Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Notes While Reading _The Revenge of the Real_, by Benjamin Bratton - Part One

When reading Bratton, always on my mind is whether his brand of "realism" is more fabulistic than the fabulism he derides. Sure, he stakes his claim in "the real," and in usage real is real, as in we know these things to be true. But what he proposes is just so damned unlikely.

When climate change alarmists give us a measure of just decades before it's already too late, most of us can't see the necessary changes happening in time. (we should all be climate change alarmists, for certain, but though the term feels like the only right term here, it can be only half right since it's no false alarm as the term often implies, where alarmists can be, by definition, ignored) 

Once the pandemic seems to abate, one sees newbie dually pickup trucks not quite ready for that massive fifth wheel of towing prowess, castle bounding behind. One sees new boats on the river. It just seems so unlikely that our reality will ever change, in touch with whatever it might be that is more real than it is.

Not long ago I slept on the street in the lower ninth ward of New Orleans; the part that was underwater, I think, or maybe just above the waterline. "On the street" meant inside my popup trailer, which had only enough onboard power to run the exhaust fan. The ground shook with passing trucks over the bridge that I was under, and as trains clashed upon hookup in the adjacent railyard. It did feel like the end of my world, but I preferred to sit my otherwise vulnerable home rather than to inhabit the upper screenless and greasy floors of the art-lofty illegal squat warehouse where my young friend slept.

He took me to what he called "The End of the World" which was a cement ending of a long wild trail beside and out past a mothballed military blockish command office complex. (It is indeed "The End of the World" as identified as a Google landmark) He was familiar with who might be there at that end of the world, and I felt safe enough in the adventure, at the end of which we could watch freighters passing bizarrely above us later on, further down in the lower 9th, with no other life quite apparent.

It was a place to which to haul coolers of beer and charcoal and build fires to stay up all night. In the seeming middle of Big Easy.

And so yesterday, with my original fellow traveller along something of a personal pet project in apparently orthogonal relation to Bratton's, we discovered Buffalo's "End of the World" out beyond the cultivated parts of the waterfront new parkland behind the breakwater. Even this rough path was still improved by signage and bird blinds. We were poorly shod, and shaky in the legs walking across the sharp boulders of the breakwall. Its end identical to the one in New Orleans, except for the relative elevations.

Walking back, there was a fellow heading out and for no good reason I commented to him conspiratorially that we had found our new spot for late-night bonfires. 

His eyes widened in what could only be seen as shock. Shock that I was talking to him, and what looked then like fear as he hurried past. Perhaps I hadn't noticed the airpods, if they were there. That's even though I'm trained to notice them, since while bicycling they indicate meandering pedestrians who are immune to signalling. Perhaps he was in a drugged state of release. Was he wearing a mask? I don't remember. We weren't. 

It felt like post-pandemic paranoia worse than that from the just past still within me.

I commented to Peter that the pandemic had only given us more of what we already had; a kind of radical isolationism which is identical to the sort which Bratton outlines in this book. He connects it, quite properly, to the fabulist unreality of the populism which will prevent us from ministering to one another as the planet mocks us.

I developed what must have been an ulcer the next morning in New Orleans. I couldn't enjoy all the radical chic white eateries which had popped up in the middle of, but were not frequented by, the black communities in which they were embedded by virtue of economic possibility. So full of heart and soul and so disconnected from, well, reality.

I feel as lousy today. The heat is oppressive and my salvaged air conditioning isn't equal to it. And Bratton says that we must air-condition the planet by the Terraforming required to survive. Survive what, exactly? Well, survive ourselves. Plague and its solution both. Fantasy where? Whose fantasy?

I would walk out to pee in New Orleans mid-sleepless-night. Close by were teams of blacks, dressed in white, playing away from the heat of the day, I supposed. Not interested in me and where I was. 

Last night was long as well. What are those noises if not gunshots? The neighborhood where shootings seem to be an everyday now. Mine. There are two rooftop helipads in direct line of sight nearby. One for the Children's Hospital. One for the place which has welcomed me twice now back from death on Christmas Eve.

And as loud as those helicopters are each day and night - shades of Vietnam, I suppose - they are not so terrifying as the jets practicing for the Thunder over Buffalo airshow as they approached my apartment screaming, for which The Buffalo End of the World would have afforded the perfect vantage. That jet roar felt identical to my bursting appendix' crescendo that Christmas eve when I had to cross the now-closed border from Canada where I was staying in marital separationism and they thought that I was putting on an act to get across late night early morning doubled over at the slushy border. Hey, let's put on a show!

End of my world, as the school I headed was closing, not unrelated to my dissolving marriage. That was all very real. Meritocratic intentions which included the vague notion of recompense to the rest of the world for my own lucky gifts. Libertarian Individualism could not abide that. The planet cannot abide libertarian individualism, nor neoliberalism, nor anything about us. And we shall be the Terraformers.?? Terrifiers terrified! Ta RaTa Ra!

Bratton speaks of "country of passport" as though belonging to a (political) nation were a quaint and obsolete vector for identity. If not geography, cultural affinity, and language, then by what shall we sort ourselves in his unbounded world of biological politics? Shall it be the same processes which have determined internal migration within, say, the U.S.? That will sort according, mostly, to wealth, with all the balkanization of trust and knowledge and power which that entails? 

Bratton should care very much about the origins of the COVID-19 coronavirus, though I take his apparent point that origins are irrelevant to the nature of this or any other inevitable contagion. Still, it does mitigate his rather dogmatically proposed resolution when it still seems that it could have been the good intention, coupled with lax protocols as followed (or not) by perhaps overconfident researchers. These researchers were probably located in China, but at least partially funded by U.S. interests, including those descended from aspects of our government here. This the more likely melodramatic outcome of any Terraforming we might attempt. No matter how certain that we were that it will work and be good and ameliorate our deficits.

How does this speak to the odds of coordinated governance with integrity on behalf of the whole? Of all of us?

And really, why bash those serious thinkers who are way outside Bratton's box, if they are engaging with the same problems from a different perspective? He seems to find 'cosmopolitics' ridiculous, for instance, likely because it challenges the ultimate validity of approaches to truth which follow the scientific method. As though that method hadn't itself become rather quaint and, well, perhaps even obsolete - at least in the face of the economy of it all.

The scientific method will not touch the subjective experience of mankind, well, except to further encourage its disappearance from that methodology as any sort of creative initiator. And yet Bratton practically worships subject-centered 'agency,' as though that sort of agency - what we use to drive a car, say - can be generalized to entire populations. Or to the entire population.

A good driver is aware of all their surroundings, not just those other cars directly impinging on theirs. The driver has to know what the car in front of the one in front of them is doing to know what that one will do and what they should do in turn. Polite giving way makes everyone safer.

Now I'm already a cranky old man, but I do attribute the degradation in general driving skills to the addition to cars of all sorts of safety sensors. Especially young people seem to drive as though they were in a video game, or like Chinese people queueing (or driving). Only aware of the triangle in front of you and how to move forward faster.

Now here's collective agency: prohibit cars at the border of every city and provide streetcars. Put the routes where people want to go. You can even let the streetcars drive themselves for all I care. Too much individual agency is almost never a good thing. 

(of course, on the other hand, as a way early adopter of smartphones or the earlier PDAs, I do think that my thinking has been enhanced by the synthesized intelligence of both of us together. The ads, however, nearly destroy the advantage.)

It is intersubjective trust which is our main problem, and it does seem clear - blame it on populism if you must - that scientific knowledge makes no apparent dent in idiocy there. But really, am I being an idiot when I don't trust the powers that be to have my own best interests at heart? Or even and especially the interests of the general population? 

Populism or not, power these days always seems to promote the unleashing of power as the solution to any and all problems. I'd like to know how Bratton deals with power, if not by way of democratic or at least pseudo-democratic structures for governance. I don't think there is any such thing as synthetic democracy.

When we partake in a corporate personage - as an employee, not as a citizen - we are generally not consulted as to its direction. Governance structures internal to corporate persons often look worse than the worst autocracy imaginable. And yet we must promote the direction in the corporate interest for our own good on its inside. No matter how much it might exploit those on its outside.

The collective result of individual agency cannot be called collective agency. Individual agency is an emotive response to the narratives handed up pre-consciously by the gray goo of our brains. This is easily demonstrated by FMRI investigations of choice versus conscious choice. We can never own the real choices. They come to us ready-made. We can only drive the car once the machinery and infrastructure is in place.

I mean, if we really wish to take collective agency over the course of the planet's transformations toward hospitality toward humans - what Bratton calls Terraforming - we could do no better for rapid fix than to get rid of any notion that a corporation has the rights of a person. In general terms, a corporate person is a sociopath.

An agent is an actor, an author, a director of cultured output. Those generic works that we admire so, did themselves arise, spontaneously, from the gray goo of words which clustered and figured according to some logic that belonged to no individual, ever. An individual must fit some collective to live at all.

Once math becomes part of any equation for reality, the human starts getting squeezed out. That's what objectivity means. The layers of the stack which overlay our "world" if not our planet developed spontaneously, and if there was any collective agency involved it was mostly by omission. 

Now Bratton calls for a collectivisation of our actions?? We would never have gotten to this point if there were collective agency in it. The Stack evolved in the same way that everything does, but this time in the synthetic earth where the economy grows, where accounting without accounting for externalities is everything. Rationcination has never been the best part of being human, and math and then the technology just amplify that fact. Ratiocination simply cannot be the solution. I declare!

In any case, looking at any particular aspect of our ability to get it together, it just simply doesn't seem that there is enough time. Yet interestingly, getting time together on the planet has been accomplished effortlessly. Global GPS quickly overtook hackable Internet NTP time URLs, and nobody - except Taiwan in a mild sense - wants to challenge time's conventional catalog which stems from some fictional and calendar-relative inflexion point at the crossroads of Christ. A perfect ten in Chinese.

In a way, Bratton makes me glad I'm not as brilliant as he is. That's because the volume of things we don't each know is, by definition of infinite, virtually identical. I'm just a little less impressed by the finality of what it is I do know.

I know, for instance, that time is not that fixing agent which Bratton's approach to, um, agency, demands. He doesn't really mention our relation to time's fixation in his tome, The Stack, as far as I can remember. He doesn't seem quite aware that we are different as people because of that. I doubt anyone really thinks we're better people now, even though we sure do do just-in-time manufacturing well, until it shows its underside, backside, which can't be swiped. Collective improvements, temporary though they must always be, may well ride on the backs of deprecated people.

The past is only fixed in our imaginations - those same imaginations which Bratton derides for their fantastical imagined reality - and the future is certainly not fixed by agency. That would be totalitarian nightmare. I see no evidence that Bratton is in favor of that in any way.

The reality of the past is surely a function of current and present assumptions and prejudices and cultural relativisms - surely at least regarding the past's ability to influence the present - more than it is a function of our fantasy that there is still some bedrock there, even though we can never know it.

Perhaps there is some way that consciousness itself transforms - it would have to be in a virtual instant - in just the seamless way that our interactions with time's passage have brought the planet together operationally, if not politically. In an instant, time has become a universal constant. Adjusted for relativity, of course, to a nanosecond in an eon of accuracy. 

Remove time as any measure for productivity, and replace coinage with measures of virtue and not merit devoid of anything but ratiocination, and replace value with anything other than measures of want as those relate to recognition, and we do have our instant resolution. We craved it once, in Christ. Surely we can do it again, and this time even quicker.

It won't be to preserve us as we already are (nasty, brutish, and hateful) but rather to preserve humanity as we might have been, regardless of how many of us might last. Quality versus quantity kind of thing. 

Oh dear, that sounds an even worse totalitarianism, no? I praise God for absence of immortality in the time dimension. We never seem to want it in any other dimension, where we want only extension as wealth provides us. Bezos a jillion, Benjamin nil. And yet our time remains a constant.

My, I do get wordy, don't I? Onward to the Comparative Governance chapter. . . well, I finished that one, and find nothing to disagree with there. On to The Epidemiological View of Society. Sounds promising!

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