Wednesday, October 11, 2017

24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep

But if and when such devices [ed: new types of communication technologies with different displays and interfaces] are introduced (and no doubt labeled as revolutionary), they will simply be facilitating the perpetuation of the same banal exercise of non-stop consumption, social isolation, and political powerlessness, rather than representing some historically significant turning point. And they too will occupy only a brief interval of currency before their inevitable replacement and transit to the global waste piles of techno-trash. The only consistent factor connecting the otherwise desultory succession of consumer products and services is the intensifying integration of one’s time and activity into the parameters of electronic exchange. Billions of dollars are spent every year researching how to reduce decision-making time, how to eliminate the useless time of reflection and contemplation. This is the [ed: final] form of contemporary progress—the relentless capture and control of time and experience.

As many have noted, the form that innovation takes within the capitalism is the continual stimulation of the new, while existing relations of power and control remain effectively the same. For much of the twentieth century, novelty production, in spite of its repetitiveness and nullity, was often marketed to coincide with a social imagination of a future more advanced than, or at least unlike, the present. Within the framework of a mid-twentieth century futurism, the products one purchased and fit into one’s life seemed vaguely linked with popular evocations of eventual global prosperity, automation benignly displacing human labor, space exploration, the elimination of crime and disease, and so on. There was at least the misplaced belief in technological solutions to intractable social problems. Now the accelerated tempo of apparent change deletes any sense of an extended time frame that is shared collectively, which might sustain even a nebulous anticipation of a future distinct from contemporary reality. 24/7 is shaped around individual goals of competitiveness, advancement, acquisitiveness, personal security, and comfort at the expense of others. The future is so close at hand that it is imaginable only by its continuity with the striving for individual gain or survival in the shallowest of presents.

My argument may seem to contain two inconsistent threads. On the one hand I am affirming, along with some other writers, that the shape of contemporary technological culture still corresponds to the logic of modernization as it unfolded in the later nineteenth century—that is to say, that some key features of early-twenty-first-century capitalism can still be linked with aspects of the industrial projects associated with Werner Siemens, Thomas Edison, and George Eastman. Their names can stand emblematically for the development of vertically integrated corporate empires that reshaped crucial aspects of social behavior. Their prescient ambitions were realized through (1) an understanding of human needs as always mutable and expandable, (2) an embryonic conception of the commodity as potentially convertible into abstract flows, whether of images, sounds, or energy, (3) effective measures to decrease circulation time, and (4) in the case of Eastman and Edison, an early but clear vision of the economic reciprocities between “hardware” an “software”. The consequences of these nineteenth-century models, especially the facilitation and maximization of content distribution, would impose themselves onto human life much more comprehensively throughout the twentieth century.

On the other hand, sometime in the late twentieth century it is possible to identify a constellation of forces and entities distinct from those of the nineteenth century and its sequential phases of modernization. By the 1990’s, a thoroughgoing transformation of vertical integration had taken place, exemplified most famously by the innovations of Microsoft, Google, and others, even though some remnants of older hierarchical structures persisted alongside newer, more flexible and capillary models of implementation and control. Within this emerging context, technological consumption coincides with and becomes indistinguishable from strategies and effects of power. Certainly, for much of the twentieth century, the organization of consumer societies was never unconnected with forms of social regulation and subjection, but now the management of economic behavior is synonymous with the formation and perpetuation of malleable and assenting individuals. An older logic of planned obsolescence continues to operate, propelling the demand for replacement or enhancement. However, even if the dynamic behind product innovation is still linked to the rate of profit or to corporate competition for sector dominance, the heightened tempo of “improved” or reconfigured systems, models, and platforms is s a crucial part of the remaking of a subject and of the intensification of control. Docility and separation are not indirect by-products of a financialized global economy, but are among its primary aims. There is an ever closer linking of individual needs with the functional and ideological programs in which each new product is embedded. “Products” are hardly just devices or physical apparatuses, but various services and interconnections that quickly become the dominant or exclusive ontological templates of one’s social reality.

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This unrelenting rhythm of technological consumption, as it has developed over the past two or three decades, prevents any significant period of time elapsing in which the use of a given product, or assemblage of them, could become familiar enough to constitute merely the background elements of one’s life. Operational and performative capabilities assume a priority that overrides the significance of anything that once might have been thought of as “content.” Rather than being a means to a larger set of ends, the apparatus is the end itself. Its purpose is directing its user to an ever more efficient fulfillment of its own routine tasks and function. It is systematically impossible that there might be a clearing or pause in which a longer-term time frame of trans-individual concerns and projects might come into view. The very brief lifespan of a given apparatus or arrangement encompasses the pleasure and prestige associated with its ownership, but simultaneously includes an awareness that the object at hand is tainted with impermanence and decay from the outset. Older cycles of replacement were at least long enough for the consensual illusion of semi-permanence to hold sway for a while. Now the brevity of the interlude before a high-tech product literally becomes garbage requires two contradictory attitudes to coexist: on one hand, the initial need and/or desire for the product, but, on the other, an affirmative identification with the process of inexorable cancellation and replacement. The acceleration of novelty production is a disabling of collective memory, and it means that the evaporation of historical knowledge no longer has to be implemented from the top down. The conditions of communication and information access on an everyday level ensure the systematic erasure of the past as part of the fantastic construction of the present.

Inevitably, such short cycles will, for some, produce anxieties about outmodedness and frustrations of various kinds. However, it is important to acknowledge the attractive incitements to align oneself with a continually evolving sequence based on promises of enhanced functionality, even if any substantive benefits are always deferred. At present, the desire to accumulate objects is less important than the confirmation that one’s life is coinciding with whatever applications, devices, or networks are, at any given moment, available and heavily promoted. From the vantage point, accelerated patterns of acquiring and discarding are never something regrettable, but rather a tangible sign of one’s access to the flows and capabilities most in demand. Following Boltanski and Chiapello, social phenomena that are characterized by the appearance of stasis or slow rates of change are marginalized and drained of value or desirability. Committing to activities where time spent cannot be leveraged through an interface and its links is now something to be avoided or done sparingly.

Submission to these arrangements is near irresistible because of the portent of social and economic failure–the fear of falling behind, of being deemed outdated. The rhythms of technological consumption are inseparable from the requirement of continual self-administration. Every new product or service presents itself as essential for the bureaucratic organization of one’s life, and there is an ever-growing number of routines and needs that constitute this life that no one has actually chosen. The privatization and compartmentalization of one’s activities in this sphere are able to sustain the illusion one can “outwit the system” and devise a unique or superior relation to these tasks that is either more enterprising or seemingly less compromised. The myth of the lone hacker perpetuates the fantasy that the asymmetrical relation of individual to network can be creatively played to the former’s advantage. In actuality there is an imposed and inescapable uniformity to our compulsory labor of self-management. The illusion of choice and autonomy is one of the foundations of this global system of auto-regulation. In many places one still encounters the assertion that contemporary technological arrangements are essentially a neutral set of tools that can be used in many different ways, including in the service of an emancipatory politics. The philosopher Giorgio Agamben has refuted such claims, countering that “today there is not even a single instant in which the life of individuals is not modeled, contaminated, or controlled by some apparatus.” He contends convincingly that “it is impossible for the subject of an apparatus to use it ‘in the right way.’ Those who continue to promote similar arguments are, for their part, the product of the media apparatus in which they are captured.”

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Because of the permeability, even indistinction, between the times of work and leisure, the skills and gestures that one would have been restricted to the workplace are now a universal part of the 24/7 texture of one’s electronic life. The ubiquity of technological interfaces inevitably leads users to strive for increasing fluency and adeptness. But the proficiency one acquires with each particular application or tool is effectively a greater harmonization with the intrinsic functional requirement continually to reduce the time of any exchange or operation. Apparatuses solicit a seemingly frictionless handling, dexterity, and know-how that is self-satisfying, and that can also impress others as a superior ability to make efficient or rewarding use of technological resources. The sense of individual ingenuity provides the temporary conviction that one is on the winning side of the system, somehow coming out ahead; but in the end there is a generalize leveling of all users into interchangeable objects of the same mass dispossession of time and praxis.

Individual habituation to these tempos has had devastating social and environmental consequences, and has produced a collective normalization of this ceaseless displacement and discarding. Because loss is continually created, and atrophied memory ceases to recognize it as such. The primary self-narration of one’s life shifts in its fundamental composition. Instead of a formulaic sequence of places and events associated with family, work, and relationships, the main thread of one’s life story now is the electronic commodities and media services through which all experience has been filtered, recorded, or constructed. As the possibility of a single lifetime job vanishes, the enduring lifework available for most is the elaboration of one’s relation to apparatuses. Everything once loosely considered to be “personal” is now reconfigured so as to facilitate the fabricating of oneself into a jumble of identities that exist only as effects of temporary technological arrangements.

The frameworks through which the world can be understood continue to be depleted of complexity, drained of whatever is unplanned or unforeseen. So many longstanding and multivalent forms of social exchange have been remade into habitual sequences of solicitation and response. At the same time, the range of what constitutes response becomes formulaic and, in most instances, is reduced to a small inventory of possible gestures or choices. Because one’s bank account and one’s friendships can now be managed through identical machinic operations and gestures, there is a growing homogenization of what used to be entirely unrelated areas of experience. At the same time, whatever remaining pockets of everyday life are not directed toward quantitative or acquisitive ends, or cannot be adapted to telematics participation, tend to deteriorate in esteem and desirability. Real-life activities that do not have an online correlate begin to atrophy, or cease to be relevant. There is an insurmountable asymmetry that degrades any local event or exchange. Because of the infinity of content accessible 24/7, there will always be something online more informative, surprising, funny, diverting, or impressive than anything in one’s immediate actual circumstances. It is now given that a limitless availability of information or images can trump or override any human-scale communication or exploration of ideas.
– Jonathan Crary “24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (pg 40–43, 44–47, & 58-60)

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A "Who" As Though It Were A "What"

She's right. He can and does:

To avoid misunderstanding: the human condition is not the same as human nature, and the sum total of human activities and capabilities which correspond to the human condition does not constitute anything like human nature. For neither those we discuss here nor those we leave out, like thought and reason, and not even the most meticulous enumeration of them all, constitute essential characteristics of human existence in the sense that without them this existence would no longer be human. The most radical change in the human condition we can imagine would be an emigration of men from the earth to some other planet. Such an event, no longer totally impossible, would imply that man would have to live under man-made conditions, radically different from those the earth offers him. Neither labor nor work nor action nor, indeed, thought as we know it would then make sense any longer. Yet even these hypothetical wanderers from the earth would still be human; but the only statement we could make regarding their "nature" is that they still are conditioned beings, even though their condition is now self-made to a considerable extent.


The problem of human nature, the Augustinian quaestio mihi factus sum ("a question have I become for myself'), seems unanswerable in both its individual psychological sense and its general philosophical sense. It is highly unlikely that we, who can know, determine, and define the natural essences of all things sur­ rounding us, which we are not, should ever be able to do the same for ourselves-this would be like jumping over our own shadows. Moreover, nothing entitles us to assume that man has a nature or essence in the same sense as other things.

 
In other words, if we have a nature or essence, then surely only a god could know and define it, and the first prerequisite would be that he be able to speak about a "who" as though it were a "what."

 
The perplexity is that the modes of human cognition applicable to things with "natural" qualities, including ourselves to the limited extent that we are specimens of the most highly developed species of organic life, fail us when we raise the question: And who are we? This is why attempts to define human nature almost invariably end with some construction of a deity, that is, with the god of the philosophers, who, since Plato, has revealed himself upon closer inspection to be a kind of Platonic idea of man. Of course, to demask such philosophic concepts of the divine as conceptualizations of human capabilities and qualities is not a demonstration of, 'not even an argument for, the non-existence of God; but the fact that attempts to define the nature of man lead so easily into an idea which definitely strikes us as "superhuman" and therefore is identified with the divine may cast suspicion upon the very concept of "human nature."

On the other hand, the conditions of human existence-life itself, natality and mortality, worldliness, plurality, and the earth can never "explain" what we are or answer the question of who we are for the simple reason that they never condition us absolutely. This has always been the opinion of philosophy, in distinction from the sciences-anthropology, psychology, biology, etc. which also concern themselves with man. But today we may almost say that we have demonstrated even scientifically that, though we live now, and probably always will, under the earth's conditions, we are not mere earth-bound creatures. Modern natural science owes its great triumphs to having looked upon and treated earth-bound nature from a truly universal viewpoint, that is, from an Archimedean standpoint taken, willfully and explicitly, outside the earth.

– Hannah Arendt "The Human Condition"

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Antinora's Third Maxim:

The attractiveness of a woman and the intensity with which she demands free contraceptives are inversely proportional.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

mene mene tekel upharsin

Extended excerpt from Van Til's Apologetic: Readings and Analysis by Greg Bahnsen:

Apologetical disputes between believers and unbelievers depend upon, include by reference, and arise out of conflicting epistemologies. Conflicts over the theory of knowledge in turn incorporate, function within, and must address differing world-and-life views (with divergent concepts of man as a knower), if they would be resolved. The bold defense of the faith offered by Van Til’s presuppositionalism is that the unbeliever’s worldview fails to provide an adequate or workable theory of knowledge in terms of which the non-Christian can intellectually challenge the truth of Christianity. His presuppositions preclude the unbeliever from making claims to know anything intelligible or meaningful.

The Christian worldview begins with the personal, self-sufficient, sovereign, and triune God, who created all things from nothing and made man to be His image. God knows all things, and directs all events by His wise, providential plan. Thus, all objects, properties, minds, events, general laws, and moral prescriptions are determined, controlled, and related to each other by the mind of the Lord. Whatever the Lord says is utterly truthful and unfailing in its purposes, and that includes every passage of the Old and New Testaments. Human behavior and reasoning have become immoral and futile, due to self-centered rebellion against God. Man is biased against and hostile to the Lord and His revelation, wishing to be his own ultimate authority (autonomous). He needs the redemptive work of God’s incarnate Son (as a prophet, priest, and king) and the regenerating work of God’s Holy Spirit to be saved from intellectual foolishness, moral guilt, and eternal damnation. Given this overall “picture” of God, the world, man, value, history, and salvation—the basic biblical world-and-life view—the Christian can give an account of the objectivity of truth; the mind’s correspondence to objects and other minds; the possibility of knowledge; the rational and empirical procedures by which we learn, test, and justify propositions; the possibility of our finite minds knowing universal, absolute, and prescriptive concepts and laws; the human tendency toward disagreement, prejudice, and irrationality, etc.


Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Man in the High Castle: Alternative History as Moral Katharsis

Recently I found myself thinking about the 'meme' I see frequently on AltRight Twitter accounts expressing a desire that the Axis powers had won WWII. It amounts to a lament about what America has become, and I feel a good bit of sympathy with the sentiment. The idea of alternate, fictional accounts of history-or what is sometimes referred to as Uchronia-is not a recent novelty. As early as the 1st Century B.C., Roman historian Livy provides us with the first known specimen in his Ab Urbe Condita, which contains a conjectural digression on what might have occurred had Alexander the Great lived longer, and turned his armies West to attack Rome.

It occurred to me as a sort of intuition that the Left has been busy for some time trying to control the understanding and use of alternative history by the broader public. Unquestionably, the political and social Left dominate the genre, with the tacit goal of administering it as a sort of Blue Pill that erases history and blurs facts into insignificance. What is important about World War II, to take an example, is not what actually occurred, of course, but how we ought to feel about what occurred. All of modern education theory rests on this lone principal, first introduced by philosopher John Dewey in the mid 20th century. By a process of reductionism, the events of that war have been boiled down to a simple morality play about the goodies vs. the baddies -the latter being those who wantedtokillsixmillionjews, certainly. But the process is also seen in the the perpetual and infinite stigmatization of the idea of a nation -that is, a group of people who are more-or-less biologically related, who share a past, and behave in self-interested ways to defend and invigorate themselves, and by extension their culture. This, as we know, has come to be 'the love that dare not speak its name.' Even thought of it is under a dreadful edict by Really Nice People -but just to be certain, it is also occulted by Anathemas and Curses of  a Very Serious Nature.  Witness if you will the recent television program The Man in the High Castle, of which I watched a few nauseating minutes, until my gag reflex overwhelmed me. The series paints for us a dystopian future in which the bad guys of WWII are victorious, and commence immersion of the world in their badness: the Nazis their diseased cult of the Übermensch, and the Japanese their horrifying Shinto religion and xenophobia. Shiver. Followed by Two Minutes Hate.


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Friday, January 1, 2016

A Pixelized Meditation

From The Frailest Thing - Electrification, Refrigerators, and the Social Construction of Technology:

The history of technology is full of similar stores about social factors conditioning the adoption of new technologies. In a post titled “How the refrigerator got its hum,” science writer Alice Bell briefly recounts the story of early refrigeration and the adoption of electric over gas refrigerators. It’s a quick and interesting read if your are not familiar with the story. She notes near the end that, “In many respects, the history of technology is a history of failed machines; of routes we didn’t take, not the ones we did.” And she cites David Edgerton’s Shock of the Old to the same effect:

The history of invention is not the history of a necessary future to which we must adapt or die, but rather of failed futures, and of futures firmly fixed in the past. We do not have a history of invention, but instead histories of the invention of only some of the technologies which were later successful (Edgerton, 2006: 184. Emphasis as original).

She then ties it all up with the following conclusion:

And there’s the moral of the story: the possibilities around technology are multiple. They are not limitless, but they aren’t singular either, and they certainly are not linear. There are choices when it comes to the technologies we choose to take on, and choices about how we make use of them, when and if.

This is very well and succinctly put. I would only add that these choices later constrain and condition future choices yielding what Thomas Hughes has called “technological momentum.”