Posts Tagged ‘america’
The Eric Garner march passed by my office. Thousands of people marching in unison, LEDs for torches, chanting holy slogans in a political parade—a ritual, one easily recognizable as such, as a cultic duty to be piously and scrupulously carried out.
A vertically-transmitted memeplex with its own set of institutions (colleges, for example), its own rituals of initiation and reinforcement (college graduation, political participation as holy obligation), its own mythic view of history (Rousseau’s noble savage, Gimbutas’s vision of a utopian Old Europe destroyed by patriarchal Aryan hordes, the Brahmin folk belief in an egalitarian age destroyed by the invention of agriculture)—
(Here it must be noted that the distinction between ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ institutions is as cross-culturally absurd as the distinction between ‘secularity’ and ‘religiosity’ in general: in addition to Greco-Roman rites and tribal initiation rituals, the social role of the medieval anchorites demonstrates that that which we now recognize as ‘religious’ was once inseparable from everyday life. “At least some anchorholds, it seems, became the center of town life, acting as [a] sort of bank, post office, school house, shop, and newspaper–services which today are provided mainly by public and quasi-public institutions.”)
—proves the wrength of the oft-stated complaint that Western life is devoid of such things.
It is, to some extent, a matter of degree. We do not say grace before each meal; we have no muezzin to call us to quince-daily prayer; we make no offerings to the gods, as we have none. The pomegranate calls up the myth of Persephone, but no food calls up any of the political figures who the secular Cathedral has put through the process of apotheosis, except perhaps the cherry tree. Our folktales have been forgotten, and we have no ritual-associated foods but eggnog, candy canes, Marshmallow Peeps, and hard liquor.
However, some element of the commensurability of pagan traditions exists in the Western political religiō. Ahmed Chalabi was once called the George Washington of Iraq, and Gandhi and Mandela were the George Washingtons of India and South Africa. Americans can even recognize the North Korean symbolic rank of ‘Eternal President’ in our own Eternal General of the Armies.
Christopher Lasch analyzes the radical politics of the ’60s as motivated by pathological narcissism:
The new narcissist is haunted not by guilt but by anxiety. He seeks not to inflict his own certainties on others but to find a meaning in life. Liberated from the superstitions of the past, he doubts even the reality of his own existence. Superficially relaxed and tolerant, he finds little use for dogmas of racial and ethnic purity but at the same time forfeits the security of group loyalties and regards everyone as a rival for the favors conferred by a paternalistic state.
This narcissism gave rise to a therapeutic model of politics, in which the purpose of activism was nothing other than feeling ‘alive’, important, better:
Therapy has established itself as the successor both to rugged individualism and to religion; but this does not mean that the “triumph of the therapeutic” has become a new religion in its own right. Therapy constitutes an antireligion, not always to be sure because it adheres to rational explanation or scientific methods of healing, as its practitioners would have us believe, but because modern society “has no future” and therefore gives no thought to anything beyond its immediate needs. Even when therapists speak of the need for “meaning” and “love”, they define love and meaning simply as the fulfillment of the patient’s emotional requirements. It hardly occurs to them—nor is there any reason why it should, given the nature of the therapeutic enterprise—to encourage the subject to subordinate his needs and interests to those of others, to someone or some cause or tradition outside himself.
The therapeutic model takes atomization as a positive thing, to be accelerated to its limit. Thus it guarantees its failure: there can be no escape from the atomized self if there is no value in anything else. (A consistent pattern. Lasch’s analysis of the ironic confessional mode, foregrounding the author and the act of writing, calls to mind the replacement of the call from outside of the Muses with the expression of the ‘inner self’ as the source of art.)
Lasch’s list of the mental states brought about by narcissistic politics includes euphoria and a heightened sense of connection with those around oneself, as well as feeling “strong and solid”. The connection to ritual is obvious.
Many intellectuals seem wary of ritual because of its emotional hold on us, even though ritual is known to have very positive effects. Ritual creates group solidarity, and can help us to emotionally reinforce our existing beliefs and goals. What this feels like from the inside is often euphoria and a heightened sense of connection to those around us.
Intellectual attacks on ritual and community are common. One example of this is the Third Wave experiment: despite the students showing “drastic improvement in their academic skills and tremendous motivation”, the Third Wave was dangerous and bad, because Hitler. Ritual pattern-matches to totalitarian propaganda—so for a ritual to be acceptable, it must not be recognized as one.
Graaaaaagh attacks religious traditions that see themselves as incompatible with others, that claim exclusive and untranslatable access to truth.
Today, American Christians tend not to see any problem with reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, or with telling their children about Santa Claus; this is easily understood, given that such traditions are safely classifiable as “secular”, or perhaps as harmless traditional additions to a more fundamental religious perspective, and are therefore licit for “religious” people to participate in. Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, do refuse such customs (and let us not forget the Puritans who banned Christmas in Massachusetts), and to that extent they reflect a view more like that of the early Christians in Rome—a view which existed by necessity once the premise of sacramental exclusivity had been accepted and as long as there was no category for “secular” myths and rituals which could be devoid by definition of “religious” significance. Like the early Christians (or anyone in the ancient world), Jehovah’s Witnesses effectively do not recognize the concept of the secular—but also like the early Christians, they also do not recognize the legitimacy of myths or rituals outside of their own tradition. This attitude gave Christians, to the ancients, a strange understanding of piety:
The refusal of Christians to observe the elements of practice which were matters of pious duty in family and household life, and in the public sphere, led to the conflicts discussed. A profound disengagement from sociability, not merely refusal to acknowledge the gods of Rome, led to labelling as “atheists”. In their rejection of pagan religion Christians were not therefore regarded simply as upstarts or annoyances, but as actively irreligious, and subversive.
Early Christianity did not see itself as the same type of thing as Roman paganism, just as progressivism does not see itself as the same type of thing as the Christianity it is replacing. This incommensurability is what allows them both to replace what preceded them, but with different methods: Christianity attacked paganism, whereas progressivism positions itself as orthogonal to ‘religion’.
Much has been said before about the failure of the concept of ‘religion': the category in its current form was invented by Christianity and made successful only by Christianity’s efforts to summon it into being. If we follow graaaaaagh’s suggestion…
Let us speak, then, not of religion—unless we take the time to define the term as the following—but of myth and ritual as well as the piety or religiō with which one carries out one’s duties (including, but not limited to, rituals). A religious person, then, can be defined, not as one with a strong belief in a specific proposition about the divine, but rather one who acts dutifully, whether in regard to spirituality or another aspect of life.
…then we see that progressivism contains people who believe certain myths and dutifully carry out certain rituals.
But this puts the reservationist in an awkward position: the same position as the early Christians.
I had planned to drop everything else during trade school and focus, but it turns out that New York won’t let me.
In lieu of a normal post, here’s what I’ve been thinking about over the past few months.
1. What makes thedes and phyles form? I have my own suspicions here (revolving around not only scarcity-motivated competition, but also processes of interfacing and levels of cognitive effort required for it… and it occurs to me now that local status-systems may also play a role, in both the sense that the existence of multiple phyles may allow for a less unequal distribution of status / allow more access to higher status and the related sense that people can self-select into status-systems that better fit or serve them), but I haven’t written them up yet, and Ed Keller, one of the speakers at tonight’s event, asked the same question, and proposed the investigation of interactions of systems. (The two examples he gave that I can remember were the effects of gut bacteria on behavior (and potentially on the formation and propagation of thedes!) and a virus that caused tulip flowers to form in ways that became highly in demand, which gave rise to tulip mania.) A related question that also was asked: would distinct thedes and phyles still exist in post-scarcity conditions?
2. Another topic related to the first question that came up was the idea of neuroatypical secessionism, especially as it overlaps (or does not overlap) with tech secessionism of the Srinivasan and Tunney varieties. Neuroatypicality is probably more thedish than phyletic, insofar as thedistinction between thedish and phyletic refers to a distinction between social groups/cultures/sets of norms/identities that are unlikely to be passed down from parent to child (rationalism, juggalos, goths, etc.) and social groups/etc. that can be passed down across the generations. (The most useful distinction to make with those words is another unanswered question; here I use my most recent working definition.) Is merely thedish secession possible? (‘Merely’ because every phyle is (probably) a thede.) Would it have different dynamics than phyletic secession? What about the possibility of temporary or limited merely-thedish secession, like rationalist group houses or Burning Man? (What about secession that is neither thedish nor phyletic, that is motivated not by those ‘hot’ factors, but rather by ‘cold’ factors like economic benefit? One of the speakers asked: are oil platforms seasteads?
3. Is there a life-cycle of empires or civilizations? If so, is the internal disharmony that underlies at least some of this talk of secession a sign, as John Glubb claims, of the decline of an empire—or even a cause of it? (It’s not hard to come up with a causal mechanism here: one side of an internal conflict could ally with an external agent against its domestic opponent.) If it’s not that, what is it? (It could just be an effect of population increase, to give one alternative.)
4. How about that internet-based nation-building that might be happening as we speak? This internal disharmony is not exactly a new problem; how was it addressed before? Surely not completely by repression. Marinetti talked about Italy a lot, for example; what did this mean in his context? (Also, see below about the Progressive Era and FDR’s cultural programs.) For that matter, most nations had to be imagined into being. Parts of the art world are apparently becoming interested in both internet culture and talk of secessionism, but I hear there’s not much they can do with it. Are there more possibilities for them than they think?—because picking up on this process can be one. (Usonian Futurism, anyone?)
5. Where do the current American automythologies come from? Do they come from pre-existing ethnic distinctions (as Woodard says), pre-existing religious distinctions amplified by the dynamics of democracy (as Moldbug says), or something else? In particular, what were the roles of the Progressive Era and the Cold War? The former could be read as an attempt at American nationalism/nation-building, where ‘American’ is to be contrasted with ‘Usonian’ (though the New Deal made some effort to record some aspects of folk culture); the latter is something that kontextmaschine has written about, but I suspect there’s more going on than that.
Take decolonization. Colonialism was very bad; we all learned that in school, and so we inferred that decolonization was very good. But if you look at what happened… first of all, isn’t it interesting that the USA took the opposite side from Britain, its supposedly most important ally, on that question, and the same side as the USSR? Second of all, isn’t it interesting that the USA and the USSR kept fighting over the newly decolonized countries? It’s not necessarily true that American cultural support for decolonization comes entirely from its own heritage, and not at all from geopolitical concerns.
But there are better examples, like abstract expressionism, which seems to be the official style of the government to this day, judging by how much of it they put on their walls. It’s now well known that the CIA supported it—and it, of course, had its reasons.
In 1947 the State Department organised and paid for a touring international exhibition entitled “Advancing American Art”, with the aim of rebutting Soviet suggestions that America was a cultural desert. But the show caused outrage at home, prompting Truman to make his Hottentot remark and one bitter congressman to declare: “I am just a dumb American who pays taxes for this kind of trash.” The tour had to be cancelled.
The US government now faced a dilemma. This philistinism, combined with Joseph McCarthy’s hysterical denunciations of all that was avant-garde or unorthodox, was deeply embarrassing. It discredited the idea that America was a sophisticated, culturally rich democracy. It also prevented the US government from consolidating the shift in cultural supremacy from Paris to New York since the 1930s. To resolve this dilemma, the CIA was brought in.
The connection is not quite as odd as it might appear. At this time the new agency, staffed mainly by Yale and Harvard graduates, many of whom collected art and wrote novels in their spare time, was a haven of liberalism when compared with a political world dominated by McCarthy or with J Edgar Hoover’s FBI. If any official institution was in a position to celebrate the collection of Leninists, Trotskyites and heavy drinkers that made up the New York School, it was the CIA.
Until now there has been no first-hand evidence to prove that this connection was made, but for the first time a former case officer, Donald Jameson, has broken the silence. Yes, he says, the agency saw Abstract Expressionism as an opportunity, and yes, it ran with it.
“Regarding Abstract Expressionism, I’d love to be able to say that the CIA invented it just to see what happens in New York and downtown SoHo tomorrow!” he joked. “But I think that what we did really was to recognise the difference. It was recognised that Abstract Expression- ism was the kind of art that made Socialist Realism look even more stylised and more rigid and confined than it was. And that relationship was exploited in some of the exhibitions.
“In a way our understanding was helped because Moscow in those days was very vicious in its denunciation of any kind of non-conformity to its own very rigid patterns. And so one could quite adequately and accurately reason that anything they criticised that much and that heavy- handedly was worth support one way or another.”
If it happened once, it’s likely to have happened other times. What other effects did the Cold War have here? And what about the end of it, the end of the necessity to unite against a common enemy? (Yes, common. When Harvard went Communist, it went Maoist.)
One of the signs and causes of decline that John Glubb mentioned is the collapse of imperial unity: internal bickering leads to the inability to unite in the face of external threats, or potentially even the amplification of an external threat in the form of an internal faction’s alliance with it against another internal faction.
That it is now often said that the problem with America is Brahmindom is part of the process of decline. If this process is to be reversed, a new unity must be forged; and any attempt at unity must avoid the progressive error of writing out a large part of the country. (Yes, progressivism did attempt this, at least twice: first with the actual Progressive Era (where do you think the Pledge of Allegiance comes from?), and second with their response to the race riots of the ’60s. The absurdity of going to war against a large part of the population for the benefit of a small part of it must be noted, but some of them—the ones old enough to remember the race riots, anyway—actually believe this. It helps, of course, that there were pre-existing phyletic hatreds in place.)
Lack of coordination leads to decline, and coordination across distinct phyles can only be accomplished through a series of armistices. These armistices are now being broken. Who is breaking them? There is the enemy.
The collapse of the external enemy—the end of the Cold War—probably contributed here. There is less motivation to preserve coordination after the disappearance of an existential threat from outside. Attempts to create a new external enemy to take the place of the Soviet Union—Islamism, Putin, etc.—have failed and will continue to fail; America—Usonia, rather, since the political religion of Americanism cannot provide what is necessary, and will only uselessly take up that space—must stand on its own, must develop a positive sense of identity to provide a thedish basis for this coordination.
It’s too bad there’s no word in English (yet) for the Roman sense of religio:
We struggle to understand the persecution of the Christians under the Roman empire. Roman society tolerated a great variety of deities and cults; worship of Christ as (a) God did not in itself threaten or offend, and religious innovation was not impossible. The emergence of Christianity itself coincided with the novelty of cultic worship of the Roman emperors or their tutelary spirits, which could be included alongside other deities in existing religious frameworks.
Christian beliefs and practices were, however, radically exclusive, or radically extensive in their claims over the whole of religious loyalty. …
Despite some continuity of actual doctrine, what we call religion in twenty-first century Australia is not the same in structure or character as ancient constructions of the relationship between religious belief and the rest of life. Religio in Latin, Tertullian’s or anyone else’s for that matter, does not mean “religion” in the sense of one belief system among others, but the piety or scrupulosity with which cultic and other duties are carried out.
Roman “religion” (as we might persist in seeing or analysing it) was, despite its apparently pluralistic character, coterminous with culture and society itself, and hence left little room for genuine diversity or dissent. We can only understand it as “religion” in the modern or post-modern sense by the artificial excision, from the ancient set of beliefs and practices, of certain elements which make sense to us as religion. …
Constantine’s recognition of the Church involved discernment of the potential for the growing Christian movement to achieve for the Empire what the cultic worship of the Emperors themselves had not: namely a coherent belief and ritual system which was not ethnically-prescribed, but capable of universal relevance.
As a side note, the extent to which political life has been shaped by previous attempts to establish such a civil religion (usually limited strictly to the weak and sham-filled political realm) has yet to be seriously investigated, as has the more general question of the influence of institutional intelligences. A common example of this influence in some circles is ‘cultural Marxism’, but has anyone asked whether there were economic interests that favored the idea of redefining leftist ‘liberation’ in terms unrelated to the economic? And that does not even address the question of the Cold War, which will have to be left for another time.
(Epistemic status: Crystallizing a pattern I’ve noticed in passing. This is a hypothesis; further historical research is needed to determine its predictive/explanatory power.)
There are three types of stability.
The first type of stability is the stability of a society with little to no thedish conflict, a society of people who believe that “we’re all in this together”, who see that society as a ‘we’. This unity may be brought about by shared adherence to meta-level principles, as in Switzerland, or by near-identity of society and thede, as in Iceland. (The Icelandic language, interestingly, has no dialects, and very little regional variation. Some of this is due to campaigns to eradicate what little regional variation once existed, but it has been hypothesized that the unity of the language is a result of the periodic meeting of the Icelanders at Þingvellir. The thedish consequences of this should be obvious.) This type is characterized by very little potential instability: little top-down pressure is necessary to prevent it from collapsing.
The second type of stability is the stability of a political unit with multiple factions roughly balanced in power, as has been the case for the United States. The history of these States is characterized by conflict between multiple distinct and roughly equally-matched nations: no nation has yet been able to establish total dominance over all the others, though some have long desired the elimination of all others not aligned with them. If this rough balance of powers ever collapses—as it is likely to soon, with the demographic replacement of the Southern and Midwestern nations with factions nominally aligned with the Northern nations but with far fewer compunctions about openly organizing in their own interest or about resorting to violence to get their way—or if it ever becomes sufficiently eroded to allow one nation or faction to take measures to slowly destroy its opponents (which they surely will, no matter the risk of harm to the political unit as a whole—such concerns are mostly irrelevant to each faction)—as has already happened—then the potential instability will turn kinetic.
The third type of stability is the stability of a political unit controlled by a small and hated minority, as was once the case for Alawite-controlled Syria. The ruling minority has no reason to adhere to any principles, to show any concern for the welfare of the political unit, to refrain from any action that they think will increase stability; if their power falters, they will be slaughtered. This type of stability is an illusion: the potential instability is too great. Unless the ruling minority can perform the near-impossible and utterly change the thede dynamics of the political unit, it will eventually falter and be crushed.
These types are ordered in a spectrum from best to worst, from most to least stable, from concern with the welfare of the political unit as a whole to tribalistic concern for only one’s own and a desire to take power from all others, no matter the costs. It is desirable for a political unit to move upwards in type, and potentially disastrous for it to move downwards.
The social technology of nationalism allowed a political unit to move away from the second type and toward the first—but it failed. An elite emerged whose sensibilities were detached from those of the people—in no small part due to the actions of USG, the government of a political unit that has always been of the second type—and it proceeded to secure its short-term power by moving the countries it governed downwards on the scale.
The West is going down.
So what I’m going to talk about today is something I’m calling Silicon Valley’s ultimate exit. So as motivation here, it’s a bit topical: is the USA the Microsoft of nations? We can take this sort of thing and we can expand it: codebase is 230 years old, written in an obfuscated language; system was shut down for two weeks straight; systematic FUD on security issues; fairly ruthless treatment of key suppliers; generally favors its rich enterprise customers but we still have to buy it.
And if we think about Microsoft itself, there’s a great quote from Bill Gates in 1998: what displaced Microsoft, what did he fear, it wasn’t Oracle or anybody like that, what he feared were some guys in a garage, who happened to be ultimately Larry and Sergey back in 1998.
And the thing about what Larry and Sergey did is: there’s no way they could have reformed Microsoft from the inside. At that time, Microsoft already had 26,000 employees; joining its numbers as 26,000 and 26,001 and trying to push for 20% time or free lunches… they probably wouldn’t have gone too far. So what they had to do was start their own company: they had to exit. And with success in that alternative, then Microsoft would imitate them. And this is actually related to a fundamental concept in political science: the concept of voice versus exit. A company or a country is in decline, you can try voice, or you can try exit. Voice is basically changing the system from within, whereas exit is leaving to create a new system, a new startup, or to join a competitor sometimes. Loyalty can modulate this; sometimes that’s patriotism, which is voluntary, and sometimes it’s lock-in, which are involuntary barriers to exit.
And we can think about this in the context of various examples and start to get a feel for this. So voice in the context of open source would be a patch; exit would be a fork. Voice in the context of a customer would be a complaint form, whereas exit would be taking your business elsewhere. Voice in the context of a company, that’s a turnaround plan; exit is leaving to found a startup. And voice in the context of a country is voting, while exit is emigration. So if there are those two images on the left is the Norman Rockwell painting on voice; on the right is actually my dad in the center, and that’s a grass hut on the right-hand side, so he grew up on a dirt floor in India, and left, because India was an economic basket case and there’s no way that he could have voted to change things within his lifetime, so he left.
And it turns out that, while we talk a lot about voice in the context of the US and talk about democracy… that’s very important, but you know, we’re not just a nation of immigrants, we’re a nation of emigrants: we’re shaped by both voice and exit, starting with the Puritans, you know, they fled religious persecution; the American Revolutionaries which left England’s orbit, then we started moving west, leaving the East Coast bureaucracy to go to the Western nations; later, late 1800s, Ellis Island, people leaving pogroms, and in the 20th century fleeing Nazism and Communism. And sometimes people didn’t just come here for a better life; they came here to save their life. That’s, you know, the airlifting at the end of Saigon.
And it’s not just the US that’s shaped by exit; Silicon Valley itself is also shaped by exit. You can date it back to the founding of Fairchild Semiconductor with the Traitorous Eight, the founding of Fairchild… the fact that non-competes are not enforceable in California, and the fact that DC funds disruption, not just turnaround. The concept of forking in open source, if you think about the back button, that is, in some ways, the cheapest way to exit something. And of course the concept of the startup itself. That right there, if you guys haven’t seen, is one of Y Combinator’s first ads. Larry and Sergey won’t respect you in the morning.
So the concept here is that exit is actually an extremely important force in complement to voice, and it’s something that gives voice its strength. In particular, it protects minority rights. In the upper left corner, for example, you imagine two countries, and country 1 is following policy A, and country 2 is following policy B. Some minority is potentially interested in following policy B, but policy A is very stridently promulgated by the majority. However, there’s some other country, maybe a smaller country, maybe another country, that’s actually quite into B, and so that person leaves. And they’re not necessarily super into B, but they think it might be interesting, thus B question mark. And what happens is that all the other guys in A see that people are actually leaving. They really care about this particular policy so much that they actually left. It could be a feature where people are leaving for a competitor; it could be a bug that you haven’t fixed so people fork the project and take it somewhere else—what happens is that exit amplifies voice. So it’s a crucial additional feature for democracy is to reduce the barrier to exit, to make democratic voice more powerful, more successful. And so a voice gains much more attention when people are leaving in droves. And I would bet that exit is a reason why half of this audience is alive. Many of us have our ancestors who came from China, Vietnam, Korea, Iran, places where there’s war or famine, economic basket cases. Exit is something that I believe we need to preserve, and exit is what this talk is about.
So exit is really a meta-concept: it’s about alternatives. It’s a meta-concept that subsumes competition, forking, founding, and physical emigration. It means giving people tools to reduce influence of bad policies on their lives without getting involved in politics: the tools to peacefully opt out. And if you combine those three things: this concept of the US is the Microsoft of nations, the quote from Gates, and Hirschman’s treatise, you get this concept of Silicon Valley’s ultimate exit. Basically, I believe that the ability to reduce the importance of decisions made in DC in particular without lobbying or sloganeering is going to be extremely important over the next ten years. And you might ask, “Why? What does this have to do with anything?” So the reason why is that today it’s Silicon Valley versus what I call the Paper Belt. So there’s four cities that used to run the United States in the postwar era: Boston with higher ed; New York City with Madison Avenue, books, Wall Street, and newspapers; Los Angeles with movies, music, Hollywood; and, of course, DC with laws and regulations, formally running it. And so I call them the Paper Belt, after the Rust Belt of yore. And in the last twenty years, a new competitor to the Paper Belt arose out of nowhere: Silicon Valley. And by accident, we’re putting a horse head in all of their beds. We are becoming stronger than all of them combined.
And to get a sense of this: Silicon Valley is reinventing all of the industries in these cities. That X up there is supposed to be a screenplay, the paper of LA, and LA is going to iTunes, BitTorrent, Netflix, Spotify, Youtube… that was really the first on the hit list, starting in ’99 with Napster. New York right alongside: AdWords, Twitter, Blogger, Facebook, Kindle, Aereo. We’re going after newspapers; we’re going after Madison Avenue; we’re going after book publishing; we’re going after television. Aereo figured out how to put a solid-state antenna in a server farm so you don’t have to pay any TV fees for all of their recording. Recently Boston was next in the gunsights: Khan Academy, Coursera, Udacity. And most interestingly, DC, and by DC I’m using it as a metonym for government regulation in general, because it’s not just DC: it includes local and state governments. Uber, Airbnb, Stripe, Square, and the big one, Bitcoin… all things that threaten DC’s power. It is not necessarily clear that the US government can ban something that it wants to ban anymore.
The cause of this is something I call the Paper Jam. The backlash is beginning. More jobs predicted for machines, not people; job automation is a future unemployment crisis looming. Imprisoned by innovation as tech wealth explodes, Silicon Valley, poverty spikes… they are basically going to try to blame the economy on Silicon Valley, and say that it is iPhone and Google that done did it, not the bailouts and the bankruptcies and the bombings, and this is something which we need to identify as false and we need to actively repudiate it. So we must respond via voice: the obvious counterargument is that Valley reduces prices. The top is a little small, but that’s a famous graph: consumption spreads faster today. That shows the absolute exponential rise of technologies over the last century. Anything that is initially just the province of the one percent, whether it be computers or cell phones, quickly becomes the province of the five percent and the ten percent, that ??? that barely works that someone is willing to pay thousands and thousands of dollars for allows you to fix the bugs, to get economies of scale, to bring it to the ten percent and the twenty percent and the fifty percent and the middle class and the 99 percent. That’s how we got cell phones from a toy for Wall Street to something that’s helping the poorest of the poor all over the world. Technology is about reducing prices. The bottom curve there is Moore’s Law. And by contrast, the Paper Belt raises them. There’s the tuition bubble and the mortgage bubble and the medical care bubble and too many bubbles to name. The argument that the Valley is a problem is incoherent, but it’s not going to be sufficient to respond via voice. We can make this argument, but the ultimate counterargument is actually exit. Not necessarily physical exit, but exit in a variety of different forms. What they’re basically saying is: rule by DC means people are going back to work and the emerging meme is that rule by us is rule by Terminators. We’re going to take all the jobs. Whereas we can say, and we can argue, DC’s rule is more like an overrun building in Detroit, and down right there is a Google data center. And so we can go back and forth verbally, but ultimately this is about counterfactuals: they have aircraft carriers; we don’t. We don’t actually want to fight them. It wouldn’t be smart.
So we want to show what a society run by Silicon Valley would look like without actually affecting anyone who still believes the Paper Belt is actually good. That’s where exit comes in. So what do I mean by this? What do I mean by Silicon Valley’s ultimate exit? It basically means: build an opt-in society, ultimately outside the US, run by technology. And this is actually where the Valley is going. This is where we’re going over the next ten years. That’s where Mobile(?) is going: it’s not about a location-based app, it’s about making location completely irrelevant. So Larry Page, for example, wants to set aside a part of the world for unregulated experimentation. That’s carefully phrased: he’s not actually saying take away the laws in the US—if you like your country, you can keep it. Same with Marc Andreessen: “The world is going to see an explosion of countries in the years ahead. Doubled, tripled, quadrupled countries.” Since the end of the Cold War, we’ve just been seeing them burst up in all kinds of places. And some of the best will have lessons for all the rest. Singapore’s health care system is an example to the rest of the world. Estonia actually has digital parking meters and all kinds of things. We can copy those things without necessarily taking the risk: let them take the risk and then we can copy them. It amplifies voice.
So, importantly: you don’t have to fight a war to start a new company. You don’t have to kill the former CEO in a duel. So a very important meta-concept is to create peaceful ways to exit and start new countries. So, you know, two of the founders of Paypal: Peter Thiel is into seasteading; Elon Musk wants to build a Mars colony. And you can scale it back too: even on Hacker News, just recently, within the realm of someone on startup number 1 or startup number 2, these guys just went and bought a private island. It’s random, it’s in the middle of Canada, it’s freezing cold, there’s sticks over there, it doesn’t exactly look like Oahu… but the best part is this: the people who think this is weird, the people who sneer at the frontier, who hate technology—they won’t follow you out there. That’s the thing about exit is: you can take as much or as little of it as you want. You don’t have to actually go and get your own island; you can do the equivalent of dual-booting or telecommuting. You can opt out, exit at whatever level you prefer. Simply going onto Reddit rather than watching television is a way of opting out. There is this entire digital world up here which we can jack our brains into and we can opt out. The Paper Belt may stop us from leaving, and that’s actually what I think of as one of the most important things over the next ten years, is to use technology, especially Mobile(?), to reduce the barriers to exit. With it, we can build a world run by software: for some examples, 3D printing will turn regulation into DRM, it’ll be impossible to ban physical objects, from medical devices to drones to cars: you can 3D print all these things, and there are entire three-letter regulatory agencies are just devoted to banning goods. With Bitcoin, capital controls become packet filtering. It’s impossible to do bail-ins if everyone’s on Bitcoin, to seize money as they did in Cyprus or in Poland. With Quantified Self, medicine is going to become mobile: you’ll be able to measure yourself. Telepresence, your immigration policy is going to turn into your firewall. Double robotics is just a start: any bots, these robots that you can control remotely, moving around like a Doom video game, soon they’ll be humanoid on their side and they’re going to get pretty good, so you can be anywhere in the world with a humanoid robot walking around on your side, and without paying a plane ticket. Drones, warfare is going to become software, laws are going to become code, management via robotics is going to become automation, and property rights are going to become a network ??? Bitcoin and smart property.
These technological details, these are topics for the next MOOC, you can sign up at ???, it’ll be better the third time around… But that’s what I think… you know, if you want to think big, if you want to think about things that are next, build technologies as minimal or as maximal as you want for what the next society looks like. It could be something as simple as allowing middle-class people to make tax shelters, apps that allow people to travel and relocate better because it’s a huge pain to move from city to city. Anything you can think of that reduces the barrier to exit that produces lock-in. If we work together we might be able to build something like this.
America has an adulthood problem, and the problem is its absence. The new generation, the generation of twenty-somethings with thick glasses and three-day beards, the generation of bright colors, capital letters, and opiate-fueled electronic music is rejecting adulthood in favor of an extended Neverland adolescence stretching out to the horizon. They don’t want to grow up; they want to postpone growing up for as long as possible, to hang on to the aesthetic of a commercialized counterculture teendom as time drags them by the feet into their thirties. This is evident from the twee aesthetic, but also from the fifteen-minute ultrapopularity of bands like Salem:
Salem has only been around for a couple of years, but Holland and Marlatt met years before in high school at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, a boarding school in Northern Michigan that Josh Groban and Rufus Wainwright once attended. Both Holland and Marlatt studied visual arts; Holland later became addicted to heroin and cocaine, funded by work as a gas station prostitute, mostly for married men. …
Prior to talking with Salem, it all seemed so obvious: Teams of marketing men carefully cultivated this band’s persona using magnets and only the best SEO-baiting tricks—some real buzzband conspiracy shit! But it turns out the reality is much more banal. Their music—and their aesthetic aura—is ambiguous and full of fuzzy definitions, but Salem is not part of a JT LeRoy-style hoax; the darkness and the crack smoking and whatever else come from a more intuitive lack of giving a shit than some secret, unfolding plan.
In the eight-circuit model of consciousness developed by Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson, heroin activates the oral biosurvival circuit, the first circuit to activate in the course of human development, and the most primitive and childlike. (Crack cocaine arguably produces the same effect, or at least fills a similar societal niche, although Wilson rightly said that cocaine proper activates the neurosemantic circuit.) For Freudians, opiate addiction represents a desire to return to infancy. The infantile trend in pop culture arguably began with grunge music and the ‘slacker’ aesthetic; Kurt Cobain, who wore pajamas to his wedding, was addicted to heroin, as was Courtney Love, the musician he married. After Salem came soft grunge, subversive kawaii, and so on, all of which have features in common, and in common with Nirvana-era grunge and zine feminism: a color scheme of black and pastels, sloganistic social criticism of the individualistic tabula-rasa left, and an emphasis on ‘empowerment’ coexisting with a tired and confused outlook toward a world perceived as fundamentally harmful and painful.
But where did this come from?
The grunge generations are not the first to be terrible at handling time. The baby boomer catchphrase goes, “No, no, I’m Firstname, not Mr. Lastname; Mr. Lastname is my father.” Then consider the pop-culture phenomenon of the midlife crisis, and the general fear of aging. Time is something to be feared. This leads baby-boomer parents to refuse to acknowledge the adulthood of their children when it comes; they speak no differently to them than seven years before. It’s much easier to go with this, to accept the state of childhood that the parents reinforce, than to fight it and thus create familial discord.
Another characteristic of baby-boomer parents is helicopter parenting. Children are weak and frail things, to be protected from all hardship, to be sheltered from the slightest threats, of which there are many in this hostile world. Don’t talk to strangers; pedophiles and murderers are hiding around every corner. Don’t play competitive games; tag is to be banned because kids might fall and skin their elbows, and anyway they can’t handle the emotional pain of losing. Self-esteem must be maximized and assiduously protected. And so on. So children grow up in a bubble, with no experience of risk or disappointment, and come to hold that the bubble must be maintained at any cost.
The planet Krikkit is located in a dust cloud composed chiefly of the disintegrated remains of the enormous spaceborne computer Hactar. … Due to the dust cloud, the sky above Krikkit was completely black, and thus the people of Krikkit led insular lives and never realised the existence of the Universe. … Upon first witnessing the glory and splendor of the Universe, they casually, whimsically, decided to destroy it, remarking, “It’ll have to go.”
But there are also economic reasons. No longer can economic self-sufficiency at a reasonable level begin before about 30. College is necessary and grad school is preferable; education ends four to ten years later than it used to, and it would be prohibitively expensive were it not practically mandatory. Adulthood does not require self-sufficiency in the American cowboy sense—otherwise women could never have become adults until a few decades ago—but it does have economic preconditions. Adulthood is oriented toward reproduction, even though not all adults reproduce; one who cannot bear the costs of reproduction, just like one who cannot bear the emotional costs of having success not always guaranteed, is not yet an adult. The cultural command to do what you love no matter the pay thus hinders entrance into adulthood.
It’s not just Weird Twitter.
In the story of the emperor’s new clothes, tediously referenced by every internet commenter who wants to pretend that not liking something popular is somehow ennobling, the lone truth-teller is a little boy. Rousseau lionised childhood as an all-too-brief sanctuary from the big bad world. Wordsworth, much like Chris King (27 & 3/4), believed the child was “Might prophet! Seer blest!” He, too, might have allowed a three-year-old to rename his bread. But Innocentese didn’t appear in the late 90s out of a vacuum and I think the ground was laid, at least in part, by indie culture.
In the mid-80s, indie bands like Beat Happening in the US and the C86 scene in the UK employed a childlike aesthetic as a form of resistance to dominant cultural trends. In place of slick professionalism and expensive overproduction, chaotic amateurism. In place of exaggerated sexuality, puritanical sexlessness. In place of glossy “lies”, painful sincerity. In place of adulthood, essentially, a magically extended childhood. One could note with some discomfort that the pop culture being opposed, though identified with corporate America, was driven by working-class black people, but in the heyday of Thatcherism and Reaganomics the “twee” approach was still a valid form of rejection. [No it wasn’t.]
A generation of factory-farmed autists reject the outside world as too challenging once the hermetic seal is broken, regressing to a made-up childhood, idealizing its clueless and confused point of view and its mass-marketed aesthetic, hoping to extend the seal of age segregation always just a bit longer, until they’re 40, they can’t get away with working at coffee shops and reading avant-garde transgressive poetry over a four-chord ukulele backing anymore, and either they’ve hit the wall or college girls won’t fuck them anymore.
If you’ve been around Hoxton Square lately – as unpromising a start to an article as you’re likely to see this year, I know, but bear with me – you’ve probably noticed several billboards displaying short poems in LEDs. These texts are the work of Scottish conceptual artist Robert Montgomery. Now, it’s unlikely that one expects much of the art which emanates from this part of N1 to endure, but, although they’ve only been around for a few weeks, Montgomery’s pieces seem unusually haunted by suggestions of imminent datedness. The most prominent, above the door of host gallery KK Outlet, reads:
THIS CITY IS WILDER THAN YOU THINK AND KINDER THAN YOU THINK. IT IS A VALLEY AND YOU ARE A HORSE IN IT IT IS A HOUSE AND YOU ARE A CHILD IN IT SAFE AND WARM HERE IN THE FIRE OF EACH OTHER
Describing precisely what’s so grating about this is tough. Broadly, though, it’s the insincere stab at starry-eyed ingenuousness which comes to the fore particularly, though not exclusively, in the saccharine metaphor, fridge-magnet capitalisation, and exaggeratedly remedial punctuation. It’s bad enough that supermarkets will rename products to please the demands of annoyingly precocious three-year-olds, a symptom of the current ubiquity of twee tropes in marketing, without self-declaredly radical art getting in on the nicey-nicey act.
‘Radical’ is how Montgomery styles himself. Interviewed in the Independent recently, he recounted how Situationism had been a “point of obsession” for him since his art school days. Situationism, to offer a – very – brief summary, was a 60s strand of French post-Marxism which proposed that consumer capitalism reduced all experience to mere spectacle, diminishing the individual’s capacity for self-realisation and mediating all encounters with the external world. In Montgomery’s usefully concise précis, the movement’s figurehead Guy Debord sought to describe “a society where we live divorced from real life, surrounded by images designed to sell us things and give us paranoia”.
Artistic responses to Situationism’s theorising have attempted to undermine the spectacle in order to provoke a radical questioning of the everyday, an act which might serve as the beginning of some form of return to ‘real life’.
Of course, they fail. The left, marinating in the stomach juices of neoliberalism, still doesn’t realize it’s been eaten!—that it forms a demographic for companies to market to, a subculture for companies to jump on the status-structure of, and a false opposition, thoroughly neutered by that which it claims to oppose, turned into a mere demographic, a mere subculture, a mere move in the great American game of maintaining status in the torrent of pop-culture change.
It’s this trend that leads you to wonder if Montgomery doesn’t really know his enemy. As another of the billboards shows, his is effectively a black-and-white world in which the moral failures of capitalism can be corrected by simply sending the archetypal city bloke back to the land: ‘YOU WILL HAVE TO LEARN TO LOOK AT THE SKY AGAIN, YOU WILL HAVE TO LEARN TO EAT FOOD THAT GROWS WHERE YOU LIVE AGAIN.’ If only it were so simple. Oppositions between belligerently acquisitive urban capitalism and an idealised pastoral ignore the new set-up, in which everybody seems to want to repudiate modernity in favour of some long-lost innocence and ease.
The target is no longer capitalism, imperialism, or anything else, but the absence of the seal. Douglas Adams, as always, is the prophet of our age:
The planet Krikkit is located in a dust cloud composed chiefly of the disintegrated remains of the enormous spaceborne computer Hactar. … Due to the dust cloud, the sky above Krikkit was completely black, and thus the people of Krikkit led insular lives and never realised the existence of the Universe. … Upon first witnessing the glory and splendor of the Universe, they casually, whimsically, decided to destroy it, remarking, “It’ll have to go.”
Hence the demographics of these movements: hopelessly confused suburbanites fresh out of college, clueless and jobless, wanting only to be back in high school, to be commanded, to be told by the melonheads that drift in smelling meat for their puppetry what is right and what is wrong, how to act and what to like. Twee is our Juche; it is the expression of the same underlying human factors that motivate the single-minded ‘minders’ in North Korea, watered down by the postmodern half-death of the metanarrative into a confused and anti-intellectual posture of prelapsarianism, a jumble of feigned childlike wonder and hate of all that is different. Difference is confusing; difference is challenging; difference prevents the twee-leftist from getting precisely what she wants, and therefore she must hate it, she must pray to the media to push PSAs, to the city Vogons to count all that is insufficiently thedish as a crime against fashion or peace. The goal is to maximize comfort, nothing else—exactly as Nietzsche predicted. Behold, I show you the last man!
“What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?” Thus asks the last man, and he blinks.
The earth has become small, and on it hops the last man, who makes everything small. His race is as ineradicable as the flea-beetle; the last man lives longest.
“We have invented happiness,” say the last men, and they blink. They have left the regions where it was hard to live, for one needs warmth. One still loves one’s neighbor and rubs against him, for one needs warmth.
Becoming sick and harboring suspicion are sinful to them: one proceeds carefully. A fool, whoever still stumbles over stones or human beings! A little poison now and then: that makes for agreeable dreams. And much poison in the end, for an agreeable death.
One still works, for work is a form of entertainment. But one is careful lest the entertainment be too harrowing. One no longer becomes poor or rich: both require too much exertion. Who still wants to rule? Who obey? Both require too much exertion.
No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse.
“Formerly all the world was mad,” say the most refined, and they blink.
One is clever and knows everything that has ever happened: so there is no end of derision. One still quarrels, but one is soon reconciled—else it might spoil the digestion.
One has one’s little pleasure for the day and one’s little pleasure for the night: but one has a regard for health.
“We have invented happiness,” say the last men, and they blink.
All that Nietzsche failed to predict was the Yankees, colonizers to the very end, who largely refused to leave the cities, the places most complicated and most filled with potential, but instead set about building dystopia right there where they were, in the heart of confusion and the womb of much now-aborted greatness. Vogon neo-Puritans with public shaming campaigns and exclusivity reserved only for themselves are no strangers to hate; no, hate is a bonding mechanism, hate is the glue that holds them together and the foundation on which their narcissistic egos are built. Hate is what makes them feel alive, what makes them feel healthy and active without being either; hate is the heroin the Kurt Cobains of the suburban age inject into their veins, pushing ever larger needles through sacks of fat and sclerotic fuck-you postures playing at mimicry of the rural self-defense mechanisms Mencken mocked in true Yankee form. The twee and grunge aesthetics—two sides of a coin, as their frequent comorbidity shows—are nothing but attempts by hyper-Brahmin suburbanites to escape the world their ideological ancestors created and return to a sick, self-conscious, and intolerably intolerant totalitarianism marching ever onward to left singularity.
Thede separatism with the world as their country. “Earth is ours! Eternal comfort for every convert, and to hell with all the others!” May they find their place and never preach outside it.
The world is a large and complicated place, and it ought to stay that way.