The Roots of Rage

Perhaps the main problem with the case made by Pankaj Mishra in his Age of Anger is that it gives an outsized place to intellectuals and the ideas that inspire them, people and their works like Mishra and his books, and as consequence fail to bring to light the material forces that are such idea’s true source.

It’s one thing to be aware that today’s neo-liberalism, and the current populist revolt against them have roots stretching back to the Enlightenment and Rousseau’s revolt against it and to be made aware that there’s a contradiction at the heart of the Enlightenment project that has yet to be resolved. It’s quite another thing to puzzle out why even a likely doomed revolt against this project is taking place right now as opposed to a decade or even decades ago. To do that one needs to turn to insights from sociology and political economy, for if the crisis we are in is truly global- how is it so, and is it the same everywhere, or does it vary across regions?

The big trend that defines our age as much as any other is the growing littoralisation of human populations, and capital. In the developing world this means the creation of mega-cities. By 2050, 75  percent of humanity will be urbanized. India alone might have 6 cities with a population of over 10 million.     

What’s driving littoralisation in the developing world? I won’t deny that part of mass migration to the cities can be explained by people seeking more opportunities for themselves and especially for their children. It’s also the case that globalization has compelled regions to specialize in the face of cheap food and goods from elsewhere and thus reduced the opportunities for employment. Yet perhaps one of the biggest, and least discussed, reasons for littoralization in the developing world is that huge tracts of land are being bought by often outside capitalists to set up massive plantations, industrial farms and mines.

It’s a process the urban sociologist Saskia Sassen describes in great detail in her book: Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy where she writes:

A recent report from the Oakland Institute suggest that during 2009 alone, foreign investors acquired nearly 60 million hectares of land in Africa.

Further, Oxfam estimates that between 2008 and 2009, deals by foreign investors for agricultural land increased by 200 percent. (94-95)

I assume the spread of military grade satellite imaging will only make these kinds of massive purchases easier as companies and wealthy individuals are able to spot heretofore obscured investment opportunities in countries whose politicians can easily be bought, where the ability of the public to resist such purchases and minimal, and in an environment where developed world governments no longer administer any oversight on such activities.  

For developing world states strong enough to constrain foreign capital these processes are often more internally than externally driven.  Regardless, much of littoralization is driven the expulsion of the poor as the owning classes use their political influence to chase greater returns on capital often oblivious to the social consequences. In that sense it’s little different than the capitalism we’ve had since that system’s very beginnings, which, after all, began with the conquest of the New World, slavery,  the dissolutions of the monasteries, and the enclosure movement.

What makes this current iteration of capitalism’s perennial features somewhat different is the role played by automation. I’ll get to that in a moment, but first it’s important to see how the same trend towards littoralisation seen in the developing world is playing out much different in advanced economies.

Whereas the developing world is seeing the mass movement of people to the cities what the developing world is primarily experiencing the movement of capital. Oddly, this has not meant that percentage of overall wealth has shifted to the coasts because at the same time capital is becoming concentrated in a few major cities those same cities are actually declining in their overall share of the population.

The biggest reason for this discrepancy appears to be the increasing price of real estate on the coast. Here’s what the US would look like if it was mapped by land values rather than area:

US land area by wealth

 

As in the case with the developing world much of the change in land values appears to be driven by investments by capital not located in the city, and in many instances located abroad.

In the developed world littoralisation has almost all been about capital. Though an increasing amount of wealth is becoming located in a few great cities, structural reasons are preventing people from being able to move. Foreign money, much of it of nefarious origins has been pouring into global cities such as New York and London and driving up the cost of rent let alone property ownership. Often such properties are left empty while, as Tim Wu has pointed out, inflated property values have turned the most valuable real estate into something resembling ghost towns.

This is a world that in a strange way was anticipated by William Gibson in his novel The Peripheral where Gibson leveraged his knowledge of shady Russian real estate deals in London to imagine a future in which the rich actively interfere in the past of an Appalachian society in a state of collapse.

The evidence I have for this is merely anecdotal, but many of Dominicans who are newly arrived to small Pennsylvania cities such as Bethlehem and Lancaster are recent refugees from the skyrocketing rent of New York. If this observation is correct ethnic communities are being driven from large cities where wealth is increasing to interior regions with declining job prospects, which have not experienced mass immigration since the 1920’s. In other words we’ve set the stage for the rise of political nativist.

I said automation plays a role here that might make our capitalist era distinct from prior ones. The developed world has witnessed the hollowing out of the interior through automation before when farm machinery replaced the number of farmers required as a percentage of the population from 64 percent in 1850, to around 15 percent in 1950, to just two percent today. The difference is the decline of employment in agriculture occurred at the same time manufacturing employment was increasing and this manufacturing was much less concentrated, supporting a plethora of small and mid-sized cities in the nation’s interior, and much less dependent on high skills, than the capitalism built around the global city and high-end services we have today.

Automation is manufacturing has been decimating employment in that sector even after it was initially pummeled by globalization. Indeed, the Washington Post has charted how districts that went for Trump in the last election map almost perfectly where the per capita use of robots has increased.

Again speaking merely anecdotally, a number of the immigrants I know are employed in one of Amazon’s “fulfillment centers” (warehouses) in Pennsylvania. Such warehouses are among the most hyper-automated an AI directed businesses currently running at scale. It’s isn’t hard to see why the native middle class feels it is being crushed in a vice, and it’s been far too easy to mobilize human against human hate and deny- as Steven Mnuchin Trump’s Treasury Secretary recently did- that automation is even a problem.

These conditions are not limited to the US but likely played a role in the Brexit vote in the UK and are even more pronounced in France where a declining industrial interior is the source of the far-right Marine Le Pen’s base of support.  

The decline of industrial employment has meant that employees have been pushed into much less remunerative (on account of being much less unionized) services, that is, if the dislocated are employed at all.  This relocation to non-productive services might be one of the reasons why, despite the thrust of technology, overall labor productivity remains so anemic.

Yet, should the AI revolution live up to the hype we should witness the flood of robots into the services a move that will place yet larger downward pressure on wages in the developed world.

The situation for developing economies is even worse. If the economist Dani Rodrik is right developing economies are already suffering what he calls “premature de-industrialization” . The widespread application of robots threatens to make manufacturing in developed countries- sans workers– as cheap as products made by cheap labor in the developing world. Countries that have yet to industrialize will be barred from the development path followed by all societies since the industrial revolution, though perhaps labor in services will remain so cheap there that service sector automation does not take hold. My fear there is that instead of humans being replaced by robots central direction via directing and monitoring “apps” will turn human beings into something all too robot-like.

A world where employment opportunities are decreasing everywhere, but where population continues to grow in places where wealth has never, and now cannot accumulate, means a world of increased illegal migration and refugee flows- the very forces that enabled Brexit, propelled Trump to the White House, and might just leave Le Pen in charge of France.

The apparent victory of the Kuchner over the Bannon faction in the Trump White House luckily saves us from the most vicious ways to respond to these trends. It also means that one of the largest forces behind these dislocations- namely the moguls (like Kushner himself) who run the international real estate market are now in charge of the country. My guess is that their “nationalism” will consist in gaining a level playing field for wealthy US institutions and individuals to invest abroad in the same way foreign players now do here. That, and that the US investors will no longer have their “hands-tied” by ethical standards investors from countries like China do not face so that weak countries are even further prevented from erecting barriers against capital.

Still, should the Bannon faction really have fallen apart it will present an opportunity for the left to address these problems while avoiding the alt-right’s hyper-nationalistic solutions. Progressive solutions (at least in developed economies) might entail providing affordable housing for our cities, preventing shadow money from buying up real estate, unionizing services, recognizing and offsetting the cost to workers of automation. UBI should be part of that mix.

The situation is much more difficult for developing countries and there they will need to find their own, and quite country specific solutions. Advanced countries will need to help them as much (including helping them restore barriers against ravenous capital) as they can to manage their way into new forms of society, for the model of development that has run nearly two centuries now appears to be irrevocably broken.

A Reformation of Truth and Trust

ouroboros

“Fake realities will create fake humans. Or, fake humans will generate fake realities and then sell them to other humans, turning them, eventually, into forgeries of themselves. So we wind up with fake humans inventing fake realities and then peddling them to other fake humans. It is just a very large version of Disneyland. You can have the Pirate Ride or the Lincoln Simulacrum or Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride – you can have all of them, but none is true.”

Philip K. Dick  

“The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

Groucho Marx

When Vladislav Surkov invented the post-internet politics of  infowar back in the first decade of the 21st century he was openly drawing on Western postmodernism whose philosophers had been the first to articulate the nature of our “post-truth” age.  Surkov was especially influenced by the philosophy of Jean Baudrillard who in works such as Simulacra and Simulation had tried to put his finger on exactly what the West had lost when its belief in Truth- like God and morality before it-  first fell from the horizon, and then became inarticulable, only to finally become altogether untenable.

Yet Baudrillard’s ideas regarding the merely symbolic nature of the real, and the non-existence of the truth didn’t just appear like a rabbit out of a hat. They were the dividend of a centuries long process by which our notions regarding the true and the real had been lost under the relentless inquisition of both philosophy and science, and emerged as blowback from the catastrophic barbarity of scientism during the 20th century.

To start, some quick and dirty history: We had known since Plato how far our idea of the real likely diverged from the real itself with the tasks of philosophy being to uncover this hidden truth from its occlusion by human biology and historical prejudice. And yet philosophers never quite managed to pin down what this supposedly real world behind the world of appearances actually consisted of, though the pythagorean progenitors of Plato, along with the genius himself,  believed we caught our clearest glimpse of it when exploring truths related to numbers. Or, as it read over the entrance to the Academy: “Let no-one ignorant of geometry enter here”

Yet Plato, it should be remembered, wasn’t just motivated to discover a basis for the truth as a philosophical quest, but also as part of a political project that would form the basis for a non-democratic order. Athenian democracy which had proven fickle and a failure at war, and which, above all, had executed Plato’s teacher and friend Socrates could be proven unsustainable if the majority could be shown to be incapable of discovering, understanding, and living in conformity with the true and the good.

When well over a millennia after Plato a new science, based on mathematics and tested through observation, emerged in the modern era it was widely known how fragile a philosophical foundation such a project rested upon given what was either the loss an earlier prisca sapientia (ancient wisdom) based upon numbers (a loss that would have precluded the establishment of real science in the medieval period) or, and for the inventors of the new science the more troubling prospect, that such a foundation had proved impossible to establish in the first place.

In response to this foundational anxiety Descartes tried to ground mathematical truth within consciousness itself, the one thing whose reality he found impossible to dismiss. The problem here being that the “real” world, the one outside of our models, had now become trapped behind our eyeballs and was thus perhaps even less graspable than before. It took Kant in the 18th century to more or less prove that the ground of truth, mathematical or otherwise, which philosophers had long sought after was ultimately unreachable due to the limitations of the human mind. And yet, Kant still retained the faith that the real was actually there.

Nietzsche amplified Kant’s received recognition that the truth was unknowable into an explosion and concluded that what we called the truth was a mere weapon of power.  Much of 20th century philosophy- the linguistic turn begun by Wittgenstein, the critique of the media articulated by the Frankfurt School – has been footnotes to Nietzsche s conclusion that the will to truth is inseparable from the will to power. This then is the historical perch from which Baudrillard writes in Simulacra and Simulation where he lays out his own lament on the death of truth.

The stages Baudrillard lays out for the image through which we communicate the truth run this way with us believing that the image:

is the reflection of a profound reality;

masks and denatures a profound reality;

masks the absence of a profound reality;

has no relation to any reality whatsoever;

is its own pure simulacrum.

Our loss of faith in the religious truth revealed by the image parallels our the similar loss of the truth by philosophy and although Baudrillard doesn’t really delve deeply into the historical content of his meaning, I don’t think it’s all that difficult to draw such connections.

Images at first are believed to ways to connect with or echoes of a profound, transcendent world beyond our own. What perhaps the caves paintings of Lascaux were to those who made them and what Christian iconography was up until the Reformation, and especially in the Orthodox tradition.

Protestant iconoclasts broke violently with Catholic iconography at the very least because they saw it as a form of idolatry whose very purpose was to occlude the truth as it was given in the Bible. Atheists materialists saw in icons an attempt to plug the gaping holes which any attempt to actually believe the stories presented in the Bible or any other religious text required. They saw in idealist philosophy a childish attempt to escape the atheistic implications of the new science.

Perhaps it was a mistake to not see the entire thing as a fraud meant to keep the majority of human beings oppressed and confused. Or maybe all of our projections are merely a reflection of our own collective madness. Even insanity, however, is predicated on there being a reality one has deviated from. But if there is no reality, if all that exists are our representations of this non- existent thing we call reality, then all we are left with are our own images and models.

There is an economic and technological aspect to this loss as well. Technology, first in the form of industrial production, but now even more so as media and digital representation, has increased our capacities to make copies of things (simulacra) or such copies in motion (simulations). It is as our simulations have become ever more detailed and “lifelike “that they have managed to supplant what we once considered the truly real. Above all there has been the move towards financialization, the process by which all the world is being transformed into capital and code.  

At this point you many feel a little dizzy (I am a little dizzy), so to sum up, at our current historical juncture- the juncture which Baudrillard is addressing- Western culture (or at least a large and the most educated portion of it) has lost its belief both in some capital “T” truth lying behind our representations and models, along with our faith in any transcendent world where such truth might be grounded beyond our own, which might have to be accepted merely on faith. We’re thus left without the comforts of either realism or religion, and it’s into this vacuum that the flood of commodified and infinitely replicable simulations and simulacra will pour.

For Baudrillard this proliferation has resulted in the reign of the hyperreal, where our representations have swamped and often appear more authentic than reality itself. Given he was writing in 1981 we have moved far more deeply into the realm of the hyperreal than Baudrillard could have foreseen. Today a naturalists and author such Diane Ackerman can be seriously concerned that experiencing nature through the lens of the hyperreal- via video and virtual reality- is leading to the atrophy of our capacity to experience nature as the creatures who evolved within it which we undoubtedly are. In a similar vein astronomer and author Pippa Goldschmidt can lament how astronomers need never view the sky with their own eyes.

Far more worrisome is what has been alluded to by the novelists William Gibson; namely, that this kind narrowing of the distinction between the virtual worlds and persons and ones that actually exist can end up turning real flesh-and-blood human beings into mere playthings of our imagination. The fact that so much of this election cycle’s political speech has been the product of bots adds yet another level of hyperreal vertigo.

I am perhaps just as worried about the reign of the hyperreal resulting in a widespread incapacity to engage with the real world.  For Baudrillard as well the reign of the hyperreal results in what he calls the “implosion” of our social and political capacities. Politics becomes a game of symbolic impact rather than the pursuit of actual goals. It’s not a far step from here that every event that occurs dissolves into some sort of conspiracy or as Baudrillard puts it:

Is any given bombing in Italy the work of leftist extremists, or extreme-right provocation, or a centrist mise-en-scène to dis-credit all extreme terrorists and to shore up its own failing power, or again, is it a police-inspired scenario and a form of blackmail to public security? All of this is simultaneously true, and the search for proof, indeed the objectivity of the facts does not put an end to this vertigo of interpretation.

And:

The facts no longer have a specific trajectory, they are born at the intersection of models, a single fact can be engendered by all the models at once.

If one of the primary reasons for speaking is so that we can come to consensus regarding the true and the good, the basis upon which Aristotle defined humanity as zoon politikon, then the reason for such communication disappears once the true and the good are no longer believed to exist. Language is then all about the issuing of commands, or, because in losing our belief in the truth and transcendence we’ve also lost any notion of authority that might be based upon them. If we want someone to do something our only options are coercion through violence- real and threatened- or seduction, which in a societal context means advertising. Writing in the late 1970’s Baudrillard could witness whole cities- Las Vegas- disappear under billboards of neon, a potent symbol of what was happening to society itself:

Today what we are experiencing is the absorption of all virtual modes of expression into that of advertising. All original cultural forms, all determined languages are absorbed in advertising because it has no depth, it is instantaneous and instantaneously forgotten.

Since Baudrillard wrote Simulacra and Simulation the situation has become incredibly worse. A pessimistic read of the current reproducibility problem in science, where seemingly evermore experiments are reported as breakthroughs only to never be replicated again, is that it arises in part from a lack of belief that the task of a scientist (or scholar) is to discover the truth, rather than pursue publication itself or attempt to bolster the bottom line of one’s client.

Science and scholarship has become sucked up in the optimization game where the goal is no longer to patiently build out structures of knowledge generations, but to make the biggest splash in the immediate present-science as advertising. None of that is nearly as bad as the deliberate manufacturing of ignorance, which can be done in the name of “gathering more evidence” as much as deliberate lying. Such agnotology was mastered by the tobacco and fossil fuel industries and seems to be a deeply ingrained political tactic of Donald Trump.

One might be forgiven for thinking Baudrillard would have gotten along with Silicon Valley types. After all, it’s among coders that the belief seems to be rife that we are already living in a simulation. The very same kind of world made out of 1’s and 0’s Stephen Wolfram think we’re on the verge of creating, which he calls “a box of a trillion souls”.  Yet Baudrillard supposedly hated when people compared his ideas to the movie The Matrix, the problem for him being those who thought we are living in a simulation, weren’t being radical enough. For Baudrillard there is no base level- just a snake made of code eating its own tail .

Baudrillard published Simulacra and Simulation in 1981 and we’ve fall much, much further down the rabbit hole since. On the political level- Ronald Reagan may have been an actor but he had also been the governor of the country’s richest and most populous state- California. Trump, by contrast, is a mere media construction, either that or something eerily similar to the tyrannical character Plato claimed democracies always create. Partly it was the sheer lack of trust that the media was telling the truth about his inadequacies that helped get Trump elected, but almost all institutions appear to be crumbling under this loss of public trust. ISIS. the most successful terrorist organization of our generation has been as much a media production company as anything else.

Every year advertising becomes more and more intimate with our bodies and our senses are quietly subsumed by those whose interests advertising serves, just as the fakes we create- our images and automatons- become ever more confusable with the real.

Where Baudrillard goes wrong, I think, is in believing that there wouldn’t be constant rebellions against this state of floating in thin air. What this means is that although elites and the educated may have lost their belief that truth and goodness could ever be satisfactorily defined most human beings were going to continue to sort themselves along these lines, and the new forms of media were going to vastly increase their capacity to do so free from any guidance or input by elites.

Yet a society composed of such warring collectives lacking some notion of the common good or means of permanently settling disputes isn’t sustainable either, which is why we’ll need to somehow recreate the kinds of buffers and editorial features of the older communications landscape without replicating its elite capture and control. The kinds of answers to the problem of post-truth whereby the internet giants are asked to police what is true or false or contract this role to some other organization is not a democratic solution to our problem.

The metaphysical claim that the truth outside of our social constructions does not exist has been adopted without understanding that we can not live absent these social constructions in the first place. We need a wholesale reformation of the institutions of truth in order to restore the trust without which any society will not long survive. It’s a tall order, happy New Year.

What democracy’s future shouldn’t be

birth-of-a-tyrant

As William Gibson has famously pointed out, the job of the science fiction writer is not to predict the future but to construct one plausible version of it from the pieces already laying around.  I assume that Malka Older was trying to do this deliberately low key Gibsonian thing with her novel Infomacracy, but given the bizarre nature of this current election cycle she instead, and remarkably, ended up anticipating not merely many of its real or feared events, but even ended her novel on the same note of exhaustion and exasperation and even dread resulting from the perceived failures of representative democracy now expressed by many among the elites, and from another the other angle, the young.

In terms of setting and plot, Infomacracy takes place in an imagined near future when democracy, with some notable exceptions, has gone global. As a consequence of some never quite explained crisis, the major powers we associate with political power today- The US, China, the EU, and Japan are no more. The world’s governments have been replaced by a global democratic order in which a variety of corporate and NGO based political groups compete with one another for electorally generated power. Given the absurd, and disturbing shape of current politics, and not just in the US but globally, one would be forgiven for thinking Older is out to describe a Utopian vision of the future, but you would be wrong.

Instead she describes global democracy dying almost the moment it is born. Sabotaged by an almost successful attempt to hijack a world election by the ruling party which is likely to lose called Heritage, or to ride to the majority through the resurrection of historical hatreds- the intent of the corporatist party named Liberty. I shouldn’t have to mention that there’s a party called Philip- Morris, to convey that Older is not describing a political order any small d democrat would look forward to. And all of this takes place within a world where it appears that the vast majority of media and knowledge are mediated by a sort of super-Google known simply, and perhaps as a shoutout to James Gleick, as Information.

Within the midst of this story Older ends up anticipating a number of the actual and potential cyber assaults on the democratic process during the current election. In Older’s imagined world computer hacks are a political weapon, challenges to democratic legitimacy are a trump card (pun intended), and an internet behemoth has become the arbiter of truth.

Whatever complaints I might have about the believability or depth of the novel’s characters, it did manage to make explicit something I hadn’t really thought through before. Few of us living in prosperous, liberal- democratic societies wouldn’t hope that at some point in the future the kinds of rights and capacities we take for granted will not be extended to all of the world’s peoples. And we think this even if we’ve finally learned the tragic foolishness of freedom compelled from the barrel of a gun.

Yet such faith and hope in the world’s democratic future probably should seem strange given how exhausted many of us have become with the sophistry and theater that defines electoral politics. It’s not just the exhaustion of being ruled by ad men, it’s ad men who don’t care what we want and are corrupt and incompetent besides. That American political consultants find it so easy to move between our system and that of deeply corrupt or authoritarian societies should be a troubling sign.

Older manages to capture this, but rather than imagining some truly democratic alternative ends up giving us the view of Plato refracted through the lens of the information age. After all, the heroes of her novel aren’t really in pursuit of political freedom, but are chasing an ideal world where the right course of action arises from an honest wrestling with the facts themselves, rather than, as in any democratic order worth its salt, emerging from conflicting human values.

One of these characters, Ken, is a high ranking member of the PolicyFirst party whose platform is about reasoned solutions along with a deliberate avoidance of the politics of personality and persuasion. Whereas the protagonist of the novel, Mishima, works for Information whose role it seems is not just to bring under one roof all the world’s knowledge and communication but to actively rid the world of falsehood and propaganda.

Whatever the outcome in the novel its underlying message seems to be one of resignation. With this pessimism Older seems to have joined the growing chorus of thinkers who think the way the internet’s democratic promise has imploded since the year zero of 2011 proves Plato was onto something. Let’s hope they’re wrong and that there are alternative versions of digital democracy waiting in the wings, but things don’t look good. 

William Gibson Grocks the Future: The Peripheral

William Gibbson pencil_sketch_photo_effect 2

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.

 

Maps:how the physical world conquered the virtual

World map 1600

If we look back to the early days when the Internet was first exploding into public consciousness, in the 1980’s, and even more so in the boom years of the 90’s, what we often find is a kind of utopian sentiment around this new form of “space”. It wasn’t only that a whole new plane of human interaction seemed to be unfolding into existence almost overnight, it was that “cyberspace” seemed poised to swallow the real world- a prospect which some viewed with hopeful anticipation and others with doom.

Things have not turned out that way.

The person who invented the term “cyberspace”, William Gibson, the science fiction author of the classic- Neuromancer- himself thinks that when people look back on the era when the Internet emerged what will strike them as odd is how we could have confused ourselves into thinking that the virtual world and our work-a-day one were somehow distinct. Gibson characterizes this as the conquest of the real by the virtual. Yet, one can see how what has happened is better thought of as the reverse by taking even a cursory glance at our early experience and understanding of cyberspace.

Think back, if you are old enough, and you can remember, when the online world was supposed to be one where a person could shed their necessarily limited real identity for a virtual one. There were plenty of anecdotes, not all of them insidious, of people faking their way through a contrived identity the unsuspecting thought was real: men coming across as women, women as men, the homely as the beautiful. Cyberspace seemed to level traditional categories and the limits of geography. A poor adolescent could hobnob with the rich and powerful. As long as one had an Internet connection, country of origin and geographical location seemed irrelevant.

It should not come as any surprise, then, that  an early digital reality advocate such as Nicole Stenger could end her 1991 essay Mind is a leaking rainbow with the utopian flourish:

According to Satre, the atomic bomb was what humanity had found to commit collective suicide. It seems, by contrast, that cyberspace, though born of a war technology, opens up a space for collective restoration, and for peace. As screens are dissolving, our future can only take on a luminous dimension! / Welcome to the New World! (58)

Ah, if only.

Even utopian rhetoric was sometimes tempered with dystopian fears. Here is Mark Pesce the inventor of VRML code in his 1997 essay Ignition:

The power over this realm has been given to you. You are weaving the fabric of perception in information perceptualized. You could – if you choose – turn our world into a final panopticon – a prison where all can been seen and heard and judged by a single jailer. Or you could aim for its inverse, an asylum run by the inmates. The esoteric promise of cyberspace is of a rule where you do as you will; this ontology – already present in the complex system know as Internet – stands a good chance of being passed along to its organ of perception.

The imagery of a “final panopticon” is doubtless too morbid for us at this current stage whatever the dark trends. What is clear though is that cyberspace is a dead metaphor for what the Internet has become- we need a new one. I think we could do worse than the metaphor of the map. For, what the online world has ended up being is less an alternative landscape than a series of cartographies by which we organize our relationship with the world outside of our computer screens, a development with both liberating and troubling consequences.

Maps have always been reflections of culture and power rather than reflections of reality. The fact that medieval maps in the West had Jerusalem in their centers wasn’t expressing a geologic but a spiritual truth although few understood the difference. During the Age of Exploration what we might think of as realistic maps were really navigational aids for maritime trading states, a latent fact present in what the mapmakers found important to display and explain.

The number and detail of maps along with the science of cartography rose in tandem with the territorial anchoring of the nation-state. As James C. Scott points out in his Seeing Like a State maps were one of the primary tools of the modern state whose ambition was to make what it aimed to control “legible” and thus open to understanding by bureaucrats in far off capitals and their administration.

What all of this has to do with the fate of cyberspace, the world where we live today, is that the Internet, rather than offering us an alternative version of physical space and an escape hatch from its problems has instead evolved into a tool of legibility. What is made legible in this case is us. Our own selves and the micro-world’s we inhabit have become legible to outsiders. Most of the time these outsiders are advertisers who target us based on our “profile”, but sometimes this quest to make individuals legible is by the state- not just in the form of standardized numbers and universal paperwork but in terms of the kinds of information a state could only once obtain by interrogation- the state’s first crack at making individuals legible.      

A recent book by Google CEO Eric Schmitt co-authored with foreign policy analyst Jared Cohen- The New Digital Age is chalk full of examples of corporate advertisers’ and states’ new powers of legibility. They write:

The key advance ahead is personalization. You’ll be able to customize your devices- indeed much of the technology around you- to fit your needs, so that the environment reflects your preferences.

At your fingertips will be an entire world’s worth of digital content, constantly updated, ranked and categorized to help you find the music, movies, shows, books, magazines, blogs and art you like. (23)

Or as journalist Farhad Manjoo quotes Amit Singhal of Google:

I can imagine a world where I don’t even need to search. I am just somewhere outside at noon, and my search engine immediately recommends to me the nearby restaurants that I’d like because they serve spicy food.

There is a very good reason why I did not use the world “individuals” in place of “corporate advertisers” above- a question of intent. Whose interest does the use of such algorithms to make the individual legible ultimately serve? If it my interest then search algorithms might tell me where I can get a free or even pirated copy of the music, video etc I will like so much. It might remind me of my debts, and how much I would save if I skip dinner at the local restaurant and cook my quesadillas at home. Google and all its great services, along with similar tech giants aiming to map the individual such as FaceBook aren’t really “free”. While using them I am renting myself to advertisers. All maps are ultimately political.

With the emergence mobile technology and augmented reality the physical world has wrestled the virtual one to the ground like Jacob did to the angel. Virtual reality is now repurposed to ensconce all of us in our own customized micro-world. Like history? Then maybe your smartphone or Google Glasses will bring everything historical around you out into relief. Same if you like cupcakes and pastry or strip clubs. These customized maps already existed in our own heads, but now we have the tools for our individualized cartography- the only price being constant advertisements.

There’s even a burgeoning movement among the avant garde, if there can still be said to be such a thing, against this kind of subjection of the individual to corporate dictated algorithms and logic. Inspired by mid-20 century leftists such as Guy Debord with his Society of the Spectacle practitioners of what is called psychogeography are creating and using apps such as Drift  that lead the individual on unplanned walks around their own neighborhoods, or Random GPS that have your car’s navigation system remind you of the joys of getting lost.

My hope is that we will see other versions of these algorithm inverters and breakers and not just when it comes to geography. How about similar things for book recommendations or music or even dating? We are creatures that sometimes like novelty and surprise, and part of the wonder of life is fortuna–  its serendipitous accidents.

Yet, I think these tools will most likely ramp up the social and conformist aspects of our nature. We shouldn’t think they will be limited to corporate persuaders. I can imagine “Catholic apps” that allow one to monitor one’s sins, and a whole host of funny and not so funny ways groups will use the new methods of making the individual legible to tie her even closer to the norms of the group.

A world where I am surrounded by a swirl of constant spam, or helpful and not so helpful suggestions, the minute I am connected, indeed, a barrage that never ends except when I am sleeping because I am always connected, may be annoying, but it isn’t all that scary. It’s when we put these legibility tools in the hands of the state that I get a little nervous.

As Schmitt and Cohen point out one of the most advanced forms of such efforts at mapping the individual is an entity called Platforma Mexico which is essentially a huge database that is able to identify any individual and tie them to their criminal record.

Housed in an underground bunker in the Secretariat of Public Security compound in Mexico City, this large database integrates intelligence, crime reports and real time data from surveillance cameras and other inputs from across the country. Specialized algorithms can extract patterns, project social graphs and monitor restive areas for violence and crime as well as for natural disasters and other emergencies.  (174)

The problem I have here is the blurring of the line between the methods used for domestic crime and those used for more existential threats, namely- war. Given that crime in the form of the drug war is an existential threat for Mexico this might make sense, but the same types of tools are being perfected by authoritarian states such as China, which is faced not with an existential threat but with growing pressures for reform, and also in what are supposed to be free societies like the United States where a non-existential threat in the form of terrorism- however already and potentially horrific- is met with similar efforts by the state to map individuals.

Schmitt and Cohen point out how there is a burgeoning trade between autocratic countries and their companies which are busy perfecting the world’s best spyware. An Egyptian firm Orascom owns a 25 percent share of the panopticonic sole Internet provider in North Korea. (96) Western companies are in the game as well with the British Gamma Group’s sale of spyware technology to Mubarak’s Egypt being just one recent example.

Yet, if corporations and the state are busy making us legible there has also been a democratization of the capacity for such mapmaking, which is perhaps the one of the reasons why states are finding governance so difficult. Real communities have become almost as easy to create as virtual ones because all such communities are merely a matter of making and sustaining human relationships and understanding their maps.

Schmitt and Cohen imagine virtual governments in exile waiting in the wings to strike at the precipitous moment. Political movements can be created off the shelf supported by their own ready made media entities and the authors picture socially conscious celebrities and wealthy individuals running with this model in response to crises. Every side in a conflict can now have its own media wing whose primary goal is to shape and own the narrative. Even whole bureaucracies could be preserved from destruction by keeping its map and functions in the cloud.

Sometimes virtual worlds remain limited to the way they affect the lives of individuals but are politically silent. A popular mass multiplayer game such as World of Warcraft may have as much influence on an individual’s life as other invisible kingdoms such as those of religion. An imagined online world becomes real the moment its map is taken as a prescription for the physical world.  Are things like the Hizb ut-Tahrir which aims at the establishment of a pan-Islamic caliphate or The League of the South which promotes a second secession of American states “real” political organizations or fictional worlds masking themselves as political movements? I suppose only time will tell.

Whatever the case, society seems torn between the mapmakers of the state who want to use the tools of the virtual world to impose order on the physical and an almost chaotic proliferation using the same tools by groups of all kinds creating communities seemingly out of thin air.

All this puts me in mind of nothing so much as China Mieville’s classic of New Weird fiction City and the City. It’s a crime novel with the twist that it takes place in two cities- Beszel  and Ul Qoma that exist in the same physical space and are superimposed on top of one another. No doubt Mieville was interested in telling a good story, and getting us thinking about the questions of borders and norms, but it’s a pretty good example of the mapping I’ve been talking about- even if it is an imagined one.

In City and the City an inhabitant of Beszel  isn’t allowed to see or interact with what’s going on in Ul Qoma and vice versa otherwise they commit a crime called “breach” and there’s a whole secretive bi-city agency called Breach that monitors and prosecutes those infractions. There’s even an imaginary (we are led to believe) third city “Orciny” that exist on-top of Beszel and Ul Qoma and secretly controls the other two.

This idea of multiple identities- consumer, political- overlaying the same geographical space seems a perfect description of our current condition. What is missing here, though, is the sharp borders imposed by Breach. Such borders might appear quicker and in different countries than one might have supposed thanks to the recent revelations that the United States has been treating the Internet and its major American companies like satraps. Only now has Silicon Valley woken up to the fact that its close relationship with the American security state threatens its “transparency” based business- model with suicide. The re-imposition of state sovereignty over the Internet would mean a territorialization of the virtual world- a development that would truly constitute its conquest by the physical. To those possibilities I will turn next time…