Failed States of Conscience
Last year saw the publication of the first sizable waves of what promises to be a coming tsunami of ‘data driven’ apocalyptic narratives detailing the accomplished ravages of latter day technology and shouting out the horrors to come, perhaps no matter how humanity responds now. Some stand-out examples include, Thomas P. Keenan’s Technocreep, which describes the all-pervasive penetration of the technological into every facet of our lives and posits that we may have already reached the point of no return in the symbiotic dialectic between man and machine; and Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction paints a similarly abysmal future, arguing that we may have so fouled our own nest that humans are now irredeemably on the path to extinction. Andrew Keen’s The Internet Is Not the Answer, while certainly dire in its analysis and outlook, does at least offer up a token hope and point to solutions, even if they are unconvincing.
Keen’s thesis really can be neatly summed up by laying out the Question and then expanding on its implications. He asks: “What can help us create a better world in the digital age?” Originally, he says the answer was the Internet. Citing New York Times columnists and assorted economists, Keen describes an almost-idyllic late 20th century American middle class, citing what New York Times columnist George Packer calls a period noted for “state universities, progressive taxation, interstate highways, collective bargaining, health insurance for the elderly, credible news organization,” as well as publicly funded research; in short, a system that the Internet might have helped tweak and fine tune. But now, Keen sees that all as an exploded dream, and cites innumerable examples of how the Internet has been usurped by the usual greedy, unregulated controllers of our collective destiny.
What’s really different and most valuable about Keen’s hand-wringing is his succinct and illuminating reminder of the Internet’s beginnings, which already suggest a human-machine symbiosis seemingly bound to get out of hand. The Internet began, he reminds us, as response to the launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, which unnerved the US military hierarchy which feared a Soviet first strike capability of wiping out the US communication system, leaving it unable to retaliate. Out of this was soon developed a system for computers to communicate with one another by means of the two still-vital electronic protocols – the Internet Protocol, which provided a system of addressing remote computers; and Transmission Control Protocol, which provided guaranteed data delivery by means of negotiated packet composition. It was rather like a Westphalian treaty for data, which provided standardization of rules – protocols – making communication uniform and universal, as the system reduced all human languages to logical data bits.
Once generals were certain they’d developed a system of networked computers capable of reliably talking to one another even in the event of war – they called it ARPANET – they breathed a sigh of relief from within the padded walls of the Cold War policy known as Mutally Assured Destruction. Soon thereafter came Tim Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web; DNS, which translated numerical addresses into friendlier name addresses; and finally, kaboom, came email, which became an overnight sensation and has led to the culture of sped-up and prodigious communications and transactional online behavior we live with today.
Out of this souped-up online transactional behavior was quickly developed the entrepreneurial and social media that we seem incapable of living without today, especially Amazon, Google and Facebook. Keen is quick to point to the ironical beginnings of each these start-ups: the hippie-esque Whole Earth catalogue beginnings of the now predatory monopolism of Amazon; the Do-No-Evil origins of the ultimate pervasive and intrusive algorithms of Google; and Facebook, which Keen asserts was created by a clinical sociopath incapable of holding a human conversation.
But instead of improving democracy and economic opportunity, it has led to an avalanche of “winner-take-all” gamesmanship that has led to the greatest divide between haves and have-nots in history, and instead of tweaking democracy and promoting it worldwide has catastrophically ‘disrupted’ history’s most stable and progressive system of governance and order, leading to failed states, a plunge in confidence in American leadership (compensated for by grossly expanded militarism), and a Wild West casino mentality in which Wall Street gamblers are rewarded with tax payer relief for debts.
Such institutionalized profligacy, excess and unaccountability has, in turn, led to the rise of a monster elite headquartered in Silicon Valley, who control the workings of the Internet and more and more control the workings of human life as it becomes ever more digitalized. This elite, says Keen, is so dangerously dissociated from ordinary human endeavors that they hold FailCons, where they gather in Homeric fireside chats and tell war stories of ‘Epic. Fucking. Failure’ that led to ultimate success. Of course, the Trojan War has a whole new meaning amongst the geek fraternity.
Perhaps no example sums up the disconnect of these new elites from the lives of ordinary humans better than the one I came across last year while reading The New Digital Age by Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen. Among many fanciful expectations for improving the future lot of mankind, including multiple robots in everyone’s home and Amazon-driven bank loans, was the Schmidt vision of household fitted with hologram machines by which a whole 3D world could be conjured up in the living room. Thus, for instance, in this future world of plenty (though, he does not add, ‘for the very few’) safaris and carnivals could be experienced in the comfort of one’s living room. But Schmidt’s kicker is: “If your child is behaving like a spoiled brat you can have them dial up the ghettoes of Calcutta and let them experience the degradation and lack of luxury for a day.” In short, show them how the epic. Fucking. Failures live.
Up to this point, Keen’s wit, analysis and prognostications serve him well and paint and appropriately grim, but not completely bleak future. But then he starts raising solutions to this still-developing global nightmare scenario and the picture inadvertently darkens quickly. For Keen would have the State, which is to say the US government, intervene and put a stop to the profligacy and economic rape that is now all but normalized. Taking a cue from the 70s intervention into Bell Telephone’s monopolistic practices, Keen suggests the break up of Google, for instance, into smaller googles.
This points up a major failing of the book, which is that it really is concerned primarily with middle class erosion and, to a large extent, suffers from the same socio-economic myopia that the new elites suffer from –namely, the failyre to see that the overwhelming percentage of the world’s 7 billion people are not middle class but poor. History has shown them that they have very little at stake in the erosion of the middle class – a middle class, largely ‘progressive’, which has always talked a strong game about opportunity and social justice but bailed on the poor in almost every instance where action would require inconvenience and. or modification of the great buffer zone of bourgeois practices. In short, the world may be a much more unpleasant place for certain niches of the middle class – journalists, professional artists, academics, factory workers – but not much has changed for the poor, except to get unimaginably worse such as with the incursion of GMOs even at the level of subsistence culture, along with the further erosion of water availability.
Further, and far more disturbing, the government has figured out how to leverage the data surveillance provided hy Amazon, Google and Facebook to build the largest collection of Stasi-like dossiers on every connected human that the world has ever seen. Citizens and consumers have been caught on the horns of the two-horned minotaur – the State and the Corporation — in a maze created by technologists. Under the pretext of obtaining justice for the murders of 9/11 the US has set in motion a forcible pax Americana that includes global hegemonic ambitions assisted by the absolute intrusivity and inescapability of Internet technologies in every day affairs.
Not only has dependence on the services of the Internet been institutionalized, such as with mandatory banking, credit cards and government licensing services, but to more effectively fight the ‘War on Terror’ privacy has been virtually criminalized, with those insisting on it becoming immediate prime suspects and placed on watch lists. So, in a dystopian nightmare scenario, we are virtually locked into the Internet hand everything we do is open to surveillance and judgment by unseen others whose power lies in their anonymity.
Still, in fairness to Keen, his call to government action may be little more than a token gesture – after all, he is trying to sell a book. For the principal picture of cultural and socio-economic erosion brought about by the Internet’s failure to live up to its early promise could not have been more graphically summed up than it is in his bleak section on what became of the city of Rochester, New York, once the home town of the sprawling and vibrant Kodak film industry, and now a ghost town of boarded up houses and stores, where the murder rate is 340% higher than the national average, where the marrow of the city has been sucked clean by the virtual vampires of Algorithmia. It’s so bad there that when Keen went to snap a picture outside Kodak headquarters he was told no photos were allowed. As`Keen sums up the situation in Rochester, “[W]hat happens if the devastation is not only permanent, but also the defining feature of our now twenty-five-year old digital economy? What happens if the tragedy in Rochester is actually a sneak preview of our collective future….?” Hard to see a silver nitrate lining in all this.
As the elite hold Caligula-esque parties on football field-sized yachts, where they are served food and beverages by squadrons of waiters naked but for aprons, and tell their tall tales of Narcissistic genius, while the climate burns all around them and the populace sinks into deeper depravities, it’s hard to avoid thinking of Nero fiddling as it all falls down. Or more aptly, Google, Amazon, Facebook and Ebay in an echo chamber, playing a string quartet grosse fugue that somehow makes sense to them, even if its complexity eludes mere dilettantes and aficionados. Or maybe they are as they seem, to Keen and many others, akin to the Four Riders of the Apocalypse finally come to reclaim the Epic. Fucking. Failure. of human civilization.