The Widening Gyre

Those who cannot self-regulate will seek intervention from the outside; destabilizing technologies indirectly produce mandates for state control—for the malignant growth of the techno-state: this weird fusion of tech, media, and federal bureaucracy we see emerging (politechs). Essentially, miserable, frightened, dis-regulated people will covet structure — any structure — that calms them down and makes them feel safe. Our screens scare us, but, sometimes, smiling faces appear on those screens to tell us there’s a plan we all just need to follow. New forms of audio-visual technology breed new politics (newspaper, radio, TV between 1850–1990) — new power-hybrids. American politics lurches towards algorithmic politics and away from democratic self-determination. An automated society cannot be democratic . An automated society is primitive, atavistic, and deeply irrational. Governments have learned that they don’t need to use (much) violence or physical force: it’s far easier to invisibly hack our nervous systems, use cognitive force to keep us under control. I don’t even mean this in a conspiratorial sense, in the sense that this is a Big Decision made by some Big Other: it’s just the net result of self-interest in the system; anyone with any amount of power naturally uses whatever means seem to increase that power. Political organisms seek staying power. We simply have built tools that decrease intellectual heterogeneity and increase conformity and homogeneity. We simply have built tools that reduce our interest in our five senses and over-stimulate our inner-senses—that hack our imaginations. We have created and amplified new means of mass persuasion. The past year is the Internet having a nightmare. Seizing on a thin epidemiological pretext in March, politech elites commissioned themselves to make “The Virus”: the best pandemic movie ever made (which we must distinguish from the actual, living virus Covid-19). Covid was what we experienced through the screen; for the most part, lockdowns are what we have experienced with our (politicized) bodies.

The past year has been the first truly global VR experience: the first collective decoupling from physical reality. Almost invisibly, a real break in the human experience has occurred. It’s almost like we’ve entered a new Elizabethan age (the moment, perhaps, in which the modern state, with all its surveillance, paranoia, and centralization first burst onto the world stage) with China playing the role of the Spanish Armada and Big Tech as a Queen Elizabeth ready to consolidate power. You could argue that Shakespeare’s invention of the human was, in fact, an act of mourning for an older conception of the human — nostalgia for the highly individualistic, rough, and tragic aristocrat who must give way to a new kind of impersonal power.

Shakespeare captures a certain loss of dignity, a certain loss of pungency, that many must have experienced in the transition from the feudal to the mercantile. Our moment is a fractal of that moment, a repetition of what is perhaps a basic pattern in the development of civilization. There is an ebb and flow between collective and individual, central and centrifugal, and now we’re flowing towards the collective. If the early modern killed off the autonomous aristocrat, the late modern or post modern has killed off the autonomous brain.

Kant walked around Königsberg; Kierkegaard watched the first steam ships arrive in Port of Copenhagen; Nietzsche took a train around Europe; Derrida took a Concord jet around the world…. It seems hard to argue that even our best thoughts are conducted at the rate and rhythm of material change — that we are deeply responsive to machinery and speed. My iPad pings, my phone pings; I refresh Twitter, open my stock account, watch a few minutes of a basketball game in another corner of the screen. I’m a biological fern growing in a forest of digital machines ;  I am a hybrid… or I am a human and a hybrid — a kind of schizophrenic organism both consciously old and terribly new. Covid has only sped up this hybridization process (which is perhaps the point). I feel like I’ve been drafted — conscripted — into a new digital war by the new digital techno-state: the war against The Virus and the Orange Bad Man (and whatever else will play the role of the Petit Object of Hate) and I find that it is hard to desert my regiment. I worry that, as a conscript, individuality is just a consoling myth—that I’ve given up my inner-life despite my own protests.

The snapshots I take of my own mind in operation reveal structural decay—a growing inner discord. The mind is a besieged city: the site of 21st century cognitive warfare.

How do we confront the terrible immanence of days that are all the same? of people that are increasingly the same—lumping themselves together in giant bands of digital affiliation? It is tempting to answer: through internalizing and mirroring our banal culture, through giving in. But I don’t want to give in, not exactly; I want to hack through the tangles of self back to the wellspring—back to the heart. I want to insist on some kind of private rebellion—just because I can, because I’m still free (enough) to. Sometimes I do little mental drills to keep spiritually awake (like an astronaut in zero gravity who has to keep their muscles from atrophying). I feel the terrible responsibility of self-creation. I cultivate forms of irony that will shield me from the Present Age—and sincerity for an unknowable and not yet hopeless future.