Saturday, March 30, 2013

The God That Failed

There's an article on The Atlantic today explaining that the so-called "viral" Web memes are anything but. It turns out that marketing companies are now constantly trolling the Web looking for user-created content that is unique or memorable, and then promoting it via their media empires and enhancing it with professionally-crafted videos to create "viral" marketing campaigns via social media. They use the Harlem Shake as an example. And I see Henri, the cat who famously mused about the existential ennui of feline life, is now doing commericals for Friskies cat food.

This coopting is hardly new; any number of writers have pointed out how alternative, "outsider" cultural movements are consistenlty coopted by the mainstream. The Rolling Stones, scandalous in their time, are now avuncular geezers who gyrate at the Super Bowl and whose music sells everything from cars to diapers. More recently, the "grunge" movement was co-opted by MTV and others and turned into a cultural phonomenon and money-maker, much to the consternation of it's original garage-band creators who constanly fretted about "selling out" and "fakery" in neurotic episodes worthy of Holden Caufield. Just about every artistic and cultural movement under capitalism has tried to deal with this in its own way, often by making no bones of the fact they're in it for the money.

It reminds me of one of the central themes of Adam Curtis' documentary, The Century of the Self, about how the 1960's and 70's hippie rebellion against the mass conformity and Pavlovian conditioning that had so characterized the post World War 2 era (crafted by public relations mavens like Edward Bernays), was coopted by Madison Avenue and politicians. The business and political elites at first saw these youth movements as a threat to their orderly, well-managed societies, but soon changed their tactics. Where previously you bought products to keep up with the Joneses or to fit in with all the other people on your block, now you bought them to express your invidualism and define your unique identity.

And the ultimate co-opting was using these same techniques to sell the Reagan/Thatcher revolution. It's often forgetten that these political movements originally portrayed them as ousiders, with their central motivation being the liberation of the oppressed individual from the yoke of society. The Reagan/Thatcher revolution proposed to dismantle the burdensome rules, regulations and taxes that supposedly sapped the individual's initiative, drive, and ambition, and release all the pent-up energy and dynamism that had previously been stifled and subordnated to the gray conformist collective symbolized by government and unions, all while dressing their message up in a relentlessly upbeat, aspirational, self-improvement rhetoric. To a lot people in the late 1970's, suffering under a stagnant economy, inflation, and "malaise," that seemed to be just the ticket to get back the good old days of the previous several decades. And such attidudes were carried into the business world as well with the rise of Silicon Valley and its alternative, "disruptive" culture. Hence, the former hippie pulling the lever for Reagan in the voting booth in 1980 is not nearly as suprising as it seems at first glance. If you have not seen it (and I suspect many of my readers already have), you should take a look.

Of course, once this philosophy was liberated from Pandora's Box, certain "superempowered" individuals were "liberated" to quickly dominate the economic and political scene, leading to the era of extreme inequality and loss of collective purpose we are now living under. In many ways, the militant, self-satisfied libertarianism that characterizes politics today got it's start in the 1970's rebellious "go your own way" attitudes. As the very idea of good governance became discounted and disparaged, government itself became predictably more dysfunctional, causing more and more people to become cynical and suspicious of government and it's motives, and the cycle fed on itself. Government first became estranged from the people, then taken over by special interests, to the point that many people now say it is irreformable and should just be taken out back and shot (in many instances, quite literally!) Eventually, people simply forgot that honest, competent government had once existed in America, and embraced militant libertarianism with its calls to "drown government in a bathtub." The idea that "government is always the problem, never the solution," an incorrect paraphrase of what Reagan actually said, has thus became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In one of his blog posts, Curtis describes how some of the Russian "opposition" parties were actually elaborate creations of the Kremlin itself, designed to absorb and co-opt, and ultimately channel the energies of the disaffected into something that posed no real threat to the political order. I can think of no better description of the current American political dichotomy than that. Both opposing political parties are created and run by the same centralized power structure, thus any opposition to the current political order is channeled into the opposition party where it can be safely directed and dissipated like the ground for an electrical circuit. See, for example, this article: The Progressive Movement is a PR Front For Rich Democrats.

Again the analogies to Madison Avenue are instructive. Companies today sell products based on peoples' perceived lifestyles - whether it's pickup trucks or hemp handbags. In the era of "branding," advertising and political campaigns are all based around individualism and identity. Are you highly educated? Is your world view informed by science? Do you care about the environment? Favor equal rights and gay marriage? Then vote for the Democrats, with their hip, intelligent, urbane, biracial spokesman at the head. Do you attend church services regularly? Believe in "traditional values?" Live in a suburb and own guns? Don't like paying taxes or government bureaucracy? Then vote for Republicans and their skeet-shootin', fur-trappin' beer-swillin' wealthy white businessman leaders. In the aftermath of their most recent loss, Republicans are obsessed with changing how they sell themselves to the American public, while keeping their underlying policies, backers, political motives and governing philosophy completely unchanged. More Hispanic faces out front, keeping crazy white evangelicals in the background, and playing down the more aggressive bigotry seems to be the prevailing wisdom at the present time. And in 2008, the Obama campaign won an award from Advertising Age magazine as the campaign of the year.

Just as a single company owns hundreds of "brands" marketed to different segments of society (odds are the "natural" or "organic" products you buy are owned by the same corporation as the mainstream ones), each party is a "brand" owned by the same small cabal, with only minor cosmetic distinctions that ultimately don't really amount to much. Channel your political energies into the Democrats or the Tea Party, it makes no real difference. It can be argued that the reason the Occupy Movement was perceived as such a threat, and the reason the reaction was so extreme, was because it was outside of this paradigm, and thus could not be predictably controlled or co-opted. Of course, that did not stop the Democratic political and media establishment from belatedly trying. And some widely held attitudes, like getting tough on bankers and decriminalizing drugs, have no outlet whatsoever. This is by design.

But the reason I tell you all this is because the "this time it's different" attitudes are once again being trotted out in regards to technology, much like Lucy trotted out the football and asked Charlie Brown to kick it. I can still remember the dewy-eyed paeans in the late nineties about how the Internet would irrevocably change the world forever. Yet the websites most people go to today are ones owned by media conglomerates like and Even the supposedly "independent" Web entities like Slate, The Huffington Post or Business Insider are big media entities, and are bought and sold and traded among big money players like professional athletes. "Democratic" platforms like Facebook and YouTube are billion-dollar corporations who track your every move and sell to you incessantly. They dictate the rules you must follow, and will not hesitate to take any action they feel necessary at any time to preserve their profits. Bloggers like me are currently just a sideshow, and even I am using a platform provided by Google. Like the Web memes, we just can't see the man behind the curtain, so we think he isn't there. We think we're rebelling against the system by pulling levers and pushing buttons provided by the system itself for that very purpose. It's more an emotional release than anything else, and we're fooled into thinking that it makes a difference, but it doesn't.  The veil is ever more sophisticated, but make no mistake, it is there. The giant pools of money, and the people who control those pools, are still calling all the shots, and probably always will.

So when I hear these countless breathless pronouncements about how "disruptive" technologies like 3D printing will "change everything" and revolutionize the way we work , you can see why my eye roll is even more extreme than Cookie Monster's. About how it's going to be a renaissance when we print out everything we need at home and tell Wal-Mart to go screw itself because we don't need its cheap Chinese crap. The same pronouncements were made about desktop publishing, but last time I looked we still have books and magazines. Every printer I ever bought I quickly threw away because it would jamb after printing just one sheet. Plus the ink cartridges, without which the printer was useless, were outrageously expensive. As one comment I read somewhere put it, I'll believe in the potential of 3D printing when I can get a 2D printer that works. As soon as the 3D patterns catch on, some corporation will throw up a passworded gateway around them. And the material your 3D printer needs to work? Expect to pay some corporation extortionate prices for it.

Similarly, when I hear people like Kevin Kelly, or similar figures, proclaim things like how our new personal robot assistants will create plentiful new jobs or a brave new world of leisure for all, I scratch my head. Techno-optimism has a poor track record, but somehow it never dies. Substitute your favorite new technology from the pages of Wired or Popular Mechanics - artificial intelligence or thorium reactors or self-driving cars, or cold fusion or genetic engineering or algae that oozes gasoline, or hamburgers grown in a petri dish, and someone, somewhere is ready to evangelize about how it's going to fix all our problems and lead us to the promised land. The idea that any one of these is going to free us from corporate dominance, or remove us from being under the thumb of the same musical chairs gang of elite narcissists is laughable. Chances are, if we ever do invent artificial intelligence, the first thing we're going to use it for is to come up with better ways to sell people things they don't need.

One of the consistent themes of this blog has been to document the many ways in which technology was thought to be a saviour, but it was just as often the god that failed. Many posts here document how Utopian fantasies about technology are nothing new. Automobiles, electricity, artificial lighting, plastics, airplanes, nuclear energy, artificial fertilizers, antibiotics, cell phones; even plate glass and the flush toilet were all candidates at one point or another. All too often these things not only failed to change things in the way their boosters expected, but in every case had unintended consequences, from pollution to obesity to unemployment to urban sprawl and ghettos. The latest connection of honeybee colony collapse disorder to the widespread use of pesticides, and earthquakes to hydraulic fracturing, are just two of countless examples. Things have remained remarkably continuous even throughout the rise of all these previous "discontinuous" technologies.

Here's the thing - techno-optimism just another way of channelling our energies into ways that don't really matter and are no threat to the fundamental workings of the system. As long we have this idea that some new technology is a "game changer," we will be blind to the fact that even as new technology arrives, the game never changes. Like the Web memes and viral marketing, techno-optimism is just another tool used by the elites to manipulate bright, intelligent people who know that things are messed up to wait for some kind of technological messiah to liberate them that's always certain to arrive at some future date. But bright, intelligent people should know better. To paraphrase Reagan once again, and to hew a bit closer to his original statement, in this present crisis, technology is not the solution to our problems, technology is the problem. The only way we're going to fix what's wrong with the system is well, by actually fixing what's wrong the system.

P.S. Curtis' latest entry seems to be worth a read.


  1. There's a book out there... Social Media are Bullshit... he calls it like it is. And talks about how there is mostly no news anymore... they just rehash shit over and over.

    I saw it with that big manhunt in CA a few weeks ago, that excop bent on revenge. Endless stories going by with no new content, pretending to be news. And you know what? The more they waste your attention on bogus stuff, the less you have left for things like... thinking... reality... your actual life... and finding a way out.

    1. Timothy Leary used to tell people, "Turn on, tune in and drop out." I would amend that a bit to say, Turn off (the TV and mass media), Tune in (to nature, your own heart and the people closest to you) and Drop out (to a new, more satisfying way of living). And you can do that anywhere, anytime, and you don't have to quit your job and go live in the woods. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course ;)

  2. Wow, that "The Progressive Movement is a PR Front" article was a great link. I remember the "99% Spring" bullshit and wondering what it was..


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