Every generation has its obsession. Legos for kids, Starbucks for Gen Xers. But not all obsessions are the same.
Sure, obsessions with certain fetishized material goods as identifiers of social belonging are perhaps widespread across time and space, if not universals. But what these objects are, and their environmental and social impacts diverge drastically.
To chalk up the latest fad to “it’s in our genes” explanations is to elide the fact that global tech culture may in fact be destroying the planet and all we hold dear. Paroxysms of enthusiasm for tech is by no means universal, but a symptom of cosmopolitan culture. What type of culture is cosmopolitan culture, looking down on the rest of the world from 30 stories? It is a classic North v. South fallacy of universalizing the local, the temporally circumscribed, and the indulgences of rich, morally self-satisfied countries and the media-entranced denizens that inhabit them. For, make no mistake about it: the widgets on offer by global capitalism currently are pay-to-play. There is no hunting skill involved, no luck of serendipity. Instead of trading cowry shells, the currency of tech has a long, long shadow–environmentally and socially.
We are not the world. This should be the mantra of every overweight kid indoctrinated by virtual reality and X Box compulsion; every CEO and upstart start-up topsy-turvy progressivist who sees nothing but the myopia of angel investors’ capital; every stay-at-home dad and too-busy-to-care mom; every rosy-cheeked college student relieved to fit in. Our gadgetry, on which I write this morbid post, is an indulgence, and like all indulgences, comes with Corporate Social Responsibility guarantees and sustainability assurances. Being a good citizen is all bought and paid for. Never mind the planet, just buy our machine. We’ve got your guilt already covered for you, so no need to worry. And we’re buying this claptrap hook, line, and carbon sinker.
Apple is the highest valued company on the face of the earth. A cool trillion, more than almost anyone can even fathom; for such abstractions are so distant from the lived reality of the 7 billion and growing humans on this planet, that these sums are simply inconceivable. You could buy dozens of countries for that amount, if their worth were measured in GDP.
Thankfully, countries, and people, are not valued this way. But the increasing trend towards funneling experiences and practices, places and opportunities, into monitorable, salable, marketable commodities, is closing in fast. The loophole of living things everywhere, whether they be critters, processes, of assemblages, under attack by the analytics of legibility. Wholes become illegal. Organs are sold for money. Only taggable parts, preferably dissected to their least common denominator, remain. Carving nature at it’s joints takes on a butcher’s precision, with each part parceled out to the highest bidder.
Of course, there are no “natural” kinds to speak of–so capital just does what it does best, abstracts wholes into the most useful division of parts, and then reifies this model back onto the world, often with terrifying precision.
I recently bought a new computer, a Linux-based system made by an independent manufacturer. Talking with the guy behind the company, I got a startling realization of what was at stake. “It’s not about just security, or freedom from malware, bloatware, or snooping,” he emphasized. “What we’re talking about is, 20-30 years down the line, when our children have chips embedded in their brains, who do you want controlling their thoughts? Themselves, or the corporations?” Such frankness astonished me, and caused me to reevaluate the long-term picture, something a lot of well-meaning but gravely uninformed civilians fail to do. He was right, I realized. The whole computing competition, the gamification of everything, and the virtualization of emotions, nature, and even our minds, has an end-game. And that end-game asks one simple question: When technology gets to the point where it becomes utterly indispensable to integrate with it, or face imprisonment (and inevitably integration with it), who will be at the helm? Who will be inserting thoughts and desires in us? Which corporation?
The corporation that is successful, obviously, will rule the world, until some other piece of disruptive technology gets out of hand inadvertently, and punctuates a hellish equilibrium, likely creating even more insanity and confusion as what it means to be human quickly fades from view. The computerization, digitalization, and commodification of reality all spring up together, reinforcing actions in the world through an unrelenting process of abstraction and instrumentalization.
For what purpose is this instrumentalization? That is the question nobody asks. Techno-optimists say: “progress.” But even the grand wizards of virtual reality and biggest proponents of abstraction have issued dire warnings about uncontrolled technological advance. With a bloodlust for “innovation,” a system of capital and complete derrogation of political authority, the question is not if irreversable technological Pandora’s Boxes will be unleashed, but when.
What could be sending our world careening into the dark unknown? Why must this trajectory be so final, so inescapable?
The short answer, of course, is that it isn’t. We have ample choice, to decide a different future, one person at a time, or all of us collectively. Every day with every action there are forces of true liberation working to facilitate the awakening of each being on this planet sui generis by setting up the fertile conditions for it. And there is the default option, the status quo, that we are nudged into through sheer exhaustion, overwhelm, propaganda, and pop-up advertising. The death of life, of the biosphere, is not sudden or abrupt. It was already underway well before the industrial revolution with the invention of hate coming from hurt, inequality growing out of fear of death, and prejudice coming from trauma and scapegoating. Our demise is a death by a thousand cuts. And our salvation is cured by a million tiny actions of re-memberance, or awareness, of helping others in solidarity. Realizing that we are all connected, and that ultimately our fates our shared, does not mean that we should pretend that we are all equal or the same. Respect replaces equality before the law when we understand that some people (such as disabled people) may not be equal at all, but in fact demand extra resources to live a good life, just as an ascetic should not have ipads foisted upon her. Respect of diversity is the insight that empowering people is the opposite of enabling them: creating the social and environmental conditions for maximum flourishing requires a vision of the whole rather than just concentrating on the most proximate parts.
A devolution of political, economic, social, and technological power and expertise allows for a scale of life suitable to living things, rather than as robots or disposable workers in a puppet-show of no-one’s making. The scariest part about our current world is that no one knows what is going on. It’s perhaps a sad fact to conspiracy theorists left and right that nobody is driving the ship. We are. Collectively. Haphazardly. Ineluctably. But, we must ask ourselves: who are we? Who am I? Am I myself a unity? Or, am I also a collection of trillions of bacteria and cells, hundreds of species of viruses, amoeba, worms, bacterial colonies symbiotic and parasitic–which is actually the truth of the matter.
It’s popular in New Agey circles these days to murmur about, and simultaneously completely miss the point of the following ancient, Native American parable:
The Two Wolves
A Cherokee elder was teaching his grandchildren about life.
He said to them, “A fight is going on inside me… it is a terrible fight between two wolves.
One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, hatefulness, and lies.
The other stands for joy, peace, love, hope, humbleness, kindness, friendship, generosity, faith, and truth.
This same fight is going on inside of you, and inside every other person, too.”
The children thought about it for a minute. Then one child asked his grandfather,
“Which wolf will win?”
The Cherokee elder replied…
“The one you feed.”
The problem with most people’s interpretations, is that this isn’t about metaphysics! It’s about diet. It’s about time spent doing x rather than y. It’s about saving it for later rather than living your vow as a human being incarnated at this particular crux in history to do what needs to be done; to be political; to stop buying shit you don’t need; to start donating at least 10% of your income (however large or small that may be) to supporting the things you care about; to not wait, but do it now; to live your life purpose in service to all beings everywhere; to free yourself from ignorance and begin by lying to yourself less; to confront unjust situations; to laud those who are praiseworthy and shame those who are blameworthy; to take your life seriously and stop being a victim of external circumstances; to reframe the dominant narratives of our time to bring courage, solidarity, equity, and justice into focus and reality; and to question any point you think is your consciousness or you. Follow the serpent, ride the dragon, and don’t stop. Mara came to Buddha as he was determined to reach enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, seducing and intimidating him with every distraction. Buddha replied, “Neti, Neti–I am not this, I am not that,” refusing to identify with those parts of himself that were vestiges from generations of poor habits, the ancestral memory of missteps accumulated in every cell and drop of blood. Every wrong doing, every animal eaten, purged from identification, holding that these things may arise and pass away, but that he would no longer be hooked by the addiction of identifying with them.
But Buddha did not just stop once he got enlightened. He dedicated his life to helping others come to enlightenment through teaching them to get in touch with their own virtues, and develop their practice of watchfulness, of letting the grip of attachment and identity to states loosen and dissipate.
We don’t need more widgets. We need to get in touch with the part of ourselves that protests that it’s not enough. Cultivating true self-knowledge is at first a negative process, in so far as it has more to do with taking off the layers of deception and illusion that with adding wisdom. As the old zen parable goes,
The Japanese master Nan-in gave audience to a professor of philosophy. Serving tea, Nan-in filled his visitor’s cup, and kept pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he could restrain himself no longer: “Stop! The cup is over full, no more will go in.” Nan-in said: “Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup.”
One of the most quotidian experiences we have with detaching is our body, our diet, and our concerns. Many people today count calories, concern themselves with getting too much protein, and loading up on supplements that they just end up pissing out. Don’t they see that a healthy environment would grow the vegetables and fruits they need to be optimally healthy? What carrot-on-a-stick, always out of reach, are they aiming for, anyhow? The simple fact that if the whole world became vegetarian, that there would be more than enough food for everyone, is convincing enough reason to choose not to eat animals–without even getting into the health benefits of such a regimen.
Hannah Arendt famously pictured the bureaucratic structure of totalitarianism as an onion. There is no one at the center directing the operation. It is the structure itself which is controlling the inhabitants. Demolishing the structures which colonize is important, as we co-create biological, breathing structures alongside, which eventually will de facto obliterate the other archaic, hierarchical structures. The lion is not the king of the jungle; it is but one player in the web of life it inhabits. So too, the human is not the apex of creation, but a link in a larger synergy. Currently, through the artificial structures and institutions we’ve built, we’re acting parasitically, even self-parasitically. With vision and hard work, we can begin to turn this tide and this relationship with creation into a symbiotic one.