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Political Economy of the Unseelie Court in Cyberspace[Trenchant Edges]
Estimated reading time: 17 minutes, 42 seconds. Contains 3542 words
Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges.
I’m not going to apologize for being a flake anymore. It’s my “Fuck it, I’ll post when I feel like it” era. Y’all know what I’m about by this point.
There’s some stuff building but let’s not worry about that now.
The Trenchant Edges is about pulling big logs of weird culture up and seeing all the creepy crawlies underneath.
It occurs to me that it’s difficult to contextualize the weirdness without some basic understanding of the world things are “weird” in contrast to.
I want to talk a bit today about the way we think about technological progress, how technology shapes human agency, and how we might navigate the increasingly complex and opaque world we’re creating.
Feels like more and more people are aware of how lost we are as a society, we’re doing something without precedent and nobody has a goddamn clue where it’s going except that most of our indicators suggest we’re wrecking the hell out of things.
But how did we get lost? And what can we do to find a way out of this darkness?
And what the fuck does that have to do with fairy stories?
Cyberspace and Fairy Courts
In 1998, Erik Davis published the book Techgnosis about the mystical impulse underlying our technological development. I don’t know if that seems weird or not to you but it had a lot of company at the time.
Both Tim Leary and Terence McKenna spent a lot of time discussing how computers were more or less a drug and speculating how they’d change our consciousness.
The same way they talked about religions.
Over the last year as I’ve played with various Large Language Model “AIs”, I’ve started thinking more and more about those early speculations. They were optimistic, but more cautious than a lot of the California Ideology sold by the likes of Wired at the time.
My first insight into using generative AI came in the form of a fairy parallel and now I see the resemblance everywhere. Here’s a bit from a Facebook and Tumblr page I like:
My insight was that Gen AI acted very much like a fairy-creature: If you’re clever and say the right words you can trick them into performing great tricks for your benefit.
But working with them runs you the risk that your name (data) will be stolen and their power can just as easily be used against you (Automation vs job security) by someone else being clever.
And that’s really the difference: Everything we know about the fair folk is they’re, well, fair. If you treat them right and remember your manners, all but the most dangerous of them are mostly content to live and let live unless they’re hungry or capricious.
So enters the political economy, here with a knife to remake the fair folk’s realm into a theater of attention and wealth extraction. Tempting us into “building an audience” or “eating all this delicious food” and then trapping us within walled gardens with exponentially decreasing returns so we have to dance until we burn out.
The whole thing feels very… storybook.
See, the reason we were hungry in the first place is that our ancestors decided we should live or die based on the whims of this strange creature called “the economy”. And so when Cyberspace showed up promising juicy morsels of freedom we were thirsty for their sweet nectar.
For a while, it seemed like it’d be good. Sure, there were some downsides (Nazis, scams, our phone bills)
And then the accountants and MBAs showed up backed by venture capital money and the usual poverty of get-rich-quick promises.
Some thought the dot com crash defeated them, but that only wiped out the posers. The heavies, who saw the potential of the internet to extract information and commerce from a decontextualized humanity the way oil is pumped from out of the Arabian Peninsula survived and by large they’ve won.
We’ve discussed this again and again here.
It’s called “Surveillance Capitalism”.
And it arrived just in time to pad out industrial capitalism’s financialized corpse in 2008.
From a decentralized, open Internet to a handful of companies owning something like 80% of Internet traffic every month.
All in under 15 years.
How did they do it? Another 20th-century ghost. This one was banished by the “Cognitive Revolution” of the 1960s.
Mixed with an early modern aphorism from none other than Galileo “Measure what can be measured, and make measurable what cannot be".”
In short, we’ve taken some of the more abusable information learned in the 20th century and used it to build addiction machines. THEN we tied most people’s only shot to upward mobility to those machines and the news covers their goings on religiously.
It’s also true there’s a massive amount of opportunity available for the smart, creative, and sufficiently capitalized. Recent cautionary tales like Andrew Tate or The Liver King demonstrate what you’re able to do if you’re willing to do if you’ve got the cash from pressuring your girlfriends into sex work (pimp shit) or turning your entire life into an advertisement.
Of course, both needed some money to start making lots of money. $10k/mo steroid regimens like the Liver King’s cost almost twice as much as the average household income.
Wilfredo Pareto came up with the 80/20 rule over 100 years ago when he noticed that, in many things, 80% of outputs come from 20% of inputs.
Combine this with technology magnifying the rate at which wealth can be accumulated and we get increasing competition for huge piles of money while more and more people fight over scraps.
Nicholas Nassim Taleb describes this issue as two different kinds of worlds: mediocristan and extremistan.
In the former, physical constraints and bell curves describe fairly normal distributions of traits like height or weight. Variation (the gap between the largest and smallest amounts) is small. In the latter, there are few limiting factors and winners can scale up almost endlessly.
A comparison: William Shakespeare is the world’s best-selling fiction author as far as we know, with 2-4 Billion sales. Let’s write that out: 2,000,000,000-4,000,000,000. By contrast, last I checked 2 people have been brave enough to preorder my unfinished novel.
Billy’s outsold me by at least a billion times, That’s extremistan.
By contrast, the world’s shortest adult on record was a Nepali man who passed in 2015 named Chandra Bahadur Dangi. He was 54.6cm. By contrast, the American Robert Wadlow was 272cm.
2 billion times vs 5 times.
Extremistan vs mediocristan.
Endlessly bigger prizes for the absolute best is the trap technology since the industrial revolution has put in front of us. And like a cursed trinket, we often grab at it without considering the cost.
Unlike the old stories, however, real cause and effect may mean the vast majority of the cost may be on people we never see or even hear of. We’ve had a heat wave these past few weeks and I’ve been largely bedridden in a room with Air Conditioning.
Pittsburgh’s power comes from nuclear, coal, and natural gas. So I’ve been keenly aware of how my heavy AC use ripples out into the world. My share of their total costs is small, but it’s still real.
That’s a bit more demand for environmental destruction, pollution, coercive land usage regimes, and dangerous labor. The exact consequences are hard to map out since I don’t know where we get the raw materials for the power plants or the fuel itself.
Point is, in trying to get away from the heat I’m helping ensure there will be more heat in the future. Unforeseen consequences and multiple-order effects.
Socially, Information Technology is just as disruptive. Allowing anyone to connect to anyone else collapses the 15 minutes of fame allowed by broadcast TV into 30 seconds of “being the main character” of Twitter.
With often life-altering consequences.
All of this smacks of the uncanny vibe of the old stories.
Inscrutable codes of manners, vicious legalism, mass capriciousness, lies spread with silver tongues, and always the calculus of power with money and influence behind it.
Traces of diffuse malicious agency.
Scams on top of scams.
We may not understand, but we recognize the warning signs there’s something to understand.
This is true of people across the political spectrum as well. Both the far left and right correctly perceive that the platforms they use don’t really want them there for the most part: They want clean, advertiser-safe content.
But advertiser safe means refusing to address systemic issues, because those issues comment on real power relations and thus how those with the money to advertise got that money.
Advertiser safety is dangerous for everyone else because advertisers themselves are the danger. And like so many fairy stories, the game is one of risk arbitrage.
Every deal a trickster figure makes takes advantage of information asymmetry and makes sure one party is on the hook for more harm than the other.
Ideally, the other one.
The modern world we’ve made is an Old Growth Forest of Trickster Risk Arbitrage, passing the buck away from institutions and to people.
This is the vision of the future that caused the Unabomber to send his bombs, Orwell’s boot on a human face forever. Capital and technology squeeze most people a little bit more every day until ecological collapse.
But is that the only vision of tomorrow?
It’s not, but finding a viable option is increasingly difficult as the costs from past consequences pile ever higher.
Binding Viable Futures
I want to talk a bit about constraints, path dependence, and layers of reality.
If we start with nothing and build all of reality on top of it this is one way to map out the different layers that our world is built around.
It’s far from perfect, for example, “Culture” carries a goddamn lot of weight here to the point where I could break it up into a bunch of other categories, as it includes political organization, infrastructure, institutions, as well as various kinds of art.
But we’re just looking for a quick and dirty 80% good enough here.
Also, each level is deeply interrelated up and down the chain. These aren’t discreet categories but messy assemblages of differing forces impacting each other in non-obvious ways. Rhizomatic, one might say.
The point though is that the upper layers are constrained by lower ones in the same way a house is constrained by the surface it’s built on. You might put up the proverbial house on sand, but it’s sure to fall down unless you build it exactly right.
One of the many things this ignores is time. Let’s fix that here:
Now we’ve got something a bit more useful because it lets us see possible futures.
Reactions to reactions is the chain we’re in.
Supposedly around 13.7 billion years worth.
So let’s talk Metaphysics for a second. The most common metaphysical assumptions we have in the modern world and the very foundation of our great wealth and power is called Materialism.
Materialism says the world is made of physical stuff and that physical stuff behaves according to the laws of physics.
It’s kind of a way to elide metaphysics entirely, of course, but that’s because if you try and anchor metaphysics to anything else the possibilities rapidly approach infinity and the ways of getting practical/useful knowledge from those possibilities rapidly diminish.
The most popular alternative metaphysics to materialism comes from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Each with its own complex implications and library’s worth of history.
From a practical point of view, these metaphysical systems mostly exist as culture and scientific materialism has largely taken control of the engine of history. Powered by industry and organized by settler colonialism and capitalism.
The problem with metaphysics is it’s not really subject to any of our most reliable tools for understanding the world. The sense of how it works is deeply personal, culturally bound, and indistinct.
Made worse by the human tendency to construct identities as much about what and who people don’t want to be as who they do. If I believe X, people I annoy will look for other things to believe instead. Just to get some distance from me.
We’re led around by our own complicated feelings seeking a way to orient ourselves in the world with less cognitive dissonance.
This brings us to the genius at the heart of capitalism: The low entry point. All it requires is that you believe that other people will find money valuable. And if you want anything from them, its value is proven.
Things rapidly get more complicated, of course, and that minimum necessity quickly spirals into a whole ideology that imposes harsh discipline on anyone who wants to make money.
What initially looks like an easy and obvious fact carries with it a mountain of historical and intellectual baggage and demands maximal work from someone who wants to master it.
The other possibly viable metaphysics is corporate transhumanism. Reduce humanity to replaceable parts, the lowest commodity, and treat it like anything else to be hacked and upgraded.
Transhumanism envisions a future where technological power is complete, and where we can edit anything at will.
Where biology, geology, and perhaps even physics itself will be remade with human will.
Editor’s note: There were other ideas of transhumanism, but they’ve failed to catch on even within transhumanist circles. Recuperation again and again. The spores of libratory transhumanism will most likely return in a new form.
But there’s plenty of reason to think that this confidence is simply a naive artifact of perspective from an incomplete process unfolding.
For example, we haven’t really had a fundamental breakthrough in physics since the development of the standard model in the 1970s.
There have been a lot of attempts but we’re still playing with the same basic rules as 50 years ago. We’ve learned a lot about how to bend the rules and make new stuff with them but we’ve yet to change them.
And that’s a problem for transhumanism.
Because if scientific development isn’t an exponential curve ever upward and hits diminishing returns like most things do then we’re still limited by natural resources. Information Technology has been the most successful practical program of formal research of the last 200 years and it’s already showing signs of a plateau.
Connecting people across the world is an incredible feat but how much more can people be connected? The difference between a person without a computer and a person with a smartphone is enormous.
The gap between someone with a smartphone and the next step up: A computer/brain interface is much smaller.
What’s past that? We’ve already got minds worked into global networks of information trading.
Past doing that without an external device might be more direct processing control given up to the network. Running human brains like stacked RAID hard drives.
Not a future anyone wants for themselves, I don’t think.
How much more connectivity can you get?
Past that is something like a hive mind or biocomputers engineered for some specialized functions, which sounds like science fiction space magic but we’re already working on teaching lab-grown rat neural networks to play Doom, so maybe we’re past the fundamental technical hurdles and the rest is trial and error to figure out how to make it work.
To say this brings up some thorny questions is an understatement.
I don’t think it’s anyone’s idea of a perfect world to be a brain in a jar. But we appear to be hurdling into a future where brains in jars are viable.
All this gives us a lot of wild speculation, which is the issue with metaphysics. So let’s pull things back down to earth.
Resource Extraction, Ecology, and Hope in the Ruins of Industrial Capitalism
Because information technology needs increasingly complex natural resources and because those resources are fairly limited on Earth, it may not matter what IT *can* do, we simply may not be able to produce enough computing power to make it happen cheap enough to actually do it.
And since living in space is basically a war on the human body on a whole mess of levels, asteroid mining may be either not practical or require so much automation that we can’t do it soon enough.
And since recycling is basically fake and doesn’t look like it’s going to get better without some kind of massive change in something like nanotechnology, we’re probably stuck with the problem.
Add climate change’s acceleration to that and things certainly look grim.
We appear to be trapped in an unimaginable mess of feedback loops impossible to extract ourselves without radical change of some form.
As someone who’s not really a fan of the world he was born into I suspect this stresses me less than most people. OK, enough being coy: I hate the world I was born into. So knowing it’s dying feels nice instead of scary.
But like almost 8 billion of my closest friends, I am also dependent on this world to survive. Which is kind of an issue.
I don’t have a viable vision of the future. Frankly, I doubt one person can do the intellectual work to make it happen.
What I do have is a kind of method for searching for possibilities of life among the ruins. Back in 2009, I got the first hint of this at a meditation retreat. At the very end of it, after we were allowed to speak again, another attendant mentioned the reason why there’s so much incredible hiking in the pacific northwest is because of the history of logging.
They took old-growth forests and cut trails and roads through them so it was easy to get to the best bits of hiking.
A possibility opened by actions he disapproved of as an environmentalist.
I think this is the kind of future we must look for.
A book-length treatment of the subject was done by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing.
Returning to our longest open loop, Terence McKenna, we find another patch of possibility: The Forward Retreat.
McKenna saw a possibility in a renewed culture matching the Upper Paleolithic, an Archaic Revival to mix modern technology with lifeways considerably more open.
I don’t think he made a case for it particularly well, but the basic concept of the forward retreat seems to be the only option really open to us. We must change and we don’t know what or how.
But we’re already changing and being changed. The world I was born into hasn’t existed in decades.
I’ve spent the last few years looking through the intellectual ruins of organized leftism and learned a great deal, but no one had or has a solution fitting our current situation.
The only options open to me now seem to be simply to sell out and embrace capitalism blindly and gamble on ending up rich enough to pass the grim meat hook onto others, to embrace some kind of ideological community, or to follow Anna Tsing into the ruins and look for what I can find.
I’ll bet on the mushrooms.
My initial plan was to leave my essay on mushrooms, leaving it open-ended and a challenge to you to go into the world and contend against its intense ambiguity and strangeness.
I believe solutions come from fully understanding the problem and none of us really does yet.
Between editing and feedback from a few people, I’d like to add some notes grasping toward solutions.
A major driver of our failure states has been arbitrating information that makes the majority of people feel good at the expense of everyone else. We must seek out the premise-threats of the stories our cultures tell and bring those into the light.
We can say conclusively that if we don’t want to collapse into splintered factions of warring groups trying desperately to hold on to dwindling resources we need to understand ourselves and the world differently than we do now.
Much information unprocessed by the mainstream exists in the margins.
“Traditional” history holds up empires and state formation as natural and noble developments toward human potential. Isn’t that awfully convenient? Isn’t that the kind of thing empires like to say about why they’re necessary and good? Is it possible that empires are a failure state where the safeguards on the concentration of power we find hints of in anthropology weren’t enough to prevent one?
Many of the people living in those margins have been fighting for a really long time for a world where they’re not being fucked over. If, like me, you’re new to understanding this whole civilization thing is pretty fucked it pays to listen. I’ve been out here trying to find a decent way to live since 9/11 taught me that, in fact, empires are bad and will lie, cheat, steal, and kill whoever they want as long as they can continue propagating.
The greatest problem we face is we can only see viable worlds molded by empires. This is capitalist realism and much else.
In the meantime, we have to find skills and people to work with because it’s pretty clear that nothing like a classical “revolution” is going to be happening here at the Imperial Core.
If you want some resources for that, let me know. I have a bunch for more problems than you might think of so ask.
We’re already changing and being changed and there are no signs that’s going to stop any time soon. Might as well embrace it. I think that’s why I find the frame of fairy stories so appealing in these days: The unknown can be met and its ways learned. We don’t have to face it ignorantly.
Alright, I’m done. No ad today.
Good luck out there y’all.