The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear
Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks
Everything is Noise
Goaded into action by the Fast Food President – a man as full of empty calories as empty rhetoric, hundreds of disparate factions of his supporters breached the defences of the very heart of American Democracy. As rioters erected a mock-gallows to ‘hang Mike Pence’ for daring to suggest that President-Elect Joe Biden’s legitimate election victory was in fact legitimate, hundreds of others stormed the building whilst lawmakers from both sides of the aisle cowered under desks and hid in offices in scenes that most citizens of America and other ‘functioning’ democracies would associate with ‘somewhere else’; somewhere hot, despotic and lawless. Both Press Corps and protesters beamed us live images of bearded Incels waving Confederate flags inside the heart of the Union while a horn-helmeted self-professed Shaman tried to remove the Speaker’s lectern, we were watching something unfold that was almost impossible to understand.
The question it made me ask was ‘How will historians judge this time?’
Not the 2020 US Elections or even the reign of Trump, but the last decade and a half.
News cycles are fast, but time moves slowly. And it’s almost impossible to understand an era until it has almost passed. As Elon Musk moves markets and Swedish teens move hearts and minds and the status quo convulses as it fails to hold back the inevitability of demography, I can’t help wondering, what the hell was that?
We are witnessing the final act of a period play defined by its volatile lack of plot.
Whilst Britain veered from the coalition’s romance in the rose garden and the era of the centrist Dad to Remoaners and Brexit; From ‘Ooooohhhh! Jeremy Corbyn’ to Oh…..Dominic Cummings, the US managed to elect a mixed-race man twice and a sex offender once, whilst we saw the stellar rise of AOC, BLM and GME. One could talk about Macron and Gillet Jaunes, or jump to the Middle East and the two faces of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Saud; the moderniser who let women in the Kingdom drive and who is planning a utopian eco-city in the desert and the butcher who sent assassins on to foreign soil to murder and dismember one dissenting voice. Meanwhile in China, the optimism of the PRCs coming out party, the 2008 Beijing Olympics, has given way to a technological panopticon, powered by an integrated surveillance apparatus, which unlike Covid-19 (See; SARS, MERS, Ebola) is truly unprecedented, a comprehensive monitoring system first piloted as a tool for Genocide-Lite in Xinjiang, and now being primed to bring Hong Kong to heel.
At the centre of this, the pivot around which all these disjointed arms seem to whirl is the Great Financial Crash, the moment when the late 20th century, like Wile E. Coyote finally looking down and seeing that bridge has gone, fell to earth with a puff of dirt.
What was the future?
This was not what we were promised.
When the West ‘won’ the Cold War, the implicit economic consensus brought us the promise of prosperity and democracy for all. Former darling of the Neoconservative right, Francis Fukuyama declared the ‘end of history’ in 1992, but by 2004, whilst Dick Cheyney was declaring a ‘American Unipolar Moment’ at a speech to the American Enterprise Institute, Fukuyama had already decided that “All of my friends had taken leave of reality.”
But perhaps reality had taken leave of them. The bipolarity of the cold war hadn’t given way to uni-polarity, but to schizophrenia. Washington hawks had taken a Cold War mindset into fighting postmodern non-state actors and wading into the middle of fractionalized tribal grudges masquerading as international conflicts. The War on Terror would reveal the naivety of their confidence.
At the same time, during the early Noughties, we confidently looked East assuming that prosperity meant democracy. The ‘Chinese Spring’ of that era would prove to be an Indian Summer of opening up.
By universalising a very particular and very peculiar Western World view, we were able to paint a picture of a future that never came to be.
The Vodka-Handbag Curve
At home, this created a confidence that was converted into consumer credit.
On both sides of the Atlantic, we were all living ‘on tick’.
Masstige brands multiplied, creating an increasingly infinite asymptote of new shit to buy – the ‘vodka-handbag curve’ that stretched from Absolute and Coach to Birkin Bags and Diva Vodka, starting at $450k for a bottle of clear, flavourless alcohol dosed with diamonds. Vodka was the ultimate empty cipher; A drink whose quality is assessed by it’s purity and lack of taste. Distilled to 96% alcohol, the ethanol mix is then diluted down to 40-50% and bottled without any ageing. A placeless, tasteless, ahistorical creation that’s cheap to make, easy to drink and a tabula rasa for marketing myths. And from Smirnoff up there was fantasy for every budget.
But like Vodka, this economy was built on nothing.
Artists rarely create culture, but they do condense the miasma of the present into a tangible action and form. The night Lehman Brothers went down, Damien Hirst was holding an unprecedented auction of new works, including a platinum cast of an 18th century skull encrusted in nearly nine thousand flawless diamonds. Alongside that work, titled ‘For the Love of God’, Hirst held a fire sale of countless Spot paintings and vitrines, commenting that “you start thinking you’re going to need something else. Something more personal and quieter and darker.”
The bridge had disappeared, but we still didn’t look down.
Stranger, Unhappier, Less Productive
Despite ‘Build Back Better’ becoming the ruling elite’s platitude of choice on both sides of the Atlantic, the real chance to do so was in the immediate aftermath of the GFC. With the global economy of the 90s and 00s in pieces, there was a window of opportunity to reshape a capitalism that was about creating value and not just wealth. The cataclysmic derailment, as the runaway train of the financial sector collided with the buffer of reality was the moment to reassess; a chance to return to an economy that was at the service of politics, rather than a politics of serving the economy. But instead of foreclosing the banks and bailing out the citizens we chose the opposite, mounting the engine back on the tracks, reversing it out of it’s subprime siding and sending it on it’s way back down the main line, allowing the winners the past decades to still win, even when they lost.
In return, we saw quantitative easing dump petrol onto a dumpster fire, which while raising the flames of GDP did little to improve real lives. Underemployment, the gig economy and permanent departure from the labour force, alongside first Oxycontin then eventually Carfentanyl masked the pain in the US while Southern Europeans elected comedians and fascists to name just one sort of new politician that crawled from the wreckage.
Productivity stuttered and those leaving education came to find themselves stuck in service economy jobs which were never part of the deal when they elected to take on thousands in student debt.
Once again we were chasing the financialised dream of mass affluence rather than mass happiness. Where some time ago, money was a tool, an input to get to a goal, it was again the output itself.
Once again the runaway train came down the track, the whistle wide and the throttle back…
La Cage aux Fou
At the same time as the financial tragedy of the noughties was being rebuilt as farce, the internet began to metastasise into something altogether very different.
What was once a niche divergence, an amusement with an off switch increasingly came to swallow up everyday life, first through broadband and then through three, four and now five G mobile networks. And in the process of turning experiments in college popularity contests into viable businesses we gave birth to the attention economy.
From early banner ads served up via Microsoft in 2006, over time Facebook developed into the subtlest knife for keeping people engaged so that they can serve them more adverts. The problem is that keeping people engaged to sell ads is not the same as “making the world more open and connected” as they claim their mission is. In fact it’s the opposite. Keeping hold of eyeballs to sell ads means giving people whatever they need to keep coming back. Content becomes an all-you-can eat breakfast buffet where no-one will stop you coming down for bourbon and ice cream every morning. But keep doing that and eventually you get sick.
But this wasn’t even the Buffet. We got to eat like no-one was watching.
The need to harvest attention turned the internet from a tool for mass connection to one for mass abstraction. We all inhabited our own internet. Served a version of whatever the data science models deemed most likely to keep us engaged. The algorithms created wealth, but they began to erode reality.
This is my truth, tell me yours.
Schism and Ism
And then the internet decided to get into politics.
The internet combined with democracies and evolved towards ochlocracy. The problem being that as Paul Collier’s seminal work on failing states that voting is the least important part of democracy. Truth is the most. Without transparency, truth, fact checkers, all the things that might put a dampener on your scrolling we got a highly mobile vulgus.
The distraction had become the main event.
From the Monks of Myanmar taking to Facebook to whip up violence and hatred to Orban, Trump or Le Pen(s), the internet allowed politics to become detached from reality, while at the same time years of doomscrolling had left us primed only to believe what we liked rather than what was true.
In many respects, Isis was the greatest achievement so far of the internet ‘doing politics’. A transnational online community whipped into a frenzy and physically mobilised to found a state. Huge earned media through smart targeting and a great engaging content strategy, this was high-stakes LARP-ing for the age of unreality.
Xi’s frequently Kind and Suddenly Cruel
As the Caliphate’s experiment in Jihadi self-determination was fizzling out, we entered the era of America falling asleep at the wheel of the international order.
Centrifugal forces were already spinning the world in multiple directions, with affluence no predictor of freedom and repression proving to rarely be met with dissent let alone revolt, the post-Crash political order was rapidly moving towards Gangster Geopolitics. Increasing nationalism in response to – or perhaps directly precipitated by a fragmenting and increasingly transnational world brought a (re)surgence of strongmen such a Putin and summit for North Korea’s own Little Rocket Man.
Suddenly everyone was playing by their own rules, no one more so than Xi Jinping.
Xi represents the ultimate manifestation of this rejection of ‘the way things are done’; the proverbial game of chess against the pigeon who knocks down the pieces, shits everywhere and declares victory. Except now it’s looking like the West is the Pigeon and China is the Grandmaster.
China’s luxury automated authoritarianism is a technologically advanced, thoroughly modern and highly bounded form of freedom. Which is fine as long as you never venture beyond the bounds. With a fully surveilled – and fully controlled – internet, the only untruths are shared and close monitoring at scale creates a digital panopticon where it is increasingly futile to think dissenting thoughts if there are no spaces left to express dissenting views.
This is not to say there is nothing going for it; crossing from Shenzhen, the CCP’s showpiece of what this future could be, to Hong Kong, the place that represents what the future once was, is like stepping back into something dirtier, poorer and more tawdry. Which is their point. As the national security law is brought to bear on more and more elements of life in the old British Colony, it will increasingly become just a suburb of it’s brighter, brutal neighbour.
Of course, it won’t just be China’s future that China decides; it’s marketing the model and the tools of control to capitals from Brasilia to Brazzaville. And the action they decide to take on the climate crisis will be a choice that affects us all. The only silver lining is that on the last of these they seem to be paying attention, even as they continue to operate half of the world’s coal-fired power plants.
Dance into the fire
Late in 2019, I was living in Shenzhen, the poster child for undemocratic utopia. A vision of the potential of capitalism unencumbered by democracy to save us all from ourselves. Social Credit Scores and facial recognition could make us fitter, happier, more productive. The digital panopticon that is contemporary China is the first truly compelling alternative version of modernity since the industrial revolution. But even this would be exposed as lacking by one particularly truculent strand of RNA. By the start of the year, my WeChat feed was full of still shots, quotes and ‘reviews’ of popular HBO show Chernobyl, a miniseries recounting the eponymous 1986 disaster depicting a climate of fear where no-one dares speak truth to power. With collaborative tech giants, heavy censorship and a vast enforcement infrastructure this is as deep as dissent gets in China.
Whilst crises have smouldered all around us for the last few decades, we entered into a collective misdirection since the the start of the 21st Century that ‘This is Fine’; But ‘Sars-CoV-2: Judgement Day’ has acted as a refiners fire, burning away the impurities of our self-deception. We are in a fragile world that we are currently urging on towards ecological implosion whilst our societies become more unequal, more imbalanced and more uncertain. As transnational capital supersedes the nation state, nativism has become a refuge for the threatened evoking the rhetoric and too often violence that is as explainable as it remains inexcusable.
Yet months of confinement and millions of excess deaths so far continue to whip up a great variety of morbid symptoms. Art that doesn’t exist is bought for millions by Crypto-Bros rewarded for ‘HODL-ing’ for their Beeples and the Vox Populi takes collective action to make itself rich on penny stocks. We desperately need solutions to fix the planet yet the Billionaires who have mined us and it for their wealth are obsessed with leaving it.
The pandemic has forced a decision on us that we have put off for too long.
Looking Beyond the Wired Favela
Some time late in the first decade of this century, I watched a speech by Bruce Sterling. As I now possess the collective knowledge of the world at my fingertips through the computer I am writing on (there is an ‘evil twin’ essay to this which essentially outlines why this whole analysis is itself noise and everything actually is fine…), I can tell you it was from June 2009, given at Reboot, a conference exploring technology and public policy. In it, he outlines the cultural temperament of the Era:
What is the cultural temperament of this era? Well, I think it’s got a good two-word summary: “Dark Euphoria.” Dark Euphoria is what the twenty-teens feel like. Things are just falling apart, you can’t believe the possibilities, it’s like anything is possible, but you never realized you’re going to have to dread it so much. It’s like a leap into the unknown. You’re falling toward earth at nine hundred kilometres an hour and then you realize there’s no earth there…
… It comes in two flavours. Top end and low end. Everybody in this room is sort of schismed between top end and low end. Because that’s the nature of your particular demographic. The top end we can describe as “Gothic High-Tech”. Let me explain to you what Gothic High-Tech is like. In Gothic High-Tech, you’re Steve Jobs. You’ve built an iPhone which is a brilliant technical innovation, but you also had to sneak off to Tennessee to get a liver transplant because you’re dying of something secret and horrible. And you’re a captain of American industry. You’re not some General Motors kinda guy. On the contrary, you’re a guy who’s got both hands on the steering wheel of a functional car. But you’re still Gothic High-Tech because death is waiting. And not a kindly death either, but a sinister, creeping, tainted wells of Silicon Valley kind of Superfund thing that steals upon you month by month, and that you have to hide from the public and from the bloggers and from the shareholders…
…What is the downside, what’s the other side of this? The flip-side of Gothic High-Tech? The flip-side of Gothic High-Tech is downmarket, and it’s called “Favela Chic.” Favela Chic. What is Favela Chic? Favela Chic is when you have lost everything material, everything you built and everything you had, but you’re still wired to the gills! And really big on Facebook. That’s Favela Chic. You lost everything, you have no money, you have no career, you have no health insurance, you’re not even sure where you live, you don’t have children, and you have no steady relationship or any set of dependable friends. And it’s hot. It’s a really cool place to be.
Myspace is a favela. You’ve ever been to a Brazilian favela? It basically, politically, represents the structure of Myspace. You’ve got this remote, distant, old-school Brazilian tyrant. Anti-democratic, wicked mogul, pays no attention to you, supposedly owns the whole show, but the whole shebang is going south in a hurry.
It’s been out-competed by some other economy, there’s nothing happening there. You have no civil rights in Myspace. You can’t go anywhere in Myspace, you can’t organize in Myspace, you can’t make money in Myspace. You can have a hut in Myspace. And you live in the hut until they pull the plug. That’s a favela.
MySpace references aside, it’s disturbing to read this Science Fiction writer play back our ‘fact’ back in 2009. His analysis is what happens if we continue to project this present forward into the future a ‘Futurism’ rather than a ‘Utopia’ as discriminated between by American Ecologist Murray Bookchin that points us towards a ‘Ready Player One’ future.
But what more is there? Automation and Machine Learning promise leisure and infinite resources. But projected along our current vector, they continue Sterling’s bifurcated world. Rather than undermining inequality with a lack of scarcity, they offer infinite capture by an infinitesimally small group. Smug top ten-percenters or one-percenters, too late to speak up get pushed below the line. Or are we headed for the techno-gnosticism of the singularity, where we may end up mined by machines? Perhaps the Matrix was a documentary sent back in time to soften the hammer blow of our future?
The point is that the long interregnum is coming to an end and we must decide what future will be born.
I am sitting looking over London from the 9th floor of a co-working space on Southbank; floor to ceiling windows framing a view of the eastern fringe of the North Downs around Sevenoaks, where my mother lived when she first came back to Britain from America, a single parent, returning home with a 6 month old Fire Tiger in her arms. It’s the first day of Lunar New Year today, the year of the Ox, and I can’t help thinking how lucky I am to sit here, in the depths of a pandemic looking south to the town where for a while I was briefly raised, while a pandemic blazes on below, foregrounded by the roofs of the Waterloo Station Sheds.
It’s been over five months since I last wrote. Finding the space to gather thoughts, to reap and winnow is difficult. With nothing to do, time isn’t hard to come by, but space, emotionally and physically, is at a premium. I asked a colleague recently what they got up to on the weekend, more by reflex than out of any real interest and he said ‘another fucking lovely walk’. Another fucking lovely walk. I intend to try and make some more space to write and to reflect, because that process of winnowing and milling and proofing thoughts into ideas is important. Just as we are all looking to maintain some kind of physical stimulation during our enforced sedentarism, the mind needs to be stimulated too, and London’s mental gyms, the museums, the galleries, the theatres, the pubs, are all shut.
Here I offer a few thoughts on a year of lockdowns and distancing.
Time is both long and short
I was listening to a programme on Radio 4 where a physicist and a psychologist were talking about time and they managed to describe the current temporal paradox we are all living in beautifully. We perceive time both ‘in the moment’ and retrospectively, and the way that we assess time in the present and in the past are inversely correlated.
In the moment, when very little is happening, it goes by, as The Righteous Brothers told us ‘so slowly’. It’s why bad films and school detentions take an age. Conversely, when we are busy, present perceived time flies, whether you are having fun or just stuck in back to back meetings.
However, we navigate the past using events as markers and waypoints, meaning when we look back, the opposite is true. If nothing much has happened, then we experience a kind of psychological parallax error, leaving us wondering where did the year go.
This goes some way to explaining why it feels like today is March 327th 2020 rather than February 12th 2021. It’s why the last year has been both a slow time and, with hindsight, a short time.
Everything will eat software, not the other way round
I take a historian’s view of technology and am naturally sceptical of the ‘THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING’ narrative touted by technophile naifs. It’s what they said about the wheel, penicillin, nuclear power and ambient cheese in an aerosol can.
And in many respects they are right. These did change things. But the hard truth nestled inside ‘this changes everything’ like the final doll of a matryoshka is that it doesn’t. Technology doesn’t change human nature. Human nature shapes technology – or at least it’s uses and abuses – and that is innovation, which is far more important. People socialised before ‘media’ and bullied before ‘cyber’. And if you are worried about Fake News now, think of the tumult caused in the 16th and 17th century by the printing press and the army of pamphleteers it unleashed.
To skip forward to the present, the last year has seen the widespread adoption by laggards and the late majority of numerous innovation-enabled behaviours that are now no longer technology but just ‘stuff’. Amazon prime for those beyond their Prime, Zoom n Zimmers. In many respects Arthur C. Clark may have got it wrong; Any sufficiently advanced innovation is indistinguishable from the mundane.
It’s an awful time to be young
When you look purely at the economic equation, life for a 20-something grad in a big city is a bad deal; Sky high rents, long commutes, expensive pubs. I think of my own graduate years, religiously cycle commuting 9 miles from Norbury to Farringdon, whatever the weather, so I could spend the travelcard savings on Somerfield own-label claret. With hindsight, I was as pretentious then as I am now.
But being 23 in London or New York or Paris was never about getting rich. If you were lucky, that’s what 33 was for, and of course all of us who have been in our 20s in one of the world’s great cities had half an eye on that. But it was also about all the non-monetary benefits. Drinking, Fucking and Friendship. The chance to be anonymous in a crowd, to invent and reinvent who we are. The shared house in Hackney was both a price to be paid and a rite of passage, part of the broader ritual of the London (or Lahore or Los Angeles) lifestyle.
With that mode snatched away, what are you left with? Remote working back at your parents house, saving for a second bite if you are lucky… but more likely you are one of those spotted through the zone two late Victorian bay window, three to a living-room-as-makeshift-office, ironing board as desk, praying the broadband holds.
Sure, professionals in their 30s are still trying to play ‘oh what a lovely lockdown’ as their endurance wears thin, but spare a thought for younger colleagues. This was not what they signed up for.
And as for university students…
Experts restored, Authority eroded
Whitty, Fauci, Tegnell. Tedros. Over the last year, we’ve not been able to get enough of ‘experts’. During a year when we have been living in an acutely VUCA world, science initially offered us the seemingly simple allure of answers to all the ambiguity and complexity. As the pandemic has charted its course, we have seen that science is a process that asks as many questions as it answers; but we have also watched that process in action, increasing our shared understanding of the importance of expertise in public life.
At the same time, many western governments, refusing to learn the lessons learnt in other parts of the world, have lurched from disaster to disaster. Ignoring the complexity of the science, many leaders, particularly in the UK and Europe have promised simple answers to complex problems. And the issue is that each time they have over-promised and under-delivered, they have further eroded public trust. In a liberal democracy, people will only really comply with laws they would willingly accept, and the shifts in levels of compliance and growing ‘flexible approaches’ to lockdown restrictions indicates a restive population creating their own version of the rules. The growth of ‘interpretive lawbreaking’ among the general population can only create more headaches in the future.
The next time governments and civil servants need to mobilise our collective compliance, it will be harder to come by than it was last March.
We are all in the same storm, but not the same boat
While the commentariat may be having a good lockdown, spare a thought for those who haven’t been sheltered from the storm by a garden office, a case of Wine Society Beaujolais-Villages and a new seventeen minute Bob Dylan single. There is a pandemic experience gap between the young and the old, but also between the comfortable middle class professionals working office jobs at home and those who have either lost their jobs or are still going to work in compromised or risky environments.
While the ‘Blissfully Quarantined’ are considering which preschool to pre-register their almost-one year old Sourdough starter for (“she’s very mature for her age”) the ‘Gotta Works’ are leaving the house daily to enter a threatening outside world. This is not just the clapped-for key workers, but the vast armies of warehouse operatives, delivery drivers, construction workers, cleaners and cooks that make the lives of the Blissfully Quarantined possible.
Braced for the worst impact or already hit by the full force of the economic consequences of the pandemic are the ‘nowhere to gos’; either already let go or furloughed on zombie jobs, these are those in service industry jobs and the lowest paid sectors that have been the worst hit.
These three tribes have not been created by the pandemic, but brought into sharper focus as the virus has exposed the existing ley lines of inequality that have been the reality of our economy for the past decades whose divergence was catalysed by the crisis of 2008.
Cities in the 20s will roar back, and so will towns
I predict the flight to the countryside that estate agents have been talking up to try and froth anaemic rural property markets in unfashionable ridings is a reflex reaction, akin to the brief fashion for matte-black supercars amongst the hyper rich after the Financial Crash. Cities have endured far worse and still thrived. Fire, pestilence and plague have not stopped people seeking friendship, fucking and fun in the worlds great conurbations. There are some things that you can’t easily virtualise. Expect many who run to the hills to return to a more variegated city, where the reduced spacial pressure from ‘9 to 6 x 5’ office hours leaves more room for culture, creativity and serendipity.
Many will stay away, exercising a preference for space, whilst looking for more interaction than an isolated farmhouse can offer. The dematerialisation of geography for professional work means that this need for interaction can increasingly be served by towns rather than cities. There is an opportunity to revitalise towns centres and high streets up and down the country, where the bonfire of the chain stores leaves spaces for micro-offices, council funded business hubs and co-working cafes. Thoughtful and intentional local policy could lead to a new renaissance for towns, propagating healthier and more diverse local economies and helping truly level up the regions
Sociologists will have more to write about than the scientists or politicians
Once the dying is over, there will be a postmortem of how the pandemic has been handled around the world. It’s unlikely that any nation won’t be criticised for some element of it’s handling, perhaps with the possibility of New Zealand who do have the advantage of being a small country located at the very end of the Earth.
I believe though that after the initial recriminations, it will be the sociologists that have the most to write about. Behaviours, particularly in free societies have more to do with culture than politics. Britain’s own late lockdown was based on the, not unreasonable, presumption that ‘freedom loving’ Britons would be unlikely to comply before people had started to die.
Don’t be surprised if the patterns we see in any analyses of whether a country has had a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ pandemic map more closely to Hofstede’s work on Cultural dimensions than government policy or ideology.
[This is the first in a series of three ‘Covid Reflections’ from Resident Human]
I wanted to take some time to put together some thoughts that have been coalescing since early on in the crisis, but like so many things, have felt trapped in some kind of infinite loop, despite a wealth of time, mentality I have found a paucity of space in which to think things. The slightly dream-like quality of the whole situation, particularly for those lucky enough to be cushioned against the worst of it by jobs that let us continue from home and houses lucky enough to have room for a desk had the distinct feel of some kind of house arrest without any of the searing resentment with the world that locked us up that might have made for a more creative incarceration.
Only now as I’m emerging from that, becoming more busy rather than less, does it feel like I can actually finish thinking the thoughts I started sometime in April. One friend I caught up with during the height of the UK’s first act of the Coronavirus (there will certainly be more, if not a full Shakespearean quintet, but they’ll almost certainly be a second) described the feeling as the 83rd of March; time had both moved on but had not progressed.
I am not complaining, those of us whose lives took on this formlessness were the lucky ones, this featureless desert was an oasis compared to crowded vistas that so many people had to deal with, littered with dark monuments; underemployment, unemployment, illness, death. But at the same time, the quality of stasis, feeling like a bullet fired upwards hanging indefinitely at its highest point, or a cartoon character, having run off the cliff, but yet to look down, hasn’t been conducive to productivity. Though maybe that is a good thing. As I slowly reanimate at the close of this first act, one of the many things I am questioning is how productive ‘being productive’ is.
- The rebirth of the future
There are many reasons to hate Elon Musk. From his rejection of the sacred urban social contract that is public transport embodies to his ridiculous online grandstanding to his fuelling of tired conspiracy theories about aliens building the pyramids of Egypt. Or maybe you detest him as a cipher for everything that is wrong with late-stage global capitalism; his parlaying of one lucky break at PayPal into a stream of much-lauded, high profile cash-incineration enterprises. You could be one of those who prefer the minority/feminist critique; if Elon was Elaine, or black for that matter, you think he would still raise money or have his job, leading a publicly listed company after the 420 tweet or smoking weed with Joe Rogan? Or calling a cave rescue diver a paedophile? Or you may just be annoyed by his mediocre, mid-level tech-bro wannabes, the Reddit squad that praise everything he does and see him as some kind of messanic genius (despite Brexity-tax dodger, and newly minted Singaporean, Sir James Dyson holding 124x more patents that Musk; 2732 to Elon’s 22.)
I don’t hate Elon Musk for those things though I do dislike them; I despise him because he represents a world devoid of a future. Musk’s great innovations are part of a version of progress that does little to reimagine what the world could be, but simply projects forward what it is now. It is the same defeatism that made the film Interstellar so disappointing; ‘the Earth is fucked, let’s find a new one’. Writer and theorist Murray Bookchin (h/t Alex Holland) describes this perfectly in a speech from 1978 (!) where he draws an important distinction between ‘Utopia’ and ‘Futurism’. I would recommend you read the piece as it is searingly relevant now and far more electric than my precis.
Rockets to Mars, flying cars and cheeseburgers delivered by drone are all what Bookchin terms “Futurism, [which] is the present as it exists today, projected, one hundred years from now”. What instead he calls for is Utopia; radically altering our present in order to chart a new course for tomorrow. Without wanting to sound like the ‘mysterious wizard’ archetype in a moralising cartoon, his core thesis is that the path humanity will take is not preordained. But so far, the last few decades have demonstrated that a global elite dominated by tinkering technocrats and tech disruptors simply playing around the edges, selling a bland incrementalism as disruption; more interested in D than R, rearranging deckchairs while the ship is holed deep below the waterline, sinking fast.
I trained as a historian, so I am reluctant to throw around ‘unprecedented’ casually, but crises are a powerful tool to break deadlocks. The ‘all bets are off’ disturbance of the discourse that this global pandemic has brought about is opening up the possibility of other ways of doing, of being. It takes a seismic event to break up our (in)exorable march and make us stop and wonder; what are we marching towards. The pandemic is indeed a crisis, but as an interruption to our normal programming, it also presents an opportunity. As people talk about the ‘new normal’, there is also a chance to set ‘new norms’ – governments across Europe took vast swathes of their workforce onto the state’s payroll, cities were briefly more liveable than ever before as people took to their bikes, whilst songbirds took to the sky. It was – it is – a time of huge anxiety, uncertainty and for those who have lost family, sadness – I am not trying to pretend that isn’t the case – but it was also a time for hope. We were allowed a glimpse of what kind of tomorrow an alternative today could gift us, seductively hinting at something very different to Elon’s world. As the world returns to the new normal, Futurism still looks like the most likely outcome, but with this ‘rebirth of the future’ precipitated by this crisis, there is now the possibility of another way.
I had thought about calling this ‘Why I am no longer talking to marketing people about digital’ but thought that, though it was clever, it missed the point as this is bigger than ‘Growth Hackers’ and ‘Executive Digital Prophets’. With 5G services launching, voice control going mainstream, the cloud enabling real time translation and genuinely powerful augmented reality applications, it would be easy to assume that we are living in the age of The Internet, heralded by seamless services and near-zero data costs; when was the last time you paid for WiFi in a public place?
It all feels like magic…
Which is exactly the point.
To turn Arthur C. Clarke’s third law on its head, ‘Magic’ is the marker of a fully mature technology. ARPAnet turned 50 last year, and TCP/IP – which remains the internet’s underlying protocol today – was rolled out in 1983, almost 4 decades ago. To give you a comparison, forty years years after all, mesmerising, 2.1 seconds of the Roundhay Garden Scene was created, all 89 minutes of Al Jolson’s all-singing ‘The Jazz Singer’ had already been in cinemas for a year.
When I think back to the dial up of my youth or the WAP of my university years, the current ubiquity of connection is breathtaking. ‘The Internet’ used to be something slow, cumbersome but ultimately useful. It had an off switch. You ‘connected’ to it. The area described by the overlap at the centre of the Venn diagram of ‘life’ and ‘online’ was a fragile ‘quenelle’. Now the reality is the two circles sit atop each other. To make a distinction is pointless. Devices are ‘always online’ by default if not by design. Mobile computing has become a key mediator between us and the world. Rather than an obfuscation, we must acknowledge it as an augmentation. Whether we want to embrace Luddism or champion ‘Postalgia’, like the Stoics, we must accept our ‘wired’ future as neutral (both I and the magazine show our age with this digitally anachronistic term); connectivity is neither good nor bad, but simply more material for virtue to act upon.
This finger-pointing over internet addiction is as pointless as accusing me of oxygen addiction. Yes, I do breath a lot, and no, I am not willing to give it up. But the harmful part – the addictions – may be my compulsive and deviant sexual exploits or enthusiastic Fentanyl habit. The whole ‘respiring’ thing is just a platform for these hobbies. The same can be said of harmful behaviours and the internet.
Life online is now just ‘life’ now. It is just another layer of society settling on the numerous strata that came before. Online dating is just dating, cyberbullying is really just bullying, and digital marketing is just marketing. Sorry Growth Hackers. These verbal distinctions were markers of a transitional phase when you could still see the strings, could figure out how the trick was done.
So if internet is life and life is internet, what are the consequences of this?
Digital marketing is dead; long live digital marketing.
I still struggle every time I see the word to digital in a brief. Shareability, virality, even simply how photogenic an execution is crucial, regardless of channel. We live in an age of ubiquitous photography too. There are some AdTech staples to take care of for sure, but the digital display work that is making so many people so much money off the back of dubious metrics will go one of two ways; either it becomes a hygiene factor, like your website or an obsolescence. It’s up to the same evangelists to decide. Do they want to be IBM, or Microsoft?
Balkanisation will be the norm, not the exception
Yes, few places are likely to be as heavily restricted as China, but regulation, and ultimately limitations, on certain kinds of traffic and locations will become widespread. We will be in a world of many overlapping internets, just as we are in a world of many interlinked, interdependent, but ultimately independent sovereign states. Alternatively we end up in a post-national utopian supra-state powered by limitless clean fusion energy. But I am not sure that will happen in a decade likely to be shaped by continuing Populism and Nationalism.
Alternative spaces will proliferate
Potentially physically as well as digitally. Underground internets will continue to mature and offer an alternative much closer to the original intention of the early pioneers. But this will also become a more and more extreme choice, involving going fully off grid – potentially even identity erasure – in a world of biometrics and facial recognition.
Mass platforms will be regulated
This is not a question of if, but when. Lobby dollars can only go so far when lack of regulation poses and existential threat to liberal democracy. Capitalism and Democracy have never been coterminous. Companies must ultimately be subservient to states and to citizens. Like banks or supermarkets or newspapers or any other businesses that constantly touch people’s lives, it is not sustainable for them to act like they’re outside of the law. Sorry Facebook.
Blockchain will change the world, but Crypto will remain niche
Decentralised ledgers will increase trust and transparency in moribund democracies and bring greater oversight to dysfunctional one. However Bitcoin and others will remain a volatile and profitable curiosity. They can’t be shut down, but they can’t replace the state. And so long as the polis endures, so will its fiat currency. Sometimes Hobbes is a little bit right about us as humans.
Looking out from the 31st floor balcony, it doesn’t seem high until you look down. Shenzhen stretches 80 kilometres east to west, but is only 10 deep, North-South. The city snakes laterally, littorally, between the hills of the Hong Kong border, along Shenzhen Bay to the Pearl River delta, like a badly kept concrete lawn, with clumps of seventy and eighty story towers sprouting like steel weeds. The 115 story Ping An Tower, the worlds 4th largest, the town’s own tall poppy. When night falls, the entire town lights up like a circuit board, streaming with steel and light. The immaculately kept, perpetually swept, cycle path along the Dasha river is filled with office workers on dockless rental bikes, hired by the half hour, headed to one of the city’s many tech clusters, downstream, deeper into Nanshan district. They’ve phased out almost all the old taxis, replaced with a fully electric fleet. The same for the buses. Pretty much every transaction, from street-corner noodles to legal fees are carried out with QR codes and digital wallets. Cashless, silent, sleek.
This is not ‘The Future’, but it is ‘A Future’. Two days a week I commute from Shenzhen to Hong Kong. The journey takes around an hour and a half, but the time travelled is greater than the distance covered. After getting stamped out of Mainland China and into Hong Kong at the vast Shenzhen Bay checkpoint, coaches and cars spiral up onto the five-and-a-half-kilometre bay bridge to cross over to the New Territories. As we roll up the overpass onto the bridge, the plaiting of concrete weaves carriageways from right-to-left and left-to-right. The first sign that they do things differently here. At least for now.
Hong Kong, like Tokyo, represents a certain obsolete near-future in the collective imagination. Having had its image and form repeatedly appropriated by Hollywood as a stand-in for numerous dystopias, the familiarity can make it seem almost underwhelming. Hong Kong looks exactly like ‘Hong Kong’ – a trait it shares with New York. It also feels like yesterday’s vision of tomorrow. The stuttering neon signs and diesel-streaked streets, PoMo towers and marble-lined lobbies are a particularly sharp contrast with Shenzhen’s unironic modernity. From its peak in 1993, Hong Kong has declined from twenty-seven to less than three percent of China’s GDP. But beyond the numbers, it feels like a city in decline. Slowly, megaprojects such as the Hong Kong-Macao-Zhuhai bridge and the China High-speed Rail Link are stitching the territory together with the mainland, bringing Hong Kong’s greatest fear ever-closer, becoming just another mid-sized Chinese city. With the perceived erosion of its Rule of law, the Special Administrative Region has become a contested space. The acute confrontation over the ‘two systems’ principle, is also representative of a bigger conflict between two ideas. Two visions of what the future could be.
Words can be problematic; they are both the obstacle to articulating a thought and the best way to try. This clash of ideas, in which Hong Kong is just one front, isn’t easily reduced to opposing pairs as the Cold War once was. Capitalism’s ‘victory’ over Communism was always an artificial, lexigraphic binary that pitted an economic system against a total political, social and economic order. ‘Capitalism’ is synecdochic, an easy shorthand for ‘democratic capitalism’ and the free and limited, markets, open societies and shared small-L liberal consensus regarding the primacy of the individual. Democratic Capitalism is Limited Capitalism. And it was ‘Limited Capitalism’ that ‘won’. The front line crossed by the arcing span of the Shenzhen Bay Bridge is not the battle between capitalism and communism. Socialism with Chinese characteristics is Capitalism unencumbered by Democracy. It is the front line between Total and Limited Capitalism.
Limited Capitalism was never an outright winner, but in its rhetoric, it strived to achieve the illusion of permanence. The rights of the individual – the societal sidekick to the economic superhero – has never been inevitable and maybe not even natural. Increasingly this relic of our post-Enlightenment experiments feels like a humanistic blip. In the face of Brexit and Trump, Bolsanaro and Orban, I have found myself increasingly having to defend the ‘pragmatism of the primacy of the individual’ to friends not just in Singapore and Shanghai, but Boston and Berlin. Yes, it is the freedom to screw up, but it is also the freedom not to be screwed with.
When measured in terms of human development Limited Capitalism has been a great success. But ‘Capitalist Democracy’ is a productive tension, not a synonymic pair. Capitalism privileges results, Democracy, the process. One is fast, the other is slow. The market is majoritarian, while the democratic enshrines the individual, not merely responsible to a simple majority. This makes elections, perversely, the least important aspect of a democracy. Limited Capitalism is an uneasy hybrid. You are free to consume, you are free to participate, but the between the two there is no equivalence. The human flourishing this has propagated cannot be measured by statistics alone. It is this tension that universalised the franchise, enshrined judicial independent and – aspirationally -declared Universal Human Rights. Less tangibly and more significantly it gives each of us a hope of genuine human dignity and all of us some faith in a societal-level trust. Maybe it was easier to win hearts and minds in the late 20th century with Right to Buy than the Rights of Man, but failing to promote the civil alongside the economic conflates consumption with participation, creating the opportunity for Total Capitalism.
Shenzhen’s subway tunnels are lined with motion-synced LED screens that animate adverts outside the carriage windows selling pizza and pet food station to station. My connected TV won’t switch on without first showing me a short film promoting the latest toilet paper or plastic surgery procedure. Pop-up ads and promotions are a pervasive part of every single product or service, physical or virtual that I use. Upsell, cross-sell, resell. The imperative to consume is everywhere, the Chinese Dream constantly reinforced as the route to individualisation and self-actualisation. Judged by the old Communist clichés of a “decadent West,” focussed on temerarious consumption, contemporary China is the most “western” place I have ever lived or been. One where I am no more and no less than the sum of my purchases. I buy therefore I am.
At the same time deep integration of seamless technology has evolved a new species of human as consumer, Homo Emptus. The local branch of KFC lets me buy a Family Bucket with nothing more than my face, using cameras linked directly to my virtual wallet which holds my credit cards and fictive cash. Recently I was walking through the precinct by my block, when a young woman ran up to me, apologising. Her cleaner’s phone had stopped receiving transfers and she didn’t have the cash to pay. Did I have any? Pulling a handful of 100 yuan notes out of my pocket, she pulled out her phone, scanned my wallet and transferred me the 300 kuai which I had in cash. In less than a minute I had become a human ATM. It was demeaning and thrilling at the same time, I imagine not dissimilar to the excitement felt by the freshly humiliated submissive.
Sometimes living here can feel like magic. But if you only immerse in the wonder, you miss the cost. Recently, a group of cyclists in Shanghai rode past a police officer, stopped by the side of the road, deep in an animated discussion with the driver they had just pulled over. The group, aware the policeman was otherwise occupied, slowly rolled through the red signal ahead, traffic light on a quiet Saturday morning. Fifteen minutes later by the time they had reached their café stop and pulled out their phones to pay, they had all been fined. Facial recognition cameras mounted on top of the police car had ID-ed them and then allowed the officer digitally ensure justice was done. When we are defined only by our consumption, this make complete sense, our economic life is simply ‘life’, giving the state unprecedented control in return for our convenience. Seamlessness may be fast, but to protect Limited Capitalism, we need seams.
The reality is though that our willingness to conflate commercial choice with civil freedoms has makes it easy for us to walk backwards into Total Capitalism. Using ‘Capitalism’ as a shorthand for so long has meant a lack of focus on the social and political dimensions that has allowing the market to perform as a poor stand-in for the whole. This has led to declining trust in the very institutions that underpin both our societal freedom and our consumer choice. The recent World Values Survey shows a minority in both Europe and the US of people born after 1970 believe it is ‘essential to live in a democracy.’ If this is the case then we have collectively failed to remind ourselves what ‘democracy’ really entails. It has also led to the bizarre inversion for many on the neoliberal right who see any democratic limit placed on the market as ‘undemocratic’
The rising indifference to the democratic can be seen in part as a consequence of Limited Capitalism’s success. Just as a fish does not know that it is wet, we take for granted the protections afforded the individual. We have collectively and systemically failed to remind ourselves of the importance of the water we all swim in. Political leaders and populist demagogues who owe their very existence to the small L liberalism that underpins Limited Capitalism have failed to give credit, choosing instead to pee in the pond for short term gain. Taking our collective socio-political foundations for granted has led to their erosion. Ignoring them has also reduced the success of a state to its economy alone. Whilst freedom of speech won’t feed my children, GDP won’t make them happier or more morally rich. This tyranny of the economic means that states which favour the fast and the outcome will be judged the best performing, outshining those that optimise for the slow, the process, the individual. By judging a state by its economy rather than their humanity, we set up a framework in which the Total Capitalism is not only increasingly easy to admire, but objectively ‘better’, with no way to quantify its glaring qualitative flaws. The fallacy that our economic lives are an adequate stand-in for our civic ones provides the ideological misdirection to pull the trick off. Only what is counted is valued.
Total Capitalism, by succeeding on these terms, promotes a worrying model of growth and unfreedom, chipping away at the old liberal consensus. As pervasive technologies allow ever-greater accumulation of information, we are reaching an inflection point, two divergent versions of how this data is used and its implications for how we live. Progress marches an there is a decision to be made, inaction is not possible. A battle that is waged by only one side, even one of ideas, is not without bloodshed; it is a massacre.
Unencumbered by the limits that the state apparatus of Limited Capitalism places on it, technology can quickly become dystopian. The Limited Capitalist model is not just a check on economic entities – as the EU has proved with its fines on Google and Microsoft – but also on governments. And it adds an implicit societal dimension to the economic role. When Apple refused to provide a back door to iPhone for the FBI, it was asserting its social responsibility, not just its economic function. It helped that these two impulses were congruent here, but the difference between that and the case of the Shanghai cyclists is stark. Tencent, makers of the ubiquitous WeChat Wallet in question, were doing nothing wrong by allowing the state to pick pockets; they were fulfilling their duty, legally obliged to do so in the People’s Republic. The FBI’s response to Apple’s refusal was that American lives might be lost, but people died enshrining the rights Apple was upholding. Do we still believe the defence of the individual is worth dying for?
It would be worth asking that question to the millions of minority Muslims constantly surveilled, or interred in camps in Xinjiang. Advanced monitoring technologies, sharpened to scalpel-like precision, have created an unprecedented digital panopticon. The whole region is monitored at a level of detail that previously would have taken vast armies of watchers and handlers. Now instead, the state has the ability to micromanage human life at a macroscale; facial recognition, device tracking and digital monitoring turn an entire country-sized region into a prison colony. Xinjiang is not just a tragedy though; it is a testbed. China has rolled the same systems across the entirety of its domestic train network as well as at every airport, port and major public area. More disturbingly, it is a showroom for the implementation of its own particular strain of Total Capitalism. A sinister demonstration of how to unshackle the market from democracy, providing economic liberation whilst maintaining total control. For parts of the world that were previously faced with the choice between an all-inclusive version of modernity, open society and all, China offers an alluring alternative, a cake-and-eat-it model powered by pervasive technologies and financed by Belt and Road loans. And it is one that has succeeded by our own ‘Capitalist’ yardstick.
Total Capitalism is by no means inevitable, and its vision of the future not the only one. Technology is neutral and can be used co-opted for community as well as commerciality. The liberal limits within Liberal, Democratic, Limited Capitalism have allowed it to do both. But our willingness to collapse the social, political and economic into one big flat now have left us at a critical juncture. Hong Kong’s fight is an imperfect allegory for the decision that we need to make about what we should measure and what really matters, particularly in the developed world. We cannot take for granted what we already have. An era is only named after it has long passed. It is up to us to decide if we are to witness the end of this one.
Legendary ‘Wall Street Wide Boy turned Silicon Valley Savant’ and ‘Don’ of the PayPal Mafia, Thiel believes – as outlined early on in his much lauded book ‘Zero to One’ – that the rapid and profound innovation that came about in finance and technology in the late 20th and early 21st Century was brought about because these industries were ones where the government didn’t understand and therefore couldn’t regulate. He puts his money where his beliefs lie too, donating to a smorgasbord of out there causes that underline his extreme brand of individualism – life extension, Seasteading, the Singulairty – as well as a range of ultra-libertarian Republican candidates in the US. He also owns a doomsday ranch in New Zealand, just in case…
At least Peter Thiel doesn’t claim to be above ideology, which is more than can be said about many of the rest of the West’s greatest Tech evangelists. Whether forcing cities across the US to play beggar-my-neighbour to win vast tax breaks in return for pricing locals out of their homes with a new corporate HQ (Amazon), steamrollering over local employment laws and industry standards in the name of ‘disruption’ (Uber), or mocking local tax rules via complex and magical financial arbitrage (Apple, Google, Facebook, etc etc etc), Big Tech holds government in contempt – if they would just get out of the way the world will be a better place. Yet few would admit to what they are – Neoliberal Utopian Fantasists. Most instead claim to be above ideology, that what these companies are bringing about is, at its core, an unambiguous, value-neutral, vision of progress; ‘A just machine to make big decisions, programmed by fellas with compassion and vision’. The problem that this is itself an ideological choice.
Of course this belief has been tested, shaken even recently. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have been used (as they are designed to be) to manipulate elections. This was not a glitch, this is exactly how they are designed to be – to serve you what you want to hear and sell you attention to the highest bidder. That time and again they have ducked the responsibility to admit that they are an accountable published reflects how they continue to have your cake and eat it. But just watch Zuckerberg in front of the House, struggling to suppress a smirk (“We sell ads, sir”), or how the reaction from the rest of the tech faithful praised his barely-veiled contempt and we see that the true zealot will never be swayed from the cause. Any changes made from the inside – voluntary tax payments, roundtables with regulators, hiring more content moderators are designed to cement the substructure by sugaring the superstructure.
Their greatest defence is that this is a golden era for democracy in its broadest sense. A world now open to all, a collapsing of vertical structures in favour of new lateral networks that allow everyone access to everything. Cat videos! Child porn! Earthquakes and disasters! Famine! Kardashians! Earthquake and disaster memes! Rape! Furries! Cat videos! What Joerg Kock, editor of the German independent magazine turned fashion brand 032c, calls ‘The Big Flat Now’. But the issue is that it is only so flat. There is a hierarchy still. An unaccountable one that sidelines government and places us all as equals, sitting below the industry leaders who constellate our firmament. At this point, I would like to add that I love technology. I am writing this using cloud-based word processing on computer that has more power than I know what to do with. I have worked in and for numerous technology firms, and I plan to again, if this doesn’t outrage them, but the naivety that sees what they create as neutral-positive progress is naive. Technology is a tool. It is highly adaptable, and like any other tool that went before in can be used in many ways. A hammer only becomes a murder weapon when applied to the skull, but all tools have implicit ‘best uses’ in their design. Its why some are more regulated than others; automatic weapons, gene editing, Morphine. And when it comes to Big Tech, we are faced not just with invention, but innovation – the commercial application of technology in the name of profit. To sideline government in order to give unregulated access to these new, highly profitable tools to the general population is not Democratic. It is techno-authoritarian move that fundamentally ignores, or perhaps does not believe in, the moral limitations of markets and the value of societal transactions that cant simply be priced. As I said, naive at best; wilfully maleficent at worst. And either way, a definitively idealogical stance against the un-privatised polis.
The worst part is that even Thiel is wrong. Technology companies may spend on innovation, but they do little invention. A lot of D, but not so much R. The Ur-technologies – the internet itself, microprocessors, GPS, telecoms networks – were all brought about if not by the state, then by heavy involvement. The foundational science comes from public institutions and government funding; ‘investment’ that is only fixated with furthering human knowledge. What the secondary innovation from Wall Street and the Valley have in common is not that they are highly profound so much as highly profitable…
“Among the declarations of faith in the future is the act of buying. Each time we go out and buy a new car or decide to purchase a new suit, a pair of shoes, a house, we base our decision on a philosophy of a life, a Weltanschauung. Buying is more than a commercial function…The real salesmen of prosperity and therefore democracy, are the individual who defend the right to buy a new car, a new home, a new radio.”
Ernst Dichter – The Strategy of Desire (1960)
Dichter’s muscular defense of the right, and rightness of consumption is understandable given the man, the time and the context. Fleeing Vienna in 1939, he was part of the wave of emigre’s shaped by experience of the old world that went on in the years after the Second World War to shape the new. He was to advertising what Bernay’s was to PR. ‘Motivational Research’ as he called it provided the foundation for much of the second-rate persuasion I have spent the last ten years of my career working on, as well as theoretical framework of sorts to sit behind it. This, however, is not the place to dive deep into that.
Having recently been working with a number of large tech firms, consulting on product development and marketing strategy before (perhaps rashly?) joining one, I have been reading Dichter in the light of that work. Above, he essentially describes purchase as a political act. An ‘vote’ with your chequebook for a particular version of the future cast by checkbook rather than ballot box. What he describes above as democracy is in truth a very specific strand – consumer-capitalist democracy – which however you feel about it has created the environment in which we are now living. What we see around us is a ‘world according to Dichter et al’, whether you believe in the Congruence of Consumer Capitalism and Democracy or not. Again, for another time. But his work is of a particular time – of a bipolar world of Sputniks and Studebakers, of H-bombs and the Berlin Wall. It was a time when you were truly ‘with us, or against us’. However, in it’s early 21st Century incarnation, it has, like so many things become far more fragmented, much more multiple, and considerably more complex. Where buying was once a blunt instrument, a first past the post race for the line, it is now plurality of purchase. If buying is an ideological statement, whether intentionally or otherwise, there are far more ideas for sale.
These competing visions of the future – for an ideology is a just a grandiose way of explaining how you see ‘what could be’ – range in scope and implication from the petty to the profound. And how conscious we are of their implications is mostly inversely correlated with their profundity. Choosing organic milk or washable nappies are some those that lie at the obvious and small end of the graph. Chromebook or Macbook may be at the more profound for the second and third order future visions that you are unknowingly choosing between.
Before I am accused of creating my own forced binary between Apple and Google, I am aware that I am exaggerating to make a point here, but this is caricature to contrast, rather than a fabrication. In these two corporate citizens we are offered an implicit choice between two competing visions of what could be.
Apple, for all it’s relentless, glossy shining modernity is offering what could be described as a conservative ideology. For all it’s brushed aluminium minimalism, sleek lines and the Kubrick-futurism of their stores, they are selling the past. That the references are mid-century modern, whether cinematic or aesthetic is telling. They use a well-spoken vernacular of ‘visions of futures past’ to make you feel a comfortable part of a certain future; bleeding edge contemporaneity forged from deja vu. It is little wonder that buying their computers or phones is a bulletproof decision, one where no-one questions why. There is nothing futuristic about being taken for granted.
The bigger point about Apple though is not the ‘how’ of their execution, but their focus on the execution itself. They are a ‘Temple to the Thing’. Discussing my thoughts here, a good friend pointed out the strength of their ecosystem, of iTunes, App Store and iCloud; this is where I exaggerate for effect. Of course they are not just about the thing, the artefact, but they fetishises the artefact, beatifying objects with the faux-modesty of the lowercase ‘i’. The ecosystem is in service of the object. They are a makers of things. Ideologically speaking they are a highly polished 21th Century incarnation of a comforting, nostalgic 20th Century thought – the reassuring comfort of the possessed object.
Apple’s product design is very intentionally designed to evoke feelings of the numinous. They are meant to be worshipped rather than understood. Curved, clean construction and their own crisp glyphs make them feel like artefacts from another civilisation. Increasingly the physical product itself is seamless, with no access to change a battery, upgrade memory or view its workings. As technology regulates more and more of our world and the imperative to understand how it does this increases, Apple urges us not to look behind the curtain. The sacred cues continue into the packaging itself – jewel cut crystal-like plastic boxes, common on their smaller devices evoke modernist reliquaries. Phones and Laptops come sitting on their own altars – you lift the lid to reveal the device sitting like sacrement on it’s matte white ‘cloth’. The theme runs onto the stores themselves, mentioned already which have more than a whiff of the Reform Church or the Rothko chapel. The influences are multi-denominational, but unmistakably meant to make the object an article of faith, a crux of belief. It is at it’s heart a conservative faith that continues to celebrate modes of consumption that tie us all the way back to Ford.
For Google, the ‘thing’ is not the thing. The thing is simply a means. Google’s benevolent supra-statist ‘taxes’ our every activity in return for free stuff. But the stuff they focus on is digital rather than physical. Though they do produce some of their own physical products, they are not a ‘maker of things’ in that sense. In fact the stuff they do produce that exists virtually, digitally is as they would have us say ‘surface agnostic’. That means it doesn’t care what it happens to be residing in or displayed through at the time – that is just a temporary physical ‘host’ (apologies, the spillover of the religious language is not intentional, but it is the best explanation). Google’s version of ‘what could be’ is indifferent to the physical world, and as such, indifferent to the object. Ideologically it represents, whether knowingly or not, a vision of a new, thoroughly 21st century worldview. More so than the ‘gig economy’ or the ‘uberfication’, Google’s mass cloud applications offer a new kind of (non)consumption.
Once you place the Data above the thing, there are a raft of ramification. When every app and every photo on your phone is automatically backed up, down to background and settings and that identity can be switched from one handset to another in minutes, or reloaded to a new one if the first is broken – is that original phone even your phone? When the docs you work and collaborate on exist neither on one person’s machine or another, when they no longer need to be sent place to place but are simply able to ‘be’ on their own corporeal plane, indifferent to how you access that plane, why do you need ‘your laptop’? Why need a possessive when the thing that matters is not the terminal, but where you are using it to access. The emotional centre moves from the tangible to the intangible, with the emotional value and irrational significance placed on the tangible thing steadily decreasing. Why be careful with your phone, when the phone is ‘a phone’ – and ‘your phone’ is a set of configurations and information that resides nowhere and can be anywhere. Suddenly the thing becomes a commodity, a functional rather than emotional good. A good far more easily shared, even provided as a public good or given away as a loss leader. Handed person to person when needed. I can check “my computer” – a collection of information independent of the physical through any terminal. I could edit a file from a street corner touchscreen, then notify clients via a strangers iPad. Ideologically, this is profound stuff; purchase of the thing is optional, rather than essential for participation.
In Dichters world, the choice was really, what to buy; it was that or being accused of being a ‘red’ or dropping out of the mainstream. Not to buy was not an option in a binary world. However, a glimpse of a ‘post-object’ version of consumer capitalism gives just a hint of world where buying at all is a choice, and a world that is object agnostic. And it has profound implications for anyone who is betting on the old world of ‘things’.
The leading execs of Big Pharma, Big Oil and those managing payday lenders really ought to get themselves to the Googleplex for a crash-course in image management. Compared to these industries which are often burdened with toxic reputations (sometimes literally rather than figuratively) Google is seen as a benevolent public institution rather than publicly listed profit-generator. Tax issues ebb and flow across the foreshore of public consciousness, but ultimately fail to wash away the general positivity and goodwill.
Likewise, raising concerns about privacy feels like praising the latest Yotam Ottolenghi cookbook at a dinner party in Herne Hill; it’s one of those things that one is socially obligated to go through the motions of… Germany aside, (where frankly, there are some longer standing issues around ‘files’ and ‘secrets) – protests about data security sound generally anemic. I don’t know anyone using ‘Duck Duck Go’ and most privacy settings go mostly unchecked. Frankly, I am more worried about my bank than my browser. The reality is that this a company that could – and often, by our ‘consent by default’, does know everything about our online selves. Which in 2016 amounts to an awful lot of us. Probably more than our partners. I wouldn’t share my entire browsing data with mine. Would you?
I am writing this on Google Docs, in Chrome browser, at a cafe I searched for, or rather ‘Googled’ with their Search Engine and then found with Maps on my Android powered phone. If you have watch some content from YouTube or replied to an email through Gmail between these devices you are providing more and more cumulative understanding of who you are, so they can sell that ‘who’ to the highest bidder. Their argument is that they want people to be able to sell to you in a way that is more rewarding for us all. Whatever the reason is, most of us are okay with the Faustian pact we are entered into. We take the free stuff in return for becoming their product. At the same time, they want to cover the world with balloons in the sky the broadcast internet and they have just released an AI-powered device that will one day run your entire home through their systems. How you feel about that depends how dystopian/lazy you are feeling in any given moment. I have a sneaking suspicion that rather than this being the result of careful reputation management, it’s more like watching a horror film seated 6 inches away from a megaplex-sized IMAX screen; you never see anywhere near enough of the whole picture to realise how incredibly fucking scary it is.
By contrast, Facebook should be a big cuddly blue bear, right? It’s where all your friends are, your pictures, your contacts. You spend hours there, they know that, they have the data; you’ve been there swiping up, swiping up swiping up for the last four hours! You LOVE it! Or so that’s their pitch to advertisers. They are all about the love. And they are working on giving us more love. I woke up today and fired up Ol’ Blue to find it telling me “Good Morning Adam – Stay dry Today in Singapore – Rain is forecast”. THANKS Ol’ Blue. Great to know. Or sometimes it’s a message to tell me it’s International Peace Day, or Pizza Day, or whatever. I don’t know, but they were thinking of me!
Snark aside, Facebook, like the rest of the internet, trade on our attention. Just like Instagram (which they own) or Snapchat or Twitter, it is our engagement that they sell ( or fail to, if you’re Twitter). And Facebook feel threatened by lots of other social channels coming onstream that are growing and engaging users rapidly, including messaging services such as Line or the also-Facebook owned WhatsApp.
But online as well as off, Engagement comes in many different flavours. Websites may measure it quantitatively (time spent on page, Unique Monthly Visits etc.) but there is also a strong qualitative element to it. Why are they engaging; what is the mindset, mood and motivation at the moment? There was a time when Facebook was probably loved. Or at least liked. When it was small, when it was amusing, when it felt intimate. But it became a vast all-encompassing thing, and it aims eventually to include everyone. Somewhere along the way, it became so big that it became an institution. In fact, it became infrastructure. Having a Facebook account is akin to what having a phone line was in the late 20th century, or a mobile phone just a little before now in the 21st. It’s like running water and sanitation. No-one loves their toilet, but you are pretty angry when it doesn’t flush. But Facebook still wants to be loved and still wants attention – it’s like a 30 year old man who still acts like the overindulged toddler he once was (!). So it creeps me out with messages about the weather, about what’s happening in the world, about my ‘last year in review’. Confronted with myriad platforms that are more novel and more compelling, it tries even harder to make you love it.
The big problem is there is a massive disconnect in how it wants to be seen, and how people see it. And this comes from this quantitative measure of engagement. By looking at how long people are on their app, scrolling their feeds and equating this with how much people care, or even love your app, they are making a dangerous mistake. And from this dangerous mistake they are building an even more dangerous strategy’ trying to make their news feeds stickier and stickier, getting people to dwell longer and longer, making their messenger ever-more intrusive. Because this time does not equate to love. Simply put, people hate themselves for using it. And the more their functionality tries to encourage that, the more resentment and loathing it builds. To go back to the toilet, it would be as if it only allowed you to flush once you had sung a late 80s Madonna hit to it. You’d do it, but you’d really rather not…
Facebook, like Google is now a grown-up part of the internet. It is one of the foundational elements from which all the lovely, interesting, grotesque and surprising bits of the internet spring. Whether by accident, design, or simply the nature of the core products they are pushing, Google is acting like an elder statesman, whereas Facebook doesn’t want to grow up. But neither did Myspace or AOL.
Facebook’s function as a universal sign it, it’s role as the depository of contacts and personal photos and a whole bunch of other core functions it plays within people’s online lives are vital – it is somewhere between a filofax and a permanent scrapbook, a fixed social CV that means I can be found (like a sexier version of the Phone Book) are really useful. Much of the rest is not. And by trying to fight the ‘new’ at the periphery it obfuscates it’s core. How many party invites, events or groups have migrated to (mercifully for them, FB-owned) WhatsApp, whose utilitarian, user-driven structure seems ever more appealing. That should be a space they own. Why build chatbots for Messenger, when people are already querying businesses via WhatsApp?
So what is the result of all this? The eponymous Fear and Loathing. People hate themselves for using it and is seeing diminishing returns on the ‘useful’ parts, even if the headline ‘time on site’ show we still think it’s wonderful; other tools are getting a greater share of more meaningful interactions. It doesn’t help that their leadership is either sucking up to China, much to the derision of both the Chinese internet and the West, or patronising the developing world. The worse part is the fear – FB is the one that constantly suffers from privacy issues, from accusations about how it uses people’s data, it’s the one that ‘knows too much’ even though in truth it’s Google that probably has the deeper insights. But Google is the Elder Statesman and Facebook is the 30 year old man-child. Who would you rather trust with your all of your browsing and personal data? Me or Kofi Annan?
There has been much attention in the press over a certain Wiki. The Wikileaks affair has raised questions over what counts as journalistic freedom, and what is simply sensationalism, revelation, or open-source espionage. I feel after such an expectant sentence, I should at least lay out my stall before I go on. I think the suppression of the website is outrageous, and gives America no leg to stand on when it turns round and tells China that it should allow greater journalistic freedom. I am inclined to agree with Clay Shirky’s post and position myself on the side of free speech with some reservation. I also think that just dumping a database of leaked documents online isn’t really journalism.
Traditionally great journalists have decided when to use a leak and when to hold, what is of interest and what will not only make mediocre news, but be detrimental for a more general interest. Now before I head down some mystic, quasi-rousseauian route of the free press as diviner of the general will, I will admit that maybe that leaves too much responsibility with the journalists to shape thought. We should all be allowed to discover and express truth for ourselves. But we never consider that we leave to much responsibility with teachers to shape young minds. Let’s just hope our press isn’t like US schools on some things…
Wikileaks isn’t the Wiki that I am concerned with today, though editorial licence, journalistic controls, and potential monopolies on truth are on the agenda.
When Wikipedia came into being in 2001, it was arguably the first major application of crowdsourcing. Though a study by Nature reported that it was no more inaccurate than the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, vandalism of the site raises some interesting questions about the very nature of truth in these early years of a true time of ‘The internet:IRL’- when online and offline are distinctions that become less relevant. A growing number of university essays, professional presentations and knowledge in general circulation and parlance seems to spring forth from this miasma. When people want to find something out, about history, politics, companies, products or things, they google it, or look at wikipedia.
Even tools online that are there to make our world clearer could be manipulated. Looking to see where a street is on Google Maps, the image could be out of date or doctored or even removed. An chunk of Baghdad that was bombed could still look as it did only minutes earlier, with children playing in the street…
Okay, so that is perhaps a little far fetched, but it wouldn’t take much for someone to adjust an entry for your company or brand online, alter reality essentially. After all, celebrities have woken up to their own deaths as twitter trending topics. Especially as we rely more and more on living in the ‘The internet:IRL’ hybrid space that gradually encroaches more and more on our lives.
To understate the importance of the Internet would be churlish. It may the most important thing to happen to the written word since Gutenburg. But just as moveable type helped end an ecclesiastical monopoly on misinformation, the growth of the web starts a fire-sale on opinion. This doesn’t mean that there should be limits on what people can express whenever and however they like. It is one of the most liberating things about the web. But establishing some way to verify reality, remembering that ‘another website’ is not an attributable source may make sure that the digital layers of our lives aid and abet our IRL elements, rather than allowing a kind of crowd sourced version of Air Strip One’s Ministry of Truth.
A vision that is closer than we may imagine when we consider that 50% of edits are done by around 0.7% of users. Doubleplusungood, very doubleplusungood…
‘We created more data in 2009 than in the last 5000 years of human history’
These words came from Dave Evans, the Chief Futurist at Cisco, who I somehow feel I have more belief in than the misleadingly named Faith Popcorn and her BrainReserve. There may be many things to take up against Cisco, but I feel that they are generally not in the line of hiring self-aggrandising nutters…
This is a fascinating statistic, not least because most of this data is just that, in its original, Latin sense, ‘what is given’ and whether we want it or not -ranging readings from sensors in defunct, yet still active weather sensors, to the 5000 photos you saved from your night out, two of which you may put on your facebook page ( and incidentally reconfigure and multiply the data again.) All being catalogued indiscriminately.
So what is given, information, facts, content, and of these things, is now given very much freely. This calls for a new art. In a world of permanent partial attention, while I type this with one eye on the qual interviews I did this weekend at the Nurburgring for our automotive client, listening to an album which is new at least to me and flick through my emails on a third screen, the greatest skill we can possess in life is not knowing things, but knowing where to find these things.
Creative Googleing becomes an art, finding out the obscure sideways ways in which we can combine words in the search engine to find the obscure ( and I mean the beyond-wikipedia-niche-obscure) trivia and facts.
Of course this leaves us open pissing in the wind. In a Faustian pact with urabndictionary.com, I am now on their email list in exchange for them listing my entry ( its ‘Brockwile,’ shout out to anyone who bigs up the jungle vibe), but on one of their daily update, something did catch my eye. The reference was to ‘book-google’ something- to look up in a book when you can’t get reception on your smart phone. Mildly amusing, but raises an interesting point. We are generating so much data on the internet. Facts and figures that are manipulable, malleable, and in some case just factually incorrect.
63% of all sparrows are left-taloned, as we see from observing how they collect sticks and build their nests, the highest proportion of any species of animal.
I can attribute this to no-one, but I could have said it came from research carried out by the RSPCB. Would this have got repeated? Probably not. No-one reads my blog, and certainly no-one interested in birds, but in the right context maybe. Wikipedia is highly policed, and even that is open to abuse. I read history at university, and their were things that I read in the course of my studies when double checking my own facts which made me think twice about using it for anything.
We see how internet rumour can end up with real ‘fake’ stories in newspapers. Far more serious is that as we digitise our own past, we open it up to an Orwellian manipulation.
Remember, 63% of Sparrows, you heard it here first.