T2B45: Ziden 1

Trump and Tech?

A two-three day break from the discussion of the Corona virus to reflect upon Trump’s extraordinary acts yesterday. Or rather, given how the ongoing crisis is tied to the structures of the tech industry, I am going to interrupt my Corona coverage to talk about technology.

One of the powerful insights of the materialist (i.e., Marxist) account of history is that changes in the means of production mean changes in social relations as well. But we can take that insight one step further: by shifting away from means of production to networks of circulation of energy and information, we can perhaps explore a related claim:

That changes in information/energy regimes lead to changes in the definition of humanity itself

We are in the middle of such a shift: a new information regime mediated by computing and a new energy regime shifting us away from fossil fuels. I think it’s important to ‘read’ yesterday’s events in that momentous context.

Transfer of Power

Governance, whether democratic or authoritarian, is ultimately about power. Elections serve many purposes but one of their chief functions is the legitimate transfer of power even if to the same person or party.

As I had mentioned yesterday, every regime is in the business of delivering security and stability first, prosperity second and freedom last. Further, the particular packaging of liberty, prosperity and security is conditioned upon the energy and information regime that surround it - fossil fuels in particular. Changing the surround will change the package too.

One can argue with conviction that freedom is the precondition for security as well as prosperity, and that legitimate power in the 21st century must recognize the liberty and autonomy of individuals and communities (I believe both parts of this argument), but even so, there’s a visceral reaction to the loss of stability and security that can’t be reduced to questions of freedom.

The legitimacy of the nation state is tied to legitimate transfers of power and the continuity of intent and purpose that’s maintained by doing so. It’s not about democracy; between Deng and Xi, China also managed orderly transfers of power without being a democratic state. What’s more important is the existence of institutions - political parties in particular - that act as ‘ collective bodies of power’ so that no single person or family controls the keys to the throne.

As the China example shows, it’s possible to be authoritarian while institutionalizing the legitimate transfer of power, but I also believe authoritarianism destabilizes the transfer of power by concentrating it in a single person or ruling coterie. There’s no shortage of examples here: Jinping, Modi, Erdogan, Putin, Duterte, Bolosnaro etc. And of course Trump.

Attention Moments

The flip side could also be true; that the personalization of power leads to competitive authoritarianism even when done within a party system. The cold eye of reason sees only two ways to ascend the ladder:

  1. Loads of money

  2. Authoritarian charisma

The two aren’t unrelated as the man in the White House will tell you, but the usual division of labor has charisma on the throne and the checkbook in the waiting room. The real underlying problem is the nature of the capitalist system itself, and I don’t mean the rich sucking the blood out of the poor but the way in which it distributes political competition.

Most people have no say in a monarchy and they know it; as a result they can live out their lives without offering opinions on every move of the government. It’s one of the ‘contradictions’ of the modern system, that the distribution of power and autonomy paradoxically increases the need and value of control. With secularization and capitalization comes competition at every level for resources.

Of which attention might be the scarcest. How might I capture your attention? I could buy it or I could put out messages that spread organically. Authoritarian charisma feeds off feelings of impotence, fear and anger; these emotions spread better and capture our attention for longer.

A winning strategy when competition is fierce.

Trump has been supremely successful at capturing attention.

Let’s call an attention moment a unit of time in which you’re completely focused on one topic and one topic alone. Cognitive economies have the fiercest competition for attention moments. Advertising has always existed in capitalist societies but the cognitive economy has refined its reach and granularity of attention capture to a whole new level. In that economy, the obvious candidate for success is the person who attracts attention on his own and is aligned with the interests of cognitive capitalism. Zuckerberg is more responsible for Trump than Sheldon Adelson or any of the donors to the Trump campaign.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump has accrued the most attention moments of any human being ever, i.e., that more people have thought about Trump for longer than anyone else - more than the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Hitler, Stalin.

Which is why blocking him from Twitter (he’s blocked as of this writing) and Facebook (he’s been banned indefinitely) might be the most effective way to end his influence, though he and his fans might just shift to Parler.