T2B49: Ziden 5
Streaming the Coup
|Rajesh Kasturirangan||Jan 12|
Today’s update is the last in the series of updates on Trump and Tech. The iconic photos from this past week have been a man holding the confederate flag in the US capitol:
and on the other side:
Make of them what you will!
As I said yesterday, there isn’t much about Biden in this topic, though he will have to engage the technology industry once he comes to power. However, the technology industry’s decisions are only one piece of the puzzle. The real underlying topic is the deep transformation of our societies and ourselves as a result of the computing revolution; who would have thought even ten years ago that a reality TV host would turn that into a real life presidency and abet a made for prime time coup on his way out that felt like a cross between Pinochet getting rid of Allende and D.W Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation.’
The digital revolution is only of three revolutions: the energy revolution’s impact will be similar and the biology revolution is just starting with the COVID providing a major stimulus. Together, the three are intertwined aspects of the cybernetic transformation of humanity, and it’s only in that three-fold context that the current crisis begins to make sense. As you might imagine, the topic is a lot deeper than the surface issues I have barely scratched. Here are two themes worth understanding in much greater depth:
Quantitative Free Speech
We usually take free speech to be a qualitative phenomenon, either as an absolute right that people possess or one that’s tempered by recognition of harm and injury to others. The US has generally been in favor of absolute free speech, but that’s only when it comes to the states’ capacity to regulate speech. There’s nothing preventing private parties from imposing restrictions on free speech on their premises - we don’t expect a Church to allow the worship of Krishna or Allah on its premises.
From that perspective, Apple, Google, Twitter, Facebook etc are within their rights as private parties - they can stop or promote whatever they feel like. But arguments designed to protect qualitative free speech miss the emerging controversy around quantitative free speech: how much variation in views is there in the inboxes, feeds and screens of most people? If 98% of the population is only exposed to a narrow band of ideas and the remaining 2% are left nursing a range of conspiracy and genius, we are restricting free speech quantitatively even while protecting it qualitatively.
The tendency to manufacture consent was always there, but it’s been greatly enhanced by the existence of a few gatekeepers (the tech companies) and the constant, minute by minute surveillance of our tastes and preferences. We desperately need a quantitative theory of freedom alongside the qualitative. I will leave you with a screenshot from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, where he identifies some of the key features of today’s problems way back in 1835.
The Viral Coup
The minute some protesters entered the Capitol, they started streaming their ingress, taking selfies with the police and generally performing the coup as much as conducting it. The language of Instagram, Tik-Tok and Vine suffuses the protest.
So was it a real coup that failed or people playing at one, having their cosplay convention at the Capitol?
There’s an already enormous literature on authoritarianism, the parallels with fascism and the role of fake news - and more generally, unconcern for the truth - in enabling the slide towards fascism. But we must accept nuance even in the liberal positions own self-understanding; for example, we must admit that the US, especially the southern US, was a terrorist state to anyone of color for much of its existence, that the Nazis learned a lot from Jim Crow after the end of the civil war. Perhaps this is a feature, not a bug.
But the bigger issue is that truth hasn’t been appropriately contextualized, assuming a disinterested witness who has access to the truth and it’s only their cognitive faults that blind them to the facts. I think that’s a major underestimation of the technologies at work today and the role of previous technologies in establishing the disinterested witness in the first place.
The binary between reality and simulation is a false distinction, as if there’s reality and there’s reality TV and the two don’t have anything to do with each other. Instead, get used to a world in which representation and reality come ever closer, not just in the form of presidents wagging the dog, but all of us playing ourselves on TV all the time. Control over social media allows a single individual or a single viewpoint - hateful or otherwise - to shape human beings in their most intimate moments, when they are alone and communing with their screen, and because of the positive feedback loops built into it, increasing their loneliness and their screen communion.
We are talking about a transformation of what it is to be human, both as individuals and as communal beings.