In The Liquid / Joshua Simon

“If fascism follows a failed a revolution, then ours is the failed digital revolution.”

Rasmus Fleischer

Neo-reactionary trans-humanism, techno-libertarian digital-feudalism, Bay Area cyber monarchists and ethno-nationalists – these supposed hybrid neologisms are where the digital is today. The history of cyberculture coming out of counterculture in the USA is a well-established celebratory story. But since then another historical trajectory has emerged to dominate the real existing internet: this is the story of the evolution from hobbyists to trolls. This history combines the licencing of software, the internet as a military project of the US in the Cold War, and it involves libertarian fantasies and misogyny, political manipulation and surveillance, commodification and paranoia. For the exhibition In The Liquid we present an archaeology of the digital with materials from the internet itself.

Ana Teixeira Pinto tells the story that when asked “what is the profile of the alt-righter?”, white supremacist Richard Spenser said it is probably a 28 year old tech savvy guy, who’s working in the information technology. When the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer gets most of its donations from silicon valley and Santa Clara County, home some of the biggest tech companies, like Apple and Intel, this bids the question what makes the digital so Nazi?

In November 1989, during the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Central Channel of the USSR chose to broadcast a series of mass hypnosis shows (or “televised séances” as they were called). The hypnotist Anatoly Mikhailovich Kashpirovsky tried to heal the ailments of the Soviet citizens and divert their attention from the dramatic events unfolding in Berlin. The prevalent interpretation maintains that in this hypnosis show of the end of the Soviet era, the tension between reality and imagination was particularly poignant. The conservative claim that informs the accepted interpretation of this event sees communism as a dream, hallucination, lie, illusion, while the fall of the Berlin Wall is likened to a wakeup call, an event in which actual reality erupted in full force, breaking through the layers of the dream. In our current reality, this interpretation falls short. Our condition is more complex – reality did not materialize; rather, we stepped into a dream within a dream, and this second dream pretends to be reality. Like in a Luis Buñuel film – we are in a false awakening. The conservative interpretation of the encounter between the television screen and the iron curtain sees communism as a collective hypnosis while capitalism is a purportedly inescapable catastrophe. In this state of affairs, we no longer have access to the dream (a political project of equality) and the dream in which we exist (absolute inequality presenting itself as freedom) pretends to be reality. We are in a hallucination, but believe we are in reality, and at the same time have no access to any reality other than that hallucination, which de facto defines any other reality – “a false dream.”

The celebrated Macintosh TV ad from 1984 with the aerobics/socialist realist female athlete throwing her hammer at the screen and breaking the monolithic one-sided apparatus, said that because of the launch of Macintosh, the year 1984 won’t be like George Orwell’s dystopia novel “1984.” Watching that ad today, when the Internet is a machine of data-mining and social control, operating as a rhizomatic panopticon, thatbreaking of the screen seems symptomatic to false awakening.

The famous Wired magazine cover and issue from July 1997 with the title “The Long Boom” and an illustration of the planet as a smiley face with a chrysanthemum in its mouth, stands as a document of California ideology. The caption for the illustration on the cover reads: “We’re facing 25 years of prosperity, freedom, and a better environment for the whole world. You got a problem with that?” It is true that twenty five years have yet to pass but the last twenty-one years since the issue came out, were the total opposite of that promise. The cover stands to this day as a document of false awakening. As Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron wrote already in 1995, the Californian ideology “has emerged from this unexpected collision of right-wing neo-liberalism, counter-culture radicalism and technological determinism.” Data-mining and libertarianism, surveillance and free market, the California ideology operates contradictory modes of freedom and paranoia – from Charles Mansons to Peter Thiel. In a bit that seems to foresee algorithmic predictive analysis (the sort that Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Peter Thiel of Palantir Technologies or Robert Mercer of Camebridge Analytica are known for), Barbrook and Cameron write: “The Californian Ideology rejects notions of community and of social progress and seeks to chain humanity to the rocks of economic and technological fatalism. Once upon a time, west coast hippies played a key role in creating our contemporary vision of social liberation. As a consequence, feminism, drug culture, gay liberation and ethnic identity have, since the 1960s, ceased to be marginal issues. Ironically, it is now California which has become the centre of the ideology which denies the relevance of these new social subjects.”

The false awakening we are in is such that while we can touch images on touch screens, we do not know what they are showing us. 2018 might be remembered as the year of graphic cards shortage. The price for the cards soared since the beginning of the year, parallel to the price of Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies. their strong processing capabilities, made graphic cards an ideal tool for amateur crypto-mining. Interestingly enough, the graphic card is usually used for rendering visual plans and programs (from architectural plans to videogames), but here it was used for something that has no visual presence. This is a telling example of where power is today – in derivatives, algorithms, meta-data; all non-visual entities, unattainable by the human eye.

In order to understand were this puts us we have to consider the relation between the visual and the political. Armenian-American inventor Luther George Simjian’s professional biography connects the automated teller machine, the teleprompter, the photo-booth and the flight simulator. Simjian took part in developing many technologies that have set the stage for neoliberal optics, meshing together entertainment and surveillance to a degree that makes them inseparable. The underlying logic of his optical inventions produced images through distributed and networked technologies that constrain and manage forms of subjectivity conducive to neoliberal governance.

As Mark Hayward put it, “neoliberal optics operates through technologies of subjective, affective engagement and subjective extension fragmentation.” These include the weapons/video game interface of the flight simulator, the security/entertainment apparatus of the photo booth, the transparency/manipulation mechanism of the teleprompter and the self-service/surveillance apparatus of the ATM.  The networked computerized unites we call smart phone simply enhanced this logic. But to what effect?

“To be preoccupied with the aesthetic properties of digital imagery, as are many theorists and critics is to evade the subordination of the image to a broad field of non-visual operations and requirements,” writes Jonathan Crary. [1]  Alex Galloway writes in “Are Some Things Unrepresentable?”: “Today’s systemics have no contrary. Algorithms and other logical structures are uniquely, and perhaps not surprisingly, monolithic in their historical development. There is one game in town: a positivistic dominant of reductive, systemic efficiency and expediency. Offering a counter-aesthetic in the face of such systematicity is the first step toward building a poetics for it, a language of representability adequate to it.”[2]

Virtual reality and augmented reality are the new frontiers, not of human subjectivity but of markets. They offer a reality experience in order to stay in the dream. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook presented Oculus Connect recently with the idea of creating ecosystems for developers to work on and build VR/AR worlds. Zuckerberg aims for a billion people using VR in what he calls “frictionless experience.” The ecosystem he is creating is a market he can regulate and control, one Facebook can monopolize to extract profit. Zuckerberg basically wants to duplicate the market presence of a billion people to be physical, online and virtual. Filmmaker Hito Steyerl calls the form of vision offered by Oculus VR vision, Bubble Vision. For her, the fish-eye 360 degrees immersive image makes the actual viewer its own blind spot. In VR you are missing from the image. You become a ghost in the machine.

Already the first commercial computer produced in the United States, UNIVAC I, saw people as its deliberate raw material. From payroll to voting results, UNIVAC was processing information on human labour and political choices. In addition, it usurped a human function taken on by thousands of clerks just a few years earlier. Behind this and every attempt at automating production or processing information lies the political unconscious of automation: a quest for a perfect slave, which would generate production with no demands. As Ana Teixeira Pinto explains, in reality automation “tends to render workers more pliable and prone to exploitation, and ends up extracting machine-like labour from automated humans.”

When Bill (then still William) Gates, published his Open Letter to Hobbyists, in January 1976, at The Homebrew Computer Club Newsletter, West Coast radicals still pioneered the use of new information technologies for the alternative press, community radio stations, home-brew computer clubs and video collectives. In his letter, written in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Gates expresses a simple idea; let’s make software a licensed commodity like hardware. Instead of the digital revolution replacing existing social, political and legal power structures with free interactions between autonomous individuals and their software, Gates laid the foundations for the monetized reality of the digital. Forty years later, an oligarchy of libertarian technicians and financial speculators, mistake their lack of accountability with meritocracy.

Walter Benjamin famous remark that Fascism aesthetisizes politics while communism politicizes art, reflects this moment, where the aestetization of politics is brought to perfection by its disappearance from the human eye.

 

[1] Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (London: Verso, 2013), 47

[2] Alexander Galloway, “Are Some Things Unrepresentable?,”  Theory, Culture and Society 28 (7-8), 2011, p.100