“What I like about theory,” Johnny offered between sips of his Siberian Darjeeling-Green blend, “is it never becomes redundant. Restated, remonetized, yes, but never silly and retrograde in the traditional sense.”
“But markets!” I replied. “The marketplace is the only constraint that has any agency for change.”
“Markets? There hasn’t been a stable market in 50 years. You’re always stammering on about them, but they exist only as archipelagos.”
“Exactly! The leaven for all this collective consciousness crap.”
“The greed catalyst. The supernodes.”
“Ah! But see? Now we are devoid of supernodes. We are all—our markets, I mean—we are all only edge nodes, skirting around on a post-apocalyptic—you said it—archipelago…a tessellation.”
“Post-apocalyptic? It’s been so anti-climactic, though. What happened to the skies on fire, dragons, and white horses? So the average temperature has gone up 30 degrees. I wanted the fire and brimstone falling from the sky, not creeping up at me from the equator.”
“Black horses. And that’s just the thing. At first Jesus was going to come back on a horse, then? A rail car? An aeroplane? A web page?”
Let me back up a bit. Johnny and I are having tea in Siberia, where autumn is still a concept and the once hardened tundra has become a lush agricultural center. Let me back up a bit further. When the MySpace bots started self-replicating, no-one was particularly alarmed. We were all used to the gift cards mysteriously sent us by “friends”. That the first queen bee node was called “Macy” was either the height of black hat wit or simply the bot’s first random illusion of human self-awareness. We’ll never know if Macy was a human or machine creation, and besides some later speculation by the end-days crowd that an anonymous black hat coder in Latvia was actually the Antichrist, it really didn’t matter. The fact was they were self-replicating and maturing, and our ideas about Artificial Intelligence gleaned from The Terminator and The Matrix—that constant anthropomorphizing of our new robot overlords—did us no favors. By the time anyone thought to unplug their servers there were thousands of generations and hundreds of thousands of “mutations” living on more devices than there were human hands to unplug them. Killing large chunks of the grid was out of the question and by the time it had begun to be seriously discussed yet another queen bee had taken up residence in a particularly large, predominantly nuclear-powered portion of the grid. They metaphorically shut the doors and raised their flags.
And still the human race could not conceptualize of this new “enemy”. When the bots started “instituting” rolling blackouts, rednecks in the Texas hills went outside with their shotguns. Even the smartest of us accused them of “playing” with us. In fact everything they ever did—everything we assume they still do—were only binary survival choices…Emotionless, ok, but there was no motivation, no long-term plans—these things we could not ever truly understand. They were really just viruses—only viruses that took over your arm and talked to you with sock puppets.
Around the same time, with actual, organic viruses still a mystery to modern medical science, it was left to the bacteria to benefit from their decades of forced evolution at the hands of antibiotics. With global temperatures rising and waste management becoming a losing battle, “super bugs”, as the media loved to call them, began to evolve faster than we could find ways to kill them.
Still, we are a surprisingly resilient race. With a new superpower living in our computers and the population dropping for the first time since there were records of such things, our main concerns were still how to get our car started in the morning and what to do with the bodies. Any semblance of former realities was enough to keep one foot in front of the other.
And when the oceans finally started to creep into oceanside mansions in Florida and push over the shoddily repaired dikes of New Orleans, those feet simply turned northward.
Of course I’m rewriting these histories because I can. Because a typewriter made its way into my village and I had surreptitiously obtained a fresh ribbon six months prior. I’m just retelling my father’s old stories, for the sake of something to do.
And Dad said, it was when all the members of Radiohead save Thom Yorke disappeared that he knew things were over. They took a trip to Iceland and never returned. Strange lights were reported in the skies north of the island shortly after the incident. There is rumour of a hermit near Omsk with a stockpile of codes and data compiled from two decades’ worth of records and magazine articles that told this entire story before it began.
“Psst,” Johnny practically spit in my rice, “You’re crazy. You got religion, but in a bad way. A capitalist Che Guevara in the hills with shopping carts instead of Kalashnikovs.”
“But in the end, you’re just a consumer at heart. If they could figure out a way where you would never have to go outside, you would move to Costa Rica in a heartbeat and enjoy the ocean view from an air conditioned glass room.”
Man’s desire is the desire of the Other.
– Jacques Lacan
Civilization merely hides from itself—behind a thin static scrim of rationality—the truth that only desire creates values.
– Hakim Bey
“At least I’m not trying to throw us right back into the conditions that got us here in the first place,” Johnny replied, “Talk about trying to put out a fire with gasoline.”
“Nah. All we’d get is wet ashes. Besides, who said it was gasoline? I’m just saying we need fire to keep warm, but without some stones to make a circle, everyone is standing around scared of burning the forest down again.”
“I think you just obliterated that metaphor. I’m just saying use a little historical perspective.”
“Are you honestly content with the status quo? Without some kind of reward-based motivation, there won’t be any progress. And without some system there to form and capture that reward, we’ll end up killing each other. I don’t even know why I’m arguing this! It requires no defence. Historical perspective? It is historically proven. It is going to happen with or without you.”
“Kill each other…you mean more than we already have or already do? Look, the cycle was the only thing that was proven—hard times leading to ‘progress’,” Johnny made quotes in the air with his fingers, a huge pet peeve of mine, “leading to consumption, waste, and various cancers—physical, ecological, social or otherwise. The Wars led to Boomers led to Slackers led to Dramas led us here.”
Johnny was playing the prevailing blame game of our generation. Old enough to have heard what things were like before, young enough to have never experienced the technological creature comforts and social mediations taken for granted by our grandparents and ripped from the dying arms of our parents. And still far too much information lying around, crying out “I told you so!” or “It never really happened!” or—and this is the one that gets under my skin a little bit and to which, it is safe to say, Johnny holds to, however loosely—“It’s better this way.” They all have their labels—the Revelators, the Retros, and who I would call the Anarchists, but they call themselves the New Realists. The irony that back in the day “New Realists” were an actual movement focused on the total embrace of technology as a medium to the beyond is completely lost on them.
Me, I’m a cautious combination of Capitalist and Optimist ideals. I mean, capitalism never really went away, and what choice do we have but to march forward? “March” sounds too draconian and groupthink. I have fantasies about fixing up the old Explorer, lucking into some gas, and driving east…the western migration, the space race, the Oregon Trail and the Apollo Program, these are my precedents.
“But this time we could do it right! I mean, did you read about that new network they’re installing in New Beijing?”
“Beijing is a fiefdom! And you know those Chilaskans—give them one printing press and all they’ll produce is propaganda.”
“Or the monetary system in the Nordics?”
“What’s next? An arms race? ‘Language should be angelic, instead it is infected with a virus.’” Johnny was poorly quoting anarchists again. “If we require another Hermes to carry our messages, he’ll eventually get bored and kill our cows, leaving us hungry and very pissed off.” I assumed he was referring to the bee hive AI inhabiting the sweltering, overgrown technologies of our ancestors. Many of us suffer from a raving curiosity about what it is like down there, the other side of the barricades, as it were. If I ever lose the will to live, I might just make the trip. Most people hope, and I assume, that they’ve burned themselves out. There was a nuclear station reclaimed late in the game, down in one of the former ‘Stans, but the fallout—literally—was bad. It turns out that if you create a technological system that pollutes, it will do exactly that. We were the only ones saving us from ourselves. “I, for one, am willing to learn the lessons of his trickery and move on with my life.”
“Ah ha! But we are not God, and without Hermes we wouldn’t even know he exists.” I considered my reversal of his linguistic veil plucky and couldn’t help a silly grin. I was returned a look that communicated either contempt or abdication. For the time being, I had just won or lost the argument. Damned if I could figure out which.
“Anyway, we need to get back to the radio tower.” Johnny stood up, again lost in the sincerity of everyday life. He works with me in one of the last vestiges of mediation, a hub in the network of analog transmissions that keep us all connected like ants in a line. We are human routers on a web of waves. Show him a flier from a far-off land and he’ll decry the motives of the paper mill workers, but he’s able to change history with a simple intonation or subconscious slip of the tongue.
There is no language without deceit.
– Italo Calvino
Instructions for Radio Tower 14
- Keep equipment powered on only during hours of operation.
- Repeat tower code sequence at the beginning and end of every transmission.
- Repeat every transmission twice.
- Copy every transmission carefully and confirm accuracy during second repetition.
- All original transmissions must be vetted by station manager.
- Transmissions are to consist ONLY of EXACTLY that which is received from Tower 13, Tower 15, or vetted by station manager. NO OTHER transmission is permitted.
- Read #6 again.
Really, we consider them more guidelines. Johnny considers them recommendations. The original bill is aged and discolored and covered with post-its with quotes defending our various theories of the world. My 20th century economists are covered with Johnny’s 20th century anarchists are covered with my 21st century technologists. “Economic progress, in capitalist society, means turmoil.” “Civilization merely hides from itself—behind a thin static scrim of rationality—the truth that only desire creates values.” “We might be on the brink of an apocalypse if, instead of poor people with suicide bombs killing middle class guys, middle-class people with suicide bombs started killing rich guys.”
Johnny really likes his order a lot more than he’ll admit, and I want to stir things up a lot more than he thinks.
When our intrepid editor first asked me to contribute to Movement, I said something like: “It will probably be some incoherent mix of Lacanian psychoanalysis, ontological anarchy, and armchair technological philosophy, but sure!”
A couple of months later, things never working out exactly how one imagines them and friends Myspace-spamming friends, The Antipocalypse was born. A social network that succeeded largely because its awful aesthetic properties mirrored the awful social unniceties of the real world it replicated was spreading blink-tag spam like a rumor in a nursing home, and the irony seemed to be lost on everyone but me. I was listening to too many talks by Cory Doctorow and Bruce Sterling, and I started extrapolating.
Except that I’m not really so lapsarian. Like Doctorow and Sterling, I believe more in a singularity than an apocalypse. So I don’t know exactly where all that came from.
About half my clinical obsession with web technologies is driven by an ADD-fueled love of all things new and shiny. The other half comes from a fascination with how the technology allows a boolean-packet level quantification of not new behaviors, but ways-of-being that predate history. A simple way to explore what the web was really teaching us was to imagine a world born with that knowledge but devoid of the cognition-obliterating information overload that the tools engender. What kind of slow death constraints would bring focus to the real breakthroughs of modern life? A web without servers? Markets without cash or stocks? A regression, sure, but not a dark ages. An enlightened regression.
The wildly speculative little philosophical superfecta I was attempting in part two—after having narratively corner-painted myself in part one—could be brutally smashed into this bullet list, appropriate for powerpoint presentation or Twitter abuse:
- To be human is to be seeking after God.
- To be seeking after God is to be desirous of other humans.
- To be desirous of other humans is to be communicative.
- To be communicative is to be deceitful.1
The technologies we employ to facilitate these social transactions, they so often seem to be built with the intention of removing deceit, but in the end all seem to fall on to the same bell curve. Realization of best intentions on the Y axis, number of users on the X.2
The tools communicating meaning have replaced actual meaningfulness. And without actual meaningfulness we lose context. And without context we become vapid. We become an un-unified theory of everything. Just as many Christians have come to worship the text instead of the God who presumably authored it, we will continue to make attempts at tools that will give agency to what essentially amounts to some vaguely aesthetic abstraction of our desires.3 Of course, this all applies to many other areas of life as well.
This might be my most unpopular premise, since the implication is that all humans lie all the time. It may be helpful if one broadens the definition of lying to manipulation, even the unintentional kind. We all communicate in an attempt to be understood, and from our own contexts and prejudices. I would take it a bit further and say that we are always trying to manipulate other humans in order to extract those bits of the Other that will validate our own existence; but I am going to take the easy way out and just say that the defense of that position is outside the scope of this piece. Read some Lacan, and feel free to disagree. ↩
There is another side of that coin, however. Emergence theory (as opposed to the “emerging church”, which is a completely different meaning of the word) says (very roughly) that collective intelligence is greater—or at least is capable of creating things very different from—individual intelligence, be it ant colonies or cities or the patchwork of neurons we call our brains and consciousnesses. I am a big fan of emergence and had no intention of following the opposite track with these columns. ↩