Monday, July 5, 2021

Continuing to Read THE REVENGE OF THE REAL, by Benjamin H. Bratton

I didn't realize that I'd bought this book on day of its release. I feel like I should apologize to Bratton, really just because I mostly agree with both his premise and his argument. But I'm definitely not a techno-optimist. Per se.

I know that I blend my own critiques based on distortions to technology under neoliberal capitalism. I call for FaceBook to be run by the Post Office, for instance, with full transparency of algorithmic policies, and advertising revenues based on stated interest and not on occult algorithms that follow my meanderings. Tweaked for profit. I would like to be treated as a subscriber, part of a crowd, and not as an individual. The way that news and journal advertising used to work. 

And frankly, I don't want or need so damned much of it. I don't require gadgets and gizmos that change every day. I certainly don't need so much creative destruction, Mr. Schumpeter or whoever you are that just wants to be filthy rich at my expense.

My intentions are mine to define. My agency depends a lot on others. My intentions are worthless without my participation in something bigger than myself. My goal here is not a critique of Bratton, as though I might have something better to say. I am trying to work out my read by writing and in writing. I am trying to decide how much I may trust his read of the world, and of the planet. I'd like to weigh our prospects and join the right movement, and not just because someone I respect told me to.

So far I'm fixated on his faith that digital technology can be turned to the public good. It's my sense that it can't be; that it will always be bad for the planet. Maybe I'm jaded in relation to how much I thought it might liberate us at its inception. The digital stuff.

I think I build my sense on the fundamental disconnection of any digital technology from any substrate. Digital reality is as detached as an idea - as we misuse the term here in the West - as detached as an idea is from grounded reality. Digital reality can be anything you wish it to be, so long as it follows a certain logic. 

Logic was once an imitation of actual structures, in just the way that words draw metaphor from the body. Once detached, then it's always artificial and built on mythology - in the nature of the same fantasies that Bratton disparages. Logic detached from reality is never complete, and can't create a new reality. It can only distract.

By contrast, we humans are always complete, even as our aspirations may define us based on our own conviction that we're not. Growing is not the same as logical elaboration, and death is not the same as shutting down. The Internet is rotting. We, by definition now, have no idea what we've lost. So much for lossless transmission. Transmission was never the problem.

I downloaded the Google/Apple tracer app even quicker than I bought this book, even knowing that it would never work, and deleting it when those hired by New York State to trace and follow up on my positive test had no idea what it even was. I wanted to do the right thing. It was a gesture.

I knew it would never work because it was voluntary and because Google and Apple had already discredited themselves in most peoples' eyes, one way or another, and most people would never use it. There wasn't enough trust for that. But I certainly wasn't afraid of the app. It was harmless. And sadly ineffectual.

Even if the only thing Google and/or Apple did wrong was to get so damned huge. They must be doing something wrong behind their closed doors. They must be destroying more than they create, and how wonderful the world might have been if a hundred flowers had been let to bloom, and a hundred schools contend. Instead, they all consolidated, in just the way that the Chinese Communist Party did. Absorbing all the creative energies unto themselves.

I want to read a critique of Shoshana Zuboff which explains why she is embedded in neoliberal capitalism and therefore off on the wrong foot. I find her arguments against surveillance capitalism to be subtle and trenchant, and way more accessible than Foucault. I don't agree that she decries a crime against the individual. It's the collective theft of behavioral prediction which is the crime. They can reap no benefit from following me as an individual, unless there are lots like me, some of whom are stupid enough to pay attention to ads and buy. But mainly, as I recall at this moment, she is concerned by the same thing Bratton is. The destruction of the body politic. The robbing of our attention.

I care only about collective submission to the attractive nuisance of ads to cost me bandwidth, force me to upgrade and interfere with my reading the news. I simply don't have the scratch to pay for the stationery version. And it would be too late.

Most of all, I would like to know what political action I should take, given that Bratton's subtitle announces that his book is about politics. His Big White Book was also about "sovereignty," but that's not what I remember about it. At all. I probably just simply don't know how to read. 

Humans have always terraformed. We cut down forests to build ships and to farm. We've invited dust storms. We've enabled locusts. We've driven species to extinction. Buffalo rust belts and Bisons. We've plowed under entire civilizations, and we've spread disease and invasive species. Now we do it better than ever, to the point of changing the balance of all life on the planet.

Sure, we can envision the planet now, and we can know certain things about our predations on it. But can we really change our ways, which are always about me and us and almost never about the planet?

Bratton seems to feel that this is our moment to awaken. So do I. In most insights we are on the same page. Certainly regarding neoliberalism and individualism and the fatuousness of the purposes to which technology has been deployed in a society which worships unleashed capitalism. We share beliefs about the vapidity of "authenticity" and of the selfie self.

We seem to differ about how our awakening will come about. He cheers on logic and ratiocination. I don't. Those have always been the tools for our Hun-like mastery. I cheer on the end of science, not as a discarding of it, but as a fleshing-out, once a more radical subjectivity is allowed back in. 

I don't mean religion, which has always been patriarchy by any other name. I mean that the scientific method must now allow that we have "agency" regarding what is true. I believe that I do elevate the narrative above what I consider the fiction that there is any natural law that is eternal. Cosmically standard.

All of our literature and now our cinema, when it's not an adventure story, celebrates those who counter the evils of mindless industry and nationalism and power. Narrative is what will bring back a positive terraforming, of the sort that nature has always provided. Or in other words, the planet will take care of itself once we stop trying to make it better for us. It is we who must accommodate. We must return our terraforming to the planet's ways, or it will not conspire with us any longer.

I will concede that technology generally, and digital technology in particular, can and must help us to do that. We have moved beyond plowshares and swords. Now we are into conservation and lightening our footprint. We're just a little reluctant to do it is all, being so happy in our profligate ways. So temporarily content. For tomorrow we may die.

Pandemic and insurrection have unsettled us. We need a better narrative. One that restores our sense that democracy can enhance agency. It will have to do that by restoring trust. So far, it's going very badly.

I once participated in designing and implementing what was called a Homeless Management Information System - an HMIS - as mandated by HUD. Having earlier participated in the implementation of a different massive New York State system for managing foster care, I was a bit jaded by governmental implementations of any technology. These things were meant to provide useful data for the benefit of those served. I don't think they ever did that, and not for lack of trying.

Lots of money changed hands. But a drop in the ocean of Big Tech, but, well, it was the government doing the spending. Something far more than $50K per foster kid "helped." Each year. The workers all quit, not in protest, but because they didn't have time to do their jobs, the tech failed so often. Hung reports.

What is one to do? Can't trust the government. Can't trust the people. Certainly can't trust  the oligarchs; the people in charge.

So I'm stuck between distrust of public initiatives and a kind of hatred of Big Tech. I knew the Internet before dot com, and it was a more wonderful place.

And so I tend to focus more, and likely too much, on transformations to consciousness that are happening as the result of all these things that Bratton celebrates, even while he wants to redirect them to better uses. 

I am optimistic that the ways in which we are different because of Internet search, and GPS guided maps, and social networks and YouTubes and Tik Toks and even computer games or TED Talks, can also make us better. I sometimes even believe that making us worse first is a kind of necessary evil. The reactionary abreaction. We'll get through it, and then the necessary change will be rapid. The cars will disappear of themselves - in some sense they do disappear at about the rate that newborns fail to be born - as they do for city dwellers who prefer Uber when a lift is needed. Or would if it weren't so exploitatively evil.

I mean I hate the stuff myself, the social media, probably because I'm just not turned on by announcing my feelings so publically. I don't tend to believe anything some schlump like me who wants to be known for it has to say on YouTube. But I do learn plenty of things about how to effect better repairs in the repair work that I do. I'm just not sure it's as good as what I used to get while talking to people in the hardware store. Before the Big Box stores took over, and before everything comes by way of Amazon.

It's too easy to call people like me quaint antiquarians who want to move backwards. Some of the things toward which I feel nostalgia were actually better, and not for the logistical reasons Bratton focuses on.

I think we will change in just the way that Bratton catalogs, by way of the pandemic as template. Our self-definition as authentic individual personalities will dissolve like a rainbow in the heat once we figure out that we have ceased even to exist beneath our viral persona, which makes us but a sexy cartoon of what we might be as part of a better society.

My gripe (singular?) about Bratton is that he cares as much about his hair as Derrida did. I'm skeptical of superstar philosophers who are very clever with their turn of phrase. I just simply assume that I'm taken in for the same reason that Q-Anon nutjobs are taken in. You know like reading Derrida I think he's making sense and I can even get excited, but it all disappears as quickly as my memory of a Woody Allen film, or the fill of a Chinese take-out meal.

Foucault still sticks with me somehow. I don't know Ambagen from a hole in the wall, but I sure do recognize the type. I just can't figure Bratton. I want some evidence that he really believes that his program is possible. That it isn't just a schtick with followers. Or an apology for technocracy with guess-who as the autocrat. It feels Ayn Randian sometimes.

Now here's a really tortured argument: In his chapter 8, Bratton makes obvious fun of those silly people in our past who worried that photography would somehow suck the soul from the photographed. But hasn't it? In just the way that Bratton disparages when he disparages "the intense conflation of identity, subjectivity, agency, and individuality." Those things suck the soul too. They are the identical suck.

The soul, in the Christian sense is radically individual. But in a more expansive sense the soul is what's connected cosmically to all others. To pin down, even for an instant - especially when that instant endures indefinitely - something far too individual certainly does suck away one's soul. A person is changed after being photographed, perhaps becoming obsessed then by the mirror. Our public face is always a put-on. And we think that our privates are what's private? They have no expression at all. The same for anyone. 

It's all so mixed up. I guess it's the privates with a public face. The private face in public. We should only ever allow photographs of our masked face, lest we be mistaken for some individual to be exploited.

A person is surely changed after posting to Facebook and feeling the impact of response. (I am socially strange in that I find such responses vaguely frightening and almost never affirming. I'm sure it's just that my posts are weird, if and when I make them.) A person who generates a personal brand and then profits from it is almost not a person to me, especially if they claim agency for their wealth. They are more like a robot, right? I'm sure there must be a person somewhere there behind the performance. But the person I get to see is not one.

Well, except for my daughter, who has a delightful personal brand, and doesn't confuse it with her self. Ho ho!

So yes, it does begin to dawn on me that I myself have been defining agency badly. Agency is what we do as the result of being part of something - especially of a society - that enables it. So, perhaps I begin to understand what Bratton means when he urges us to take collective agency in designing our future. 

Surely he must agree - he often seems to agree - that so far, technology has been disabling us from acting in any way other than individualistically. It practically conspires to keep us separate, individual and (therefore) profitable. We have to want something more than connection - to people, to knowledge, to what the sensory layers might have to tell us. We have to want recognition, or we're meaningless to the powers that drive the tech.

This all needs to be branded as the evil that it is. So maybe 5G conspiracy theories serve their purpose as well? Maybe it makes a kind of sense to be concerned about chips being injected? Maybe Bill Gates' behavior (not quite so apparent while Bratton was writing) does affirm some of the inchoate sense that evil is being done behind closed doors. 

There is a kind of equity to crazy paranoia. I can be crazy to just the extent that you want me to believe you that you're in what you're in for my benefit. Politics, gizmo creation, software development, and all those other things that were created for the military industrial complex. You're in it for yourself and you don't want to pay taxes and damn the consequences, or who gets hurt.

Blame the Mad Men, and farewell Donald Rumsfeld. We hardly knew ye. You hardly knew yourself, since you were never original. The new Donald made you quite irrelevant, don't you think? Frat boy on steroids? Aren't they all? And you voted for him?

I have to say that the R. Donald has really lived an incredibly productive life. Chairman of this, president of that, lots of awards. What profiteth it a man . . .? And the T. Donald gets to be President? Maybe we're lucky.

Bratton spends some time demystifying physical touch, as no more authentic than other kinds of touchless contact. And yet I do know the difference between manipulating a physical tool whose impact is obvious and transparent, and manipulating a digital tool. I'm sure that I could learn to fly a drone - I have learned to fly a drone - and I'm sure that driving by wire could be made to feel even more connected than driving by way of a connected wheel. But that doesn't obviate the differences. Especially when it comes to trust. 

Now that the RSA hack has been allowed in to the public domain. Who were we supposed to trust, and why weren't we trusted to understand. When?

It is fortunate that Bratton identifies an epidemiological approach to politics, since healthcare seems to be one area where humans seem to be getting better and better toward one another. Despite the profits involved. 

Of course, and especially when mediated by an almost incredibly dysfunctional healthcare insurance system, trust in "the system" - the healthcare system in this case - has deteriorated precipitously. Isn't healthcare pretty much running on automatic - choices made elsewhere which don't have to be revisited. There is no time to revisit them. Keep moving. How much was lost when doctors lost their touch? When they don't touch us anymore?

Just a hunch, but it sometimes seems as though our ideological divides, on which side I am most certainly with Bratton, are also divides according to attitudes toward touch. Especially as touch relates to harm and protection. Being governed by legend and myth and conspiracy theorizing may be "connected" to a dependence on touch for trust rather than, for instance, the complex words and math which build trust in science.

None of the ironies are disrupted by this, where the Trumpsters' president is famously afraid of contact. He thinks MacDonald's is clean. It seems a short step from there to child killers in the non-existent basement of a pizza place.

Polarizing is no way to build trust. T.S. Eliot distinguishes between feelings and emotions in his seminal essay on Tradition and the Individual Talent. As far as I can tell his "feelings" are those things which can be shared, while emotions are more personal. Along with Bratton, Eliot would have poets - makers who influence and transform the past as much as they do the future - write impersonally of feelings. 

“Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality”

A good poem makes new feelings of familiar emotions. Feelings are those things that we all would have in relation to the same thing. The poem is an entirely new thing, and the poet works it impersonally. 

I believe that this is approximately what Bratton means when he writes of "agency." But I would say that agency is built more on something like poetry than it can ever be on ratiocination. Rationcination serves only power, as it ever has. 

Far from myth-making and conspiracy theorizing, there is a way to consider emotion to be a part of the objective world. Emotion requires some "other" and the feeling is immediate; unmediated. In a radical sense, there is no contact. No forces applied, no particles exchanged. The emotion which might lead to agreement differs from agreement, which is a rational contract.

People who are feeling the future may do so by precognition or because they trust their emotions more than others. Those who make the future are artists by any other name. Not just thinkers.

Our polarized positions will be united by a shared mistrust of any making that is more pecuniary than artistic, and an insistence on making that makes sense of emotions in the form of shared feelings. This is happening all around us, though our various certainties are in our way. 

Anyhow, if one is to meditate on the meaning of mask-wearing, one should at least dip into research about the many differences between "high-face" shame-focused societies like those in Confucian Asia and "low-face" guilt-focused societies like ours. These distinctions also correlate with epidemiological orientations.

And while I remain in broad agreement with Bratton's assessments about who's in touch with the real, (as opposed to who's offended that reality is upsetting their most cherished fantasies), I think he still fails to account for why it is apparently so easy in nearly all cultures now for someone like Jeff Bezos to claim and apparently believe that he is singularly responsible as [genius] "inventor" for all the bizarrely multiplied value that he thinks that Amazon has created for our economy. For us all.

If individuals are allowed to harness the fundamental lack of choice among other individuals - who have lower social capital - to energize automated networks of automaton gig-workers to funnel wealth back to the platform "owners," then our Terraforming efforts will indeed continue to terrorize, in biopolitical terms. Money won against a modest proposition in California to help the gig-workers. Do we have any idea how to re-create more truth-connected and effective media? Do we?

Terraforming is happening at an ever-increasing pace. Hi-Face China is laying high-speed rail with strategic brilliance along the highland borders and toward the old silk road. From one perspective, this is better than air transport, while from another it does a much better job of eradicating those wild spaces which Bratton, along with his soulmate Kim Stanley Robinson and nearly everyone else, feels are essential to any Terraforming plan.

Once again, the problem is not so much finding a "realistic" understanding of what must be done, but rather finding a realistic, non-autocratic way toward making the politics real enough to get it done. It seems doubtful on the one hand that "truth" has any power to penetrate powerfully held beliefs, and on the other, it seems like autocratic states like China will figure out how to do a better job than capitalist so-called "democracies" - as we move toward oligarchic plutocracy (can I say that?) - a better job than democracy will ever be able to do.

Citizen's United, indeed!

Well, onward to chapter 15. For a short book, it sure is taking me a while to read.

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