The popular visions of 20th-century Science Fiction appear, in retrospect, often restrained and lacking in the scope and ambition of today’s applied technology and its societal impact. Visionaries on the periphery of the genre provide the most astute analysis, with the tamer shores of the likes of JG Ballard warning of environmental catastrophe, elsewhere exploring the often traumatic psycho-social condition of the human or post-human subject.
The surreal poetics of Ballard’s seminal work, Crash, can be traced in the death drives of popular entertainment and digital warfare. In a recent episode of Homeland, the CIA director, a character we are compelled to empathise with, looks on as a number of ‘targets’ are vaporised by drones. The success of this operation is exhilarating – for those in the room and for the audience looking in. This futurist zeal for the aesthetics of war and technology has become the collective hedonism of pop culture: curated for cinema, TV and game – viewable through a thousand perspectives and multi-playable in every imaginable setting. Beneath the layer of violence, the reach of our participation and observation within this collective imagination underscores the pervasive grammar of the technological dynamic.
Technology is simply the creation and implementation of tools designed for particular uses, bridging the gap between the power of the human body and the world at large. The journey from the wheel to a point where nuclear-powered devices patrol Mars has taken little more than 6,000 years. As time passes, we delegate more and more to our machines – real and virtual.
Keynes’ prediction that the most grueling human work would eventually be automated is unlikely, despite the fact that the automation of labour moves forward with history, including the kind that had previously been too complex for machines to simulate – Artificial Intelligence can now mimic the voice and conversation of a call-centre worker. Such a utopian prediction also underestimates the capacity of the ruling classes to reconfigure the liberatory potentials of technology. Capital’s embrace has ensured that the vast majority of our transactions, logistics and communication infrastructures are choreographed through a complex of algorithms. The purpose here hasn’t been to reduce the amount of time we spend shackled to labour within the machine, but to entangle us in chains of code whilst removing the human condition from the conditions of production.
We often reveal violence at the genesis of production. Many technological developments in recent history have come directly from the state of permanent war: artillery rockets, rifles and torpedos in the late 19th century; aircraft, vehicles, radio and chemical technologies in the early 20th century; nuclear technology, the Internet, GPS, bio and nano technologies and computing leading into the 21st century. Warfare has been the catalyst for many of these advances, largely born from the desire to control, monitor and eliminate each other in more and more sophisticated and distant ways.
The Iron Triangle has unquestionably made its mark, and it has done so easily through the use of ideological threats, lobbying and political collusion – the infamous NSA/GCHQ surveillance scandal being but one recent example. In the 21st century the situation remains unchanged: those with the largest empires are also those with the most detailed and sophisticated technology at their disposal.
For the citizen and end-user, the experience of technology throughout post-WWII decades has been one of increasing degrees of separation between the internal blood and guts of the machine – from hardware to code – and the soft, alluring outer shell of the commodity form. All the traces of isolation and alienation that stem from this formula place an increasing number of steps between the immediate sensory encounter and the reality of the machine.
To catch a glimpse of the world removed at the heart of this machine, consider this century’s resources warfare in Congo. With the tech sector operating on the back of corporate appetite, the pressure to produce is carried from the drawing boards of Silicon valleys to the point of production’s material origin. In Congo, where demand for hi-tech device resources such as Tantalum has escalated in recent years beyond the capacity to supply, this pressure has only served to fuel the wider conflict over the control and appropriation of these resources. This situation is estimated to have claimed the lives of more than 5 million people, making it the world’s deadliest conflict since the second world war.
Here we can trace commodified communications technology born from the arse-end of violence to the mouth of your receiver. From ass to mouth – the food chain of 21st century technology production crosses gulfs, from violence to exploitation, until reaching civility; a history revealed only through the will to examine the world beneath the shimmering electronic propaganda of the new Samsung or Apple device.
We find ourselves removed from the very tools we use, encountering an unarticulated domain between production and use. The space-time contours of everyday social life are dramatically revised. This is especially true in our use of technology and how we mediate our relationships with the ‘real world’, as it becomes harder and harder to define and separate our technological identities from the idea that we also exist ‘in real life’. Our agency, as political beings, flows in between these spaces; interacting and composing itself from the vast caches of information that circulate on the network while at the same time being coerced by the near-universal grammar of our state of technology.
Beneath this existential predicament, however, we remain grounded in matters of fact – and the facts of matter. Underneath the polished, gleaming surface and the noise of code, beyond the hum of the machines and the steaming engines of industry, lies the vestige of the world we used to inhabit. Our celestial body has been drilled, zealously populated and polluted to the extent that it is now struggling to house us. To return to the world of the Science Fiction paperback, the well-used image of rising sea-levels is one envisioned threat worth its weight in post-industrial consideration.
Forecasts have revealed that if our industrial situation fails to stray from its current course, we could be looking at an approximate 4 degree increase in temperature by the end of the century. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will continue to accumulate, increasing the likelihood of tipping points, such as a further retreat of permanent ice and permafrost, resulting in the release of more Methane. With this trend even the conservative estimates of the IPCC state that: “Unmitigated climate change would, in the long term, be likely to exceed the capacity of natural, managed and human systems to adapt.”
The statistics and forecasts stemming from this inexcusably marginalised field of science, and the consequences of industry, offer an escalating dose of sobriety for those unwilling to succumb to ignorance. How might we propose or enact the first steps in response to these circumstances? Should we succomb to a state of anomie or continue to deny the larger reality and maintain the status-quo of ignorance in bliss?
Rather than surrendering the last few threads of a future to despair, perhaps we would be better placed by reinforcing the support networks that will become increasingly valuable as the veil on our predicament slips further, while at the same time preparing as best we can for future breakthroughs that could inform our choices.
For the networked environment of today’s subject, we appear to be experiencing milestones and cultural re-wiring faster than we can contextualise these changes. Consider the transition from the one-time dreams of the AOL/Time Warner megalith to the alternative, participatory culture of peer-to-peer media sharing that has served to shift this entire industrial dynamic. There was no manifesto or sense of shared predicament feeding into this new dynamic, but its occurrence nonetheless instantiates the very real possibility of a tectonic shift in the way we address the problems of our time within the channels of technology.
With forecasts revealing the expanding potential for people to circulate ideas and build reservoirs of data, we have only to overcome the enclosure of knowledge by private interests in order to access the general intellect of our whole collective body. It is estimated that at the current rate of technological development a $5 Hard Drive will soon have the capacity to retain the world’s total digitised media output. The axis of this particular struggle is the promise of a world population plugged into the history of knowledge, with the capacity – and will – to rewire injustice:
Do you want to borrow my hard drive?
What’s on it?