Diary of a Plague Year

Those who cannot self-regulate will seek intervention from the outside; destabilizing technologies indirectly produce mandates for state control, for the malignant growth of the state — for the evolving techno-state: this weird fusion of tech companies and the federal bureaucracy. Miserable, frightened, dis-regulated people will covet structure — any structure — that calms them down, makes them feel safe. Bezos owns The Washington Post for a reason; Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey just proved that the infrastructure they own can effectively censor the President of the United States. New forms of audio-visual technology breed new politics (newspaper, radio, TV between 1850–1990) — new power-hybrids. Human politics lurches towards algorithmic politics and away from forms of political self-determination. An automated society cannot be democratic — or a democratic republic. An automated society is primitive, atavistic, deeply irrational. Governments have learned that they don’t need to use (much) violence or physical force: it’s far easier to invisibly hack our nervous systems, use cognitive force to keep us under control. I don’t even mean this in a conspiratorial sense, in the sense that this is a Big Decision made by some Big Other: it’s just the net result of self-interest in the system; anyone with any amount of power naturally uses whatever means seem to increase that power. Political organisms seek staying power. We simply have built tools that decrease intellectual heterogeneity and increase conformity and homogeneity. We simply have built tools that reduce our interest in our five senses and over-stimulate our inner-sense: that hack our imaginations. Historically, comparatively — numerically — Covid-19 is not a transformative pandemic for instance, but it is the best pandemic movie ever made. The denser the Internet connection in a geographic region, the higher the level of fear — and, in sense, the more Covid there is. The supposed ‘coup’ attempt, similarly, by three hundred pathetic Q stans was not a real coup, a real revolution because it didn’t realistically threaten the federal political infrastructure — but it made for a great closing scene in the Orange Bad Man political thriller we’ve all been glued to for four years. Generally, the past year has been the first truly global VR experience; almost invisibly, a real break has occurred. It’s almost like we’ve entered a new Elizabethan age (the moment, perhaps, in which the modern state, with all its surveillance, paranoia, and centralization first burst onto the world stage) with China playing the role of the Spanish Armada. You could argue that the Shakespeare’s invention of the human was in fact an act of mourning for an older conception of the human — nostalgia for the highly individualistic, rough, and tragic aristocrat who must give way to a new kind of impersonal power. Shakespeare captures a certain loss of dignity, a certain loss of pungency, that many must have experienced in the transition from the feudal to the modern. Our moment is a fractal of that moment, a repetition of what is perhaps a basic pattern in the development of civilization. There is an ebb and flow between collective and individual, central and centrifugal. I can’t but think that Big Tech is in the position of Queen Elizabeth: a new political entity ready to consolidate its power. If the early modern killed off the autonomous aristocrat, the late modern or post modern might kill off the autonomous brain. Kant walked around Königsberg; Kierkegaard watched the first steam ships arrive in Port of Copenhagen; Nietzsche took a train around Europe; Derrida took a Concord jet around the world…. It seems hard to argue that even our best thoughts are conducted at the rate and rhythm of material change — that we are deeply responsive to the machinery and speed. My iPad pings, my phone pings; I refresh Twitter, open my Tinder, watch a few minutes of a basketball game in another corner of the screen. I’m a biological fern growing in a forest of digital machines — I myself am a hybrid… or I am a human and a hybrid — a kind of schizophrenic organism both old and terribly new. I feel like I’ve been drafted — conscripted — into a new digital war by the new digital techno-state: the war against The Virus and the Orange Bad Man (and whatever else will play the role of Petit Object of Hate) and I find that it is hard to desert, that I keep creeping back to the campfire.

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