Digital Civilization, Slouching from Silicon Valley to be Born

A semiotic history of the world would trace the gradual process of distancing from the ostensive and imperative via the declarative, along with the efforts, within new forms of declarative culture, to re-embed ostensives and imperatives. Insofar as we are humans, all signs must point the way to an eventual ostensive, but the pathways are continually elongated and intersected. If the first declarative was a negative ostensive, both interlocutors would presumably be a turn or a glance away from the demanded object. The “statement” that one hasn’t the object could hardly be sustained or remembered unless an alternate route to its procurement (and hence the completion of the imperative that initiated the sequence) was readily accessible. The development of the declarative through discourse would involve a gradual shift from conceptual scenes anchored in a setting of familiar material objects to conceptual scenes strung through other possible conceptual scenes to conditional ostensives of varying degrees of probability of realization. To understand a sentence is to understand the probability of one possible world amongst a range of other possible worlds, and to be capable of identifying sufficient distinctive features of that world. In other words, a space within other spaces where we could imagine pointing at something along with others, whether these spaces are fictional worlds or carefully constructed laboratory settings. Even if all we are dealing with are numbers generated by instruments registering the slightest movements of the tiniest particles, that data is something we can point to so as to distinguish between more and less expected outcomes of the experiment. Even the densest, most allusive poetry presupposes a reader who once spent time in front of the same page of obscure poetry as the writer, and can be startled into a shared recognition (or illusion thereof) of the experience of immersion in that page and the way that experience might be displaced if set next to another, equally distant page that we some sense might look at together.

We could see digital civilization as a qualitative shift in our relations to ostensivity. Vast swathes of social interaction that, within living memory, required sustained manipulation of objects or interpersonal (F2F) interactions, have been brought online. This is not just an advance in automation, although it is that as well. We will soon have driverless cars, and in a generation people will be astonished that fallible people (who drink, get distracted by music and conversation, suffer erosion of their eyesight and reflexes—and are vain about such things) were once allowed to operate these primitive, dangerous machines. The government doesn’t need wiretaps on specific people’s phones, and grizzled detectives sitting in a room across the street with headphones on eating pastrami sandwiches and drinking coffee all night—all you need is universal phone records and an algorithm to search for relevant patterns. The implications, to take one of many examples, for traditional notions of justice, are clear: if we once moved from barbaric means of determining guilt by “trial by ordeal” to the method we have now, the flaws of which are becoming increasing evident and intolerable, of collecting and weighing “evidence,” presenting that evidence before an ‘impartial” jury, with both “sides” represented by an attorney, we are now likely to move to the use of algorithms to search and analyze the official records of anyone you are considering hiring, selling a home to, letting into your place of business, etc.—who cares about such arcana as guilt and innocence if we can know, within “reasonable” limits, that the gentleman looking around the store is 8x more likely than average to commit some violent act? But such developments coincide with our increasing ability to decide on questions of fact, through DNA testing, omnipresent cameras, etc.—but if the basic facts will be so readily available, wouldn’t the whole rigmarole of arguments, legitimizing evidence, cross-examining witnesses, etc., along with philosophical considerations regarding just punishments just get replaced by the attempt to figure out either the best medical and therapeutic way of “curing” the criminals or the least repugnant ways of removing them from our sight? Just as the development of exotic new digital currencies might bring to the fore our continuing ultimate dependence on the precious metals. The ostensive can’t just be deferred and distanced—it must be resituated, bracketed, distributed.

If the history of your actions cannot bear algorithmic scrutiny you will be excluded from digital civilization—not necessarily convicted, but exiled. We couldn’t predict how sharp this dividing line will turn out to be—we don’t have the algorithms to do so yet. What roles will forgiveness and the notion of second chances have in digital civilization? Perhaps there will be algorithms for them. So far, we can see some perhaps minor paradoxes. For example, there is an increase in rigor within the more disciplined digital arenas (real R & D), along with an informality of dress and speech—as if, once we all know what we’re doing, and it’s not stuff that any literate person could do with a little training and supervision, the various proxies of “professionalism” (suit and tie, titles) can be dispensed with. Digital civilization will be far more enveloping than the industrial one preceding it—individuals within digital culture will be carefully shepherded from institution to institution, and the enhanced means and protocols for reducing dangers along the way will be vigorously implemented. Freedom and privacy, we could assume, will take on very different meanings (much less physical, which is to say, ostensive, and much more “semiotic”—or, perhaps, not so much there, either—the days where anything can be done anonymously may be over, except for those willing to break radically with the grid, and can survive that break, but that doesn’t exhaust the meaning of freedom), and personal responsibility will be enforced much more comprehensively (we won’t need debt collectors and repo men chasing deadbeats around if their appliances and cars can simply be disabled and located remotely, or bank accounts accessed when they swipe a debit or credit card). The need for all kinds of direct human contact will be minimized considerably, which in turn makes all kinds of human contact newly uncertain and risky, inspiring new protective counter-measures—this is already well under way. All this distancing and compartmentalizing and concealment of what disgusts and frightens us is well within the broad mainstream of civilization; indeed, it’s almost constitutive of it. But will there also be, drawn to those exiled to the margins of civilization (earthy, sensuous “primitives” like in Huxley’s Brave New World, and in some many sci-fi dystopias? Nomads, scavengers, raiders, more or less violent? Intrepid hackers? Sanctuary cities? Vast masses or manageable few?), some from among the civilized who will take up slumming with them, so as to distinguish themselves from their straightjacketed peers? Perhaps flouting civilization by disrupting its boundaries is equally constitutive of civilization.

How much freedom digital civilization allows and provides for and, indeed, how functional and enduring it will be, will depend heavily upon whether the victimary vendetta makes the transition and manages to install itself within the digital, or is kept out. So, far, the victimocracy is very much at home in the digital—the most cutting edge companies are the most insistently pro-gay (which, of course, helps to explain how gay rights, of direct concern to maybe 3% of the population, has shot to the top of the victimary agenda), victimary activists (I’ll use “SJW,” now that I know what it stands for) are extremely skilled in organizing online lynch mobs and manipulating the new media and, most importantly, much of the victimary agenda depends upon the continual distancing of the declarative from the ostensive that characterizes each new gradation in civilization. The struggle against oppression used to be richly ostensive, as the exclusion of and violence against blacks, the backbreaking conditions of workers, the seclusion and limitation of women, were all obvious for all to see. One could rationalize them, or counsel patience, or compare existing conditions to less plausible alternatives, but one couldn’t deny them. Today, claims that these groups are oppressed require sophisticated legal theories and the manipulation of data—of course, the victimocrats can’t resist the occasional (or more than occasional) hoax, but the real strength of the victimocracy is the ability to argue that barely detectable attitudes and actions and unseen biases within complex institutions generate devastating, widely dispersed and somehow measurable effects. But this strength is balanced by the fact that, ultimately, the ostensive can be delayed but not denied: the left still relies upon standard and fairly crude notions of “justice” that really only make sense in pre-digital terms where specific actions by people in authority could be observed having direct effects upon the victimized (a lynching, a strike crushed, etc.). If blacks, on average, earn 75% of what whites earn and have 35% of the property whites own, but also commit more violent crimes and engage in more behaviors that can be statistically correlated with lower earnings and savings, then one might accept responsibility and see a problem worth addressing but hardly an obvious injustice calling for outrage and immediate action. Which is why, perhaps, the hoaxes are necessary after all.

There is an extremely intense mode of ostensivity constitutive of the victimocracy, but it is also a very fragile one. It is commonly noted how uninterested in, and even hostile to, debate, the contemporary left is. The left of the 60s and even through the 80s loved to argue—they felt they had the facts, i.e., the ostensives, on their side. Today’s left sees ostensive truths that are made available, vivid and undeniable by the participants in their own self-created “disciplinary” spaces where they teach each other how to “see” what remains invisible to the naked eyes of the oppressor majority (the brief flourishing of a more traditional anti-war movement in reaction to the post-9/11 wars was an exception). They can only bring over converts through the perpetual generation of events made of simulated outrage and involving intoxicating feelings of generational solidarity and individual moral courage—this is basis of both the “Occupy” movement and the recent race rioting over police killings. They are able to present those ostensives to those, like, journalists, Democrat politicians and university faculty and administrators, who already define themselves in opposition to the presumably less civilized pragmatic majority and delight in having ready made voter blocs and rabble rousers delivered to them. But while those outside of these circles can be caught off guard and made defensive, or have their desire for peace exploited, they can’t really believe. The Austrian economists (intellectual descendants of von Mises) speak of how the introduction of fiat money into circulation benefits those who receive the money first, because they can spend it at its previous, unadulterated value; the same is true here: those who identify a new form of injustice modeled on and seemingly supporting more familiar ones have a form of moral currency that passes for valid. But like the bad money, the bad morality goes through a boom and bust period.

But where are the constituencies of the SJWs and the body of the victimocracy in relation to the digital? And where are the “normals,” or those satisfied with small, gradual and widely shared gradations in civilization, but repelled by attempts at great leaps? The major media and the universities (very much in that order) are in real danger of being swept away in the digital flood. Even now, who reads newspapers or watches the evening news? Efficient on-line educational “delivery systems” can’t be too far away either (anyone at a small, private university can smell the desperation). We are the repealing of a few licensing laws and noxious regulatory obstacles away (and in some cases not even that) from opening up whole new mini-industries in the fields of health, computer technology, beer brewing, education, home design, etc. All people who won’t want to pay high taxes or be forced to provide their employees with expensive health insurance or exorbitant minimum wages. None of whom need to be particularly skilled in the use of computers—the digital in fact lowers the threshold of knowledge needed to use the latest technology. You don’t need to be a computer genius to set up a functioning, attractive, interactive website. But, also, none of whom have the slightest political representation, or immediate chance of getting it. The real political scandal is the union of the victimocracy and the corporate oligarchy, of the bio-politics of immigration (in the broadest sense of bringing to bear the needs and resentments of the Third World upon the politics of the First) with the digital politics of cool (the ever more granulated set of possible self-distinctions from the awkward, the stupid, the brute, the literalistic, the outdated, etc.). The Democratic Party relies upon this (very much transnational) union, and the Republicans, with very few exceptions, just want a piece of the action.

Any enthusiasm for the emergent entrepreneurs enabled by the digital should be tempered, of course. Part of the reason for their political impotence is the fact that they are a tiny minority who generate resentment when they achieve a certain level of success, join the victimocracy/oligarchy axis when they achieve yet more success and, anyway, are resented simply for receiving political attention when that actually happens. There are the other victims of the victimocracy/oligarchy: the privately employed, Church-going, married-with-children “middle class.” They have nominal political representation, since the Republicans depend on their votes, but no real representation. They are not obvious allies of the entrepreneurs, so the two groups can be kept marginalized. They rely on inherited pathways back and forth between the ostensive and declarative, and are alienated by the enveloping algorithms of the digital world, which are hard to process through traditional notions of Constitutional order and liberty, much less Christian notions of goodness. But they are certainly online, and informed, and despite their being caricatured as bumpkins, the Tea Partiers have generated and inspired some savvy political and media entrepreneurs—which explains the Republican takeover of local politics throughout the country. We will find out soon enough how civil warfare is waged with digital weapons. But bio-politics, the battle of demographics, the nomos of the earth, will also have its say—the digital brings this huge arena of ostensivity (masses of bodies, swarms of nanobots, universes of DNA) into micro and macro view for the first time. A decentered, de-escalated, horizontally and vertically differentiated digital civilization with some margin for error, fences but also doors and a secure place for the pleasures of ostensive discovery will be the stake.

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