Section 5 – Provocations
5.1 The Truly Alien
We often project ourselves into our fantasies of others. An important assumption of this book has been to look just a few iterations forward, to consider things that are slightly like us or possibilities that are still very much tied to the conditions of the present. Wells was for the most part concerned with war, as we are now. Martinetti wanted to throw off the romantic vision of the country side that held back progress. The MIT futures conference wanted to extend techno-managerial science into the near future.
One of John Durham Peters best critical moves, one taken by many cited in this book, is the identification of artificial simplification. His critique of the Turing test and dialogic are both important. Dialog can’t solve every problem, there are people who you definitely shouldn’t talk to. The Touring test doesn’t speak to artificial intelligence because it only proves that in the highly contextual situation of one text game that a guess has been provided that is satisfying for a very weak set of priors. Any encounter with a contemporary text bot will leave you knowing the critique well, merely identifying the right next turn does not arrive at the quality of intelligence. The Turing test was never enough.
Artificial intelligence is thus sublime, it appears outside the confines of what you already know. Much of what goes by the name machine learning is merely the arrival of adequate computing power to use old methods. We have many methods across the social sciences and humanities to cope with the idea of such a sublime.
When you imagine the truly alien, it is likely that you can’t imagine a form of life without a symbol system. Aliens on television and in the movies, are too close to humanity to be interesting. Nearly all of your attempts to think of these will reduce the other intelligence to semiotic qualities. Among the most truly alien was the Borg of Star Trek. Their deep drive is the annihilation of subjectivity, resolving the problem of the human condition by liquidating the enfolding of the single mind. Even The Borg were lowered in the form of leaders like Locutus (Jean-Luc Pickard himself) or other symbolic avatars who provide some relief from the image of pure, depersonalized drive. The Borg are just that terrifying.
What if the truly alien is more monstrous than you can possibly imagine?
5.2 Torn Enfolding
Existence depends on sensation. Metaphysics is among the few fields not discussed extensively in this text, the closest appearances come in the discussion of simulation. What this book offers for communication instead is a three-fold model of the enfolding: sensation, textuality, and reproduction. It is not simply that we must consider all the sensations that we produce, but the degree to which those sensations are affected by their means of production, envelopment with other sensations, and memories.
The enfolding is an unstable foundation for academic work. There is no consistent ontology, sensation itself is inadequate. From an academic politics perspective, this is one of the greatest liabilities for communication and media studies. We have no territory to defend that is not quicksand. This is also one of our greatest points of appeal for students: there is no basic communication research, we are always concerned with the world and how research on that world is evolving. This is what it truly means to be virtual in this time period: meaningful new thoughts in this field will come from the intersection of possibilities, not from the isolation of existing meaning. To become virtual is to accelerate the process of abstraction.
What humanist critiques so often depend on is the idea of an outside – some sensation that is sublime or beyond the regime of the already known. Leverage gives the humanist something to move the world – this could be in the form of eschatological fantasy in the scene of global warming or in the idea of touch as outside of regular communication. One of the important dimensions of this book has been to situate the entire sensorial envelope. Although it seems difficult to produce satisfying haptic, somatic, and neuro media, it would be folly to exclude them from the regime of simulation. Taste and touch are just more of the enfolding – not the outside.
5.3 The Impossibility of Alterity
Decision is inevitable. The question is what decision will be made. Pure alterity, leaving space open, is an enchanting possibility, but only a meaningful one once a text has been made. It would be too easy to stop there, to see the potential of alterity as an answer to the violence of signification. But that misses the point: reaching some form of stasis in the name of not deciding is still a decision. Alterity as an alternative to signification is an intoxicant to be used in moderation. What if we push these forms to their limits by embracing forms that push toward alterity itself? Can the Dankest memes and the haze Vaporwave overcome the harsh rules of the symbolic? Perhaps the play of signs of poetry is the answer…
Within this is the question of the ethics of the future. Where and how do we make choices about proceeding? The answer is almost always a leap of faith, a passionate choice to engage the world. This is why the opposition of reason through Hegel and passion through Kierkegaard is worth considering with each new cohort of students. Reason is almost always elevated, passion denigrated. The promise of the future is that our new virtual worlds will be rational and collected. But how do you weigh the lost possibilities, all of those worlds not realized by the discourses that actually circulated? Is there a duty to the unlimited future? If so, how do we deal with the multiplicity of intervening actors and probabilities?
5.4 The End of Work
The critical idea in the presentation of liberalism, used here with a small “l” to describe the intersection of labor and capital. The promise of liberalism was that something like effort or merit would replace the traditional role of hierarchy of birth and station. If you were to use your hands, your labor, to modify natural material, you would reap the rewards. This is not a new idea: the concept of liberalism appears in the Book of Isaiah. The capacity of a person to engage in this work and thus become a productive member of society is a central feature of American culture. Liberal culture was not devoted collection of money, but to a number of other values. Capital accumulation was not viewed as an unlimited good, if anything financialization was nearly a form of idolatry.
Why so much build up? Because work is such a critical part of the philosophical fabric of this culture. The recent deformation of liberal work into neoliberalism (exchange economy with no value except prudence) has been difficult for regular people to process. Extreme concentrations of wealth simply have no tie to the hands of the ultra-wealthy worker, if they even continue to fall into that category. On a more threatening level, the arrival of self-driving vehicles and automated factories displace human workers from what would be high paying jobs. Technologists promise that lost long-haul trucking jobs will be replaced by something better. Promises that cannot be enforced carry little weight with workers.
As automation of intellectual tasks continues via topic modeling software and automated customer interfaces the human will be replaced as well. Why see a doctor when the next level WebMD will do? If the legal system were made to conform more to a civil law orientation, a program could replace the judge and jury. There is nowhere to hide from automation.
Increasing corporate profits and stagnant wages are the first glimpse of this future world where success is delinked from the economy of work entirely, more than in the development of a financial system that fully decouples rewards from labor. The threat or robots is not that they will attack us, but that they will cause such social strain that the reaction against those systems will tear us apart.
5.5 The Nightmare of Satisfaction
Replacements for meals and simulated experiences are important. Over time the idea of meal replacement, minimally sufficient food stuffs, or ubiquitous cafeterias have been common. I mean, who really wants to eat? Eating as an activity is pleasurable and social. Once these distractions are removed we will all be so much more efficient.
The reason why replacements and deactivated forms fail is that they are unable to be as satisfying as the originals. If this holds, it makes sense that drive (and desire) will continue. What happens if the simulations finally become completely satisfying and the drive is eliminated? The existential threat of simulation may not be that we are simply on a holodeck, but that we might apply adequate simulated stimulation to ourselves to short circuit the human condition.
But eating is never satisfying. You will be hungry again as your friendly mitochondria will combine glucose and oxygen via the Krebs cycle to power your body. As time winds along your senses will dull and foods that were once too strong will become palatable. Tastes, techniques, and technologies will change and the foods you want will be old and unfashionable. Eating is an easy topic to consider here: you need to do it. There are other desires that are also unquenchable, people chase them for their entire lives, or even build entire structures of desire around the chase itself. Psychoanalytic communication researchers discuss this as the transformation of desire into drive. You are driven to continue doing your behavior, this seems to be the human condition.
But what if you could satisfy your desire? What if a meal replacement could take on a symbolic role that would make it satisfying? One way of thinking about the future would see the real promise is that which eliminates desire and drive or a future where corrected, purified simulations replace dangerous real things. Do you want to live in a world without want?
5.6 Hacking the Mind
Let’s for a moment say that our neural interface technology improves, that we can get information efficiently in and out of the human brain. Advocates of the singularity focus on the idea that this would mean unlimited communication. The idea of singularity is positive as it offers immortality and likely omniscience. At the same time, this promise of immortality hinges on the technology working and not being wiped out by a solar flare. More troubling, this technology would need to encode human consciousness through some kind of relation of logic gates. Security is difficult if not impossible. The gates will be reprogrammed. You will be made to think.
Choices are difficult: this is a world of conflicting incentives, incomplete information, and flawed human minds. Libertarian paternalism supposed that we might “nudge” people toward the right options. Agency was never absolute: when allowed to hypertrophy it becomes ineffective just as much as if it were never there. We are always trying to change behavior, to make things slightly different and better. This fails when people know about it: how dare someone try to shape their choices? No one should manage their desire.
Is immortality without agency really worth it? Perhaps The Borg were right: individuality is the problem.
5.7 Without Plurality
Liberal pluralism has been one of the greatest breakthroughs in political form in the last few centuries. There are two terms: liberal and pluralism. Liberalism has been explored earlier in these provocations: this is the idea that one might work and keep the rewards of their labor. Pluralism implies an acceptance or even celebration of diversity. In a state which is not tied to a nation, pluralism is essential, there is no single group with clear practices, no inside or outside.
The problem with pluralism is that political formations that hinge on resentment can break apart the social whole at fragile seems. Cyber-utopianism was insipid. Theorists assumed that everyone was just like them – that if they had access to computer games and the internet they might become California libertarians. They did not.
Legitimation is at a premium. In the opening of this book, legitimacy was presented on a perpendicular pair of axes. Pluralism seems to depend on a combination meaningful symbolic action and physical supply: the problem is that even the most symbolically legitimate and satiated populations fall prey to the discouragement of the future anterior. We can speak of the future to come as if it is going to happen, the promises of the distant future are deployed to make failure in the present palatable. As these promises build up, discouragement accumulates. The old promises of the group and the nation become an easy fall back.
Movements promising unity offer an alternative to the state as we know it, but at the same time, are fundamentally limited as they lack symbolic legitimation of the group, even if they provide materially. Even when they appear to function, they often leave underlying antagonisms unresolved. This returns to the problem with HG Wells prayer for the future: how do we actually convince all humans to join one world peace, one movement for the future? The Other is holding special enjoyment, you have been excluded, this demands violence, exclusion, and war. Magritte’s painting of war is powerful here: the war looks appealing, the ugly face hidden by the bouquet.
If the threats of apocalypse in the forms of nuclear war, pandemic, hunger, or climate change have not been enough, why should we hope that anything will come along that will change minds?
5.8 Infinite Text
Content comes from somewhere. During the golden age of the social network era, it came from the users. Beyond the phatic posts of lunches and television schedules, were actual expressions of emotion. Those halcyon days when the first political Facebook posts made everyone an activist. Of course, this could not last – the research on boundary coordination is clear that once the rules we use to coordinate our ownership are broken, we rarely feel the same way we did before. Facebook denied for years that it could be broken, it was the unstoppable giant of the social network universe. Well before the 2016 election, the cracks were beginning to show. What the election brought was something more profoundly negative, something deeper, and more hurtful: our source of positive emotional energy and support had been deeply corrupted. Why post when you feel hurt? Why post on a platform that clearly doesn’t share your values? Why post when there is no one there to comment because your content isn’t so interesting that it deserves to be placed between two great advertisements?
We need more content. Where will we get it? What fake news reveals is not the capacity of hackers or propagandists, but that the public is willing to accept even rickety texts as if they were excellent. There is no collective intelligence that will engage in large scale downstream editorial judgement. This is a zombie virtuality – an enfolding that is continuously moving and consuming but only at the most basic level. Every expression refactored into the most abstract and simple quality. Publicity, automated, will learn to produce whatever works. The editorial role in shaping the circulation of the public will be lost. Algorithmic content systems will shuffle about mumbling “clicks, clicks…”
Romantic genius is often presented as the answer to this problem: the greatest content will surely rise to the top, the technological will connect many more with the sublime. Gruesome fare that never would have seen the screen during the broadcast era is now common, this is passed off as a new golden age of television. More short writing and publishing than ever before, riddled with propaganda and anti-social meanings, treated as a profound new literature. Genius won’t save us. The truth is that the vast majority of publicity processes mill over dreck. Many of our thoughts are not worth thinking. Why do we care about agency when so many of our choices are between fetid and fusty? The problem: there is no floor in the preference level of the market, but definitely a lack of demand at the top. Without intervention, the marketplace of ideas becomes a collection of hawker booths for multi-level marketing scams. Information theory holds: as the noise level reaches cacophony, the signal becomes unrecognizable. It isn’t simply that noise fills the channel, but that the infinite text that floods through will be acidic, dissolving the future like an astringent wave of chaos, order, pain, and pleasure in unpasteurized forms.
5.9 Me and My Bots
Privacy is real and important. Becoming visible is risky – you can be seen by others but are subjected to power in new and different ways. The expanded surveillance regime does mark a real change from that which came before – are you comfortable with the idea that you cannot have a sensitive conversation in your living room anymore because your smart television is listening? The true living room, rather than the formal parlor, is your primary space for living. Open concept homes expand and converge the roles of core spaces to create a more expansive space for interiority. Privacy is a tricky concept, it is both essential that one have a place and space of their own, but can serve to entrench existing power relations by excluding the domestic from the political.
Little strips of tape offer user’s protection from their own bots, but this does nothing for the mall kiosk checking in on your location for a central database, or your selfies being read as an index of your liver function. Expanded use of cryptography in the form of public-key messaging and bitcoin offer some escape from the regime of bots. One of the major themes of the Federalist papers was the impossibility of full awareness or communication: this was a form of natural protection against tyranny. Facilitated by heavy duty processing and bot driven detection, it becomes possible to produce a new kind of virtual awareness that flattens the distinction between people and machines. More troubling, we often treat the results of these assemblages of human and machine as machine alone: the results of process are seemingly objective. For how we still require temporally proximal or the operation of war machines, someone needs to confirm the operation. As our metamorphosis continues, it seems likely that we will assume that the machine-human hybrids are just as good as humans.
What is truly striking is not that people need space or that the seeming benefits of mechanization of observation would be seen as outweighing the cost, but that the interplay of people with machines does not seem to make the machine more human, it makes the people more machine like. The hacker ethos extends not only to the manufacture of things, but to the quantization of the self. Perhaps interiority won’t be needed anymore, the ambiguity of the unseen will have passed.
5.10 As Good As It Gets
The promise of the future has been continual improvement. Just beyond our horizon is exponential increase, the jetpack future. When the expectation of that future is revealed as hollow we must either push out the future beyond the horizon or take stock of our wounded attachments to a world that never was. Things have improved, utter poverty has decreased, treatments for many diseases are available, there is more than enough food, but the utopian future has not been realized. Extreme inequality tears at the foundation of plenty in advanced democracies, even basic treatments like Insulin are now scarce as a result of pure avarice, food continues to be allocated on political lines resulting in hunger, and resurgent nationalist movements seem to be arming the world for war.
What if this is as good as it gets?
A future is coming, it seems possible that this will include consumer goods, medicine, and conflict. The law of diminishing returns is real. Too much can be enough. The idea here is relatively straight forward: sometimes we reach the best version of a thing or an idea. The Wall Street Journal reported in a feature on the Future of Everything, that some products (wallets and luggage) had already reached perfection as they were functional, durable, and stylish. The claim to trans-historical style aside, the premise is sound, if one wishes to carry paper money and coins a wallet is likely the best mechanism. The idea of style does offer a sort of depth: this is not a simplistic structure for utility maximization, more pleasure and less pain, if those terms really mean what they think we do. The best wallet has properties that are not simply those that increase or total units of pleasure. This is a good thing. Objects in the view of those interviewed for the story become better with age, they become part of the symbolic lives of the owners, they are really in a sense virtual.
In this chapter of provocations, I have provided an argument against satisfaction, it is also important to consider the profound importance of being satisfied. Psychologists move toward this idea in the context of mindfulness or the contemplative life. Philosophers have the pleasure machine and many other useful thought experiments. Business theorists describe disruption as the replacement of a superior good with one that is merely satisfying at a lower price.
From a perceptual standpoint, the reason why the coming era of more must be so incredible and impressive is that this future must outweigh the pain of the passage of time and mortality. We will not arrive in the utopian future. The day when you realize that your ticket is marked for a station before the end of the line is difficult.
How do you tell people that they should be satisfied, there isn’t more, or that they really shouldn’t have jetpacks? This is where the communication perspective on futurity is so important: our proper object is not the coolness of new gadgets, but the prospect of producing meaning and coordinating action against all the possibly that we have foreclosed, not simply the potential of a limitless future.
We must consider the real possibility that this is as good as it gets, that our success is complicated, in a complex world.
- “Isaiah 65:22 No Longer Will They Build Houses for Others to Inhabit, nor Plant for Others to Eat. For as Is the Lifetime of a Tree, so Will Be the Days of My People, and My Chosen Ones Will Fully Enjoy the Work of Their Hands.,” BibleHub, accessed November 21, 2018, https://biblehub.com/isaiah/65-22.htm. ↵
- McCloskey, Diedre, The Bourgeois Virtues(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006). ↵
- The work on the Hugarian context is especially pressing, as the socialist moment did not resolve underlying antagonisms along lines of racism, sexism, or nationalism which would also be further inflamed by neoliberalism. József Böröcz and Melinda Kovács, Emperor’s New Clothes: Unveiling EU Enlargement(Telford, Shropshire: Central Europe Review, 2001), http://www.rci.rutgers.edu/~eu/Empire.pdf. ↵
- James Madison, “The Utility of Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection,” Daily Advertiser, November 22, 1787. ↵
- “The Unimprovable Awards: Indestructible Items to Buy and Hold,” Wall Street Journal, October 10, 2018, sec. Life, https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-unimprovable-awards-indestructible-items-to-buy-and-hold-1539183011. ↵