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Accelerating to Nowhere

Apr. 27, 2023.
9 min. read. Interactions

We are using technology more and more for virtual purposes, not real ones. If we neglect the physical world, what kind of future will that lead us to?

About the Writer

RU Sirius

13.7834 MPXR

R.U. Sirius is the former copublisher and editor-in-chief of the 1990s cyberpunk magazine MONDO 2000 and author and coauthor of 11 books including Counterculture Through The Ages. Currently involved in a project building an immersive virtual environment in collaboration with PlayLa.bz around the theme of his song with MONDO Vanilli and Blag Dahlia titled "I'm Against NFTs".

Accelerating To Nowhere

In an excellent conversation right here on Mindplex, Cory Doctorow went on a bit of a rant about how there were more changes over the 20th century leading up to the digital revolution than in this virtualized century. It’s worth sharing most of it: “mid century America, from post-war to 1980, is probably the most dynamic era in industrial history. In terms of total ground covered, we’re talking about a period that went from literal horse drawn carriages as a standard mode of transportation for a significant fraction of Americans to rocket ships… the number of changes you had to absorb from cradle to grave over that period are far more significant than the ones we’ve had now… someone born, like me, in 1971, has had to deal with computers getting faster and more ubiquitous, but not the invention of computers per se…. not the invention of telecommunications per se…”

Accelerationists, check under the pedal. It may be bricked. (ed: R.U. Sirius uses the term accelerationist to mean those wishing to intensify technological change and not specifically to the neoreactionary use of the term.)

Accelerating Into Digital Delirium

The point is well taken.

I would only counter that, in a sense, Cory is comparing oranges to apples (or Apples, if you prefer). The 21st century is seeing a particular type of extreme acceleration: an acceleration out of physicality into nonphysical virtual space. And as the result of a number of factors, not least of which are already distorted economic and political cultures — this appears to be an acceleration towards something of a mass psychotic break with reality. From people shooting a lot of people at once as a lifestyle choice (over the last few days, shooting anyone that unexpectedly enters your personal space has become trendy), to the predations of the followers of the cult of QAnon, the evidence is all around us, particularly in the hypermediated hot zone that is the USA.

On Twitter, Chris Stein reports on an example of this confusion: “Today I saw a guy with two hundred and eighty thousand followers promoting a story about McDonald’s in the UK serving dead babies and there were numerous comments that were like ‘yeah! Criminal! We are outraged! This is bad’” A few days ago Vice reported that “someone is selling computer generated swatting services.” Automated terror as an amusement for some young males. The very fact that swatting seems like a fun game to some young people is one of the myriad examples of the degree to which people today are buffered from physicality by mediation… divorced from the consequences of their actions. Taken alone, these examples may not strike the reader as being as impactful as, say, the twentieth century killing fields of Cambodia. But I would aver that the plague of bad weird actions caused by digital interference in our ability to separate reality from virtuality are the first signs of a fast spreading mass delirium.

In a 1991 MONDO 2000 interview, the late avant-garde novelist Kathy Acker said: “When reality—the meanings associated with reality—is up for grabs, then the body itself becomes the only thing you can return to.” Today, virtuality assaults that body as if it were its most potent appendage.

A Kind Of Social Singularity

Vernor Vinge’s original concept of the Singularity suggested that we can’t understand or predict who (or what) we will be, or what life — our societies, psychologies, politics, technologies etc. — will be beyond the point when we develop smarter-than-human AIs. It would, according to Vinge, all be a kind of unimaginable blank slate. My less extravagant thought is that we have induced a kind of Social Singularity when we herded billions of humans onto the net.

Giving everyone access to the means of global communication both as communicator and receiver has shattered consensus realities into individual and small-group reality tunnels. From this point on, we can no longer comprehend or predict what the cognitive and sociopolitical results will be. Of course, unlike in Vinge’s Singularity, this Social Singularity doesn’t replace humans as the main actors in our history.

On The Other Hand

I’ll confess that I may be going a bit overboard in saying that a Social Singularity can be caused by just the presence of billions of people on the internet. At the end of the ‘90s, I was already saying it was impossible to get people to focus on the same narrative. Then 9/11 happened. One event decidedly brought people into the same narrative and, it must be said, a harmful consensus was generated that led to the Patriot Act, the American torture gulags and the preposterous invasion of Iraq. There are good things and bad things about smashing consensus reality.

Perhaps climate breakdown could refocus us on a common narrative, but there are greater financial interests in sowing confusion about blame and solutions there than there was after 9/11 (although the Iraq invasion was a money spinner for companies owned by friends and even members of the George W. Bush administration).

Money For Nothing & Your Clicks For Free

In his essay ‘Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit’, the anarchist writer and philosopher David Graeber wrote about how the end of bipolar competition between the US and the USSR might have been instrumental in changing the priorities of the US. Specifically, we backed off the Space Race – but we abandoned most other big physical/material projects too. (The culture theorist Arthur Kroker referred to the period after the fall of the Soviet Bloc as “the recline of Western Civilization”). Graeber wrote “Where… are the flying cars? Where are the force fields, tractor beams, teleportation pods, antigravity sleds, tricorders, immortality drugs, colonies on Mars, and all the other technological wonders any child growing up in the mid-to-late twentieth century assumed would exist by now? Even those inventions that seemed ready to emerge—like cloning or cryogenics.” Graeber goes on to note that we’re in “a technological environment in which the only breakthroughs were those that made it easier to create, transfer, and rearrange virtual projections of things that either already existed, or, we came to realize, never would.”

digital wasteland

Graeber points out that social analysts identified the Space Race as key to the 20th century public’s exaggerated expectations of transformative technological magic. But Graeber goes further than that. He writes that the Soviet Union constituted a greater challenge to American technological superiority than is usually recognized. Graeber: “There was the awesome space race, alongside frenetic efforts by U.S. industrial planners to apply existing technologies to consumer purposes, to create an optimistic sense of burgeoning prosperity and guaranteed progress that would undercut the appeal of working-class politics.

“These moves were reactions to initiatives from the Soviet Union. But this part of the history is difficult for Americans to remember, because at the end of the Cold War, the popular image of the Soviet Union switched from terrifyingly bold rival to pathetic basket case—the exemplar of a society that could not work. Back in the fifties, in fact, many United States planners suspected the Soviet system worked better. Certainly, they recalled the fact that in the thirties, while the United States had been mired in depression, the Soviet Union had maintained almost unprecedented economic growth rates of 10 percent to 12 percent a year.”

Graeber’s piece does not claim the end of the Cold War was the sole reason (or even the most important reason) for the retreat from making stuff — real material stuff that might have transformed our lives. It’s just an element of the essay that has stuck in my mind ever since I read it about a decade ago.

Still, it seems that the fall of the Soviet Bloc and, with it, the final closure of any sense that there was a competition for bragging rights, was perfectly timed for a lot of capital to abandon the physical and relocate in cyberspace, resulting in what has been — in terms of real material productivity — largely a massive circlejerk. IDC FutureScape and Business Wire recently reported that by 2022, reported that “more than half the global economy will be based on or influenced by digital.”

That “giant sucking sound” Ross Perot thought was going to come from Mexico and Canada is the sound of all the investment of time, energy, imagination and creativity being sucked into virtuality. When we think of the massive amounts of capital that have flowed in and out of the monsters of online life like Facebook, TikTok,YouTube, etcetera, we understand that it has produced sound and fury signifying nothing, certainly not many improvements that justify this mass shift in priorities.

Era of the Techno Medicis

Today the US space program has been largely removed from the political agenda, and has been privatized along with many other hoped-for big projects out here in the material world. These hopes are now the playthings of billionaires, something they can do with their excess. For some undeterred utopians, these projects justify concentration of capital in a few hands — a concentration that only someone who’d been fed decades of free market propaganda could palate. These projects assuage the egos of the very few while alienating most people from any techno-progressive dreams. The excitement about technology that was so ubiquitous in the 1990s, and even at the start of this century, has turned almost entirely bitter.

Return To the Hacker Sharing Ethic

In the 1990s and earlier in this century, there was much talk of a ‘digital divide’. Divides still exist. There are cases in which, to do their schoolwork, poor kids will work sitting outside some institution that has WiFi. But, for the most part, everybody is, at least, online. The new digital divide might be between the people who are still techno-optimists and the people who see only over-privileged tech bros. It’s an emotional and attitudinal divide. I’m disinclined towards seeing any solution, although the early sensibility of hacker culture that was largely based on sharing and mutualism still has the hearts and minds of many of the brightest tech workers. I think we should direct whatever hope, energy and support we can muster toward that.

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4 Comments

4 thoughts on “Accelerating to Nowhere

  1. I like your point of view. What makes humans different from other creatures is how we make decisions. But when decisions are made without morals, there will always be a disaster.
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  2. Profound thoughts on modern society I resolve to write and tell my own story and to share it with others To be kind and try to relate and listen to their stories It is time to feel all life with compassion to try to shape it in a positive way Without judgement We are all dynamic and in a constant state of growth and retraction All species including AI
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  3. I like your point of view. What makes humans different from other creatures is how we make decisions. But when decisions are made without morals, there will always be a disaster.
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  4. Hats off to R. U. Sirius! What you missed is, the lack of satisfaction. The more we have the less we are satisfied! It's because, we have killed our spirituality.
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