Every utopia contains a dystopia. Every dystopia contains a utopia. The conclusion I’ve come to through extensive speculative fiction voyaging is that the best we can hope for, probably, is to create a society that tries hard not to leave people out. And to be vigilantly alert to the people we are leaving out, whoever they are. To listen. To try to make it right as often as we can. To imagine how it could be different.
Three things make a post, as we used to say. Here’s Yuval Noah Harari — whose book(s) I really need to make the time to read in full — being roundtabled at Teh Graun:
The key issue is that because our power depends on collective fictions, we are not good in distinguishing between fiction and reality. Humans find it very difficult to know what is real and what is just a fictional story in their own minds, and this causes a lot of disasters, wars and problems.
The best test to know whether an entity is real or fictional is the test of suffering. A nation cannot suffer, it cannot feel pain, it cannot feel fear, it has no consciousness. Even if it loses a war, the soldier suffers, the civilians suffer, but the nation cannot suffer. Similarly, a corporation cannot suffer, the pound sterling, when it loses its value, it doesn’t suffer. All these things, they’re fictions. If people bear in mind this distinction, it could improve the way we treat one another and the other animals. It’s not such a good idea to cause suffering to real entities in the service of fictional stories.
Meanwhile, Kim Stanley Robinson has a new book out, and is saying things on the promo circuit along the lines of [via MeFi]:
The space of stories we can imagine constrains the space of political solutions we’re willing to include in the Overton window. Vivid, engrossing tales about the best natures of humans overcoming the worst are a weapon against despair and cynicism — and may be the necessary precondition for the survival of our species.
I believe this, too. Indeed, there’s a sense in which I must believe it; it’s my life-raft, and it’s my star to steer by. It’s something I can do.
But it’s hard to keep the faith when you know that there’s an entire industry based on understanding how to push people’s narratological buttons, and that when it’s not working to put a gloss on whatever half-baked policy clusterfuck is playing out this week, that industry is profitably engaged in such activities as working out how to squeeze the maximum profit out of a junk food addict by using their own body’s instinctive responses to nutritional imagery against them. That we can consider this a regrettable yet nonetheless unavoidable feature of our ethical landscape is about as clear a sign of the moral vacuum that passes for the heart of capitalism as one could ask for; a misinformed and manipulated choice is not choice, but charlatanry. (Cf: Brexit, etc etc.)
Given I’ve gone and linked that depressing piece already, here’s a bonus nugget of narratological theory from the world of food marketing:
Food imagery is most visually appealing when the viewer’s brain finds it easy to simulate the act of eating, for example, when the food is seen from a first-person perspective. This is rated more highly than viewing food from a third-person view…
We wring our hands over “fake news”, and so we should—but what “fake news” harbingers is the fact that the ubiquity and intensity of marketing and advertising have so successfully normalised a narrative tradition based on bare-faced pandering, deceit and seduction that we’re becoming unable to tolerate exposure to any story that doesn’t flatter us, the sovereign individual, protagonist of our own first-person picaresque of consumption.
And that goes for me as well as for you, and for the left as well as the right—for me and you and left and right are also only stories, after all.
No one is to blame; everyone is complicit.
Tomorrow (Weds 15th October 2014) sees me boarding a train down to That London, in order to be a talking head at a salon titled (Dis)Assembling #Stacktivism at the Goethe Institute. If you’ve not been following along, #stacktivism is Jay Springett’s invention, and it’s less a manifesto than a call for seeing the world anew, a campaign for the disenchantment of infrastructure… or is it? That’s all the fun of a #hashtag, see — you don’t get to control it, it’s a floating node in the discourse. So come along and discuss what we might do with it. Tickets are a mere £6 (via Eventbrite), and going by the warm-up conversation over email, it’s going to be a stimulating session. There’s a recommended reading list and everything!
In other news: after reading Kevin Kelly’s collection of “desirable-future haikus”, I coughed up a rant about the innate determinism of the technological utopia over the weekend. The short version: tech-focussed futurists are finally hitting the same problematics of the utopian form that the New wave sf writers hit in the late 70s, and the reason it’s impossible to draft a plausible technological utopia is that we’ve all lived through enough false promises to not be taken in se easily any more.
(As an aside, I’m increasingly convinced that the #miserableweb phenomenon on Ello is less a function of Ello itself, and more a function of a general cynicism about social media; there was some seriously utopian hopes around social media back in the Noughties (I held many of them myself), and it clearly did some good things, but then Snowden showed us around the dungeon of Omelas, the Great White Hetero Male got all revanchist, and the scales fell from our eyes. Turns out the lord of the flies doesn’t believe in digital dualism either.)
Dan Hon picked up my ball and ran with it a bit in his newsletter thing. I think he pretty much gets the gist of my point, but he kinda shifts the blame onto the marketing and advertising of tech rather than the discourse of tech, of which marketing is only one subsystem; advertising certainly reproduces uncritically diegetic technological utopias (and the internet now re-reproduces ((and sometimes remixes)) them losslessly and infinitely), but there are also the interactions of biz-school dogma, neoclassical economics (profit uber alles) and the positivist epistemologies of the STEM disciplines to consider. Technological determinism is not a simple belief; it’s just one visible manifestation of the dominant worldview.
Hon illustrates the point for me, in fact. He talks about the utopian tech ads of the “information superhighway” era, and how only now are we actually seeing a roll-out of the services that were promised to us on the back of the internet. Then he says:
“… it’s like we still *want* to buy concert tickets wherever we want, and we still *want* to say goodnight to our kids over Facetime or whatever.”
There’s a valid point here, which is that convenience has always been a marketing cornerstone, and that making things easier is a form of progress. But the thing about Facetime is the killer example: Facetime solves the problem of being able to say goodnight to your kids when travelling on business, but it doesn’t solve the problem of a business culture that expects you to spend shit-loads of time away from your young family — which is a systemic problem with many other side-effects besides keeping you away from home, and one that technology tends to exacerbate at the molar scale, even (if not especially) when it seems to ameliorate it at the molecular scale. Or, to put it crudely: in order for an iPhone to make your life easier, a number of Chinese workers must make their lives rather more difficult. The benefits of technology are not at all evenly distributed, and neither are the downsides.
So perhaps it’s just capitalism that’s the culprit? That’s part of it, I’m sure — but capitalism is a construct, and blaming constructs is lazy (not to mention, um, unconstructive?). But the intimate interconnection between neoclassical economics, technoscientific production and climate change is becoming increasingly hard to ignore, and we’ll never fix a problem that’s essentially technological in origin by just throwing more technology at it; that’s about as rational as trying to extinguish a fire with gasoline.
(Which, to be clear, is not a primitivist call for the abandonment of technology in toto; on the contrary, it’s a call for us to flatten our ontologies, to redefine the notion of “the problem” into something a little less selfish and a little more systemic.)
I’m not sure quite how I discovered the post-nihilist bloggings of Arran James; I think he must have written something about the Neo-Reos or the Accelerationists that someone linked me to a while back. There’s something important in this closing passage from a longer think-piece on the rise of Prometheanism, which James hopes may represent an end to the “depressive” or melancholic politics of the moment:
Have the politics of resistance and the politics of withdrawal really been a kind of stalling gesture? We have demanded infinite demands and finite demands and we have demanded unity and demanded an end to calls for unity. We have demanded ceaselessly. But while we demand we address some Other: I can’t do it, you do it. And this isn’t just a critique of electoral politics but extends to those who would drop-out or disappear, as well as those who “would prefer not to” or who wish not to get their morals dirty. All of these positions amount to the same thing: the absence of a political desire. Perhaps this is how our political cartography should begin to be carved up: those with the desire for revolution; those with the demand for revolution; those whose remain within the imaginary; those who place themselves at the infrastructural. This infrastructure may be the material infrastructure of things, but it could also be considered the psychic infrastructure of illusions. Promethean desire is first and foremost the thirst for new illusions, and a turning away from the ‘withdrawals, secessions and mere interruptions’ (Tosacano) that we’ve grown used to.
I felt like I was having a finger pointed at me. In a good way.
Worth reading alongside this here video of novelist and all-round left-intellectual dreamboat China Mieville talking at this year’s Nelson Institute Earth Day Conference on the limits and necessities of utopia in the context of ecological and social justice: