Cryptosociety: The Dark Economy and Technologies of Freedom

214928

“We will replace insurance companies. We will replace Wall Street. – Joseph Lubin

Under the hood of capitalism flows another world, a dark world of economic counter-insurgents. A realm of noirpreneurs who slip the electronic seeds of an anarchic future of pure freedom beyond the capture systems of global governance. A cryptosociety of dark capitalists who live in the shadow markets outside the global eye. This darker world of the bitcoin and blockchain revolution is unleashing the teeth of a global systemic exit, a techno-secessionism that seeks not only to forget capital’s fractured End Game but to undercut its all too human roots in transparency with utter opaqueness and anonymity.

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” says Amir Taaki. “Like a hydra, those of us in the community that push for individual empowerment are in an arms race to equip the people with the tools needed for the next generation of digital black markets.” (from Inside the Dark Market by Andy Greenberg) As the blurb on Consensys site envisions the opening out from bitcoins to the larger framework of the global use of blockchain technologies state it: “Blockchain technology and dApps have the ability to decentralize power from existing authorities in business, law, and technology to a broad set of stakeholders. This shift will disrupt current business, economic and social paradigms. Transaction costs and barriers to entry in various industries will be reduced in these industries. The result will likely be an increase in economic exchange and prosperity.”

Taaki argues that he’s merely distributing a program–not running a criminal conspiracy. “I’m just a humble coder,” he says. “Code is a form of expression. You can’t imprison someone for speaking an idea.” Yet, it can be used to counter your so to speak techno-anarchistic neutrality. This open source vision of expression is nothing more than subterfuge, and less than it seems. What’s ironic is that Taaki and those anarchist of the new economy of black markets and terminal exit from the system through a form of techno-secessionism are already being coopted by the very powers they seek to accelerate beyond. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for this anarchic wave of dissent and techno-secessionism toward alternative sub-cultures and techno-tribalism etc.

Continue reading

Shanghai, Modernity, and Speed: The Future of Metropolis

499-TheShanghaiTower

Enda Duffy in The Speed Handbook tells us that modernity brought about a series of new human-scaled and immediately vastly popular technological inventions of the beginning of the twentieth century, centrally and most importantly the motorcar, offered to masses of people that rarest of things: a wholly new experience, the experience of moving at what appeared to be great speeds, and the sensation of controlling that movement.1 The modern city would give birth to the road, the boulevard, the speed-zone of linear geometry, world where machines could roam at will but humans must fear to tread.

Anna Greenspan in her book on Shanghai’s future Shanghai Future: Modernity Remade reminds us that the modern vision of the ‘Contemporary City’ is not tied to any particular place and time. Instead, it is produced on an empty, abstract plain. It is precisely this abstraction that makes the modern metropolis continually futuristic. Its time, writes Robert Fishman, was ‘the time of the present, not any calendar day or year, but that revolutionary ‘here and now where the hopes of the present are finally realized’. ‘It is called contemporary,’ Le Corbusier insists, ‘because tomorrow belongs to nobody.’  In much of the world the Contemporary City may be a relic, but in Shanghai dreams of the future metropolis live on.2

Continue reading

Guy Debord: A Philosophy of Time

 

The revolutionary project of a classless society, of an all-embracing historical life, implies the withering away of the social measurement of time in favor of a federation of independent times — a federation of playful individual and collective forms of irreversible time that are simultaneously present.

– Guy Debord,  Society of the Spectacle

Time, power, value and technics when seen for what they are awakens us to the concept of governance which is at the core of the neoliberal global accelerationist project of absolute governance. Etymologically the concept of governance arises out of the old Latin “gubernare”: to direct, rule, guide, govern, originally “to steer,” a nautical borrowing from Greek kybernan “to steer or pilot a ship, direct (the root of cybernetics. (see Online Etymology) This notion of steering, directing, guiding, governing coalesces in the mutations of temporal relations that have transformed our planet into an accelerationist machine of consuming time, a feeding frenzy that takes in everything organic and inorganic in its closing horizon of conceptuality.

Marx in the Grundrisse would align this temporal process as the interplay between flow and interruption (disruption) of the machinic processes of capital itself. For Marx humans (labor) are seen within the machine or automatic system of machinery “merely as its conscious linkages”:

In no way does the machine appear as the individual worker’s means of labor. Its distinguishing characteristic is not in the least, as with the means of labour, to transmit the worker’s activity to the object; this activity, rather, is posited in such a way that it merely transmits the machine’s work, the machine’s action, on to the raw material – supervises it and guards against interruption [Italics Mine]. Not as with the instrument, which the worker animates and makes into his organ with his skill and strength, and whose handling therefore depends on his virtuosity. Rather, it is the machine which possesses skill and strength in place of the worker, is itself the virtuoso, with a soul of its own in the mechanical laws acting through it…(Marx, Chapter on Capital, Notebook VI 692-693)1

This notion that the machine is the creative and vital (soulful) virtuoso rather than the humans supervising it and guarding it against interruption introduces one of the earliest renditions of what would come to be known as the cybernetic revolution that would only in our time come to complete fruition. When I read Franco Berardi’s essay on e-flux Time, Acceleration, and Violence and saw that first paragraph where he asks:

What do you store in a bank? You store time. But is the money that is stored in the bank my past time—the time that I have spent in the past? Or does this money give me the possibility of buying a future? 

We’ve all heard the old shibboleth of Benjamin Franklin, “Time is money!” Berardi will tell us that all of this is clear: value is time, capital is value, or accumulated time, and the banks store this accumulated time. He will remind us that in Symbolic Exchange and Death, Baudrillard brought forth the notion that temporality is the key to financial capitalism,  a unique fulfillment of Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” at the level of finance: the complete loss between time and value. Berardi will  contextualize this as a war between various cultural frames: Italian futurism as the masculinization of time as accelerationist warrior credo, etc. One that would lead to fascism, and would mark it as the crucial point of passage from feminine shame to masculine acceleration culture, to pride, aggressiveness, war, industrial growth, and so forth. But it remains a search for another perception of time, for a way of forgetting one’s own laziness, slowness, and sensitivity by asserting a perception of time in which one is a master—a warrior and builder of industry. (see Berardi)

As I began thinking through this biting reversal in Marx of the machine as Creative Agent rather than human labor (which is seen as subsidiary and servile, a mere regulator and gatekeeper of disruptions, etc.) , and of these various sense of time and value along with the dialectical line of various cultures of shame and guilt, deceleration and acceleration, agricultural civilization vs. industrial civilization, etc. I began realizing this “perception of time” that Berardi teases out is in need of further examination.

I decide to reread Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle recently, and realized that at the center of its theme lies the leitmotif of temporal relations as a philosophy of Time & Civilization. For it is here that he develops the kernel of this historical battle between cyclic civilizations and the accelerationist civilization of the machine that would underpin much of Marx’s critique of Capitalism. It’s not a gnostic or Manichean vision of opposites, but of a historical vision of how humans have oriented and organized their modes of life, labor, and value across time.

The Nineteenth Century would see the consolidation of the Enlightenment project with its centralization of time as irreversible: progress, development, improvement, modernity, etc. Within the void of each of these concepts would hide the concept of “efficiency”, which allowed a mathematical and quantifiable way of calculating labor time and productivity and the attenuated fears of waste, especially the waste of time.3 Efficiency was never about increasing productivity in the Progressive Era, rather it aimed at guaranteeing a reliable, regular rate of production and cultivating reliable, steady habits of character. It was a tool of self-management and personal stability in the face of turbulent change. (Alexander, KL 1451) So efficiency was a tool to control and shape time as progressive time:

Efficiency was … embedded in a rhetoric of dynamic, transformative power. Balanced efficiencies provided the reliable elements of economic or social transformation, the interchangeable and standardized parts, the unchanging substrata, upon which a new bureaucratic order of interaction and adjustment, of change, might be built. (Alexander, KL 1453)

Progressive ideologues, engineers, thinkers defined rationalization as “everything that could restore equilibrium,” and many would describe rationalization as seeking the “‘efficiency’ key to orderly social and individual life,” economic stability almost invariably given as its goal.” (Alexander, KL 1562)

Crucial to rationalization was a concept of flow. It could describe the assembly line and other practices for keeping the productive works in continual motion… But flow also carried another meaning, referring not to specific techniques but to a more general ideology of undisturbed production. If the solution to social and economic crisis lay in the raising of living standards through cheaper and more plentiful goods, then whatever imperiled production further imperiled a society already in crisis. Many technical measures were undertaken to streamline production, including standardization in many forms, of work schedules, parts and sizes, and methods of production; widespread adoption of new cost-accounting methods; and a host of technical measures to reduce waste… (Alexander, KL 1564)

As Alexander will inform us behind efficiency lay a legacy of balance and a worry about waste, expressed in its assumptions that one ought to get as much as possible out of what one had put in, not only enough to be productive or to show a profit but enough to show that the system was under control. (ibid. KL 1811) And, as we know control is both mastery and self-mastery. As we know the word control represents its most general definition, purposive influence toward a predetermined goal. Most dictionary definitions imply these same two essential elements: influence of one agent over another, meaning that the former causes changes in the behavior of the latter; and purpose, in the sense that influence is directed toward some prior goal of the controlling agent.4

The rationalization of society with the rise of the Fordist economies with their need to reduce waste opened the door to regulatory bureaucracies to control and oversee the governance and management of time, value, labor, etc. both within the governance of society, technology, and corporations. It is here that we begin to see how the older forms of control in government and markets had depended on personal relationships and face-to-face interactions; now in our time control is seen to be reestablished by means of bureaucratic organization, the new infrastructures of transportation and the Information and Communications technologies (ICTs). The new accelerationist economies based on global societal transformation, with its attendant rapid innovation in information and control technology accelerating Just-In-Time production in endless productivity cycles without waste: a process that seeks to regain control of functions once contained at much lower and more diffuse levels of society but which are now becoming invisible and ubiquitous as we move into the tecnocapitalist paradigm of intelligent economies based of the financialization of Big Data, etc.

 Society of the spectacle

Guy Debord will portray this history in phases of cyclical (agricultural society), irreversible (industrial), and pseudocyclical (postmodern) notions of time, technics, and civilization in his Society of the Spectacle. He will see within the agrarian mode of production, governed as it is by the rhythm of the seasons, the basis for a fully developed cyclical time of eternal return of the Same. Eternity is within this time, it is the return of the same here on earth. Myth is the unitary mental construct which guarantees that the cosmic order conforms with the order that this society has in fact already established within its frontiers. (Debord, Section 126)

Yet, as agricultural civilization took off and the static based food societies came into conflict with the older hunter/gatherer societies there arose the need for authority and security, so that the first cities and centralized bureaucratic organizations of religious accounting and kingship arose. The social appropriation of time and the production of man by human labor develop within a society divided into classes. The power that establishes itself above the poverty of the society of cyclical time, the class that organizes this social labor and appropriates its limited surplus value, simultaneously appropriates the temporal surplus value resulting from its organization of social time: it alone possesses the irreversible time of the living. (Debord, Section 128)

This is the time of adventure and war, the time in which the masters of cyclical society pursue their personal histories; it is also the time that emerges in the clashes with foreign communities that disrupt the unchanging social order. History thus arises as something alien to people, as something they never sought and from which they had thought themselves protected.

This irreversible time is the time of those who rule, and the dynasty is its first unit of measurement. Writing is the rulers’ weapon. In writing, language attains its complete independence as a mediation between consciousnesses. But this independence coincides with the independence of separate power, the mediation that shapes society. With writing there appears a consciousness that is no longer carried and transmitted directly among the living — an impersonal memory, the memory of the administration of society. (Debord, Section 131) Yet, Debord will see a double-edged distinction between the masters and the worker (slaves): the masters played the role of mythically guaranteeing the permanence of cyclical time, they themselves achieved a relative liberation from cyclical time. (Debord, 132)

So this notion of the common man living in an eternal present cut off from history and time as an irreversible arrow, while the upper elites, kings, warriors, etc. lived in a “recorded time”, a time that counted, and was marked down for future generations to remember would form the backdrop of all future social relations. The rulers owned time, and time was the first and greatest commodity: it guaranteed immortality and eternity for those who controlled it. We’ve seen this in those works by Herbert Marcuse (Eros and Civilization), Norman O. Brown (Life Against Death), and Ernest Becker (Escape From Evil). Each of which combined readings of Freud and Marxian critiques of solar mythologies of the ancients.  Each would hone in on the conceptual frameworks of myth, the sky based mythologies as abstract mappings of order against chaos: the sky as a mathematical system or machine that could be calculated and measured with increasing care and exactitude, giving assurance of an orderly world, in which the ancient kings became the earthly representatives of the victorious sky gods. Our mathematical sciences would begin in astrology, the mapping and mathematization of the sky. Astronomy laid the base from which all sciences emerged. The clock-work movements of the heavens and their dramas would influence philosophers and musicians to come.

After thousands of years of this interactive world of cyclic and irreversible time played out within the ancient world, came the monotheistic religions of which Judaism in the West arose. The monotheistic religions were a compromise between myth and history, between the cyclical time that still governed the sphere of production and the irreversible time that was the theater of conflicts and regroupings among different peoples. The religions that evolved out of Judaism were abstract universal acknowledgments of an irreversible time that had become democratized and open to all, but only in the realm of illusion. (Debord, 136)

Debord will remind us that it is the Middle Ages, an incomplete mythical world whose consummation lay outside itself, is the period when cyclical time, though still governing the major part of production, really begins to be undermined by history. An element of irreversible time is recognized in the successive stages of each individual’s life. Life is seen as a one-way journey through a world whose meaning lies elsewhere: the pilgrim is the person who leaves cyclical time behind and actually becomes the traveler that everyone else is symbolically. (Debord, 137)

With the Enlightenment project and commodity Capitalism we would see the slow fabrication of a new myth, the myth of progress: one that would have as its goal the elimination of waste; or, more succinctly the elimination of not only cyclical time but of historical time as well. A process that started two hundred years ago has in financial capitalism entered the ubiquitous time of an accelerating future. This is not the speed culture of Virilio’s Politics of Speed, etc. Instead as Debord tells it the main product that economic development has transformed from a luxurious rarity to a commonly consumed item is thus history itself — but only in the form of the history of the abstract movement of things that dominates all qualitative aspects of life. While the earlier cyclical time had supported an increasing degree of historical time lived by individuals and groups, the irreversible time of production tends to socially eliminate such lived time. (Debord, 142)

This will be time as a pure commodity: “time is everything, man is nothing; he is at most the carcass of time” (The Poverty of Philosophy). As Debord describes it this general time of human nondevelopment also has a complementary aspect — a consumable form of time based on the present mode of production and presenting itself in everyday life as a pseudocyclical time. (Debord, 148) As a production of commoditized time pseudocyclical time is associated with the consumption of modern economic survival — the augmented survival in which everyday experience is cut off from decision making and subjected no longer to the natural order, but to the pseudo-nature created by alienated labor. In our time pseudonature is termed the InfoSphere: the artificialization of our planet into layers of information and data, abstracted out of the dead weight of natural existence people live in virtual theatres of illusion rather than older forms of existence. Inforgs or informationally embodied organisms (inforgs), mutually connected and embedded in an informational environment, the infosphere, which we share with both natural and artificial agents similar to us in many respects.5

We’ve live in artificial constructs of a spectacular world so naturalized and ubiquitous that we forget it is virtual illusion: this is the world of RealityTV as a DIY project in which we can watch the world as a selfie in which we are starring actors at one remove, doubles of ourselves roaming the virtual lanes in infinite regress of image worlds receding further and further from our physical embedded life.

As we watch our lives lived by our doubles on RealityTV in all its glorious inanity: Its vulgarized pseudofestivals are parodies of real dialogue and gift-giving; they may incite waves of excessive economic spending, but they lead to nothing but disillusionments, which can be compensated only by the promise of some new disillusion to come. The less use value is present in the time of modern survival, the more highly it is exalted in the spectacle. The reality of time has been replaced by the publicity of time. (Debord, 154) Time as a public relations event, a RealityTV series that keeps repeating itself endlessly on late night comedy. A life in a pure void where communication is nothing more than canned laughter. All the while zombies stare into the videodrone tubes awaiting new instructions from their masters.

Against this dead world of zombie RealityTV filled with doubles and double-talk oblivion Debord would seek a “federation of independent times – a federation of playful individual and collective forms of irreversible time that are simultaneously present. This would be the temporal realization of authentic communism, which “abolishes everything that exists independently of individuals.” (Debord, 163)

A quantum time that is both cyclical and irreversible: a paradox at the heart of the production of time as lived, one that is a difference that makes a difference? Only time will tell…

1. Karl Marx. Grundrisse. Penguin Books, 1993.
2. Debord, Guy (2011-03-15). Society of the Spectacle (Soul Bay Press. Kindle Edition.)
3. Jennifer Karns Alexander. The Mantra of Efficiency: From Waterwheel to Social Control (Kindle Location 32). Kindle Edition.
4. Beniger, James (1989-03-15). The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society (Kindle Locations 212-214). Harvard University Press – A. Kindle Edition.
5. Floridi, Luciano (2013-10-10). The Ethics of Information (p. 14). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.

Posthuman Economics: The Empire of Capital

Maybe what haunts posthumanism is not technology but utopian capitalism, the dark silences long repressed, excluded, disavowed, and negated within the Empire of Capital.  Franco Berardi’s The Uprising grabs the history of art and capital by the horns as the slow and methodical implementation of the Idealist program. By this he means the dereferentialization of reality – or what we term now the semioitization of reality: the total annihilation of any connection between signifier and signified, word and thing, mind and world. Instead we live in a world structured by fantasy that over time has dematerialized reality.

In economics it was Richard Nixon (1972) who cut the link between financial capital and its referent, the gold standard which subtly dematerialized monetarism of the neoliberal era. This slow vanishing act of reality into its digital matrix has in our time become so naturalized that we have forgotten how much our lives are enmeshed in fictions divorced from even the illusion of reality. As Berardi will put it:

The premise of neoliberal dogmatism is the reduction of social life to the mathematical implications of financial algorithms. What is good for finance must be good for society, and if society does not accept this identification and submission, then that means that society is incompetent, and needs to be redressed by some technical authority.1

He speaks of the moment when the newly elected Greek President Papandreou actually had the audacity to question the EU’s austerity program and was summarily ousted by the new entity, The Markets, and replaced with a consultant from Goldman-Sachs. He asks calmly, What is this blind god, the Markets?

Markets are the visible manifestation of the inmost mathematical interfunctionality of algorithms embedded in the techno-linguistic machine: they utter sentences that change the destiny of the living body of society, destroy resources, and swallow the energies of the collective body like a draining pump. (Berardi, 32)

In this sense we are already being run by the machinic systems of math and computation at the core of our economic system. As he tells it the humans behind the system are not fascists, yet they allow society to be enslaved by a mathematical system of economics and financialization, which is clean, smooth, perfect, and efficient. The financial orthodoxy would have you believe that all things should act efficiently. Like all orthodoxies it offers comfort and guidance, but, as orthodoxies do, it also has the power to wound those who cannot follow its dogmas or who resist its rituals of conformity. It is technological because it has primarily to do with making things work, and it is particularly apparent in the contemporary emphasis on quantifiable productivity and associated fears of waste, especially the waste of time.2

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi once developed his theory of optimal experience based on the concept of flow—the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.3 Thinking of flow and efficiency one discovers the key is the concept of flow-of information or of goods, for example-and the role of efficiency in preventing disruptions. This suggests that beneath the zeal for efficiency lies the desire to control a changing world, to keep an optimal and peak level of flow going at all times in society and combatting and preventing anything that might disrupt that flow.

In Berardi’s mathematization of society we’re no longer consumers and users, but have instead become as Bruce Sterling tells us in The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Thingsparticipants under machine surveillance, whose activities are algorithmically combined within Big Data silos” (Sterling, KL 30). So that in this sense we are no longer embodied humans, but are instead bits of data floating among the wired worlds of our digital economy. But a fascinating aspect of the Internet of things is that the giants who control the major thrust within its reaches Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple or Microsoft could care less about efficiency. No. They in fact don’t bother to “compete” with each other because their real strategy is to “disrupt”. Rather than “competing” – becoming more efficient at doing something specific – “disruption” involves a public proof that the rival shouldn’t even exist.(Sterling, KL 212-216)

The basic order of the economic day is coded in the language of noir dime novels. “Knifing the baby” means deliberately appropriating the work of start-ups before they can become profitable businesses. “Stealing the oxygen” means seeing to it that markets don’t even exist – that no cash exchanges hands, while that formerly profitable activity is carried out on a computer you control. (Sterling, KL 224)

Yet, underneath all the glitter and glitz is the hard truth of reality. If the Internet of things is a neo-feudal empire of tyrant corporations disrupting the flows of efficient commerce in a bid to attain greater and greater power and influence, then the world of austerity and nation states outside the wires is preparing for the barbarians. As Berardi relates it outside the cold steel wires of financial digi-tyranny we can already see the violent underbelly of the old physical body of the social raising its reactionary head: nation, race, ethnic cleansing, and religious fundamentalism are running rampant around the globe. While the digital-elite pirate away the world of finance the forgotten citizenry outside the digital fortress are preparing for war in the streets: despair, suicide, and annihilation living in the austerity vacuum of a bloated world of wires.

Maybe Yeats wrote his poem The Second Coming for our century:

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
   The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

1. Franco “Bifo” Berardi. The Uprising. (Semiotext(e), 2012)
2. Jennifer Karns Alexander. The Mantra of Efficiency: From Waterwheel to Social Control (Kindle Locations 29-32). Kindle Edition
3. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (2008-08-18). Flow (P.S.) (Kindle Locations 214-216). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

 

Positing Futurity: The Possibilities of Utopology

A true opposite of utopia would be a society that is either completely unplanned or is planned to be deliberately terrifying and awful. Dystopia, typically invoked, is neither of these things; rather, it is a utopia that has gone wrong, or a utopia that functions only for a particular segment of society.1

Fredric Jameson in a provocative essay Utopia as Method, or the Uses of the Future asks us “How can a place be a method?” Most of the time we think of utopia as a place, or a separate non-place in the sense of a secondary world with its own sociocultural milieu. But what if such a place that is no-place formed the dialectical union of opposites we call utopia/dystopia? What if this non-place were the outcome of the failure of the myth of progress? With the failure of modernity and its supposed utopic teleology and the myth of progress we are now within such a non-place, a place between times, a moment of pure difference in which neither the positive nor negative forces hold sway, but the balance between the forces of life and the forces of death vie for our future. As Jameson notes:

As far as space is concerned, the rich are withdrawing ever more urgently into their gated communities and their fortified enclosures; the middle classes are tirelessly engaged in covering the last vestiges of nature with acres of identical development homes; and the poor, pouring in from the former countryside, swell the makeshift outskirts with a population explosion so irrepressible that in a few years none of the ten largest cities on the globe will include the familiar first-world metropolises any longer. (ibid.)

Mike Davis in Planet of Slums situates the utopic/dystopic conclaves within the superstructure of our Megalopolises. He offers us an advanced state of the late-capitalist hyperworld in 3-D vision, where slums like slime molds infiltrate the fabric of our very lives, and even the elite live lives like truant children who have just escaped from the hinterlands of some Lovecraftian nightmare zone leaving the rest of us to cannibal horrors unimagined by science-fiction or gothic troubadours. The cities of the future, rather than being made out of glass and steel as envisioned by earlier generations of urbanists, are instead largely constructed out of crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks, and scrap wood. Instead of cities of light soaring toward heaven, much of the twenty-first-century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement, and decay. Indeed, the one billion city-dwellers who inhabit postmodern slums might well look back with envy at the ruins of the sturdy mud homes of Catal Hayuk in Anatolia, erected at the very dawn of city life nine thousand years ago.2

Continue reading

Science Fiction, Technology, and Accelerationist Politics: Final Thoughts on an Williams and Srnicek’s Manifesto

One of the guiding factors in my science fiction series (quartet) is the collusion and convergence of the current and future trends in NBIC (nanotech, biotech, information tech, and computer tech) and ICT (information and communications technologies) technologies and their personal, social, political, environmental, and moral impact over then next couple centuries.

With notions of economic and environmental collapse central to this I hope to cover the underlying tension of global governance, technological risk, and the posthuman-transhuman singularity in both its neoliberal, reactionary, and ultra-left varieties. With the alternate forms of a philosophy of Accelerationism being promoted by the Right and Left one wants to enact theses differing tensions in an approach to the micro/macro scaled transformations of society and environment across a future history spectrum.

Science Fiction has always based itself on current trends and forecasting, providing both the hard science and the strangeness or wonder at the impact upon society and environment. The idea of giving shape to such a realm is daunting to say the least, but over the past few years I’ve been listening to our philosophers around the globe, as well as the scientists and engineers who enact the pragmatic materiality of such systems of thought through everyday practices. They all seem to agree that the utopian ideologies of the 20th Century or now defunct, passé and of little use in ongoing scenarios that incorporate such technological and economic impacts to both the physical well-being and health of our global civilization and those other creatures we share its resources with. Ours is a time of both accelerating change and a moment when the future of life on this planet is being decided. Over the next hundred years or even less we have some hard choices to make in our ethical initiatives which seem almost archaic as compared to the accelerating pace of technological innovations.

In the Third world we see the manipulation and oppression of billions of humans by war, famine, genocide, economic and social oppression, religious intolerance and bigotry, racial and gender inequalities, etc. The global elite and their minion governments are doing little to obviate such things and seem instead bent on supporting national agendas that will instead worsen the effects of such dire issues. Our intellectuals seem bankrupt and unable to spur the needed actions on the planet to curtail such problems. In a short-lived series of Spring revolutions and Occupy movements we’ve seen the implosive force of late capitalism not only able to survive the shocks of economic disaster but also to co-opt the many initiatives of the left at their own game.

Why? Why has the left withdrawn into an academic cocoon of meetings, speeches, globe-trotting speeches that only the high-brow of academia are interested in? We seem to have no center, no rallying point around which to gather even the semblance of a message. Each faction seems to have broken off like a fractured schizophrenic nomad spouting the messages of its specific needs: colonialism, gender and racial equality, economic anarchist or communist agendas, green speak, etc. The list could go on. The point being there seems to be no umbrella banner under which all these various agendas could be brought together. Part of it is the aversion to monoculture systems with grand narratives that we’ve been taught over the past postmodern era to shy away from. This notion that one fits all just doesn’t work anymore, yet the notion of a thousand petals storming heave want work either.

What to do? Rereading Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek’s #Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics   the tells us that “today’s politics is beset by an inability to generate the new ideas and modes of organization necessary to transform our societies to confront and resolve the coming annihilations” (3). The enemy for them is the neoliberal project that encompasses our globe whether within the West (EU and Americas) or the East (Russian, China, and other nations). They realize that the housing collapse in 2007 was a mere blip in the neoliberal eye, and that it has slowly recovered and hardened its agendas to deprivatize the planet and through global governance and legal pressures to slowly denationalize and enforce incursions against the remaining social democratic institutions and services (4).

Against the neoliberal world order Williams and Srnicek tell us that the left as situated within its Kitsch Marxism is a lost world of possibilities, that it is bankrupt and hollow and that the only way forward is to “the recovery of lost possible futures, and indeed the recovery of the future as such” (5-6). The notion of the “future” as a concept has a unique heritage in the cycle of 20th Century thought. From the Italian and Russian Futurists on through many of the Utopian visions turned hellish of the different enactments of communisms, democratic socialisms, and darker worlds of Fascism, etc. A global history well documented in Susan Buck-Morss’s Dreamworld and Catastrophe. After the failure of May 1968 and the political struggles of that era a malaise overcame many on the left and as Bifo Berardi in After the Future would affirm com­mu­nist pol­i­tics fell into lethargy with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of the new China. As he states it in our age communisms will emerge from an exo­dus, both vol­un­tary and com­pul­sory, from a stag­nat­ing and increas­ingly preda­tory state-capital nexus. This exo­dus is both social, in the devel­op­ment of an alter­na­tive infra­struc­ture, and per­sonal, in the with­drawal from the hyper-stimulation of the semi­otic econ­omy. Bifo aban­dons hope in col­lec­tive con­tes­ta­tion at the level of the political. It’s this fatalism, this miserabilism of no futures, not possibilities, no hope that aligns such a communism with what Williams and Srnicek among others see as retrograde and feeding into the neoliberal agenda.

Instead Williams and Srnicek look at current capitalism, at the neoliberal project as it situates its global agenda in the face of no opposition – or, at least, minimal. What they see is an economics of acceleration: capitalism demands economic growth, one in which its ideological self-presentation is one of liberating the forces of creative destruction, setting free ever accelerating technological and social innovations (02). With the rise of these new global economies we see an increase in the need for workers across the board. One of the largest underworld trading systems is in human trafficking to supply these new initiatives both physical and sex labor workers (i.e., undocumented workers who act as human slaves to the new marginal initiatives in building the smart cities of the future, etc. see Gridlock: Labor, Migration, and Human Trafficking in Dubai by Pardis Mahdavi;  Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy by Kevin Bales; Ending Slavery: How We Free Today’s Slaves by Kevin Bales, etc. the list could go on). As well as the global drug, money laundering, financial austerity and intervention, etc. (i.e., Policing the Globe: Criminalization and Crime Control in International Relations by Andreas Peter; Banished: The New Social Control In Urban America by Katherine Beckett; A Game As Old As Empire: The Secret World of Economic Hit Men and the Web of Global Corruption by Steven Hiatt; Policing Dissent: Social Control and the Anti-Globalization Movement by Luis Alberto Fernandez, etc.)

Williams and Srnicek diagnose two forms of accelerationism: 1) the neoliberal form exemplified by Nick Land in essays (Fanged Noumena, The Thirst for Annihilation, etc.) in which the neoliberal or late capitalist system is rushing forward blindly in a unidirectional system of transhumanist or posthuman bricolage that constructs itself from the fragments of former civilizations and will at some point reach a techonomic singularity thereby sloughing off its human benefactors and creating the AI and Machinic civilizations of the future; and, 2) the left version of accelerationism that offers an open-ended navigational process of discovery “within a universal space of possibility” (02). This last notion of a “space of possibility” is a take off from a Sellarsian-Brandomian model of a normative “space of reasons” in which a collective consensus of experts commutes through practices of “give and take” a carefully planned out and coordinated effort which Williams and Srnicek will later term The Plan (cartographic mappings) and The Network (infosphere of global action encompassing both virtual and actual environments).

They see a conflict between speed and accelerationism at the heart of these disparate worlds of the neoliberal vision (speed; or, confusion of speed with acceleration) and the communist left vision (accelerationist): one in which the neoliberal version constrained by the tactics and strategies of speed force progress into an economic framework of “surplus value, a reserve army of labour, and free-floating capital” in which economic growth and social innovation becomes “encrusted with kitsch remainders from our communal past” (02:3). Instead of an expansion in cognitive labour and its self-fulfilling innovations they see instead that neoliberalism is shutting down human cognitive labour with automation and the machinic implementation of smart or intelligence systems that will eventually replace humans as the knowledge makers of tomorrow (02:4).

They also look to Marx himself and recite that it was him as well as Land who realized that capitalism should not be destroyed but rather that its “gains were not to be reversed, but accelerated beyond the constraints of the capitalist value form” (02:5). They even realize that Lenin himself understood that large scale capitalist efforts constrained only by the latest sciences could offer the socialist regimes an economic future (02:6). As Williams and Srnicek see it the left must embrace technological and social acclerationsim if they are to have any future at all (02: 7).

In their critique of the Left they see two forces at work: 1) a folk politics of localism, direct action, and relentless horizontalism; and, 2) an accelerationist left “at ease with modernity of abstraction, complexity, globality, and technology (03: 1). The former seems content on a no future politics of withdrawal and exit, of creating non-capitalist zones that will exist outside capitalist relations altogether. The accelerationist alternative politics seeks to manifest the gains of late capitalism without its dire consequences of oppression and exploitation, transforming its goals toward non-oppressive and non-exploitative egalitarian purposes.

In section (03: 2) they wonder at the inability of capitalist theory against its pragmatic outcome in the very notion of reduction of labour hours. Instead of a reduction as predicated by Keynes and other labour theorists what has transpired is the severing of the private and public realms of work and play in which the worker has been incorporated into a 24/7 economy that is pure work-at-play or play-at-work based on ludicrous incentives and lucrative strategies of desire. Instead of human freedom and potential capitalism has squandered its perennial dreams of space flight and technological innovation and into a consumerist nightmare of repetitive gadgetry that must be replaced the moment it is used (03: 4). They tells us that accelerationists do not wish for a return to the Fordist era of the factory, that it is behind us, and even the post-Fordist era of consumer iterations in a void is on decline: the worlds of colonialism, empire, and a third-world periphery in nationalist terms is coming to an end. The days of race, sex and subjugation are coming to an end too. (03:4).

Instead of crushing neoliberalism they tell us we should overtake it, repurpose it toward common ends, allow for a movement toward a post-capitalist future beyond neoliberal traditions and values (03: 5). They admit that technology itself remain entrapped and enslaved by neoliberal agendas, and that even they and the accelerationists have little foresight as to the potentials that a unexploitative technological imperative might bring to the table (03: 6). Against techno-utopians that see technology as autonomous from the socius, and as some kind of ultimate salvation system in its own right, the accelerationist believe that technology should be subordinated to social needs rather than granted superior rights and privileges. In this sense they would constrain technology to human needs and social practices – a return to aspects of the Enlightenment project or a new humanism rather than some techno-extroprian vision beyond human needs and purposes (03:7).

To do this they tells us some form of planning will need to take place, a way of mapping this accelerationist future: “we must develop both a cognitive map of the existing system and a speculative image of the future economic system” (03: 8). As part of this we need the existing toolsets that have informed and made neoliberalism so successful: the very ICT (information and communications technologies) developed over the past half-century; social-network analysis, agent-based modeling, big data analytics, and non-equilibrium economic models, etc. All these will be needed by the left base intellectual or cognitariat in developing a way forward (03: 9). Also there will be a need for a new culture of innovation, creativity, and experimentation that allows for failure and practice on all fronts, an open-ended trial-and-effort model that takes into account the mistakes of the past and revises its methodologies and practices on the fly (03:10).

For all of this to happen the left will need to provide a hegemonic platform of informatics (virtual/immaterial) and material (actual/substantive) infrastructural technologies and realistic social practices and institutions (03: 11). Without the infrastructure the material and immaterial platforms of production, finance, logistics, and consumption will remain in capitalist not post-capitalist modes that will be less effective and stymied by capitalist modes of social relations rather than collective goals and aspirations. To accomplish such a task is to leave behind the needles quarrels of ineffective direct action appeals and failures of the political left’s past, instead we need new modes of action: politics must be “treated as a set of dynamic systems, riven with conflict, adaptations and counter-adaptations, and strategic arms races” (03: 12). Instead of any one strategy or tactic we need to confront the events we meet on their own terms and have an arsenal of strategies and tactics, modeling trajectories and smart systems available at our beck and call that can open up and allow us to act in the moment in real-time with the best available data and cartographic strategies available to move ahead. Instead of centralized bureaucracies we will have decentralized systems of command and control based on immediacy of situational analysis and synthesis using advanced analytic and synthetic algorithms superior to any slow institutional pull and push leverage. This will be a community of trust, a socious of individuals working in collusion and cooperating through modes of being that no longer are tied to senseless hierarchies of command and control that were never effective to begin with. We must study these past failures in the systems and incorporate them into our innovated algorithmic programs of emerging intelligence systems: revisable, updatable, changing systems of multiplicity and openness.

In section 03: 13 I simply disagree with Williams and Srnicek who tells us that the ‘radical Left’ is simply wrong in their fetishisation of openness, horizontality, and inclusion. Instead they want to incorporate older forms of “secrecy, verticality, and exclusion” as having a place in effective political action. But for whom? For which players? This need for secrecy sounds like a return to some notion of hierarchical command, of leaders and followers, rather than comrades all working toward equalitarian ends. Veritcality: as hierarchy, top-down structures of command? Exclusion: of whom? And, who would be the excluders, the judges of this exclusion? Maybe in the transition process I could see this as the neoliberal order is still the enemy we must overcome: but after? Do they presume that in this final post-capitalist order we will need such notions?

In 03: 14 they tell us that democracy must be defined by its “collective self-mastery”. Why must this be the delimiting inscription? Why not as “collective self-emancipation” rather than some organizational notion of mastery which seems a reversion to older slave/master conceptuality? They describe it as essential to the Enlightenment project of ruling ourselves. But even the notion that we need masters to rule us is a false notion of sovereign power that needs to be overcome rather than embraced. As they tell it we need to “posit a collectively controlled legitimate vertical authority in addition to distributed horizontal forms of sociality, to avoid becoming the slaves of either a tyrannical totalitarian centralism or a capricious emergent order beyond out control” (03:14). Instead of institutions of authority and control would we not be better served with balance of equal powers? I am always leery of autonomous forms of power and verticality or top-down governance and justice which throughout history have worked blindly and usually through failures of humans who were behind the thrones of such institutions. Such institutions are prone to oligarchic influx and influence which would leave the multitude at the hands of barbarous mishandling and injustice in the name of authority and justice. Instead we need instead of institutions of power and justice and new ethical society of the good life: of partnership and a sense of egalitarian values and cooperation among equals that do not allow for authoritarian institutions to develop at all.

In section 03: 15 I agree that we need an “ecology of organizations, a pluralism of forces, resonating and feeding back on their competitive strengths”. Yes, I want to say. If they affirm as such then why the need for such top-down authoritarian power and justice to keep tyranny at bay, or to even disallow total anarchy? As they affirm sectarianism and centralization are both death bringers to the left, so instead we need to build other more egalitarian structures that would disallow such emergence toward fracture or tyranny. A part of doing this they affirm is to bring the global media as close as possible back to an open popular control mechanism that allows for each player to develop his/her potentials. Obviously there will always be a need to protect the weaker members of society from exploitation by others or groups that might arise and to exploit the open-ended systems. But I do not see the need for NSA style surveillance as part of that, but rather an ethic of solidarity that polices itself through cooperation and mutual self-help mechanisms rather than from some authoritarian State of Police Justice system.

Section 03: 18 seems more about the struggle to obtain a post-capitalist hegemony, the notion of creating new categories for the solidarity of the global labor force that seems ill-defined at the moment. Yes, we will need better was of connect to each other across the globe, ways of providing a proletariat subjectivation. But it need not be based on identitarian politics. It needs to be revised toward newer notions of subjectivation rather than falling back into older form of identity. I think this is at the heart of Badio, Zizke, Johnson and many other speculative thinkers. They say: yes, yes, all this it true, but what we really need is a new “technosocial platform” and infrastructure of institutions within which all of this can be formalized and provide an ideological, social, and economic footing (03: 19).

None of this will be possible without the one ingredient: capital, money, funding (03:20). Without the nexus of “governments, institutions, think tanks, unions, or individual benefactors” the whole left accelerationist movement will go the way of dinosaurs: extinct.

Lastly, they tells us we must take up the coinage of “mastery” again and realize that for the Left mastery is not tinged by the overreach of the false Enlightenment of fascism, but is instead to be enacted in a new guise as a new form of action: “improvisatory and capable of executing a design through a practice which works with the contingencies it discovers only in the course of its acting, in a politics of geosocial artistry and cunning rationality. A form of abductive experimentation that seeks the best means to act in a complex world.” (03: 21).

In some ways this is an enactment of the original intent of all those poets, artists, thinkers of the original modernist initiatives both in Europe and Russian that were cut off so quickly by WWI and death. The notions of contingency and jazz, improvisation and revisionary blends of processual synthetic systems that forecast the moments ahead rather than through probabilistic or stoachastic algorithms they choose contingent systems that analyze future trends rather than historical datamixes. We need to move out from under the Probabilistic Universe and into the Multiverse of plural contingencies where almost anything happens and can happen. A back to the future constructivist practice of shaping out of the contingent forces of chaos the complex relations of a real future worth having.

Ultimately they tells us we have a choice: fall back into primitivism and chaos, worlds closed into barbarous warfare, hate, and death; or, we can move forward into our long-awaited and dreamed for post-capitalist future of space faring, transhumanist or posthumanist transformations, and where the future “must be cracked open once again, unfastening our horizons towards the universal possibilities of the Outside” (03 – 23-34).

The more I think upon their vision and the other essays I’ve worked with concerning this strange brave world ahead of us the more I’m convinced their on to something positive. I do have my issues with aspects of the conceptual framework of the institutions based on self-mastery and authoritarianism; yet, if what they mean by self-mastery as shown above is the ongoing process of self-revisioning and self-reflective processes in a heuristic ontography of mapping our geoartistic pulsations by way of meta-ethics and meta-philosophy that is provisional and self-revisable: updated by a post-intentional scientific methodology based on the latest sciences; then yes, I, too, can affirm that we need to open our vision to the greater universe beyond our closed off global trajectories. We live on a planet of potentially finite resources that we are depleting day by day, we will need off-planet resources and strategies of survival for our species in the long-term which will be needed for any viable civilization ongoing.

Like any manifesto it is one part bravado, and 2 parts hope, with the rounding of the square in 1 part realist terms of actual social practice. Much thought went into it, but now comes the time of enacting it and making the words become works that act. Without action we are left in the void of inaction and self-defeat rather that will let our enemies – the neoliberals, have the last laugh at our expense. This we can ill-afford to do.

Visionary Materialism: Entheogens, Magic, and the Sciences

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

– Arthur C. Clarke

Actually the quote above was the last of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous three laws of “prediction”:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

v

Long ago my quest into philosophy, materialism, and the worlds of the sciences emerged from life experiences that converged in the late 1960’s era of Viet Nam, Psychodelia, and street activism in the United States. Having been raised in an isolated conclave of security and cultural conservatism in Odessa, Texas, where the world of Oil and country music were King (although Buddy Holly, Elvis, and other southerners managed to keep to the air waves) I lived in a bubble world of ideological ignorance. Can I blame my parents, grandparents, etc.? Not really. Part of the general ideological passivity of the era that was still in the aftermath of WWII, the 50’s fear mongering, and the culture of religion ( West Texas being on the edge of the notorious Bible Belt). Luckily for me my Dad was pretty much an agnostic, my mother a reserved Methodist who’d abandoned her Church because of its new turn toward apocalypticism. All part of the fare of that world. Hell for me it was all about sports, football in particular. If you’ve ever seen the movie Friday Nights Live or the tv series by that name you’ll know that it was based on a specific High School in Odessa, Permian High School. I admit that I never got to play there because my family just on my cusp of entering that institution moved to Houston (another tale). But I grew up in its culture having had cousins, second cousins, etc. who did go there. Odessa was still a bubble community where everyone new about, of, or personally everyone else. It was a racist town with segregation that took a while to change – if it ever did?

Sadly it was from this closed ideological village of stupidity and ignorance that I emerged during the Viet Nam draft era. Realizing I had two options: 1) run away to Canada; or, 2) join the Air Force or Navy rather than allow the Army to enslave me. Being a Son of the South and engrained with all its ideological colorings I chose the supposed honorable path of joining the Navy. What a mistake! Not that the Navy isn’t a great way to escape the tedium of that West Texas desert of mesquite, sulphurous oil fumes, clichy, tumbleweeds, etc., but I had no real idea what I was getting into at all. (Another tale… )

You may be wondering: Why the hell is this guy baring his personal bullshit online? It’s not some confessional believe me, it’s actually to show how each of us are the fruit of certain epigenetic environmental pressures. Our lives are not whole cloth as some of us would like to assume. I think it was Emerson who once spoke of the long shadow: “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man”. For me life itself is that shadow in the personal. We are born in ignorance with brains that have evolved over eons to meet the pressures of our external environments, to grapple with the materiality of existence, to be selective toward all things in our environment for certain reproductive and survival reasons. Yet, over time something happened, something changed in the animal called humanity: we developed that ability to speak and to reflect upon our speech thereby producing strange anomalies in our brain that evolved into what many unknowing philosophers now want to call the Mind. They talk of the Mind as if it were something different, unique, separate from the brain itself. There are so many notions concerning the mind and its child, consciousness, that it might fill an encyclopedia like Britannica many times over.

That is not my subject.

Continue reading

The Cognitariat: Pawns in a Game of Code

Everyone is becoming a programmer. The next step is to realize that everything is a program.

– Keith Axline, The Universe Is Programmable. We Need an API for Everything 

Are we just code in someone else’s computer? Is the brain programming us moment by moment? Bits of data floating on a sea of numbers:0/1? Neurons firing like switches on a global ferris-wheel? Dark riders of a universe we neither made nor understand? Baudrillard once described the notion of telematics privacy:

…each individual sees himself promoted to the controls of a hypothetical machine, isolated in a position of perfect sovereignty, at an infinite distance from his original universe…1

What if this hypothetical machine was the universe itself and we were actually isolated or withdrawn from all relation not at some distance from the universe, but rather from all those possible universes that might have been but are now forever closed off to us because of the particular quantum effect of collapse that produces our singular perspective. Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment poses the question, when does a quantum system stop existing as a superposition of states and become one or the other? The point of the experiment was simple for each of us we must answer a question: Do we require an external observer to validate our existence in this universe, or can we be that observer? If you cannot answer that question don’t worry about it, there have been many bright individuals who have offered solutions to the paradox: the Copenhagen Interpretation,Many-worlds interpretation and consistent histories , Ensemble interpretation, Relational interpretation, Objective collapse theories. I want go into the details but will allow the reader to pursue this at her leisure.

My point is that we live in a complex universe in which no one can know for sure just who is the observer and observed. It all gets confusing. But unlike Baudrillard’s telematics observer we’re already caught in the fly-trap or molasses so to speak. We’re part of the system we’d like to describe and have no way of getting out of it to describe it from afar or distantly as objective observers. We’re part of the very blindness of our own micro and macro worlds and we have very little useful information on just how that system operates. And like all those interpretations we come to the realization that anyone of them might be true or false, we just don’t have enough information and probably (due to our limited brain structuration) never will. We are very good at describing our external environments, but we are all science fiction authors when it comes to describing our brain processes at the core of our physical system (i.e., our embodied organic life).

Continue reading

The Ecumenopolis: Panic Cities of Stupidity or Intelligence?

daft-punk-digital-love-panic-city-remix

In a series of posts on Smart Cities I’ve begun tracing down this notion as it became manifest in architecture, comic books, science fiction, philosophy, journalism, et. al.. In that search I discovered the work of Constantine A. Doxiades whose architectural ideas on the notion of the ecumenopolis would influence Isaak Asimov (City of Trantor – Foundation Series) and others along the way even up to our notions of the intelligent city. The basic notion of an ecumenopolis according to Doxiades was based on the problems facing humanity:

Humanity has never before had to deal with such forces of change as exist at present, in technology and population growth. Many thinkers have dreamt of or proposed solutions for the Ideal city, but, instead of thinking of the city, we need to re-examine the type of life we want to live in cities. Currently, we are building the wrong cities for the future, wasting and spoiling natural resources and allowing man to lose his importance inside the cities due to traffic and pollution. The cities of the future will be extra-human in dimension, therefore our task is to create them as a web of many communities with human dimensions. Such cities will finally be interconnected in one continuous network, the Ecumenopolis, which will retain its human content despite its size. In these cities, man will have more time to spend in education and leisure rather than in transportation. The cities that will form the Ecumenopolis will be in some cases dynamic – expanding – static, or totally new, according to the particular needs of each region.

– Constantine A. Doxiades

The Stupid City

One wonders if anyone was listening when Doxiades wrote those words. Living in Phoenix, Arizona, I realize the stupidity of sprawl. I love the people of Phoenix, so when I term it a stupid city I realize the echelon will throw me to the dogs. Phoenix is spread out across a vast desert area and has built what can only be called the iconic ring of death that seems to be the standard across U.S. cities. Great looped highways that circle cities in massive multilane asphalt and concrete stretching at times for a hundred miles around a city. Living in a suburb of Phoenix I have to commute round this artery for almost an hour during rush hour traffic every morning and then for home in the afternoon. During this process one is exposed to mega-crashes of multiple automobiles everyday that continuously block the traffic for sometimes up to an hour as people drift forward inch by inch around the pile-ups. Helicopters fly above the city offering traffic reports all through the day, guiding people toward alternative routes, etc. offering encouragement or solace to the families of those who have lost their lives on these monster highways of death.

Continue reading

The Commodification of Creativity: Flows, Nodes, and Transformation in the 21st Century

When we spy our technological fate in the distance, we should not reel back in horror of its inevitability; rather, we should lurch forward in preparation.

– Kevin Kelly,  What Technology Wants

Reading Will Doig’s older portrayal of sentient cities on Salon.com I was reminded of the hype surrounding these new ubiquitous systems of infrastructure and architecture arising around the globe.  As Doig reminds us all “this radical re-imagining of city life is a classic example of top-down urbanism, treating the residents as a problem to be solved rather than as part of the solution.” Maybe that’s it, most of these companies like Cisco and IBM that are offering their computing and networking ideologies to the world’s city managers are stuck in the 20th Century dreaming of utopian markets where capitalism makes a final comeback as the engine of creation at the heart of every intelligent city. I’m sure that if you talked to representatives from these firms they’d spout a complete litany of optimism and advanced technological know-how that will transform the world. But as Doig iterates this top-down planned society of technology may not be the best approach.

My problem is not so much all the optimistic enthusiasm and technological utopianism as it is the actual philosophy behind these new intelligent or sentient cities with their 100 million sensors encased in the flows of the infrastructure and architectures. What’s behind this? If it is a top-down approach, who are those on the top planning this? And what do they want from these cities? And, more to the point, what do the cities themselves – if they are to be sentient – want?

Continue reading

The Sentient City: Corporate Governance and Innovation

What if in the near future the notion that new life forms, personalities, and behaviors could be “engineered” to suit the demands of corporate power? What if one of the aims of so many countries investing in these new intelligent learning centers or, as some term them, sentient cities – these so called Smart Cities – with their ubiquitous forms of software and hardware implemented seamlessly within both the infrastructure and socially embedded toolsets – is rather a new ubiquitous form of total governance and control by corporatism over both human and non-human life forms.

The time when human behavior might be engineered to be “better adjusted” to corporate needs already seems to be upon us. Behavior modification drugs, for example, have turned into a growth sector for the pharmaceutical industry. As one example the convergence between genetic engineering, biopharmacology, and biomedicine may one day offer the new controllers the ability of adjusting individual genetic makeups to suit corporate needs, not only in the manipulation of mass consumption habits but also in producing individuals who are compliant to corporate needs and to its managerial priorities. “Medications” that engineer personalities and attitudes to suit corporate priorities are likely to become widespread with the expansion of the biopharmaceutical industry. By relying on genetics, the effects of such biopharma products are likely to be permanent. The subordination of life, nature, and human values to the ethos of corporate experimentalism therefore seems more likely than ever, as social, cultural, and institutional restraints are collapsed by the new order.1

A “sentient” city will be a future reality. So says an exhibit of new technologies Toward the Sentient City, curated by Mark Shepard and organized by the Architectural League. As they say in their introduction:

 The possibilities for integrating the disparate parts of our lives into a networked whole, for increasing safety and security, for off-setting environmental degradation, are too great to forego — and the potential for economic gain will be too seductive to resist. We should not let the technology (or the terminology) mislead us into thinking that these are issues relevant, and accessible, only to the technorati. What we are talking about is nothing short of a complete reorientation of our relationship to the built environment.

In this new world of ambient life technology we see that external environments are becoming central to this corporate governance strategy. In this new world it is the city that produces innovation by providing the ubiquitous services and capabilities needed to remember, correlate and anticipate both its own self-management and the organization of behavior of both human and non-human actors or agents in its midst. In this sense the “sentient” city is envisioned as being capable of reflexively monitoring its environment and our behavior within it, becoming an active agent in the organization of everyday life in urban public space. In Luis Suarez-Villa’s account the relations of corporate power are always, therefore, at or near the surface of the experimentalist order (KL 194).

At the center of this is the socialization of learning and knowledge acquisition which marks the new sentient city as the prime laboratory of this new form of capitalism Suarez-Villa terms – technocapitalism. Three features of this new sentient city is its ability to produce a new form of surplus value, creativity and innovation: first, is social mediationwhich forms collective processes of networking which human participation are largely articulated by those who participate in them. Such participation can become a means to dominate other network participants or it can become a vehicle to collapse hierarchies, oligarchies, and exploitive control.(KL 137)

The second feature is technocapitalism itself, which is a new form of capitalism with creativity as its core value and ethos. The new corporations in extracting creativity and innovation have only one interest: the establishment of intellectual property claims, and all their revenues are derived from licensing other companies who may seek to put their patented intellectual property to us in some product or service.(KL 156) Yet, as Suarez-Villa remarks the new forms of technocapitlism have forced these new types of corporation to become more open and collective as part of the socialization of creativity and innovation:

Corporatism is primarily in charge of the commodification of creativity and cannot hope to reproduce it on its own because of the fundamentally social character of this resource. Only society can reproduce creativity effectively. This split between commodification (a corporate function) and reproduction (a social function) is a distinctive feature of the new era.(KL 176-178)

The third and final feature of these socialization process is the ability for corporations through the power of the sentient city to define reality. As Adam Greenfield in a pertinent work describes it these new technologies underlying both the infrastructure and the socialization processes of the new sentient city are guided by two postulates: first, that the contemporary urban environment is so complex and so vexatious in its demands that no group of ordinary, unaided human beings can hope to understand it, let alone manage it wisely; and, second,  that the technics of governance necessitated by the contemporary city are themselves too difficult and too daunting to be understood or utilized effectively by those whose lives they condition.2 Under the guise of efficiency, agility and sustainability this new form of governance is just the old face of authoritarianism in which the power of control has melted into the surfaces of every aspect of the inforgs (information organism) onlife existence. Control and dominion have now become ubiquitous and invisible, guiding the new knowledge worker through his moment by moment existence presenting services and rewards for performance. More explicitly Greenfield remarks about the language used to sponsor and sale these notions of sentient and smart cities to unsuspecting city managers:

The language that encapsulates this body of ideas can be likened to the envelope of proteins coating the surface of a virus: it mutates in whatever way the enterprise responsible feels to be most congenial to its goal of selling systems and signing maintenance contracts. But whatever changes the offering may undergo cosmetically, it is ultimately the same template at its core: quantification and obsessive measurement preferred to every other finger in the wind, overweening scientism to the exclusion of any other way of getting a handle on the issues which confront us — and always, the specter of control.(Greenfield, KL 1464 – 1472)

Yet, in the next breath Greenfield turns the tables and tells us that instead of the slick worlds of corporate control we can overcome these issues and still move forward with a new form of urban intelligence by “learning how to work productively with enterprises like IBM, Cisco and Siemens, while asking more pointed questions of them than perhaps they are used to, or will be comfortable with” (Greenfield, KL 1483). So for Greenfield the notion of urban intelligence or learning centers are a welcome addition, but that we need to watch carefully who controls the process. Problem with this is that as these operational centers become more and more controlled by newer AI systems are we not allowing ourselves to hand over control to these new alien algorithms, software, and hardware as external environments become more and more managed by their self-regulating powers.

As Charlie Jane Anders asks on i09: “The cities of the future will be huge and super-dense — but will they also be alive? Could the increasingly complex systems needed to manage the next generation of megacities become our first true artificial intelligence?”3 As the article she refers to “Artificial intelligence (AI) systems are widely accepted as a technology offering an alternative way to tackle complex and dynamic problems in urban studies.” 4 She points to another article by Annalee Newitz that informs us China has in the works plans for 221 new cities of an average population of 1 million each based on these new smart city concepts of infrastructure and behavioral modification. 5

As the creators of the Toward the Sentient City exhibition admit we may argue “against a techno-determinism that cedes overwhelming agency to new technologies and either champions or laments their projected impact on urban life”, but ultimately the “relationship between ubiquitous computing, architecture and the city” must be seen in terms of the active role its citizens might play – or neglect to play – as both designers and inhabitants, in the unfolding techno-social situations of near-future urban environments.

In this sense the sentient city is reality turned inside out, the frozen stare of Medusa caught in the act of mirror-gazing far too long, the slow movement of data in an accelerating light show out of control. If as Floridi tells us “we have begun to accept the virtual as reality”, then we are embodied artifacts of an artificial world that has lost its connections to the old myths of earth forever (p. 17).6 J.G. Ballard once described Shanghai as a “vast engine of illusions” (Extreme Metaphors, 465). That’s an apt metaphor for today’s sentient city: the environment in which the production of illusions is the new value system of an inverted capitalism.

 

 

1. Luis Suarez-Villa. Technocapitalism: A Critical Perspective on Technological Innovation and Corporatism (Kindle Locations 188-194). Kindle Edition.
2. Greenfield, Adam (2013-12-20). Against the smart city (The city is here for you to use) (Kindle Locations 1451-1462). Do projects. Kindle Edition.
3. Could self-aware cities be the first forms of artificial intelligence?
4. Artificial Intelligence Solutions for Urban Land Dynamics: A Review
5. In twenty years, China will have 221 cities of over 1 million people
6. Floridi, Luciano (2013-10-10). The Ethics of Information (p. 17). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.

Keiichi Matsuda – A New Vision of the Urban Future

One of the prints available in the ALTERNATE REALITY package. More choices to follow!

The latter half of the 20th century saw the built environment merged with media space, and architecture taking on new roles related to branding, image and consumerism. Augmented reality may recontextualise the functions of consumerism and architecture, and change in the way in which we operate within it. Keiichi Matsuda is developing a film series set in Medellin, Colombia, to build on and extend those ideas. It will be an ambitious new vision of the future; instead of jetpacks, flying cars and robots, think smart cities, super-social media, and ubiquitous augmented reality. It will be a science fiction short for our time; introspective, critical, and beautifully designed.

He originally published two videos on the net that attracted upwards of 2 million hits about his vision of the future city:

https://vimeo.com/8569187

https://vimeo.com/14294054

He tells us the much larger project or series of films will be stories  about the realities we invent for ourselves. Each short will focus on a different character, and their perception of the city. Amongst the millions of overlapping fictions that make up augmented Medellin… The stories will all take place over the course of a single day, woven together with many other threads of narrative that will constantly reward the observant viewer. Themes of identity, control and delusion, will be set against a backdrop of balkanization, manipulative media channels, power struggles for data, and open-source rebellion. This is not an alien future, but rather one that is unnervingly familiar.

Following McLuhan and other media pioneers he tells us that he is doing this because technology is playing an increasingly important part in our everyday lives. Most of the time though, we learn about technology from the people who are trying to sell it to us. I believe that it’s important to be critical; to be aware of how these technologies could shape our future. The films will expose the amazing potential, but also the possibly dark future of some technologies, while presenting them in a way that everyone can understand.

His kickstarter campaign for this new series of films can be found  @hyper-reality-a-new-vision-of-the-future