Thursday, August 18, 2016

Soma, pt. 1

Sticker on a fence by the Acme supermarket in South Philly. Made a point of snapping it because it is so god damned perfect.

Whenever the topic comes up, I'm reminded of something I read in a middlebrow thinkpiece about the internet and entertainment circa 2008. (I don't recall the source.) Its author copypasted an excerpt from Neil Postman's 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death (which I guess I should actually read eventually) about the difference between the prognostic nightmares of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.
Let's back up. Postman is referring to the LeBron James and Stephen Curry of English-language dystopian novels: George Orwell's 1984 (published in 1949) and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932). Postman notes elsewhere that, between the two novels, it was Orwell's magnum opus that most quickened the imagination of the late twentieth century. This is obvious: even if you've never read 1984, you know about Big Brother and you're aware he's watching. Even today it is virtually impossible to hold a conversation about NSA surveillance programs, the militarization of United States police departments, and certain consequences of Apple's and Amazon's copyright protection enforcement bots without invoking Orwell—and with very good reason.

(Note: read 1984. For many years I believed it wasn't necessary; its tropes and imagery have been borrowed, parodied, and cited with such ubiquity that I figured I already got the gist. I was wrong. I had no fucking idea how truly and penetratively disturbing it is, and what a representative specimen of The Perfect Novel it is besides.)

Life in Brave New World's World State is, on the face of it, much more pleasant than life in 1984's Oceania. Instead of terror, oppression, and constant surveillance, the World State's mass-produced citizens routinely enjoy orgies, media entertainment that directly stimulates their pleasure centers (people go to the "feelies" instead of the movies), and free soma—a drug that seems to be one-half Xanax and one-half MDMA.

But it is still a totalitarian state. The way it differs from Oceania is its method of control. The party elites in 1984 use negative reinforcement and punishment to keep the people underfoot, while the World State's Controllers use positive reinforcement. The upshot is that you have a society that's too tickled and too infantilized to notice (or care) that their entire lives, from beginning to end, are orchestrated by by those in power.

Some excerpts from the philosophical overture of Brave New World, two-chapter conversation with Controller Mustapha Mond on the topic of The World State and the protagonists' impeding exile from it for breaking the rules and making a ruckus:
It's curious," he [Mustapha Mond] went on after a little pause, "to read what people in the time of Our Ford used to write about scientific progress. They seemed to have imagined that it could be allowed to go on indefinitely, regardless of everything else. Knowledge was the highest good, truth the supreme value; all the rest was secondary and subordinate. True, ideas were beginning to change even then. Our Ford himself did a great deal to shift the emphasis from truth and beauty to comfort and happiness. Mass production demanded the shift. Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning; truth and beauty can't. And, of course, whenever the masses seized political power, then it was happiness rather than truth and beauty that mattered. Still, in spite of everything, unrestricted scientific research was still permitted. People still went on talking about truth and beauty as though they were the sovereign goods. Right up to the time of the Nine Years' War. That made them change their tune all right. What's the point of truth or beauty or knowledge when the anthrax bombs are popping all around you? That was when science first began to be controlled——after the Nine Years' War. People were ready to have even their appetites controlled then. Anything for a quiet life. We've gone on controlling ever since. It hasn't been very good for truth, of course. But it's been very good for happiness. One can't have something for nothing. Happiness has got to be paid for. You're paying for it, Mr. Watson——paying because you happen to be too much interested in beauty. I was too much interested in truth; I paid too.

"But you didn't go to an island," said the Savage, breaking a long silence.

The Controller smiled. "That's how I paid. By choosing to serve happiness. Other people's——not mine. It's lucky," he added, after a pause, "that there are such a lot of islands in the world. I don't know what we should do without them. Put you all in the lethal chamber, I suppose. By the way, Mr. Watson, would you like a tropical climate? The Marquesas, for example; or Samoa? Or something rather more bracing?"
"My dear young friend," said Mustapha Mond, "civilization has absolutely no need of nobility or heroism. These things are symptoms of political inefficiency. In a properly organized society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic. Conditions have got to be thoroughly unstable before the occasion can arise. Where there are wars, where there are divided allegiances, where there are temptations to be resisted, objects of love to be fought for or defended——there, obviously, nobility and heroism have some sense. But there aren't any wars nowadays. The greatest care is taken to prevent you from loving any one too much. There's no such thing as a divided allegiance; you're so conditioned that you can't help doing what you ought to do. And what you ought to do is on the whole so pleasant, so many of the natural impulses are allowed free play, that there really aren't any temptations to resist. And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there's always soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there's always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your morality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears——that's what soma is."
Orwell's London exists only a few decades in the future (relative to 1984's composition and publication). Huxley, however, looks a few hundred years to the future, and the logistics of his civilization are that much less tethered to the limits of scientific knowledge as they stood in the first half of the twentieth century. The technology Big Brother utilizes to subjugate the populace—the truncheon, the covert listening device, and a reliable propaganda medium—were already quite handy in Orwell's lifetime. But the apparatuses in Brave New World are far more speculative in nature—and it is this fact that makes Huxley's prescience really quite astonishing.

If you hadn't yet inferred, the author of Amusing Ourselves to Death proposes that despite the greater cultural impact of 1984, it is Brave New World that's more relevant to the modern age. And it is really uncannily fitting that Apple Computer's first television commercial depicts the sensational banishing of a proxy Big Brother. As Orwell's dystopia recedes, Huxley's advances.

I suppose you think you know where we're headed next. You might be right.

In an interview with The Telegraph, novelist and screenwriter Simon Rich remarks: “There’s a tendency to accuse millennials of having shorter attention spans. I just think we have better stuff to look at."

Quite so. We wouldn't be seeing any of this stuff in the real world if what we were seeing on our screens weren't so compelling, so good at wringing the dopamine out of our glands.

I don't own a smartphone, but come on: I'm a single man who keeps his laptop in his bedroom. You'd better believe I'm amenable to being hypnotized and tranquilized on a routine basis. I get out of bed later than I should, I go to bed later than I'd like to. When I get home from work, if I have any plans about doing housework or running errands or exercising, they're in jeopardy as soon as I open the laptop and click the Firefox icon. One of my major vices is YouTube—watching videos of other people playing video games, "best of" clips from cartoon sitcoms I've seen a hundred times. It usually isn't even very titillating. It's pleasantly numbing. And this is pretty much why I'm not allowing myself to upgrade from a flip phone.

It's hard to compete with soma.

It's also difficult to point out this sort of thing without feeling or being made to feel like a pedant and a killjoy. But this speaks to the unprecedented stature that entertainment—the kind that's engineered, mass produced, and consumed passively—has come to assume in our lives. The person who doesn't use Facebook, doesn't own a smartphone, doesn't play video games, and is upfront about his abstinence is probably about as well-received by most strangers as an atheist pontificating about secular ethics at a church picnic.

Karl Marx called religion the opiate of the masses. Marshall McLuhan privately called television a vile drug. Imagine how either of them would have felt about Facebook—whose average user spends fifty minutes a day scrolling their timeline, up from forty minutes in 2014. And that's just Facebook: I'd imagine a fair number of people use Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, etc. in addition to Facebook.

(I do see Facebook, Instagram, etc. falling under the aforementioned category of mass-produced and passively-consumed entertainment. The genius of the model is getting the consumers to also provide or point towards the content, which is then judiciously mixed with paid advertising, boiled into a sludge, and funneled directly into the user in such a way that leads to continuous scrolling and twitch refreshes. Lest you point out that Facebook allows for interaction between users, it appears to be happening increasingly less often.)

A 2012 piece in The Atlantic speculates on why we should expect Facebook and its ilk to consume more and more of our time in the years ahead:
The leaders of Internet companies face an interesting, if also morally questionable, imperative: either they hijack neuroscience to gain market share and make large profits, or they let competitors do that and run away with the market.

In the Industrial Age, Thomas Edison famously said, "I find out what the world needs. Then I go ahead and try to invent." In the Internet Age, more and more companies live by the mantra "create an obsession, then exploit it." Gaming companies talk openly about creating a "compulsion loop," which works roughly as follows: the player plays the game; the player achieves the goal; the player is awarded new content; which causes the player to want to continue playing with the new content and re-enter the loop.

It's not quite that simple. Thanks to neuroscience, we're beginning to understand that achieving a goal or anticipating the reward of new content for completing a task can excite the neurons in the ventral tegmental area of the midbrain, which releases the neurotransmitter dopamine into the brain's pleasure centers. This in turn causes the experience to be perceived as pleasurable. As a result, some people can become obsessed with these pleasure-seeking experiences and engage in compulsive behavior such as a need to keep playing a game, constantly check email, or compulsively gamble online. A recent Newsweek cover story described some of the harmful effects of being trapped in the compulsion loop. ....

We now believe that the compulsion to continually check email, stock prices, and sporting scores on smartphones is driven in some cases by dopamine releases that occur in anticipation of receiving good news. Indeed, we have grown so addicted to our smartphones that we now experience "phantom smartphone buzzing," which tricks our brains into thinking our phone is vibrating when it isn't.

Many Internet companies are learning what the tobacco industry has long known——addiction is good for business. There is little doubt that by applying current neuroscience techniques we will be able to create ever-more-compelling obsessions in the virtual world.
Let's dial this back a bit.

It sometimes needs to be pointed out that despite the spooky shit that goes on in this country, we're not living in an Orwellian police state—though the burden is on us, as citizens, to nip that possibility in the bud. It almost never needs pointing out that we're not yet living in a Huxleyan opiacracy—which could mean that we're in no danger of it, but more likely just means that we're not all that concerned about it. There's just as much reason to be concerned about wiretapping as soma creep. We're giving a lot of very powerful entities a great deal of our time, money, and access to our pleasure centers. We're letting tech and entertainment shape our behavior, and as much fun as this arrangement can be, it does deserve to be reexamined from time to time.

The Atlantic excerpt above implies the reason why we're still a way off from any kind of social organization that Huxley envisioned: capitalism. The anarchy of the free market gave rise to Facebook, Google, Netflix, et al., and as long as they're competing with each other as for-profit corporations, their interests are nothing more (nor less) sinister than trying to seize as much of our attention as they reasonably can. The side-effects of their operations (to suggest a few: psychological dependency, shortened attention spans, the denudation of journalism, decreased community involvement, the ascendency of emotion over reason, passivity, decreased capacity for critical thinking, normative infantilization, and so on) will remain just that: byproducts, nothing of concern unless it comes to interfere with the main actors' bottom lines.

But if these byproducts become goals in and of themselves, or instruments in the service of some broader agenda, we should have reason to be fucking terrified.

As it is, I think deep concern is appropriate enough. Just because the radioactive waste isn't being weaponized against us doesn't mean there's still not radioactive waste to deal with—and not plenty of soma going around to prevent us from dwelling on it for very long.


  1. I've read 1984, but I ought to read Brave New World, if only to familiarize myself with the near future.

    1. Oh, yes. And it's a fun read to boot. (Sort of like 1984 meets Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? It's pretty wacky.) And it's interesting to read a projection of a future where there's cloning without knowledge of DNA and tech without computers.

      ...what's most remarkable is that Huxley wrote it BEFORE he started experimenting with LSD.

  2. My gripe with Amusing Ourselves to Death was how Postman kept pointing to organized religion as the solution to the problems he identified (at least that's how I remember it). I'm glad I read it, though.

    Jonathan Blow has complained about game designers being irresponsible with their toxic waste, I think of this talk often:

    1. I'm gonna have to listen to this in full soon, but I'm skipping around it a bit:

      "The fact that they're enjoying themselves is really immaterial to whether something devious is going on."

      Nailed it.

      I actually just found out that my roommate has a copy of Amusing Ourselves to Death. I'm ushering it to the front of my book backlog.

    2. Ahah. Audience member question about David Foster Wallace. Relevant.

  3. The usual narrative about the Relentless Pace Of Change is absent here, refreshingly. I guarantee, sight unseen, that the pieces you linked to are full of it. And so they're full of it in the other sense too, because the narrative is distilled from yesterday's news. Here in the present, "the tech industry" has had most of its big ideas already.

    Internet connections are no faster than ten years ago because we can't think of anything useful to do with more bandwidth. PC hard drives are no bigger than five years ago because 1TB -- 250 uncompressed movies -- is more storage than most people need. Big new video games look like big old video games because the major story and gameplay elements have already been codified [1]. Pressure is mounting on Apple to produce an iPhone that isn't just a retread. They have the most money and the best talent, but this year they will ship the same phone with a slightly better camera and wireless earphones which no one will use and then everyone will lose.

    Underneath all this, Moore's Law, the heartbeat of the industry, has stopped [2].

    When you find yourself thinking about what you'd have to do to keep the good times rolling, they're already over. That's how it is now with Google, Facebook, Netflix and friends. Google now hires more lobbyists than any firm in the US. Mark Zuckerberg wants Facebook un-banned in China so badly that he learned Mandarin so he could make a personal appeal to Xi Jinping. (No dice). These are not the priorities of people whose revenue is growing at 30% a month. Which is what their shareholders, in line with The Narrative, have never stopped demanding.

    I think you're right to be concerned about the surveillance-and-habituation business Google, Facebook et al. are getting into. But there's room for optimism. I think big internet firms are like movie studios in the eighties: rich, powerful, influential beyond the mere ability to spend money, but long past their period of rapid growth, subsisting on narrowing margins, forced into ever more compromises to stay on top, and already acquiescing to the conditions that will prevail when some new cultural or market force makes them irrelevant. Today Google, tomorrow the makers of Miami Vice.

    [1] Video games are, of course, aesthetic objects first and technological objects second, so the long-term supply of games and game genres is inexhaustible. But here and now, this generation's games are last generation's games with slightly different fog effects. Games are also a business, readers are fickle, they distrust novelty, you know this already, etc, etc.

    [2] This may be a hard read. The key points are that (1) eetimes is one of the industry's papers of record. (2) We're currently at the 7 nanometer (nm) technology node. The number measures the size of the smallest feature that can be etched on a chip with that technology, so the trend is downward over time. (3) The "last node of Moore's law," as they see it, was 28 nm, five nodes ago. "Last" for them means "last reliably profitable." Since a fab plant costs $4-$10 billion and market conditions are tightening, this definition of last is probably the last we are going to need.

    1. Blogger is really good at erasing my comments when I accidentally hit backspace with the cursor out of the text field. Son of a bitch.

      I guess I'll put a pin in my apology for people who are anxious about The Relentless Pace of Change for the time being. (Or you can just pretend I made a very eloquent and persuasive case and we'll move on.)

      Google and Facebook won't hold their positions at the commanding heights forever, but I doubt they're going to just disappear. Standard Oil became Exxon, BP, and Chevron. They're going to be a force in the world for a while to come, I think—and they've laid the groundwork for the next big disruption that creates the next Google or Amazon, which will probably operate along similar lines.

      That's not to imply that I'm against progress, per se. I just wish progress weren't propelled by entities seeking to capitalize on our appetites for toys and conveniences—though at this point it's almost inconceivable that anything else could do it.

      Earlier this year The Economist ran a piece about the end of Moore's Law and how engineers are trying to work around it:

      I'm guessing this is nothing you didn't already know, though. Time will tell whether there's a way for the engineers' will.

  4. Interesting observations! Weirdly I had Brave New World and Doors of Perception in my hands yesterday although I didn't commit to those particular purchases and went for some De Lillo instead. More weirdly I don't buy books that often any more, but made this concerted effort to buy them and sit in a coffee shop for 2+ hours reading precisely because I'm so conscious and slightly terrified by the degree to which I'm 'plugged in' to a digital device these days.

    Also on an entirely unrelated note it seems probable that I'm going to New York early next year and I recall you're in New Jersey? I'm not accustomed to the magnitude of American geography but if it's traversable I think a drink might be agreeable.

    1. I'm in Philadelphia, which is about two hours from New York. Totally doable. It might be less feasible to suggest you come this way, which might be worth it for the incredible quality of dive bars in this town. New York's bars don't remind me of your photography. Philly's do.

      (if anyone else who commented is reading this i will reply tomorrow, after sleep.)