For several weeks people prevented AT&T from installing 5G devices in the first two locations in Berkeley. A key part of the project consisted of placing antennas on utility poles at the corner of Gilman and Neilson streets and near the Monterey Market on Hopkins Street. These are tiny business districts with coffee shops, restaurants, a natural grocery and other small shops in a residential area.
Residents and workers feared negative health effects from the radiation, that 5G just might even turn the district into a slow-acting microwave oven. So whenever AT&T’s installation crews showed up with trucks and equipment, small groups of activists and residents would gather around the base of the poles, occupying the sites and blocking the work. Thus, eight installation attempts were thwarted.
Police did not intervene. Mayor Jesse Arreguin and the city council were allowing AT&T to proceed with their installation plans, while at the same time not allowing police to intervene or arrest protesters. But since a multibillion dollar corporation was involved, it was not certain how this might play out.
Finally, in October, AT&T came up with a new tactic. Instead of coming in the daytime and having the locals meet and block them, they decided to come on Monday, October 5th at one A.M., put up a fence around the pole to keep protesters away, enabling the subcontractors to install the antenna.
To counter this our home team called for a midnight vigil, sending out an email saying in part, “This looks like the crucial moment. . . . If you cannot come at midnight, please come at 7 AM for the second shift.” The idea was to get there first.
Midnight? I’d attended one or two of the previous events, in the daytime, of course. I didn’t really know how dangerous this 5G might be, but anyone who’s ever put food into a microwave oven must know that microwaves can burn. Even high voltage power lines are not harmless to people who are unfortunate enough to live under them. A friend of mine is an electronics engineer who worked around antennas and radio frequency radiation for many decades, considering that to be harmless till he developed symptoms of leukemia.
Our city should exercise caution. The fact that this 5G project was being approved almost on the sly, without notifying people of hearings, without openness, suggested to me that there might be something unhealthy about this. People who had written to Berkeley city officials asking for hearings received no replies.
Looking for more information, I found a signed statement from “more than 180 scientists and doctors from 35 countries, recommending a moratorium on the roll-out of the fifth generation, 5G, for telecommunication until potential hazards for human health and the environment have been fully investigated by scientists independent from industry.” It’s about three pages, well written and readable.
Of course, if we can ignore climate change, GMOs, dangers of nuclear radiation and other hazards that scientists so inconveniently warn us about, I suppose we can also live with 5G. Or can we?
The pole at 1321 Gilman street is a ten minute walk from where my neighbor Steve and I live. We arrived shortly after midnight. By 1 a.m. a dozen of us had gathered, Phoebe Sorgen, a co-founder of Wireless Radiation Education & Defense (WiRED), and others, some of whom I knew, some I didn’t. Someone had brought folding chairs, and someone else brought cookies. We sat near the pole chatting, getting to know each other and updating on events.
We wore masks. We remarked that since this spring we’d been living with Covid-19, for the last few weeks with bad air from forest fires, and now the prospect of 5G. This evening the air wasn’t that bad; we looked up and saw the silvery moon. A couple of nights ago the moon had been a frightful deep orange. And, of course, there’d been that day about a month ago when the sun hadn’t come up.
Hours passed. The street was quiet, very few cars passed, it was just our small group out here by the dark street. Were the antenna installers actually coming? Maybe they’d decided not to.
A large orange kitty cat came by, possibly, it seemed, with intentions of joining our demonstration. Did the kitty share our fear of 5G? Maybe he did. He stayed with us for a while.
More time went by. It was after three o’clock and it didn’t look to us like the installers were coming. Sierra and another person were setting up a tent, they’d be camping next to the pole. Some would be sleeping in their cars. Others left to go home. Steve and I were also about to leave, but just then a construction vehicle drove past, and parked up the street. On the side it read “Modus,” the name of AT&T’s subcontractors.
Two or three more trucks arrived, also parking up the street. One pulled a portable generator. We jumped up, standing close to the pole. Another truck arrived, this one pulling a trailer, parked on the street right beside us. What was this? I wondered. “It’s the fence truck,” someone said. The trailer was loaded with the fences. After a few minutes it drove off, apparently leaving.
The other vehicles remained parked about a block up the street. They didn’t seem to be going anywhere. It looked like this would be another standoff, such as had occurred on several occasions by now. Elizabeth was hurriedly phoning the people who’d left, asking them to return.
Fog was descending on the scene, drifting in to fill up the air, visible in the street lights. I assumed it was fog, not smoke from the wildfires which so often covers the sky these days.
There were about nine of us now. Nothing seemed to be actually happening at the moment. There weren’t any police around.
Another truck arrived, the letters “B A T” on its side. This was said to be traffic control; they put out cones, and block and direct traffic around construction sites.
I glanced at my watch. Four o’clock. Minutes later, three police cars drove up, and at least six police got out. The sergeant in charge walked up to us, and with a disarming smile she said, “Hi Phoebe!”
Phoebe returned the greeting; they knew each other by name from previous events here at this pole. The officer, Sergeant Ronnie Hernandez, told us we had to leave, and said the order came from the city, though she said she didn’t know whether from the City Manager (Dee Williams-Ridley), Public Workers Director (Liam Garland), or Supervising Engineer (Ron Nevels). AT&T will reimburse the city for the expenses, she said. That needs to be verified, but if true, the Berkeley Police Department is a rent-a-cop service for corporations. The surprising thing is that they could be so open about it.
Rather than leave, Phoebe and several others sat down on the sidewalk. Sergeant Hernandez gave the word, and two cops, huge musclemen, dragged them away from the pole and across the street. Asking us each our names, it looked like they were going to arrest all of us, though as it turned out they didn’t arrest anyone.
Our team near the Monterey Market were treated worse. Cynthia Papermaster told us that two of the officers threatened to take her service dog, Luck-Key, and put him in the pound if she didn’t move away from the pole. “One of the threats about Luck-Key was made as the officer was grabbing my arm and twisting it,” Cynthia said. “I thought they were going to break my arm. More important than my pain is that we were removed so that a private multibillion dollar company could perform non-essential work in the middle of the night against Berkeley’s laws.”
Meave O’Connor, also at the Monterey site, has many large bruises on her arms and on one hand that was slammed into the pole. Jason Winnett sustained pulled muscles in his left shoulder and neck. “I had to change this week’s work plans in order to rest and rehabilitate,” he said. “I was appalled to witness women in their 70s, concerned citizens, who after being up in vigil all night, were being roughly handled by a large number of young, strong police officers.”
According to the scientific reports, microwaving from 5G can cause memory loss, so maybe we’ll forget all about it.
• (Steve Gilmartin and Virginia Browning contributed to this article.)
It’s the proper morning to fly into Hell.
― Arthur Miller, The Crucible, 1953
One of the greatest delusions of the average man is to forget that life is death’s prisoner.
— Emil Cioran, On the Heights of Despair, 1934
Increasingly, I think, the American public operates in a mild dissociative state. I wrote about it here (my blog). It is almost as if people are afflicted with a kind of PTSD — only one where the trauma is generalized, relatively low grade, but ongoing.
Any of us who have questioned the Covid narrative have had to put up with an inordinate amount of hectoring, name calling, ridicule, and ostracism. I remember when I signed on the artist appeal as part of the Milosevic Defense Committee, and the abuse and anger I faced whenever this topic came up. People who had no history with the region, knew little of the political landscape, would nonetheless wax irate, furious and near tears that I would hold such outrageous positions. Now a over a decade later two members of that committee have won Nobel Prizes (Harold Pinter and Peter Handke). You would think that might cause people to take a moment, reflect, recalibrate their thinking on the topic. But alas, it rarely does.
The Covid narrative has generated the same near hysterical indignation. The narrative, as it has been constructed by the WHO, CDC, and more likely a dozen or so billionaires (including Bill Gates) is so rife with contradiction and illogic that one might think cracks would begin to show. That many who accept the word of authority in general might, at this point, start to question why none of this story makes sense. But no. Not in America anyway. (or rather, to be more precise, there is a pushback, but it keeps to a low profile lest the little Cotton Mathers of the haute bourgeoisie put one in the stocks). Leave it to America to make the flu into a morality play. However, there are clear signs of people waking up. In Europe certainly. See here and here.
And not only Germany, doctors and health care professionals in Belgium, too. But the governments are sticking to the story they were handed. In Norway here I still cannot drive to Sweden. Why? Who knows, there is no reason provided. The PM uttered something about better safe than sorry, and staying the course. Everything is discussed this way, in infantile baby talk, gibberish and slogans. Anti-democratic edicts delivered as if by a kindergarten teacher.
Someone wrote to me on social media the other day and said “Not everyone gets to live in Norway. Here we are surrounded by death”. Now he lives in Los Angeles. In a nice west-side area. He is not surrounded by death. Or rather only in his hallucinatory inner theatre of the mind is death present, surrounding him. But this language has a quality I associate with Hollywood. It’s kitsch image making. Never mind it’s literally not remotely true. But this is a version of something that I think happens all the time now. This man is in his own private movie. It is a movie made of diverse parts; there is something from all the various post apocalyptic zombie films (and TV, think Walking Dead). There is something of Norman Rockwell in there, or even Thomas Kincaid. There is Dr. Phil and Oprah and the cheapening of emotion. The snarky pedestrian thoughts of a Bill Maher, too.
This is what has come to pass for public intellectuals and intellectual discourse. All are almost impossibly banal. There are parts from a dozen disaster movies, too. I mean literally all the way back to Towering Inferno. And there is, perhaps most significantly, a quality that is harder to define or outline, but which I associate with JJ Abrams and Joss Whedon. It is a quality of comforting superficiality, of controlled threat in worlds of generic cheeriness. Interestingly both were born in NY and are only a year apart in age (mid-fifties). Both have a background in animation and computer generated affects. Both came out of a comic book sensibility and have, more than anyone else in contemporary media, helped to shape the manufactured nostalgia for a fantasy of America. It is the creation of a longing for a past that never was. But both have established a universe of whiteness and equilibrium where the threat is from without. For it cannot be from within because there is no ‘within’. In that sense these are the anti-psychoanalytic purveyors of a youth culture for adults. A comic or cartoon world view in which the sentimental plays an enormous role. It is a world without tragedy or real suffering. And just beneath the surface but always implied, is a respect for authority. It is also a world where one is encouraged NOT to grow up.
The Covid story takes place in a universe of Whedon and Abrams, with parts of The Hunger Games, Breaking Bad, and the films of John Hughes. (Hughes was really the precursor for both Whedon and Abrams). Covid is taking place on the streets where Breakfast Club was filmed. In people’s heads anyway. Covid, the virus, is an overdetermined symbol — and one that only makes even a tiny bit of sense if it is located in these personal streaming sites in your brain. (and I recommend Jonathan Beller, The Cinematic Mode of Production). There is a tendency toward fetishization, too, and hence the ubiquitous appearance and opinion of celebrities. It’s bordering on surreal much of the time: Hip Hop moguls are asked about climate change, Silicon Valley billionaires voice opinion on overpopulation or vaccinations, soap opera stars offer thoughts on stem cell research. Nothing is investigated, really. It is all driven by whatever is most lurid or sensationalized. The ruling class has clearly encouraged, if not mandated, a certain line of thinking on the pandemic. The ruling class has profited enormously from the lockdown, and is quite happy with a semi permanent state of crisis. In fact, it is likely that this was at least partly all planned. I mean what does one think those billionaires at the Bilderberg meeting talk about? Or at DAVOS or the like? The ruling elite anticipated crises in Capitalism, and the lockdown certainly provides cover for massive plunder of pensions, real estate, and really, most everything.
But the system, to some extent, does the work for the ruling class without instruction at this point. For revenue is generated by blood and violence, and secondly by sex. The template has already been put in place. (If it bleeds, it leads). Although something has happened to the ‘sex sells’ dimension of the Spectacle. People seem less and less in the throws of passion or lust. The societies of the west are declining into some form of neurasthenic bloodless onanism. The consumption of porn is up, but I’m pretty sure sex acts are actually down. And the allegorical dimension of the Covid narrative serves as both substitute gratification and as a symbolic purification ritual.
This week Trump announced he had “tested positive”. He had been campaigning for the previous week and felt fine. Then he tested positive and is described as having flu-like symptoms. That this is part of a strategy I have no doubt, but I also could not begin to describe that strategy. But the magical appearance of symptoms the minute he tested positive echoes the overall magical thinking involved in this entire narrative. There is a veritable mania, now, concerning testing. And yet even the NYTimes admits the tests are virtually meaningless. But no matter. We must test more !!
Magical thinking permeates the climate discourse, as well. Never in history, or never since the Enlightenment, have so many people pretended to know so much. For the educated thirty percent (white and reasonably affluent) it is the era of the TED talk. Nothing dare last longer or be more demanding than a quick (and entertaining) ten minutes. The fires in California have come primarily from downed power lines (badly out of date and rarely serviced), but exacerbated by homeless encampments (rarely mentioned) and fireworks — and, of course, the drought that has extended backward a decade. California has always burnt. It was part of the ecosystem to rid the hills and forests of dead shrub and trees.
Climate is clearly a part — snow-pack is down, and summer heat has dried out shrubbery. But much of what is dried out is shrub not native to California (stuff like cheat-grass, a native of Asia and parts of Africa, and notoriously invasive) whose forests are overstocked anyway. Infrastructure in America is rotting, and per California, the wild areas have been neglected for almost a hundred years. But that is not a part of the narrative. The narrative must be about the rebellion of Earth itself and population. And population matters only in terms of who can afford to over-consume. The problem is that the most obvious pollution issues (militarism and the packaging industry) are never addressed. US imperialism is the cause of most of the suffering in the world. Most of the instability. But the infantile anthropomorphizing of much green discourse is just more baby talk. I often hear “we are waging war against ourselves”. This is a dangerous bit of mystification. (Note that this riff goes all the way back to the Pogo comic strip in the 1960s}. It’s more simplistic sloganeering and like most such chestnuts, class analysis is absent. I have written a good deal on the psychological appeal of certain hi-tech fantasies, the seductive aspect of AI, and yet the world is more proletarianized than ever. See here and here.
The issue of the seducing aspects of tech…from my blog. See here and here.
Yes, people, in a very general sense, can be seen as self-destructive. It’s one of the most troubling byproducts of the habituation to screens, the loss of literacy and numeracy and the loss, really, of an ability to think critically. But this cultic hysteria is driven by the increasing precarity and desperation in contemporary life. The loss of unions plays a part, the absence of a real left party, a radical Marxist party. For all the terrific work activist groups do (prison abolishment groups, criminal justice reform, and stuff like the Innocence Project) there remains a vacuum in terms of electoral politics. Perhaps that is just going to be the way this goes. Maybe the entire electoral apparatus is dead. And maybe that is a good thing.
There is a quality of suffocating sameness and emptiness that permeates daily life. People don’t look at each other on the street, they look at their phones. One is walking, all the time, among the pod people. America’s mental health is in a dire state. The U.S., and really this is increasingly true in Europe, too, but not nearly to the same extent, is an excruciatingly lonely country. People have lost the ability to make, and more, to sustain friendships. And how the role of social media plays into that is an open question. Or media in general.
So while, yes, the marketing of technology serves to manufacture an appeal, on one level there are troubling numbers of people who seem, all by themselves, to *want*, to desire, ravishment by our robot overlords. Android sex is a thing, and it’s growing. And it’s not just men who want “pleasure model” androids (okay, for now they have to settle for this), but many want to not just fuck androids– but to get fucked *by* androids.
The engine is capitalism.
A number of world leaders have contracted Covid. Much as many get the flu. There is something curiously similar in nearly every one of these cases. Boris Johnson, Bolsanaro, the fascist interim President of post coup Bolivia Jeanine Anez, Mikhail Mishustin of Russia, French finance minister Bruno Le Maire, and India’s Amit Shah, the #2 strongman behind Modi, and also in India, Pranab Mukherjee, former President, who subsequently died (age 84) from the virus (no, actually he died from a blood clot on his brain). I only mention this because I experience an unsettling vertigo when trying to parse all this and make it into something comprehensible. The way Covid tests work one might well think everyone on the planet has the virus.
Already there has been significant psychological harm done to children. See here. The clear lesson is to fear the other. That humans are contagious and potentially lethal. Intimacy is officially discouraged. I cannot imagine that message were I fourteen or sixteen. Growing up in the sixties the idea was to promote intimacy, feelings, and to exactly *not* fear emotional openness. The English speaking west has gone from Paul Goodman to Theresa Tam. The resurgent Puritanism is not restricted to odd ducks like Tam…. Even bourgeois pundits are noticing. This is Zoe Williams in The Guardian:
There remains, in public life, a rich seam of puritanism that you notice only when times are so bleak that you could really do without it. A sense that frivolity is immoral, even if it is 95% of your economy; a feeling that they had it coming, all those people dedicating their lives to the generation of fun. Puritans tend not to announce their disapproval except in the most roundabout ways, so you can rarely pin it on them. But standing on the precipice of a year that ends without dancing, bears, dancing bears, playhouses, ale houses, music or Christmas, all I can think of is how happy Oliver Cromwell would have been. It is like all his cancelled Christmases come at once. He would be dancing (not dancing) in his grave.
This is a lament from the privileged class, but perhaps that’s actually a good sign.
The ruling class don’t wear masks or have travel restrictions imposed on them.
There is no longer even a pretense. The rich are entitled to special treatment. The rich deserve a clean depopulated world where they can cavort on the green, frolic in elysian fields by murmuring brooks, and to not be troubled by darkies and riffraff. Remember it was a mere hundred years ago that Belgium brought Congolese from their African home, to be paraded in human zoos. Those they hadn’t already murdered.
Covid is the final act in the transference of wealth to the top 1%. And culture is being destroyed along with everything else. Cinemas are closing, permanently, theatres, too, permanently, and museums. Galleries and other art spaces are shuttered, likely to never reopen. Something like 30 million jobs have been lost. There is an acute desperation across America.
Who survives? Amazon, Netflix, Google, Comcast, Facebook, et al. Those who control the screens control the world. It is a new morning in hell.
If you find yourself wondering what the hell is going on right now – the “Why is the world turning to shit?” thought – you may find Netflix’s new documentary The Social Dilemma a good starting point for clarifying your thinking. I say “starting point” because, as we shall see, the film suffers from two major limitations: one in its analysis and the other in its conclusion. Nonetheless, the film is good at exploring the contours of the major social crises we currently face – epitomised both by our addiction to the mobile phone and by its ability to rewire our consciousness and our personalities.
The film makes a convincing case that this is not simply an example of old wine in new bottles. This isn’t the Generation Z equivalent of parents telling their children to stop watching so much TV and play outside. Social media is not simply a more sophisticated platform for Edward Bernays-inspired advertising. It is a new kind of assault on who we are, not just what we think.
According to The Social Dilemma, we are fast reaching a kind of human “event horizon”, with our societies standing on the brink of collapse. We face what several interviewees term an “existential threat” from the way the internet, and particularly social media, are rapidly developing.
I don’t think they are being alarmist. Or rather I think they are right to be alarmist, even if their alarm is not entirely for the right reasons. We will get to the limitations in their thinking in a moment.
Like many documentaries of this kind, The Social Dilemma is deeply tied to the shared perspective of its many participants. In most cases, they are richly disillusioned, former executives and senior software engineers from Silicon Valley. They understand that their once-cherished creations – Google, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, Snapchat (WhatsApp seems strangely under-represented in the roll call) – have turned into a gallery of Frankenstein’s monsters.
That is typified in the plaintive story of the guy who helped invent the “Like” button for Facebook. He thought his creation would flood the world with the warm glow of brother and sisterhood, spreading love like a Coca Cola advert. In fact, it ended up inflaming our insecurities and need for social approval, and dramatically pushed up rates of suicide among teenage girls.
If the number of watches of the documentary is any measure, disillusion with social media is spreading far beyond its inventors.
Children as guinea pigs
Although not flagged as such, The Social Dilemma divides into three chapters.
The first, dealing with the argument we are already most familiar with, is that social media is a global experiment in altering our psychology and social interactions, and our children are the main guinea pigs. Millennials (those who came of age in the 2000s) are the first generation that spent their formative years with Facebook and MySpace as best friends. Their successors, Generation Z, barely know a world without social media at its forefront.
The film makes a relatively easy case forcefully: that our children are not only addicted to their shiny phones and what lies inside the packaging, but that their minds are being aggressively rewired to hold their attention and then make them pliable for corporations to sell things.
Each child is not just locked in a solitary battle to stay in control of his or her mind against the skills of hundreds of the world’s greatest software engineers. The fight to change their perspective and ours – the sense of who we are – is now in the hands of algorithms that are refined every second of every day by AI, artificial intelligence. As one interviewee observes, social media is not going to become less expert at manipulating our thinking and emotions, it’s going to keep getting much, much better at doing it.
Jaron Lanier, one of the computing pioneers of virtual reality, explains what Google and the rest of these digital corporations are really selling: “It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behaviour and perception – that is the product.” That is also how these corporations make their money, by “changing what you do, what you think, who you are.”
They make profits, big profits, from the predictions business – predicting what you will think and how you will behave so that you are more easily persuaded to buy what their advertisers want to sell you. To have great predictions, these corporations have had to amass vast quantities of data on each of us – what is sometimes called “surveillance capitalism”.
And, though the film does not quite spell it out, there is another implication. The best formula for tech giants to maximise their predictions is this: as well as processing lots of data on us, they must gradually grind down our distinctiveness, our individuality, our eccentricities so that we become a series of archetypes. Then, our emotions – our fears, insecurities, desires, cravings – can be more easily gauged, exploited and plundered by advertisers.
These new corporations trade in human futures, just as other corporations have long traded in oil futures and pork-belly futures, notes Shoshana Zuboff, professor emeritus at Harvard business school. Those markets “have made the internet companies the richest companies in the history of humanity”.
Flat Earthers and Pizzagate
The second chapter explains that, as we get herded into our echo chambers of self-reinforcing information, we lose more and more sense of the real world and of each other. With it, our ability to empathise and compromise is eroded. We live in different information universes, chosen for us by algorithms whose only criterion is how to maximise our attention for advertisers’ products to generate greater profits for the internet giants.
Anyone who has spent any time on social media, especially a combative platform like Twitter, will sense that there is a truth to this claim. Social cohesion, empathy, fair play, morality are not in the algorithm. Our separate information universes mean we are increasingly prone to misunderstanding and confrontation.
And there is a further problem, as one interviewee states: “The truth is boring.” Simple or fanciful ideas are easier to grasp and more fun. People prefer to share what’s exciting, what’s novel, what’s unexpected, what’s shocking. “It’s a disinformation-for-profit model,” as another interviewee observes, stating that research shows false information is six times more likely to spread on social media platforms than true information.
And as governments and politicians work more closely with these tech companies – a well-documented fact the film entirely fails to explore – our rulers are better positioned than ever to manipulate our thinking and control what we do. They can dictate the political discourse more quickly, more comprehensively, more cheaply than ever before.
This section of the film, however, is the least successful. True, our societies are riven by increasing polarisation and conflict, and feel more tribal. But the film implies that all forms of social tension – from the paranoid paedophile conspiracy theory of Pizzagate to the Black Lives Matter protests – are the result of social media’s harmful influence.
And though it is easy to know that Flat Earthers are spreading misinformation, it is far harder to be sure what is true and what is false in many others areas of life. Recent history suggests our yardsticks cannot be simply what governments say is true – or Mark Zuckerberg, or even “experts”. It may be a while since doctors were telling us that cigarettes were safe, but millions of Americans were told only a few years ago that opiates would help them – until an opiate addiction crisis erupted across the US.
This section falls into making a category error of the kind set out by one of the interviewees early in the film. Despite all the drawbacks, the internet and social media have an undoubted upside when used simply as a tool, argues Tristan Harris, Google’s former design ethicist and the soul of the film. He gives the example of being able to hail a cab almost instantly at the press of a phone button. That, of course, highlights something about the materialist priorities of most of Silicon Valley’s leading lights.
But the tool box nestled in our phones, full of apps, does not just satisfy our craving for material comfort and security. It has also fuelled a craving to understand the world and our place in it, and offered tools to help us do that.
Phones have made it possible for ordinary people to film and share scenes once witnessed by only a handful of disbelieved passers-by. We can all see for ourselves a white police officer dispassionately kneeling on the neck of a black man for nine minutes, while the victim cries out he cannot breathe, until he expires. And we can then judge the values and priorities of our leaders when they decide to do as little as possible to prevent such incidents occurring again.
The internet has created a platform from which not only disillusioned former Silicon Valley execs can blow the whistle on what the Mark Zuckerbergs are up to, but so can a US army private like Chelsea Manning, by exposing war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, and so can a national security tech insider like Edward Snowden, by revealing the way we are being secretly surveilled by our own governments.
Technological digital breakthroughs allowed someone like Julian Assange to set up a site, Wikileaks, that offered us a window on the real political world – a window through we could see our leaders behaving more like psychopaths than humanitarians. A window those same leaders are now fighting tooth and nail to close by putting him on trial.
A small window on reality
The Social Dilemma ignores all of this to focus on the dangers of so-called “fake news”. It dramatises a scene suggesting that only those sucked into information black holes and conspiracy sites end up taking to the street to protest – and when they do, the film hints, it will not end well for them.
Apps allowing us to hail a taxi or navigate our way to a destination are undoubtedly useful tools. But being able to find out what our leaders are really doing – whether they are committing crimes against others or against us – is an even more useful tool. In fact, it is a vital one if we want to stop the kind of self-destructive behaviours The Social Dilemma is concerned about, not least our destruction of the planet’s life systems (an issue that, except for one interviewee’s final comment, the film leaves untouched).
Use of social media does not mean one necessarily loses touch with the real world. For a minority, social media has deepened their understanding of reality. For those tired of having the real world mediated for them by a bunch of billionaires and traditional media corporations, the chaotic social media platforms have provided an opportunity to gain insights into a reality that was obscured before.
The paradox, of course, is that these new social media corporations are no less billionaire-owned, no less power-hungry, no less manipulative than the old media corporations. The AI algorithms they are rapidly refining are being used – under the rubric of “fake news” – to drive out this new marketplace in whistleblowing, in citizen journalism, in dissident ideas.
Social media corporations are quickly getting better at distinguishing the baby from the bathwater, so they can throw out the baby. After all, like their forebears, the new media platforms are in the business of business, not of waking us up to the fact that they are embedded in a corporate world that has plundered the planet for profit.
Much of our current social polarisation and conflict is not, as The Social Dilemma suggests, between those influenced by social media’s “fake news” and those influenced by corporate media’s “real news”. It is between, on the one hand, those who have managed to find oases of critical thinking and transparency in the new media and, on the other, those trapped in the old media model or those who, unable to think critically after a lifetime of consuming corporate media, have been easily and profitably sucked into nihilistic, online conspiracies.
Our mental black boxes
The third chapter gets to the nub of the problem without indicating exactly what that nub is. That is because The Social Dilemma cannot properly draw from its already faulty premises the necessary conclusion to indict a system in which the Netflix corporation that funded the documentary and is televising it is so deeply embedded itself.
For all its heart-on-its-sleeve anxieties about the “existential threat” we face as a species, The Social Dilemma is strangely quiet about what needs to change – aside from limiting our kids’ exposure to Youtube and Facebook. It is a deflating ending to the rollercoaster ride that preceded it.
Here I want to backtrack a little. The film’s first chapter makes it sound as though social media’s rewiring of our brains to sell us advertising is something entirely new. The second chapter treats our society’s growing loss of empathy, and the rapid rise in an individualistic narcissism, as something entirely new. But very obviously neither proposition is true.
Advertisers have been playing with our brains in sophisticated ways for at least a century. And social atomisation – individualism, selfishness and consumerism – have been a feature of western life for at least as long. These aren’t new phenomena. It’s just that these long-term, negative aspects of western society are growing exponentially, at a seemingly unstoppable rate.
We’ve been heading towards dystopia for decades, as should be obvious to anyone who has been tracking the lack of political urgency to deal with climate change since the problem became obvious to scientists back in the 1970s.
The multiple ways in which we are damaging the planet – destroying forests and natural habitats, pushing species towards extinction, polluting the air and water, melting the ice-caps, generating a climate crisis – have been increasingly evident since our societies turned everything into a commodity that could be bought and sold in the marketplace. We began on the slippery slope towards the problems highlighted by The Social Dilemma the moment we collectively decided that nothing was sacred, that nothing was more sacrosanct than our desire to turn a quick buck.
It is true that social media is pushing us towards an event horizon. But then so is climate change, and so is our unsustainable global economy, premised on infinite growth on a finite planet. And, more importantly, these profound crises are all arising at the same time.
There is a conspiracy, but not of the Pizzagate variety. It is an ideological conspiracy, of at least two centuries’ duration, by a tiny and ever more fabulously wealth elite to further enrich themselves and to maintain their power, their dominance, at all costs.
There is a reason why, as Harvard business professor Shoshana Zuboff points out, social media corporations are the most fantastically wealthy in human history. And that reason is also why we are reaching the human “event horizon” these Silicon Valley luminaries all fear, one where our societies, our economies, the planet’s life-support systems are all on the brink of collapse together.
The cause of that full-spectrum, systemic crisis is not named, but it has a name. Its name is the ideology that has become a black box, a mental prison, in which we have become incapable of imagining any other way of organising our lives, any other future than the one we are destined for at the moment. That ideology’s name is capitalism.
Waking up from the matrix
Social media and the AI behind it are one of the multiple crises we can no longer ignore as capitalism reaches the end of a trajectory it has long been on. The seeds of neoliberalism’s current, all-too-obvious destructive nature were planted long ago, when the “civilised”, industrialised west decided its mission was to conquer and subdue the natural world, when it embraced an ideology that fetishised money and turned people into objects to be exploited.
A few of the participants in The Social Dilemma allude to this in the last moments of the final chapter. The difficulty they have in expressing the full significance of the conclusions they have drawn from two decades spent in the most predatory corporations the world has ever known could be because their minds are still black boxes, preventing them from standing outside the ideological system they, like us, were born into. Or it could be because coded language is the best one can manage if a corporate platform like Netflix is going to let a film like this one reach a mass audience.
Tristan Harris tries to articulate the difficulty by grasping for a movie allusion: “How do you wake up from the matrix when you don’t know you’re in the matrix?” Later, he observes: “What I see is a bunch of people who are trapped by a business model, an economic incentive, shareholder pressure that makes it almost impossible to do something else.”
Although still framed in Harris’s mind as a specific critique of social media corporations, this point is very obviously true of all corporations, and of the ideological system – capitalism – that empowers all these corporations.
Another interviewee notes: “I don’t think these guys [the tech giants] set out to be evil, it’s just the business model.”
He is right. But “evilness” – the psychopathic pursuit of profit above all other values – is the business model for all corporations, not just the digital ones.
The one interviewee who manages, or is allowed, to connect the dots is Justin Rosenstein, a former engineer for Twitter and Google. He eloquently observes:
We live in a world in which a tree is worth more, financially, dead than alive. A world in which a whale is worth more dead than alive. For so long as our economy works in that way, and corporations go unregulated, they’re going to continue to destroy trees, to kill whales, to mine the earth, and to continue to pull oil out of the ground, even though we know it is destroying the planet and we know it is going to leave a worse world for future generations.
This is short-term thinking based on this religion of profit at all costs. As if somehow, magically, each corporation acting in its selfish interest is going to produce the best result. … What’s frightening – and what hopefully is the last straw and will make us wake up as a civilisation as to how flawed this theory is in the first place – is to see that now we are the tree, we are the whale. Our attention can be mined. We are more profitable to a corporation if we’re spending time staring at a screen, staring at an ad, than if we’re spending our time living our life in a rich way.
Here is the problem condensed. That unnamed “flawed theory” is capitalism. The interviewees in the film arrived at their alarming conclusion – that we are on the brink of social collapse, facing an “existential threat” – because they have worked inside the bellies of the biggest corporate beasts on the planet, like Google and Facebook.
These experiences have provided most of these Silicon Valley experts with deep, but only partial, insight. While most of us view Facebook and Youtube as little more than places to exchange news with friends or share a video, these insiders understand much more. They have seen up close the most powerful, most predatory, most all-devouring corporations in human history.
Nonetheless, most of them have mistakenly assumed that their experiences of their own corporate sector apply only to their corporate sector. They understand the “existential threat” posed by Facebook and Google without extrapolating to the identical existential threats posed by Amazon, Exxon, Lockheed Martin, Halliburton, Goldman Sachs and thousands more giant, soulless corporations.
The Social Dilemma offers us an opportunity to sense the ugly, psychopathic face shielding behind the mask of social media’s affability. But for those watching carefully the film offers more: a chance to grasp the pathology of the system itself that pushed these destructive social media giants into our lives.
Silicon Valley continues to sprawl in influence, and its modern robber barons bestride the globe with a confidence verging on contempt. The technology giants that mark that region of California are praised as “virtuosos of ingenuity,” to use Steve Forbes’ words, “creating and supplying products and services that were once unimaginable and that have been enabling us to survive the COVID lockdowns and working from home”.
For the most part, they have been encouraged to do so by those in Congress, who have been their handmaidens and coddlers. Now, big and bold, the likes of Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook look at the globe as theirs, and theirs lone, to be divided in the manner that Spain and Portugal divvied the New World between them at the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494.
The Big Tech oligarchs, potentates of the online economy, appeared via video before the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee on July 29 keen to explain why they had no reason being there. They existed for the good, had done good and would continue doing good. For Facebook and Google, that was in advertising; for e-commerce, Amazon. Apple took the side of applications.
The members of the subcommittee had busied themselves for 13 months investigating the anti-competitive practices of the Big Four, though the hearing did nothing to affect their financial results or reveal much we did not already know. On July 30, the four companies reported a combined profit of $28.6 billion for the second quarter. The political inquisitors had been shown up to be bullishly theatrical but strikingly ineffectual.
The questioning by the subcommittee also did nothing to sully the names of the tech behemoths. According to a survey conducted by Harris Poll for Fast Company, almost half of 18- to 34-year-olds claimed that their perception of the companies improved with the hearing. Within that age group, 63% claimed to have increased their usage of the services and products supplied by those companies. Sod anti-competitive practices, they seemed to say.
Tim Cook threw a blanket over the policy of Apple’s App Store to rivals, insisting that it did not exclude parental control apps made by other companies for the express purpose of nabbing greater market share for its own Screen Time app. “We were concerned, Congresswoman,” explained Apple’s CEO to Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath of Georgia, “about the privacy and security of kids.” One such example of a rival app that was given its marching orders by the company was OurPact. It was supposedly prone to third-party takeovers.
Those kicked off the app store, ostensibly for being inadequately vested with privacy protections, were admitted six months later with no noticeable changes made on their part. What mattered was the time lag, which McBath noted was “an eternity for small businesses”. She duly produced an email from a concerned mother to an Apple employee keen to make her download Screen Time. “I am deeply disappointed,” went the well informed maternal note, “that you have decided to remove this app and others like it, thereby reducing consumer access to much-needed services to keep children safe and protect their mental health and well-being.”
Cook was unmoved. Any app might be removed from the palace that is App Store for any number of reasons. None of them, it seemed, were because of predatory practices on the part of his company. All were treated equally, though this did not square with the very select treatment afforded Amazon, which secured a deal with Apple to get its Prime Video app on Apple TV. Instead of paying Apple the standard 30% cut of sales in using the platform, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos managed to negotiate a 15% cut with Eddy Cue, Apple’s VP in charge of Apple TV.
Bezos was made to listen to the accounts of various small-business owners who claimed they were steamrolled by the Amazon juggernaut. Democratic subcommittee chair David Cicilline of Rhode Island quoted the words of one disgruntled seller who had benefited in using Amazon’s platform till the company allegedly copied a version of his product to market at lower cost. “We called it Amazon heroin. You had to get your next fix, but this person was ultimately going to be your downfall.” For his part, Bezos was dismissive. His company did not stoop to “bullying” the small. “That is not how we operate the business.”
Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook faced questioning on the acquisition of Instagram, with his tactical state of mind outlined in disclosed emails and documents. In an email to the company’s chief financial officer David Ebersman in February 2012, Zuckerberg considered the idea of buying smaller competitors such as Path and Instagram, “nascent” businesses with “the networks established”, meaningful brands that, were “they to grow to a large scale … could be very disruptive to us.” New York Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadley felt he had his man. “Facebook, by its own admission … saw Instagram as a threat that could potentially siphon business away from Facebook.” Instead of competing with it, Facebook purchased it. “This is exactly the type of anti-competitive acquisition the antitrust laws were designed to prevent.”
Faced with such a paper trail, the Facebook CEO succumbed to a moment of candour. “I’ve made it clear that Instagram was a competitor in the space of mobile photo sharing.” Zuckerberg spoke of the “subset of the overall space of connecting that we exist in”, teeming with disruptive rivals. By “having them” join Facebook, they got bigger on the company’s largesse.
Google faced a now familiar accusation that its search engine laid waste to all before them. Cicilline was more specific in his volley, charging the company with building its business on “stolen content” that disadvantaged rivals. Not so, countered Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai. “Today we support 1.4 million small businesses supporting over $385 billion in the core economic activity.” There was even a humanitarian element to it. “We see many businesses thrive, particularly even during the pandemic.”
Like the hefty digital companies they are meant to target, antitrust measures must be unconventional. Patrick Leblond of the Centre for International Governance Innovation at the University of Ottowa suggests throwing out the traditional copy book if a “feasible solution for taming Big Tech’s market power in the data-driven economy” is to be found. Breaking up such companies simply will not do. Divided, they will not fall, regrouping and re-emerging on the very source of their power. It is therefore fundamental to target the source of the power itself: data. Make it more easily accessible to those with “legitimate” purposes under a “strict regulatory regime modelled on securities regulation that protects the integrity and anonymity of publicly available data.”
These are ideas that have yet to mark the often incurious, rusted minds of those in Congress. But Cicilline was happy with issuing a grand threat. “Our founders would not bow before a king. Nor should we bow before the emperors of the online economy.” For the moment, the bucking beasts that make the Big Four may not expect any bowing, but nor will they expect too much in the way of a substantive threat.
Tensions between the United States and China are rising as the U.S. election nears, with tit-for-tat consulate closures, new U.S. sanctions and no less than three U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups prowling the seas around China. But it is the United States that has initiated each new escalation in U.S.-China relations. China’s responses have been careful and proportionate, with Chinese officials such as Foreign Minister Wang Yi publicly asking the U.S. to step back from its brinkmanship to find common ground for diplomacy.
Most of the U.S. complaints about China are long-standing, from the treatment of the Uighur minority and disputes over islands and maritime borders in the South China Sea to accusations of unfair trade practices and support for protests in Hong Kong. But the answer to the “Why now?” question seems obvious: the approaching U.S. election.
Danny Russel, who was Obama’s top East Asia expert in the National Security Council and then at the State Department, told the BBC that the new tensions with China are partly an effort to divert attention from Trump’s bungled response to the Covid-19 pandemic and his tanking poll numbers, and that this “has a wag the dog feel to it.”
Meanwhile, Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden has been going toe-to-toe with Trump and Secretary Pompeo in a potentially dangerous “tough on China” contest, which could prove difficult for the winner to walk back after the election.
Elections aside, there are two underlying forces at play in the current escalation of tensions, one economic and the other military. China’s economic miracle has lifted hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty, and, until recently, Western corporations were glad to make the most of its huge pool of cheap labor, weak workplace and environmental protections, and growing consumer market. Western leaders welcomed China into their club of wealthy, powerful countries with little fuss about human and civil rights or China’s domestic politics.
So what has changed? U.S.high-tech companies like Apple, which were once only too glad to outsource American jobs and train Chinese contractors and engineers to manufacture their products, are finally confronting the reality that they have not just outsourced jobs, but also skills and technology. Chinese companies and highly skilled workers are now leading some of the world’s latest technological advances.
The global rollout of 5G cellular technology has become a flashpoint, not because the increase and higher frequency of EMF radiation it involves may be dangerous to human health, which is a real concern, but because Chinese firms like Huawei and ZTE have developed and patented much of the critical infrastructure involved, leaving Silicon Valley in the unfamiliar position of having to play catch-up.
Also, if the U.S.’s 5G infrastructure is built by Huawei and ZTE instead of AT&T and Verizon, the U.S. government will no longer be able to require “back doors” that the NSA can use to spy on us all, so it is instead stoking fears that China could insert its own back doors in Chinese equipment to spy on us instead. Left out of the discussion is the real solution: repeal the Patriot Act and make sure that all the technology we use in our daily lives is secure from the prying eyes of both the U.S. and foreign governments.
China is investing in infrastructure all over the world. As of March 2020, a staggering 138 countries have joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a massive plan to connect Asia with Africa and Europe via land and maritime networks. China’s international influence will only be enhanced by its success, and the U.S.’s failure, in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic.
On the military front, the Obama and Trump administrations have both tried to “pivot to Asia” to confront China, even as the U.S. military remains bogged down in the Middle East. With a war-weary public demanding an end to the endless wars that have served to justify record military spending for nearly 20 years, the U.S. military-industrial complex has to find more substantial enemies to justify its continued existence and budget-busting costs. Lockheed Martin is not ready to switch from building billion-dollar warplanes on cost-plus contracts to making wind turbines and solar panels.
The only targets the U.S. can find to justify a $740-billion military budget and 800 overseas military bases are its familiar old Cold War enemies: Russia and China. They both expanded their modest military budgets after 2011, when the U.S. and its allies hi-jacked the Arab Spring to launch covert and proxy wars in Libya, where China had substantial oil interests, and Syria, a long-term Russian ally. But their increases in military spending were only relative. In 2019, China’s military budget was only $261 billion compared to the U.S.’s $732 billion, according to SIPRI. The U.S. still spends more on its military than the ten next largest military powers combined, including Russia and China.
Russian and Chinese military forces are almost entirely defensive, with an emphasis on advanced and effective anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems. Neither Russia nor China has invested in carrier strike groups to sail the seven seas or U.S.-style expeditionary forces to attack or invade countries on the other side of the planet. But they do have the forces and weapons they need to defend themselves and their people from any U.S. attack and both are nuclear powers, making a major war against either of them a more serious prospect than the U.S. military has faced anywhere since the Second World War.
China and Russia are both deadly serious about defending themselves, but we should not misinterpret that as enthusiasm for a new arms race or a sign of aggressive intentions on their part. It is U.S. imperialism and militarism that are driving the escalating tensions. The sad truth is that 30 years after the supposed end of the Cold War, the U.S. military-industrial complex has failed to reimagine itself in anything but Cold War terms, and its “New” Cold War is just a revival of the old Cold War that it spent the last three decades telling us it already won.
“China Is Not an Enemy”
The U.S. and China do not have to be enemies. Just a year ago, a hundred U.S. business, political and military leaders signed a public letter to President Trump in the Washington Post entitled “China Is Not an Enemy.” They wrote that China is not “an economic enemy or an existential national security threat,” and U.S opposition “will not prevent the continued expansion of the Chinese economy, a greater global market share for Chinese companies and an increase in China’s role in world affairs.”
They concluded that, “U.S. efforts to treat China as an enemy and decouple it from the global economy will damage the United States’ international role and reputation and undermine the economic interests of all nations,” and that the U.S. “could end up isolating itself rather than Beijing.”
That is precisely what is happening. Governments all over the world are collaborating with China to stop the spread of coronavirus and share the solutions with all who need them. The U.S. must stop pursuing its counterproductive effort to undermine China, and instead work with all our neighbors on this small planet. Only by cooperating with other nations and international organizations can we stop the pandemic—and address the coronavirus-sparked economic meltdown gripping the world economy and the many challenges we must all face together if we are to survive and thrive in the 21st century.
The many similarities in the unfolding narrative of Covid-19 to that of September 11, 2001 — the mass hysteria, the banker bailouts, the insider trading, the censorship of dissent, the apparent foreknowledge (Lockstep, Event 201, PNAC, Catastrophic Terrorism, A Clean Break etc), the rollout of mass surveillance measures and more — make the two seem like parallel conspiracies. Covid-19 could also be compared to 9-11 in that it seems to be a ‘controlled demolition’ of the world economy by the global financial powers, one that was either planned, or at very least allowed to happen.
One of the initial red flags surrounding the events of 9-11 was NORAD’s failure to scramble a single interceptor in response to the attacks. It was later claimed that they were conducting a ‘training exercise’ at the time which created confusion. Strange how these training exercises always seem to take place during major crises. Event 201, a joint venture of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Economic Forum hosted by Johns Hopkins University in October 2019 was billed as a simulation response to a novel disease pandemic. Was this also a training exercise which went live? Mike Pompeo’s remarks during a White House press conference in March would seem to suggest so:
Pompeo: “This matter is going forward — we are in a live exercise here to get this right.”
Trump (under his breath): “You should have let us know.”
The case for conspiracy in the events of 9-11 is easily made when we allow our reasoning to be guided by the principle of cui bono. Who has benefited from two decades of regime change wars in the Middle East and North Africa? Arms manufacturers and their many private investors? Big Oil? International finance? The Zionist occupation state?
The question of who was responsible for 9-11 doesn’t hinge on whether or not jet fuel can melt steel beams (it can’t.) It hinges on the fact that the US had been planning a war in the Middle east for a decade prior to the event. The US decision to invade and occupy Afghanistan and to depose Saddam Hussein was made during Western liberal democracy’s ‘uni-polar moment’, a fleeting window which Francis Fukuyama would describe as ‘the end of history’ — the period following the collapse of the Soviet Union during which the US was the world’s only superpower. 9-11 was a staged event which provided the pretext for maintaining the preeminence of U.S. military force in the new century. There are several key policy documents which spell this out if you could be bothered reading them. They even talk about the need for a Pearl Harbour like event to galvanise public opinion. At least two of the authors of these documents had specifically mentioned attacks on the World Trade Centre prior to September 11, 2001.
With the benefit of hindsight, how can policy directives such as Richard Perle’s “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm”, and PNAC’s “Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategies, Forces And Resources For A New Century” be seen as anything less than manifestos by the conspirators themselves? Similarly the article by Ashton B. Carter, John Deutch, and Philip Zelikow entitled Catastrophic Terrorism: Tackling the New Danger which appeared in Foreign Affairs November/December 1998 edition presents chilling circumstantial evidence of foreknowledge of the events.
Most incriminating of all, however, is the Patriot Act. Passed into law soon after the 9-11 attacks, this draconian bill expanded terrorism laws to include ‘domestic terrorism’ and subjected US citizens, journalists, whistle blowers and political organisations to surveillance, wiretapping, harassment, and potential criminal action.
Within seven weeks, October 24th 2001, the House of Representatives was presented with the Patriot Act and passed it the next day. After the Senate passed it President Bush signed it the following day. Later it would be revealed that not one congressman read the 900 page Patriot Act before voting for it, nor does anyone know who wrote it, which makes many believe the Patriot Act was sitting in some right-winger, globalist’s desk just waiting for something like 9-11 to happen.
The World Economic Forum’s COVID Action Platform is a comprehensive plan for world governance, covering every aspect of life, from employment, to food production, to mobility, to management of oceans and forests — everything from the biggest issues — ‘great power politics’, right down to the micro-management of our daily lives — religion, ethics, human rights, mental health, and even ‘human enhancement’, aka, transhumanism. The platform is presented as a manifesto for the new era into which we are being thrust; an era of ‘sustainable development’ and ‘impact investment’ through human capital bonds. Much like the Patriot Act, it is difficult to believe that such an incredibly dense, user-interactive online document could have been written start-to-finish during the initial weeks of the unfolding Covid pandemic. It is simply too comprehensive. Was this document also sitting around in some globalist’s desk just waiting for the right moment?
The Covid Action Platform presents a blueprint for the hostile takeover of every aspect of human decision making; a undertaking which is being accomplished right now, through blockchain technologies, image recognition and mechanised translation; through deep learning algorithms which make use of our smartphones and computers and employ cutting edge technologies such as facial recognition and speech translation to assimilate whole libraries of information about us — a vast neural network capable of making accurate predictions about our behaviour — in particular, our purchasing habits. In this late stage of capitalism our value to the ruling class is increasingly as consumers rather than producers. Ever wondered how it is that products and services are advertised on our screens immediately following a phone call or private conversation? Even now artificial intelligence is plotting our behaviour and making predictions based on the data it collects. The more information we feed it, the more it is able to predict and control us.
[The human population is controlled] via digital identity systems tied to cashless benefit payments within the context of a militarized 5G, IoT [Internet of Things], and AR [augmented reality] environment. The billionaire class has built and is rapidly putting the finishing touches on infrastructure to run human capital social impact markets that will securitize the lives of most people as data streams. The technology that underlies this 4IR automation will hasten the death of the planet. The World Economic Forum is advancing a technocratic system of control and domination of humanity and the planet… Why should we agree to this? It is a profound sickness of Western culture. Hubris. Sick. And totally ignoring the impact our actions have on the natural world around us.
— Alison Hawver McDowell, Wrench in the Gears
It is the need for increased surveillance and data gathering capability that is currently driving the roll out of 5G technology. Our new augmented reality lifestyles are going to require a great deal more speed and bandwidth, not to mention all those new driverless trucks on the road. Is this perhaps also why the horse shit peddlers are claiming that 5G itself is spreading the virus? Leaving aside the potential harmful effects of electromagnetic radiation in confined spaces, blaming 5G for the pandemic is about as nuanced as blaming ‘the Jooz’ for 9-11. And yet 5G does play a crucial role in this conspiracy. It will provide the extra capacity needed to micro-manage our lives when we are eventually released from lockdown into a world of digital surveillance, biometric I.D. and social credit.
The layoffs and retrenchments of workers by the million also present new opportunities to bring online automation on a scale hitherto imagined. We should not be surprised that figures like HRH the Prince of Wales and other illustrious world leaders are now calling this a golden opportunity to reshape the world. The ruling class are literally calling for a new social contract. Would you let your employer ‘renegotiate’ your contract without your union representative present? There is no historical precedent for the ruling class giving up their power and privilege. Why would they do so now?
We are indeed entering Huxley’s Brave New World; a digital panopticon where our every move will be tracked and traced; where Universal Basic Income will function as behavioural scrip; where our Covid Passes will provide access to public spaces. All of these things will be packaged and sold as the solution to our current predicament; the way we ‘reopen’ our economies and return to normal. All thanks to Covid-19.
This is a social engineering on steroids. It is not, however, unprecedented. Our rulers have made no secret of their plans to implement technocracy, couched in terms from the sublime “the systems approach to complex global challenges” to the brazenly unabashed “the self direction of human evolution”. From Julian Huxley’s foundational philosophy of Unesco to the managerial technocracy described by Carroll Quigley and Edward Bernays; from David Rockefeller’s work on global governance to Jacques Attali’s Brief History of the Future, the conceptual framework has been spelled out clearly for more than a century for anyone willing to pay attention. Texts once dismissed as works of speculative fiction now look more like the blueprints of mad scientists, social Darwinists and Malthusian eugenicists. These are the manifestos of the elite. We are living in HG Wells Open Conspiracy; in Aldous Huxley’s Ultimate Revolution. Covid 19 is simply providing the theatrical smoke and fog between acts.
Technocracy is no more compatible with human happiness than Ayn Rand’s theory of rational self interest, but this, we are told, is what progress demands, and history shows there is little we can do to stop revolutionary change. Do we become Luddites? Do we join the masses with their pitchforks and go out and set fire to the 5G ‘cancer towers’? Or do we recognise Robert Frost’s truism that “the best way out is always through”?
It’s clear that technology is here to stay. Alas, the shape of our future will depend entirely on those who control it. Failing a return to fashion of the guillotine, power is likely to remain concentrated in the hands of an increasingly small and elite group. We might find comfort, however, in the fact that hubris seldom has the final word in human affairs, and we can be reasonably assured that Huxley’s ultimate revolution will be every bit as fleeting as Fukuyama’s End of History.
The trap was set at least twenty-five years ago and the mice jumped at the smell of the cheese. I am referring to the introduction of the computer as a mass necessity and the Internet that followed. I was slow to enter the trap, “forced” finally in 2007 by the college where I was teaching. Up to that point I was just a member of The Lead Pencil Club, whose motto was “a speed bump on the information superhighway” and whose membership list numbered twenty-three and a half people worldwide. When I slowly and reluctantly reached for the cheese, the trap snapped not on my neck to finish me, but on my head that was half in and half out. The out part kept thinking. What follows are that half-head’s musings on why I didn’t follow my intuition, the whole damn sorry situation we are all in, and what we might do to spring the trap and run free. I don’t like this trapped feeling. And, by the way, the cheese was American, which is not exactly real cheese.
In 1960 the sociologist C. Wright Mills said that there was far too much information for people to assimilate and make sense of and that lucid summations were needed. He was echoing Thoreau who in 1854 said, “If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications?” Mills said people needed to develop what he called the sociological imagination that would allow them to condense and simplify news and to connect personal and social matters within historical and structural contexts.
That was the long-lost era of newspapers, long-form paper magazines, the reading of books, and minimal television stations. To think that there was far too much information then can only make one laugh, now that the digital revolution has buried us in data, information, and “breaking news” at warp speed, usually contradictory and lacking context. The internet has literally made people crazy, created schizoid or split personalities who don’t know whether they are coming or going or what world they are in, physical or virtual. This is the era of social schizophrenia. It is also the era of Covid-19 lockdowns when a far greater online life is promoted as the necessary future.
If people once felt that all the information was too confusing and they were ending up thinking and doing things ass-backwards as a result, back then they might have understood it if you told them that the only way you can do anything is ass-backwards. Today, many would probably greet you with a look of bewilderment as they googled it to see if there was a way to swivel their asses to the front to get adjusted to the way they feel while waiting online for clear directions to emerge. Which way does an ass go?
They will be waiting for a long, long time.
The Internet is a double-bind because we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. News, writing, and information of all sorts is now often not available any other way. The era of paper newspapers is coming to an end. This was meant to be. Other sources of fact and fiction have gradually been eliminated, while the content on the Internet has been dramatically increased and progressively censored. The dream of an open Internet is turning into a nightmare. If you look at the Internet’s creation and development by the U.S. military-intelligence-Silicon Valley network as a tool for social control, propaganda, and total spying, if you grasp this nexus and their intentions, you will come away realizing that the Internet and the total integrated digital world is a dystopian tool designed to make you crazy. To sow confusion and endless contradictory information from minute to minute. To “flood the zone” (see Event 201) with propaganda and disinformation. To give you a headache, keep you agitated, and destroy your genuine human experience in the physical world. To put you into a state of frenetic passivity while whispering in your ear that there is no escape, while allowing elements of truth to emerge to keep you addicted.
This is the double-bind. It is what Jacques Ellul in 1964 called the technological society that is ruled by technique in every aspect of its life. Technique is a way of thinking that emphasizes efficiency; it is a way of thinking that emphasizes order and standardized means to a predetermined end. It is rational, deliberate, and focused on results. It is a way of thinking that has penetrated deep into the psychic structures of society and opposes spontaneity and unreflective action. Machines grow out of technical thinking, and today the computer, the internet, and artificial intelligence are the ideal manifestations of such thinking. They are the result, not the cause. As such, digital technology satisfies the technical mindsets that have been created over the decades, which includes regular people who have been gradually softened up to believe these machine dreams. Efficiency, results, practicality, and speed. The human body as a wonderful machine.
We have all been so conditioned, even those of us old enough to have lived before the computer era. Starting particularly in the early 1990s with the rat-a-tat electronic frenzy of the U.S. televised aggressive war against Iraq, euphemistically called the Gulf War and presented live with round-the-clock television coverage by ghoulish announcers more excited than 13-year-old boys with a porn magazine, the speed of everyday life has increased. If you lived through those years and were sensitive to the social drift, you could feel the pace of life pick up year-to-year, as everyone was induced to get in the fast lane. On the information superhighway, it is the only lane. Paul Virilio, a French thinker, has focused on this issue of speed in his studies of dromology, from dromos: a race, running. While his language is perhaps too academic, his insights are profound, as with the following point:
The speed of the new optoelectronic and electroacoustic milieu becomes the final void (the void of the quick), a vacuum that no longer depends on the interval between places or things and so on the world’s extension, but on the interface of an instantaneous transmission of remote appearances, on a geographic and geometric retention in which all volume, all relief vanishes.
This is the world of teleconferencing and the online life, existence shorn of physical space and time and people. A world where shaking hands is a dissident act. A haunted world of specters, words, and images that can appear and disappear in a nanosecond. A magic show. A place where, in the words of Charles Manson, you can “get the fear,” where fear is king. A locus where, as we sit at home “sheltering in place,” we are no longer there. Ernest Hemingway sniffed the future when in The Sun Also Rises, he has the protagonist Jake Barnes say no to Robert Cohn, who wants him to travel to South America with him, with these words: “All countries look like the moving pictures.” That was 1926.
Things have changed a wee bit since then. But the essence of propaganda and social control remains the same. “All those people who seek to control the behavior of large numbers of other people work on the experiences of those other people,” wrote R.D. Laing, in The Politics of Experience. “Once people can be induced to experience a situation in a similar way, they can be expected to behave in similar ways.” Mystification takes place when people can be convinced that a social construction – e.g. the Internet and the digital life – is part of “the natural order of things,” like the air we breathe. And that life online is real life, better and more real than physical existence.
I believe the digital revolution has gone a long way toward destroying our experience as persons. It is the endless magical mystery tour that goes nowhere. It is the ultimate psychodrama conjured by a satanic magician.
Do I exaggerate? Perhaps. But how else explain the spell this medium has cast on billions of people worldwide? Did the human race suddenly get smart? Or are many more people crazy?
I ask myself this question, and now I ask you. Has the Internet and the devices to access it made your life better or worse? Has it made the life of humanity better or worse? Has its essential role in globalization made for a better world?
Obviously, there are pluses to the Internet, just as there are pluses to almost everything. I don’t deny that. The plus side of death is that the thought of it reminds you that you are alive. The plus side of television is you don’t have to turn it on. Like you, I could rattle off many good things about the Internet (not cell phones, sorry). But on the scale of good and bad, where do you come down? Where do I?
Or is it possible we can’t decide because we are too conflicted and caught in a double-bind?
I am of two minds, or more accurately, two half-heads. The upper part, pinned in the trap and dead to my situation, can only answer yes, sir, now that I am trapped, my life is better. I can debate endlessly the minutiae of every issue thrown out like pieces of meat for caged lions. I can check the weather forecast for every hour of every day of the week, even though I know they will probably be wrong. I can get directions even though I know you don’t need a director to know which way the roads go. I can research issues quickly and pontificate as if I were an expert on every matter from a to z. I can feel I am informed while feeling deformed by the contradictory information that appears and disappears every few minutes. Essentially, I can feel in-touch and worthy of respect from friends and neighbors because I can exchange empty words with them about nothing. I can feel so very normal and rejoice in that. I can feel sane.
On the negative side, well, my lower half-head, the one that’s still thinking lead-pencil thoughts, the slow and easy stuff, the calm cool breeze oh what a lovely day dreams – you don’t really need to hear what it has to bitch about the Internet. You can probably guess.
In a fine article, “Vicious Cycles: Theses on a philosophy of news,” in Harper’s Magazine, Greg Jackson writes the following about our addiction to so-called “news” (the Internet):
When we turn away from the news, we will confront a startling loneliness. It is the loneliness of life. The loneliness of thinking, of having no one to think for us, and of uncertainty. It is a loneliness that was always there but that was obscured by an illusion, and we will miss the illusion…. And we will miss tuning in each day to hear that voice that cuts boredom and loneliness in its solution of the present tense, that like Scheherazade assures us the story is still unfolding and always will be. I don’t know whether we can give it up.
The DeVos Department of Education’s new “Proposed Rules” for federal regulations of “Distance Education and Innovation” (85 FR 18638) will effectively open the floodgates for online education corporations to put public brick-and-mortar schools out of business by streamlining “adaptive-learning and other artificial intelligence” technologies that replace “human instructors” with “competency-based education (CBE)” software which provide “direct assessment” through “subscription-based” courseware that data-mine students’ cognitive-behavioral algorithms to “personalize” digital lessons.
What Is Computerized CBE? No More Classrooms, No More “Credit Hours”
As I have documented in several articles, “CBE” is a euphemism for educational methods that deploy computer modules based on Harvard Psychologist B. F. Skinner’s “teaching machines,” which implement operant-conditioning methods to “shape” student learning into “competent” behaviors geared toward college or career readiness. The terms “competency-based education” and “CBE” are used 147 times in the new Proposed Rules for 85 FR 18638, which is a total of 64 pages long. Compare this to the 392-pages of federal legislation that cover the entire Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which only contains 6 references to “competency-based education.”
According to Skinnerian CBE advocates, competency-based computer learning at home is better than human instruction in a classroom because the one-to-one student/computer ratio enables each student to learn at his or her own pace. 85 FR 18638 states “CBE programs . . . measure student progress based on their demonstration of specific competencies rather than sitting in a seat or at a computer for a prescribed period of time. Many CBE programs are designed to permit students to learn at their own pace.” Stated differently, when a student enrolled in CBE courseware is ready to move on to the next lesson, he or she can click on the next learning module without having to wait for the teacher to deliver the next lecture. And if a CBE student is not ready to move on to the next virtual lesson, he or she can remediate by repeating the same digital learning module without being “left behind” when the teacher moves on to the next lecture.
To facilitate “self-paced” CBE learning, online education corporations and other software companies are offering “subscription-based” e-learning services that enroll students on a pay-as-you-go basis. These self-paced CBE courses allow a student to “subscribe” for enrollment into virtual-learning modules which can be rolled over with monthly subscription fees for as long or as soon as it takes for the student to demonstrate “competency” in the course.
Now that basically every US school has converted to virtual “distance learning” through computers, 85 FR 18638 is attempting to loosen federal requirements for self-paced CBE courseware so that online education corporations can rake in federal funding for delivering more subscription-based “competency” lessons through digital platforms:
Current regulations require an institution to evaluate a student’s pace of completion by dividing completed credits over attempted credits. This calculation is difficult to apply in competency-based programs, including subscription-based programs, because there is often no set period of time during which a student “attempts” a competency in such programs; rather, the student works on a competency until he or she can demonstrate mastery of it. Given the limitations in this proposed definition on a student’s eligibility to receive additional disbursements [of federal funds], we believe it is unnecessary and needlessly burdensome for an institution’s SAP policy to include pace requirements for subscription-based programs.
In other words, these new (de)regulations will relax the legal requirements for online education corporations to receive federal funds, such as financial aid grants, as payments for students’ CBE subscription fees. It should be noted that “subscription-based” e-learning is referenced 112 times in these new Proposed Rules.
As I have documented in numerous articles, self-paced CBE subscriptions and “adaptive-learning” software basically go hand in hand. CBE “courseware” subscriptions “personalize” lessons for students through “adaptive-learning” computers, which are nothing less than modern digitalized versions of the “Skinner box,” or “teaching machine.” Adaptive-learning software revamps B. F. Skinner’s “programmed instruction” with “artificial intelligence” that automates “stimulus-response” methods of educational psychology to train students for academic and career “competences.”
Essentially, adaptive-learning courseware enables “self-paced” learning because the psychological-conditioning software “adapts” its lessons based on how the student “responds” to the virtual “stimuli,” such as multiple-choice or short-answer modules on digital windows. The faster the student responds with correct answers, the faster the learning stimuli will progress the student towards full “competence” at the end of the subscription-based course’s module sequence.
Incentivizing broader enrollment in subscription-based adaptive-learning courseware, 85 FR 18638 expands the definition of accreditable “academic engagement” as “participation by a student in . . . an online course with an opportunity for interaction or an interactive tutorial, webinar, or other interactive computer-assisted instruction. . . . Such interaction could include the use of artificial intelligence or other adaptive learning tools.” Under this revised definition of “academic engagement,” schools will be given expanded flexibility to accredit a vast range of self-paced CBE curriculums delivered by online education companies through adaptive-learning AI that programs students with operant-conditioning algorithms.
Moreover, “academic engagement” is being further expanded to give adaptive CBE courseware the green light to phase out certain requirements for human instruction: “[a]ctive engagement . . . could include the use of artificial intelligence or other adaptive learning tools so that the student is receiving feedback from technology-mediated instruction. The interaction need not be exclusively with a human instructor.” Indeed, adaptive AI can deliver “feedback” on student learning through “direct assessment,” which is referenced 226 times in the new Proposed Rules.
Of course, in a bankrupt economy where people are locked down under emergency pandemic pretenses, such adaptive AI courseware will be more convenient since the software can be available for the student 24-hours a day (unlike a human teacher). In addition, the non-human AI bots will be much cheaper than human instructors who need to be fed and housed. So it looks like the proposed (de)regulations will set up incentives which will ensure that the virtual-learning industry is able to swallow up federal education funds while public brick-and-mortar schools and human teachers are starved out into obsolescence.
Sweeping Deregulation of Artificial Intelligence: AI Will Make Decisions for You
To be sure, AI adaptive-learning algorithms are evolving faster than legislators can deliberate on new regulations for such new “machine learning” innovations. Thus, to get out of the way of “progress,” 85 FR 18638 is basically writing a blank check for AI corporations to sell schools and students new e-learning products and ed-tech “updates” without preliminary regulatory permission from the federal government:
[t]he current regulations [which] do not address subscription-based programs or consider programs made possible through artificial intelligence-driven adaptive learning. . . . Because of the time it takes to implement new regulations, it is unlikely that the Department will be able to keep pace with developing technologies and other innovations in real time. These proposed regulations attempt to remove barriers that institutions face when trying to create and implement new and innovative ways of providing education to students, and also provide sufficient flexibility to ensure that future innovations we cannot yet anticipate have an opportunity to move forward without undue risk of a negative program finding or other sanction on an institution.
To put it another way, AI-learning algorithms evolve faster than legislators can regulate, so these new federal rules will “remove barriers” to AI ed-tech progress by allowing educational institutions the “flexibility” to rubber stamp new AI courseware programs without prior regulatory approval from the US Department of Ed.
But if the federal government allows AI ed-tech to develop faster than Congress can regulate, then the Department of Ed will render itself into a mere ceremonial bureaucracy that has abdicated its authority to AI algorithms, which means artificial intelligence will be in the driver’s seat taking control of the future of education policy as virtual distance learning becomes the mainstream mode of schooling in a post-corona economy.
It should be noted that Edgar McCulloch, who is a Government Relations representative of the IBM Corporation, sat on the “Accreditation and Innovation negotiating committee” involved in the proposal of these new federal rules. This is worth noting because IBM develops AI ed-tech through its Watson artificial-intelligence program which partners with the globalist Pearson Education LLC: the “world’s largest education company,” which also runs online schooling companies including Connections Academy.
How much stimulus money will be vacuumed up by online education corporations and AI courseware companies under these new federal rules? Will brick-and-mortar schools be able to survive in a post-corona economy in which people are either heavily travel restricted or too poor to pay for school buildings and human employees? Will human teachers, or even human ethics, survive in a world in which the total deregulation of technocratic advancement exalts AI as the judge, jury, and executioner of human learning?
The victories of Bernie Sanders in the early primaries had people talking about socialist revolutions, while Biden’s wins on Super Tuesday (in largely conservatives states) have tempered that enthusiasm. This is an important reminder of something we all need to remember: The Capitalists already won. There may still be a few scattered enclaves of subsistence farmers and indigenous peoples who haven’t been forced to pay to exist, but in the West they won a long time ago. That victory has been so complete that we don’t even notice anymore. It’s completely normal to us to rent our lives away to “earn a living.” Faced with a such world, few can even ask how we got here, let alone how to fight it.
It started with Protestantism, or more specifically with John Calvin. Ignoring that Bible quote about camels through the eye of a needle, he preached that wealth was a sign of God’s favor and therefore the wealthy were virtuous and moral. In contrast, the poor were immoral and lazy (despite the fact that any poor person can testify to how much work being poor requires). This led directly to the Protestant Work Ethic, and the idea that hard work could make anyone rich.
It was a mindset that well served the farmers and craftsmen of the era. But that was not enough for the factory owners and the rising capitalist class of the time. They needed people to work for them. Most people were content with self-sufficient agrarian lifestyles. Which is why the capitalists pressured governments to enact a series of laws to push peasants off the land and into the cities and factories, events often known as the Enclosure of the Commons. This is not to say peasant life was utopian, it was not, but it did allow for a certain degree of independence. People were then stripped of the means of that self-sufficiency, forced into the cities and the factories with only their labor to sell. Patrick Colquhoun1 explained it in the late 18th century: “It [poverty] is the lot of man. It is the source of wealth, since without poverty, there could be no labour; there could be no riches, no refinement, no comfort, and no benefit to those who may be possessed of wealth.”
It was there in the cities and factories that people began to think of themselves as Workers. Capitalists secured their victory with various strategies that usually came down to destruction or cooption to make sure that people never think of themselves as anything other than workers, and we started paying to exist. This was when the capitalists won. In the centuries following, the world has been reorganized as a Work Society, with all social interaction revolving around labor. Today, political pundits often speak of “workers” and the “working class” in the abstract. Look at nearly any TV show, comedy or drama, and see how many of them revolve around the workplace. Even the current buzzphrase “Work-Life Balance” places work first. But “Worker” is a performative identity: workers must work. In such a society, the providers of work will always have the advantage. Labor may demand better working conditions, better hours and above all, better pay. They may even organize workers’ political parties almost everywhere except in the United States) but beneath it all, they demand to work.
With jobs the be all and end all of demands, the best many of these workers now hope for is to change roles, move up in the Worker Hierarchy from Worker to Boss. Unfortunately, this dovetails with a fascist mentality. As Wilhelm Reich described it2: “The subjugated “little man” who desires authority and rebels against it at the same time.” This means the potential for fascism remains latent in any Work Society.
But even capitalism’s favorite bogeyman, communism, is at its heart based around the idea of Human as Worker (i.e. the Proletariat). The Worker identity was too strongly established in the industrialized countries so successful communist revolutions happened in countries that had no longstanding history with Protestantism (more specifically Calvinism), and more importantly, had large peasant populations. Like our ancestors in the West, these peasants were in no way eager to accept poverty as the “lot of man.” And no matter how much they hated their feudal overlords (whose arrogance and abuse of power often sparked the revolutions in the first place), they did not wish to give up a self-sufficient way of life for waged labor, a condition that for centuries was regarded as little better than slavery. In the end, many of the communist countries attempted to industrialize their people which meant forcing a worker identity upon them anyway, and often led to catastrophe.
This points to the contradiction at the heart of the Work Society. Despite training us to see ourselves as workers, to capitalists labor is a cost to be reduced so that they may maintain their profits. Always seeking to reduce those costs, they eagerly downsize and force less workers to do more. That gives them a pool of surplus labor, makes workers so easily replaceable, plays factions of workers off against each other and keeps wages down.
Since the beginning, capitalists have been investing in technological innovation to increase labor power and further extend profits. The problem, however, is that technological development and automation makes Labor more redundant than simply downsizing. Up until now, this resulted in shifting workers from one occupation to another. But recent developments in automation and Artificial Intelligence threaten workers to the point of irrelevancy. The Work Society is beginning to break down and workers are faced with a crisis of identity: When workers cannot work, what then are they? Neither labor nor capitalists are prepared to answer to that question. Capitalists don’t want to lose their exploited slaves and laborer faces the fear of losing their identity (in addition to losing their livelihoods). This threatens to overturn the very foundations of the Work Society. Like any threatened system, it will fight to survive, and it has several strategies to do just that.
First, capitalists continue their old “divide and conquer” strategy of playing workers off against each other, this time including migrants and refugees into the mix. Then they pay off their sycophants in government to unleash a full-throated neoliberalism in an attempt to turn the clock back to the Gilded Age. A newer strategy is to blur the line between life and work by expanding the Work Society into more of people’s lives in order to marketize and monetize every aspect of it. Under the trendy name of the “gig economy” they tell us how we can all profit by driving for Uber, renting our homes out on AirB&B and producing endless amounts of online “content” in what is essentially cyberbegging. All in a quest to make ourselves ever more sellable, because if we can no longer be Workers, they would make us into Products.
But there is another more dangerous stopgap. When faced with crises, combined with economic stress, the latent fascist tendencies will remerge. Fascism is an emergency reaction of the Work Society as it tries to reorient itself to new circumstances. We have seen it before, such as the defeat of Germany in the aftermath of WWI and the Great Depression in the previous century. Similar conditions have appeared with the Crash of 2008 combined with increased automation and outsourcing in the labor market. This time, even fascism may not save the Work Society as fascism is no more equipped to stop what’s coming than the previous order.
This is the world as it stands now. There is a saying that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Capitalism (and Work Society) is the dominant global system to which There Is No Alternative, in the words of Margaret Thatcher. With the fall of the Soviet Union, our capitalist ruling classes have even deluded themselves to believe that we live in the End of History. However, there’s another old saying we should heed: “Those whom Gods destroy, they first make mad with power.” In the madness of seeing the world only in this context with no alternatives accepted, capitalists have set up themselves (and the rest of us) to face an Outside Context Problem. The Scottish author Iain M. Banks3 described the Outside Context Problem as something that: “…most civilizations would encounter just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop.”
Climate change is our Outside Context Problem. It is a problem created by the capitalists, no matter how much they try to foist the blame on individuals for simply trying to survive in the society they created. Once again, the capitalists have pulled out their usual bag of tricks: destruction and cooption. Yet climate change cannot be killed, bought out, or paid off (even if those fighting against it can be). Even bribing politicians to send in the military has brought chaos and suffering, but has not stopped the problem. The desire to take on climate change directly is all but impossible because the US treats energy as an American monopoly (OPEC countries hold their reserves in the form of US securities). Any attempt to mitigate climate change by decreasing fossil fuel use is regarded as a threat to US interests. Forbidden to confront the very nature of the problem (unlimited growth on a finite planet), it is no surprise that many now are falling back on denial. They say that this is just a bump that requires a few tweaks and not a world encountering a paradigmatic shift. They sit back and trust in a technological solution to save us and continue on as before.
What it boils down to is this: in the coming years there is a choice to be made, either we continue down the road of misery we are on to destruction and possible extinction, or we make some very deep fundamental changes to our society. Not just tweaks and marketing slogans like Sustainable Growth or Green Capitalism, but questioning capitalism and abandoning the Work Society and other changes so profound that they almost literally cannot be imagined in our current mindset.
Maybe it’s too late, and we have already destroyed ourselves. And for people who see themselves as nothing more than workers, maybe extinction is a mercy. But in the end if we do survive, we will have to rediscover what is is to be fully human and remember what we were before we allowed ourselves to be convinced that we were only workers.
A Treatise onIndigence: Exhibiting a General View of the National Resources, 1806
We live in a fabricated reality where the visible world became nearly meaningless once the screen world became people’s “window on the world.” An electronic nothingness replaced reality as people gleefully embraced digital wraparound apparitions. These days people still move about in the physical world but live in the electronic one. The result is mass hallucination.
This is the fundamental seismic shift of our era. There is a lot of bitching and joking about it, but when all is said and done, it is accepted as inevitable. Digital devices are embraced as phantom lovers. Technological “advances” are accepted as human destiny. We now inhabit a technological nightmare (that seems like a paradise to so many) in which technology and technique – the standardized means for realizing a predetermined end most efficiently – dominate the world. In such a world, not only does the end justify the means, but to consider such a moral issue is beside the point. We are speeding ahead to nowhere in the most “efficient” way possible. No questioning allowed! Unless you wish to ask your phone.
These days there is much political talk and commentary about fascism, tyranny, a police state, etc., while the totalitarianism of technocracy and technology continues apace. It is not just the ecological (in the human/natural sense) impact of digital technology where one change generates many others in an endless spiral, but the fact that technical efficiency dominates all aspects of life and, as Jacques Ellul wrote long ago, “transforms everything it touches into a machine,” including humans. For every problem caused by technology, there is always a technological “solution” that creates further technological problems ad infinitum. The goal is always to find the most efficient (power) technique to apply as rapidly as possible to all human problems.
Writing nearly fifty years ago in Medical Nemesis, Ivan Illich, explained how in medical care the human touch was being replaced by this technical mindset. He said:
In all countries, doctors work increasingly with two groups of addicts: those for whom they prescribe drugs, and those who suffer from their consequences. The richer the community, the larger the percentage of patients who belong to both…In such a society, people come to believe that in health care, as in all fields of endeavor, technology can be used to change the human condition according to almost any design.
We are, of course, living with the ongoing results of such medical technical efficiency. The U.S.A. is a country where the majority of people are drugged in one way or another, legally or illegally, since the human problems of living are considered to have only technological solutions, whether those remedies are effective or anodyne. The “accidents” and risks built into the technological fixes are never considered since the ideological grip of the religion of technology is all-encompassing and infallible. We are caught in its web.
Marshall McLuhan, the media guru of the 1960s – whether he was applauding or bemoaning the fact – was right when he claimed that the medium is the message.
Cell phones, being the current omnipresent form of the electronification of life, are today’s message, a sign that one is always in touch with the void. To be without this small machine is to be rendered an idiot in the ancient Greek sense of the word – a private person. Translation: one who is out of it, detached, at least temporarily, from the screens that separate us from reality, from the incessant noise and pinging messages that destroy reflection and create reflex reactions.
But to be out of it is the only way to understand it. And to understand it is terrifying, for it means one knows that the religion of technology has replaced nature as the source of what for eons has been considered sacred. It means one grasps how reality is now defined by technology. It means realizing that people are merging with the machines they are attached to by invisible manacles as they replace the human body with abstractions and interact with machines. It means recognizing that the internet, despite its positive aspects and usage by dissenters intent on human liberation, is controlled by private corporation and government forces intent on using it as a weapon to control people. It means seeing the truth that most people have never considered the price to be paid for the speed and efficiency of a high-tech world.
But the price is very, very high.
One price, perhaps the most important, is the fragmentation of consciousness, which prevents people from grasping the present from within – which, as Frederic Jameson has noted, is so crucial and yet one of the mind’s most problematic tasks – because so many suffer from digital dementia as their attention hops from input to output in a never-ending flow of mediated, disembodied data. As a result, a vicious circle has been created that prevents people from the crucial epistemological task of grasping the double-bind that is the ultimate propaganda. Data is Dada by another name, and we are in Dada land, pissing, not into Marcel Duchamp’s ridiculous work of Dada “art,” a urinal, but into the wind. And data piled on data equals a heap of data without knowledge or understanding. There is no time or space for grasping context or to connect the dots. It is a pointillist painting in the form of inert facts that few can understand or even realize that they don’t.
I am typing these words on a Hermes 3000 manual typewriter, a beautiful piece of technology whose sound and movement creates a rhythmic sanctuary where my hands, head, and heart work in unison. It allows me to think slowly, to make mistakes that will necessitate retyping, to do second and third re-readings and revisions, to roll the paper out of the machine and sit quietly as I review it. My eyes rest on the paper, not a blue-lit screen.
Technology as such is not the problem, for my typewriter is a very useful and endurable machine, a useful technology that has enhanced life. It does not break or need to be replaced every few years, as computers do. It does not contain coltan, tantalum, or other minerals mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and other places by poor people working under oppressive conditions created by international consumer greed that is devouring the world. It does not allow anyone to spy on me as I type. I am alone and unplugged, disconnected, off-line and out of line, a sine qua non for thinking, and thinking about deep matters. The typewriter is mine, and mine alone, unlike the connected digital devices that have destroyed aloneness, for to be alone is to contemplate one’s fate and that of all humanity. It is to confront essential things and not feel the loneliness induced and exacerbated by the illusion of always being in touch.
But while this typing machine allows me to write in peace, I am in no way suggesting that I have escaped the technological condition that we all find ourselves in. There are little ways to step outside the closing circle, but even then, one is still in it. I will eventually have to take my paper and type it into a computer document if I wish to publish it in the form you will be reading it. There is no other way. The technocrats have decreed it so. We are all, as George Orwell once wrote in a different context and meaning, “inside the whale,” the whale in this case being a high-tech digital world controlled by technocrats, and we have only small ways to shield ourselves from it. Sitting in a quiet room, working on a typewriter, taking a walk in the woods without a cell phone, or not owning a cell phone, are but small individual acts that have no effect on the structural realty of what Neil Postman calls technopoly in his masterful book, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. And even in the woods one may look up to admire a tree only to find that it is a cell phone tower.
Humans have always created and used technology, but for a very long time that technology was subject to cultural and religious rules that circumscribed limits to its use. Today there are no limits, no rules to constrain it. The prohibition to prohibit is our motto. In our acceptance of technical efficiency, we have handed over our freedom and lost control of the means to ends we can’t fathom but unconsciously fear. Where are we heading? many probably wonder, as they check the latest news ping, no doubt about something to fear, as a thousand pieces of “news” flash through their devices without pause, like wisps of fleeting dreams one vaguely remembers but cannot pin down or understand. Incoherence is the result. Speed is king.
Of course, this kaleidoscopic flood of data confuses people who desire some coherence and explanation. This is provided by what Jacques Ellul 1 calls “the explanatory myth.” He writes:
This brings us to the other pole of our bizarre intellectual situation today: the explanatory myth. In addition to its political and its mystical and spiritual function, the explanatory myth is the veritable spinal column of our whole intellectual system…Given that appearances produce confusion and coherence is needed, a new appearance unifies them all in the viewer’s mind and enables everything to be explained. This appearance has a spiritual root and is accepted only by completely blind credulity. It becomes the intellectual key for opening all secrets, interpreting every fact, and recognizing oneself in the whirl of phenomena…this myth [is] their one stable point of thought and consciousness…enables everyone to avoid the trouble of thinking for themselves, the worry of doubt, the questioning, the uncertainty of understanding, and the torture of a bad conscience. What prodigious savings of time and means, which can be put usefully to work manufacturing some more missiles…[they] have a good conscience because they have an answer for everything; and whatever happens and whatever they do, they can rely on the explanation that myth provides. This process places them within the most complete unreality possible. They live in a permanent dream, but a realistic dream, constructed from the countless facts and theories that they believe in with all the power of ‘mass persons’ who cannot detach themselves from the mass without dying.
Today that myth is the religion of technology.
So if you have any questions you want answered, you can ask your phone.
Ask your phone why we are living with endless wars on the edge of using our most astounding technological invention: nuclear weapons.
Ask your computer why “nice” Americans will sit behind computer screens and send missiles to kill people half-way around the world whom they are told they are at war with.
Ask your smart device why so many have become little Eichmanns, carrying out their dutiful little tasks at Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and all the other war manufacturers, or not caring what stocks they own.
Ask your phone what really happened to the Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 in Iran. See if your phone will say anything about cyber warfare, electronic jamming, or why the plane’s transponder was turned off preventing a signal to be sent indicating it was a civilian aircraft.
Ask who is behind the push to deploy 5 G wireless technology.
Ask that smart phone who is providing the non-answers.
Ask and it won’t be given to you; seek and you will not find. The true answers to your questions will remain hidden. This is the technological society, set up and controlled by the rulers. It is a scam.
God may respond.
Presence in the Modern World, new translation, 2016, Cascade Books.