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 scene 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.