lies in the fact that such actions, whether destabilizing the economies continua, or throwing them into wars as a sort of weapon’s development simulation, are done with impunity because the people in continua are consider nothing but points of data.

Today, with the click of a button, those who hold or manage large pools of wealth can ruin the lives of people on the other side of the globe. Criminals can essentially mug a million people with a keystroke. People can watch videos of stranger’s children and other people’s other loved ones being raped and murdered like they are playing a game in hell. I could go on, but shouldn’t have to.

One of the key, perhaps the key, way we might keep technology from facilitating this hell, from turning us into cold, heartless computers ourselves, is to remember that there are real flesh and blood human beings on the other side of what we do. We should be using our technology to find them and help them, or at least not to hurt them, rather than target them, or flip their entire world upside down without any recognition of their human reality because it some how benefits us. Much of the same technology that allows us to treat other human beings as bits, thankfully, gives us tools for doing the opposite as well, and unless we start using our technology in this more positive and humane way we really will end up in hell.

Gibson will have grocked the future and not just the present if we fail to address theses problems he has helped us (or me at least) to see anew. For if we fail to overcome these issues, it will mean that we will have continued forward into a very black continua of the multiverse, and turned Gibson into a dark prophet, though he had disclaimed the title.