M19: Reality Media, Part III
This week’s news
I read a well articulated take-down of the TED ‘thought leader’ style of content creation and marketing. TED isn’t the only culprit; the writing platform Medium is full of self-help and startup hustle. Substack (which hosts this newsletter) is in the same genre - instead of curating famous thought leaders, it encourages writers to identity a niche and become a leaderino in that niche. If instead of writing philosophically about the interverse, I covered emerging metaverse companies and their business models, I could optimize for that niche audience, tack a subscription on to this newsletter and make💰. Curation platforms - TED, Medium, Substack - work best when the creator occupies a niche and the platform straddles the spectrum. It’s a natural outcome of the knowledge economy.
Should we call modern authoritarian movements fascist? Is that a historically delimited identifier?
If that question interests you, go through Alberto Toscano’s “Notes on Late Fascism” and on the same site, a transcript of Jairus Banaji’s talk at JNU called “The Political Culture of Fascism.” There are many interesting arguments in these essays out of which I am pulling out one: Sartre’s idea of seriality (opposed to solidarity) in collectives.
Seriality is when a group of people have no connection between them, or when the connection between them is mediated and controlled by a third party. Solidarity begins when the group is self-consciously that group. Everyone watching the same TV show at 9:00 PM is seriality, and when the group is formed or dissolved by an external entity, it’s at the mercy of the interests and dynamics of that entity. Seriality is enforced by surveillance, which prevents solidarity from taking root, with the serial community (say, the people watching the same TV show) being subjected to a panopticon that observes their behavior: you’re visible to the all seeing eye while the eye is invisible to you. Isn’t that the basis of the surveillance state and of surveillance capitalism?
The matrix is the ultimate hoax, seriality masquerading as solidarity: you believe you’re out there solving the world’s problems when in reality you’re tethered to an IV while your brain is hijacked by the great computer in the sky.
Dystopia alert: the metaverse is the ideal fascistic instrument for it can substitute the appearance of solidarity for the reality of seriality.
But the Sartrean model of seriality doesn’t quite work - it’s a bit of an old-media distinction with network TV being the paradigmatic example. The panopticon isn’t the right metaphor for fast flowing hypermedia. How would one understand hatred spreading over Whatsapp groups in which people have the palpable experience of solidarity (i.e., there’s no external ‘controller’) but nevertheless fascistic messages get wide traction. Reality media generates new worlds on the fly with new opportunities for human collectivity.
The desire to control experience goes beyond reality media into the deepest impulses towards control and order. For example, the US is considering the use of economic sanctions against Russia if it invades Ukraine. You might think sanctions are better than war (or worse, if you think war is the right thing) but economic weapons are often devastating (see Mulder book below) - and can lead to belligerence when the sanctioned adversary seeks to find alternative mechanisms to keep its economy going (as Germany arguably did with its genocidal Lebensraum policy).
The sanction isn’t the only instrument of war by other means. We have to include drones and assassinations in that list, and in some cases the two become one, like in the assassination of Qasem Soleimani outside Baghdad airport. The metaverse along with the drone and state sponsored DDOS attacks are all elements of a new system of code based control. Just as the economic consequences of the peace laid the conditions for the second world war, it should surprise no one when there’s surplus of violence accompanying code based technologies - do remember that war raged in the real world outside the artificial heaven of the Matrix.
PS: there’s interesting mathematical structure behind seriality and solidarity. Short version: graph topology may influence community politics.
A new theme: skinning the Interverse
Alone in the Metaverse
I spent much of 2020 and 2021 in isolation - not complete isolation since I share a house with my family, but nevertheless these two years have been the most prison like of my life since I have had to cut down on going to places I like and meet people I want to see. In short, having a life out in the world.
Loneliness and alienation are real worries, and while we might have hoped that a worldwide pandemic would bring us together, it has enabled the opposite. With entire populations working from home, we have no other sources of information and affirmation besides what we experience on screens and that leaves us open to predatory media.
I don’t want to blame the pandemic for this expansion of seriality; it’s accelerated developments that are at least a few decades in the making, starting as far back as Margaret Thatcher’s infamous slogan “there’s no such thing as society.”
Who does one trust if there’s no society?
If you’re a libertarian bitcoin enthusiast, the answer is “no one,” for it’s supposed to be a trust-less technology. No surprise that:
But that’s not the point I want to make, since it’s been made by others, including the authors of the paper above. I have a different question, which has to do with the experience of trust. Anything we experience is mediated by a sense organ: smell, vision, touch etc.
What sense organ serves as the organ of trust?
Skin: The Organ of Trust
We might assess another person’s trustworthiness by hearing how they talk, we could look out for smirks and other behavioral tics, but ultimately the central organ of trust is the skin: how someone feels to the touch (the touch-skin), how close we let them (the space-skin) and so on. Metaphorically too, the spaces we inhabit - homes and offices - are artificial skins that enclose a safe volume inside and keep the rest of the world at a distance. Even the biosphere is a skin on the surface of the earth.
Metaverse technologies want to bypass the skin - they are brain in a vat technologies after all. In doing so, they mess with the hierarchy of the senses: the current technologies are dominated by vision and, for example, replace proprioceptive (proprioception is the ‘body sense’ that tells you where you are in space) inputs with visual ones. In the real world being somewhere is first registered as physical presence - it’s your body saying you’re there that matters. In VR, visual presence is what’s registered - your body is not there is it? - which over time will make us remap the relationship between visual space and bodily space. Civilization has always been about the imperialism of vision and language over the other senses (we don’t smell text, we see it), but the metaverse takes visual dominance to another level.
The Simulation Society
In 1970s like Baudrillard posits another divide in history as radical as the rupture between premodern symbolic societies and modern ones. In the mode of classical social theory, he systematically develops distinctions between premodern societies organized around symbolic exchange, modern societies organized around production, and postmodern societies organized around “simulation” by which he means the cultural modes of representation that “simulate” reality as in television, computer cyberspace, and virtual reality. Baudrillard’s distinction between the mode of production and utility that organized modern societies and the mode of simulation that he believes is the organizing form of postmodern societies postulates a rupture between modern and postmodern societies as great as the divide between modern and premodern ones. In theorizing the epochal postmodern rupture with modernity, he declares the “end of political economy” and of an era in which production was the organizing form of society.
Simulation is like seriality, an important idea that’s trapped within the media environment of a previous era. A better sequence is: production → simulation → constitution, with reality media already indicating where simulation ends and constitution begins. A closed-world simulation such as the ‘Matrix’ is good for storytelling but not a scientifically plausible account - simulation and materialization will proceed in parallel, like playing a first person shooter game at home before going to work and launching drones at the current axis of evil. But these are quibbles against the backdrop of a bigger canvas:
‘Reality’ as such is a target of manipulation, conflict, construction etc.
And manipulation of our senses is one its key functions. We can’t understand the interverse without paying close attention to its bodily and sensory impacts, and in particular how some new developments are undercutting the body while others are enhancing it. There is the movement toward dematerialization - that’s the crypto/finance/data side of the interverse- while there’s a parallel movement toward rematerializing bits to make them ‘real’ - the XR side of the interverse.
These simultaneous movements toward nothing and everything are fundamental to its evolution. Together, they show that we are fast moving toward a totalitarian society - not in the sense that you will dragged off to the gulag if you say the wrong thing, but in the sense that the instruments of control reach as far down as individual thoughts and feelings and reach as far up as the carbon in the atmosphere. Nothing is protected or private against this onslaught and we may not even feel the need for privacy - that might be experienced as the politics of the previous age.
What (if anything) will freedom look like in this new society?
Code based control
Code based control now operates at a level more fine-grained than the individual: it wants to target some senses over others, send the skin into conflict with the eyes. We don’t even need explicit computer code as a coordination mechanism; consider a phenomenon that happens all the time in my corner of the world: government funded research that’s commercialized by labs with active encouragement from the university which typically holds the IP along with the lab PI. The ability to target an ‘idea’ as:
Innovation that can be measured and tracked
Property that can be patented
Product that can be commercialized and distributed
Compete with other ideas in the marketplace
requires financial-technological-material-legal infrastructure which is networked ‘code like’ thinking even if it’s not explicitly represented in code, just as the original ‘computers’ were human beings - typically women - whose labor was eventually replaced by machines. It’s impossible to say where the ‘hand-coded’ interverse stops and the ‘machine-coded’ interverse starts, and even if we could, why should we make that distinction? Isn’t it better to assemble people and things into one interverse and invent the conceptual infrastructure to understand this cluster? We know this assemblage is held together by (at least) three entities: