Techno-Capitalism

Linking Technology and Sociology.

I tried to write an article that would speak to a certain view of the exercise of power. At first, I sought to address violence as it related to the psychological displacement that many feel in this racial climate. Something that should, as our minority populations grow, lead to wider inclusion within and diversity of how we see and experience community. 

In the wake of recent events, like the shootings at Parkland, Michigan State, and a host of others, the violence that we have witnessed is not only a problem of gun-ownership or psychological fitness. Instead, this violence arises from the manner in which  we construct and perpetuate institutions that alienate the first-person “actor” at the expense of others. Others may be seen as impediments to our desires for more immediate satisfactions for sex, violence, or other catharses. 

Violence has thus become an outgrowth of how we practice digitization in our time of techno-capitalism: The passage of an era where the digit had more to do with utility rather than quantification. The utility for a living organism, rather than a proliferation of numbers. 

In terms of our current technology, we often wish to go hands-free and speak commands instead of picking up the phone, pressing a few keys, or even going outside to acquire goods. Are we entering an age in which our very handy-work will have nothing to do with our hands? That the root of digit will truly be dead? Maybe only for some. 

Many have written about techno-capitalism to describe corporate relations to the state, to describe the social influence on and felt from emergent technologies, and how that affects the flows of investment. Let’s begin with what many have: intellectual property. We can’t forget that every click, bit, pixel, digit not only bears a numerical expression but also is imbued with intrinsic value: what we might call an expression, whether visual, aural, syntactic, or numeric. The very number also is imbued with a value not of that which it expresses, but of how and of what expresses it, its own enumeration as well — in other words,he difference between the function and its effect. This, essentially, is the habitual behavior and systemic nature of techno-capitalism.

One example of such behavior can be found in  stories of adventurers who scour the earth for rarities in far flung regions, something medicinally useful maybe. They study the enzymes and chemical compounds and patent it, regardless of from where they came or whose back-yard they are tromping around in. Following, there is also a drive for the accumulation of numbers, a hoarding.

Another aspect of such behaviour involves how that same value-seeking worldview affects the wider social sphere. Catharine MacKinnon has long talked about the dangers of pornography, how the media through which we experience and learn sexuality can tinge our lived experience if not behaviour. We have long been warned of the violence expressed in video-games, different from allegorical violence, should be noted. In video games, violence has become ever more immersive and real-like. This isn’t to say that all pornography is bad or that all video games are bad. However, it informs us of a basic instinct that oftentimes ought not to be promoted. Take for instance the relation of a “first-person shooter” and a “lone wolf gunman.” Even if experiencing virtual carnage may relax some, for many it serves to desensitize and inspire cynicism, even if they wouldn’t buy one themselves. The prevalence of real violence committed using AK-47 and semi-automatic weapons is twinned by their virtual components in these games with surprising realism. I have childhood memories of playing Wolfenstein and Doom, experiencing the carnage, and being a voyeur of staged violence that might make someone “uninitiated” to that culture wince. It’s no coincidence that trolling started as a gamer habit, and now has become a high political issue, as has been seen in the accounts of Russian mis/dis-informationists, and the dissemination of post-factual statements.

Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory (2003)

So it’s not that we have somehow forgone “utility” in technology altogether, even if in some ways we have. As humans, and as a highly evolved species, we make and use tools, often with and on other tools. I do not write to question “utility” in the abstract sense, but rather to ask to what ends are we using these tools? We cannot mark an ideology with the same stroke that we use to mark an actor, so we must ask what commands we are given, and who are they that are expressing rules of use around technology. Is the experience that technology gives us through media, through online communities, through video games preferential to what we live in “ordinary” life? We also have to ask, what happens when we choose a worldview that is less connected to something valued, and more closely related and built upon other valuations, when we see green. For those wishing to monetize this, we ask what is convenient, what is exciting, and what is efficacious, while never asking what convenient, exciting, or efficacious means in that syntax. After we look into those questions, we will better be able to understand what is at risk when we watch movies like The Terminator and The Matrix

I do not seek to tout a conservative bent either, although I think it is important to ask ourselves where we find our entertainment and to what end our consumption serves. It’s a perfectly good question to ask why we would want to be violent, and if that is a natural way to release a human instinct, how that violence is exercised. Whether in politic or virtuality. I don’t think, however, that any psychologist would agree that if “first-person shooters” went away, we would suddenly see a rise in gun violence. I think people would just find a different way to be entertained, and maybe a more healthful one.

In light of this, perhaps we can situate the human in an increasingly complex, although ultimately closed cybernetic field; if we cannot say that of machine learning en toto, we can at least say this when value is pegged to an economic unit. I believe that if block-chain and crypto-currency saturate the market to the fullest, we will see more clearly why this is so. We are leading towards an era where not only everything will be counted; everything will have an economic value, even if for those more ephemeral items, the value quickly approaches zero.

This type of abstraction is more violent than what those have called a “naming” or declarative function, for it bears no name or thing beyond enumeration. For this reason we have responded to calls of storytelling and witnessing.

The World Health Organization (WHO)’s adoption of Quality Adjusted Life Years — as opposed to Disability Adjusted Life Years — represents one change in the function of enumeration when applied to health statistics. The latter places value upon the upper bounds of a population’s life expectancy given certain factors, like disease. The former asks how the population might feel about their own health at any given time. Even here, when quantifying a “happiness” expression, problems abound. A citizen of an underdeveloped or highly indebted nation may feel satisfied with two meals a day and with fewer amenities, but that does not mean that the same individual, after having experienced a change in lifestyle, will feel that way ad infinitum. It also does not mean that the very same person will not criticize others for neglect of healthful distribution of resources either

We also cannot forget that we do not live in a vacuum, and that we experience events [political, scientific, psychological, artistic, or otherwise categorized sic. Alain Badiou], whether everyday or momentous; and that those events affect our behaviors. We have seen something in American politics about which  has been long written: a “cult of personality.” But technology has both changed how we exercise our freedom to spend and has borne an influence on what we value or choose to seek when we spend. More and more, we follow a moto of “you can’t make money, if you don’t spend money.” No wonder that we have also heard that “there’s nothing better than spending other people’s money [especially on yourself]”.

We can look at the recent tax codes the same way: Those who benefit from these breaks may well spend in order to earn more.he underlying message given is that when we spend unwisely, we won’t make money and someone else will. This perspective ignores how  spending money does always involve receiving immediate or even latent satisfaction. Sometimes spending money serves to enrich the community on a wider scale. Nietzsche writes, “First change culture, then see what philosophy can do.”

The accompanying discourse and disciplines around achieving said liberty is seen in an increasing financialization of our lives and of the things around us. This is an inherent imperative of techno-capitalism. Yet we gloss over it with a guise of neutrality. Take for instance a commercial ran a few years ago for ING: Its message was, “a number is just a number.”  We don’t care how much money you have; you can still bank with us, and we will provide a caring service by watching after your financial security. True as that could be, it’s a commercial. If you want to saturate the market, of course you want anyone and everyone to feel as though they are being served in the manner a concierge might. The implication is that your number doesn’t matter as long as you bank with us.

What falls out of this new-fangled experience of the market, more rapid, more intense, more seemingly neutral. “Don’t politicize the market!” someone once said to me. Guy Lyotard writes, “The spectacle preserves unconsciousness as practical changes in the conditions of existence proceed.” Through a history of roaring markets, calamitous crashes, the emergence of increasingly sophisticated technologies, those who have survived and thrived must be…titans, lucky, or wear parachutes. In this way, Trump is not anomalous, Trump should have been expected.

The more we see green, the more the dollar sign has become a totem of our culture and a constitutive element of the American psyche. It should not surprise us that, amidst these speeding cycles of media frenzy and market turnover, we seem to forget a lot: events that impact our wallet until we start to live high on the hog again; lost loves who we would rather remember to spurn ourselves; what we might have dined on just yesterday, however exquisite. Even though the Credit Crisis of 2008 gave birth to a good amount of regulation, “sub-prime” still exists as “near-prime”, and “non-investment grade / high yield” has become “below investment grade.” In news media too, we see an onslaught of images to gawk at, looking for similars, and forgetting how what the last image presented us with. We have lost an amount of concernful circumspection, and adopted one of voyeurism. And because we forget so much (every downturn, cyclical or “great” depression, and crisis) or the horror stories that we see in the news, we feel we can always right ourselves, or that the market will return to its normal or profitable mechanic, never asking who really got the short end of the stick–which, in the end,  we have just experienced. But what happens when we take off the green-tinted glasses and virtual reality gear? What happens when we realize that this is not a game? That showmanship is explicitly not what a President does when she or he governs. And should we perchance remember, maybe by some hypnosis or self-searching power, we ask for whose shame had that history passed?

What now will be our conditions of existence? What now has our world-view become? Can we change the channel on legislation as we might have after we finished watching people get fired? When we look to an administration that failed to staff leadership positions for our country, and when we see appointments made for reasons of “loyalty,” we have to ask to what ends are those offices now serving? Those who have been given the now colloquial “You’re fired!” seem only to care because they are now cast out of a golden city in which dollar signs rule more than does communal equity. Under the present administration, it seems that the city may have just as well been wrought of lead. And we wonder, why have we elected a “King of Debt” rather than a “Secretary of Goodwill”?

Contributors / Isaac Authus

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