Recently, boarding a late flight bound for someplace far from this summer, I focused on refills of coffee and avoided eye contact with the center aisle, as our captain executed an order to stay put, and gazing at the tarmac, I decided now was the time to put my stash of glossy magazines to use, so, after takeoff, when the rest of the cabin had reached a peak of inebriation or slumber, I made enough notes to scrawl what follows once I had reached my destination and forgotten about where I had left.
Quoting Sean Parker, Vanity Fair writes: “It’s technology, not business or government, that’s the real driving force behind large-scale societal shifts.” Whether or not that’s true, and whether or not it’s a question of “force,” it looks as if futurism is here to stay. It’s the mainstream anachronism du jour. Entrepreneur, commenting on certain recent large-scale societal shifts, mentions the billions of US dollars made by the online retail and social-networking businesses belonging to American women and men in their twenties, referring to these people collectively as “a generation shaped by mobility, interactivity and constant connectivity.” Clearly, new developments in technology have opened broader avenues to wealth in the USA.
Elsewhere, meanwhile, things are otherwise. A few years ago, at a Taiwanese company called Foxconn, twelve employees committed suicide by jumping out the windows of their company housing units. This attracted the attention of the American press. It seemed that technological innovation might be having different effects in different places. Bloomberg Businessweek writes:
Li Caihe, a 19-year-old from Gansu province, works a 12-hour shift attaching nine parts to the motherboard of a Nokia N90 handset. “It takes so much concentration, it was very stressful at first,” she says. “I know I can go to a counselor, but I don’t think it will help. I’m pretty adaptable, and I can cope. When I speak to my parents, I try to sound happy. I don’t speak about my stress.” Li shares a dorm room with seven other girls and plans to stay on for another year. After that she hopes to open a small business back home, a beauty salon perhaps.
This semiskilled smartphone assembly line worker is portrayed according to the conventions of an idealized image of suffering humanity. In our free press anybody who embodies that ideal is understood to be someone who remains excluded from the birthright privileges of first-class citizens, left to languish outside the spheres of bourgeois compromise. Human nature never changes, but instead springs forth perennially, or so this image reassures us. The New World, brave or not, peddles a rather old, not to say played-out, story. Skepticism blooms in the black night of Tech.
We look askance at our gadgetry. It appears to observe us in turn. And under the gimlet eye of an outsourced self-scrutiny, we receive the untimely reminder that our decisions are not our own. We notice that technology carries out its commands on behalf of a collective unconscious. Forbes writes:
Consider the cyber footprints left by a former FBI agent. Every few days he would stop his normal activities and make a single query to a server across the network, a pattern he repeated for years. That server held the counterintelligence database. He was searching for himself, a routine check to see if he’d finally been found out.
All of a sudden, accidentally-on-purpose, we get caught doing something that we didn’t think we knew we wanted to get caught doing. We act out our guilt before a live video audience, on a baby-grand scale. How humiliating it all is, how real.
In our supposedly advanced society, we see ourselves as the Many would see us, if only they were there too, if only they were paying attention, if only they were human. In The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau called this phenomenon “the General Will,” the majority opinion. The story went that we offer up our natural rights in total submission to the General Will, which guarantees our rights as members of a society. In fact, from the viewpoint of choice, individuals and the General Will become more or less exact equivalents of each other. The Internet is an indication that the General Will is alive and well. And one very reliable measure, in the murky matters of opinion and choice, from the General Will’s point of view, is the way that an opinion or choice appears when reflected in binary code. Who’s in, who’s out.
Not everyone is down to don the guise of a globalized post-individual, however; and yet striking the confident pose of a virtual cowboy is no help either. Writing of the Mossad’s failure to hush up an assassination, GQ describes the Israeli spy agency as a gang of desperadoes run out of Dubai by a sheriff who’d posted their faces on a wanted poster and nailed it up onto the saloon wall:
[Dubai Police Chief] Tamim . . . compared . . . visual identifications [of Mossad agents] to the footage from the Al Bustan Hotel at the time of [Hamas weapons-trafficking middleman] Al-Mabhouh’s death, which gave him the names of the assassins. And searching databases of financial transactions gave him the identities of the rest of the team, all of which Dubai authorities posted online for the whole world to see.
Tamim also turned out to be extremely media-savvy. He presided over well-planned press conferences, carefully doling out information in a manner guaranteed to keep viewers—especially in the Arab world—coming back for more. He publicly called for the arrest of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and of [Mossad chief] Meir Dagan, whom he challenged to ‘be a man’ and take responsibility for the assassination. More realistically, perhaps, he called for international arrest warrants for all members of the hit squad, which caused considerable diplomatic embarrassment for Israel. When asked by an interviewer what the hit team’s biggest mistake was, Tamim answered that the presence of two men waiting for hours in the lobby in tennis gear with uncovered rackets was so bizarre that it instantly raised suspicion.
How complex our simplest decisions are: they produce their own surveillance. We move fluidly into and out of virtual life and it moves through us too. It’s almost as if we and it were two charges of one alternating electrical current flowing through the same circuit. But no – humankind is human, and machines aren’t. Right? What’s the difference between human beings and the binary digital reflection we see of ourselves in the new tools we have made?
While mass media reportage and opinion is often clear as a bell, it is the cultural, socio-economic and political implications of such apparently toneless discourse that present a challenge to the critical audience member, as these very different sorts of meaning, for obvious reasons, always lie deeply encrypted beneath dense layers of code, whose terms, further surrounding our reading experience in uncertainty, offer polyvalent and ambiguous signs, saying something different depending upon where and how far away one stands, so to speak.
Originally published in A Guy Should Know, 2014