Jeff Wells: We Are The Monsters We've Been Waiting For

The first post in a long time from Jeff Wells' Rigorous Intuition. As always happens, he's talking about the things that have been keeping me awake lately.

Our civilized world is nothing but a great masquerade. You encounter knights, parsons, soldiers, doctors, lawyers, priests, philosophers and a thousand more: but they are not what they appear - they are merely masks.... Usually, as I say, there is nothing but industrialists, businessmen and speculators concealed behind all these masks. - Schopenhauer

The Thing That Couldn't Die

Light for some time to come will have to be called darkness. - Nietzsche

They may be our Most Terrible Lizards, but they wouldn't be called the best and the brightest by even the hindmost fart-catcher in Abaddon's human centipede. They can turn blood into gold, playing Last Days' alchemists in the booming catastrophe and collapse sectors, but don't confuse the management of an habituated massacre with a meritocracy. They're the eschaton of open jaws at the close of the food chain, but for no other reason than a cold heart doesn't dwell upon the cruelty of its bite. We're the 99 and they're the One Percenters, and like the outlaw bikers who share the patch, they run the drugs and guns and kill for their club. They're the Killer Elite, but don't call them elite. No. Apparently, and with ironic perversity, that's me and my numerous tribe; over-educated beyond utility at the end of the Age of Useless Things.

And I mean that: the end of things. Capital has exhausted its first fuels, and now it's the creation of poverty, not of wealth, that makes the world go 'round. And naturally, when it's down to your own body, setting it alight before it's taken from you to stoke the engines of the Great Machine becomes the final impudence. Depending upon whether your nation is an appetizer or an entree on the globalists' menu, and how well the kitchen prepares its living parts, such an act may lead to revolution or a passing LULZ.It can go either way.

Over-educated, I mean that too. But it's not a sour boast after half a life being schooled for self-aware obsolescence. If you feel dumber for having watched Jersey Shore, then you too already know more than is good for you. America's public schools are made to fail on a budget comparable with the cost of air conditioning its imperial guard in Central Asia, with assets peeled off to private charters, and teachers discarded upon their broken unions. University, North America's new high school, is corporate funded and corporate branded and humanities' starved, with a deliberately crushing debt load upon students that corrals the choices of the less privileged towards machinery-sustaining, practical careers. The study of subjects that have not been sufficiently monetized and the accrual of empathetic knowledge are sniffed at as elitist pursuits, even as the student is financially wrecked by their mastery.

Terrible lizards. I don't really mean that. Not literally. Not yet. They might, after all, not be alien lizards in masquerade, but their ecocidal reptilian brains just happen to be terraforming a post-mammalian world best suited for the cold-blooded, and engineering a society denuded of human warmth, compassion and mindfulness. Lizards aren't what they were; lizards are what they're to be. This could be the prophetic consummation of transhumanism: the metaphor become flesh.

The Brain Eaters

"You know, we got ourselves into this. No one made us chew Chew-Z." - Philip K Dick, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

It occurred to me last year, when the Gulf of Mexico began coughing up its lungs courtesy of Deep Water Horizon, how it's one of the attenuated consolations of life in Evening's Empire that BP's sole, unmitigated success was to hold up a camera to the ocean's injury so we could all together view another viral FAIL video. I can haz desolation!

Because you know, this is what we're good at. I mean, this is all we can do now. And from lackadaisical blogger to Spectator-in-Chief ("I want to know whose ass to kick"), gazing upon from afar with approbation, from the Mississippi Delta to Fukushima and the next sideshow horror, is about as good as we get. And even then, not for long. Gulf seafood is contaminated but officially safe. Japanese school children are passing radioactive piss but it's not a concern unless they continue to eat radioactive produce and drink irradiated water. Half-waking observation, and the dialing down of our expectations of "normal," are for the most part the extent of our response, and we seem to have lost the means and the imagination to do anything but. Perhaps that's what the mass, deranged mind of the Internet has taken from us, by taking us into itself. And perhaps that's even why it exists.

In other words: if our wired brains are experiencing more read/write errors than the factory warranty led us to expect, I don't believe it's all down to depleted Serotonin and Aspartame. (Though, lest we forget, there is that, too.) We know well enough now, by study and experience, how the Web's interruption system impairs focus, and compounds the cognitive switching cost of our online distractions. It's the subject of Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains:

When we adapt to a new cultural phenomenon, including the use of a new medium, we end up with a different brain.... That means our online habits continue to reverberate in the workings of our brain cells even when we’re not at a computer. We’re exercising the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading and thinking deeply.

Whoa! Just a sec there, Joey Google. Maybe I can't live in your Cloud after all. Maybe we should rethink this entrainment of our brains towards trivia, while we can still meaningfully think. Maybe a Kindle isn't worth my kingdom of books. Maybe librarians aren't the enemy, and bookless libraries aren't actually good for children. Maybe literate adults should cease slow dancing with their tablets upon the grave of Johannes Gutenberg. But I don't see it happening.

Anyway, Carr again:

Last year, researchers at Stanford found signs that this shift may already be well under way. They gave a battery of cognitive tests to a group of heavy media multitaskers as well as a group of relatively light ones. They discovered that the heavy multitaskers were much more easily distracted, had significantly less control over their working memory, and were generally much less able to concentrate on a task. Intensive multitaskers are “suckers for irrelevancy,” says Clifford Nass, one professor who did the research. “Everything distracts them.” Merzenich offers an even bleaker assessment: As we multitask online, we are “training our brains to pay attention to the crap.”

Or let's try on Jean Baudrillard's words, from his 1985 essay "The Year 2000 Has Already Happened," and see if they fit us in 2011:

[E]ach cultural and factual set must be fragmented, disarticulated, in order to enter the circuits, each language must be resolved into 0/1, into binary terms, in order to circulate no longer in our memory, but in the memories, electronic and luminous, of computers.

Our culture digitized is no longer our culture, but that of our machines. Our machine culture replaces our own, imperfectly remembers us, and tells us to forget ourselves. Paradise to some. The future to all.

Steve Wozniak, a few weeks ago as I write this, said "we lost the battle to the machines long ago. We're going to become the pets, the dogs of the house." He said this optimistically. "Why are we going to need ourselves so much in the future? We're just going to have the easy life." Optimism and, if you can still stop and really think about it, a dash of madness.

"Once we have machines doing our high-level thinking," he continued, "there's so little need for ourselves and you can't ever undo it - you can never turn them off."

There's so little need for ourselves. Chew on that crazy for a moment, and then try digesting We're just going to have the easy life. What order of nonsense is he talking about here? How many do you imagine are included in Wozniak's "we"? If a dumb machine - "dumb" like the nematode parasite that turns its host ant into a berry-mimic to spread its kind in bird feces - if a parasitical technology could infect its host with thoughts to disarm its opposition, I imagine they would be thoughts like, "why are we going to need ourselves," "we're going to have the easy life," and "you can never turn them off."

My rewired brain has its benefits. It's helped me to make associate leaps with greater confidence, even if some times that confidence has been unwarranted. But outsourcing my working memory has come at a high cost. There's the atrophied recall and attenuated attention span, and I don't believe that's entirely attributable to age and enviro-toxins. If it's true, and I think it is, that I learned more reading one book at a time than trying to read all books at once, then I'm just a chump in the idiot's kingdom called The Information Age. I can blame whoever first flipped the switch on the unstoppable machines, but my mental decline by living better electronically is really nobody's fault but mine.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

"It is sweet to draw the world down with you when you are perishing." - Seneca,Medea

Anyway, what was I saying? Something about the Gulf.

Obama's best advice to Americans during that particular obscenity was that they should shop, swim and pray: one of those crystalline moments that said, yes, this President too is a Celebrity Apprentice to the Criminals Without Borders. Such a stand-up effort won't be forgotten when he leaves his office - an internship, really - and is initiated into Big Money, of which his presidency is merely a rite of passage: a pledge's gofer'ing for the inviolate fraternity of laundered capital. For Democratic presidents and Labour prime ministers, if they actually entered politics with even modest virtue and tepid vision for the public good, they have been richly rewarded for their abandonment. The sudden good fortunes of Clinton and Blair: this is what it profit a man. (By contrast, Jimmy Carter's post-presidency is perhaps an extended act of atonement to win back his soul.) Can there remain any doubt as to which career path Obama means to follow? Bill Clinton has earned more than $65 million dollars since leaving office for motivational "power within" speeches before business executives and similar peers who can afford him. Just imagine Obama's speeches. And his appearance fees. The American presidency is now just something that looks good on a resume, which can lead to a cash-for-life revenue stream.

And BP? Corporations in America may be persons under the law, but they're never persons of colour. If they were, so many would have been shot, hung, gassed or given the chair years ago.

There were many things Martin Luther had wrong. "Strong beer is the milk of the old" wasn't one of them. Another wasn't his revulsion at the Medieval Church's practice of selling indulgences: the tidy revenue stream of peddling Get out of Purgatory Free cards. A posthumous entitlement program for the wealthy dead, and an invitation to sin boldly for those who could afford it. (The poor, as ever, could pay only in the currency of their blood, sweat and souls.) Of course, this turned the teaching of Jesus of its head - rich man, eye of a needle, and all that - but no matter: the Church has made a custom of perp-walking its Christs in a parade of upside-down clowns for two millenia.

Luther's rejection of the selling of indulgences sparked the Reformation, but the practice hasn't stopped; it's merely been secularized. BP paid - or more accurately, promised to pay - an indulgence of $20 billion over four years to cover damages incurred by the sin of Deep Water Horizon. Not even enough to make 2010 a losing year for the company if the amount had been paid as a lump sum. In fact, its stock "surged" on the news that it had just bought its way out of purgatory on the cheap. "The fear was that the government was going to do something so drastic as to effectively push the company into bankruptcy," said oil and gas analyst Brian Gibbons. "Now they can come out of the meeting and say they have held BP accountable and hold up a $20 billion escrow account." That was last year. (Ancient history, and nobody studies history anymore.) This year, the company's bringing unabashed motherfucker back: BP now wants to stop payments based on future losses, saying "there is no basis to assume that claimants, with very limited exceptions, will incur a future loss related to the oil spill." BP points to returning tourists and the reopened federal fishing grounds, and points away from the fish so sickened by diseases and infections and environmental stresses that LSU Oceanographer Jim Cowan says, "I've never seen anything like this. At all. Ever."

And here's where the Medieval Church had it over on us. The rich could only buy their way out of Purgatory, not Hell. Purgatory was the place of temporal punishment, even if it were to last a million years. Hell was forever. And Hell for BP - break it up, bankruptcy, nationalization - was never a serious threat in an era of Too Big to Damn. Unlike, or God help me so it seems, the whole bloody natural world and its profitless life.

But what can you do, Mr President? You're only the titular head of a country that manufactures nothing anymore but weaponry, consent, and high fructose corn syrup. We'll miss our old world like we'll miss our old brains, but the longer it goes on, and the worse it gets, the more we'll become accustomed to it. Like the erasure of a hegemon's great cities to disasters natural and unnatural, its middle class, perhaps even its living memory of peacetime. That's the catastrophe of hope.

And don't think the Sadean few for whom the system works aren't loving the masochistic spectacle of good Democratic foot soldiers debasing themselves as New Deal Sonderkommando, immolating their Social Security on finance capitalism's pyre of a trillion dead presidents before freshening up with a whore's bath of Enjoy President Bachmannooga booga. (Somehow, moving the goal posts never interfere with their end zone dance.) Maybe, when you're given the choice of Satan, or Satan's Little Helper, it's past time to crash the parties.

So it's the end of America, but it's not the end of the world. That's already happened. If by "world" we mean a viable, global civilization and hospitable biosphere, and if by "end" we mean the extinguishing of fruitful recourse, then we sped past that last resort way back in the Seventies. This may not yet be the final reel of Vanishing Point, but we're deep in the third act and going 90 miles an hour down a dead-end street. And our Dodge Challenger is nearly out of road.

Some call this vanishing point, the "Singularity."

Read the rest over here, it is excellent and well worth your time.