November 10, 2019
Title: Non-Screen-Based Interaction & the Future
Against the possibility of communism, against any possibility of happiness, there stands a hydra with two heads. On the public stage each one of them makes a show of being the sworn enemy of the other. On one side, there is the program for a fascistic restoration of unity, and on the other, there is the global power of the merchants of infrastructure—Google as much as Vinci, Amazon as much as Veolia. Those who believe that its one or the other will have them both. Because the great builders of infrastructure have the means for which the fascists only have the folkloric discourse. For the former, the crisis of the old unities is primarily the opportunity for a new unification. In the contemporary chaos, in the crumbling of institutions, in the death of politics, there is a perfectly profitable market for the infrastructural powers and for the giants of the Internet. A totally fragmented world remains completely manageable cybernetically. A shattered world is even the precondition for the omnipotence of those who manage its channels of communication. The program of these powers is to deploy behind the cracked façades of the old hegemonies a new, purely operational, form of unity, which doesn’t get bogged down in the ponderous production of an always shaky feeling of belonging, but operates directly on “the real,” reconfiguring it. A form of unity without limits, and without pretentions, which aims to build absolute order under absolute fragmentation. An order that has no intention of fabricating a new phantasmal belonging, but is content to furnish, through its networks, its servers, its highways, a materiality that is imposed on everyone without any questions being asked. No other unity than the standardization of interfaces, cities, landscapes; no other continuity than that of information. The hypothesis of Silicon Valley and the great merchants of infrastructure is that there’s no more need to tire oneself out by staging a unity of facade: the unity it intends to construct will be integral with the world, incorporated in its networks, poured into its concrete. Obviously we don’t feel like we belong to a “Google humanity,” but that’s fine with Google so long as all our data belong to it. Basically, provided we accept being reduced to the sad ranks of “users,” we all belong to the cloud, which does not need to proclaim it. To phrase it differently, fragmentation alone does not protect us from an attempt to reunify the world by the “rulers of tomorrow”: fragmentation is even the prerequisite and the ideal texture for such an initiative. From their point of view, the symbolic fragmentation of the world opens up the space for its concrete unification; segregation is not contradictory to the ultimate networking. On the contrary, it gives it its raison d’etre.
The necessary condition for the reign of the GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) is that beings, places, fragments of the world remain without any real contact. Where the GAFA claim to be “linking up the entire world,” what they’re actually doing is working toward the real isolation of everybody. By immobilizing bodies. By keeping everyone cloistered in their signifying bubble. The power play of cybernetic power is to give everyone the impression that they have access to the whole world when they are actually more and more separated, that they have more and more “friends” when they are more and more autistic. The serial crowd of public transportation was always a lonely crowd, but people didn’t transport their personal bubble along with them, as they have done since smartphones appeared. A bubble that immunizes against any contact, in addition to constituting a perfect snitch. This separation engineered by cybernetics pushes in a non-accidental way in the direction of making each fragment into a little paranoid entity, towards a drifting of the existential continents where the estrangement that already reigns between individuals in this “society” collectivizes ferociously into a thousand delirious little aggregates. In the face of all that, the thing to do, it would seem, is to leave home, take to the road, go meet up with others, work towards forming connections, whether conflictual, prudent, or joyful, between the different parts of the world. Organizing ourselves has never been anything else than loving each other.
My mom told me last night my little brother took my two-year-old niece’s iPad away recently after she protested going to dance class one evening because she preferred continuing to play on the device. I applaud Matthew, my little brother, and his wife, Nicole, for encouraging Zoey to interact with the world beyond the various screens always on offer. I’m certain there are plenty of parents out there who would have felt deeply relieved at Zoey’s comment, grateful for an evening’s reprieve from fighting traffic between work, school, extracurriculars and home.
Don’t get me wrong: my opinion on child-raising holds no authority — I have dogs. My opinion is that of a citizen in our democracy.
I’m certainly guilty of succumbing to the addictive mindless stimulation offered by all variety of electronic glowing devices, especially those most commonly at hand, the smartphone and laptop. Hours must — and sometimes seemingly entire days — pass in which Misty and I don’t speak to one another while sitting side-by-side on the couch or across from one another at a coffee shop: me on my laptop or scrolling through my phone, her bingeing TV or people-watching. Of course, we spend 24/7 together, so maybe that’s not unexpected. Another example: At a red-lit bar with six tables behind a nondescript door in an alley near Sixth Street sat four people with faces aglow in white light from individual smartphones last Friday night. We ate chicken skins and drank cocktails in celebration of our 11th wedding anniversary and left.
We’ll need people in the future who can focus beyond YouTube commercials and the latest Scandal-like conspiracy theory.
I unexpectedly received in the mail A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal yesterday.1 It’s a good, easy and quick read on a “radical” program for a Green New Deal (as opposed to the to-be-expected milquetoast alternatives offered and sure-to-be-offered by the likes of free marketers, Republicans, neoliberals and “centrist” Democrats). It isn’t an explainer or even a deep-dive into the specifics of any legislation. Instead, it covers four areas of our lives that will require tremendous change in the coming years to adapt and prevent an environmental disaster that reduces Zoey’s Earth to a few walled gardens surrounded by ashen wastelands.
The Saudi Arabian state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco is going public soon. Sounds like a good investment, doesn’t it? I mean, when’s the last time one had the opportunity to invest in a massive oil company’s initial stock offering to the public? Seems like a no-brainer. Then I read A Planet to Win and realized:
Saudi Aramco is going public just before everyone realizes its assets — oil reserves — are worthless. If they were to pump and burn those reserves, it would doom the world ecologically. Thus, Saudi Aramco’s actual value is zero — or, rather, it’s just one big liability. Investing in its IPO is, essentially, just giving the Saudi royal family and other stockholders a final cash infusion before it all goes belly-up. Purchasing Saudi Aramco stock won’t make you an investor, it’ll make you a willing-if-unwitting victim.
You can be sure those who currently and will profit from such an investment aren’t spending their free time posting on 8kun or relying on their Facebook “friends” for informed opinions. And, if they have any interest in extending the longevity of their wealth and the power it can activate, they aren’t putting Big Tech’s products in charge of nannying their children. Indeed, the wealthiest demand their children receive personalized, one-on-one tutoring by well-educated professional teachers while they sell their businesses’ ed tech products to underfunded public schools.2
Human-to-human connection, compassionate understanding and first-person engagement with our world is the only thing that will save our planet from becoming walled garden cities inhabited by the wealthy with the rest of the surviving population fighting amongst themselves and serving the Bezos and Gates and Trumps of the mid-21st century. It will take “an astute feeling for the value of human fellowship” that one doesn’t attain through the constant interaction with electronic devices.
After the seventies, as realignment advocate Michael Harrington would write, U.S. politics saw a “dealignment” instead: face-to-face forms of politics were displaced by professionally-run advocacy groups and candidate-centered elections; public relationships came to be mediated less by organizations and more by the things we call “the media.” In the wake of those changes, the original vision of the realignment socialists appears fresh and bracing, and Walzer’s appreciation of local citizen organizations and musings on how they can keep going seem prescient. For today’s new activists, eager to locate the overlap of imagination and possibility, the reissuing of Political Action is a timely gift, a reminder of how deeply rooted in real human lives one must be in order to be politically practical, and how practical one must be in order to be meaningfully radical.
But the socialist background of Walzer’s book is only one aspect of its radicalism, or of its relevance to our moment. Citizen politics begins, he writes, when “some group of people has decided to use the pronoun ‘we’ and to act together.” How can I know that my own “sense of crisis and outrage” will “meet a lively response,” that I can join a “we” and that my small group will have “intimations of growth”? Not from “pure theory,” Walzer cautions, but from “conversations and encounters with other people” containing “hints of commitment, plausible signs of interest.” Walzer says little about the conditions that make it possible to form a “we”; here as in other writings he seems to think that a responsible intellectual should be circumspect about fundamental questions. But a reader might pardonably see richer implications beyond the pragmatic scope of Walzer’s book. Something happens in “encounters with other people” that we do not understand but to which we should be faithful. The sense of common purpose from which political action grows seems to resemble the sort of thing that theologians call a mystery. Why might we hope that today’s citizen activists will build durable organizations and sustainable solidarities when so many of their predecessors did not? The emergence of citizen politics is “unpredictable,” Walzer writes. Perhaps that unpredictability is the reason why an opening to political hope, what Walzer calls a “fresh start,” is not only necessary but even possible.
We will need people in the future who weren’t raised by the products of corporations. Google and Apple and Microsoft and the other nameless technology giants fiddling around in our subcortexes when we play with their apps, letting them experiment on how to best reap tomorrow’s profits from us with no attention to good or bad, all so their self-entitled children maintain their inordinate control over the course of the world.
I always forget that I subscribed to Verso Books’ new releases.↩
Of course, there’s never any connection made between the wealthy’s resistance to paying taxes on even those funds that they haven’t hidden in offshore accounts and the unwillingness to pay public school staff meaningful salaries or double the number of teachers employed nationwide.↩