The Tech Megamachine

As annoying as I find Russell Brand on occasion, in this case he makes a good point. The marriage of corporate and state power – technology and the monopoly on violence – which Mussolini called ‘fascism’ and Lewis Mumford called the megamachine, is getting closer and closer to a totalitarian checkmate the likes of which Hitler and Stalin could only dream of. While the purported ends of this power is far different (we hope) in putative democracies than for those dictators, it behooves us not to throw out Lord Acton’s admonition about absolute power corrupting absolutely.

That is to say, even in the best case scenario of enlightened despotism, good people can easily become quite unenlightened and arbitrary despots when shoehorned into the role. Or to modulate parlance, Marshall McLuhan understood the hubris that comes with the ability to manipulate. The mediums of communication and expression aren’t only constraining on the degrees of freedom for those bound by them, but also for those who construct them. When all you have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail. When access to more data must be justified through results, then more and more events must be legible as actionable. Otherwise, the justification for such police powers is anemic, and easily refuted, with legitimacy possibly undermined. Thus, technologies of surveillance and violence themselves must give rise to more cases that allow the opportunity for violent intervention, or else risking their claim to providing actual services in the public’s interest.

The Ring commercial Brand reruns here is a classic case of what Andrew Szasz has critiqued as building up a personal commodity bubble. Instead of, like any addict, acknowledging that we have a problem, and then working with others maturely to solve it, Amazon’s Ring video doorbell surveillence system markets an exclusively individual solution to what is in reality a preventable collective action problem. Ring’s commercial pitch goes like this: If there are robbers, keep them moving along, not so that they can improve their lives, and change professions, but so that instead of robbing you, they go rob your neighbor’s house!

Such galimatias attempts to gaslight you into thinking that it is inevitable that we live in a fundamentally unsafe world. Because if we believed that we could live in a safer world, we might be able to build that world. And you can bet, that world would not require as many cameras or police.

This gets to the heart of why Ring’s preying on nebulous fears which are brought on by the megamachine itself is so successful as a ploy. Because of the manufactured stochastic crime created by an every-man-for-himself system without safety nets or a healthy welfare state, inequality breeds both blue-collar crime (the type we’re all made to be afraid of) and white collar crime (which kills millions at a time through enforced poverty, impoverishing our environment, and harming our health behind the scenes). This is not to minimize the trauma to people of actual violent crime or thievery. Instead, it is to say that all of this is preventable – and not just by playing an arms race (or evolutionary treadmill) with robbers. Getting smarter systems just makes robbers get smarter, and the same amount of crime occurs.

Amazon’s wish is to make it so that only those opting out of their private neighborhood watch program get robbed, because they will be easier targets. So those opting out for moral, religious, or financial reasons from their racket then become left out of their ‘protection,’ and the insinuation goes, become the targets of least resistance.

“No, I think you’re in the wrong place.” As the video shows, the idea that would-be criminals are only in the “wrong place” rather than needing help for reform and redemption, cements the trope of cleverness. I’m clever because I have the Ring alarm system by Amazon, so I get off fine, but that poor schmuck down the street, well, he’s screwed. Such notions reinforce the tech megamachine, where you keep on having to buy into the racket because crime is inevitable, and just don’t let it happen to you. It is, what Davids Graeber and Wendgrove call a “failure of imagination.” It is capitalist realism, or crime realism, where those evil people out there are uncorrectable, and just bad people, rather than just victims of a broken system. With such pathological thinking comes the inevitability that crime stays constant (or increases, especially in election years!). Manipulating perceptions of crime, and stripping away access to human dignity so things feel more precarious for everyone, is the perfect catfishing for expensive subscription services of mass totalizing surveillance that Foucault could only dream of.

I’d be interested to see data on how many false positives Ring delivers to police; how many times the cameras have been hacked by perverts; how many times leaked clips of children playing have appeared on dark web sites; etc.

Ring touts itself as “Neighborhood Watch for the digital age.” There’s a long, racist history of the invention of Neighborhood Watch programs springing up in response to de-segregation and the policing of white spaces, which continues today. Shawn Fields’ excellent new treatment of this history discusses the abuse of emergency response systems, which rarely fight crime, but often lead to unwarranted police violence.

Fractal Instrumentalism

When we farm fish, do we think that, perhaps, we’re being farmed as well? If not? Why not?

When we bind life to fulfilling one function: delivering to us what we think we need; do we ponder whether our life also is bound to what someone else desires?

When we subordinate another, do we think that in this same process we are also being subordinated?

These are not idle thoughts, but the fruits of different ontologies. If we believed, for instance, in the Kantian Categorical Imperative – popularized as the ‘do unto others as they would do unto you’ Golden Rule – perhaps more advanced cultures, such as various indigenous peoples and cultures that still venerate wisdom, sophia, might understand it thusly:

It is not just wrong to make another your instrument (your tool) because it takes away their autonomy and agency and cheapens their life and does not develop their capacities not enable the universe to experience more flourishing which could lead to morphic resonance of higher echelons of joy for all – it is because when we involve ourselves in instrumentalism, we become tools.

Hegel basically said as much in his Master-Slave dialectic in Phenomenology of Spirit. When we outsource tasks, we also lose our ability to do things that might again become necessary. By commanding, we also become dependent. It’s like the modern white collar worker who can make you an excel spreadsheet but can’t change his own tires. That’s why when we outsource the growing of our food, we become slaves (or addicted, or susceptible) to the machinations of oligopolists providing our food. They can do anything they want, and unless we’re willing to seriously challenge their power, we’re helpless.

But the thing about instrumentalism which is so rich, is that in a relational ontology/cosmology, you are what you eat eats, to quote Michael Pollan. It’s not just that you do something and get away with it or not according to cosmic laws, but that depending on how you care for and treat yourself and the world, the laws governing reality (for you) themselves change. And when enough people make certain decisions, to enslave and instrumentalize, the planetary oversoul, or noösphere itself reflects the shared practices, calls in attractor energies, and signal boosts them.

This is part of why the relativists and constructivists are on to something. Reality does morph and transform according to how we relate. But that doesn’t mean that you can just do whatever you want with impunity. To the contrary, it becomes very clear that just the opposite conclusion is warranted. The fabric of the responsive universe (Meeting the Universe Halfway, thanks Karen Barad) folds to amplify and feedback our impulse. We have creative direction to alter – but not dominate – the relationship of the circuits of fate and possibility. So, it really matters if our heart is kind, our mind is unperturbed, and our body is feeling at peace, so that we can radiate in our thoughts, emotions, actions, intentions – extensions of these frequencies, rather than ones of rancor, hate, resentment, ressentiment, shame, guilt, regret, not-being-good-enough, imposter syndrome, etc.

In conventional reality, none of this really matters. The rules of the game are given by either nature or culture (natural law or positive law) in a fixed manner. They don’t change. So all you have to do is to learn them and stick with them. And then once you get good and getting consistent results, you can learn where you can cut corners. And as you cut more corners and cheat a little bit, you can notice where in your life the ripple effects of karma from such actions supersede on your mission, or not. Are all cheats just boons, unqualified goods? Or, does such ‘cleverness’ kick you in the but, destroy your sleep, keep nagging worry and anxiety eroding your quality of life? Or worse: do the thinks that you care about start crumbling around you, and you don’t know how to cope, so you just double down on extractive behavior?

These are things we should ponder, and get clear from the outset. This should be the first question we ask of each other before we shake hands.

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Lego Metaphysics: The Engineering View of the Universe, and the non-assemble-ability of life creative..: A morning of Lego's: Finn turns 6!

My kid doesn’t play with Legos the way that Lego wants you to think that people build Legos.

Instead of those lush displays with those thousand dollar co-branded sets with odious media corporations that only have pieces that you can use in one way once and then it’s not really usable again for just playing and improvising and making your own stuff, my kid makes Franken-lego disturbing constructions. A reason for this, is because I’ve actually never bought a set of Legos for my son. When I was a kid all the pieces interlocked so if you bought a set it would transfer to your overall larger collection of pieces to be used for an infinite number of future builds. But now the pieces don’t really work that way. Instead I see my son looking at the collection that we inherited, and he regularly asks why the Lego men and women – Lego people – are missing their arms or hands or heads. It seems like an aberration to him, and so he always asks why.

He asks why because obviously nothing in nature is piecemeal snaps together or is take-apartable; it doesn’t work that way. So when he’s asking questions about why does this guy have no hands or why does she have no head and he instead just snaps on a computer console piece where the head should be, it makes me understand how deeply ingrained in our society is a mechanistic view of the universe. The idea that it’s all disposable and interchangeable. This is the metaphysics on which Western philosophy and engineering is based on. It’s an engineering view of the world. But nothing living works that way, so there is a discrepency. And that’s why my three-year old is puzzled and disturbed by these missing parts; precisely because they point out that in life, nothing is simply missing.

Previously, no doll simply was toted around without their head unless there was a very intense story about how it got that way. Now we’re able to open cognitively to chimeras of all sorts, because almost all interactions in our lives are based on this hybrid interchangeability, a instrumentalization of everything. Technomedicine tries to accomplish the same interchangability of parts. Replace this organ here (never mind who it comes from, or what black markets exist for some entitled person who blew their kidneys or liver out from years of abuse), get an artificial heart there. If we are not the body, as the Cartesian metaphysics of mis-interpreted Christianity claims, then, you can hack up the whole thing and sew it back together however you please with no remainders.

Of course the shadow side of this, is that nothing has any value if it can just be exchange for something else. No matter how much you can exchange it for, if it is exchangeable and bollocks to the remainder, there is lacking certain forms of value, even if it might have a different sort of value and exchange economy. But it’s important to not collapse these two different types of value into one. Value is contextual. My heart is uniquely clocked to the rest of my body. My hands bear the battle scars of my events and decisions. The tenderness in their weaknesses would not be valued if they were given to another – those sentimental reminders would be interpreted only as weakness, not as years of service.

Thus, the things we play with, engage with, on an everyday basis, form the models we hold for how to treat people and the rest of nature. If our models are fragmentable and fragmentizing, it is all too easy to believe that such fragmentation, such dispensibility and replaceability, is an innate quality of reality, and that life is reducible to things that can be swapped out. If we take this view, we have grasped but half of reality, the digital code aspect, and ignored the analog, the gestalt, the élan vital, which is irreducible to mechanics. We need better toys to represent these aspects of reality, so that we’re not just coding for solely left-brain halls of mirrors, feeding back to us a fragmented self and reality.