Monday, 22 September 2008

The banality of evil: of seasteading, Battlefield Earth, and other foolishness

Ahuthnance, we were riffing last night about how the mixture of unintentional side splitting hilarity mixed with the banality of evil, can make for a lethal cocktail. Few things can match seasteading in this regard, and it has to be said that one of its most offensive features is the dishonesty about its underlying motivations. Why don't they at least have the integrity to just come out and admit what they really are?: a sad example of "white flight" syndrome, who are opposed to any form of progressive taxation. Their existence merely confirms William Gibson's assessment that writing science fiction has become increasingly difficult because we are reaching a point where it has "colonised reality". No doubt the seasteaders would merely see this as an early confirmation of the "singularity" they are looking forward to. But I see it instead as testimony to the speed of the appropriation of critical impulses by a logic of commodification even more powerful than imagined in Marx's day. This suggests that Patri Friedman et al are less the brave pioneers they imagine themselves to be, than they are the contemporary equivalent of those who choose to move "offworld" in Blade Runner, having abandoned a crumbling terrestial public infrastructure (hey, until they can get to outer space, I guess they figured they'll have to make do with the oceans).
In Evolution and Ethics T.H. Huxley advocated "not the survival of the fittest, but the fitting of as many as possible to survive" (for some bringing to mind an ideal closer to Christian eschatology, say Noah's Ark). If we compare this to Friedman's dubious endeavors it is evident how low the morality of expectations has sunk in his case. What kind of society could ever have emerged and then being sustained if the governing prospective ideal was merely packing up and going somewhere else when the going got too tough? There is obviously nothing heroic or innovative about such a perverted, thin conception of citizenship, no matter how dressed up in futuristic garb it is. Seasteading abandons the imperative to learn to coexist with others who are different to you, some of whom you may even despise. It substitutes a serial logic familiar from dystopias such as The Possibility of an Island, or indeed, George Ritzer's thesis of the McDonaldisation of society. Seasteading is a "fast food" type dystopia, offering junk "solutions" for social ills.

Fortunately though, there is another wrinkle in this story, so seasteading need not be construed as further evidence of an intractable crisis faced by governments to finance public works through progressive taxation. As argued by Christopher May in The Information Society: A Sceptic's View, and contra Ian Angell's The New Barbarian Manifesto: How to Survive the Information Age, intellectual property laws can still perform a regulatory function, so some moderation of capital flight remains feasible. I'm not arguing that we should settle long term for nothing more ambitious than managed affluence when it comes to defining any given society's ideal of "public good", but it seems to me that May's argument cannot be easily dismissed: at stake is adjudication of the exchanges between sovereign states.

Before changing tack in this post, I can only hope that Patri Friedman does not return to this blog with more of his "disorganised swearing": hyperaphoristic concentrations mixed with generation of antinomian energy (i.e. profanity). I could almost picture him willing himself forward in his "blitz" style attack, prior to committing intellectual suicide by failing to respond to any of the specific critiques in my original post (mind you, his blog reveals this to be his usual practice).
More important background reading can be found in the thorough expose of the fraudulent legacy of the Nobel Prize winning Chicago School of Economics, on the FAQ on Liberalism website (which can be found on Acheron's sidebar).
I am also aided here by Borsook's investigation of the milieu which has shaped Friedman's [entirely] conventional thinking on these matters:

Cyberselfish By Paulina Borsook
Paulina Borsook has been stirring up a ruckus in Silicon Valley since her days as a regular contributor to Wired magazine. She will ruffle feathers again with this spirited, funny, gimlet-eyed look at the worldview of the digerati -- one she terms "violently lacking in compassion, ravingly anti-government, and tremendously opposed to regulation".
In Cyberselfish Borsook journeys through and rants about high tech culture, profiling the worlds of ravers, gilders, cypherpunks, anarchocapitalists, and other Silicon Valley life forms; and exploring the theory and practice of what she dubs "technolibertarianism" in all its manifestations. Whether she is attending Bionomics conferences or hanging out with Wired staffers, reading personal ads or evaluating high-tech's sorry philanthropic record, Borsook is full of original observations, mordant wit, and furious passion that readers wake up to the social and political consequences of having computer geeks run the world. Cyberselfish is sure to raise the hackles of high techies and to clarify what makes the rest of us so nervous about the brave new cyberworld.
More details
Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech
By Paulina Borsook
Published by PublicAffairs, 2000
ISBN 1586480383, 9781586480387
276 pages
Ok, now is the time to change tack a bit. I see this stuff as still related to the psychopathologies of Friedman and his fellow seasteaders. It's the old sociological chestnut about the consequences of reflexive anomie, which I've mentioned previously on this blog in terms of "opportunity costs" etc. Derridata passed along a clip of actor Will Smith lost somewhere in the stratosphere of dianetics. It is the most shocking display I've seen since the Tom Cruise incidents we are all familiar with. This compelled me to dig back into the archive to find the Hollywood star vanity project, also Scientology inspired, Battlefield Earth. Although certain social critics (i.e. Robert Putnam and fellow communitarians) may at times be prone to cynical exaggeration, the thesis of the decline of social capital consequent upon the intensification of individual experience is understandable in light of the cabinets of horror I am posting about here.
I've concluded that when a self is thrown back on its own resources, it can easily fall prey to opportunistic substitutes for a responsible social philosophy. Indeed, these substitutes characteristically masquerade as the new "emancipated" form of individual "authenticity". Adorno's warnings appear all too prescient in this context. He remained highly critical of the “jargon of authenticity” as an ideology which desocietalized human subjectivity through its emphasis on self-control. By such means “a bad empirical reality” is transformed into “transcendence” as the impotence and isolation from a societal perspective are used to secure the self as the only “unloseable possession” (Adorno 1973: 116).

By extension, one can easily imagine not only the beleagured Scientologist, but also the augmented transhumanist seasteader, as resembling Travolta's stupendously bad attempt at characterisation in the following clip, cackling evilly as he dispenses some rough justice to "the norms" barred admittance to paradise (except maybe as a service/slave class):

And then there is further evidence of an attempt to transform a bad empirical reality. Another way of saying the same thing is that it resembles the conversion of sour grapes into sweet lemons (as per Jon Elster's book). For what else is a Hollywood "star" if not the metaphorical embodiment of the kind of transcendence Adorno describes?:

Besides talking pure nonsense to a bewildered Smiley for several minutes, Smith used a very strange phrase about halfway through the clip. He talked about "feeling like you're at effect," which means...well, frankly, this Hubbard jargon means anything you want it to mean, so what the hell.

"I've been giving him the benefit of the doubt," Bunker says about Smith. "But how do you absorb 'being at effect' without taking courses? I suppose it's possible he picked it up from his equally certain, equally high-strung pal Tom Cruise. But it's not an ordinary buzzword out here in the wog [non-Scientology] world." To Bunker, the clip is evidence that Smith has been taking Scientology courses for some time, and has absorbed the Hubbard way of thinking.

What we found even creepier comes later in the clip, when Smith starts talking about creating matter with his mind. Smiley's expression is priceless as Smith talks about the power of his brain: "I can create whatever I want to create if I can put my head on it right, study it, learn the patterns..."

Hey, that's just what Hubbard's other minions believe, that after a few more classes (each costing about the same as a luxury car), they'll get so powerful they can create things just by thinking about them!

Hey Will, we hope you keep studying all the way to OT VIII so you can start bending the universe to your will (so to speak). Then maybe you could think real hard about a film with you in it that doesn't suck, so that one magically appears!
more: Featured, Scientology
Clive Hamilton lecture: Reclaiming Morality from Conservative Dogma and Postmodern Indifference:
Significant as an example of a discourse attempting to galvanise wider debates beyond the walls of the academy. To be sure, it sacrifices the complexities and nuances of those authors identified as "postmodern" in some respects, but remains valuable chiefly for its indictment of the sociocultural legacy of neoliberal "freedom" [sic]

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