Bruce Sterling urges us not to panic, just yet

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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.

 

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