“A boring old bourgeois zombie rants at WSJ about the internet”
In our conversation about writing you a new preface ‘one year on’ for my recorded talk Image and Control for LuckyPDF for your excellent new West Space Journal, you seemed to me to be asking if I could give a less pessimistic spin this time about the state we’re in.
I no longer have anything even vaguely encouraging to say about what the internet has done for humanity. In fact, I am more and more convinced that we are indeed living in the end times, as the phrase has it, and that the C4I operativity of the internet is and has been a decisive factor in this universal accelerationist scene of perfected iniquity.
Let me just list, in no particular order, some stuff that happens while you’re texting on your smartphone (or indeed any other ‘connected’ device), which leads from the ‘beginning to end’ of the process. Your device presumably uses cobalt for its rechargeable batteries: cobalt is a non-renewable resource mined mostly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or in Zambia, polities which have been party as a result to the most outrageous environmental destruction, and, due to all sorts of post-colonial factors, to attendant political and human rights abuses too. Use a mobile, shoot a gorilla in the face. Cobalt, as a Slate blogBusiness Insider is careful to outline, involve ‘working conditions — 12-16 hour shifts, pay of ~$1 per hour or less, dormitories with 15 beds in 12×12 rooms,’ and so on. (The ‘and so on’ here is naturally a discreet veil thrown over an abomination to which we world ‘prosumers’ all pleasurably contribute). The devices themselves are sold at a massive mark-up in rich economies, where they require enormous further tending by their new owners, who can only use those devices if they subscribe and download all sorts of necessary supplements which have, further, a number of interesting properties I will speak more of below.
It’s in fact striking the absolute mania for a phantasmatic individualism that the internet has exacerbated: all the stories of individual winners are working rhetorically as hard as they can to efface the utter obliteration of anything truly individual. The ‘respect for individuals’ that we’re talking about here is literally an injunction for our times: to those who already have everything, keep on giving more; and, as Samuel Beckett said, to those who have nothing, it is forbidden not to relish filth. As the French philosopher Alain Badiou put it in the context of the GFC — a ‘crisis’ linked directly to the algorithmic unleashing of financial markets by global networked computing in real time — ‘Save the Billionaires!’ As one local Ozzy billionaire, the would-be-PM Clive Palmer hilariously asserted, he’s one of the oppressed minority: at least, he added, his mammoth wealth makes him immune to corruption. Too corrupt to be further corrupted: is this the only trace of justice that remains today? So the amazingly imbecilic rhetoric of the internet ‘returning power to individuals’ that seems to have captured an impressively large number of zombie ideologists couldn’t be further from the truth — except for being precisely true in the case of the billionaires.
As the recent ‘revelations’ by Edward Snowdon — at time of writing, either in Moscow or not in Moscow, most likely in one of the exemplary non-places of our time, and certainly held out into the terroristic uncertainties of a hideous personal future — have shown, every time you use any device connected to the internet, that information is going to at least two different agencies simultaneously. First, to the private corporations that harvest and sell your ‘metadata’ to other private bidders; second, to the secret state security agencies that store and sort this data. Two birds with one virtual stone. As Julian Assange — who? — puts it, the maledictory mind-melding of technocorps and government have directly led to ‘witch doctors who construct a new idiom for United States global power in the twenty-first century … the ever closer union between the State Department and Silicon Valley.’ Democracy qua free speech is totally over, not least because you’re literally paying in many, many ways — for the phone, the service provider, in taxes, in public support for the externalised costs of corporations, etc., etc. — for access to the basic elements of contemporary communication.
You don’t care? Why should you? Well, the problem is that you precisely can’t care — in fact, strictly speaking, none of us can genuinely care at all. ‘Care Factor’? Zero! Why? Because there’s nothing you can do about it, there’s no real insight any of us can have about it, and because thinking about it in any sustained way is so unbearable that it’s just not worth it. I’m sorry I ever agreed to talk about it at all. And it’s not like I have anything particularly interesting to say about it, either, except rehearse in the most stupid and fundamentally plagiaristic way things that anyone else who thinks about it can say: that is, that there’s only a few things to say, and they’re all actually abominable, and they’re so fucking obvious and revolting they’re not worth saying at all. I may as well be a shambolic zombie given all the meaningless virtual gibberish that dribbles from my lips and fingertips; but, given all this zombiesque hilarity shuffling about, it seems I’m incapable of doing that either.
In the meantime, as Rebecca Solnit has put it in a recent article on Mother Jones, “we get San Francisco newcomer, Facebook CEO, and billionaire Mark Zuckerberg pursuing his own interest with ruthless disregard for life on earth.” Unfortunately, as per Solnit’s point, what would once have been hyperbole is now utterly literal — though it still seems hyperbolic because it’s literally impossible to face this incomprehensibly distressing literalness directly. As David Bromwich says in a ‘Diary’ entry for the London Review of Books published on — haha! — the Fourth of July 2013, ‘Most Americans who know anything about the National Security Agency probably got their mental picture of it from a 1998 thriller called Enemy of the State.’ As he continues, ‘Since the prosecutions of whistleblowers, the abusive treatment of [Bradley] Manning and the drone assassinations of American citizens have been justified by the president and his advisers, a dissident in the US may now think of his [ahem: or her] country the way the dissidents in East Germany under the Stasi thought of theirs.’ That’s not very Hollywood, Dave, Jeezus, what are ya?
‘Humans’ now subsist under the most extreme conditions imaginable. To allude to an insight of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, we are in the era in which human beings have been actually separated from what was traditionally held to be their essence (language), under conditions of the holocaust and experimental torture chambers overseen by security-state scientists. Its figural paradigm is the Zombie, realised. To allude to an insight of another Italian philosopher Paolo Virno, broached in an academic collection called The Italian Difference, we are in the era in which ‘amorphous potentiality, that is the chronic persistence of infantile characteristics….permeates every aspect of the tritest routine.’ Or, as I have put it in an article called ‘Microserfs’ for Arena Magazine, we’re in the era of the expropriation of the human symbolic capacity itself, that is, the extortion and privatisation of communicability itself. If I wanted to speak like a 17th century radical like the now-mostly-ignored revolutionary English poet John Milton, I would say — once again quite literally — that this entails the return of torture, terror and tyranny.
But that’s OK — it’s fun and cool to download porn and twitter stuff and all that sort of cool stuff that the cool kids like. So many cool things can be done, like, design-wise and shit, and that’s fun and cool too. As the new old new Prime Minister of Australia the Hon(KY) Rudd has it, we just need to get the kids on board, and then ‘we’ll be cooking with gas.’