Following up on my recent post about banal dystopias and disruptive technology, I’ve been thinking about the agency of dissent in the era of our banal dystopia. At the end of the post, I doubled down on the claim that the materiality of something like Soylent or Google Glass was itself an agent of a repressive dystopian world and that the struggle was to resist something so banal. I think this is still the case, but in this post I want to trouble my own assumptions about dystopian agency and a concomitant agency of dissent. Specifically, I’m concerned (or maybe not) about my own willingness to write off human agency in the creation and proliferation of these banal dystopias.
As I was drafting that blog post and noticing this apparent deficiency, I started thinking about William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), a book that is never far from my mind. In this context—the question of agency regarding banal dystopias—I was thinking of the proliferation of insect imagery in the book. Several of the book’s freelance criminals, living in the shadows of multinational capital and doing corporate dirty work, are described as insectile: Molly, early in the novel, regards Case with an “insect calm” (30) while Armitage, the human husk who effects Wintermute’s desires in the world, has a smile that “meant as much as the twitch of some insect’s antenna” (97). However, the book’s insect imagery really intensifies when Wintermute replays Case’s memory of burning a wasp’s nest with a blow torch. On looking into the cracked and smoldering husk of the hive, Case sees
Horror. The spiral birth factory, stepped terraces of hatching cells, blind jaws of the unborn moving ceaselessly, the staged progress from egg to larva, near-wasp, wasp. In his mind’s eye, a kind of time-lapse photography took place, revealing the thing as the biological equivalent of a machine gun, hideous in its perfection. Alien. (126)
This recurring image, the horror of the insect distinct, recurs throughout the novel and stands, suggestively, as a conceptual image for the mutations in humanity brought about by multinational capital.1 As Gibson later clarifies in the novel,
Power in Case’s world, meant corporate power. The zaibatsus, the multinationals, that shaped the course of human history, had transcended the old barriers. Viewed as organisms, they had attained a kind of immortality. You couldn’t kill a zaibatsu by assassinating a dozen key executives; there were others waiting to step up the ladder, assume the vacated position, access the vast banks of corporate memory … Wintermute and the nest. Phobic vision of the hatching wasps, time-lapse machine gun of biology. But weren’t the zaibatsus more like that, or the Yakuza, hives with cybernetic memories, vast single organisms, their DNA coded in silicon? (203)
Gibson helps us to see that corporate power is not human power, as it was in the era of the Totalitarian dictator or the Robber baron, in which a cult of personality was also a seat of power. This inhumanism, the biological machine gun of the wasp hive, points to the problem of political dissent in this age of banal dystopia.
As I mentioned in the previous post, Mark Zuckerberg, arguably the most prominent of the new tech barons, is conceptually difficult to associate with Facebook in a way that means anything for an ability to opt-out of Facebook’s culture of banal surveillance. This pattern is endemic to the hive-logic of insect capital identified by Gibson in Neuromancer. There has also been lots of good work done in science studies on the decline of inventor-driven science in favor of lab-based scientific discovery thanks to the technical, material and financial complexities of scientific discovery in our contemporary moment. Just as the hero scientist has vanished from our narratological, psychic landscape, so has the evil capitalist.
As an example of this phenomenon, I want to relate a quick story of the rather surreal internship interview I went on to Microsoft, the summer before I started graduate school in English. The Microsoft Interview, a style designed to test creativity instead of goals, asks users to develop and solve problems on the fly in a high-stress environment. One thing that happened, however, that has always stuck with me, is the moment when the first interviewer explained Microsoft’s organization chart to me. Composed of a bunch of different silos like “Office” and “Quality Assurance,” as he said, “All the silos feed into and are organized by Windows.” And the way he said it implied that Windows, the software—and not any person such as Bill Gates or Steve Ballmer–was organizing and calling the shots in Redmond.
When I got back to Atlanta, this story quickly grew, amongst my friends, into a Burroughsian Bit in which “Windows” was this giant alien device that Bill Gates found outside of his dorm at Harvard. Like any good alien technology, it demanded to be fed cattle. Every quarter, in exchange for being fed, it produced software, no questions asked.2
This story further illustrates the hive-logic of insect capital as identified by William Gibson. It doesn’t matter which specific humans are pushing cows into Windows, so long as it gets fed and the software keeps coming out on time. And this lack of human element is what makes any kind of dissent so hard. We all can talk about how evil Microsoft’s practices are, but what is to be done? The cows go in, the software comes out: this is what Windows demands.
I think this project is actually moving toward a more effective object-centered rhetoric. Specifically, it seems that with this language of banal dystopia, we can start to see that we are living in an age of inhumanism, in which extra-human entities (corporate forms, human-produced climate change, etc.) have more power and agency than individual humans. At the same time this transition is happening (or more likely has happened), we do not have language to experience the agency of these forms because of how they flicker between individual humans and and the hive. If you try to blame individuals, they can blame the hive, but at the same time, how do you blame a corporate entity which is “just” a collection of humans.
This flicker is fundamentally a rhetorical problem.
Part of this perspective shift, which is helped along by Gibson’s association between insect hives and corporate structures, lies in seeing corporate entities as alive and possessing something like a will and an agency of their own. Most people are pretty horrified by the increasing personhood of corporations (and we can all, all of us, stand to be more horrified by this, I think), but this legal representation is ex post facto: corporations have agency and wills of their own—“coded in silicon” DNA as Gibson puts it above.
This flicker addresses the problem I had with my own unwillingness to assign a human causal agent in discussing the banal dystopia of Soylent. I thought as I was writing, “I don’t have a problem with the people who make Soylent or even the product itself.” In writing this post, I realize that I don’t even know the names of anyone who works for Soylent. I’ve actually encountered this problem before but never recognized it as a problem of banality. In talking to other academics about my book on transhumanism, I’ve mentioned that Sergei Brin is a big transhumanist and that Google partly started as a project to build a Singularitarian brain. No one seems to think this story makes any sense or seems very sinister for two reasons. On the one hand, I don’t think anyone knows who Sergei Brin is. On the other, Google is so banal that the idea that they’re building a Godlike supercomputing organism sounds insane (“I think I saw that movie!”). This tension between anonymity of the people involved and the distance between sinister ideology and banal product is part of this rhetorical problem I’m discussing.
Further, I realize in thinking about Google or Soylent that the problem I have is with the world these products create, but how do you dissent from a world?