Tag Archives: #depression

The poverty of technology and the technology of poverty

14. IV 2018

Charles-Avery two dogs

It was one of those rainy and damp days, I was finding my way out of the F-train subway on Bergen St. in Brooklyn. On the mezzanine level, in the corner of the stairwell, I noticed a young man, couldn’t have been much older than 30. Rain was slowly cascading into the subway, small puddles forming everywhere forcing him into an uncomfortable squat instead of a sitting position. His appearance was modest; he looked tired and lonely, but not destitute. There were none of the signs of physical neglect usually seen in homeless people – he looked like someone who had access to a bed and sanitary facilities. There was a money tray with a few coins in front of him indicating that he had been there for some time. The man seemed relaxed and disinterested in making eye contact with passersby. He appeared preoccupied with what was happening on his iPhone, most likely Instagram or the traffic on the social networks.

Panhandlers with smartphones are unusual sight – it is not just the price of the accessory that is at odds with their social status, but the entire protocol: the price of connectivity, how they pays their bills, which assumes a checking account; purchases of apps, which requires possession of a credit card suggesting some king of credit history… Things just don’t add up. However, as much as the two were an odd combination, it was difficult to dismiss the thought that, on some level, they shared the same causal connector, and they stand as two representations of the same underlying cause of social degradation. While poverty is a consequence of the system’s inherent urge to cannibalize itself, tech, on the other hand, has become the other face of resistance to change.

The panhandler and the smartphone together unify the worlds of thrift store shoppers and the high tech of Silicon Valley. The following chart brings us closer to the origin of this unstrange connection. It shows three price histories representing roughly three different social segments of the stock market. Dollar Tree is a chain of discount variety stores in the US. It sells an assortment of everyday general merchandise; it is a lower end version of Walmart, with most goods priced at or below $1. It is the place where poor folks buy their stuff. Since 2001 (the perception of) the value of Dollar Tree has increased by 11 times, while during the same time Apple, which needs no introduction, has had a 140-fold rise. For comparison, S&P or other benchmark stock indices have grown “only” 2 times.

The coordination between two histories is not a story of correlations in the sense normally used in statistics, but of a different type of commonality, the most interesting point being not their mutual causation, but the timing they share. Between 2008 and 2009, S&P index –the “social median” of the stock market– lost 50% of its value. It took four years for it to recover. In contrast, Dollar Tree, the poor man’s outlet, starts its big takeoff in 2008 with the stock price practically quadrupling during the subsequent four years. This timing and trend are in synch with all other measures of rise in poverty[1]. This is also the moment when Apple’s explosive rise begins.

DLT

The poverty of digital nations: Silicon Valley meets thrift shop

While the middle of the affluent sector of society (S&P world) advanced in “moderate” steps, the wings on both sides have outpaced it by a wide margin. Two seemingly different entities on opposite sides of the social spectrum – the beneficiaries of growing poverty and of the technological boom — register a common inflection point around the time of the deepest financial and social crises in modern history.

Dollar Tree’s success in the last ten years has been a function of demand created by an explosive supply of poverty; Apple’s rise has been an indirect beneficiary of its side effects. As social reality was disintegrating, the void it created was filled by its virtual surrogate with Apple acting as the main subcontractor in the process of digitalization of social relations. This ties the panhandler and the iPhone together as a result of centrifugal forces of social fragmentation and the disappearance of the middle into the extremes.

The poverty of technology: Rent economy cannibalizes itself

As the economy transitions from material to immaterial, innovations become its main focus. If one can come up with a technological innovation that enables him or her to manufacture a product for 10 cents and sell it for over $200 on a sustained basis, all subsequent profits will be reinvested in that direction. In markets with strict intellectual property laws prices are no longer commensurate with production costs, but contain a scarcity premium. In this way, innovation becomes a source of Rent.

Rent is the most irresistible source of income. At the same, time it is economically and socially intolerable. If someone somewhere is paid without doing any work, then someone somewhere works without getting paid. Rent economy is a voluntary slavery. Employment becomes the right to be exploited and unemployment is denial of that right. However, when there is no need for labor, and freedom is a constitutional right of every citizen, there are slaves without masters roaming around without anything to do. They become the excess of population.

Irresistible resistance to change

In the past, technology always generated new demand and forced people to reinvent their skills to accommodate for the new needs. This is no longer the case. Modern technology destroys more jobs than it creates. As such, it has become the main destabilizing force. Its basic commodity is immaterial – it costs nothing to produce an idea. If labor is the main cost of production, relocating the production centers to regions with the cheapest labor becomes the dominant mode of profit maximization. In this way, low production costs abroad create precariat at home.

Profit chasing leads to geographic displacement and social and cultural dislocations. Through their deterritorialization the elites lose their social footing. Their riches decouple from the well-being of society. The Keynesian bond, which used to tie the profits of the rich to the wages of the poor is severed, cutting the fate of economic elites loose from that of the masses. The possibility, provided by a global capital market, of rescuing themselves and their families by exiting together with their possessions offers the strongest possible temptation for the rich not to be interested in the social impact of their actions[2].

This is not sustainable in the long run. Once the exploitation becomes global and all alternatives are exhausted, the system has to collapse. The main question is: Who can act as an agent of change? Who represents the new social archetype of post-capitalism — a descendent of the medieval knight in feudalism or bourgeoisie in industrial capitalism?

Paul Mason has argued that a composite picture of that type would correspond to a Universal Educated Person. Their skill set is a fusion of managerial and intellectual abilities. Such a person needs to be a bearer of the new social relations inside the old, interested in engaging in political discourse with the intention of triggering change on the social level, and appear in large numbers. Currently, the “T-shirted bourgeoisie”, although fitting the description of a universal educated person with the right skills, does not want to reconfigure the system – rather, they favor a monopolistic structure and extraction of Rent[3], without much regard for the long-term consequences. Instead of being guardians of the future and sustainability, Silicon Valley billionaires prefer to invest in doomsday bunkers and property in New Zealand.

The technology of poverty and society of tiredness

When production is immaterial, everyone already owns the means of production. This is the main difference with respect to industrial age when material production defined the tensions between capital and labor. In cognitive capitalism, we are talking about, what B. C. Han calls the Achievement society, where everyone is entrepreneur of themselves, the exploiter and the exploited, the master and the slave, at the same time. Everyone is trapped in the auto-exploitation out of which there is no escape through resistance or uprising, but through internalizing his or her discontent through withdrawal and depression[4]. Zygmunt Bauman sees this as a social death spiral: The uncertainty of the Achievement society is a powerful individualizing force. It divides instead of uniting, and since there is no telling who will wake up the next day in what division, the idea of ‘common interests’ grows ever more nebulous and loses all pragmatic value. Contemporary fears, anxieties and grievances are made to be suffered alone[5].

The society of achievement is generating tiredness and exhaustion. This is a solitary and divisive tiredness with separating effect[6]. Digitalization of social relations is a response to this state of affairs. It fills the vacuum created by achievement society by providing a virtual supplement that makes isolation bearable by satisfying our ontological resistance to isolation. Social digitalization creates contours of a community; it transposes, to use Peter Handke’s terminology, I-tiredness into We-tiredness[7] while, at the same time, reinforcing isolation by creating a phantasmatic layer and illusion of self-sufficiency. Infinite plasticity of the digital society – ability to be shaped at our will — is intrusive and invasive: One can be anything one desires by creating an avatar and digital persona of any shape, form, and ability. This is virtual doping: It makes possible to achieve without achieving[8].

Social digitalization makes it possible to conceive of a community that requires neither belonging nor relation. The existence of a community, albeit virtual, results in an immanent religion of tiredness, one that needs no kinship. This is where smartphones come in. Here is Frankfurt School and B. C. Han, one more time:

Every technology or technique of domination brings forth characteristic devotional objects that are employed in order to subjugate. Such objects naturalize and stabilize domination. Devotion means submission to obedience. Smartphones represent devotion – indeed, they are the devotional objects of the Digital. They work like a rosary, which, because of its ready availability, represents a handheld device too. Both (the smartphones and rosary) serve the purpose of self-monitoring and control. The smartphone is not just an effective surveillance apparatus; it is also a mobile confessional. Facebook is the church – the global synagogue of the Digital. “Like” is the digital “Amen”[9].

 

[1]Since 2008, the number of people on food stamps has almost doubled – there is currently around 50 million people on food stamps in the US. During the same period, the fraction of the population living below poverty level has increased from 12% to 15%. These are just continuation of the long term secular trends underscoring the social fragmentation of the late 20th century. For the bottom 90% of Americans, living standards have not changed since 1970s. In contrast, for the top 1% they have risen 5 times and for the top 0.01% by 10 times in the last 50 years.

[2] Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End?: Essays on a Failing System, Verso (2016)

[3] Paul Mason, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2016)

[4] B. C. Han, Psychopolitik: Müdigkeitsgesellschaft Burnoutgesellschaft Hoch-Zeit, Matthes & Seitz Berlin (2016)

[5] Zygmunt Bauman, Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts, Polity (2003)

[6] Peter Handke, Versuch über die Müdigkeit (in Die drei Versuche), Suhrkamp (1998)

[7] Peter Handke, ibid.

[8] B. C. Han, Psychopolitik: Neoliberalismus und die neuen Machttechniken, Fischer (2015)

[9] B. C. Han, ibid.

 

Advertisements

Event horizon and the physics of Donald Trump

8.VI 2017

Donald Trump is like a new celestial formation, a cognitive black hole, a strange attractor, and a quantum-mechanical paradox, all at the same time. He has a unique way of distorting the social space around him. Everyone who enters his event horizon begins to not make sense. There is something terminal about coming too close to Trump. The list of casualties who have crossed the point of no return, and became permanently trapped on the other side, is getting longer every day. Trump is a new phenomenon whose functioning falls into domains of exotic physical theories. Here are some theoretical requirements for understanding the strange cosmology of his universe.

Compared to classical physics which guides our intuition, the general theory of relativity is like playing billiards on a soft table (think: jello). Each stationary ball creates local distortions on the table’s surface (picture) – the area around each ball is curved due to the indentations it produces. When the white ball is kicked, it is the local curvature around each ball, which causes it to make a bend precisely when it wants to get directly at the stationary ball. From the point of view of the white ball, the curvature is primary and matter (stationary balls) serves only to herald its presence.

Paralax2

Nothing is where it appears to be: The curvature of the space is a source of an apparent displacement of objects; it causes moving bodies to make a bend precisely when they want to get directly at the object. caption

Imagine now that one of the stationary balls on the table becomes very heavy and shrinks in size. The dent around it becomes deeper and more pronounced, and the heavier and the more concentrated its mass, the deeper the dent. So, if the white ball passes slowly and comes closely, it will be “sucked” in. The fall into the singularity can be avoided only if the ball’s speed exceeds the escape velocity.

The presence of concentrated mass defines the event horizon. The event horizon of a black hole separates two permanently disconnected regions. It is the shell of “points of no return”, a boundary beyond which the gravitational pull becomes so great that it makes escape impossible. Nothing can escape the event horizon of the black hole – the escape velocity is greater than the speed of light – what happens inside cannot affect an outside observer.

black-hole-diagram

Once something is inside the event horizon, collapse into the black hole is inevitable

Donald Trump is a political black hole. He is a cognitive singularity, an intellectual triviality with complex consequences — a source of curvature of the social space that makes everything look displaced.

The strange matter of Trump’s universe

Information entering a black hole is lost forever

Whoever comes within Trump’s event horizon becomes afflicted with the same cognitive incapacity as Trump himself. There is a long list of transient (and a shorter list of persistent) surrogates, all of them disposable victims of cognitive asphyxiation: Kellyanne, both Steves, Giuliani, Christie, Newt, Ben Carson, Jeffrey Lord, and a long list of anonymous spokespersons. Not that these people were ever beacons of rationality, but they have broken new boundaries and set new records after entering the domain of Donald Trump. These creatures thrive in the space between real news and reality TV. They roam different mediascapes, mostly to boost the ratings of the mainstream networks — people tune in only to see the spectacle of public humiliation. And the list does not stop there. Now, even former bankers, Cohn and Mnuchin, who, one can argue, may be ethically challenged, but are nominally still highly rational, they are not making any sense either, even when it comes to counting money.

One-child-left-behind

But no one has experienced the gravitational crush of Trump’s black hole like Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, the Sisyphus of morons who performs the same futile task day after day, repeatedly trying (and failing) to convince the public that verifiable lies are truths and that palpable truths are lies. His press briefings have become a spectacle no one wants to miss, and a guilty pleasure of liberals and Trump haters. People tune in to be entertained, not to get informed. Over the course of time, the public has developed a certain emotional attachment to him, bordering on empathy, but not exactly; something along the lines you would feel about the bulldog your girlfriend gave you: He is fun to play with and you want to love him, but he makes a point of shitting in your living room, not occasionally, but every day. As it is becoming clear that under the existing criteria of this administration his gross incompetence will never be grounds for dismissal, there are active debates about the mode of his exit from the scene.

Divided subject is inconsistent with itself

Trump is the embodiment of the divided subject of American politics. On one side, he suspends the gravity of the Real and sets in motion the weightless state of a facts-free universe, while on the other, the singularity of his cognitive incapacity crushes everything that comes within his event horizon. He is the sugardaddy of alternative reality. He attracts people as a political novelty by offering a taste of the other side. He tempts them with fruit from the tree of ignorance. And the more fruit they eat, the more they need.

Trump’s base, which pretty much has been functioning as a doomsday cult, constitutes the core of the strange matter of his universe. These people have entered Trump’s event horizon from which escape is impossible. They are passengers on a boat approaching the waterfall – they notice nothing at the time when the boat crosses the boundary of no return, but the boat is doomed to go over the waterfall.

Coda

Trump is an event in a true sense of the word – he divides the time into before and after. It is difficult to remember our lives before Trump announced his candidacy. What did newspapers write about? What did news media report on? What was tweeting like? What kind of jokes did comedians tell? And what did people disagree about before they were unified in their hatred of Trump? Crowds and media hate him, but they cannot resist him. Life without him is becoming impossible to imagine. The whole nation will be depressed if he ever goes away.

The tropic of Chaos

15. IV 2016

Three years ago (in 2013), I came across an interesting book, 1913: Der Sommer des Jahrhunderts. The original (The Summer of the Century) and its English version title (The Year before the Storm) give a complementary summary of its importance for the rest of the century. There has never been a year like 1913, a true big-bang for arts and culture. Vienna was the cultural capital of the world and Berlin was just emerging on the scene. Everybody was there, Freud, Schönberg, Witgenstein, Arthur Schnitzler, Egon Schiele, and Alma Mahler, while young guns, Hitler, Stalin, Trotsky and Tito made a brief appearance on the scene. Elsewhere in Europe, things were happening as well, although somewhat less concentrated. The first and second Balkan wars were over, the Ottoman Empire had been driven out of nearly all of Europe, King George I of Greece was assassinated. On the New Continent things were developing fast. The Mexican revolution started in February, and the US made its voice heard in the art world with the Armory show, while, at the same time, undergoing significant institutional and political transformation with an Amendment to the US Constitution authorizing the government to impose and collect income taxes and the creation of the Federal reserve System. Louis Armstrong and Charlie Chaplin had their first public appearances. The first assembly line as well as the Camel cigarette brand were introduced , stainless steel invented, MDMA (aka ecstasy) synthesized for the first time, and the all-purpose zipper patented. The world was buzzing. Creative forces were building up together with (positive) political tensions. Things could hardly look better. The world appeared to be in balance, only to fall apart a year later. The rest was silence.

While reading the book, a short paragraph caught my attention commenting on the only two mass killings that took place in that year. This is the factual summary of the two events:

  • The Bremen school shooting occurred on June 20, 1913 at St. Mary’s Catholic School. The gunman, 29-year-old unemployed teacher Heinz Schmidt, indiscriminately shot at students and teachers, causing the death of five girls and wounding more than 20 other people, before being subdued by school staff. He was never tried for the crime and sent directly to an asylum where he died in 1932.
  • On September 4, 1913 Ernst August Wagner, killed his wife and four children in Degerloch and subsequently drove to Mühlhausen an der Enz where he set several firesand shot 20 people, of whom at least 9 died, before he was beaten unconscious by furious villagers and left for dead. After several psychiatric assessments diagnosed him to suffer from paranoia, and thus becoming the first person in Wüttemberg to be found not guilty by reason of insanity, he was brought to an asylum in Winnenthal, where he died there of tuberculosis in 1938.

Mass murder has become so commonplace that having only two such occurrences within a year strike us as odd. For comparison, in 2013 there were close to 80 mass murders (they had to be alphabetized by the place of occurrence — on the average about three for each letter of the alphabet).

Intrigued by this comparison, I collected the data on mass killings in the last 100+ years looking for some clues about the trend. The data reveal a rather disturbing pattern. Since WWII, the number of mass killings (defined as an idiosyncratic, not state-sanctioned, killing spree with multiple victims) has been growing exponentially at a rate of 5% every year. This means that every 20 years or so, the number of mass killings triples (1.0520 = 3). For example, between the 1970s and 1990s, the average number went from 10 to 30, and between the 1990s and 2010s it went from 30 to 90. In 2013, when I looked at the numbers for the last time, we had around 80-90 mass killings, or one for every third business day. Allowing this trend to continue would take another 20 years for this number to triple, which meant that by the mid 2030s there would be one mass killing every business day.

The arrival of 2015 has announced something new! We have achieved this rate in less than two years: from 90 in 2013 to over 350 in the last year. The number of mass killings in 2015 exceeded the number of calendar days – every day somewhere someone’s fuse went off! This was not supposed to happen before the 2030s. This is how crazy the world has become. The future came too soon – we have already reached the point of self-intoxication when inner contradictions of the system, which previously could have been ignored, are taking over. The destabilizing forces are becoming stronger than those responsible for restoring the equilibrium.

Picture1

But, nothing surprises me any more after subjecting myself to the ordeal of watching the republican debate in the last weeks, something I had never attempted before (and am unlikely to repeat again). The obscene spectacle of this year’s presidential elections is a real game-changer, a true political big bang that will set the template for future public discourse everywhere. Its consequences will be studied for years to come. The political landscape will never be the same. Are these men really the best this country (of 350 million people) has to offer?

For several decades now, modernity has been operating between two fatal modes: Carnival and Cannibal – it has been transfixed by the spectacle of its own creation and self-annihilation [1]. The current republican campaign is a culmination of of this trend which has finally reached alarming proportions where the system can no longer bear it and which, by the force of its own absurdity, has made an illegible long-running process instantaneously legible by the sheer power of the event.

Current political discourse no longer has a solid empirical backbone. Nothing is binding. Politics exists mostly in the kingdom of words. It creates parallel narratives and fragmented reality. As a consequence, society has become disoriented and confused due to the gradual loss of all frames of reference and distorted cognitive coordinates. It suffers from loss of shared reality and a chronic inability to form consensus, which becomes its main cultural dimension. The political body is afflicted with split personality — collective mental disorder in need of shock therapy. This collective “mental instability” becomes its intrinsic cultural determinant and enters the center stage of public life.

Watching this bizarre orgy, this unabashed display of vulgarity I am beginning to converge towards the realization that the biggest collateral damage of this century has been empathy — not really a natural emotion but a cultural concept and a psychological condition that is cultivated and refined and which, in the absence of cultivation or under ideological pressure, can disappear or be completely extinguished [2]. Most certainly, there can be no room for it in the winner-takes-all environments.

Early attempts at creating conditions for social atomization started in the 80s with sustained camping to turn material poverty and absence of luck in general into something shameful and repellent. The anti-war movement, pacifism and public empathy together with conditions nurturing these currents had to be eliminated and replaced in all areas with culture of aggression and violence. Through the appropriation of public spaces and resources into the logic of the marketplace, individuals were dispossessed of many collective forms of mutual support of sharing. A simple and pervasive cooperative practice like hitchhiking, for example, had to be transformed into a filled act with fearful, even lethal consequences [3].

The result of this state of affairs, and its purpose, if one wants to attribute it to a particular ideological design, is to prevent us from hearing each other, sharing our pain and expressing our underlying discontent through a single voice that can be heard. The net effect is anger, frustration and withdrawal of libidinal energy. Depression becomes the only adequate emotional response to this state of affairs, a privileged position of anyone capable of reflective thinking.

Since the beginning of the crisis I struggled to understand why in the times of epochal crisis, when change appeared inevitable, trillions of dollars have been spent on preventing change. The escalation of violence, which gained new momentum in the last years, is not due to reaction of the oppressed (e.g. revolution), but is the flip side of the resistance to change. When change is as necessary as it is politically impossible, rage capital becomes the new political currency and the systemic rise of violence becomes the price to pay for forcing the acceptance of the unacceptable. Mass killing becomes a suicide in displaced mode, a somatic response, a reaction of the physical body, to increasing precarity, hopelessness and fragmentation of the social body. A depressed and desensitized subject, no longer burdened by empathy, transforms personal lack of courage required to pull the trigger of the gun pointing at his own head into a high stakes video-game type spectacle with the practical certainty of being killed in the end.

It is not easy to kill another human being. It is a deeply traumatizing experience, for a killer, of course, especially if it is his first kill. 100 years ago, mass murders were result of an idiosyncratic mental disorder — killers always ended in an insane asylum. In contrast, 21st century mass killings have acquired strong systemic overtones with high degree of commonality across different occurrences and individuals, and have become an integral part of the spectacle. Contemporary mass murderers, when seen in hindsight, show a strikingly similar pattern. Depending on the vantage point, they can be seen both as heroes and as antiheroes. They are all ticking time bombs whose trigger could have been anticipated and possibly prevented were it not for the lack of resources. Unlike their early 20th century peers, contemporary mass murderers are largely rational individuals or people on a planned mission (murder or suicide), perfectly aware of what they are doing at the time of killing. For the most part, their behavior can be argued, reasoned or explained by underlying social factors.

102 years later, we are undoing the cultural big bang of 1913 with a cultural collapse and symbolic annihilation – a continuation of the general debasement that has dominated the political landscape of the last four decades. This is a full blown explosion of Carnival & Cannibal, a cultural mass murder and eventual cultural suicide. It is depression externalized through aggressiveness, a typical male reaction (we are yet to see the emergence of female mass killers on the scene). Collateral damage? A split on the political right, fascisization of the political body and the barbarization of the social landscape.

If some 20 years ago I saw a sci-fi movie with these images of the future, I would have walked out of the theatre. Today, I want to do exactly that, to walk out of the spectacle, only I wouldn’t know how to find my way home.

[1] Jean Baudrillard, Carnival and Cannibal, Seagull Books 2010

[2] Franco Berrardi, Heroes, London, Verso 2015

[3] Jonathan Crary, 24/7 — Terminal Capitalism and the End of Sleep, London, Verso 2014